A fistful of dollars (part 2)



Mark 6:1-13

5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

So Jesus ends the day with a fistful of bills and few takers. A few sick people are made well, but it’s drips and drabs of God’s true bounty. He is come to heal the human heart. He is come to lift away the debt of shame. He is here to erase the ledger, to restore us to God and one another. He is here to drive out every evil Spirit and breathe in us God’s own Spirit. He is here to heal and make alive you and I and all creation. But offered a hundred thousand dollars, only a few even answer – and they say, “I just need some change for the parking meter.”

You or I or most anyone else would say “Pack it in boys and girls, we’re going home.” But Jesus keeps moving. And then he doubles down. He commissions his followers to go out in his name to announce God’s reign and heal the sick.

People have shown themselves willing to buy most everything from cubic zirconia to pet rocks, but God’s people aren’t interested in what Jesus is selling: a release from our bondage to sin and death and new birth into a world where the lion lies down with the lamb.

Apparently we like the bloodletting better.

But God is not dissuaded. Two by two. Don’t bother packing; the mission is too urgent. Don’t worry about your wardrobe; God will provide. Don’t beat your heads against the wall; if people aren’t interested move on – but be sure they know that they have renounced the prince of peace. No dust from their world shall cling to ours.

No dust from their world. No dust from the world of Dylann Roof. No dust from the world of hate. No dust from the world of dog eat dog – be the eater or the eaten. No dust from the world of fear and gloom. No dust from the world that chooses profits over prophets. No dust from the world of tears. Shake it all off. And go forth to the next town to touch the world with grace and life. Go forth. Dwell in the realm of Grace. Be bearers of the realm of Grace.  Bestow the bounty of God.


Image file: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US100000dollarsbillobverse.jpg



Matthew 10

File:Musée Cinquantenaire Roman dagger.jpg

Roman Dagger, photocredit: Michel wal

34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Everything depends upon hearing a text in its right context. Cut this verse away from its place in Matthew’s Gospel, cut it away from the life and ministry of Jesus, cut it away from the Biblical witness as a whole, and we have justification for violence. Or, if not violence, justification for whatever commotion causing things we want to do. Place this word of Jesus on their march up to Jerusalem, with Jesus astride a donkey and the people waving palm fronds (symbols of kingship) and you have a very different message than its place here in the missionary discourse. We have to be careful about the way we use scripture. Indeed, the central question is always, “Are we using scripture or is scripture using us?” It’s not an easy question to answer. It takes a continual listening. There is a reason Jesus talks about abiding in his word.

So Jesus brings a sword, but this cannot be a sword of armed struggle; after all, Jesus rebukes his followers saying, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” And how should we love our enemies and take up the sword at the same time? This is not the sword born by gladiators; this is the knife that divides. It is not the long sword used by troops in combat; it is the short sword, the dagger, used for everything from personal protection to cooking. It is the boning knife used in Hebrews for the Word of God that “divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” It is the priestly knife used in sacrifice.

How differently we would hear this verse if we translated it, “I have not come to bring peace, but a scalpel.” Jesus is, after all, in the business of heart surgery. Only his surgery is not just on the individual human heart; he comes to operate on the whole human community. There is surgery to be done. The warlords and drug lords and patrons of young victims of human trafficking. The abusive parents and abusive governments. The active and passive participants is communal violence. There is surgery to be done. And we should not imagine than when power is challenged, when individuals and “businesses” that profit from evils are confronted, there will not be resistance. Fierce resistance. Many miners were beaten and killed in their attempt to stand up to the coal companies. Many young men and women were assaulted, slandered and murdered for their resistance to Jim Crow – even some children. There is heart surgery to be done. There is truth to be spoken. There is compassion to be waged. Neighbors oppose the building of churches and soup kitchens. It is illegal to baptize in many countries. Congregation’s themselves resent the changes new people bring. Our hearts, too, need the surgeon’s scalpel.

And what if we translate the text, “I have not come to bring peace, but a knife of sacrifice”? What will such words say to us as we listen to Jesus declare that the fields are waiting for harvest? When he sends us out to cast out demons and heal and declare the reign of God?

Jesus doesn’t bring a quiet and peaceable life. He brings the peaceable kingdom. He brings the dawning of that day when swords are beaten into plowshares – a day that won’t come easily, given our great faith in the power of violence.

There is surgery to be done, so don’t be surprised when Jesus says, “I have come with knives.”

Come, Holy Spirit

Sanctuary at Pentecost 2014.2Friday

John 7

37“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive

“Come, Holy Spirit. Come.” It is the prayer of the Christian community.

The Spirit is gift and possession, yes, but it must also be sought.

We pray for the Spirit to guide our days. We pray for the Spirit to shape our lives. We pray for the Spirit to attend our worship, to speak to our hearts, to lift our spirits. We pray for the Spirit to fill us. We pray for the spirit to renew us.

Many of us ask all this of Jesus. But, technically, it is the Spirit to whom we turn, the Spirit that grants us faith, the Spirit that comforts and absolves us, the Spirit that sends and empowers us.

Come, Holy Spirit.

We live in two worlds. We live in the world of today, of work and dishes and bedtime rituals. The world of troubling news and anxious thoughts. The world of our brokenness and our flaws. The world of simple pleasures – and simply exquisite pleasures. The world where we read and walk and think and pray. The world where we work and serve.

But we also live in the world that is dawning. The world where we forgive and are forgiven. The world of peace and joy and power and grace. The world governed by the joy of the wedding feast. The world where the lion lies down with the lamb. The world where there is no night, for the Lord is its lamp. Where the light of the world shines. Where the Spirit renews the face of the earth. Where the Spirit bears its fruit. Where the gifts of the spirit bind up the broken and encourage the faltering and inspire our heart’s song. Where gifts build up the body and craft the stones from which a new world is formed: acts of mercy, justice, truth.

The church is that community that prays for the Spirit to reign in us. For the age to come to be born in us today. For life and grace to govern. For courage and endurance and clarity of mind and heart.

The church, the community of disciple-students, the living body of Christ in the world, prays for the Spirit to reign in us, for hope to dawn in us, for truth to dwell in us, for God’s imperishable life to pour forth from us.

Pentecost Sunday is fun. But like Christmas and Easter it is far more than the cool stuff we do, the bright banners, the altar covered in candles, the ‘flames’ that drape the cross and walls. It is far more than the languages, the prayers of blessing, the ancient thanksgiving, the bread shared in our midst. This day is about this central prayer that the Spirit may reign in us and among us and through us so that the world may catch a wisp of the Spirit’s breath in the most ordinary moments of our days – and in those extraordinary moments when grace beyond words is required.

“Come Holy Spirit. Come. Set free our hearts and our lips. That we may tell of your mercy to the ends of the earth.”

You plural

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

blog.fire.IMG_3237 - Version 414 “You are the light of the world.

You.  You plural.  You the community of Jesus’ followers.  You the community claimed by God, brought out of bondage into freedom, called from Haran to be a blessing.  You the body of Christ.  You the ecclesia, the called out ones – you are the light of the world.

Yes, individually we are light bearers.  Yes, individually, we are agents of compassion and justice in the world, mediators of God’s healing.  And yet not alone.  Together.  Each with our own ministries, but united in ministry.

Flaming branches brought together burn brightly.  Alone, they go out.  Together they summon ships and armies and rowdy teens before the big game.  Alone they flicker and perish.

Christ is the fire.  We are the charcoal.  Together we burn brightly enough for the feast of God.  Alone we sit in the bag.

You plural.  You together.  A fire that spreads.  Light and life for a cold and dark world.  Joy.  Service.  Justice.  Love.  Healing.  Friendship.  Help.  Laughter.  Shared burdens.  Together a blazing fire.

A fire which is Christ.  The dawning of God’s reign.

“The obedience of faith”

Sunday Evening

Romans 1

James Tissot - Saint Joseph, Brooklyn Museum

James Tissot – Saint Joseph, Brooklyn Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5Through [Christ Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles [nations] for the sake of his name.

Grace and apostleship.  I guess it’s not clear whether Paul is here still speaking about himself and so the ‘we’ refers to him and his traveling companions, or whether the ‘we’ refers to all believers.  There is a good case to be made for the latter.  When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he wasn’t just speaking to the twelve.  This is the work of the church; this is the work of the community of believers – to bring about the obedience of faith.

An obedience like Joseph.

It’s worth noting that the work of the church is not to get people into heaven.  The work is to make them citizens of heaven on earth.

The obedience of faith, the obedience that follows from faith, the obedience that is generated by trust in God’s dawning reign – we are not building religious institutions; we are building the living stones that become the temple of God.

God’s work in us is not done when we have accepted God’s grace.  The smith’s work is not done when he has fashioned an iron sword into a plow, nor when he has fashioned a spear into a pruning hook.  He doesn’t hang it up above his mantle and admire the handiwork; he carries it out into the field and sets it to its proper use.

Grace and apostleship.  Witness and service leading to the obedience of faith.  Leading to lives of mercy rather then revenge.  Lives of compassion rather than hardness of heart.  Lives of generosity rather than lives of indulgence.  Lives of justice and faithfulness rather than lives of privilege or resentment.  Lives of peacemaking rather than conquest.  Lives of healing rather than wounding.  Lives of truth rather than falsehood.  Lives that hear and obey when God says to take the apparently adulterous woman into your home and adopt her child as your own – like Joseph.

Sword in hand


Psalm 149

Casting Bronze Age Swords

Casting Bronze Age Swords (Photo credit: karstensfotos)

6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,

We could side-step the psalm by citing Hebrews 4:12, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” and turning to Ephesians 6 where Paul bids us to “put on the whole armor of God,” including its reference to the “sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.”  Then the call is for the praise of God to be on our lips and the word of God in our hands.  We could live with that – not comfortably, but it is a good way to dodge the discomfort of the text.

Though such an interpretation may be faithful to scripture as a whole, it’s not fair to the psalm to simply transfer the language of war into the language of spiritual warfare.  It is better to struggle with the text, even to disagree with it, than to simply adapt it to our sensibilities.  It is the places where scripture makes us uncomfortable that we learn the most – if we will wrestle with it and not wrap it in bubble wrap and put it out of sight.

6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters and
their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgment decreed.

We have seen enough of religious warfare.  We know the damage it does. We have seen not only the Islamic extremists of recent years, but there have been plenty of Christians fighting such wars: the bombing of abortion clinics, the Klu Klux Klan, the 30 years war, the crusades.  It is a wearisome story.  Is this what resides in this psalm, the zealot’s cry to take up arms in the name of God?

We have to admit there were times of terrible violence in Israel.  Some of the stories are deeply troubling images of what we would call social decay, only it’s not decay – it’s the kind of social “order” you find in neighborhoods run by gangs.  You hurt someone from our tribe; we hurt someone from your tribe.  An eye for an eye.  You want protection?  Then you pay.  You don’t pay? Then your shop windows get broken.  I will not hold it against such communities when they rise up and throw off their oppressors.  In fact, I am willing to say that God was on their side.  I am willing to let them sing a new song and exult in God’s judgment.  For whatever else we may make of this psalm, it bears witness that God is not a god of the gang-leaders, but a god who executes judgment on the oppressors, who comes to the aid of the humble, the broken, the downtrodden.

God is a god who delivers.  And this brings us back to spiritual warfare.  There are many things that hold people in bondage.  So, when a doctor fights off a terrible illness, let her sing a new song and dance with a scalpel in her hand.  When an injustice is overcome, let the lawyers dance with their law books in hand.  When a neighborhood food pantry feeds a thousand families, let them shout for joy with grocery bags in hand.  And when an alcoholic is delivered, let the community celebrate with the blue book in hand.

So what are the tools in my hand with which God can bring deliverance?  The world needs more shouts for joy.

Returning with joy

Sunday Evening

Luke 10

Pray. Love. Serve.

Pray. Love. Serve. (Photo credit: Fr. Stephen, MSC)

17 The seventy returned with joy.

At the end of the service the congregation is sent out to their ministry in daily life with the words, “Go in Peace.  Serve the Lord.”  I know that for many of us these are just code words for “We’re done.  You can pick up your stuff and go.”  Kids race for the playground or the goodies at coffee hour.  Others look to connect with friends.  A few have jobs to do putting away the communion ware or packing up the flowers for the donor.  The ushers walk through to pick up abandoned bulletins.  The sound techs are putting away the microphones. Most people think church is over, when in truth it’s just beginning.

The true worship of God happens during the week.  It happens in the meals parents provide for their children, in the kindness shown to neighbors, in the quality of the work we do during the week (Does it serve the human community?  Is my neighbor’s life enhanced by the product or service I may create or sell?).  It happens in the way spouses love and respect one another.  It happens in the concern we show for those in need.  God is worshiped by the witness we make to the love of God.  God is served by our service of one another.

The service of God happens when the seventy go out and herald the kingdom as agents of healing in the world.  At the end of the week they come back with joy at the service they were able to render – at the work God was able to do through them.  The demons submitted.  Grace was added to the world.  Light shown in the darkness.  The Spirit of God laid claim to human hearts.  Prisoners were set free.

It ought to be that we come on Sundays in the joy of our week’s service.  We come to give thanks for God’s work in the week, to sing praise, to offer prayers, to rejoice that we are citizens of heaven and to savor the mystery and promise of God’s holy table.

I know that many come beaten down by the week, and Sunday serves to lift them up and set them back on the path.  I am happy that it does that.  But it would be nice if we came back as from a mission trip buzzing with joy and saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Still Christ comes


Luke 10

English: Icon of Jesus in Veljusa Monastery, M...

English: Icon of Jesus in Veljusa Monastery, Macedonia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

Jesus doesn’t send us to places where he is not going.

When I first walked into a hospital room as a seminary student, I had no idea what I was doing there.  It was a seminary requirement to work for a term with the hospital chaplain.  These were strangers.  They had not asked for a pastor.  I was not their pastor.  I was a student not a pastor.  What was I doing there?

I wish I had understood I was going where Christ would be going.

Yes, God is everywhere.  Yes, God was already there before I hesitantly stepped into the room.  But Christ the redeemer, Christ the reconciler, Christ the healer, was coming to visit that room.  If I had understood that, I would have understood why I was there.  I would have understood that I belonged there, whether the patient wanted me or not.  I would have had more courage.  I would have had more grace. And the realization that Christ was entering with me and in me would have helped me yield better to that strange, wondrous, centering, empowering, gracing Spirit of God.

I was a poor instrument; but still Christ came.  It wasn’t about my skill; it was about my presence.  The coming of Christ didn’t depend on finding the right words.  I didn’t have to have helpful spiritual or psychological insights.  I just needed to be present.  To listen.  To see.  To care.  I just needed to forget my anxieties and discomfort for a moment and let Christ be present through me.

It seems so simple in theory.  But it is hard to step aside and let Christ be present through us.  I remember coming to the bedside of a dying woman very early in my ministry.  The family was so glad I came, then they all stepped back to watch me do something meaningful, something pastoral.  I found myself so conscious that they were watching me that I couldn’t focus on this woman and this profound and complicated moment of her life.  A prayer needs to be a prayer, not a performance: a putting into words the fears and hopes of the person in that moment, a drawing of those praying into the presence of the eternal.  But my mind was preoccupied by the watching family, wondering if they approved, if they thought I was doing this rightly.

But still Christ comes.  Through me, and in spite of me, Christ comes.

He does not send us anywhere he is not going.  Whether the board room, the grocery store or the public park.  Whether the dinner table, the family room or the bedroom.  Whether into grief or fear or joy.

I don’t always remember this.  It’s easy to be overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions, but it is what I try to remember.  And it is what Christ continues to whisper to me.

Sons and Daughters


Romans 8

15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.

Earlier translations referred to the “Sprit of sonship.”  It is politically incorrect in our time, and theologically incorrect since God adopts both men and women, but the word has significance.  The word “sonship” conveyed the idea of inheritance.  We adopt children, but in antiquity they adopted adults. Even the emperor designated his successor by adopting one of his generals as the heir of his estates and authority.

There is plenty of language in the scriptures about being slave/servants of God.  Everyone in the ancient world served someone – either directly as slaves, or indirectly through the complex system of patronage.  Herod the Great pulled off one of the great political maneuvers of the age when he succeeded in switching allegiance from the defeated Marc Anthony to Octavian following the latter’s victory over Anthony and Cleopatra.  (Fortunately for Herod, his troops had been fighting for Antony elsewhere and did not battle directly against Octavian.  Octavian triumphed in the struggle after Julius Caesar’s death to become the first Emperor of Rome, known to us as Caesar Augustus.)

Everyone in the ancient world was bound in fealty and service to someone, even as we are bound to jobs and chores and the ideologies and values – the “gods” – of our own age.  The proclamation we read in Colossians 1:13 that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” was not metaphor.  We are captured/rescued slave/servants now serving a new master.  Paul, who always called himself a doulos, a slave/servant of God, says in 2 Corinthians “thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.”(NIV) Conquering generals paraded through Rome with their captures slaves in tow.  We are the plunder of Christ’s triumph over the realm of sin and death.

We are the slave/servants of God, yes, but more, we are  sons and daughters – and not mere children but heirs.  We have not the spirit of a slave, fearful of wrath, hoping for crumbs of mercy; we have the spirit of one who knows that all our Father possesses will come to us.  All the riches of heaven, the fountains of grace, the fruit of the tree of life, the courts of the new Jerusalem, the joy of the wedding feast, the great banquet of heaven – it is all ours.  We are sons and daughters.  We are heirs.

The Spirit upon us is a spirit of joy and freedom, a spirit of love and grace, as spirit of truth and courage, a spirit of confidence and hope, a spirit that transforms slave-service into the ministry of daily life.