Text:  Mark 4:21-23    “Everything hidden will be revealed.”

Light.  It’s a common image in the Bible, from God’s word as “a lamp before our feet and a light for our journey” (Pss. 119.105) to Jesus’ proclamation that he is “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) and even we who follow him are also “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).  Light, be it the physical phenomenon or the metaphor for truth, is unambiguous, unequivocal, unbiased, and terrifying to anything that wants to remain hidden, obscured, or obfuscated.  Light does not allow for the negotiation of what it reveals.  It simply exposes what it illuminates without pretense, prejudice, or guile.

Jesus’ call to me to come and follow him as a minister of the gospel came in the form of a jarring revelation of the world as illuminated by God’s light of truth.  For anyone familiar with the movie The Matrix, it was like taking the red pill.  For the first time, I was beginning to see how self-centered “powers and principalities” conspired to operate in the shadows and keep us blind to all but what was being marketed to us for our consumption and their profit at the expense of the common good, be it consumer goods and services or a political party’s ideology.  Exposed by the light of Christ, I was beginning to see what I can only label as systemic evil or sin using deceit and misdirection as its primary tools.

Whether an ad for beer on a beach somewhere or a politician espousing relief and help for the middle-class, I now reflexively listen through the words, sorting out the marketing and manipulation in order to discern what the advertiser or politician wants me to do, what they will get out of it should I accommodate their intent, who will benefit, who will be harmed, and whether it is right based on the ethos of God most clearly seen in Jesus.  This is why I am skeptical of advertising and politicians of all stripes.

Truth can be heartbreaking and hard.  If you don’t want to deal with it then turn off the light and don’t take the red pill.

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Text:  Mark 3:7-19    “He appointed twelve and called them apostles.” (v. 14)

For church leadership consultants, this passage is boilerplate teaching about delegation.  Jesus was rapidly becoming overwhelmed with people seeking his healing.  He then mitigated this problem by appointing twelve of his followers to work with him and to go out to preach and exorcise demons.  Each would be an apostle (“one who is sent”).  I suspect that my clergy colleagues apply this passage much as I do, as an instruction to delegate our work in order to avoid burnout, being overwhelmed, and to multiply the effectiveness of our ministry.  While this is a valid application, it is blandly technical.
( __Delegation. — okay, need to check that one off the list . . . )

More compelling is the calling, commissioning, and sending.  Imagine being one of the twelve before they were The Twelve.  Jesus looks into your eyes and says that he sees the potential you have for doing the very things he is doing.  Maybe Jesus wants you to preach the Good News (Gospel) of what God is doing in the world; something you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to touch each other with care and compassion to heal the hurting and broken; something else you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  And Jesus then confers upon you the authority to cast out demons in his name.  Becoming a “sent one”–an apostle–you’ve just been given the power (and responsibility) to change and save the world . . . at least the world around you.  And as you begin to protest, telling Jesus you can’t do what he does or you don’t have the time or you doubt yourself so that you might be willing to help but not to be given too much responsibility, Jesus reminds you that he knows what you are capable of even if you do not.  And then he reminds you that the Holy Spirit will always be with you and you will never go it alone.

When we claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we add our name to his list of his resources.  When Jesus calls and invites you to work with him, how will you respond?

Text:  Mark 2:23-3:6

“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.  This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”  (2.27-28)

Jesus confronts us with a question.  Which is most important: ideology or people?  My first impulse is to say, “people!”  If I say, “ideology matters most” and even rephrase it as “I stick to my principles,” I run the risk of trading compassion for slavish adherence to rules.  But if I say, “people matter most,” then I’m likely to stumble over the cliff and fall into moral relativism.  Even when rushing one’s pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth, ignoring stop signs and lights is a bad idea.  There is often a strong tension between keeping faith with our convictions and beliefs versus compassion for others.

Jesus lived among a people who defined their identity through Torah–the law given the Israelites by God through Moses and beginning with the 10 Commandments.  To be an Israelite and, by Jesus’ time, a good Jew, was to be a person who lived by Torah.  At the identity-defining center of Torah was the Sabbath law.  Observing a day of rest given to God marked one as a Jew as much as circumcision.  So when Jesus’ disciples were seen casually plucking heads of grain while crossing a wheat field on the Sabbath day, he was asked, in effect, “Why are your disciples violating the Sabbath law? Don’t y’all know better?”  And when Jesus was approached, on the Sabbath, by a man with a deformed hand, his critics watched to see if he would himself break the Sabbath law by healing the man.

Jesus’ critics cared more about the rules.  Jesus cared more about the people.  (Without spending time in dissertation here, I believe that Jesus was faithful to Torah, although not in the slavish manner espoused by his critics.)

As I write this, I am listening to a brief interview with the governor of Kentucky, who has applied to the federal government to place a work requirement as a qualifier for receiving Medicaid.  The ideology behind this is that able-bodied people who can work should not receive assistance if they don’t work lest they fall into a state of dependence that is both unnecessary and an unwanted burden on taxpayers.  Although there are exemptions that allow Medicaid for non-working disabled people, I haven’t heard how people who are unable to find work will fare.  If I heard Kentucky’s governor correctly, it sounds like being unable to find a job is no excuse–no work, no health care.  To me, this is draconian and a good example of elevating ideology over people.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to a question that Jesus implied when he sparred with his critics about the Sabbath:  Who or what is our God?  If we ideology is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  If humanity is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  But . . . if we love God above all things, value as sacred and cherished all who bear God’s image in their creation (i.e. all people), and value God’s will most clearly expressed through Jesus Christ, then we will indeed find a way to be faithful to God’s will yet practice compassion in a way that transforms people’s lives.

Text:  Mark 2:13-17   “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?” (v.16)

Today’s text, picked from the daily lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer is amazingly topical today.  The president of the U.S., yesterday, bemoaned immigration from Africa and Haiti with a vulgarity, in effect giving voice again to his prejudice against non-white, non-European, mostly poor people.  Closer to home, my own town’s city council has been waffling on using an empty nursing home unit of our local hospital as a transitional shelter for homeless women and children in a way that gives the impression that some council members are struggling with the notion of housing “those kind of people” here.

Both situations distill down to this question:  Who is worthy of compassion, consideration, and respect?

To the Pharisees who witnessed Jesus at a dinner hosted by Matthew, those worthy of Jesus (or any other “good Jew”) were not the tax collectors and “sinners” with which Jesus was breaking bread.  Because of their prejudice, all they saw was a faceless, less than fully human group unworthy of Jesus’ attention and respect.  Jesus would later answer one of his critics by reminding him that all it took to be a “good Jew” and fulfill the Law was to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves, to which the critic responded by asking who qualified as his neighbor.

Today’s reading hits the ground fast and hard as I imagine the following dialog:

Pharisee 1:  “Jesus, why are you eating with poor, useless, probably criminal immigrants who don’t look like white, middle-America?”

Pharisee 2:  “And Jesus, why do you want poor women and children around?”

Jesus:  “Remember the Greatest Commandment: Love God with all you’ve got. And the second is like it–Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Pharisees 1 & 2:  “Fine, but surely my neighbor is not Haitian, African, or a poor woman with a child.”

Jesus:  “You don’t get it, do you. . . .”

Text:  Mark 1.29-45

Part 1

It’s hard to miss the irony when reading today’s text.  I now live in a nation in which conservative Christian Evangelicals were a large part of the voting block that brought us a single-party Republican government that viewed the Affordable Care Act as anathema, despises Medicaid, and will probably need to scale back Medicare to pay for its recently enacted, top-weighted tax cuts.  Yet the first thing Jesus does as he begins his ministry is to heal people.  I realize that there is a lot to debate and carefully consider about having government involved in health care and I don’t know what is best to do vis-à-vis policy and legislation.  But I do see how health care in this country has become class-bound such that the higher one’s economic class, the better their access to good health care, which the “least of these” are most likely bereft.

Damn the politics and party ideology!  If people need healing and the technical/medical means are available to do so, then they should be healed. . . and without putting them into a lifetime of debt!

Part 2

It’s easy to see Jesus as a healer and miss the larger thing that he was doing.  “Let’s head . . . to the nearby villages so that I can preach there too.” (v.28) — As wonderful as his healing ministry was, Jesus’ larger task was proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God.  It is the first thing he did following the arrest of John the Baptist.

But, how can preaching be more important than healing?
A better question to ask is, does Jesus’ preaching mean anything without his healing work?

Jesus preaches/proclaims the coming Kingdom of God, and then by healing “many who were sick with all kinds of diseases” and exorcising “many demons,” he demonstrated what that Kingdom will, in part, look like.  In other words, Jesus preached the Kingdom, then brought the Kingdom.  These were not isolated actions.

This is chastening to me as a preacher because now I have to ask, as I preach the coming Kingdom, what am I doing to lead the Body of Christ in my community to bringing it about?

Text:  Mark 1:1-13

Somewhere, back in the ’90s, Eric Clapton performed a series of concerts playing nothing but traditional blues–no “Cocaine,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “White Room,” . . . No “Layla.”  For those of us willing to hear him play music other than his radio-worn hits, it was an amazing and sublime experience.

Like most major musical acts, Clapton was preceded by a warm-up band.  His was led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who played a fabulous opening set, making me forget for a moment that I had come to see and hear Eric Clapton.  And then the master took the stage . . . Wow!

Claption had “Gatemouth” Brown musically prepare the way.  Jesus Christ had John (the Baptist) to prepare his way.  As an opening act to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God through word and deed, John called sinners to repentance and baptized them as a sign of that repentance.  His presence and message was compelling, so much so that many went out into the countryside to see him.  Yet John told all that “One stronger than I am is coming after me.”  Jesus indeed followed John’s opening act, beginning with his proclamation of the coming kingdom just after John’s arrest by Herod, the nominal king over Galilee.

“One stronger than I am” . . . ?!?  This from a guy who boldly called out sinners and hypocrites, wore a camel’s hair shirt (it ain’t no Merino!), and ate bugs (locusts)!  John’s was a powerful opening act for Jesus’ ministry.  He knew his role and did his best to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

How might I–how might we–“prepare the way of the Lord” if we thought of ourselves not as Jesus’ audience but as his opening act?  To tour with the Master . . . it’s a great gig!

Text:  Romans 15:7-13

“So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.”

On the eve of Epiphany Sunday, which will be highlighted by worship that features Holy Communion, today’s reading strikes an encouraging, energizing resonance (like the last part of Pat Metheny’s “(Cross) The Heartland” from American Garage, where the major progression melody blows back in).  As a UM church, our communion table is an open table.  The default is welcome to the table, which is different than many other denominations which insist on membership before one can participate in communion.

The point of this is not to criticize other denominations’ polities.  Each has developed their own approach to the sacraments that fit within their own larger ecclesiology.  So be it.

Paul’s admonition to welcome, simple and obvious as it sounds, was controversial.  Among fellow Jewish Christians, there was a parochial exclusivity that insisted on becoming a Jew first, then one could follow Christ as a disciple rather than a fringe follower.  Paul renounced and denounced this, and eventually won his argument (see Acts 15), but surely pockets of resistance among the Jewish Christian conservatives of his day remained at the time he wrote to the church in Rome.  So, as he had done so many years earlier in his correspondence to the church in Galatia,  Paul called for unqualified openness and welcome using Christ himself as the model.

Whether at the communion table or at the church door (or anywhere we gather), how can we not open our arms to any and all who seek God through Jesus Christ?