Monday, January 23, 2012

They left their father Zebedee

Mark 1: 14-20, page 35
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
A word that is used a lot in the Gospel of Mark is “immediately,” whereas a phrase I use a lot is “now wait just a minute.”
I’ve read that the subconscious mind can make decisions very quickly – the subconscious of a person well versed in art can look at a sculpture and tell whether or not it is a fake in seconds, but may not be able to tell you why. There are people in the world who are hired by chicken farms who can immediately look at new born chicks and tell whether they are male or female chickens, but who have no idea how they are able to do so, and yet some are reported to judge the gender of these chicks with 99% accuracy. Also amazing to me, something that I remembered after reading on Friday’s front page about Dolly Parton’s new theme park to be built near Nashville, is how some Columbia residents were immediately able to smell a rat when a man came to town, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming he would build a convention center and theme park in Spring Hill. It was going to be called “Festival Tennessee” and was to attract an NBA team, a water park, and over 80 restaurants.
No one knew him or where he came from, so without being able to say why exactly, immediately many knew that he would never be able to do what he said he would. At the Liar’s Contest during Mule Day weekend Sheila Hickman who hosted the event told the crowd, “it’s a shame no one here is claiming they’re going to build a convention center in Spring Hill – then there’d be no reason for a contest.” While others, the mayor of Spring Hill included, went along with him and believed, following a man who disappeared just as suddenly as he showed up.
Jesus came to Galilee, seemingly out of nowhere. He started preaching, and while most didn’t, four men followed him immediately. I believe it is most important to wonder whether you would have done the same.
It might be that unlike you, they just didn’t have anything better to do. That would make sense – I once drove to Vancouver with three of my high school friends because we didn’t really have anything better to do.
Or was it that they were naive, having never been made a fool out of before?
Or, was it that they had taken inventory of their lives, decided that they could do better, so once the opportunity came they dropped everything and left?
That’s often the case with people who follow Jesus – it’s not that they’re particularly holy but that they’re particularly desperate. Bob Duncan, Maury County Historian and member of this church, once told me that farming tobacco was such difficult work, especially in the heat, that there were more than a few who heard God calling them to the ministry for no other reason than anything had to be better than farming tobacco.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t explain their decision making process; you might even say that the author of this gospel goes to some length to keep their rationale a mystery – “As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands.”
They left their father Zebedee in the boat. They didn’t help him finish up for the day, selling the day’s catch, mending and cleaning the nets, but left their father in the boat with the hired hands.
I doubt Zebedee was impressed, as it’s one thing to run off to the movies with friends after the babies are fed and asleep, it’s one thing to slip off to go fishing after the big meeting, there’s time to retire and there’s a time to keep working – and you can’t just go leaving your father in the boat with the hired hands.
There’s a time for things, and now is just not the time.
That’s what people say anyway.
That there’s a time to quit smoking, but now is just not the time.
Victims of domestic abuse say the same thing, “I want to leave, but now is just not the time, the rent’s due, the kids are still young, and in times like this any man is better than no man at all.”
Addicts aren’t any different – “I know I need to quit, but not today. I just can’t do it today.”
And that’s exactly what they said to Dr. Martin Luther King – we know that segregation is wrong, but be patient, now is just not the right time to end it.
Those who are happy with the way things are have no trouble postponing change. But those who aren’t? King, having been bold enough to imagine that things could be different couldn’t wait any longer. He had been up on the mountain top and seen over to the other side, to a new society free from the evils of racism, and out of intolerance for the way things were and a desire for how they could be, he pushed on.
I believe that this is the quality that all followers of Jesus must possess.
Christ doesn’t ask that anyone possess anything more. He doesn’t ask that his followers be particularly well versed or knowledgeable, no skills are more important than another, experience isn’t necessary – the only thing that is necessary is a willingness to give up life as you know it for life as it could be.
Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
They gave up life as fishermen to become fishers of men.
It’s as though they gave up life with drugs, with alcohol, for the life they might have without them.
They gave up life with abuse for the idea of a life in safety.
They gave up what is for what could be.
The great Christian author, C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, that humans are often like children who are invited to go spend the day at the beach, but who settle instead to play in a puddle in an alleyway, because what is known is more attractive always than what isn’t.
I pray that the same will not be true for you.
In your misery, be willing to give up on what you have for what could be.
Should you bear grudges, be willing to give up the anger that you have and have grown used to for the forgiveness that could be.
And out of a desire for justice, give up on the idea that things as they are will never change for the truth – that the Kingdom of God has come near. The hungry cry out for food, the homeless long for shelter, the oppressed call for justice, and who will hear them? Only those not so tied to the way things that they fail to believe there could be a better world.
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Immediately four followed him – now go and do the same.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


1st Samuel 3: 1-20, page 247
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”
So he went and lay down.
The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.
Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the Lord calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that the Lord told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that the Lord told you.”
So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let the Lord do what seems good to the Lord.”
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
It’s hard to appreciate interruptions, so most people don’t most of the time.
A cell phone rang during the final measures of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, was so disturbed he stopped the performance and as this one patron scrambled to silence his phone the crowd began to boo him.
Interruptions derail the flow of what is supposed to happen, and when accidents interrupt the normal commute of many drivers, good, kind people sometimes become so irritated by the delay that evil thoughts creep into their minds. When they’ve slowed traffic it’s hard to see them as people in need of help, and they become objects that are in the way.
No one really likes to be interrupted, even though it seems like the great, life changing events of our lives don’t happen during our normal routine, but when the normal routine is interrupted.
That was the case for me last Tuesday. Mr. David Locke barged into my weekly staff meeting and before I could ask him to wait outside while we finished the meeting he was helping himself to a doughnut hole and a cup of coffee.
“Yes, Mr. Locke,” I said.
“Ya’ll don’t mind waiting for me to finish my doughnut hole,” he responded.
We waited, and then he asked me to stand.
“Joe, you’ve been preaching at First Presbyterian Church for a full year now,” he began, “and during this first year you’ve preached good sermons, even preached on national radio. I want you to know that I look around the sanctuary while you’re preaching and it seems like there aren’t even that many people sleeping. We just wanted to get you something in recognition of your ministry.”
Then he handed me this. An airbrushed tee-shirt that says, “Joe is a preaching machine.”
David Locke didn’t say that he made this shirt himself, but he didn’t say that he didn’t either. You’ll have to ask Ms. Jean if her husband has been sneaking off to Gatlinburg for airbrush lessons. Regardless, I was honored, and much more honored than irritated by the interruption to my staff meeting.
Most of the time we don’t like interruptions, though.
The gospel of Luke tells the story of three who were on their way down the road. On the side of the road lay a man in need of their help. Only the third, a Samaritan stopped to help, while the first two, a priest and a Levite, were unwilling to be interrupted on their way to wherever they were going.
In the same way the Psalmist in our first scripture reading is amazed by God and the body that God has created: “you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” To be so amazed takes time however, so rarely are normal schedules interrupted to consider it all.
Most of the time it seems as though we are most interested in just getting on with it – getting on with work, getting on with our appointments, getting on with our normally packed schedule. Then should we have a few minutes to sit and read a book or watch TV we certainly don’t want to be interrupted regardless of who needs help or attention. When we finally lay down to go to sleep we don’t want that interrupted either.
No one really likes to be interrupted, even though it seems like that’s when everything important happens – not when the normal routine is intact, but when it’s not.
It’s hard to believe that when you’re fast asleep, only to have your rest interrupted by a crying baby, a late night trip to the bathroom, or a boy named Samuel who thinks that you’ve been calling him.
The first time it happens I bet Eli wasn’t disturbed, not too annoyed, maybe not even completely woken up by Samuel who barges into the room, “Here I am, for you called me.”
The second time, though, must have been different, and I’m sure that while scripture tells us Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again,” he really said something else a little less saintly.
Then the third time – the third time it happens – how do you feel when someone wakes you up for the third time? Your mind is made up that there’s no good reason for it. You’re not going to check under the bed for a monster a third time happily; a dog that wakes you up a third time to go out may not have a home the next day; and whatever is making that beeping sound in the kitchen for the third time is on its way to being completely destroyed.
But Eli, after being woken up for the third time, doesn’t stare down Samuel with contempt but takes this young boy and his trouble seriously: “Go, lie down; and if you hear the voice again, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
It all started then. The boy became a prophet of the Lord – and not just any prophet, but the prophet who would call Israel’s first kings.
But for Samuel to listen to God he first had to be heard by Eli. For him to take God seriously he first had to be taken seriously by Eli. And for Samuel to allow his life to be interrupted by God, Eli had to allow his sleep to be interrupted so that he could listen to this boy for whom “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed.”
He didn’t have any idea how special he was in the eyes of God. And if Eli had ignored him or not taken him seriously, sending him back to bed for the third time, he may never have found out.
You and I – we’re no different. Born with God-given gifts that we only learn how to take seriously because of parents, teachers, and friends who take us seriously – who pick up the phone in the middle of the night because we’re more important to them than sleep – who turn off the TV to hear what we have to say because our words are more important than the words of the evening news. We only learn to take ourselves seriously because we have been taken seriously.
Your call, then, is to go and do the same: to put down whatever you’ve been working on to hear the concern of the little girl pulling on your sleeve, to look her in the eye rather than dismiss her, to not be satisfied with “I’m fine mom” when you know well and good that everything isn’t.
You are the church and if any child of this church is ever going to believe that they are as important to God as we say they are, you have to listen to what they have to say.

You Are Mine

Mark 1: 4-11, page 44

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now john was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens town apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It’s possible also to feel like your finances are in order, then comes tax season, and there’s plenty more to worry about. Or feeling as though the house is finally clean after Christmas, that you can put your feet up and relax; then the dog runs away, the furnace goes out, or you make the mistake of going down to the basement and the feeling as though there is too much work to do and you’ll never get it all done rushes right back in.
If ever I’m feeling as though I have things under control all I need to do is take my two daughters to lunch and I am convinced otherwise.
Or should I feel too competent I need only remember that it took me two weeks to install a swing that Sara’s sister bought our daughters – she said it would be easy.
The feeling of inadequacy lurks around every corner, stars back from every mirror, and jumps out from every Christmas card sent from a family who managed to have all their children in clean clothes at the same time.
Baby books were the worst. After one chapter I was convinced that our baby would burst into flames if I didn’t find a way to purify our drinking water, filter our air, and sanitize every surface in the house.
Based on this experience of complete and utter inadequacy I have decided that if I were going to write a book for moms and dads expecting their first child it would start with some basic things right at the beginning – don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, eat healthy. Then, instead of continuing on with what the experts think the new mother should or should not be doing, I would just write, “you are doing great and the baby is fine” over and over again, week after week, page after page.
That’s not the way these baby books work though – they fill you up with so much information you can’t help but feel inadequate – and now I know that there is plenty of time for feeling that way once that baby is born.
I know that you are supposed to want to know everything you can, but in our world of seemingly limitless knowledge and ever rising standards, I think every new parent deserves a book that will say the thing that they really need to hear and nothing more.
That’s one reason it’s nice to read the gospel of Mark, as in this book there isn’t a whole lot, so what is there takes on a new meaning when you consider what’s not.
Notice what isn’t there. We started our lesson in verse 4 and already Jesus is grown. In Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story – Mary isn’t even mentioned much less Joseph, traveling kings, or shepherds. We don’t even really know who he is, where he came from, or what Jesus has been doing up until this point.
But what there is, is John. From Mark we know what John looked like, that he was wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. We know what he ate even, that depending only on what the wilderness could provide he kept alive eating locusts and wild honey. And we know that he could preach and that people wanted to know what he had to say.
Mark doesn’t take the time to hold our hand through this story, doesn’t fill space with adjectives, adverbs, or side plots, but from these first sentences we know why John was such a compelling and controversial figure, we know why John the Baptist is beheaded in chapter 6 by King Herod, as some thing else that is missing from Mark’s gospel are the crowds at the Temple. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.”
There are plenty of preachers who aren’t like John – they don’t wait for the people to come to them, they go to the people, and from a street corner preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. No one every stops though.
John on the other hand preached a message so compelling that the city of Jerusalem was rendered empty. Schools must have closed, marketplaces vacant, and pews went unfilled – everyone had gone out to hear what this John had to say.
But the synagogue – it easy to think that John couldn’t have been preaching something so different from what was heard in the synagogue, after all, John practically is living out the same book the priests and scribes were reading out of – he’s not someone so different, maybe not different at all from Elijah and Isaiah who he dresses just like. But if what John had to say was the same as what the priests at the Temple or the local synagogue had to say, if what John had to say was the same as what teachers in schools, storeowners on the street or managers in the work place had to say then why would the people travel so far into a desert wasteland to hear him if they could stay home and hear the same thing?
We know that John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and I bet that everyone who went out there went to hear the same thing that we want to hear – something different from the voices we hear in the school telling us we could study harder and do better – something different from the voices we hear in the marketplace telling us that we should look better or dress better – something different from the voices we hear in the church – telling us that we aren’t quite good enough, that we are sinners, or we are inadequate and that we have fallen short.
So like Jesus, we go out to hear what John has to say.
In this passage from Mark, there’s nothing that makes us really different from him. Remember, the author of Mark doesn’t include Mary or Joseph, there’s no virgin birth here, there’s nothing here to tell us that Jesus is any different from you or me, and in fact, if he has gone out to the desert like everyone else he must be just as hungry to hear the same thing that we are – that you can repent – you can start again – God has not given up on you – your sins can be washed away.
Hearing these words Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. And as he was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
I think it’s easy to believe that these words are only for Jesus, only meant for his ears, but Mark, by virtue of what he leaves out, doesn’t give us any reason to make that conclusion.
It’s almost as though Mark knows there are already a million ways to feel inadequate. That there’s no reason to replicate that feeling of knowing that a baby is coming and that you will never be as ready as you might like to be – or of watching bills piling up and not having a job to pay for them – or of seeing all the groups at school and not feeling like your cool enough or smart enough – or of looking through magazines and not feeling beautiful – or of having a Mom who is never satisfied or a Dad who isn’t verbal enough to say he loves you – or of hearing from the church that you are all wrong and soon the wrath of a vengeful God will rip open the sky to crush you like a tin can because you aren’t good enough.
So Mark doesn’t spend time with the Virgin Birth, doesn’t tell the story about Jesus running off to the Temple at an early age entertaining the wise teachers there, we weren’t visited by kings or shepherds during our stay in the hospital – so Mark doesn’t dwell on such things.
What makes Jesus special in Mark is the same thing that makes you and I special today.
That way when God rips open the heavens you can put yourself in Jesus’ shoes and hear the words that he heard.
The standards that Jesus sets in Mark’s gospel are standards we are living up to right now – we wanted to hear some good news, so like Jesus we have come to a place where we might hear it. From Mark, that’s all that Jesus has done to deserve what he gets, so Mark won’t let us explain it away when we get the same thing.
You were baptized, and God has called you by name, saying, “You are mine, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I think there are plenty of us who have been waiting our whole lives to hear words like these, and not hearing them makes just as much a difference as hearing them does.
So hear these words from God now – don’t wait until you feel like you’ve earned them because you never will, and don’t wait until you feel like your good enough because you already are. Words from God to you: “You are mine, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Monday, January 2, 2012


Luke 2: 22-40, page 59
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town in Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
I have spent a lot of time looking forward to today. I’ve pictured our first Christmas in Columbia, our first Christmas in our new house, our first Christmas as parents of two in my imagination – and it looks something like this – there’s a fire burning in the fire place, that good smoked sausage is cooking in the kitchen, both my girls are overjoyed sitting under the Christmas Tree, I’m wearing a Christmas sweater, and everyone is listening to me sing a rendition “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” because it’s snowing outside.
Now that’s not exactly how it went earlier this morning.
Our fireplace hasn’t been used in two years so we’re too scared to burn anything in there, I was out voted on the sausage, my girls were both very happy, but not what I would call over-joyed, more over-whellemed, I don’t own a Christmas sweater, and no one would ever listen to me sing anything so why would I think they’d listen to me sing on Christmas morning? Besides, it wasn’t snowing.
I dream up the ideal in my head, especially when it’s a big day I’m looking forward to, but the reality can’t ever measure up.
Weddings are like that – the birth of a child is like that – certainly a baby’s baptism is like that too.
I’m sure Mary grew up looking forward to her wedding day – and I doubt she pictured being pregnant when the big day came.
I bet she also grew up thinking about being a mother – where the baby would be born, what clothes she would dress him in – and I bet a barn and bands of cloth had nothing to do with her imaginary scenario.
And maybe she had come to grips with how different her wedding day was, maybe she had accepted her child’s birth for what it was, so overjoyed to hold that happy and healthy baby boy in her arms regardless of the sounds and smells of livestock around her; but could you blame her if she wanted the day of his presentation at the temple to be different?
On her wedding day she had bent her head in shame, knowing well what everyone was saying, so this day she held her head high.
She had settled for bands of cloth when he was born, and so she splurged on something special to put him in on the day he went to the temple.
Everything up unto this point had been so different from how she imagined it, finally she was doing something the way it was supposed to be done, and gladly bought the appropriate offerings – a pair of turtledove or two young pigeons.
It must have felt so good, to do, what the Gospel of Luke tells us, “was customary under the law,” everything up until this point having been so un-customary.
But then comes Simeon.
“Simeon took him in his arms” and this moment was taken like the others.
His words mean something – and truly they mean everything – but what mother wants to hear on such a special day: “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This is how it happens though.
An imperfect wedding, an imperfect birth, which nonetheless produces the perfect child – when all of a sudden the doctor brings some harsh word – asthma that will require breathing treatments, speech that will require a therapist, cancer that will require chemo therapy, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
It’s enough to not go through with it at all. It’s enough to keep the baby home, safe, never to go out again, but the time came and so the child had to be brought up to Jerusalem, it’s there in the law for “every firstborn shall be designated as holy to the Lord.”
That line is enough for me to rethink what holy means completely – as there could be no more holy child than this despite his story so unlike any ideal I’d ever imagine.
If that’s how it was with Jesus, then what if that’s what holy is?
What if holy isn’t perfection.
What if holy isn’t the attainment of every dream and ideal and imagination.
What if holy is just what Jesus was – a human being born into an imperfect marriage, born on a day when nothing went how it was supposed to, and began his life with his mother knowing that one day something was going to happen to her little boy that would pierce her soul.
It’s not the way I would dream it up, but it’s the way it happens.
Today give thanks for Christmas, the Christmas that you have even if it’s not the Christmas that you dreamed of, because holiness isn’t perfection – Christ entered our imperfection and made it all holy.
So Merry Christmas.