Exod. 7:8-242 Cor. 2:14-3:6Mark 10:1-16

Listening is such a key part of life.  We listen to each other.  We listen for God.  We listen to our own bodies, when we are sick, when we are healthy, when we are pregnant.

Lately, we have become a people who rarely has time to listen – to others – or even to ourselves or God.  We live in a world bombarded by messages, from our cell phone, and everywhere.  We fill our lives with such hurriedness I wonder if we have time anymore to listen to our bodies, our souls, our spirits.

The Bible is filled with stories of people who listen, or who clearly don’t listen to God or anyone else.  In Exodus today Moses and Aaron begin their display of tricks.  Pharaoh does not listen because his heart is hard.

The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to go before Pharaoh, and Aaron is told to throw down his staff.  It becomes a snake.  So everyone throws down his staff.  They all become snakes!  Aaron’s snake eats all the others.

Pharaoh does not listen.  He refuses to let the people go.  We learn of the disaster life can be when we do not listen to God.

And so we begin the Ten Plagues.  The first is the water turning to blood, reminiscent of Pharaoh throwing each Hebrew boy into the Nile.  Now the tide has turned.  The very life-blood of the community, the Nile, has ironically turned into life – into blood, which makes it useless for human sustenance.

I got to thinking this morning about another kind of listening – our listening to scripture.  One of the many rifts in the Christian community is wrapped up in how the different approaches to scripture lead to different views.  Some believe the Bible literally – which you have heard me rail against, because it leaves no room for metaphor, myth, parable, and story.

Today’s readings pose many problems for the literalists.  As the Ten Plagues are recounted, we realize that not even scripture agrees with itself.  In other places in the Bible, namely in two Psalms, there are only Eight Plagues.  Which is right?  In Mark, the teaching about divorce is final – there is NO room for exception.  In Matthew, there is to be no divorce UNLESS there is unchastity.  Then it is permissible.   So which scripture is right?

So how are we to listen to scripture?  Furthermore, it is not just “listen” but how we listen that becomes important.

For one, I wish we would all admit straight away that the Bible contradicts itself in many areas.  To say this is not heresy, it is declaring the obvious.  But that does not mean that the Bible is not any less true or relevant.  It means it is a large, complex book.  And when Jesus spoke in metaphors (i.e. “I am the bread of life” or “I am the door”) he did not mean he was actually turning into a loaf of bread or into a door.  He meant to say something deeper to us.

I am much more interested in that “deeper” message.

As part of that, I am much more interested in what the Bible principally teaches.  What do these words mean for my heart to do?  Just like Pharaoh, I believe we have hardened ourselves to God’s word at times, more intent with fighting with each other than having its word permeate deep into our souls.

For me it is OK that there are two recollections of Jesus’ teaching on divorce.  It is like getting two witnesses to an accident – their stories are always a little different.  To me that means it is probably a true story!  If everyone’s perception of these events was identical, I think any police officer would tell you it was probably a staged story.  Not everyone sees the same details or remembers the events in the same order.

I invite our world to open itself up to the reading and hearing of scripture once again.  To put down our Bibles and stop looking so intently – looking for ways to disagree with our neighbors.  I invite the world to stop and LISTEN to scripture, and hear the story each in our different ways.  (When I was 15 and heard these stories, they meant a lot different things than they do today.  I hope when I am 45 I hear yet different things.)

So listen with fresh new ears today.  And ask yourself, “What is God telling me this time?”  Your imagination may wander from the text altogether.  That’s OK.  What is God up to in your life today?



Pickle Yourself! Well, Sorta


Exod. 5:1-6:11 Cor. 14:20-33a,39-40Mark 9:42-50

Today’s gospel reading is super troubling if you are in “biblical literalist mode”.  If your hand causes you to sin, you are instructed to cut it off.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.

What am I supposed to do with this?

This kind of radical self-sacrifice is very curious, literally laming one for the work ahead.  The last verse provides some help to the context.  “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Well this passage once and for all puts to rest the biblical literalists’ arguments – for if they really meant what they said the world would be full of lame people with no hands, eating teaspoon after teaspoon of salt because the passage says “have salt in yourselves.”  Well, we all know it is much deeper than that, a metaphor for radical discipleship and self-sacrifice.

In our fast food nation it is difficult to see the meaning of these words.  We think of salt as something to season our food to enhance the flavor.  In biblical times it was too precious to be wasted like this.  Salt was used for pickling, in a time when there was no refrigeration.  Salt was a necessary preservative in a land where drought could go on for years, and stores of food were essential.  If something was not salted, not preserved, it could go bad quickly.  So here, salt has a duel metaphorical purpose – for sacrifice as well as preservation.

We must preserve our bodies and spirits against the temptations of sin.  We must keep ourselves salted in the Lord, salted in the Spirit, and salted in the fire.  Purity for the sake of peace becomes an important key.  Pickle ourselves?  No, preserve ourselves so we can endure!

This all comes in the midst of a number of stories amplifying our imperfection.  The disciples are squabbling over who is the greatest.  And following this passage is a dealing about divorce.

Jesus is encountering the broken world, and witnessing the stumbling blocks of humanity.  The point is to more than just pepper our lives with good will and humility, but to literally change our very make up, change our lives (that’s what pickling does), and live into a self-sacrificial life where individual physical essentials are secondary to the community’s need for peace and understanding.

In a world where most of Jesus’ concepts of new life are foreign and contrary to American ideals, we are challenged as New Testament people to step into a new life in Christ, where the norms of society are turned upside-down.  We are challenged to live out our baptisms, which call us to die to ourselves, and take up a life past the grave, which looks out on the horizon and embraces a new order – one with limitless possibilities of grace and peace.


Trump, Chaos, and Drowning


Exod. 2:1-221 Cor. 12:27-13:3Mark 9:2-13

Today in Exodus, someone draws Moses up from out of the waters of the Nile to save him.  You may remember the story of this little baby Moses in a basket in the reeds, abandoned on the bank of the Nile.

Water plays central roles in the Bible, not the least of which is new life in baptism.  This is a common image in the Bible: being drawn from the water, out of the chaos into new life.  From the creation, to our own baptism, our story is one of being lifted to new life.

Think about biblical times.  Water was the life-blood of the community.  From droughts to plagues, from watering crops to changing water into wine, to be drawn out of the water is to be drawn from the source of life itself.  And so it is fitting to have Moses, a part of this story too, and from the Red Sea parting, to that basket in the Nile – for salvation comes from the water.

Oh how we need to be washed as a country, and drawn out of the water again.

Nationally we have drunk the same wine of power that our leaders have drunk, idolizing politicians who lie and boast about lying.  They grab for power and covet those who have more power.  They sleep with prostitutes and lie to world leaders and we fail to hold them accountable.  The self aggrandizement I see is nothing short of idolatry, and somehow we seem to think it is great, holding them up as “strong leaders” when in reality they are mired in sin and idolatry.

How many of the 10 Commandments are optional these days?

Then we turn to our state leaders, who cheat and steal and abuse their power, mishandling money like teenagers with their first credit cards, kicking the can of debt down the road for the next generation to pay.  The latest proposal to increase pay for our teachers fits right into this  narrative, where the attitude is “to hell with fiscal responsibility and budgets – let’s just say what is politically attractive in the moment.”  This too is sin.  Not only are we drowning in debt, but drowning in our own fantasies that we can have our cake and eat it too.

We need to be washed – cleansed – washed clean of our thirst for power, and our eagerness to fix things quickly.  We need to drink from the well of humility, patience, and peace.

Power comes from the water.  This will not simply be a cleansing, but something that ties us to our past and our future.  From Jesus’ baptism to the Creation story, to Moshe, to the Nile, to the Red Sea too – out of the chaos will come hope.

Out of the depths, new life and new possibility breaks forth.  Water will bring about a renewal of the power of God among us – a sign of salvation, and that the drought of our lives has ended, flooded with newness, vitality, health, and wholeness.  Then and only then will we realize we have all been drawn from the water, wrapped into God’s magnificent handiwork, and called forth into daring new adventures, washed as new people, given a new chance, and drown away are the evils of the past.

Come up out of the water with me today.


You Are the Messiah


Exod. 1:6-221 Cor. 12:12-26Mark 8:27-9:1

It has been another crazy week!  The incredible administrative assistant at the presbytery office, Sue, had surgery.  Holy Week is bearing down on us.  Then there is the usual empowering of new leaders.  Some days I question whether it is possible to keep up.  And yet, we do our best, and plod along, slowly.

It was a blessing this morning to be able to pause and turn to scripture in this harried time.

In Exodus, the new Pharaoh does not know Joseph and turns against the Israelites.  They are oppressed and the male infants are ordered to be drown in the Nile.

Paul continues his exploration of spiritual gifts with one of the most articulated metaphors in the Bible – that of the one body with many members.  “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

Mark recounts Peter’s confession.  Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Did Peter really believe what he said?  Do we truly believe Jesus to be the Messiah?  That is not just a fancy saying.  It means that we believe Jesus to be the Anointed One who saves the world.  Sometimes I worry that we in the West have fallen short of that belief, declaring instead that Jesus is a “nice guy” but no more.  If Jesus is truly the Messiah, should not our lives radically change?

When are we going to leave our lives behind to follow this newly anointed king?  When are we going to leave the world behind?  Do we really believe that Messiah coming is “good news”?  Or is it disrupting and terrifying?

These are the questions before us as following of Christ.  They demand our attention and are worthy of reflection.

How are our lives to change if we are going to follow Christ, the one who died on a cross because of the world’s standards?


The Power of Ritual


Gen. 49:29-50:141 Cor. 11:17-34Mark 8:1-10

Rituals fill our readings this morning.

In our Epistle reading, Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper, speaking of abuses, factions, and the importance of examining your motives as one comes to eat the body and blood.

In our Gospel reading, Mark tells of the feeding of four thousand.

But this morning I want to spend a little time with our Old Testament passage.  In Genesis Jacob has given his final words to each of his sons.  The legacy of God’s double promise of land and progeny is expanded greatly as he passes it off to the next generation.  Now we recount his death and burial in Canaan at the Machpelah cave.

Mourning and lamentation fill this passage.  Joseph throws himself over his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.  He instructed his physicians to have his father’s body embalmed.

Connecting this to the other two passages today, all involve the ritual of coming together.  Here it is not for miraculous food or heavenly togetherness, but it is close!  To embalm the body is thoroughly Egyptian, not an Israelite practice, and yet it becomes an opportunity for all these different people to come together – the servants of Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s family, the elders of Joseph’s household, the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all of Joseph’s brothers and their household.

In a strange encounter that foreshadows Moses’ repeated requests to depart to Israel, Joseph goes to Pharaoh to ask for permission to ritually bury Jacob all the way back in his homeland.  In their grief and loss, the community is able to come together.

Not surprisingly, after this time, Joseph is able to purge his own soul and forgive his brothers.

The power of ritual should not be overlooked.  Ritual has the power to capture imagination and transform perspectives.  It allows God to work in our lives and knit together a new story for our future.

Whether it is the feeding of many thousands, the mystical union of the Lord’s Supper, or the burial of a loved one, it gives us time with one another and with God.  It is where the mystery of faith and the reality of God’s presence become more real.

What rituals do you have in your daily life?  Family?

Need one?  See you at church Sunday.  We have lots and can help you connect with the mystery of faith and with God.


Life in the Boat


Gen. 47:1-261 Cor. 9:16-27Mark 6:47-56

Today Jesus walks on water.

Jesus has just lived through a good bit of trauma: he was rejected at Nazareth, practically run out of town, his cousin is murdered and his head ends up on a plate, the disciples go get his body and I assume they have a funeral, and then Jesus feeds the 5,000.  I am imagining if this guy is an introvert, just the feeding of the 5,000 is “people overdose.”  So he retreats.  He escapes from the world for a moment.

The disciples get in the boat while Jesus dismissed the crowd.  Then after saying farewell he goes up on a mountain to pray.  We are told “Jesus was alone on the land when he saw that they were straining.”

Mark’s themes of messianic secret and the suffering servant have intrigued pastors like me for years.  I love Mark!  And the flow of story is just one great aspect.  In the Marcan version there are no details about Peter or anyone else walking on the water out to Jesus.  The focus is not on the water walking at all.  It is the tension between being alone and togetherness.

Jesus sees they are in trouble, and realizes it is easier to encounter things together.  They saw him walking out there and thought he was a ghost; they cried out; he spoke to them and said “Don’t be afraid.”  And that is the end of it.  He got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

The church today has its fears too.  Some worry only of division.  Others worry only about the past, trying to reclaim the 1960s.  Others worry only about purity.  These groups want to wave a magic wand and have people magically come together in peace and harmony.  Jesus walking on the water, and then entering the boat, flies in the face of all that.  He is implying togetherness is the most essential piece, even if it means getting in the boat with these monkeys I disagree with.

I am in a position in the presbytery that means just this.  For 80 years we have been a dysfunctional presbytery, and our history just about guarantees that the same thing will happen to me as the last dozen or so presbytery workers: “We spend a lot of time and energy trying to throw one another out of the boat.”  It really doesn’t matter how good of a job I do – it is just a matter of time before our long-standing dysfunction finds its way to my desk and the blame game begins all over again.  Oh, I have hope that we will get better and get over ourselves, but probably not in my lifetime if my understanding of family systems holds true.

Nevertheless, Jesus call comes to me…and to us all.

Jesus enters right in the midst of chaos and confusion, and that was precisely the time to get in the boat with them.  It was not the time to bail, but the opposite.  Right when our instincts say it is time to bail, Jesus comes along and points to a different reality.

We follow a savior who demands that we think clearly, not panic, and stay in the boat.

And so we continue on.


God’s Goodness


Gen. 46:1-7,28-341 Cor. 9:1-15Mark 6:30-46

God’s ways are not always the ways of humanity.  Time and time again we are reminded of this fact in scripture.  The Old Testament is a place where this is rich and well developed.

In today’s OT passage, Jacob brings his entire family to Egypt after drought and famine had ravaged Israel.  Just the name of “Jacob” is a reminder of how God’s ways are not the ways of humans.  If you remember, Jacob was the younger brother of Esau.  They tangled at birth, and then later Jacob and his mother helped deceive his father into thinking that he was Esau, stealing the blessing.  Esau was set to inherit it all – and the double blessing of progeny and land would pass to Esau.  Well, God had other plans, and chose Jacob, despite human tradition about the first born.

Now Jacob has 12 sons.  Again we see reversal.  Joseph is by no means the eldest son.  In today’s reading, we see more than just birth order reversed.  In fact, the entire generation is turned on its head.  God has to reassure Jacob, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.”

There is reason to be nervous!  This trip puts his entire linage in jeopardy.  And he is now leaving the land that was promised to his grandfather.  What is going on?

We see God’s blessing coming from Joseph – who has taken on the persona of a foreigner.  Son blesses father.  Son becomes foreigner.  Foreign land blesses the Chosen land people.

What does this tell us about God?  We are shown a God who does not follow the rules, and yet his blessings are made known.  Trust and faith seem paramount.  Land and progeny are secondary, and are automatically taken care of if one trusts in God’s upside-down world.

This all makes for good reading.  Genesis is chuck full of colorful and transformative stories of God’s goodness – stories in which we become the heirs of that goodness.