First? Last?

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Isa. 58:1-12; Gal. 6:11-18; Mark 9:30-41

It is easy falling into the trappings of power and wealth.

Today in Mark the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest disciple.  Jesus gathers them all together and declares, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  He then took a little child and put it among them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Power and wealth are certainly temptations – an attempt I think to try to get ahead.  It is easy here in the midst of American capitalism to think the answer to happiness or life is to gather more money or power.  Jesus speaks clearly and plainly, by taking a little child, who is an exemplar of powerlessness.  He is saying, “Forget about having 100 employees, or having a huge 401k…your job is to lift up the least among you…. Your job is to be a servant, not a ruler.”

How can we break the cycle of selfishness and embrace our calling to SERVANTHOOD?  How can we move to accumulation of wealth to abundance of giving?  How can we best model a God who came and emptied himself for us, giving his life and his love away?

What does it even mean to be first in our society, or last?  What is our calling?

 

– Matt

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Freedom

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Isa. 55:1-13; Gal. 5:1-15; Mark 8:27-9:1

We hear the central tenet of Paul’s gospel message in Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Hes sees prerequisites of grace as an offense to the cross, invoking slavery language and Old Testament standards like circumcision as antithetical to the gospel message and the cross.  He then launches into a tirade on freedom stating that, “…through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Some time ago I was encountered a young man on the phone who had called the church needing to talk with a pastor.  We get these requests a lot, and in skepticism I took the phone, waiting to be hit up for money.  I will admit I was a bit uncaring in my tone.

His voice was completely unknown to me, and it was clear he was just going down a list of churches in hope that someone…anyone would listen.  His voice was shaky and he refused to tell me who he was, but he desperately needed to share his story.  Did I have the time, he asked.  I reluctantly said yes.

Within a minute I understood this man was in real distress, and he wasn’t hitting me up for money.  He needed someone to listen to his pain, and help him.

He described what he called his “expulsion” from his church.  The heartbreak and the misery was almost too much to bear.  His church family was gone, he said.  As a young, single student here in Oklahoma, separated from his family, he felt alone.  All he had was his church, and now that was gone.

I was a bit taken aback and needed more information.  I encouraged him to come to the church and talk face to face.  He declined.  So I pressed on the phone: “What happened?  Expulsion is quite a word.  What are you saying?” I inquired.  After much discussion, and trying to calm him enough to share his pain, I came to realize this had all come about because he had gone to the pastor of his church with the fact he was struggling with his sexuality.  That was it.  He had just entrusted the pastor with his struggle of sexual identity.

The pastor evidently told him never to set foot in the church again.  With a shaky voice he asked me point blank, “If I am gay, does God hate me?”

In horror and disbelief I think I yelled into the phone: “God loves all his children, and I can’t believe this pastor of yours!  Has he never read the good news of the Bible?”

I think we would all agree his pastor was in the wrong.  But it seems symptomatic of our times, when the church at times consumed by sexual ethics, threatens to fragment itself, missing the core message of transformative love and mercy.  When did some of our churches lose their way so badly, attempting to become museums for saints rather than hospitals for sinners (which we ALL are…hello!?!)?  Have they even read Paul?  How is it loving to cut people out of the community who are struggling?  Isn’t all of life a struggle?

If we cut off everyone who falls short of God’s glory, we are going to be left with an empty church.  And if we cut off people who have not even done anything wrong, but just struggled, or been tempted, or reached out for help, then we are going to clear out our churches in an hour.

I believe the church is being held hostage – by our own own fear.  The yoke of this slavery is almost too much to bear.  Certainly for this young man, it was strangling their church.   Unless we can let go, and allow the transformative nature of God’s grace to truly wash us, God will select us into extinction.

Paul slams his message of freedom home when, in dramatic fashion, he jests: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  If you read Paul closely you discover Paul’s primary concern is knitting up the body of Christ as a relational body, not become a bastion of demonic excommunication.

Freedom in Christ means exactly that.  It means not being strangled by the prejudices of the past, but embraced by a new ethic: a Law of Love.  Wasn’t that the whole point of the cross?  Paul’s point is well taken.

Maybe what we need is a focus on what is essential: that old rugged cross.  Some may want to forget that bloody image.  But I believe there is something mysterious and essential about the blood of Christ metamorphosing us into the agents of grace and freedom that he needs us to be.  We see Christ beat up by humanity, but through that coming to a new expression of grace and freedom.

Only until we realize the depth of human hurts, and confront it head-on, embracing and consuming the body and blood of Christ ourselves, will we come to truly understand what redemption is all about.  Transformation isn’t far behind.  Freedom lay within.  A true freedom that binds hearts and minds in an everlasting mercy and love.

-Matt

Wake Up!

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Isa. 54:1-10(11-17); Gal. 4:21-31; Mark 8:11-26

After the feeding of the multitude….yeast becomes the topic of the day.  The disciples jumped in the boat to head to the other side.  And they forgot to bring but one loaf.  Jesus cautions them, saying they should beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.

They misunderstand: “It is because we have no bread?” Jesus retorts with some harsh words for the disciples, “Do you still not perceive or understand?  Are your hearts hardened?”

Jesus is making it clear that even the disciples’ hearts are hardened.  Although it is unclear exactly what his issue is, there is a clear line being drawn between the disciples’ need and their insufficient resources.

Mystery abounds today.  As I have mentioned before, the real joy of Mark is that as the gospel continues, there is more and more intrigue – more and more mystery – more and more secrecy, that is both let out to some, but deepened for others.

What is becoming clear is that the ways of the Old Testament are being reversed, challenged, and reinterpreted.  Our reading in Galatians also bears this out.  The entire letter, in fact, is an explanation of how the Old Testament just didn’t measure up and how God was doing a new thing.

What that new thing is, in Mark, we don’t know yet.   But what is certain is that this new and different thing that God is doing includes a much larger band of followers than before.  This is a God who is not only interested in right teaching, and right following, but in the hungry, the oppressed, and somehow the truth of the gospel hinges on the actual physical care of those around us.

God wants us to wake up.  God wants scripture to actually impact our daily walk and transform the way we live.  This is what it means to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Is this starting to smell like the “social gospel” that many of the so-called “Christian conservatives” want to rail?  Well, it may not be the only thing scripture doles out, but we get a heavy dose of the social gospel from the gospel writers.  It is radical and untapped grace.  It may frighten some.  Well, so be it.  It’s there.  Scripture is clear.   Don’t be one who closes their eyes to the parts of scripture they don’t agree with, especially NT scripture – instead embrace the entirety of scripture with me and be confounded by the mystery of God.

-Matt