28 February 2009

Lenten Devotional: Concrete Theology

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ Matthew 9.10-13

We've been reading A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis in our Theology for Lunch group at University Lutheran Center. Today's chapters were "Up and Out" and "Down and In," the first a description of God the author finds problematic, the second a far more fruitful image of God for the author. The problem with the first, insists Pagitt, is that God often winds up a captive of the chasm of sin that separates humanity from God - and how can the Creator of all that is be powerless to bridge the gap? So we spent a very fruitful half hour talking about sin, mercy and forgiveness, as well as God's wrath and its true source.

As I read in preparation for the group's meeting, I realized Pagitt was unconsciously treading where my theology professor Gerhard Forde once wrote. The problem with a God who remains distant and must be either appeased or rescued by the cross lies in the abstraction of the real problem: we are a people who refuse, time and again, the unconditional mercy and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. As Forde put it,

Why could God not just up and forgive? Let us start there. If
we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual acts themselves, the "brute
facts" as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He
did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty
and mercy of his "Father." The problem, however, is that we could not buy
that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the
act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk
about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our
complaint against god is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed
him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that...

God's "problem" is not that he can't be merciful until he has been
satisfied but rather that he won't be satisfied until he succeeds in actually
having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won't be satisfied
until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he
intends. As we can see from Jesus, God's problem is how actually to have
mercy on a world which will not have it...

When faith is created, when we actually believe God's unconditional
forgiveness; then God can say, "Now I am satisfied!" God's wrath ends
actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to
God "once upon a time." Christ's work, therefore, "satisfies" the wrath of
God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer "under"
wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in
the concrete and thereby "placates" God. When, that is, we are caught in
the act so that we are caught by the act. God reaches his goal.

From Word and World 3/1, (c) 1983 by Word &
, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Even now, almost ten years after the first time I read those words, I'm swept up by the power and passion of the God in whom Forde believed. These words, more than just about anything else, have shaped the course of my life over the past ten years. Because of them, I've learned to recognize genuine mercy when it happens. Because of them, I've realized that it was no "they" who put the Son of God to death: it was "WE." These words and thousands more like them have left me with a great impatience for abstraction and a great love for concrete theology: words and thoughts of God which actually seek to proclaim and present the Creator, Son and Spirit in all their "reckless, raging fury." (quoting another of my favorite theologians there - Rich Mullins)

Only a concrete, actual God who tears apart theories and equations can get to us. Only a God who intrudes on our sinfulness in wrath and refuses to leave the dead in the grave can provide hope. You want concrete? You want strong mercy? How's this: God came to earth in Jesus of Nazareth, forgiving sins and proclaiming the good news of God's mercy for all people, and Jesus would not be put off that message; not by our sarcasm, our fear, our hatred or even our violence and murderous refusal to do things our way. "God has made a decision about you," Dr. Forde always said, "whether you like it or not." "I have come for the sinners," says Jesus, "and you're one of them." Thanks be to God - mercy is on the way.

The artwork is "The One Who Had Mercy" by Christopher Koelle of 12Stone Art.

27 February 2009

Lenten Devotions: It's Ministry, Stupid

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully." 2 Timothy 4.1-5

I was almost out the door to the coffee house where I write my sermons on Thursday when the phone rang. Do I answer it? Yes.

"Pastor Scott?"


"This is Guy"

'Guy' is someone who's come to us for aid before. He's not taking advantage of us - I bought him a tank of gas a few months ago and he mailed a check after he got his paycheck the next week. But I was in a hurry.

"How are you, Guy?"

"I'm pretty good. But my wife is on her way home from Minnesota, and the weather is gonna keep her up there overnight, and we're out of food. My daughter is diabetic, and I don't have a car. I was wondering if you or someone you know could give me a ride to the grocery store. I've got money - I just don't have any way to get there."

*sigh* I don't have time for this. I don't want to waste the next twenty minutes driving Guy around. I need to get to work on my sermon. Maybe one of the students could do it? [looking around - no students in the building] *sigh*

Guy lives in a run-down apartment building less than six blocks from our house. That six blocks might as well be six miles - the neighborhood visibly declines with each passing street. He's got four kids in that apartment with him and his wife. He is scratching by, worried about the economic times, but proud of his daughter, who's been hospitalized off and on for various health reasons in her short life. We talked about lots of things in the ten minutes of driving on our way to and from the market. His job. His past. What he hopes to do next. I hope he can make it, but I don't know if his plans will work. I'm just hoping things don't get worse for him and his family.

I shake his hand before he gets out of the car, and he thanks me for the lift. I tell him he's lucky he caught me, as I was just about out of the building. I don't tell him I didn't want to help him - I'm ashamed of it myself. Did I think the sermon was the thing today?

Paul wrote, "Carry out your ministry fully." God help me to remember what I'm sometimes trying so desperately hard to forget.

26 February 2009

Lenten Devotion: Learning the Way

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Psalm 25.8-10

I remember reading an interview with some famous musician, and the interviewer asking him/her: "When did you learn to play the _____________?" And the musician answered, "I'm still learning."

There is value in realizing that we are never "done" learning anything. My mother has been cooking for more years than I care to remember. She grew up in a Nebraska farming family where meal prep was Mom's work (and, by extension, any child who wasn't old enough to work outside as well). She was a Home Economics teacher until the year I was born. She cooked most of the meals for our family When I was about 10, she took a job as a cook at a local hospital, and by the time I graduated from high school she'd been promoted to Dietary Supervisor. She's worked in kitchens for most of her life. But she's still learning. She's still trying out new recipes, and sharing them with us when they work well.

There was never a moment where we were allowed to say, "I can't cook." From what I can remember, in Mom's opinion we just hadn't learned properly yet, and faithful practice would yield increased learning and better cooking. Is it any wonder I have a weight problem? :-)

Notice the first verse in the psalm text above. "[God] instructs sinners in the way." Not "the righteous." Not "the perfect." Not "those who've got their shit together." Sinners. The flawed. The broken. Those who've come to the end of their belief they can do it themselves. This is what it means to be humble: to accept instruction and believe that One who knows is seeking to impart wisdom worth learning.

For this psalmist, God is like my Mom: one who loves righteousness and seeks to teach the children the way of righteousness. Just as many of my first cooking attempts were disasters, so also we often stray from the way; but God's steadfast love (hesed, the word pictured here in Hebrew) won't leave us in our ignorance.

I'm still learning to cook. I'm still learning to preach, to read, to play music, to sing, to live. And God, full of steadfast love, is still instructing this sinner in The Way. Thanks be to God.

25 February 2009

Ash Wednesday: Repent

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping and with mourning;
Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Joel 2.12-13

Today is Ash Wednesday. That one verse above struck me as worthy of consideration today: "rend your hearts and not your clothing." It reminds me of something my Dad once told me: "I wish you'd say 'I'm sorry' a whole lot less and mean it a whole lot more."

I once thought of "I'm sorry" as my personal get-out-of-jail-free card. Overslept and missed my punch-in time at work? "I'm sorry." Got lazy and neglected to feed the pigs for a couple of days? "I'm sorry." Started up the tractor and drove right into a telephone pole, breaking the oil line and making a huge mess? "I'm sorry." (All three of those events happened, but the last one only once.)

Today, after many years, I've finally learned what my Dad was trying to teach me. I don't say "I'm sorry" as much these days; and, as a result, it does mean a lot more when I do say it. I don't waste a lot of time telling people what a lousy excuse for a human being I am. I spend a lot more time trying to tend to the things I can control and doing my best to be good to the people around me. And, most importantly, I'm learning to live more truthfully. I'm learning to be honest about myself, about my family, about my work, about what it means to be human and to know that if I'm going to have a God, why not go for the real deal instead of some lousy man-made substitute?

Penitence has its value, but like everything else, it can become an idol that draws us away from the living God. This Ash Wednesday, I will again confess that I have sinned against God, but God already knows that. I will take the sign of ashes for myself, as a reminder that I will die, but also as a sign that I'm not dead yet; there is life to be lived, and any discipline I take up should serve to make that life more truthful and more faithful.

Repent me, merciful Father. Turn me toward You; draw me to You, until even penitence is left behind and my rent heart finds its life in You. Amen.

If anyone knows the sculptor of the beautiful statue above, please let me know - the website where I found it did not attribute the sculptor.

20 February 2009

Old Wounds & Bad Dreams

I had a terrible dream last night. I mean, AWFUL. I don't remember what it was about, really, only that it involved a girl with whom I was absolutely infatuated my senior year of high school and my last week of music camp. Long story short, she wanted friendship, nothing more (in fact, that's pretty much my entire romantic history until Beloved came along), and eventually I got over the crush and we were pretty good friends in college.

But last night she was there, in my dreams, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. Don't worry, it was nothing crude or gross. All I remember is seeing her sitting in the back pew of a church where I was preaching, holding a toddler and smiling wistfully, and a feeling of utter, complete despondency swept over me. Then I woke up. There was more to the dream, a lot more, but I don't remember any of it, only that last, terrible moment.

This isn't the first time this has happened. As a matter of fact, I have these dreams about once a month, with all kinds of people in the starring role: FW, old girlfriends, girls I wanted to date but never did, you name it: everybody gets their moment in the lunatic limelight of my nightmares. I don't understand it at all, but every time it happens I wake up with the same feeling: utter, complete loss and abandonment, followed by a heaving sigh of relief when I realize it was just a dream.

My response is always the same: roll over, snuggle up to Beloved, and remind myself that these dreams can't truly hurt me. Sometimes she wakes up and realizes what's going on, sometimes she doesn't. But I always tell her in the morning, and she always does the same thing: she wraps her arms around me and tells me she loves me. I truly have much in my life for which I'm thankful, but the #1 item on that list is always my beautiful, wonderful partner, who takes me as I am and has never once asked me to be someone I'm not, and for that I'm truly, truly blessed.

I don't understand what these dreams are doing. I'm neither Freudian or Jungian, I'm not a psychoanalyst at all, but I know there's something being purged in these dreams. Old hurts I've long since forgotten, perhaps, but still bleeding nonetheless? Just one side effect of being a person who really can't hide my emotions, complicated by taking a calling where my emotions can get me into trouble? A side effect of depression? (I'm on some mild anti-depressants due to some troubling signs last summer) Hard to say. But, when daylight comes, I'm reminded that they are only dreams, and in the end, whatever they may signify, the truth is who I am in my waking hours: a blessed husband who loves his wife and his girls very, very much, and a person who's tried to live my life as honestly as possible for quite some time now. If bad dreams are the price I have to pay for being who I am, I'm willing to pay it, because who I am came about because of the situations reflected in those dreams, even the bad ones, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

I would, however, like to sleep well tonight, Lord. I'm just sayin'...

Grace & peace,

The painting is "The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli, c. 1782.

19 February 2009

Best of Times, Worst of Times (Warning: Explicit Language)

Yeah, it's been one of those days.

I had a great time at Theology Pub tonight. Good conversation, good give and take, good beer - what's not to like? Ten people showed up and we enjoyed each other's company while we talked about fertility treatments, welfare, mental illness and the church (guess which story occasioned the discussion points?).

But the whole way there I was seething at a situation that's been building all week for a dear friend of mine. It involves an overbearing parent taking every single opportunity to mis-hear, mis-communicate and be offended by whatever explanation my friend can offer. Forget meeting halfway - this half-wit has now asked for my friend to be fired. Normally I try to see things on both sides of the issue, but I know this friend, I know the situation the friend has described and I know that there is absolutely no way this is my friend's fault, no way at all.

It's stuff like this that makes me want to tell the church to go fuck itself sometimes. And there you have the eternal problem facing everyone who makes their living tending to people Jesus loves and everyone else thinks is an asshole.

Yeah, that's crude, but I don't care - I needed to blow off some steam. Thanks for letting me vent.



EDITED FRIDAY MORNING: Now it's two families that are putting it to my friend, who is now pretty much bewildered at the reaction. I've been a part of what this friend has done in the past, and I've never seen a reaction like this, either. I'm rapidly moving from shock to anger, and will say no more just so's I can keep a level head.

EDITED FRIDAY AFTERNOON: My friend has been asked to resign. Pray for my friend, and for the people who forced my friend out of a job about which my friend cared a great deal.

16 February 2009

Tending the Garden

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." Genesis 2
It was really quiet when I got the the Center this morning at 8:30. I took advantage of an interruption in internet access to do some puttering and pottering around the Center.

One of my projects here is to 'green the place up,' for lack of a better word. It's a pretty sterile building, so I've kept my eyes on plant sales and picked up a few over the past few months. We started with some palms for the sanctuary, and a pothos which is currently taking off like crazy. Then about a month ago I was at Lowe's and saw a rack of spider plant hanging baskets on sale for $5. I snapped two of those bad boys up, one for the Center and one for the house.

Here's two great things about both pothos (pothoi?) and the spider plants: they are almost impossible to kill, and they both produce lots of opportunities for offspring. The spider plant was ready to be split when I bought it, and finally last Friday one of our students stopped by, split the plant and showed me how to pinch off and prepare plantings for the next generation of spider plants. Soon, I hope, we'll be greening up a storm around here.

There is something wonderful about tending plants like this. I watch them grow around our house (if I can keep the cats out of them, that is) and marvel and the variety and power of what God creates. I feel, very strongly, the call to stewarding the creation which God made part of our very being, according to Genesis 2. Some of my best days are those in which I can tend to this little corner of creation God has entrusted to Kristin and me: pruning, planting, watering, mowing, weeding, composting - all of that work is balm for my soul. Today I spent some time tending to this place's need for life, too - and I hope that as we support the growth of the plant life around here, it will reciprocate and help us feel as if this is a growing place for people, too. I want that very much, and I don't think it's out of the question to hope it might happen just like that.

Monday Song (oops): Boulder River

12 February 2009

To Forgive And Be Forgiven

I got one hell of an email the other day.

It was from my ex-wife, who I'll call FW here (because Ex seems needlessly cruel to me, frankly). An email by itself is not an uncommon occurrence for us. After a few years of letting the wounds heal and properly focusing on building good relationships with second spouses, FW and I started emailing occasionally, exchanging Christmas cards, etc. We're not buddies, but we're not strangers, either.

I'm grateful for that, actually: plenty of others are bitter or angry with ex-spouses, generally with cause, but somehow FW and I been able to spare each other the recrimination and angst that sometimes comes with the break-up of a marriage.

All the same, divorce is never pretty, and ours was no exception. We said and did a lot of things we came to regret, and put friends and family in some really unpleasant circumstances. But time does heal wounds, at least partially, and we've been peacefully co-existing for a goodish while now.

So, come forward to earlier this week, when I received an email from her about that awful time, asking for my forgiveness and offering the same to me. For my part, I'd been living in what I can only call practical forgiveness for some time: I bore FW no ill will, prayed for her as she dealt with some adverse health situations, and genuinely celebrated as she found joy. I'd venture to say that the same went for her, too. But the words "I forgive you." never entered the equation, until that email popped into my box the other day, and even though we'd been living forgiven for quite a while, something did indeed change in the actual speaking of the words (well, typing, anyway). The words are indeed performative, as we always said in seminary: they do what they say, and upon speaking and hearing the word "forgive," the very reality in which we live changed forever.

Jesus says in Matthew 11, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." For years, I thought that Jesus meant exchanging the yoke and burden of sin and doubt for the yoke and burden of faith. I still think that's what he's talking about. But I think Jesus also meant forgiveness, because to forgive someone is to free yourself of the burden of your anger and hurt, to lay it down and take up the new yoke of freedom. Incidentally, that new yoke is much heavier at the start, but as we practice forgiveness it becomes more and more a part of us and less and less something we bear externally.

Forgiveness: laying down a burden you didn't realize you were carrying, to take up another you never knew you needed to bear. Yep: that'll work for today.

Grace and peace,

10 February 2009

The UnBlogable Day

No, it's not what you might think. Today has actually been a really, really good day. But it has been so full that I haven't had time to blog about any of it, even though I've had several "that'll blog" moments, including:

  • The 'full circle' lectionary study this afternoon;
  • Driving with my windows down in February;
  • Generous congregations continuing to rise out of nowhere to support campus ministry;
  • Holy time spent in discernment with one of our students at a local coffee shop (yes, one might say we were on "holy grounds");
  • A truly excellent run;
  • A remarkable email I received from my ex-wife;
  • The mystery of Sunday's worship service; and
  • Tonight's realization that the church REALLY needs more teachers like Rob Bell.

That's just a few of the "that'll blog" moments from today. I might get to some of them this week. I might not. Right now, it's time to sip a beer, read the evening paper and find my way to bed before I fall asleep in the recliner downstairs. Good night, friends.

08 February 2009

Whoever You Are, Wherever You're Grieving, Thank You

I don't know you. But I know you're hurting, more than you ever thought possible, and for what it's worth, I want you to know how sorry I am for you.

You've been forced to say goodbye to someone you loved very deeply, who was taken far too soon. Perhaps it was a car accident, or the end of an illness that was too much to overcome. I don't know. Most likely, I'll never know. But I can't imagine the grief you feel right now.

However, in the midst of all that sorrow and pain, you made a choice to give others a chance at the life your beloved will never know. For that, I must say, "Thank you." You see, your gift is going to someone very dear to me and my family, and it's all because you were willing to let others be helped when the person you loved was beyond help.

I know it doesn't make your grief any less. Believe me, if I could, I'd take that pain away from you. No one should have to suffer the way you're suffering now. I just wanted you to know that what you did was noble and gracious, and we don't have the words to tell you what a blessing you've become to us.

So, friend, whoever you are, wherever you're grieving tonight, if it will ease your pain at all, we say, "Thank you." May the angels who surround you give you whatever comfort they can give to ease the pain of your grief. We will hold you and your family in our prayers. God bless you.

For more information on becoming an organ donor, click here.

06 February 2009

Saturday Songs: Madeline's Song

My Favorite Music

The Friday Five this week at RevGals is about our favorite things. I'm going to change the 'assignment' just a bit to point out some cool music that I really love.

First up is Storyhill, who I first heard on a date with Beloved before we were married. I think I might have posted this song here before, but I don't care - I just love their music and could listen all day long.

Second is Justin Roth performing "Dead Horse Trampoline." Justin did a house concert in Barrett when we lived there, and we're hoping to get him to come and do the same at the Lutheran Center sometime next year. He's a fabulously talented guitarist in addition to being a good singer, as you can see from "Bagshot Row" which follows "DHT."

Third is Peter Mayer, who I first heard when someone gave a disc of his stuff to Kristin. He's another remarkably talented guitarist; both Peter and Justin Roth have studied "finger-tap" style guitar with Billy McLaughlin. "Birthday Party" shows off his skills as a songwriter and a guitarist:

Fourth is the Wailin' Jennys, singing "One Voice," which I believe is now available in choral arrangement, for those of you who lead or sing in such groups. We heard the Jennys at the Minnesota State Fair on A Prairie Home Companion, came home and downloaded an album from iTunes. Beautiful voices, indeed!

Finally, KT Tunstall. You probably heard "Black Horse" on the radio over the last couple of years. I heard her perform the song live on NPR Weekend Edition and couldn't believe one person could make this much great music with a guitar, tambourine, loop machine and voice. But she can, and here's living proof:

You'll notice that all of these are live performances. I've discovered over the past few years that I really don't like studio music that much. Frankly, if it requires a computer and several folks standing offstage to make your music work, I'm just not that interested. But if you do stuff that requires only an instrument and/or your voice, I'll give a listen. It's just who I am these days, I guess.

So, that's five favorite musicians this week. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my absolute favorite thing - my girls:

Life is good, for sure.

03 February 2009

The Day The Music Died

Fifty years ago today, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash after playing a gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. But we all know the music never really dies, right?

01 February 2009

The Sermon - Yes, I Posted One Last Sermon

People who speak truly for God do so with an acute sense of the audacity of
what they are attempting. They sense the presumption inherent in claiming to
speak for God. Who in their right mind would make such claims given the
combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability? Every sane preacher
experienced the dread and adrenaline shock of the preposterous task — in
stumbling and bumbling way to speak a word that is true to God.1

Okay, so count me as one of those who shares the fear and trembling with which we approach the work of speaking on behalf of God. Sometimes it feels like these 15 to 20 minutes every week are the height of presumption. And, unfortunately, some of us preachers take that time and make it sound something like this:

So, that's who we want to avoid this morning, right? Do you get the point, that there's no such thing as a magic Jesus? I ask you this because I struggle with that myself. The leap from honest intercessory prayer to the magic Jesus 8-ball is, unfortunately, a short leap. I want Jesus to be someone who heals the people I love. I want Jesus to be someone who repairs the broken relationships in my life. I want Jesus to be a peacemaker, someone who cares about all the things I care about, who hates the things I hate and will do everything possible to solve my problems. And Jesus is indeed all of these things. Except when He's not.

There's a saying that goes around us pastor-types: "you know you've created God in your own image when God loves everyone you love and hates everything you hate." That's one kind of idolatry. Here's another one: you know you've created a magic Jesus God when you expect that every illness you pray about will be healed, and every problem you bring to God will be solved in a manner of your liking.

That's what a lot of preachers are selling these days, and let's face it: when unemployment is at its highest in thirty years, one thing that's going to sell really well is a God who "wants to give you a blessing," usually in the form of success or money or something material. But I'm going to risk being presumptuous this morning and tell you something I believe is true: there is no such thing as a magic Jesus, and the sooner we understand that, the sooner our lives can be filled with something far greater than magic.

Our gospel reading for today contains the first healing miracle in the gospel of Mark. There will be many healing miracles in these first few chapters, and they happen quickly. One word that happens over and over again in Mark's gospel is euquv", or "immediately;" Jesus moves fast and does a lot of good in Capernaum and other cities on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But look again at the gospel reading for today. Who comes to whom in this story? Does Jesus seek out the man possessed, or do the demons drive the man to Jesus? This story opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue; the healing, in some ways, seems accidental, something that happened to prove the validity of what Jesus was teaching, and I think our desire for the fantastic leads us looking in the wrong direction. The power of the exorcism described here obscures the story of Jesus teaching, which I think is the far greater point of the story.

Jesus is described as teaching exousiva, or "out of himself." In Jesus' time, rabbis and scribes proved their intelligence and the strength of their teaching through citation: the more learned scholars you could cite, the stronger your argument would be. But Jesus didn’t teach like that. In this gospel reading we hear that the people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority. Some examples of this come from Matthew’s gospel:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed lust with her in his heart…

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

This is the kind of teaching that amazed the people of Capernaum – Jesus taught out of Himself. Jesus made no appeal to precedent in His teaching: His words stood on their own power, and the power of Jesus’ relationship with His Father, and the people stood amazed, because carpenters from Nazareth didn’t have the authority to teach as Jesus taught. To teach like this, a man would have to be possessed. The question is: is it the Spirit of God or an unclean spirit doing the possessing here? For us, the answer seems simple: but we have the weight of centuries, tradition and the Scriptures to point us in the right direction. To be there, on that day, we would have been hard pressed to know what was really going on.

Here is what I believe with all my heart, soul, mind and strength: it IS the authority of the Father that Jesus holds within Himself. Deuteronomy tells us that the authority and power of the Father is a great and powerful thing. Moses asked God to stay hidden, because the people couldn’t stand to see God the Father in all his might and glory – it was too overwhelming. And God promised to do so. As James Healy puts it, “[God] kept God’s word. Inviting obedience to God’s plan, God expressed authority through [the prophets]. At last God sent Jesus, not in thunder and lightning, but in our fragile flesh. And Jesus used authority to liberate and lift up, not to put down; to empower and encourage, not to intimidate and oppress. Forever Jesus’ rightful claim to authority would be his utter surrender as servant of God’s people and his challenge to oppressors. And his perfect act of obedience…would be the ultimate act of freedom.” 2

This is why I don’t believe in a magic Jesus. Jesus' authority comes from his RELATIONSHIP to the Father: close, intimate, unflinchingly honest. It has nothing to do with special powers, and it certainly has nothing to do with providing any sort of ‘blessing’ to those who pray hard enough. That’s not a particularly comforting thought, I know, but I believe it’s true nonetheless. Does Jesus heal? Yes. Does Jesus help us in our fight against the powers that try to hold us captive? Yes. But the fight is ongoing, and sometimes healing can be very hard to recognize.

Why is it that some are miraculously healed while others are not? I don’t know. Why is it I met Kristin when I was 29, while my friend Nate met his wife when they were both 14? I don’t know. Even with every unexplained moment of evil in our lives, every unhealed illness, every broken heart, every wounded spirit, I believe God has created this world out of unfailing love and unending, unbroken promise, and Jesus is the living embodiment of that promise. Did Jesus heal? Absolutely, but more importantly, Jesus loved, and continues to love. There is no sleight of hand here, not flash of gunpowder, no rabbits being pulled out of the hat – love doesn’t work like that. Love has to be real – love has to have flesh and blood – love is shown best when it stands with us THROUGH pain and sorrow and reminds us that we are not alone.

Don Juel wrote a commentary on Mark for Augsburg Fortress in 1990. His title for these verses was “The Battle is Joined.” The Gospel of Mark begins with a fight, and it is a fight for the rest of the way, but that fight is between a God who loves and a people who want a magician. God has called us to listen for the voice of love, to recognize the voice of Jesus healing our hearts and calling us out of the darkness into the light of his presence. Love, not magic, is the name of the game; be amazed at that love, friends, and trust in all that it promises, now and forever. Amen.

1: Clendenin, Daniel. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20090126JJ.shtml

2: Healy, James K. © 1994 National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1994.