Sunday, April 17, 2011

“A Humble Prayer” - Luke 18:9-14 - April 17, 2011

The crowds shouted out; “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” I can image the disciples walking behind the colt of Jesus relishing in the moment. They had been harassed and challenged at every turn. Now the crowd embraced them. This was Jesus’ moment! This was their moment!

Jesus understood this scene differently. He knew how fickle the crowd was. They came full of their own hopes and expectations. They knew what kind of savior they wanted him to be. They own religious traditions so defined their experience that could not see Jesus – and they could not image he had come not to change a governmental system, but to change them. He knew that they did not understand and would turn on his in a matter of just a couple of days. The disciples saw this as a day of triumph. Jesus knew it was a parade that would ultimately lead him to a cross.

Jesus had tried to help them understand from the day of his baptism to this spontaneous parade of religious passion. Some time earlier he had gathered Peter and the other disciples around him. Those walking with them gathered close to hear what he was saying. They wanted to know more about the way of God. Jesus taught them with a parable. It invited us to be a quiet imaginary witness two very different acts of faith. Let me warn you in advance, as quickly as we hear that the two central characters of the parable are a Pharisee and a tax collector it will be easy for those of us who have the around church for any length of time to presume that the a negative view of the Pharisee and a positive view of the tax collector, But, it is important to remember that the original audience would have heard the story from a 180 degree perspective. They would “presuppose a positive image for the Pharisee and a negative image for the tax collector.” (1)So, to help us hear this story like those first listeners would have heard it, let me recast the story using characters that we can relate to.

Instead of hearing the word “Pharisee”, I want to invite you to imagine that the person is a key leader in the church of your youth. This leader is named Bob Pharisee and is the picture of devotion. Not only is he there every time the church doors are open, he was the one that opened them. He was probably the one that turned on the coffee pot for his Men’s Sunday School Class. When you needed someone to serve as a committee chair for an important task, your church called on Bob. In regards to the Bob Pharisee, “no one can doubt his disciplined adherence to the moral and ethical code of his faith. He is the faithful, dependable, tithing type who pays the salaries of ministers so they can preach.” (2) The only problem is that Bob thinks of himself as a gift to the God and the church rather than one who needs God and the support of the church family.

Instead of hearing the word “tax collector,” I want to invite you to think of him as Jim Traitor. He is the neighbor whose yard is a mess and that the rest of the neighborhood is always whispering about. You just know that he is a conniver and a crook. He has money, but you know it is because he has conned and exploited others. Imagine that Jim works “for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean, a reprehensible character.

If you listen closely you will understand that the parable of Jesus would have been scandalous – turning the comfortable and expected cultural norms on their heads. Let’s listen in. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Did you notice the target of Jesus’ parable? Our passage begins, He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Our translation chooses to use the English word “contempt.” I am not sure that this word fully captures the word that Luke uses in the Greek to report the words of Jesus. It might be better understood if we heard that the righteous in the parable “utterly despised” those they thought were their lesser and “treated others as of if they were of no account.” (3) Jesus wanted a religious audience to understand a danger that they faced…that it could be hard to be righteous.

Hear the words of the Pharisee. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' These word are almost shocking to us but we need to understand that that the Pharisee followed all the cultural religious rules and expectations – the only problem is while he satisfied the expectations of the crowd – we would soon hear that he had fallen short of what God has in mind. At the birth of the twentieth century a British scholar named Alfred Plummer did a commentary on Luke that still stands as one of the finest ever produced. In his review of this text he noted that as the Pharisee comes to pray, that “There is no prayer, even in form; he asks God for nothing, being thoroughly satisfied with his present condition. And only in form is this utterance a thanksgiving; it is self-congratulation. He glances at God, but contemplates himself. Indeed he almost pities God, who but for himself would be destitute of faithful servants.” (4)Can you imagine that anyone could come to the place that they thought God was fortunate to have them as a follower? The danger with being righteous, is the temptation to become self-righteous. The problem for the Pharisee is not that he was religious, but it was that he had forgotten whom he was supposed to worship. When we come into this room to worship, do we come because we know we need to have a fresh encounter with God – or because we believe that God and the church needs us?

With the Pharisees prayer floating in the air, Jesus claims a character from the other end of the social and religious spectrum. 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' The contrast of the stance of the two could not be more profound. The tax collector stands at a distance. He knows he is unworthy of God’s attention. He is clear he needs God, not the other way around. He knows his only hope is for God to respond to him with mercy. He offers a prayer born in humility – a prayer that makes the way for God to change him and make a way for him. The crowd around Jesus would have wanted to celebrate the Pharisee and would want justice – not mercy for the tax collector.

Then Jesus says something they would have heard as scandalous. “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." In a single sentence Jesus turns religious tradition on its head. He teaches that it is not about our place in culture, how others perceive us, or even our religious expectations or traditions. Regardless who we are or where we fit in the world, the only way to come to God is to strips away everything else and come to God bare, calling out in humility, seeking the power of God’s mercy.

As we sing the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and begin our journey into the streets of Jerusalem toward the cross and the Easter empty tomb we need strip down our expectations and come ready to have an honest encounter with Jesus. We must make sure that our heart is a heart that seeks to be made right with God. Our songs must be born in an authentic humility – a humility that confesses that we need God’s mercy – we need a Savior. May we settle for nothing less. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

(1)Nolland, J. 1998. Vol. 35B: Word Biblical Commentary : Luke 9:21-18:34 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Word Biblical Commentary. Word, Incorporated: Dallas
(2)Craddock, F. B. 1990. Luke. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching . John Knox Press: Louisville, Ky.
(3) Plummer, A. 1896. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke . T&T Clark International: London
(4) Ibid.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Recommendation – Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos

Occasionally I post a book review of a book I have read recently. But, today I want to offer a book recommendation rather than a book review. The reason for the shift in approach is that this is a lesser known book and it I want to more a more informal style to focus on the why I think it is worth the read, rather than to analyze its content. I read the book along with some other friends in a pastoral peer group. I do not know if I would have run across it without the recommendation of a member of the group – but I am glad I did.

The book I want to recommend is Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos. It is religious fiction with several powerful theological connect points. This is not one of the theological allegories like I encountered in my fundamentalist youth. Is a fun and lively read where significant truths emerge. It is written in a style that makes it accessible to both people of faith in Christ and those outside of faith who are seeking spiritual truth. The heart of the author’s premise is that we have all at some level shaped our perception of Jesus on who we are and how we see the world and our need to seek the real Jesus. As the story unfolds, Matt rather comically introduces you to a wide range of images of the Jesus that our religious and social culture crafts to meet their own agendas. As you laugh at some of the images, you discover others that can make you feel a bit uncomfortable because they look like the kind Jesus you have fashioned for yourself – whatever that looks like in your life story. The book also confronts the struggle to deal with suffering and invites you into a Communion experience with Peter and Mary built around them claiming time not to just talk about remembering – but claiming time to really remember the life, the ministry, and the gift of Jesus. You find the real Jesus in an intimate personal encounter far away from the flash and the polish of the cultural creations.

Yesterday morning my pastoral peer group was able to stage a Skype call with Matt. He gave us the opportunity to pepper him with some of our questions and answered us with the same honesty and humor that pulses through the book. I am glad for the encounter with Imaginary Jesus and its author. I look forward to using it in a small group context in our church in the days ahead. I highly recommend it to you.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Friday, April 8, 2011

“In the Eye of the Storm” - Mark 4:35-41 - April 10, 2011

• The airplane hits an air pocket and suddenly drops ten or more feet, your stomach freezes, wondering what will happen next. • You are new to Oklahoma and you hear the tornado siren goes off on a Saturday at noon. You do not know what his happening – no one else seems concerned but you wonder what will happen next. • In one of our recent blizzards you find yourself stuck in your house and the lights start flickering. You wonder what will happen if the power go out. You wonder how you will stay warm in heater goes silent. • The doctor comes in the room. Her face seems sterner than the last time you spoke. She starts, “I do not like what I see in these test results. It looks like we have a problem.” • When the flood waters hit last summer, you found yourself hydroplaning toward an intersection. No matter how hard you hit the brakes they do not respond. You look and you see an oncoming truck. You wonder if the car will stop. You wonder what will happen if it doesn’t. • In moments like these we feel out of control. We don’t know what will happen next. The taste of fear fills our mouths. We wonder, we wait, and we tremble. Sometimes we hear ourselves crying out, “Oh God, please help me!”

This morning we find Peter and the other disciples floating in a boat, leaving behind a series of stories of changed lives. A litany of broken people with broken lives had come to Jesus and found healing at his side. Jesus had loved, and taught and healed and it was time to move on to another place. On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. Jesus had them heading across the Sea of Galilee and something happened that would shape Peter and the other disciples forever. It seems to come out of nowhere. The Sea of Galilee was known for its sudden and severe storms. The disciples run right into one. The storm rises, the boat is tossed, and Jesus sleeps. The storm grows in intensity. You can fell the waves crashing against the side of the boat. The waves slosh into the boat. You can fell the water’s weight and see it growing deeper with every single second. The disciples understood the danger of what was happening to them. They thought they were about to lose the boat. They thought they might drown. They were terrified because the situation was completely out of control. They were frustrated because there was Jesus – asleep in the bow of the boat. You can feel their fear. You can feel their anxiety. David Garland, in one of his commentaries on Mark, cannot help but note the irony that these weathered veteran professional fishermen were terrified by the storm and the rising water in the boat – and the carpenter’s son lay unfazed asleep. Peter and the disciples know something has to happen – something has to change The NIV reads; they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, don’t you care we are about to drown?" Eugene Peterson’s interpretative translation, The Message, tells it this way, They roused him, saying, "Teacher, is it nothing to you that we're going down?" They were clear that Jesus had cared for others, but in their moment of crisis they were not sure that Jesus would care for them.

In a panic they cry out to Jesus. They had been called to follow Jesus. They had listened to him teach. They had watch him heal and caste out demons. But they still did not understand Jesus’ power. They still did not understand that they were in the boat with God. In my mind’s eye I can see Jesus as he stirs. There is Peter hovering over him. His feelings of terror are written all over his face. Our passage tells us; He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Mark wants it clear. The storm did not subside. It stopped immediately! The Greek here is more graphic than the English can convey. It is not he pious “Peace! Be Still! “Hershel Hobbs tells us that Jesus literally says to the wind is “Be muzzled” Or in a more contemporary vernacular, “muzzle it!” Jesus told the wind to muzzle it and the wind stopped immediately without even a whimper.

With the storm handled, Jesus turns to address his trembling disciples. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Jesus had been tugged, pulled on, caste out demons, healed the sick, and taught the crowd about the way of God. Another crowd was waiting for Jesus on the other shore. The journey across the sea was Jesus’ time to rest and recover. After all Peter and the disciples had seen and heard, they still did not understand that it was God in the boat with them all along. It is easy to take a shot at the disciples because of their fear and their lack of faith. But, you and I know that when we find ourselves out of control; tossed about and in seized by fear in the eye of a storm in life that we too can sometimes we feel like God is asleep.

We too can sometimes feel that God does not understand the pain and the agony we are feeling. Our reality is that storms are a part of life. Sometimes we think that our boat is going to get swamped and sink. Our temptation is to think that we are the only ones to face a storm or believe we are facing the storm all alone. Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. It was received by a church in the midst of persecution and struggle. Many felt like they were going to die before God heard their cry. I think part of the reason God led Mark to share this story was to tell them – and to tell us - that God is present and is stronger than the storm. While God’s timing is not always like ours – God is with us and can and will respond. God stills the seas – even if is not the way we would choose. God wants us to replace fear with faith. It’s hard!!!!! Fear seems more natural for us. We like control. We like to know what’s ahead. We like it when life’s waters are calm. We get nervous – even fearful when we feel the storm’s wind begin to blow. We sometimes tremble when we see the waves cresting over bow. But sometimes it takes a dramatic storm for us to understand that God has been in the boat with us all along.

And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" God’s power to still the storms is a promise worth claiming – we are not alone – we will not drown – God is with us, even with the pain of the storm of emotions seems unbearable. So where are you? Are you on the way from one shore to another? Do you feel the wind blowing? Are you in the middle of a raging storm feeling like you are about to lose everything? God does not promise us the waters of life will be calm. But hear the good news! God is in the boat with us and has been all along. It is time for fear to give way to faith and for us to claim the peace that only God can offer. Amen.

(1) David E. Garland, “Mark,” The NIV Application Commentary, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1996),p.191. (2) Hershel H. Hobbs, An Exposition of the Gospel of Mark, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1970), p.78.

Friday, April 1, 2011

“A Solitary Place” - Mark 1:35-39 - April 3, 2011

I always get nervous when I hear someone tell a story with phrases like; “a friend of mine told me about…,” or “I heard about…,” or “there is a story about…” I cannot help but think of a game I learned in my childhood called “Telegraph” or “Gossip.” Maybe you played it too. The teacher would have us sit in a circle and she would whisper something in someone’s ear and they would turn and whisper what they heard into the next person’s ear and so on and so on until the words reached the last person in the circle who would stand up and tell us what they had heard. Every time we would laugh out loud when we heard how different what the last person said was from what the teacher had first said. With every telling of a single sentence it seems it was twisted and turned just a little bit so that the final words were almost unrecognizable to the original.This childhood game taught a lot of truth. It is important we go directly to the source when we want to hear a story with clarity. I want to claim this truth for our journey from here to Easter. So, for the next four weeks I want to hear the voice of one witness describing their walk with Jesus. I want to hear from one who could tell us about the kind of man Jesus was and the kind of Savior Jesus is for the world. For the next four weeks I want to us to hear from Peter.

I choose Peter because I think he looks a lot like us. He has moments when his faith is strong and other moments when he stumbles, bumbles, and falls. Peter means well but sometimes his temper gets in his way. He wants to be faithful, but sometimes old fashioned fear causes him to doubt. He wants to be like Jesus but sometimes his desire to get ahead pushes him to the back of the line. I think that the best character trait that I can see in Peter is that he available – he shows up and is ready to hear from Jesus. I really like Peter because in spite of his foibles and fumbles God works in him and through him. Peter has a lot to tell us about Jesus. In 2 Peter 1:16 we hear him declare; “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

This morning we start with a short but significant story. It tells us a lot about Jesus and even more about the kind of relationship we are called to as those who follow Jesus. We find it in the Book of Mark, Chapter 1, verses 35 through 39. In the NSRV it reads; In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon (Peter) and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons

This story invites us to Jesus’ side when the dew of the morning was still fresh on the grass. In the New Living Translation, we hear verse 35 offered more succinctly, 35Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. In his interpretive translation The Message, Eugene Peterson sees it this way, “While it was still night, way before dawn he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed.” What both translations drive home it that Jesus was up well before the normal movements of the day. Before the people in the house stirred, before there was movement on the town’s dirt streets, before most had even thought about waking, Jesus was up and out headed to a secluded place. Jesus got way from everyone, finding a quiet place where he could talk with the Father. In the predawn hours Jesus looked for and found a place to pray in peace and quiet, without distractions.

This is a reoccurring theme with Jesus. Luke 5:16 reads, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” There is something critically important about alone time in prayer. Jesus models it because it matters. If this made a difference in Jesus’ life how much more do we need this kind of time with God? If we are going to deepen our relationship with God and care for others we need time for renewal and refreshing. We need times when we can talk to God and listen for the voice of God. When was the last time you had time with God with no distractions? Thomas Merton is an American Trappist Monk who I have come to appreciate says this about spiritual solitude; “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.” In other words, times of solitude with God is something we have to look for, to plan, to make happen – not in some distant perfect moment in our spiritual journey – but in the now of our lives – in the midst of the chaos and confusion, demands and commitments.

Our story continues; 36 Later Simon (Peter) and the others went out to find him. 37 When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” As surely as Jesus withdrawing to quiet places for prayer was a part of the gospel story, so are the disciples and others coming looking for Jesus. Jesus had escaped the demands of others for a little while, but they would not let him linger there too long. The crowds beckoned him. They brought their own wants, needs, and agendas. They had pain and brokenness they wanted Jesus to address. There were people they loved that they wanted healed. They wanted Jesus. The disciples brought the word, Everyone looking for him….at least everyone they knew. I imagine that they expected Jesus to come back to town with them. They had witnessed so many remarkable miracles. I image that Peter and Andrew we proud of their new found status in their hometown as disciples of the healer Jesus. The whole city was at their door. I would imagine that they would expect that Jesus would come back and build on his success and new found notoriety in Capernaum.

They were in for a huge surprise. 38 But Jesus replied, “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them, too. That is why I came.” The disciples came to get Jesus in response to the crowd, but after his time alone in prayer, Jesus was clear that his message and ministry was not just for Capernaum; it was time to move on. He did not allow his ministry to be held hostage by the expectations of others, but rather moved boldly forward in the ministry set before him. “In contrast to that wonderful past in Capernaum, the future, roaming around Galilee was uncertain -- but that is what Jesus has been called to do. He will not walk the safe and seemingly successful way, but follow the way God has set before him. It will not always be what his disciples want. It will not always be with the people want. It will be what God has determined.” (1)

I think it is important for us to hear that this time in prayer was defining for Jesus. The time with the Father kept him focused on why he was here and what he was called to do. It is important for us to hear that we desperately need this same kind of time in prayer in a solitary place to make sure the voice we hear is the voice of God and not the voices of the crowd – or even those closest to us -calling us another way. It is easy to get caught of meeting the demands of the others. It is easy to let the demands of the “immediate” get in the way of what is most important. It is easy to get so caught up doing what is good that we miss doing what is bigger, what is the will of God. It is true for us as individuals and as a family of faith. We must make sure we stay tuned into the voice of God and stay focused on the mission and ministry that God has entrusted to us.

39 So he traveled throughout the region of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons. Jesus time in the quiet place set the tone for his ministry. He claimed time for spiritual recharge and rest. He claimed time for uninterrupted conversations with the Father. He claimed to refocus and step out in ministry. Jesus time in a quiet place served as the launching pad for his Galilean ministry and the many, many lives he would touch along the way. We live in a world filled with distractions. Our time is often so consumed by email, Facebook, texts, television, phone calls, business meetings, homework, appointments, after-school activities, and calendar demands of family and friends that miss quiet all together. We miss pausing long enough to hear God speak. We miss hearing God pointing us the right way. As we move from this moment toward Easter let us hear Peter’s witness and claim solitary time with God. I wonder what word he has for us. I wonder how we might experience this Easter season differently if the voice that claims our ear is the voice of God.

(1) Soffergen, Brian, “Exegetical notes at Crossmark: Mark 1:29-29” available at on February 18, 2009