From the Shadows Walks the Enemy

The evil is among us. It bides its time in shadow. It feeds, trades in subtleties, plays in encoded rhetoric, and waits for a moment to stride into the light. It hopes to command the day, hoping to have won enough to its sympathies through years of slow-burning lies and nudged hatred. It wields those tools, hoping they will work like water dripping through a cave hollows out some spaces and leaves deposits of minerals hanging from the ceiling and piled up on the floor. It uses small sufferings and inflates them, wishing to lead unsuspecting fools to see other people through the shadows of their own pain, and learn to see them as the source of blame.

Evil wants to turn the volume up on the anger of the self, on the arrogances of desire and rage. It seeks to drown out the cries of any other by a misguided sense of justice, by pettiness and by stringing together loose ideas that can only be connected by a will for the self.

When it comes into the light, some people will be repulsed by it, seeing it for the gross distortion it is. Others will feel themselves drawn to it, as by gravity, for they have been formed and groomed for the moment by ingesting a lot of poison, unconsciously. Others will see it and be perplexed, desperately looking for ways to see the turmoil as not all that much to be worried about.

The evil that was on display on Charlottesville this past weekend was not unique or new. It’s been here. It chose this particular moment to step into the light. It will claim its victims, do its harm, gather its sympathizers, then likely retreat again. It will hide, and seek to build its strength again for the next assault. The people who are the face of the darkest powers in this moment may not understand this strategy, and indeed many are emboldened to think that they are now coming into the light for good. I think they radically overestimate their hand, and that they will be forced to retreat again for a while, but I also believe it is very dangerous to underestimate both their capacity for harm and the evil that underlies it.

When evil comes into the light, it matters greatly how people respond to it. But it also matters immensely what we do when it retreats and hides. It matters greatly how we feed and nourish ourselves in the moments of relative peace. For how we are formed in those “meanwhiles” determines how we respond in the next moment of crisis.

Yo Racists: A Word to the Wickedness

It is super lame to put a veneer of intellectualism on something stupid, and to pretend something evil has a layer of morality. There is no nuancing away racism: if you feel like your race is superior to the others, or should have more rights or privileges or power than others, or will to side with people whose skin looks like yours, or think its best that your empowered race maintains institutional preference or control until things simmer down, those things are signs of the sin of racism. It’s a foolish affront to the Creator, and has caused massive injustice to flourish. Whenever we find it in our hearts, or face the shame of having someone else point it out in us, we are compelled to repent.

I hate it when I find it in myself, and I’d rather explain it away. But instead, I have to confess it, again and again. I have to repent, again and again. Oh Lord, may it, and all sin, be rooted out and destroyed!

Psalm 55: A Poem of Betrayal

The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.

One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.

The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.

The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:

My heart is in anguish within me,
    the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
    and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)

Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
    I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
    we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)

The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:

My companion laid hands on a friend
    and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
    but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
    but in fact were drawn swords.
(Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)

The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.

How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.

The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.

Psalm 2 and Power

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,

Or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 93, 110, 132, 144)  and as such celebrates the partnership between God and the Davidic king. The king becomes an instrument of God’s rule over the earth, not unlike the prototypical humans of Genesis 1, and is given the task of enforcing God’s will among the nations, bending the rebellious forces to submission before the Lord. All of this is a reflection of the divine sanctioning of the king’s power.

And yet, being good poetry, the Psalms also carries a subversive note as well. It calls out to the kings of the other nations to “be warned” and to “be  wise”, calling them to serve the Lord in the realization of their subordination to God’s own power.

Indeed, this call, though posed to the nations, is also before the king who sits in Jerusalem as well. God’s own king is only blessed (or “happy”), when he has taken refuge in the Lord. The form of the beatitude (“Blessed is the man who…”) helps pair the Psalm with the one before it, and Psalm 1 marks out the road that leads to blessing as sharply forked between those who take the path of the “wicked” and those whose attention is given to God’s instruction. the point of all this is that even the king of Judah, who has received power from God in partnership with God, must use that power in accordance with God’s own wisdom. Any power that fails to do this is doomed to “perish” as both of these first two psalms attest (Psalm 1:6, 2:11).

The second psalm, then, does indeed affirm the power of the king, but places that power in a theological context, one which will take on particular ethical flavors in others Psalms as it becomes clear what God expects the king in Jerusalem to do—preserve justice and righteousness. It is this sort of context that enriches the Psalm’s messianic flavor—the Psalm was read by the early church as containing the seed idea of the messiah as a Son of God who will become the true king. We should not miss though, that it also contains a word about what kind of king that messiah would be—one who is not only empowered by God, but who is attentive to God’s way as well.

Those who see their lives as joined to such a messiah, receive here not just an affirmation, but a call to faithfulness as people following God’s way in the world.

Whole—A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

This sermon is from Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) on January 29, 2017. It’s a sermon about the healing of the paralyzed man, (“the Paralytic”, as the old translations say). It’s part of a sermon series on Mark. The video below is essentially the audio of the sermon with the slides. The manuscript below has been revised by evaluating the transcript of the recording. 

How did you get here?

How did you get here?

I want us to stop and reflect on that question for a moment, despite all you smart-alecks who just said to yourselves, “In the car.” You know who you are.

I want you to think for a second about how you got here, to think about the story that led to you coming to Jesus. What led you to come into this community of faith, or to come to this place in your life? Everybody’s got a story.

There’s an old story in our family a about my great-great-grandfather who when he was a little boy had a head to parents who were ahead Ted serious respiratory illnesses were common back in those generations and they lived over on the east coast and they made the decision, under medical advice to make for their respiratory problems they would make these trips over to over to Texas and they made this journey several times. On one of these my great-great-great-grandmother fell so ill that she did not recover from her sickness and she died and her husband was so struck with grief and his own illness that on the journey back east he just laid in the back of this carriage that was pulled by the two horses.My my great-great-grandfather and his brother, even though they were young boys, were in charge of getting them back home, while their father just laid in the back of the carriage. They asked, “How will we get home? We don’t know the way.” And he said, “The horses know the way. Let them guide you back.” Well, the horses didn’t know the way, and so the next five generations of our family lived in North Alabama.

Everybody’s got a story about how you ended up where you are—that brought you to this moment. The text in Mark that we’re looking at opens with a crazy story about how a man came to Jesus. Jesus had been preaching around in the communities around Galilee but he comes back home to Capernaum. When he’s there people begin to gather. The house fills up, and there’s such a crowd there that it’s standing room only all the way out to the door, to the edge of the house.

Our story says that there was a man who was paralyzed. We don’t get a lot of details about how he came to be like that. Certainly would not have been unusual back in this time for somebody in normal work to suffer terrible injuries. Beyond that, people that have sicknesses and illnesses or birth defects, or for whatever reason their body’s broken. The text doesn’t really tell us how the man came to be like this, but we know his situation is such that he is paralyzed. He can’t walk.

Mark says that a group of people bring this paralyzed man to Jesus. Four of them each get a corner of the mat, but it’s actually a larger crowd with them. They want to get to the house where Jesus is they can’t get inside because it’s so crowded in there. They can’t find a place among all the people who are already there with Jesus—which is a sad little note in this story.

They don’t give up, so they climb up on the roof.The carve a little hole in the roof there, and they lower this man down through the roof. Can you imagine it? Jesus is there and all of a sudden the tiles of the ceiling or the thatching or whatever, it starts spreading apart, and you hear the ruckus. Then, all of a sudden, you see some light, and this man is lowered down right there in front of Jesus. What a story about how somebody got to Jesus!

Think about the things that brought this man to Jesus. Sicknesses, or injury or whatever it was that caused his paralysis. There’s also the the crowd of people. There were the determined friends who were carrying him. Often, that’s what it takes, right? How many of you came to Jesus because of the determination of a group of friends, a determined community of people who said, “We’re not going to rest until this person gets to Jesus.” Sometimes that’s what it takes.

Some of you came here by way of your own great-great-great grandfather who made a decision about a church, five generations back. Some of you got here because the church served you and your family in some way. Some of you are here because a coworker just kept getting into your ear. That’s just the surface of the story—there are all sorts of things at work to bring you to Jesus, to bring you to the place where you could be healed. To the place where you could be whole.

Unexpected

We might imagine the story going on from here something like this: Jesus sees them and he would say say to them “Be healed!”, but this story takes a turn that is unexpected. It is a moment that we would not predict. Jesus doesn’t look at the man and just give him the healing which he and certainly his friends have sought. Instead, Jesus looks at the man it says that Jesus sees the faith of the ones who have brought him. His faith, too, I’m sure, but Jesus notes “their faith”, in the plural. Then, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Son your sins are forgiven.” He seems pretty content to leave it at that. So what do we have now? We’ve got a man, still paralyzed, who has received forgiveness—not really the thing that he came for.

You know when I think about this story, I think that Mark wants to make it clear that Jesus knows more than we do. Jesus knows more about how the things that are broken got broken.He knows more about what’s really wrong, and he sees what really needs to be fixed. Jesus knows more about what it means to be whole for me than I could ever imagine. Jesus knows more about what it means for me to be whole then all those other people who were part of bringing me to Jesus might even imagine.

Jesus has a more of a perception about what our brokenness really looks like than we do. We have some understanding of it, but Jesus sees the full scope of it. Jesus gives the man a greater and deeper healing than he even realized he needed.

But you just know, it wasn’t just about the paralyzed man. Jesus also perceives some other level of brokenness in the crowd as well. I don’t really know how that man reacted to Jesus’s forgiveness, but the text does tell us how the other people in the crowd reacted. It says that they start muttering to each other, saying things like “Who does this guy think he is? We know that it is only God who can forgive sins so what is this guy saying? That’s blasphemy, for him to take on the authority that belongs to God alone—Who does this guy think he is?”

When they challenge each other in that way it says “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these things among themselves.” See, it’s not just the man that has some kind of hidden unseen bit of brokenness that needs to be healed. Jesus perceived the brokenness in the community too. He sees that these people are more concerned about their standards about the way that people should talk about God than they are about whether this man actually receive forgiveness or not. He perceives that their religious sensibilities are more important to them than the man on the mat. And so, just like he offered the man the forgiveness that he didn’t understand he needed, he’s also going to offer to this community a word that they didn’t come to hear, either. He looks at them and he says

“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:8-12, NRSV)

You see, there is a multiple healing taking place in this story. There is the man who is paralyzed, made whole by his body. The thing that he actually came for in the first place finally gets done. But it’s also the community’s perception of God and God’s work in the world that’s healed as well. Jesus takes their grumbling, stubborn religiosity and he shows them something new. He offers them a way towards something that’s a little bit more whole as well. Jesus, who knows more, is able to perceive exactly what it is that I need and what we need as a community. Jesus gives us what we need on the way to being made whole—very rarely according to our time frame or our expectations about the way it should happen—but Jesus does bring us along towards the journey of being made whole.

There is so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus tucked inside of this story. This is a story about what it means to be laid open by Jesus and for Jesus in his own authoritative way brings us towards a complete and full wholeness, beyond what we could have even imagined. This man that comes in the story, he had people in his life that loves him so much that they were willing to do whatever they could to make his body whole again. He had an amazing group of people who were willing to do something outlandish, foolish for his sake. But in Jesus, he meets the one whose expectation about what it means for him to be whole blows their expectations out of the water. Jesus loves us deeper and has a greater vision for the wholeness and fullness of our lives in our humanity than even the people we know in our lives who love us the most. This man comes to Jesus broken in ways that he doesn’t even understand, and Jesus makes him whole in a way that he never could have imagined.

He comes to Jesus broken in ways he can't understand. He's made whole in ways he never imagined. Click To Tweet

A Taste of Grace

This story also shows us that sometimes grace comes to us in stages. A little forgiveness here, a bit of reconciliation there. Until the last day, Jesus is making us whole step by step. None of us have been made fully whole yet, and yet we can say that many of us have already tasted the grace of God. We’ve received things like having relationships restored back to us that we thought we lost. We’ve received forgiveness and the relief that it brings. We’ve received that taste of God’s grace that shows us that we are loved. We’ve received a part of it, but don’t we also all carry with us some bit of brokenness left? It’s easy for us to believe that all those things define us for who we are. What was the man’s name in the story in mark? “Paralyzed man.” The only way we know him is by his brokenness. If that sounds harsh, I’d suggest that for many of us that’s how we know ourselves, too.

“I am guy with an anger problem…”
“I am the woman with chronic pain issues…”
“I am the man who can’t get along with my brother…”
“I am the woman who carries a deep grudge against my father who’s long ago dead…”
“I am the person whose marriage is falling apart…”
“I am the person who doesn’t seem to be able to hold down a job…”

I am broken and for many of us that’s how we know ourselves. Jesus perceives us to be something more. Jesus perceives in us our value, our dignity, our life as the children of God—that we are images of the Divine. Jesus sees in us what we are, what we will be when we are whole—he does not know us only by our brokenness. Our brokenness maybe part of our story, it may be part of the way that we come to Jesus. It is not the whole of our identity.

Our brokenness may be part of the journey but it is never our destination. Click To Tweet 

Part of what i want you to hear in this story is Jesus’s vision for you as a whole person—in this story this man he has no idea what it means for him to coast or thick to go see Jesus but he comes to find out it comes to claim it comes to own it and then he at the end of the story walk away whole in body, whole in soul, in spirit. When the crowd sees it they see the man and they can’t help but say alright that’s amazing and we’ve never seen anything like it. The man who was at the beginning of the story just “the paralyzed man” becomes a living, walking, witness to the power of God at work in Jesus—and so are we.

This story challenges us on a lot of fronts, but one of the most profound challenges is that it invites us to think about which crowd we are. There’s at least three options. There’s the first crowd that is willing to do whatever it takes to get a person to Jesus. There is the other crowd that is so stuck on their religious knowledge that they resent Jesus’s healing of the man. Then, there is the crowd at the end— which I guess was partly made up of parts of both of the first two— the crowd that seea what Jesus is doing, is amazed, and then is more ready to experience it themselves.

If you permit me just a little bit of imagination, I think we can make up an epilogue to this story. The story leaves off with everybody amazed, but I bet we can trace it out a little further. How would you react if you had seen it? How would you react if you had seen it, and knew somebody else who was sick, who was broken? I bet everybody in that crowd that knew somebody at their home who was laying on a mat—I bet they went and found somebody else to help carry them to Jesus.
Amen.

The Prophet’s Word

I’m grateful for the annual day marked off to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Racial reconciliation and justice is something always bubbling just beneath my consciousness, and MLK day forces it to the surface. It forces me to reflect specifically on the man’s legacy, but also on my own engagement with his cause.

This year, I was glad to participate in our small town’s March in memory of Dr. King. It was surreal and powerful, walking with my children, surrounded by a slice of our community.

I also try to spend some time reading some of Dr. King’s work, and this year I sat down with his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of work, and its power to convict holds today. The challenging letter calls out the White church for their silence in the face of the struggle for civil rights, and every paragraph burns. The letter is inspiring, instructive, and stinging throughout, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, it’s worth sitting down with for a half hour. Word for word, it’s one of the most important things the church produced in the last century.

I also spent a little time trying to reflect poetically on what it means for me, living more than 50 years later, to try and pick up the echo of Dr. King’s message. What came out was the little poem below, which I shared at the ceremony on Monday.

There’s much work to be done, my friends. May the Lord be with us.

The Prophet’s Word

Dreamer, Seer,
Prophet, Preacher,

Sent to us, the Nineveh next door,
He willingly went,
Walked,
Marched,

From you, with you
To us, at us,

With just the word we needed,
a word we could not hear.

We could only see it,
See its drama enacted,
While it called out the violence within us.

We could not hear the word,
but we could see it,
and be seen by it.

We could not hear it, but the word would not depart.

Its echo rumbles through the canyon still,
While the unseen water rushes on below,
like a mighty stream.