Saturday, June 26, 2021

Pentecost 5B

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

7Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.

12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

All Who Love and Serve Your City

1. All who love and serve your city,
all who bear its daily stress,
all who cry for peace and justice,
all who curse and all who bless,

2. In your day of loss and sorrow,
in your day of helpless strife,
honor, peace, and love retreating,
seek the Lord, who is your life.

5. Risen Lord! shall yet the city
be the city of despair?
Come today, our Judge, our Glory;
be its name, "The Lord is there!"

Tune: Charlestown, from The Southern Harmony. Words: Erik Routley © 1969 by Stainer & Bell Ltd., administered by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188

Epistles / Corinth

An epistle is written communication – basically a letter – addressed to a person or group, although these days some blogs probably qualify as epistolary. Examples? Dispatches from the Front Lines online or in print. Lead article in the church's or organization's newsletter in print and/or on social media.

In addition to seven letters the Apostle Paul wrote to various churches, the New Testament contains other epistles attributed to him, as well as letters that cite Peter, John, and James as author. Back then when they didn't have elaborate and necessary copyright laws, attributing your writing to a well-known person was commonplace and not considered dishonest. Besides, a famous name probably would get more readers. New Testament epistles received editings and annotations as they circulated to different churches, so every word and phrase might not be from the original writer. Paul's letters were earlier than any of the gospels, predating even Mark's Gospel that scholars consider the first one written down. Over the centuries, the church has derived a whole lot of its more formal theology from Paul.

Today's second reading from 2 Corinthians addresses the Church at Corinth that famously was full of vanity, competition, and divisions that reflected the opulent, worldly style of the city of Corinth. Particularly as it relates to money and finances, this passage is a default go-to for stewardship campaigns. However, Paul doesn't focus on balancing the budget of the Corinthian Church; instead, he's concerned about connections and relationships between local churches. In this section of the letter he wants the mostly gentile Corinthian congregation to provide financial assistance to the mostly Jewish Jerusalem church. Twenty-plus centuries later, different denominations have different polities or governance structures, but whether highly centralized like today's Church at Rome or almost autonomous local churches like some free-standing Baptists, we're all inter-related and interdependent in Jesus Christ.

Grace and Economics

All of 2 Corinthians 8 says a great deal about grace; for today, Greek for "generous undertaking" in verse 7 is gracious endeavor and charges the Corinthians to excel or abound in grace because of Jesus Christ's "generous act" that's simply grace in verse 9 – "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor" – and echoes Paul's earlier Philippians 2:6-7:

[Christ Jesus] had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!
The Message (MSG) © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

In Greek, economics literally is the law of the household. Although verse 14 reads, "…so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance…" Christian economics is both material and spiritual and it's never zero-sum with one party depleted if they give to another. For Paul of Tarsus, the gospel is death and resurrection, so not surprisingly he relates the meaning and impact of gifts of cash in the light (and in the shadow) of Jesus' death and resurrection.

This reading easily expands to spiritual and material gifts of service, prayer, compassion, food, presence, clothing, facilities maintenance, knowledge, and other specialties as COVID-19 hopefully wanes and the world opens up. Stewardship and giving need to encompass (1) cash ("legal tender") to exchange for stuff we need but can't produce ourselves; (2) time we need to get things done; (3) talents we apply (spend – you may remember a talent was a chunk of money in Jesus' day) toward ongoing or one-time only ministries. And, of course, stewardship of God's gracious gifts incorporates intelligence, prayer, scripture study, and – to all outward appearances – doing nothing as we wait to discern and learn what's next for us.

I love how we see this scripture in action as G7 democracies pledge to gift COVID vaccines to less developed countries that can't produce or afford to buy their own.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Pentecost 4B

Prayer for Pentecost 4

Hello God,

Thanks for bringing us through the past year and a half into the beginning of a post-COVID reality. We've been reading Mark's gospel that often shows us Jesus in unexpected places. Mark's Jesus welcomes everyone into the Reign of Heaven on Earth and changes (much for the better!) the world people have known and expected it always to be. In Mark, we've seen Jesus speak hope into situations of need that aren't all that different from what we're experiencing now. Mark opens his gospel with "the beginning of the good news." Jesus calls us to continue his ministry. Thank you for trusting us to continue the good news!


©Leah Chang

Mark 4:35-41

35On that same day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"

39Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

Today's Good News

As we number Sundays after the Day of Pentecost, the Church's Year of Grace continues in a 6-month long green and growing season of Ordinary Time. "Ordinary" is common to all of us; it's structured, organized, ordered with a regularity about it.

This event happens "on the same day" as the scattered seeds and mustard seed agricultural parables we discussed last week. Today's gospel reading brings us water and the word. And yes, that provides more than a hint of baptism's power to drown old established systems and summon the new creation. This same story's also in Matthew 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25; Mark, Matthew, and John include a related narrative of Jesus walking on water. The actual body of water in this reading is freshwater Lake Galilee, but Mark always calls it the Sea of Galilee. In the Old Testament a sea or ocean often is a symbol or sign of chaos and disorder. Untamed waters in Genesis 1 and in Psalm 104 are the womb of creation. You remember the sea of the Exodus. Noah's flood. Jonah's ocean. And quite a few rivers besides the iconic Jordan. Check out today's reading from Job 38:1-11.

Jesus tells everyone they're going "across to the other side." That other side was where mostly non-Jews lived. Including everyone by bringing outsiders into the inside is a particular hallmark of Jesus' ministry in Mark.

This meteorological event is a great storm surrounded by great (mega in Greek) fear, with Jesus' word leading to great – mega – calm. "Fear" here really is frightened, terrified, scared, and not the "awe" fear of Luther's Small Catechism and some Psalms. In today's gospel reading, Jesus' word that subdues the water is the same word he used to exorcise the demon.

• Mark 1:25 Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit
• Mark 4:39 Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind

Into a Future

In our families, affinity groups, and communities we often encounter borders and boundaries. As COVID-19 cases have lessened and vaccines have rolled out, cities and states in the USA have been opening to almost pre-pandemic normal. We're now at a border between COVID and post-COVID. "A world in the wake of COVID" probably would be more accurate than "post-COVID." People only can imagine what their places of business, schools, churches (and yes, families) will look like a few months from now. We know God has gone to our futures before us and waits for us there.

Mark's gospel was written down around the time of the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple, which served as a cultural, social, economic, and religious landmark for everyone. The J-Temple was THE reference point for every Jew. No more temple meant the end of the world as they'd known it.

Without being too cliché and without risking a merely "metaphoric" reading of scripture, although paintings of this sea scene by Rembrandt and other artists picture Jesus and disciples in a smallish boat, this scriptural account approaches a cosmic scope that can encompass memories and hopes of the Temple and other establishments. No more temple meant the end of the world as Jesus followers had known it. In this year 2021, we easily could parallel environmental devastation, cyberhacking, racism, democracies struggling against totalitarian governments (you easily can add to this list) as the end of worlds we had known and expected to continue. In addition, it's no stretch to equate the destruction of the J-Temple with ways COVID-19 has changed the shape and extent of the world as we'd known it. On some level most of us expected most of our worlds to remain static and stable, with any disruptions being gradual and humanly manageable.


• Mark 4:38 They call the sleeping Jesus "teacher."
• Mark 4:41 After Jesus tames the storm, the disciples ask "Who is this?"
• Who is Jesus for us?
• Who are we for Jesus?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pentecost 3B

Mark 4:26-32

26Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

30He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

The Good News According to Mark

As the church's year of grace moves into the green and growing Season of the Spirit or "Ordinary Time," we continue in the gospel according to St. Mark, the main gospel for Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Mark's year.

This gospel probably is not by Peter's ministry companion John Mark, but from an unknown author. Current consensus says Mark probably was compiled between 60 and 70, close to the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple. As the shortest gospel, Mark is the one for texting and tweeting.

Prior to Mark, good news or gospel was the returning Roman general's announcement of annihilating the other army's troops. This gospel according to Mark subverts that into the Good News of God's victory over the powers of sin and death, the triumph of the reign of life. The gospel of Jesus Christ is economic, political, religious, social, and cultural. The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims life and brings new life – resurrection out of death – everywhere.

Mark has no birth narrative; no resurrection account. Mark particularly asks and answers where do we find God? We find God not in established religious, economic, political institutions, but outside the city limits, in the wilderness. We discover God in the stranger and outcast. On the margins rather than at the center. In, with, and under all creation. We supremely find God in the openness, exposure, and vulnerability of a condemned human dying on the cross.

Agricultural Parables

A parable is a comparison, analogy, illustration: the kingdom of heaven is like; the reign of God is like. Parable means to put something alongside something else, to make a parallel. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus had a particular meaning in mind; other parables lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Teaching and explaining with comparisons was common in Jesus' rabbinic tradition and in the Hellenistic world. Please note… a parable is not an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; if anything, a parable is a heavenly story with an earthly meaning.

As necessary as it is to plan, plant, and tend crops to feed and nurture people and animals, this Sunday's pair of parables of the Kingdom of God demonstrate the role of God's grace rather than human endeavors in the growth of the reign of heaven among us (and in the growth of some fruit of the earth).

Scattered Seeds

This simple story about scattered seed in Mark 14:26-29 is unique to Mark's gospel. Jesus says someone scatters seed (they don't carefully plant it) and while the farmer sleeps "…the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…"

14:28 "the earth produces of itself" literally is automatically; "spontaneously" also works. I found a couple of internet meme-worthy phrases: "While you sleep, the gospel will grow." "We sow – God grows."

It's important to stick to what the parable actually says and not expand it to what it doesn't say. Of course farmers need to take care of the earth; planters need to pay attention to seasons and agricultural cycles; most crops need to be watered; different types of crops do best in certain kinds of soil; some need particular fertilizers, but that's a concern for another time.

Both this scattered seeds account and the mustard seed story mainly describe God's inbreaking realm with images Jesus' agriculture-savvy audience easily could compare with their direct experiences or observations of farming. For sure we can equate the scattered (not carefully planted) seed with telling people about the good news of Jesus, with small gestures of love, caring, compassion, and service. All of these tend to multiply in close to imperceptible ways. People often resolve to pay forward a kindness or goodness, and they usually do, and that typically leads to further expansion of the Good Stuff.

Last week we mentioned Jesus calls us to be apostles, as people Jesus sends out (an apostle literally is a sent person) to continue his ministry of loving and reconciling the world. The Greek for "goes in with his sickle" in 14:29 derives from apostle.

Mustard Seeds

Besides Mark 14:30-32, synoptic gospels Luke 13:18-19 and Matthew 13:31-32 include the renowned Mustard Seed parable. You've likely heard the mustard seed is far from the smallest seed and doesn't grow into "the greatest of all shrubs," but it does get big enough to provide shelter for birds and small animals. Remembering this is a parable about God's kingdom or reign rather than a farming handbook, just as mustard seeds expand from something small and hard to notice into a big bush that's impossible to miss, the tiny seeds of love, hope, and care we (mostly randomly) plant ultimately grow into something big enough to fill the world. Like the sower in the first parable and the mustard planter in the second, we don't need to do anything more than take that loving action. We don't need to engineer, plan, or add on additional value. God's grace takes care of the outcome, which frequently is far disproportionate to the original input.

Maybe Jesus was being ironic with this story, because few people would intentionally plant mustard seeds. Mustard already was "there," and prolific most places, though just as now, mustard had medicinal value and culinary uses for seasoning and salads. Small mustard seeds grow into a shrub (technically mustard is a vegetable-not-a-shrub, "plant" will work) big enough to shelter birds and small animals and it can't easily be eliminated. I'm not sure invasive is the proper term, but from this non-gardener's perspective it appears invasive as it doesn't honor pre-determined boundaries or limits. This is a parable of the Kingdom of God, of the gospel that ultimately spreads everywhere, ignores established limits and conventions, and becomes part of every facet of existence.

Related to God's constant reminder for us to remember (I led you through the desert, I quenched your thirst with water from the rock, I fed you with manna, I zapped your enemies, I made you my chosen), I recently heard, "Remember! God runs in my direction when the whole world walks away." Like mustard plants that spread everywhere and can't easily be rooted up and done away with, God's boundless mercy and love is here to stay. Like mustard plants that spread everywhere, we can show God's mercy and love everywhere we go.

This is a parable of the gospeled reign of God in Christ Jesus. In the Old Testament, trees and sheltering branches are metaphors or images for political rule and sovereignty, and not always of the desirable divine kind. Jesus' audience would have recognized the symbolism and considered this parable a hope-filled promise of God's reign: a heavenly story with an earthbound outcome.

This Week's Questions

• What tiny seeds or other inputs can you think of that often result in a big outcome? I read the size of a COVID-19 vaccine dose is about the size of a teardrop. As more and more people get vaccinated, protection against getting infected will spread further and further, so herd immunity may become possible, after all.
• Birds can nest in the mustard tree's shade. What biblical images of shade do you remember? Especially consider the psalms. What are some contemporary twenty-first meanings of shade?
• Question to gardeners and famers: is there actually such a thing as a weed, or does calling a plant "weed" depend entirely on context?
• What part of nature would you compare or parallel to God's Kingdom or reign? An animal? Tree? Plant? Biome such as mountain, prairie, or desert?
• Around here mustard plants interspersed with California golden poppies create such visual beauty! Most California mustard is Brassica tournefortii (known as Asian, African, or Saharan Mustard), so a different variety than Jesus' who probably talked about Brassica nigra or black mustard. The mostly Southern cuisine I grew up with often served mustard, dandelion, collard, or other greens. My research into the mustard seed parable reminded me mustard is a cruciferous veggie and part of the cabbage family.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Pentecost 2B

Prayer: Hearing the Word

Gracious God, illumine these words by your Spirit that we might hear what you would have us hear and be who you would have us be, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.

By John Wurster; used with permission
Mark 3:19b-35

19Then Jesus went home, 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."

23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"— 30for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Sundays after Pentecost

Today the Church's year of grace moves into a half-year of Ordinary Time, and we start counting Sundays after the Day of Pentecost. Ordinary refers to ordered and organized rather than mundane or commonplace, but we hold these Sundays in common with most denominations, church bodies, and traditions. During this green and growing Season of the Spirit, time of the church, we especially emphasize the contemporary Acts of the Apostles (that's us!).

The Gospel According to Mark

This is Mark's year in the Revised Common Lectionary that provides our scripture readings. Mark is the earliest and shortest of the four canonical gospels; Mark is particularly apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a revealing or uncovering—something like an epiphany. Apocalyptic typically employs contrasting dualism: light-dark; heaven-hell; empty-full; good-evil; near-far. Signs, imagery, and symbols in apocalyptic literature sometimes have an easily discernible meaning; other times it's best to consider its context within an entire passage.

Mark's gospel brings us the inbreaking rule or reign of God—the end of the world as we've known it. Mark answers the question "Where do we find God?" Not far away in an unreachable heavenly location; not enthroned in the temple; not in conventional religious, economic, political, social, and cultural persons and establishments. Especially in Mark's gospel, we find Jesus outside the city limits (remember the location of the Calvary cross), outside the center of almost everything, on the margins, in the stranger, the outsider, and the outcast, even in those falling off the edge of the edges. More than in the other gospels, Mark's Jesus acts outside of regulation and convention as he offers limitless mercy, inclusion, forgiveness, and grace. Jesus in Mark erases old boundaries and redraws them to include everyone.

Just as with Luke, Jesus' journey to the cross in Mark is especially intentional and incessant. Particularly for Mark, the cross is the ultimate revelation of Jesus' identity and mission; the cross also reveals our identity and mission as the church, as people Jesus sends out (an apostle literally is a sent person) in the power of the Spirit to continue his ministry of loving and reconciling the world. Related to the gospel reading for today, in The Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Lamar Williamson, Jr. makes the noun apostle into a verb, and declares we have been "Apostled for proclamation and the removal of demons."

So Far in Mark

Mark 1

• Good News / Gospel announcement (no genealogy, no birth narrative). "Gospel" is a short form of Godspell or God's Spell you may remember from the musical Stephen Schwartz and John Michael Tebelak based on Matthew's gospel.
• John the Baptist in the Jordan River wilderness
• Jesus joins John's riverside assembly and John baptizes him.
• Forty days of temptation in the even deeper desert wilds
• Back in his hometown Galilee, Jesus announces now is the time! The reign (kingdom) of God has come near.
• Jesus calls fisher brothers Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John Zebedee as his first disciples.
• In his first act of public ministry, Jesus drives out a demon after teaching in the synagogue during services.
• Jesus heals Peter's mother in law.
• Casts out "many demons" who recognize Jesus
• Heals a leper

Mark 2

• Another healing (the scribes don't like this)
• Calls tax collector Levi
• Eats with sinners and tax collectors (once again, scribes don't like this at all)
• Question about fasting
• About doing good deeds on the Sabbath

Mark 3

• Heals / does good on the Sabbath again. After this the Pharisee religious leaders conspire to get rid of Jesus
• More healing – this time by the water feature that's technically Lake Galilee, not a sea or an ocean
• Jesus specially calls and appoints twelve apostles. A rabbi would need ten disciples or followers to be credible; Jesus added two more to that number.

Kinship, Authority, Family

Today's gospel reading continues chapter 3. Cast of characters include a crowd, Jesus' family of origin, and hyper-religious scribes from Jerusalem. Verse 23 tells us Jesus spoke in parables, a type of story we know from Mark and from the other synoptic gospels Matthew and Luke. A parable makes us listen – and hear – beyond the immediately obvious.

In Jesus' time and place, biological family or household determined a person's social and economic trajectory. Family would be comprised of several generations and stretch horizontally to include cousins. It was far removed from the nuclear Western family of parents, grands, and offspring that started at the turn of the twentieth century, eons away from the post-World War II mid-twentieth century phenomenon of parents and kids that prevailed for (maybe) a couple of decades.

In Jesus' time and place, Jerusalem scribes were highly-regarded experts on everything Torah and Temple; they had extremely high religious and social standing. In this reading, Jesus has gone home to Galilee; that means those scribes had journeyed a distance to scope out and engage the itinerant rabbi who'd been making radical claims and causing crazy commotions. In this anecdote, both family and religious leaders mis-identify Jesus' person and purpose. By looking only at the surface, they simply perceive his actions as being outside of conventional kinship and religious behaviors and apparently never wonder about a meaning beyond the obvious.

Mark's Jesus brings us the inbreaking rule or reign of God—the end of the world as we've known it; Mark's gospel or good news often describes the world newly reordered by the Word in vividly contrasting apocalyptic images. In Mark, Jesus especially engages religious, economic, and political institutions: The Establishment. Mark particularly unmasks the systemic brokenness and sin that's within all institutions and structures that yet remain necessary for the world to keep spinning. In Jesus' first act of public ministry in Mark [1:21-26], he exorcises or expels a demon in the midst of a synagogue service. Talk about conventional, established religion! It even has its own fixed meeting place!

Although "house" in this scripture can mean a domestic dwelling, it equally applies to any structure or infrastructure that needs to cohere and function in order to function as intended. Thus, Jesus refers to a kingdom divided, a house divided, Satan against himself. (Satan is the prosecuting attorney in Hebrew anthropology, and not necessarily a personification of evil). As we've especially been learning over the past few years, systemic and institutional injustice, inequities, sin, ineffectiveness, and brokenness happen because of far more than inept actions of individuals, occurs from much more than good or bad or indifferent organizational or institutional pronouncements and activities—a type of dysfunctional disease pervades them. No single action or decision of an individual or corporate entity has caused them to break; no righteous move or loving resolve has enough power to breathe life back into them.

Today's reading doesn't say Jesus expelled another demon or incubus, but he spoke in understandable religious and cultural terms. Whatever our own location in time and place, words like "demonic, satanic" describe forces outside our control very well.

Where We Live: Today's Gospel

"A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to Jesus, 'Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.' And he replied, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'" Mark 3:32-35

During this green and growing Season of the Spirit, time of the church, we especially emphasize the contemporary Acts of the Apostles (that's us!). Jesus invites us to join his new family configuration by claiming our baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit and following him into the world where he waits for us. Jesus apostles us to proclaim the end of the broken, death-dealing, dysfunctional world as we've known it and (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to remove demons. Yay!