We Need To Talk About Jesus

In the lead up to this week’s lectionary passage, Jesus poses the most important question he ever asks to his disciples:  “Who do you say I am?”  It is a question that transcends time.  Let me put it another way, what do we mean when we talk about Jesus?

We don’t know Jesus as a person.  None of us do.  We imagine Jesus as a reality but that’s our subconscious at work.  Jesus isn’t an invisible friend we talk to in emergencies.  For most people sitting in our pews; Jesus as is more of an idea, the concept of the perfect man for imperfect times.  In the same way Washington or Lincoln provide mythological ideals to be aspired to than lives from the distant past.  We know so little of Jesus’ life.  Yet, we’re certain we know who Jesus is.

Do we know who Jesus is?  Jesus isn’t so sure.  That’s why he asks.

In this day of trite, snarky 140-280 word answers, it almost seems flippant to say, “He’s my Lord and Savior”.  Do we know what that means anymore?  No.  If anything,  it means we’ve reduced salvation to well-worn clichés and rehearsed answers.  It means we’ve not stopped to think seriously about who we say Jesus is because we’ve been repeating who everyone else says he is for decades.  Jesus knew the “stock” answers.  He was well aware of the knee jerk responses.  Clearly, he expected the disciples to put more thought into their replies.

We’ve received spoon fed, blended spiritualized with secularized answers for so long; it’s sometimes hard for us to tell what’s from Jesus and what’s not.   Maybe we need to rephrase Jesus’ question:

What do United Methodists mean about when we talk about Jesus?

  1. Is Jesus the United Methodist brother from another mother than John and Charles never knew?
  2. Do you say Jesus belongs to any political party?
  3. Is the Jesus you picture in your mind comfortable with those who have mental health issues buying guns?
  4. When we talk about Jesus, are we talking about a Jesus who is for the direction elections of Caesars, election by the Senate, or hereditary appointment of consuls?
  5. When we talk about Jesus, are we talking about Jesus who sees poverty as the responsibility of society? Or only the government? Or on the poor? Or no one?
  6. When we talk about Jesus are we talking about a white guy, black guy, Jewish guy, or Palestinian guy?
  7. Do you say Jesus is a Christian?
  8. When you say who Jesus is, does he everything you love and everything you hate? Is Jesus a reflection of your personal tastes?
  9. Who do I say Jesus is?
  10. I’m not telling you. Mark 8:30  “And he sternly ordered them to tell no one.”

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Preaching the Gospel in a World of Limits (Genesis 9:8-17)

The defining political narrative of the moment is one of limits.  We can only have so many people in this country or not.  Guns must be limited or unlimited, depending on your political persuasion.  Limits, boundaries, barriers, walls, regulations; dictate and define much of our discourse as a civilization.  If we couldn’t talk about limiting people, things, or ideas; what would we talk about?  Perhaps we would stare at one another and imagine ways to kill each other instead of actually doing it?

Separating ourselves on the basis of language, skin color, tribe, and various measures of economic progress seems to be the inevitable direction of human history.  Many people, both in this country and in other parts of the world, have accepted a divided world as the only reality.  Some have and some have not.  Limits are a fact of life.   Along the way we stopped asking questions about who decides the limits and standards which divide us; that is until incidents like last Wednesday.  It takes a tragedy of unspeakable proportion for us to realize we’re all human; breathing the same air and bleeding the same blood.

The Old Testament reading for this week, the first Sunday of Lent, is a story of limits.  It’s the first such one in the Bible, where we see God’s love meet the idea of human limitation head on.  And by human limitation I don’t mean physical limits, as we see at the Olympics.  In this story, there is a boundary, a border, a wall between life and death.  A decision needs to be made; humanity working in conjunction with God about who lives and who die.  Who will be allowed to cross that border and survive?  What happens when no is allowed to cross over? What happens, when even in the earliest days of recorded history, our default setting is to say, everyone must die while others live?  What does it tell us that from the beginning the message seems to be, “you come aboard, you get to die”?

Survival is a political decision.  God needs a people or the story ends.  Why read any further? Life, on the other hand, for those left to drown in God’s second attempt at creation, is personal.  The political and personal merge as the boundaries between life and death are blurred.  In an episode from scripture most churches ignore and Sunday School classes treat like a trip to the local zoo, we see a disturbing model for a relationship without limits.  God’s “I will preserve all living things” covenant is as believable as the wife beater who returns home with a box chocolates and flowers promising to protect everyone in the house.  The promise of “never again” with the sly “by water” caveat is a cop out.  The Babylonian Exile, the Holocaust, you name it; God’s relationship to God’s chosen people is punctuated by cycles of violence, tragedy, and reconciliation.  No one seems to learn from their past mistakes or the promises made to (or by) earlier generations.

How can we have an everlasting (universal) covenant (to save everyone) that began with the idea of excluding (i.e. killing) most of humanity?  To be honest, you can’t.  Scripture says, “This is between me and all the Earth.”  It’s a nice sentiment, as the phrase “no living thing” is repeated six times, that indicates everybody has God’s GEICO wrath coverage.  But I’m not sure the writer of Genesis means it.  I say this because I’ve read this rest of the book.  I know how angry God gets at the people who have no official connection to him whatsoever.  Surely the Canaanites are covered “by the no harm to every living thing” clause, right?  No they weren’t.  Go read Joshua.

At this point, universal salvation is a side item, more of a footnote in Israel’s history.  Ruth isn’t an Israelite, there’s the story of Syrian General who sees Elisha to be healed, and Jonah goes to Nineveh.   That’s basically it.  It’s not until we come to the resurrection and its premier interpreter that the limits of the past begin to disappear.  There are hints that God is working beyond Israel, beyond the “tribe”, but this message isn’t amplified until Jesus ministry.

For Paul, salvation is complete, total, and unequivocal.  It’s for the whole human race.  God wants to save everyone, no matter where you’re from.   What happened on the cross obliterated the limits of the past; the myths of animals riding two by two, our desires to exclude those we despise, and even those who don’t practice what we preach.  In the New Testament, in each of the Gospels, everyone on the wrong side of the wall, boundary, and line are invited to the great supper Jesus is hosting.  When we create a boundary, only two by two can come; Jesus says, “Invite the whole family in.”  Jesus is a firm believer in chain migration.  That’s how the church was built.

Paul brings this message home in nearly every letter he writes to the congregations he plants.  Here are a couple of examples:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. —Colossians 1:19-20

 Therefore God also highly exalted him  and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:9-11

 The words “all” and “every” should jump right out at you.  “All” was present throughout Genesis 9.  Paul says it’s for real this time.  God meant it then and the people entrusted with God’s word became too obsessed with their own boundaries and limits.  That’s why I said the writer of Genesis.  The people speaking for God didn’t live up to God’s expansive expectations.  The “all” has never really changed.  We, the people who call God’s presence home, haven’t had the heart to believe in God’s “all”.  God’s idea of a “limitless” boundary free kingdom is frightening to our comfortable, well-ordered lives, and middle-class sensibilities.  In that way, we’re not unlike our Israelite ancestors.  We want to set the terms of our religious experience; who can come in and who can come out.

Paul says, through the work of Jesus on the cross, the limit setting, two by two selection process, you’re in and you’re out days are over.  God’s love is now available to everyone.  This is one of the most audacious claims in human history.  A single life (not thousands or millions in a flood) makes peace with death.  This is a message we need to hear this Sunday because as Paul reminds us, is universal.

The church isn’t called to be idle bystanders in the wake of senseless tragedies and massacres.  Christians aren’t sent to lead people back to our arks of safety, two by two, while the world goes to hell around us.  Generic niceness to those who look, think, feel, and act like us isn’t going to cut it.  God has admitted the broken, the hurt, the outsider, the lonely, those who claim a religion, and those who know nothing of God.  They are the ones standing with candles, praying, angry, and looking for answers.  God loves the broken, the dead, the innocent, and everyone in between.

Our job is to not back down.  We have one story to tell.  Suffering is real.  Death does not win.  God’s love is universal.  Tell this story to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Babylonians in your life.  They may go by other names but I assure you, somewhere, they are there.  Tell the one story only you can tell:  God’s love knows no limits.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Father Brown Has Taught Me About Pastoral Care

I do enjoy watching “Father Brown” on PBS.  Embedded in every Father Brown mystery is an opportunity for pastoral care. Each episode isn’t so much a murder to be solved as it is a series of relationships to be healed. Someone has died, a family is grieving, old wounds are dredged up from the distant past, veterans with untreated PTSD are identified, and emotional pains are discovered. Father Brown is there to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” in these difficult moments. He’s the embodiment of the church community, not the state or the landed gentry. Father Brown is there for his flock. What have I learned from watching Father Brown?

1. Be cautious with words. Listening and looking reveals much about the human soul.

2. Sacraments are vital to the life of the church. Look closely, the community is formed by the sacramental life of the church.

3. Forgiveness is a divine prerogative. We know what we know from our experiences. We also understand what scripture teaches. Common sense, love, and compassion are the best we can share.

4. Ministry involves taking risks. They are there and must be embraced, case by case.

5. Some people just aren’t going to like you. That’s OK. You pray and care for them too.

6. “Father Brown Mysteries”, much like Ash Wednesday, calls us to remember our own mortality. We are all going to die. Regardless of what you do or don’t believe about an afterlife, a basic recognition of our mortality is the defining feature of a Holy Lent.

7. Father Brown understands that physical, mental, and spiritual professionals need to work together. Medicine can be useful, therapy is helpful, and so is prayer in assisting people who’ve been traumatized.

8. Jumping to conclusions is never good.

9. Talk to the whole family.  Especially the ones with a shady past.  They have the best stories.

10. Never turn down cake.

Richard Lowell Bryant

If You Want to Be The Church, Come Off the Damn Mountain!

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

One of the best ways to think about the Transfiguration is to picture it as a sequel or “reboot” of a movie franchise.  Those are all popular at the moment.  Sequels are coming out and new versions of old classics are being remade each year.  In a way, this is what the Transfiguration is like.  Jesus, climbing a mountain to meet with the Holy Spirit, Moses, and Elijah isn’t a new thing.  If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you have.

Remember, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush at the beginning of the Exodus story.  As the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses met God on Mount Sinai when he received the 10 commandments.  It’s from this meeting we get our first clue about mountain top audiences with God:  such get-togethers are transformational events.  Moses’ appearance is completely transfigured.

Go on a little further in the Old Testament and you’ll read the story of Elijah.  Again at Sinai (which 1 Kings 19 calls Horeb), he climbs a mountain while fleeing Jezebel.  Remember he’s just defeated the prophets of Baal in an epic battle, God has his back, but he’s still afraid this woman wants to kill him.  He runs into the mountains and encounters the still, silent, presence of God.  Elijah, like Moses, comes down from the mountain a changed man.

Today’s reading is like any good sequel.  It keeps the best elements of the original story while adding a new and unexpected twist.  This is Part III:  Jesus Goes to the Mountain:  This Time its Not Personal.

In Moses and Elijah’s story, they went to the mountain alone.  No one accompanied them on their journeys to hear, meet, or listen to God.  These were very personal encounters.  It’s not that way with Jesus.  Jesus does very little alone.  We’ve seen him go off to pray.  Yet, even here, for an important audience with the Holy Spirit, Moses, and Elijah; he takes his closest friends.  Jesus values community.  What’s the sense in encountering the sacred if you can’t share it with others?  How do you get the message off the mountain as just one person?  It can’t be left to a single person to tell the Good News.  His work is too important to be contained in the life experience of one person.  Let others see the glory of God at work. For these reasons, which become apparent in his subsequent teaching and preaching, Jesus brings his disciples with him.

Put yourself in Peter’s sandals.  Imagine you’ve read the Bible (what we call the Old Testament).  You know all about Moses and Elijah’s stories.  At best you consider them ghost stories, myths, or legends.  When Jesus asks you to go camping, it never occurs to you that you’re going out for one of those reality footage style scary movies where the ghost stuff might happen to you.  In your mind, you and your buddies are getting bonding time with Jesus.

In the middle of the night, the lights came on.  Remember, they had no electricity or flashlights.  Everything went super bright, as white as you can possibly imagine.  Mark’s gospel says Jesus was “transfigured (some say transformed) in front of them and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white.”

Tide Pods and Gain weren’t readily available in 1st century Palestine.  Clean clothes were like most things a luxury.  Super glowing bright white heavenly clean clothes were unheard of.  As the spectacular nature of Jesus’ laundry and lighting caught the disciple’s eyes, they noticed Jesus wasn’t alone.  Two people were with him.  Mark tells us, “and there appeared to him Elijah and Moses, who were talking to Jesus.”   This might be my favorite part of the story.  How did they know it was Elijah and Moses?  I always want to ask that question.  No one had photographs, selfies, phones, or World Book Encyclopedias in which to look up a picture?  When I used to ask that question as a kid in church the preacher would say, “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that.”  Now I am the preacher and I’m still asking.  I think they guessed.  By process of elimination and because they knew their Bible, who else could it be?  It was the two other mountain top guys.

We’re having a rational discussion about all of this.  However, go back to what I said a moment ago, “Try on Peter, James, and John’s sandals”.  It’s the middle of the night, you’re expecting none of this, and suddenly the heavenly light, laundry, and Old Time Prophets String Band show goes down and you’ve got front row tickets.  Peter’s a little freaked out.  Though, he’s not frightened enough to run away.  He knows Jesus is there.  Up here, right now: there are no mouths to feed, sick in-laws, fish to be caught, rent on boats you’re no longer using, dusty roads, or expectations.  Yes, something compels him to stay in the moment.

Peter is having a mountain top religious experience.  He feels a need to respond to what he’s witnessing.  How can he tell Jesus, “Let’s do this, instead of what we were doing yesterday, down there”? What if he could capture this good, clean, heavenly feeling with Jesus forever?

“I know”, he says. We’ll invite Moses and Elijah to stay with us. We’ll hang out up here for a few days with Jesus.  They run off to start gathering sticks when everything goes dark.

The voice comes back.  You remember the voice.    The voice reminded Peter, James, and John of the same message when it spoke at Jesus’ baptism.  “This is my Son, whom I dearly Love. Listen to him.”

Then it was over and they came down the mountain.  No one wanted to come down from the mountain, except Jesus.  Moses came down from the mountain to lead the Israelites out of bondage.  Elijah heard the gentle promptings of the spirit in the storm, left the mountain, and returned to speak as God’s prophet.  God’s people do not remain on the mountain.  The whole point of the mountain as a place of God’s transformative and transfiguring action is to move from the peak to the valley, from the summit to the gutter, and the sky to the ground.  Mountains are temporary stops on the journey.  God doesn’t do mountain top property, in any shape fashion or form.

Transfiguration is a fancy sounding word.  We could also call today “Transformation Sunday”.  The New Testament we read translates both words from the same Greek word, “metamorphosis”.  If we wanted to be really accurate, I would have welcomed us all to “Metamorphosis Sunday”.  Mark uses the word to talk about Jesus’ change of form, the bright light and clean laundry show.  Mark’s use of “metamorphao” is best translated as transfiguration, in the physical sense.  Paul, on the other hand, uses the same word in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorpho) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  What kind of metamorphosis do our minds need so we can better discern God’s will?

Perhaps we need to change how we think about where we are.  Have we been living up on top of the mountain for many years?  Is it time to come down from our mountains?  Mountain top experiences are great but Christians were never meant to stay on top of the mountain, even when you live at sea level.  We are called to be at the bottom, in the mess, the gutter, walking and working the valleys of life.  Time and time again, Jesus said this is what it means to be one of his followers.  Cross bearers, those who walk with him, those prepared to die with him, are not passive observers who gaze at the wondrous opportunities salvation might present, to quote Bette Midler, “from a distance.” God is not a “from a distance” God and we are not from a distance, arms-length, mountain top disciples.   It’s never worked that way.

As long as we stay on our mountain (or individual mountains); we can keep ourselves above the chaos.  It’s possible for us to wrongly believe that the world and the issues at the bottom of the mountain don’t matter.  We stay up here and pursue the higher, spiritual things.  At the top, we can’t see the poverty, racism, opioid addiction, alcoholism, and hunger down in the valley.  That’s not how this works.  The mountain top wasn’t supposed to be our home.  With spiritually transformed hearts and minds we go back down to take the Good News into the worst possible places.

So pack up the bags and take down the tents.  No one is staying on the mountain.  We’re all in this together.  There are no United Methodist hermits.  If there were, I’d have joined the program years ago. (I’m joking.)

With Jesus, we have the ability to create community at the bottom of the hill.  The tension between the elation we experience at the peak and the disappointment we feel at returning to the “world” creates life giving opportunities we have yet to imagine.

Don’t worry, when I say no one is staying on the mountain, I mean that.  We’re not leaving God behind.  God is coming with us.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Ash Wednesday is On Valentine’s Day: What Oh What Will We Do?

According to scripture, God’s love life is complicated.  God is always getting God’s heart broke.  God falls in love with all the wrong people.  His choice in partners is horrible.  You should see some of the people God brings home.  I’m all for loving who you want to love.  However, God knows how to pick real losers.

Granted, the relationships begin for the right reasons.  At the beginning there’s always hope, ecstasy, the promise of a future, and delight in one another’s company.  Eventually, the people God loves fall out of love; often as quickly and as easily as they fell into love.  God puts everything on the line for people who never appreciate how God loves them.  Valentine’s Day, this season of mushy love and Romantic self-interest, is hard on God.

First there was Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Moses.  Three relationships that sputtered through the desert until one appeared to work.  I really thought the thing with Moses was going to click.  God loved Moses and Moses loved God.  God even called Moses’ tribe “my people”.  God adopted, claimed, and cared for Moses and his extended family.  You know the story of Moses and their suffering.  It broke God’s heart.  God hated to see the people he loved brutalized and destroyed by Pharaoh’s inhuman actions.  Before Moses could ask, God acted; not because God hated Pharaoh but because God loved Moses’ people.  “Love is a powerful thing”, said Huey Lewis.  “It makes another man weep and another man sing.”  Moses did both.  With God, Moses led the people from Egypt to a new home.

Egypt was barely in the distance when God got the call from the Israelites.  “It’s not you, it’s us.  This thing we have is not really working out.  We want a cow god who feeds us.  You’re not really as hot as we thought.”   They broke up.  God was devastated.  “What did I do wrong?” he asked Moses.

Moses said, “You know them, they’re fickle.”

“Should I kill them?” asked God.

God was very angry.

It went on like this for years.  On again, off again, we love God, we don’t love God.  Each time, God would take them back.  The people would say, “This time we promise, we’ve learned our lesson.  We love you and we’ll never leave.”  It’s one of the most dysfunctional love relationships in human history.  In fact, it’s so bad, people called prophets (the therapists of that time) documented the back and forth love affair between God and the people.  Yes, God knows all about love; flawed, ugly, well beyond the honeymoon love.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: God keeps picking the wrong people.

Eventually God fell in love with me.  I am the wrong kind of person.   I’m a sinner.  Despite my protestations, he loved me anyway.  I’ve broken God’s heart on numerous occasions.  God keeps taking me back.  I don’t know why.  I’ve stopped asking.  We’re happy in our dysfunction.  God loves me.  I love God.  I’ve never found my suitcase on the curb of the church and a restraining order from heaven delivered by the deputy.  We fight like cats and dogs.  I yell and scream Biblical inconsistencies, sometimes I curse, and then we make up.  There’s not much else to it.  What can I say, I’m in love!

What are we doing for Valentine’s Day?  God and I are going to church.  I’m going to preach something really deep about mortality.  What did you think I was going to do, talk about love?  Please, I’m no cultural holiday sell-out.

Richard Bryant

I Wanted A Religious Experience and All I Got Was This Stupid Tent

I can see the T-shirt now:  “I wanted a religious experience and all I got was a stupid tent (and this shirt).”  Where can I order one?  Isn’t that the essence of many people’s encounter with church, Christianity, or organized religion?  People want God and we give them stuff.  People want to be changed and we offer trinkets, Bible covers, and bracelets.  The church has been known to provide a dressing room (a tent, one might say) and sometimes nothing more.

For all the resplendent glory and metaphysical light surrounding the Transfiguration; there is more to the Transfiguration than a Jesus sanctioned ghost story and an opportunity to bemoan Peter’s “just not getting it” once again.  If we focus on the Las Vegas style magic show we miss the message and meaning behind Jesus’ smoke and mirrors. What are we doing?  Does the church provide an opportunity for a real world encounter with the divine?   Where does the Old Testament fit into our collective worship and individual lives?  What do we do when God scares us and we don’t know how to respond?  Where does our need for stability and predictability end?  Is it possible to ever have a well manicured, covered, managed, fill in the blanks relationship with God that we attempt to control?  No, it’s not.

The Transfiguration challenges our need to control God.  Peter’s actions seem benevolent.  They are motivated by fear and kindness.  Peter doesn’t know what else to do.  Don’t ancients like Moses and Elijah (not to mention the Holy Spirit) need shelter, especially on the rugged terrain of a mountain?

If we don’t understand someone (or something), we try to control what we don’t know or dislike.We create new creeds, statements of faith, dictates, and realign dogma.  Even when our actions appear motivated by virtue (or the right reading of Augustine, Aquinas or Wesley), it is easier to make our image of God fit inside our tent (something we built, can move, and reassemble at will) than embrace God’s expansive vision of the world around us.  In the tent we’ve built, whether built out of love or a desire for power, God is ours to control and wield.  So we think.  When you pull up the stakes and pack up your tent only to pitch it again at the bottom of the mountain to show the world the “God Show” you captured at the top of the mountain, God’s not there.  The tent is empty.  God’s not there.  God was never in your tent.

God isn’t left behind on the mountain.  I still believe and quote Paul Tillich as often as I can:  “God is the ground of all being”.  Our greatest fear at encountering God, like Peter and his colleagues on the mountain, comes from realizing we cannot control God.  We can put words in God’s mouth, attribute actions to God, blame God, and do countless other things.  But that’s not God.  That’s us playing God.   See the difference?

Richard Bryant

What We Are Isn’t What Jesus Envisioned-A Reading of Mark 1:29-39

It’s the 5th Sunday of Epiphany.  We’re staring Transfiguration in the eye and Lent is just over the Horizon.  Our journey through Mark continues.  We’re still on the first chapter!  This is like the Jetson’s, “Jane, get me off the crazy chapter!”  Here’s my take on this week’s readings for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany.   There may be a typo here or there, for which I apologize, as always.  (Check back , you may have noticed I tweak things up until pulpit time.) Richard’s Food For Thought is a perpetual work in progress.  I’m grateful for those who check in, read along, and say hello.  A special to thank you to the staff and editorial leadership at United Methodist Insight.  And hey, if these help, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do, blessings.  This month marks “Richard’s Food For Thought” ‘s  4th Anniversary.   Thanks for coming on the journey. Be courageous, kind, and remember; you are loved.

Richard

This passage illustrates a larger point:  the modern church isn’t anything like the movement the first followers of Jesus envisioned.  I’m not certain how much of what we do would be recognizable to a first century Christian.  I hope the words we say at Holy Communion might sound familiar.  Certain prayers, such as readings from Philippians 2 and the Apostles’ Creed, link us to the early church.  With those notable exceptions, two thousand years have changed what Jesus initiated and who we’ve become.  This passage shows that gap.  On the other hand, it also demonstrates how easy it is to return to the models, ideas, and ministry Jesus first presented.

This is an important passage. It’s worth listening and paying attention to.  Some scripture inspires us or consoles us.  This story reaches through the pages of the Bible convicts us because it’s saying:  if you’re dealing with sickness, illness, doubt, being overwhelmed, and life is coming at you way too fast; here is how Jesus dealt with those situations.  This is not anonymous Guidepost wisdom, a thought for the day calendar, or motivation from a well-known preacher.  Mark offers insights from Jesus.  Mark is saying, “I want to show you what Jesus did.”  Then Mark asks, “Do you think you might emulate what you see here?”  If Mark shows us a picture, actions, or tells us a story, might we do them in the same manner as Jesus did them?  Could we do them without adding new rules, hoops to jump through, or what we deem to be improvements on Jesus’ methods?  Can we be Christians, followers of Jesus, and the body of Christ, without all the baggage (religious or otherwise) that’s taken us off course?

If you hear there’s a good doctor in town, everyone is going to come out and be seen.  This is especially true if you live in a rural place like Capernaum.  All the people with physical and mental illnesses understood someone new was offering healing and cures.  I wonder how fast the news traveled.  This is pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter Capernaum.  That being said, I’m willing to bet the word circulated quickly.

“There’s a guy over at Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, some carpenter from Nazareth and he’s already healed her fever.  Can you believe it?”  It didn’t take long before everyone was in contact with their sick relatives and friends. “Come, let’s go see Jesus.”  I’m sure that was the invitation.  It wasn’t I hear they got a great pre-school, men’s group, UMW, social club, gardening society, or anything else.  Programming doesn’t create community.  Programming grows out of community.  The first and most authentic invitations to interact with other Christians were and are:  “Come, let’s go see Jesus.”

You know there had to be a line stretching out the door, around the corner, and around the block.  Can you imagine the assumptions made by the people who didn’t know what was going on?  The theories, the gossip, and the rumors they must have invented in their minds.  Imagine their surprise when they walked up to someone just coming out of the house.  “What’s going on here?”  “What the meaning of this?”

The guy says, “I’ve been healed.  I heard about this teacher and healer named Jesus.  He’s from Nazareth.  He’s staying here in this house with Simon Peter’s family.  Apparently, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law and now she’s up, walking around, and making everyone food.  The next thing you know, my neighbor knocked on my door and said, ‘you ought to come down to Simon’s house and see if this Jesus can heal you.’  He led me down here.  I can walk for the first time in my life.”

The bystander was amazed.  He’d never seen or heard anything like this.  This had to be some kind of scam.  The faith healer was probably a con-artist bilking these people out of money.  He asked the man, “So how much did the healer charge you for the ability to walk?”

The man looked confused.  It was if he didn’t fully understand the question.  After a pause he said, “Jesus didn’t charge me or anyone else anything.  Everything he does is free.”

“What do you mean free?” exclaimed the incredulous bystander.  “What about your insurance, your co-pay, your deductible, Obama Care, the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate, or out of pocket expenses?  Jesus can’t offer free health care.”

And yet he did.  Medical care to the physically and mentally ill was a huge portion of Jesus’ earthly ministry.   If he wasn’t preaching, Jesus was healing.  He never charged a shekel to cure anyone from an illness.  I can hear you now.  “Well, Richard, those times were different.”  And I’ll say, “Sisters and brothers in Christ; were people any less sick and needy?”  The human condition is what links us over time.  There may not have been HMO’s, insurance companies, the Affordable Care Act,  individual mandates, an idea called single payer health care, or medical care as we know it; but Jesus recognized the value of physical and spiritual well being.  It’s what he did everyday of his life.  The people who follow Christ have a responsibility to continue Jesus’ work of helping the most vulnerable and asking nothing in return.  This is how the Kingdom is built.

God’s emphasis on physical and spiritual wholeness is evident from the first pages of the Old Testament.  Jesus is continuing something that God started in Genesis.  This is who we are to be.  God charges no premiums, deductibles, or out of pocket expense for our welfare.  Even before the events at Easter, Jesus is here to say:  you’re covered.

The second half the passage undergirds, in a powerful way, the meaning of the first.  First we’re told, God’s kingdom is coming in the here and now and God’s people will be restored, made whole and healed in the here and now, not in some far off heavenly reality.  On a street corner in Capernaum, in the front room of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, Heaven has arrived.

We’re told something new.  Spiritual health is integral to the Kingdom of God.  Again, Mark is painting a picture of how Jesus operates and asking, “Can you do this, just this?”  “Can you emulate Jesus at this basic level?”

We’ve seen how Jesus keeps a pretty busy schedule.  Imagine seeing sick and mentally ill patients all day and night, for hours on end.  At some point, even Jesus needs a break, time to reconnect with God.  From the beginning of his ministry to his last day on Earth, Jesus demonstrates a need for quiet time and being alone with God.  In other words, Jesus has an active prayer life.  This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.  Mark is not telling us this story because it paints an inspirational picture; like those of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We’re not supposed to step back from this reading of this Sunday and say, “look how holy Jesus was, isn’t he special, I bet his mother was so proud of him.”  That’s not what this is about.  This is a message.  Jesus is role-modeling how to be a follower of God in a busy and overwhelming world like his and ours.  Disciples of Jesus, we need to learn, do the things he does:  helping, healing, and praying.  It’s not a pick and choose sort of and existence.

We can be who Jesus intended us to be.  There is no trick, equation to master, or seminar to attend.  The challenge is to do what Jesus does; not to extrapolate what he might do.  If we read Mark and the other gospels, listen to what Jesus says, observe his words and actions, and emulate those in our own life; the divergence between where we’ve ended up and where we started will narrow quickly.  Remember what he told his disciples in the last meal they shared together before his death:  gather, talk, share, and do these things in remembrance of me.  It doesn’t get any plainer than that.

Richard Bryant