Recognizing God

“Those who had diseases were pressing to touch him” (Mark 3:11).

Mark’s Gospel envisions a fundamental shift in the spirit world when Jesus is baptized. Satan, alerted to his presence in territory formerly under his control, tries to seduce him in the desert. From that point on, wherever Jesus goes, demons and other possessing spirits that cause disease recognize Jesus as superior to Satan, and as he moves through the landscape, cities and villages, a wave of healing and exorcism flows from him. The reign of God is at hand, and the reign of evil is overthrown.

What seems most astonishing in the story is that, while the sick and the possessed recognize Jesus, the religious authorities do not. They regard him as encroaching on their exclusive role to interpret the ways of God as contained in the Law and in religious practice. An inexplicable blindness prevents them from acknowledging the obvious power Jesus has to heal and liberate people from evil. Their ritual purity and legal stature seem to have isolated them from ordinary life and people to the extent that all they see in the crowds are ignorance and contamination.

The Word, the writer of Hebrews 4 reminded us, acts as a two-edged sword to expose the secrets of the heart. Today’s Gospel is a surgical examination of all our presumptions and certainties about the ways of God. If we are blind to the good even our enemies are capable of, how will we recognize God present in our own need for conversion?

More Life

“Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5).

The new Spirit Jesus described with the image of new wineskins for new wine is applied to the ongoing debate over what is allowed on the Sabbath. Jesus will repeatedly heal people in synagogues on the Sabbath under eyes of the scribes and Pharisees. In today’s Gospel, the question is whether alleviating human suffering is more important than ritual observance of the day of rest. A man with a withered hand is healed. In another dramatic instance (Luke 13:11), a woman bent over for 18 years is enabled to stand up straight. Both miracles are about the expansiveness and liberating power of the new covenant. The scribes and Pharisees, guardians of the old covenant, are outraged at this challenge to their authority to interpret the Law. Jesus insists that he is in fact fulfilling rather than breaking the Sabbath rule.

To be alive is to grow and expand beyond the safe parameters of childhood toward adult discernment and freedom. Faced with new questions and challenges, we must stretch and stand up to meet realities our old rules have not prepared us for. When asked to name the most important commandment, Jesus says that love covers everything. Love God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. You will never go wrong, even if you face dilemmas and ambiguities no rule book ever imagined. Love will prove far more demanding than any law, and it will cost far more than you imagine. But love will make you grow and give you an abundant life.

Lords of the Sabbath

"I will indeed bless and multiply you” (Gen 22:17).

The author of Hebrews recounts the faith of Abraham, who believed God’s promise to give him an immense posterity even though he and his wife Sarah were childless. They are given Isaac. But when he is but a boy, Abraham is told to sacrifice him as a test of obedience. The terrifying story of the “binding of Isaac” in Gen 22 ends with God renewing his promise to Abraham after intervening to halt the death of Isaac. “I will indeed bless and multiply you.” It seems an appropriate keynote on this day of remembrance for respect life issues facing us as a nation. In the midst of many complex issues of healthcare, privacy, family, population growth and the whole range of justice issues that support life after birth, the scriptures remind us that every life is gift whose future trajectory is unknown and of inestimable worth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus defends his disciples for gleaning and eating from the harvest as they walk through the fields on the Sabbath. They are lords of the sabbath, he says, because religion and rules are for the benefit of people, not the other way around. This freedom to discern and obey the spirit over the letter of the law is another sign of how much God trusts us under the new covenant of grace announced by Jesus. With it comes even greater responsibility to address and resolve the immense problems now facing the global community. Our role in future harvests will require a spirit of great courage and imagination. But one rule will remain constant: We will reap what we sow.

Change

“He himself is beset by weakness” (Heb 5:3).

Taylor Branch, author of the trilogy “America in the King Years,” has called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr one of the country’s founders for his brief but basic contribution to the principles of democracy. King used the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to compel the nation to live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens. From the pulpit, in street demonstrations and steady progress in the courts, the Civil rights Movement exposed and challenged a long history of exclusion and discrimination. Even his insistence on nonviolent method was itself an affirmation that the right to vote was a more effective way to bring about social evolution and political change than armed conflict. The peaceful transfer of power in the United States is a unique and late achievement in human history.

Every reformer in history has endured the wrath of the status quo and entrenched interests. Jesus modeled the power of nonviolent resistance and self-sacrifice to create a revolution in the heart that has inspired others. His crucifixion also previewed the martyrdom of subsequent heroes who have given their lives for change, and even where transition occurs, the shadow of assassination is ever present.

Dr. King was a human being, and his personal weaknesses only accentuate the sense that those who serve purposes larger than themselves are chosen to wear a mantle they only borrow briefly. King’s most important decision was to accept the role of spokesperson for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. His power as a preacher was matched to the cause, and the next 13 tortuous years unfolded from there. It was a journey downward into deeper conflict and suffering, even within the movement, and King’s last chapter was played out among the sanitation workers of Memphis, where he was murdered.

We do not need to stretch to apply biblical values to history today when Dr. King’s memory is celebrated as President Barack Obama begins his second term. Two liturgies converge, one political and the other spiritual. This is what life in the world looks like, and we are blessed to be alive and part of it.

New Wine

“You have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).

Fermentation is as old as history, and its impact is perhaps as great as the discovery of fire and the wheel. The discovery of this natural process gave us cheese, yeast for bread and other foods, and it created wine and beer, superfluous as food but a boon to the spirit. Psalm 104 celebrates among God’s greatest gifts to humans “bread to strengthen our hearts, oil to make our faces shine and wine to gladden our hearts.”

The wedding feast at Cana occasions the first sign of Jesus’ ministry to announce the reign of God. An extravagance of wine blesses the wedding party and reveals that something new is happening. Ceremonial jars for water used in purification rites under the old covenant of the Law now hold the wine of the new covenant of Grace, God’s free outpouring of love. Stone jars hold the gift, but its very effervescent nature requires a more expansive container. Jesus will later use the image of new wine going into new wine skins to describe the need for institutional flexibility to hold the new spirit (Luke 5:39).

Like other miracles of multiplication, Jesus first asks something ordinary of us, the small barely loaves and few fish we have held back from the hungry crowd, or the effort it takes to fill the stone jars with water. God takes over from there. A glass of water to a poor man will get us into the Kingdom. A gesture of kindness to a stranger leads to friendship. A look of mutual recognition across a crowded room begins a love story that becomes a marriage, a mustard seed sown in the wind makes a tree that shelters many for generations to come.

The human heart gets smaller or larger depending on how we risk life’s invitations and intrusions. Even Jesus needed a push to begin his ministry. If you are waiting for your real life to begin, today just might be the day.

Called

“The Word is alive and effective, like a two-edged sword ...” (Heb 4:12).

Jesus eludes those who see religion as mostly about morality. He begins his ministry confusing even his mentor, John the Baptist, by consorting with sinners and outcasts. The Scribes and Pharisees were probably relieved to see how lax Jesus was in his socializing. The hill country prophet has taken himself out of the game by being seen publicly in the company of tax collectors and prostitutes, a fatal contamination for anyone hoping to build a following or have any influence. Religion favors an either-or approach. Righteousness increases its standing when compared to loose living and corruption. We are inside a circle defined by those who are outside.

Jesus immerses himself in social reality like a two-edged sword, engaging both sides of every question, every dichotomy. We are reminded that he lives in an Eastern culture, more Asian wisdom than Greek philosophy -- whose systems of thought would later force Christianity to define its mysteries into doctrines that satisfy the mind but say little to the heart. Jesus, like a Zen master, has only open-ended stories and ironic sayings that suspend judgment in favor of tolerance and love. His presence at table with either outcasts or Pharisees will defy convention and probe the secret places in every heart, exposing pride, not lust or greed, as the greatest obstacle to truth.

Levi, son of Alphaeus, is called by Jesus, and he walks away from his tax station, his complicity with the Roman occupation, his role in what is a plague upon the poor and a stain on his own soul. He will make a good disciple because he knows life’s complexities and compromises. He will show mercy because mercy has set him free.

Raising the Roof

“They opened up the roof” (Mark 2:3).

Church ceilings get their share of attention from children and others whose eyes wander during services. It seems natural to look up during prayer. Old churches once depicted celestial scenes and hovering angels on the vault to remind us from whence help comes. I recall one church with a broad wood ceiling whose shifting joists went bump, conjuring up angels dropping onto the roof.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is talking to a crowd inside a house when the roof comes off. The rapt audience is startled by noises above, then by sudden shafts of light as tiles are lifted off the beams to make a hole big enough to lower a paralyzed man on a stretcher into the middle of the room. The image is a biblical way of saying that God is breaking into the world. When Israel is in a drought, denied rain or a prophetic word, it is because heaven is closed. Like the sky that opened over Jesus after his baptism, the roof opens above him to initiate a moment of God’s astonishing mercy. The paralyzed man will walk out of the house carrying his mat but not the burden of his sins.

Real change seldom comes from within. Even if we “think outside the box,” that does not mean we will escape the box. Those who create and serve any system will apply the same thinking to reforming it. The addict is enslaved not by the habit but by the thinking that supports it. What is needed is intervention, a new way of seeing and acting that is at first disruptive and disturbing but in the long term liberating. Jesus was God breaking into the world, blowing our cover, exposing our narrow ways of thinking and living. If we are open, we emerge from old ways, small spaces, paralysis and sinfulness into God’s gracious freedom.

Our Choice

“Harden not your hearts” (Ps 95).

Years ago when I was a first-year religion teacher at a large all-boys high school, a favorite question passed down from older brothers to their siblings as a class-stopping-stump-the-teacher diversion was this one: “Can God make a rock bigger than He can lift?”

For several years I got drawn into long explanations of God’s omnipotence, logical contradictions and various philosophical conundrums existing only in the mind. Finally it occurred to me that, from a theological perspective, the answer was yes. There is one one thing God has made that even God cannot move, and that is the human heart. If we believe that God is love and that human beings are created free, then where love meets freedom, even God must stand powerless before the immovable heart. This solution is itself a conundrum, and a serious one, since it contains the dilemma of God’s absolute power and human evil.

The stubborn heart, the proud or wounded heart, the angry, closed heart can seemingly block justice, progress, common sense, good intentions and even its own best interests. Jesus, God’s own heart and the most gracious person who ever lived, was resisted, rejected and finally murdered out of fear, jealousy, spite and ignorance. Psalm 95 pleads: “Oh that today you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts …”

God’s patient, loving invitation to greater life was reflected in the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, from the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1956 to his assassination in Memphis in 1968. He chose a path of slow but real progress in race relations through nonviolent marches in the streets and legal reform in the courts. Tragically, hearts hardened by fear were in the end only moved by the ultimate sacrifice of his death. We again face these same dynamic issues in our world and our country and must choose between violence and nonviolence. A society charged by hatred and fear is a dangerous place for civil discourse and due process. Where hearts are hardened, only love can break the spell and move us forward. “Oh that today we might hear his voice.”

Healed by Love

“Everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:37).

Richard Selzer, surgeon and essayist (Mortal Lessons, 1976), recounts a visit by the personal physician of the Dali Lama to a busy New York hospital. During morning rounds, the Tibetan physician, wearing saffron robes, pauses to examine a woman hospitalized for a heart valve problem. Without knowing the diagnosis beforehand, the monk sits next to the woman’s bed and holds her hand for an extended time, then pronounces to the other doctors that “a door has opened that should not be open,” a poetic but precise description of the heart problem. What Selzer conveys so movingly in the essay is the bond the monk achieves with the patient, almost that of a lover, by his quiet, focused manner of listening to her personal condition.

Mark reports five separate actions to describe Jesus’ encounter with Peter’s mother-in-law in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus enters the house, listens to those who tell him about the woman’s fever, he approaches her, grasps her hand and helps her up. This deliberate slowing down of the scene is typical of the Gospels, and it suggests that healing for Jesus was an intimate, focused and personal encounter with the whole person. Like a lover, he listens, approaches, touches, knows and feels the beloved’s precise need before he helps her to rise up, restoring her to the household and to her meaningful role of serving others. Peter’s mother-in-law might have said that she had been loved back to health.

Where did Jesus find such love? Mark tells us that after a long day and evening in which the “whole town gathered at the door” seeking healing and freedom from unclean spirits, Jesus then rose early in the morning, before sunrise, and went to a lonely place to pray. Peter and the disciples pursued him, saying, “Everyone is looking for you.” Indeed.

Authority

“All were amazed and asked one another,‘What is this?’” (Mark 1:27).

The ethos or culture that defines people collectively is a mysterious and powerful reality. In the current gun debate, we encounter layers of history, myth, media and psychology that have conspired to form an American individualism alert to any attempt to limit personal rights and the freedom to live as each person chooses, regardless of the common good. While other cultures value strong conformity to accepted convention and cooperation as necesary to achieve certain social goals, the American stereotype romanticizes the old West, is still fighting the Civil War, experiences urban life as a movie in which survival and the protection of person, property and family are absolutes. Perhaps because the United States holds together such immense diversity, progress toward social cohesion has always been volatile and edgy when tribal interests rub against each other. Change is difficult, takes generations or crisis to effect, and any attempt to challenge basic assumptions is painfully slow and politically dangerous.

Gospel accounts of exorcism by Jesus are seen in the larger context of the coming of the reign of God into a world ruled by hierarchies of power and social arrangements imposed by force that protect disparity and privilege for the few at the expense of the majority. Jesus announces a revolution in both behavior and the underlying relationships and attitudes that motivate people. The demoniac in the synagogue is alert to Jesus’ authority to rebuke and expel “the spirit of the age” that possesses the man. The new order disrupts the very substructures of the dominant culture. A new spirit is in this man Jesus, and it is stronger than the spirit that had formerly imposed itself on everyone. The crowd in the synagogue is astonished as they feel the lifting of a thick veil of fear and control that had pervaded every aspect of their lives. A freshness and freedom touches them from the inside out. They feel joy in the presence of Jesus. His authority has an absolute feel about it, and they sense God at work in him.

Jesus enters our small, confined lives like light streaming into an open doorway. We have lived in the shadows of so many social norms and self-imposed limits that have diminished us and everyone around us. Something new is happening, and it is inviting us to step into its brilliant light.

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