Reflection for June 28, 2015

Lamentations 3:22-33, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43 

Let’s begin with the third reading from Mark. This reading is part of Mark’s emphasis on healing ministry in this church. A couple of things might be said about the ancient congregation responsible for Mark. It was an urban congregation in a large city in the Roman Empire, perhaps Rome itself. Life is intense and fast. Things happen immediately. First century urban life was brutal, with intense crowding, high crime rates, no sanitation, constant fear of fire, and the dread of plague. There were no social services or support systems in play for those who were poor.

The community of Mark was founded in such a city. It began in the Jewish synagogue, but moved beyond that space fairly quickly as it embraced more and more Gentiles.

The congregation focused on caring for the sick, something that was rarely done in Roman cities. The sick were abandoned for fear of contagion. But caring for the sick or healing was a priority in this particular urban congregation just as our shelter work and financial emergency relief is our priority at St. Johns.

The building of the congregation probably looked more like a field hospital rather than a church with sick people everywhere being cared for in every available corner. The church was perhaps overwhelmed by the needs of the sick and did not want to broadly advertise what they did, sometimes being even secretive about their healing center and the healing power of Jesus.

And it may be the case that the intensity and fast pace that is so much a part of the gospel of Mark was due to a plague that had hit the city. In times of plague in urban centers, perhaps a fourth to a third of the city would die, the fabric of social life would disintegrate, and people would wonder if this were the end of the world, as they do in Mark.

So with this intense healing ministry, in a time of health care crisis, these people remember Jesus primarily as a healer. As I noticed earlier this year, in the book of Mark in the thirteen chapters it takes to get to his last week of life, there are seventeen healing encounters. Every time you turn around Jesus is healing.

By contrast, in Luke, written later, there are still sixteen or seventeen healing encounters, but it takes twenty-one chapters to cover the same ground. Jesus becomes much more of a story teller and teacher. That’s even more the case in Matthew who also has about sixteen or seventeen healing encounters. But now there are almost twice as many chapters as Mark. Jesus has long sermons and complex arguments with his opponents.

And in John there are only four healing encounters and Jesus just talks on and on. But in Mark, in this version of the life of Jesus, he is primarily one who heals. Health care is important to these people.

We know that when people are sick, they are more likely to recover if they are cared for. Care, no matter what that care is, often assists in the healing process, and increases the chances that the person will get better, quicker. There are no miracles to this except the miracle of tender compassion and the way the body works. But the miracle of healing was what this congregation accomplished for many people. And they did it by caring for those who were ill rather than abandoning them. So their memory of Jesus recalled Jesus as healer whose death even brought the healing of the universe.

In Mark today two healing stories are spliced together into one account. And in the details of the story are embedded several issues facing these first Christian health care workers.

Who gets the care? In the story the daughter of the synagogue leader and a Gentile woman are both healed. The Jewish healing is interrupted by the healing of the Gentile woman. The combination reminds us of how the health care workers in Mark were probably constantly interrupted as they cared for the ill, moving from one bed to the next. But the story reminds care givers that both Jew and Gentile, old and new, young and old, are to be treated in this field hospital.

How can we provide for all these people? You can see in the second reading that early Christians supported their efforts by sharing their wealth. In the book of Acts we have more descriptions of sharing so that all in the community have what they need. We also sense that the communities in different cities shared with each other in times of crises, and that this inter-urban sharing between churches may have been the first church organization or structure.

What can we really do to bring healing? From our point of view, it seems like ancient healing could not have been very effective. And without today’s diagnostic tools, medicines and treatments, recovery rates were much lower and death rates were much higher.

Still, ancient health care did make a difference. And we have clues to how that healing took place and what the healers did in this passage.

—–There was an emphasis on the healer as a person. We may not think that matters, but even in our highly technical medicine, who the doctor is and who the nurses are really make a great deal of difference even today. Jesus was the role model for these ancient Christian healers.

—–Ancient healing involves touch. People feel better when they are touched, again even today, touch has soothing qualities.

—–There is the importance of cloth, represented by touching the robe of Jesus. This healing property of cloth may seem strange to us. But then we recall how young humans still today will have a special blanket which provides soothing quality. And think of all the cloth or quilts constructed in this congregation and our sister congregations which are used by Lutheran World Relief to provide soothing comfort and relief. Think of the quilts we are giving our graduates today to remind them of their faith home. And think of how good the blanket feels when we have the chills due to a fever. Cloth was used in the healing ministry.

—–And there was an emphasis on getting up. The young woman gets out of bed. That’s how ancient people encouraged recovery. One cannot lie in bed all of the time and recover. Get up. Let’s get going are still the words used by countless physical therapists in our own time.

—–And having a bite to eat, as does the young woman, nourishes the recovery. Some chicken soup gets us moving again.

—–And most important of all, confidence or faith matters. And it still contributes to healing. Those who believe they will get better have a better chance of recovery than those who do not.


So we actually can get a sense of how the healers worked in the hospital that was Mark. The healer mattered. So did touch, movement, blankets, and soup. And through these ancient and yet modern means, much healing took place.

What if people ridicule us? The story speaks to the skepticism and ridicule the healers faced.  The Mark community was probably criticized for their efforts. But there remains a confidence in the mission that does not deter the healers even in the face of criticism or the danger of exposure.

What if we are too late? What do we do with our failures, when someone dies? Is that the end? Here in this account of the rising of a twelve year old, we sense not only the ways comas were experienced; but also the growing conviction of the healers that death in the end was not defeat but a passage into a new kind of life and a new kind of health. All of that is not that spelled out in Mark. But it is there. In the healing business, death is also a part of the healing process for all creation.

So today, when we are sick, we do rely on doctors and as the ancient Gentile woman did, we often spend a lot on health care. But even now we touch each other, we embrace, we break bread, we share nourishment, we wrap each other in bands of cloth to protect us from the cold world, and we face our maladies with as much confidence as we can muster while we follow the healer whose death and life brought the healing not only of individuals but also all creation.




Reflection for June 14, 2015

Ezekiel 17:22-24, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34


It is mid-June in southern Wisconsin. This is the season when everything outside is suddenly growing. It is our season of growth, as the plants begin to rapidly expand. Leaves break forth. Gardens are filled with promise. And those of us with allergies, sense that this is a particularly good year for growing green.

So today’s readings naturally bring us to the theme of growth in the world around us.  Two prophets, Jesus and Ezekiel, tell nature parables about trees, shrubs, and agriculture to draw our attention to this miracle of growth. Just as plants and all creatures in nature grow, so also in the spirit world, there is growth in the human heart.

Growth. We see it all around us really: in our children, in our animal friends, in the greening fields and forests of our wonderful state. This is the season and these are the readings of growth.

I would like to use an old word to talk about these growth parables. It is the word propensity. Propensity. I don’t think we use the word that much anymore, but these natural and agricultural parables of Ezekiel and Jesus speak to propensity, and the propensities of the human spirit as we encounter God.

A propensity is a tendency toward something. It is a predisposition to do something, or go a certain way. It is an inclination. But propensity is slightly different than any of those words. Propensity involves some urgency, some drive, or some intensity. It involves a necessity or a push. We not only have a predisposition to growth. There is more to it than that. We have more than an inclination to grow. We are pressed and moved along. It is our necessity and challenge.

The parables speak of the propensity to growth. Our faith does not stay the same. It is something that grows, matures, changes, achieving depth, wisdom, and richness along the way. Our faith is like a good aging wine or cheddar cheese. Our faith is like a plant growing fuller as we mature. This growing in faith, maturing, changing, deepening, quickening, wisdom, and richness is a propensity of life in the spirit. We grow in faith until even others are able to find refuge in the shade of our branches. This is our calling.

And the parables speak of the propensity to recovery, wholeness, and healing.  The mystery of growth, even at a cellular level gives rise to the miracle of recovery when we are wounded or ill. Our bodies have a propensity to recovery, to healing, to wholeness. We see this again and again as we recover from the maladies within us, physical injury and illness, and also emotional trauma and struggle. For some mysterious reason, we usually get better. And we can help that propensity to recovery by attending to the process of emotional or physical healing.

And the parables speak to the propensity to compassion. Oh, I know that generally speaking, the human race can be a mean-spirited lot. We can cause so much suffering. But once the seed of the love of God is planted in the human heart, things change. The spirit of God begins to grow, and we experience a propensity to compassion. We want to help, care for and love others. And we strive to do that as part of our life. And that tendency grows. We have a propensity to compassion.

And the parables speak to our propensity to seek the deeper truth. The human mind and heart always want to know more, understand more deeply, find the broader forces in our propensity to discover the ultimate nature of things. Gradually the understandings we hold become the pretext for new unfolding visions of the way things are. The stories that reminded us that God loves us become the sagas of God’s love for all people. The sense that we need to bring others to Christ becomes the sense that we welcome all, everyone, into the family of God. The call to behave according to a set of rules becomes the challenge to discipline our own human heart. The parables speak to our propensity to seek the deeper truth.

Until these parables remind us humans of our propensity to hope. Hope is especially lifted up by the prophet Ezekiel. Our propensities to growth, to healing, to compassion, to deeper wisdom, drive us into the ultimate human propensity, our longing, our hope. When knocked down by life, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move along. That is our way, our tendency, our inclination.

And sometimes we sense that as we hope again, it is because someone mysterious is walking with us along the way, helping us back up on our feet. We sense the presence of a higher power  who gets us going again, and moves us along. For God is not a particular propensity, but propensity itself, the drive to grow, and live as fully as possible. So even as we embrace the growing green of our beloved planet, the human spirit moves beyond the natural order of things, through growth, and then decline and death into new life in, with and through the one we dare to call Abba.






Reflection for June 7, 2015

Genesis 3:8-15, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Evil, in and around us, is something we face. It is part of the human condition. Bad things are embedded in life. We wonder why bad things happen. What is it that causes so many disasters: personal, institutional, national, and natural? Why is there evil? That question sometimes invades our hearts, especially in times of anquish.

This ancient Iron Age legend in Genesis, the conclusion of the Garden of Eden story, grapples with the question of evil. But the question it grapples with is not why there is evil. It assumes that it is there, always lurking in the background of Eden, and sometimes breaking to the surface. The question Genesis grapples with is not the why of evil but the how of evil. How does evil work?

At first the story in Genesis seems to be a collection of primitive legends that explain why snakes are the way they are and why humans and snakes do not get along with each other. And there is here the ancient account of why the fruit of some trees, although looking and tasting good, in the end makes us ill. So we had best stay away, and ancient humans thought this was important to know. But underneath ancient stories of snakes and trees, which creatures and trees to avoid, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden describes how evil works.

First, there is the interplay of the snake and the humanity. The natural and the human. Evil seems to be part of the structure of things. Bad things would be happening even if we did not cause them or engage in them. Evil is beyond the human. But sometimes bad things are the result of human sin, greed, or cruelty. Most of the time the natural world, the way things are in the world, interacts with human vulnerabilities and shortcomings to result in bad consequences. Evil is the interaction of human fallibility with the ways of the world. So evil is something that is both inside of us and beyond us. Adam, Eve, and the snake all interact with each other.

Evil is something that is both in us and beyond us, the story teller says. And it has something to do with awareness. The tree of knowledge is the sign of awareness. We know that the more we know, the deeper our knowledge, then the more we become aware of how we are involved in things that may be cruel or hurtful. Where does our food really come from? Where do our clothes come from? The more awareness we have, the more we eat of the tree of knowledge, the more we sense the presence of injustice, cruelty, and evil working both within and beyond us.

And in the garden, nakedness is the sign of vulnerability.  In the interplay of the forces of evil, human vulnerabilities are exposed and then exploited. As our vulnerabilities take over, evil takes root.

And in the garden, evil is sustained when the blame is passed from one person to another, from Adam to Eve to the snake. As the buck is passed, one opportunity after another for righting things slips away.

And in the garden, evil, whether we instigate it or not, has consequences. The snake is cursed. Adam and Eve leave their innocence behind. Sometimes the consequences are seen as punishment. Sometimes not. But the bad has consequences in our own lives and those who follow in our wake.

So bad things happen as we, with our fears and vulnerabilities, try to hide from the truth, while we interact with dark forces beyond us. The more aware we become of the complex interweaving of all things, we see that the consequences of evil for us and others can be deeply tragic. And evil compounds itself as the consequence of one evil becomes the cause of the next. That is the how of evil. It is how evil works in the garden of Genesis.

The reading from Mark also speaks to the complexity of evil. The spirit of evil is often intertwined with the spirit of the good. The dialog between Jesus and his adversaries assumes that sometimes that spirit which is disguised as good is really bad. That which is disguised as bad is really good. We know this to be true. What we thought was good, later we realize was not so good after all. Think about all the asbestos in our world. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And then what we thought was bad in the end turned out to be good. Think of the minor heart attack that causes a person to change his life and live more fully. As Jesus says, we will be able to sort it out only by discerning the fruits of the spirit.

And that brings us to the ultimate complexity of the interweaving of good and evil in II Corinthians. As our outer bodies are wasting away, an inner nature is growing.  Momentary afflictions give way to something that cannot yet be seen, as God escorts us as new human creatures into a new garden beyond the complexities of ancient stories of Adam and Eve. For we know that if our earthly life is destroyed, we will have a new life from God, grounded no longer in the complex interweaving of the good and bad of this world, but in the simple purity of compassion and love.