Items filtered by date: February 2018
25 February 2018

Luke 7:36-50

Saved = Forgiven and Unashamed

February 25, 2018

 

          Our worship theme this Lent is “Jesus Saves.” And last week we learned that the Greek word for ‘saved’ is sōzō, but sōzō gets translated different ways depending on context: ‘saved,’ yes, but also ‘healed,’ and sometimes ‘made well.’ For the woman with the flow of blood in last week’s gospel reading, ‘saved’ meant physical healing, but it was healing and then some—it was being restored to community, being welcomed in the place of worship, being made somebody instead of nobody. Jesus saves. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And this time saved means forgiven. And forgiveness is a great big deal—don’t get me wrong. But even so, saved is forgiveness . . . and then some. Let me tell you what I mean.

 

          Simon the Pharisee is criticizing Jesus; the Pharisees were always criticizing Jesus. This time it was for failing to recognize “who and what sort” of woman this is who has cried on his hair and kissed his feet. That’s the sort of thing Pharisees care about—Pharisees back then and Pharisees here today--who and who sort of people others are. Are they respectable enough? Are they of the right nationality and social class? Do they follow the rules? Do they make us uncomfortable in some way? That’s what Pharisees care about—who and of what sort other people are.

          But Jesus says to Simon: Do you see this woman? Did you hear that question in the gospel? Do you see this woman, Jesus asked. Well, sort of, he had. He’d seen her enough to judge her. He’d seen her enough to know Jesus shouldn’t be with her. But seen her, who she was inside, what it felt like to be her, what her human potential was? No. When he looked at her, all he saw was “a sinner.” He didn’t even know--didn’t care to know--her name. He thought he had her summed up in one word: sinner.

 

          New Testament scholar Wendy Farley points out that this woman has almost certainly been mistreated, traumatized.1 Prostitutes then, as now, didn’t simply ‘choose’ to walk the streets. They were abused, beaten, threatened, deprived of other options—trafficked, is the word we use today. And for traumatized persons, Farley says, forgiveness is not enough. If we hear in this passage only a message of forgiveness, she writes, we remain in the world of the Pharisee. Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still despise them, Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still feel superior to them, Even Pharisees can forgive people . . . but those people are still unwelcome.

          It’s not that the woman doesn’t need to be forgiven; she does. But for her—and, I suppose, for all of us—to be saved is to be forgiven . . . and then some. For this woman, to be saved has to mean being accepted, loved, respected. Here’s how Farley puts it: “Jesus is not distracted by her sin but rather perceives the beauty of her soul shining in her beautiful actions [of loving Jesus]. She does not see herself as beautiful, but he does.” Simon, Jesus asks, do you see this woman? No, Simon doesn’t want to see her. But Jesus does. Jesus saves.

 

          The healing of shame, being truly ‘saved,’ is more than forgiveness. In her shame, one writer has suggested, this woman probably thought, “Joseph is a carpenter, Ruth is a seamstress, Ben is a priest, and I am a sinner.”2 But that’s her shame talking. Sure she’s sinned; we all have. But that’s not who she is. Jesus sees so much more in her than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in her. Jesus saves. And you know, on a good day, I’m fine; I’m okay with myself. But on a bad day, on one of those days that just keep spiraling down, I say to myself: worship attendance is down, the church budget is tight, some people are mad at me. I am a failure. But that, of course, is my shame talking. Sure I have failed at this and that, but that’s not who I am. Jesus sees so much more than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in me. Jesus saves.

 

          That is a beautiful and redeeming part of this story. But it’s only part of the story. There is in the gospel story this woman Jesus whom forgives and accepts; he sees something beautiful in her. In a word, Jesus saves her. But there is someone else in the story, someone who needs saved even more than her, and someone who at the end of the story is still not saved—and that is Simon the Pharisee. At the end of the story, he still thinks he’s better than others, he needs to feel more respectable than others, he still believes he doesn’t belong in the same room or the same category of people with this woman--this woman Jesus loves and who has loved Jesus back. Simon the Pharisee believes he doesn’t need to be saved, and so, sadly, he is not.

 

          Jesus saves. Which means that he heals, yes, but healed and then some. He restores people to community, welcomes people into places of worship, un-ostracizes people. Jesus saves. Which means that Jesus forgives, yes, but forgives and then some. He sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. He sees something beautiful in the broken and downtrodden.

          And the question for us is this: will we be the church of Simon the Pharisee or the church of Jesus the Savior? Will we be the church of Simon the criticizer, the judge, the one who endlessly finds fault--or the church of Jesus who sees something beautiful in everyone? I know what kind of church I need. Jesus saves.

The Lenten Prayer

         

 

1 Wendy Farley, “Luke 7:36-50,” Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation 69/1 (January 2015), 76-77.

2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Upper Room Press, 1993), 79.

18 February 2018

Matthew 9:18-26

Saved = Made Well and Then Some

February 18, 2018

 

Jesus saves: you read it on billboards and church signs and even bathroom walls. Jesus saves: you hear it from TV preachers and gospel songs. But what does it mean—Jesus saves? Is it limited to old-time, evangelical religion, or can 'Jesus saves' come alive in the gospel stories? Can 'Jesus saves' change our hearts and make us new this Lent?

The idea for this Lenten series comes from a sermon delivered years ago by my teacher, Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was widely considered one of the best preachers in America. To me, no one could touch him. I want you to experience him yourselves, a bit from the beginning of his sermon called "Jesus saves." It's helpful to know that Dr. Craddock was a minister in the Disciples of Christ, so when he refers to 'Disciples,' he means members of his denomination, their traits and characteristics. He begins the sermon telling how so many important words have fallen out of favor, but he goes on to say how some of them were being used again—for example, 'Jesus saves.' See what he does with that:

Video clip of Fred Craddock

The New Testament Greek word for 'saved' is sōzō, but as Dr. Craddock suggested, several different English words are used for sōzō, even in the same translation. In Matthew 1:21 the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him Mary will bear a son who will sōzō‑‑save--his people from their sins. But in Mark 6:56 Jesus meets some folks who are sick and sōzō’s them—only now it’s translated healed; and in Luke 8:36 someone with a demon is sōzō'ed—healed, again. But when they're perishing on a boat in a storm, the disciples cry out, "Sōzō us!" Now it's not translated "Heal us," but "Lord, save us!" Save Greek word. And in today's gospel reading, a woman who's been bleeding for twelve years thinks to herself, "If I but touch the fringe of his cloak, I will be sōzō'ed—made well, it says this time. And Jesus concludes the episode by saying to her, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has . . . made you well." But I'm with Dr. Craddock: She was saved; you can call it made well if you want to.

We have these different translations of the same Greek word because, unlike Jesus, we try to separate healing of the mind from healing of the body. We make a distinction between an individual's health and the wellbeing of the whole community. For Jesus there’s no distinction. All of these are part of the same saving/healing/forgiving/reconciling/life-changing power of God. 'Saved" is 'made well' . . . and then some.

 

As we've been learning, in order to understand the full meaning of Jesus' miracles, you have to see them as symbolic events. Again, that doesn't mean he didn't actually do them. That miracles are symbolic events means he really did them and they have a significance beyond themselves. The woman in today's reading had been bleeding for twelve years. Mark’s gospel provides the detail that the little girl whom Jesus raised from the dead was about twelve years old. Twelve is, of course, the number of tribes of Israel, a number that stands for the whole nation.1 That Jesus takes the trouble to raise a girl, in a culture that values boys, is important—honoring girls heals the whole community. And being touched by a woman with a flow of blood breaks so many religious and cultural taboos—removing barriers that keep women down enhances the whole community. There’s a lot going on in these miracles.

 

Let's think about what it means for this woman to be 'made well.' Having a hemorrhage for twelve years had undoubtedly left her weak and exhausted. She must have been horribly uncomfortable, liable to all kinds of infection, physically troubled in many ways. But that's not all. According to Leviticus 15, she is perpetually and permanently "unclean," in a ritual sense. She can't worship or even go out of the house. Everything and everyone that comes into contact with her is also rendered ritually unclean. Think of it—for twelve years she hasn't shared a bed with her husband, hasn't hugged children. She can't eat with others, since her very cup and plate become unclean. As Dr. Craddock puts it, she is isolated from her family, she has no place in the community, she has no place in the place of worship, she has been ostracized and oscillated and is a nobody.

And then . . . she touched Jesus, just the fringe of his cloak. And the hemorrhaging stops, but so much more than that. She is restored to her family, welcomed in her place of worship, she can go about and shake hands and sit with people. She is somebody. Again, you can call it 'made well' if you want to. But Jesus saves.

Of course we don't follow Leviticus 15 any more. We wouldn't keep someone out because of an OBGYN condition. But think of all the ways people are still isolated and made to feel like nobody. In one church I served there was a man who put himself in charge of baby patrol. If a child got fussy or started to cry, he would tell the parents they needed to leave. They were cast out, unwelcome, over a baby crying. But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them." Jesus saves.

At the other end of the spectrum, the way our families and society are structured, many elderly folks wind up feeling isolated and left out. Their kids and grandkids are always busy. Their contemporaries can’t get out to see them any more. And there they sit, lonely, their gifts and wisdom untapped. But 1 Corinthians 12 says that every member of the body of Christ is necessary and important. We may forget and neglect, but Jesus saves.

And we know there are still places where God's LGBTQ children are not welcome for who they are. After all, people insist, there are rules in the book. But the gospel says if we but touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, we will be restored to community, welcomed in the place of worship, un-ostracized. You can call it 'made well' if you want to. Jesus saves!

 

Here’s the most striking thing to me about this story: the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus and Jesus touched the girl who had died. In both cases, according to Old Testament law, Jesus was supposed to be “contaminated,” made ritually unclean. Bleeding women were considered unclean, and so was anyone who touched one. Dead bodies were the most unclean thing of all, and so was anyone who touched one. But with Jesus a funny thing happens. Instead of a dead body making Jesus unclean, his touch brings the dead girl to life. And instead of the bleeding woman making Jesus unclean, his touch makes her well. Jesus touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch, and they were made well. Jesus saves.

The sort of people we’re afraid of, the ones we try to keep at arm’s length, changes over time. In Jesus’ time it was this bleeding woman and dead bodies. In the 1980s it was people with AIDS, until we learned better. Then we despised people dealing with addictions, until that became us and our families. Now it’s refugees and immigrants. But everyone needs to be part of a community. Everyone needs to be accepted. Everyone needs love. The touch of Jesus restores, un-ostracizes, welcomes with open arms. You can call it ‘made well’ if you want to. Jesus saves.

 

When you feel isolated and ostracized, Jesus saves. When you feel untouchable and unworthy, Jesus saves. When you are bleeding and left for dead, Jesus saves. Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame, then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same. He touched me, O he touched me, and O the joy that floods my soul! Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.” You can call it ‘made me whole’ if you want to—Jesus saves.

 

 

Join with me, from the bulletin, in our Lenten Prayer

 

Lord Jesus, save me, for I need your help.

Save me from isolation and shame.

Save me from sin and guilt.

Save me from apathy and greed.

Save me from trouble and save me from myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

 

 

1 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Fortress Press, 2002), 109.

2 William J. Gaither, song lyrics from He Touched Me, The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 367.

04 February 2018

Mark 1:21-39

(Not) Just the Way Things Are

February 4, 2018

 

          Jesus cast out demons.  Did you know that?  What are we to make of these demons, or unclean spirits, that Jesus cast out?  People suppose the gospel writers talked about “demons” because they didn’t know much science or medicine.  For example, from the description of his symptoms, people assume the boy in today’s reading may have had epilepsy, but that people in those days didn’t know about epilepsy, so they blamed it on demons.  But the truth is, the Greek language of New Testament times had a perfectly good medical term for epilepsy.  It was . . . epilepsy.1        

The Bible doesn't refer to an unclean spirit here because it doesn't know any better; it refers to an unclean spirit because there’s more going on than seizures.  There’s the way this poor boy was treated because of his seizures.  There’s the history of trauma that leaves some people unwell.  In this case, the demon appears, of all places, in the synagogue, and on, of all days, the Sabbath.  Jesus is not just healing the boy; he’s confronting the power of religion to control people through regulations and shaming. 

          The New Testament scholar who did the most work on demonic powers was Walter Wink.  A demon, Wink said, is the name given to that “real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.”2 

          Sometimes demons manifest themselves in individuals.  When I was a student chaplain, I visited a woman painfully dying from cirrhosis.  She kept referring to “that old devil,” how she fought it, how it hurt her.  I pressed her to name her devil, wanting her to be more specific, to talk openly about alcohol.  But she just kept talking about that old devil.  Looking back, I realize she was being specific:  there was a devil in her life, a spirit which took her over and impelled her to destruction. 

          Other times demons manifest themselves collectively.  In 1961 President Eisenhower--a retired general, you’ll remember--warned about a “military-industrial complex”--that informal alliance between our country’s military and the arms industry.  Each justifies its existence not by peace but by conflict.  Each in turn justifies and supports the other.  This demon, this military-industrial complex, Eisenhower worried, could lead to deficit spending and to engaging in wars that no individual finds prudent.  Hmm.

 

          Demons maintain their power because we get used to them, because the forces involved seem too big to do anything about.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”  Casting out demons means saying, in the name of Jesus, “NO, that’s not just the way things are!” 

  • No, I don’t have to drink the rest of my life.
  • No, I don’t have to be a second-class citizen because I’m poor, or have dark skin, or don’t speak English.
  • No, we don’t have to allow men to harass and assault women.

No, Jesus said to the demons, that’s not “just the way things are.  And I won’t put up with it!”

          When confronting demons, Wink insists, we must always address not just the physical, but also the spiritual realities.  He relates how when the Roman authorities ordered the early Christians to worship the emperor, they didn’t just refuse; they knelt down and prayed to God for the emperor.  This seemingly innocuous act of prayer, Walter Wink says, was far more exasperating to the emperor than outright rebellion.  It rejected the ultimacy of the emperor’s power.  There is Someone, higher than Caesar, to pray to.3  And in the name of that one, Christians say, “No, this is not just the way things are.”

 

          So what does this look like here and now?  How are demons cast out today?  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I’ve just finished reading Dreamland, about the opiate crisis.  You probably know that AA, NA and all 12-step programs begin by admitting that we are powerless over our addiction and that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  There is no un-spiritual recovery from addiction. 

     And at the end of Dreamland, after describing how awful the drug problem is, the author begins to share some hopeful signs for Ports-mouth, Ohio.  People used to come from all over the country to the pill mills in Portsmouth; now people come from all over to enter recovery there.  Some local businessmen banded together to buy a factory to keep jobs in Portsmouth, so people wouldn’t have to sell drugs to make a living.  Finally, after years of shame and secrecy, people are talking openly about their families’ struggles with addiction and they’re helping each other out.  He concludes: The only antidote to heroin is community.4  To stand up together in the name of Jesus and say, “NO!”  We are gradually learning how to cast out this demon of opiate dependence, to say “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

 

 

  • And then there’s this children’s book by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges. 

Read book

 

     Ruby helped to cast out the demon of prejudice and segregation.  In the name of Jesus she said, “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

     We can say it too.

1 See Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 51.

2 See Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 104-13.

3 Wink, 110-11.

4 Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 353

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