Monthly Archives: October 2015

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015 – Malformed Faith

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:1-6

As he begins his third chapter, Mark tells of a third confrontation Jesus had in the synagogue.  The first was a confrontation with an “unclean” spirit, which Jesus dismissed from the gathering.  The second was the healing of the lame man (which may have taken place in the synagogue), in which Jesus was questioned by scribes about forgiving sins.  In our passage today, we read that Jesus is challenged by religious leaders for healing a man on the Sabbath day.

In Mark’s account, the episode follows Jesus’ conversation with the leaders about piety and fasting, in which Jesus revealed that we best honor God by living joyously and faithfully to God’s glory. Here, the focus is not on acts of piety, but on acts of mercy.

The plot line is unspectacular in the context of the gospel.  Jesus encounters a man with a malformed hand, and Jesus heals the man.  A surprising development in this story is that Jesus becomes angry. Perhaps his anger is a reflection of the wrath of God for those who in God’s name care more for their own personal piety and religiosity than for performing acts of kindness and mercy.  “He has shown you.. what is good,” the prophet Micah proclaimed, “and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

In this account, no religious leader seemed to be concerned that the man had a malformed hand.  Perhaps they thought that such was his fate in life.  It is easy to ascribe misfortune to divine judgment.  What these men were concerned about was how Jesus would respond to the man.  They wanted to see if Jesus would break their Sabbath code by healing the man.  Such an action would allow them to dismiss Jesus as a law-breaker.

The narrow-minded, hardhearted spirit of the religious leaders infuriated Jesus.  As a rabbi, he wanted to challenge his critics about how best to keep the Sabbath holy, so he asked them a question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  “Which is true holiness,” he may have wanted to ask further, “to keep your hands clean and do nothing while others suffer or to get your hands dirty by joining God’s mighty movement of healing and mercy?”  However, he never got the chance to probe deeper.  The leaders did not respond. So in anger, Jesus answered his own question by healing the man’s hand.

It was a great miracle.  The man could live more freely. He was now fully created.  God was glorified.  That Sabbath was kept holy indeed!  However, when the leaders sought to use the mighty work of Jesus “to destroy him,” it became clear that what was malformed was not just this man’s hand, but the religious leaders’ faith – it was self-focused, self-serving, self-aggrandizing – and they had no intention of allowing this rabbi to heal them.

Good Father, open our hearts and minds to your ways, and be glorified as we honor you, not through pious attitudes, but through the sacrificial acts of mercy and kindness we perform as part of your mighty movement.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Monday, October 25, 2015 – Celebrate Life!

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. – Mark 2:18-20

One of the great criticisms that Jesus had of the religious leaders of his day was that they had taken the wonder and beauty of covenant Judaism and reduced it to joyless legalism.  Rather than celebrate the wonders of creation, the goodness of God, the tenderness of love, the delight of bonded fellowship, and the joys of being needed, they counted steps on the Sabbath day, policed cleanliness codes, and enforced dietary restrictions.  It was strict; it was precise; and Jesus would have none of it.

When he was criticized for not being somber, for not fasting, and in general for having too much fun with such serious matters, Jesus simply reframed faith – not as a funeral wake, but as a marriage feast; and he said to his critics, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?”  While “there is a time to mourn and a time to dance,” Jesus was announcing that God’s grace and truth give us reason to rejoice, to celebrate, and to offer praise.  The faith Jesus offers brings a genuine transformation of the heart and soul, so that while there is sacrifice, it is not driven by duty but by joyful obedience.

Of course, it is easy for us to think that because faith matters are important, they should be somber and joyless.  Jesus taught us otherwise by both precept and example.  In fact, more than once he compared the kingdom of God to a grand wedding feast, and he offered us the grace and truth of God to overwhelm our fears and doubts and sorrows.  of course, there are still disappointments, sorrows, and even necessary suffering in life; but a deep, abiding inner joy defines a life filled with God’s Holy Spirit.  That is both God’s gift to us and God’s plan for our lives.

Eternal God, fill me with your presence and power that I may celebrate life to your glory.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

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Monday, October 19, 2015 – SERMON – The Sinner’s Friend

“The Sinner’s Friend – A Transforming Friendship”
a sermon by Gorman Houston
First United Methodist Church, Tuscaloosa, Bridge Worship
Mark 2:13-17

Are you a liberal or conservative… are you rich or poor… are you part of the haves or have-nots… are you a citizen or an illegal immigrants… are you straight or gay… are you a friend or foe… are you saved or lost… are you churched or unchurched?

We tend to put ourselves and everyone else in categories, boxes, pigeon holes… All of this may help us organize the world in our minds, but if we’re not careful it can lead to prejudice and profiling, distrust and demonization, hatred and hypocrisy.  We divide the world, we draw lines to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad.

Of course, there is nothing new about all of this.  The world was divided in just the same way in Jesus’ day… the only category that really mattered was sinner or righteous person?

By putting everything in these two categories, the religious authorities could explain everything.  All you really needed to know about anyone was were they a sinner or a righteous person.

In their tightly constructed world-view for a person to be righteous he had to be overtly religious, he had to follow all the laws and rules – he had to associate only with righteous people – and he had to show outward signs of prosperity and health.  His children had to be obedience and exceptional.  He had to be well recognized, accepted, and respected in the community.  Righteous.

And the sinners – oh my, it was easy to spot a sinner.  For one thing sinners associated with sinners – you know about birds of a feather – sinners had friends in low places, they did not follow the rules and laws of the religious folk, they ate without going through the prescribed ritual of hand washing, they did not keep the Sabbath – oh, and they paid for it.  They were unhealthy or sick or broken or lame or blind or poor or marginalized.  Beggars were sinners.  Romans were sinners.  Tax collectors were sinners.

The entire world could be divided into those two groups in the eyes of the religious leaders.  And the two worlds were never to meet.

It was an orderly, neat, carefully divided and aggressively protected social structure.  Prescribed and protected by the religious institution.  And then Jesus came along and refused to follow the rules.  He violated every rule.  He broke open the categories, broke open the boxes, broke open the religious leader’s world view.

If you’ve been with us during our study of Mark’s gospel, you are not in the least surprised that Jesus refused to stay in his category, in his little box, in his place.  He burst through it, just like… new wine.

Right, just like new wine.  Remember, we can understand Mark’s Gospel in every aspect with the help of the hermeneutical key… the interpretive key, the signature verse… Mark 2:22.

Do you know it by now?  Mark 2:22 says, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, lest the wine burst the skins, and the wine and skins be lost; but new wine is for fresh skins.”

What is this new wine Jesus is talking about?  It is a powerful cocktail of grace and truth.

  • Grace – the acceptance, concern for others, love of others not based on their merit or worth or value but simply on their existence as a child of God.  Grace – completely undeserved, freely given – absolutely no strings attached.  It is God’s grace that filled Jesus so he accepted the unacceptable, touched the untouchable, remembered the forgotten, loved the unloveable, forgave the unforgiveable.  Grace.
  • Truth – eternal truth and wisdom of God – a right ordering of things, a right valuation of things.  The truth of the Kingdom of God, the compassion and care and love of God for all God’s people.

This new wine is nothing less than the very Holy Spirit of God.

You see, Jesus’ teaching, life, preaching, teaching, offering is new wine.  It is not just a new philosophy, not just a new morality code, not just a new ritual or discipline.  You will not find in Jesus a little rule or two to make your life more respectable or to help you have good form.  Jesus ushers in a mighty movement of grace and truth… this is no gentle breeze.  This is hurricane force winds. This is new intoxicating wine and it has such strong fermenting power that it will break open the old wineskins, break open the old world views, break open the old categories and mindsets and prejudices and viewpoints that divide the world, that distort the truth. This is new wine, and it changes everything.

In our passage this morning, we see the new wine at work again.

We’ve already seen it rip open the heavens at Jesus’ baptism.

We’ve already seen it invade the comfortable world of Peter and Andrew and James and John, and rip apart their priorities and self-concepts, such that they left everything and followed Jesus.

We’ve already seen it break open the law and cleanse an unclean leper.

We’ve already seen it break orderly worship in the synagogue and cast out an unclean spirit.

We’ve already seen it rip the roof off the building and break apart the barriers that kept a crippled man poor and powerless so that he found in Jesus both healing and forgiveness.

We should not be surprised at all at how this new wine works.  And in our scripture this morning, we find that it breaks down the social conventions, the world views, the narrow categories, the neat little boxes, the broad mis-judgments and prejudice of the world.  Jesus just breaks it all down, shatters it.

Let’s take a look

We’re still just in the second chapter of Mark, beginning with the 13th verse…

13 Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Notice that Jesus here was not in a synagogue.  He had gone back out by the Sea of Galilee Mark tells us.  And he taught great crowds there.  As is typical of Mark, not a word of Jesus’ teaching is recorded, but shortly after the teaching, Jesus walks along and sees Levi or Matthew, a tax collector at his tax booth, and he invites him to follow him, to become a part of the mighty movement of God.  And Levi did.  He got up and followed Jesus. We have seen the same thing as Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John, but there was a huge difference.  They were fishermen.  Levi was a tax collector.  They were righteous persons; Levi was a sinner.  This was a radical departure, unthinkable in that day.

You see, tax collectors were Jewish men who worked for the Roman government.  “They bought a franchise that gave them the exclusive right to collect taxes in a particular area.  The Roman government stipulated how much money it expected in taxes and supplied soldiers to enforce the process of collection.  Rome, however, did not set a limit on how much tax could be collected from a particular franchise.  The tax collectors themselves assessed the total amount that would be collected in their district,” and they kept as their income the excess taxes they collected.  Levi was just such a tax collector, and he had become wealthy at the expense – the direct expense of the Jewish people in the district.

Levi was a sinner – everyone believed it to be true.  Jesus did not even deny that.  Notice that.  Jesus did not say that Levi was not a sinner.  Jesus did not say that sin does not matter.  Jesus just did not let Levi’s sin stand between him and God’s plan for Levi.

So, Mark tells us, Jesus called Matthew to follow him and then went to Matthew’s house for supper.  Eating with someone was an expression of great intimacy in ancient times.  For Jesus to eat with Matthew and his buddies meant that Jesus sided with them – sided with sinners.  This was simply incomprehensible for a rabbi of God.

The Pharisees took great exception to Jesus’ hospitality with sinners. Mark writes that “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Now, remember, while there may have been some wild and rough and even base folks in the company that Jesus kept, the term sinners did not necessarily mean that these folks were reprobates.  It just meant that they did not do what the religious people thought was proper – they did not keep the rules, the law of the institution.  They did not frequent the synagogue or Temple the way righteous people did.  They may have taken the Lord’s name in vain – something righteous people would never do.  They may not have washed their hands when they came in from a shopping trip the way righteous people did.  They most assuredly associated with other sinners – something righteous people would never do.  They may not have kept the Sabbath with all of its prescriptions they way righteous people would.

The truth is, they may not have been a whole lot different from you and me.  But clearly, they were not righteous.  They were sinners.  The question arises, how should a righteous person relate to a sinner?  The clear answer by the prevailing laws of the religious institution was that a righteous person was to have no dealings with a sinner.

Doesn’t nature itself teach us that if a clean thing encounters an unclean thing, then both become unclean?  Imagine a white robe falling into a mudpuddle, it is not that the mudpuddle becomes clean but rather that the robe becomes dirty.  Surely we know that to be true.

Oh, but Jesus saw it differently.  Imagine new wine filling old wineskins.  The wine is powerful in its fermenting power and will break open those old skins.  This new wine changes everything.  This kind of wine has to be place in entirely new skins.  The old skins, the old categories, the old ways, the old prejudices, the old worldviews no longer can hold it.

And more than that.  When new wine encounters sinful folks, it has a way of transforming the unclean, of changing the old ways, of bringing a new understanding of compassion and love and care.  This is not an old wet rag religion that has to be kept out of dirty places.  This is a powerful concoction which cleanses to the bone, purifies to the heart.  This is new wine.

And I rather imagine that Jesus was telling those Pharisees – those religious types back in his day – the same thing he would tell us today.  That none of us is righteous.  That’s what Paul writes in Romans.  None of us is righteous, no not one.  The truth is, we are all sinners.  We are all a work in process.  Even the best of us is far below the mark which God expects of us.

This would be an impossible fate to endure were it not for Jesus’ life and teaching.  He has not come to us to celebrate our moral uprightness and holiness.  Oh no.  Nor has he come to shame us, to speak sternly to us about our failings, to judge us for making such poor choices and doing such foolish things.  Oh no.  He has come to us with an outstretched hand of hope – to cleanse us from all unrighteousness – just the way he cleansed the ulcerated leper.  He has come to cast out our sin – just the way he cast out the demon.  He has come to quicken our faith and give life to our lifeless worship and ritual, just the way the healed the paralyzed man and sent him dancing home.  Jesus has come to call us from our own personal cares and pleasures and to call us to be a part of God’s mighty movement.

We are all sinners, but according to Jesus that does not exclude us from being accepted by God, called by God, loved by God, used by God.  If it did, who could be saved?  Who could have hope?

Jesus told those pious religious leaders a basic truth, which may have sounded more like a word of judgment than a compliment, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Jesus’ word required the religious folks to figure out where they stood.  Were they the righteous or where they sinners?  And how about you and me?

The world is a complicated place, fragmented, troubled, dissimilar in many respects.  When we try to make sense of it all by putting people into categories and boxes, we do not bring healing and understanding – but rather prejudice, mistrust, dis-sease, and hatred.

So how is it with you?  Are you a liberal or conservative… are you rich or poor… are you part of the haves or have-nots… are you a citizen or an illegal immigrants… are you straight or gay… are you a friend or foe… are you saved or lost… are you churched or unchurched?

Maybe Jesus would explain it this way.  We are all sinners.  Everyone. So what?  God still loves us and is pouring out his new wine to transform every sinner into a saint and this big old tired, worn out, weary world into the Kingdom of God.  The only real question then is “Are you part of God’s solution or just part of the world’s problem?”

Bishop Will Willimon tells of the event at Camp Sumatanga – a youth conference in which hundreds of young people were gathered, and the leader opened the Bible to the New Testament, to the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  And he read these words from the fifth chapter:  “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (vs. 6-8).

After finishing that reading, the leader then asked the youth assembled before him to help him demonstrate that verse in a skit.  “On the stage here we’re going to form a kind of continuum,” he said, “ranging from the worst sinners over here to the left, to the best saints over there on the right.  So, he looked at one unsuspecting teenager and said, “You are Mother Teresa.  Come up on the stage and stand where you think you would belong.”

 

Well, right away the teenager walked up on stage and took her place on the far right, in the “good people” section of the stage.  “OK,” the leader said, “Next we have Martin Luther King, Jr.”  And right away a boy came up on the stage and stood near Mother Teresa.  “Next, we have Mahatma Gandhi.”  And a boy stepped onto the stage and positioned himself right alongside side the other two who were already there.

“OK, next we have Adolf Hitler.”  A young man walked forward and stood on the opposite part of the stage.  The leader then said, “OK, how about Osama bin Laden and Attila the Hun?”  Two students emerged from the audience and stood alongside Hitler, far removed from the three good people on the stage.

Then the leader said, “Now, Jesus.  You come forward and take your place on the stage.”  A boy walked up on the stage, and right away headed over to Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  At that point the leader looked at the students on the stage and in the audience and said, “Don’t you people listen?  Didn’t you pay attention when I read the Bible?  Listen to it again:  ‘At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.’”  When the leader finished reading those words, the student portraying Jesus then meekly realized his mistake, left Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi behind, and moved over and took his place beside Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Attila the Hun.

And then he said, Jesus stands with the sinners – with a sinful, broken, painful world.  And what he is looking for is not saints, but those who are courageous enough to stand with him.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  New Wine.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015 – Carried by Prayer

Some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”- Mark 2:3-12

We have a powerful image of intercessory prayer in the account of the healing of the paralytic in which four people carried a lame man into Jesus’ presence.  Perhaps we can see that the essence of prayer is not so much to talk God into doing something or to tell God how to solve someone’s problem as it is simply to bring someone into the divine presence. I like to think that we are simply putting folks in a position to receive God’s grace.  Notice the lessons we find in this passage about prayer.

First, we invest ourselves in caring.  We are told that these persons carried the lame man. They did not simply remember the man or think of him as they offered a quick prayer, they invested themselves in helping the man.  Perhaps we can learn from this that our sincerest prayers are those accompanied by our investment in the lives of those for whom we pray – be it the poor or the sick or the troubled.  And as we pray for peace and goodwill, we do well to invest our lives in those things which bring peace and goodwill. In the little book of James, we read of the fruitlessness of simply saying religious words to people who are in need without offering our assistance (James 2:15-16).  Our prayers are most genuine when they are accompanied by our work.

Second, we read that these men were separated from Jesus, but they dug through the roof until they could get the man in Jesus’ presence.  It may be true that we often need to dig through the things which separate us from Christ Jesus – the distractions of our lives, the ill will we harbor toward others, the accumulation of unimportant things which clutter an undisciplined life.  As we pray, we do well to dig through all of these things to encounter the one who seeks and saves.  Quakers refer to this practice as “centering down,” and they often spend protracted periods of silence to dig through the troubles of life and come into the nearer presence of God.  It seems our prayers take on power as we clear the way in our heart and mind to encounter our Lord.

Third, we read that these men lowered the paralyzed man into Jesus’ presence.  They did not explain to Jesus what was wrong with him, nor did they need to.  Jesus offered a more complete healing than these men imagined – cleansing his sins and healing his body.  Jesus did not simply solve this man’s problem but he restored the fullness of this man’s life.  When we bring ourselves and others into Jesus’ presence, we can entrust the healing to him, for as Jesus taught his disciples, “Your father knows what you need before you ask” (Matthew 6:8).

Fourth, in earnest prayer blessings abound. Mark writes that Jesus’ was moved to respond, when he “saw their faith.”  It was not the faith of the lame man alone but the faith of his friends which proved remarkable and which created the opportunity for healing.  We do not know the names of any of these friends – or even of the man who was healed.  They remain anonymous, but they each received a blessing by being in the presence of Jesus, and even the crowd experienced the blessing of teaching and amazement.  Mark tells us, that they all “glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

Lord, teach us to pray.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

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Monday, October 12, 2015 – Crowded Out

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” – Mark 2:1-5

Mark tells us that as an adult Jesus lived in Capernaum, the hometown of his disciples Peter and Andrew, and that one day he was teaching there.  Mark is slight on details as to where in Capernaum the gathering took place, but wherever it was, Jesus had attracted a standing-room-only crowd.  In fact, we read “that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door.”  Take note of this detail.

As part of the Western churched culture, It is easy for us to judge the success of any religious event in terms of the crowd it attracts.  Most preachers and lay folks alike love standing-room-only events, but Mark and the other gospel writers offer a different insight on crowds.   For the most part, they paint the crowd as a neutral or even negative factor.  In fact, it seems throughout the gospels that the person who comes to faith does so by differentiating herself or himself from the crowd.  The ailing woman had to reach through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and find healing.  Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see Jesus due to the pressing crowd. The family of the dying girl was told to ignore the lamenting crowd and believe in the power of the Gospel.  And here four friends were  blocked from bringing a person in need of healing into Jesus’ presence because of the crowd.

In our modern church situation we have no ability to measure faith, hope, and love with any precision, but we are able to count the number of people present and to determine the number of people on the roll and to calculate the size of the offering.  Because we can measure those things, we tend to value them.  Perhaps that is our problem – that we value the wrong things and allow genuine transforming faith and hope and love to be crowded-out.

Isn’t it easy for us to focus on the crowd – to wonder where they are, the consider what they are doing, what be anxious about what they are thinking?  In it all, we tend to become part of the crowd and to remain at an objective distance, expressing neither acceptance nor rejection.  With a critical eye we take our place as spectators, unaffected by it all.

Mark’s dramatic account of the healing of the blind man is a testament to the faith of four friends who would not be put off by the crowd but who with great determination created a new way to get to Christ Jesus when the traditional ways were blocked.  Perhaps what was true then is true today, that in order to discover what Jesus came to offer we have to let go of our preoccupation with the crowd and find our way into the closer presence of the one who brings healing, wholeness, and hope.

Lord Jesus, help us to turn our eyes, our hearts, and our longings toward you and to find the courage to step forward into your closer presence.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

 

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015 – Disease and Dis-ease

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. – Mark 1:40-45

Mark concludes the first chapter of his Gospel by telling the story of Jesus’ encounter with a person who had leprosy.

It is important to note that the law of the day forbade any contact with lepers.  Persons with the loathsome disease were required to live outside the walled cities, and it seems they made their homes in caves like animals.  Sometimes they were required to wear a bell, like a cow, to alert others.  The law was clear and calculated to prevent the disease from spreading, but it was also cruel to the victim: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46). Perhaps the worst part of the horrendous disease was the instruction concerning the leper, “He shall live alone.”

Mark tells us that when Jesus met this unclean, unwelcomed, unhealthy, ulcerated leper, he was neither frightened nor put off.  Instead, he was “moved with pity.”  And he responded, not according to the law of the institution, but according to the universal law of love.  He reacheed out and touched the leper with concern.  He broke the law by breaking into the isolation and loneliness and heartbreak of the leper, which had dehumanized him.  Jesus would simply not comply with such a cruel law.  He would not be a part of the cruelty of the culture.  He broke the law openly, and reached out to touch the untouchable to make him clean.

Through that touch, the leper was cleansed of his disease.  And even though Jesus instructed him to remain silent about it, he simply could not.  He could not constrain his joy; he could not limit his appreciation; he could not hold his tongue.  He was transformed, cleansed, and restored by the touch of Christ Jesus.

When we read this account, we may not immediately find ourselves anywhere in it, for we do not have a loathsome disease.  A bit of reflection, however, might reveal to us that we suffer instead from a loathsome dis-ease.  It is easy and rather natural that by the narrow law of self-preservation we keep our distance from people who make us feel ill-at-ease, who differ from us, especially people who have problems, illness, disorders, and those who frighten us because of their race or background or age or sexuality or income or social standing.  The truth is, we may be more like the leper than we realized.  We stand in need of being forgiven, cleansed and healed not so much of our disease as of our dis-ease.  I rather imagine that Jesus reworks the lepers request and says to us, “If you choose, you can be made clean.”

The one who cleansed the lepers’ spots can cleanse our hearts and minds and spirits so that we may see others not through prejudicial eyes but through the compassion of our Lord, and may guide and strengthen us to follow his example, by reaching beyond our fears, beyond the law, beyond the culture, beyond the expectations of others, beyond ourselves to encounter the very Kingdom of God.

Touch me and heal me, O Savior Divine!  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

 

Pure and Simple Logo 2.

Monday, October 5, 2015 – SERMON – Through the Roof

“Through the Roof – An Amazing Authority”
a sermon by Gorman Houston
First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa
Bridge Worship -  September 13, 2015
Mark 2:1-12

Do you remember Blockbuster Video?  They were the king of the movie rental industry.  Blockbuster even sponsored a major college Bowl game – The Blockbuster Bowl, which featured famous teams – Penn State, Stanford, Florida State, Nebraska – Alabama played in it in 1991, beat Colorado 30-25. Founded in 1985, Blockbuster grew to dominance with clean, well-lit, family-friendly retail locations in all the right places.  And in those stores, they did one thing better than anyone else.  They “managed disappointment”.  People would come in to rent the new blockbuster movie, only to find all the copies were already rented.  Instead of people going to another store, they would find something else, and they would leave happy – not thrilled, not ecstatic, not even excited maybe, but not empty-handed.  Blockbuster helped them manage their disappointment.  Of course, that’s not a great value proposition – we won’t have what you want, but we’ll manage your disappointment well.  But the strategy worked, until everything changed in the Net-Flick of an eye.  Blockbuster may have seen it coming, but they were not interested.  Netflix entered the market with no retail stores.  Instead, they mailed DVD’s directly to consumers.  It was a noble strategy, Blockbuster recognized, for no one could challenge its retail locations and dominance.  Meanwhile Netflix continued building its business delivering videos through mail first and then through immediate video download.  And that was the game changer.  Video on demand simply took the market.  Between 2003 and 2005 Blockbuster, while maintaining great buildings with beautiful layouts, lost 75% of its market value. Five years later, the video giant was dead. The stock price dropped to 25 cents a share, the NYSE kicked Blockbuster to the curb for inadequate capitalization. Bankruptcy forced the closure and sell off of all its prized retail stores.  Wow!  When a new, powerful, game-changing approach invaded the industry, Blockbuster chose not to change.  And the greatest disappointment, which Blockbuster was forced to try to manage was its own demise.

Life is filled with lessons just like that one.  People get comfortable – not really living fully – but managing disappointment, with lowered expectations, holding a defensive posture, coddling addiction, accommodating harmful thoughts and actions, never expecting much, just trying to keep comfortable.  I call that incremental living (you know working hard not to get ahead, just content to get a little raise) – just content for things to be a little better, just content if our disappointment is manageable… not much to look forward to, but not terrible.

And then God’s grace and truth break in.  It’s a game changer.  God breaks in with his presence and power, and everything is challenged, everything is changed.

That’s what Mark’s Gospel is all about. Aren’t we seeing that?  Hey, have you been reading it?  Read a chapter a day – more or less and by Thanksgiving you will have read Mark’s Gospel through several times, and the message of the inbreaking of God’s grace and truth may just penetrate your heart and soul and mind.  But look out – it’s powerful, it’s intoxicating, it’s a life-changer.

Isn’t that what we see in just the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel?  It’s action-packed.

  1. Jesus wanders down to the Jordan River to be baptized, and when he comes out of the water, Mark tells us, the heavens are violently ripped apart and the Holy Spirit falls upon him, floods him, fills him.  He is anointed – he becomes the anointed one, which is what the word Christ and Messiah mean.  The anointed one of God.
  2. He then walks by the Sea of Galilee and encounters several men.  No body special.  They were living their lives like everyone else – working for the man every night and day.  Getting by… comfortable.  No big dreams, no big plans.  But they were not bitter.  They had learned to manage their disappointment.  And then, their comfortable, limited world was simply invaded.  Jesus burst open their comfortable, limited, little disappointing world with a radical invitation to join him on a wild adventure in God’s mighty movement.  And they did.  They abandoned everything else – just to follow Jesus.  They left everything, gave up incremental living – to experience exponential living, life at its highest, most demanding, most profound, and most fulfilling level.
  3. And later we read where Jesus encounters a leper.  Most people avoided lepers.  After all the law of the day forbad any contact with them at all.  Lepers were required to live out of walled cities in caves, to dishevel their hair, to wear a bell (like a cow) to alert people, and to cover their mouth and call out “unclean” when someone came near.  But when Jesus meets this unclean, unwelcomed, unhealthy, ulcerated leper, and what does Jesus do?  He breaks open the law – breaks it wide open.  And in doing so, he breaks open the legal barriers which dehumanize the leper, the protective barrier that keeps the leper away from all other people – even family and friends, away from community, away from the practice of faith. Jesus breaks it all open, as he reaches out and touches this man and makes him clean.  Oh my goodness.

All of that is in the first chapter of Mark.

And this morning, as we venture into the second chapter, we read that the roof is ripped off – the roof is ripped off of the place where Jesus is teaching.  Probably, by the way, it is the synagogue.

Do you see how powerful this stuff is?  How powerful this faith is, which Jesus is offering?  It seems that Jesus is challenging everything and challenging everyone.  It seems that Jesus is breaking everything and breaking everyone.  It seems that Jesus is changing everything and changing everyone…that is everyone, except those who refuse to change.  Who, like Blockbuster, are simply content managing disappointment.

But, if you’ve been reading Mark with me, if you’ve been following our sermon series with me, then you are not surprised by any of it.  Why, because this is new wine!  Isn’t that right.  This is new intoxicating, powerful, transforming NEW WINE.

Our series is called New Wine, and we get our theme verse from Mark 2:22

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins, lest the wine burst the skins, and the wine and skins be lost; but new wine is for fresh skins.”

What is this new wine Jesus is talking about?  It is a powerful cocktail of grace and truth.

  • Grace – the acceptance, concern for others, love of others not based on their merit or worth or value to you but simply on their existence as a child of God.  Grace – completely undeserved, freely given – absolutely  no strings attached.  It is God’s grace that filled Jesus so he accepted the unacceptable, touched the untouchable, considered the forgotten, loved the unloveable, forgave the unforgiveable.  Grace.
  • Truth – eternal truth and wisdom of God – a right ordering of things, a right valuation of things.  Truth is important because truth breeds trust and trust breeds loyalty.  That is the path into the kingdom of God.  That’s the truth Jesus preached – and more than that – that Jesus lived.  In fact, Mark rarely tells us a single word which Jesus preached.  We assume that the teachings were about the Kingdom of God, about the compassion and care and love of God for all God’s people.  And probably words of truth about how God’s reign casts out evil and heals brokenness and cleanses the unclean and welcomes the wayward.  And probably Jesus’ preaching calls those who are ready to change to live in this kingdom, to embody these traits, and to drink deep this new wine.

This new wine is nothing less than the very Holy Spirit of God.  And the Holy Spirit is a game-changer, a life-changer.  Isn’t that what we see?

It’s what we see in our scripture for this morning, Chapter 2, the first 12 verses.

1 When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ”Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 ”Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ”Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 ”I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

It is of note that Mark tells us that Jesus had made his home in Capernaum.  When I was teaching Confirmation, I always taught my students the four places of great significance in Jesus’ life – in case they were ever on “Jeopardy” or anything.

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem
  • Jesus grew up in Nazareth
  • Jesus moved to Capernaum
  • Jesus died in Jerusalem.

Mark tells us that Jesus was in Capernaum.  (Simon Peter and Andrew’s home).  Mark does not tell us where Jesus is teaching, but we can rather imagine that it is in the synagogue in Capernaum.  In Chapter 1, Jesus taught in the Capernaum synagogue, where he cast out an evil spirit, a demon.

By the way, do you see the teaching in that passage – that Jesus cast out a demon in the synagogue?  I mean can you imagine a demon coming to church?  Don’t act surprised!  Of course you can.  I’m sure there are demons in worship with us right now.  We all come to church with our virtues and vices, our best intentions and our demons – our prejudices, our grudges, our untoward passions, our addictions, our lies, our self-serving ways.  We know what we bring to church.  The bible calls them “unclean spirits.”  I like that. It’s a broader category and not so dark sounding.  An unclean spirit is the antithesis of the Holy Spirit – the “exact opposite” of the life-giving, exponential living spirit of God.  We all come with our unclean spirits.  But notice that Jesus did not cast out the man for having an unclean spirit.  He just cast out the demon.

Don’t forget that.  We think we need to stay away from church, to distance ourselves from God because we are not worthy, not clean, not together enough to encounter the divine.  That’s all wrong.  We bring our sins, our addictions, our prejudice, our hatred, our fear and brokenness to the very feet of Jesus, and he accepts and receives and loves us – but not so with our demons.  He casts them out.  Silences them and tells them to scram.  These unclean spirits cannot coexist in worship or in our lives with Jesus.  The new wine is too strong.  Like a powerful elixir, it will simply drive out the demon – make no room for the demon.

We can hold on to our demons if we want to, but we can’t find the life Jesus is offering and keep our “unclean spirits” too.  That’s the choice we have to make.  Are you going to get close enough to Jesus to taste the new wine – to allow it to challenge us and break us and change us?  Or are we going to back away and hold on to our demons – coddle our fears and doubts and grudges and prejudice and judgmental ways?

Oh, as Yoda might say, “A hard decision –discipleship is!”

And so probably in this same synagogue in which Jesus cast out a demon, he is teaching again.  And a huge crowd gathers – primarily it seems from the totality of the story a crowd of overtly pious people.  We can, perhaps, picture them dressed in their finest clothes, complete with the accessories of pious self-righteousness and matching judgmentalism.  And Mark tells us that it simply crowded everyone else out.

You know, it could be that pious self-righteousness and judgmentalism still tend to crowd out those who are genuinely seeking a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ.

Such was the situation, when four friends of a paralyzed man seek to carry him into the presence of Jesus that he might find new life in Christ, the amazing power of the Holy Spirit, exponential life in the Kingdom of God.  But the door was blocked by the religious elite.

Oh, but the story is not about how the overtly religious people box out the humble, needy, forlorn folk who are seeking a new life.  This story is about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  The story is about new wine – explosive new wine.  And, oh my goodness, there goes the roof.  Like watching a hurricane land – the roof has just been blown off that building!

The roof is ripped off and through the roof the broken man is lowered.

Now – don’t miss the message on intercessory prayer.  Isn’t this just what we do when we pray for someone – bring her into Jesus’ presence, bring him into the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit?  Most of the time I don’t have the answers for the prayer – I don’t know what to ask for in my prayers, but I don’t have to know.  I can just bring the person I am praying for into the presence of Jesus and let him do the wondrous work.

These unnamed men brought this unnamed broken friend into Jesus’ presence – in spite of the religious people.  And just as Jesus had cast out the evil spirit in that synagogue earlier, he cast out the sin and brokenness of this man.

“Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus proclaimed, raising a stir among the pious.  In their world of black and white, people were either sinners or saints – either righteous or unrighteous.  And the categories explained everything – health and sickness, wealth and poverty, social acceptance or marginalization.  It all emerged from the sin factor. Oh, but not so in Jesus’ world, not in God’s kingdom.

And Jesus broke the social order wide open – ripped it apart like the roof overhead – when he declared the lame man forgiven.  Then Jesus challenged them all, “Which is easier for you to do – forgive sins or heal a lame person?”  Of course it was a trick question.  The answer:  They could do neither.  How powerless was their faith!  How pitiful was their assembly.  No hope could be given, no change could emerge.  All they could do was manage disappointment.

Oh, but Jesus offered more. He offered new life.  He offered exponential living.  He offered healing and wholeness and hope.  So he said, “Well, just watch this.”  And with that he told the man to get up and pick up his pallet and walk home.  And drunk with new wine, the man jumped up and danced to the glory of God!

And Mark tells us that the people were all amazed, and they glorified God, and said, “Well, we have never seen anything like this before!”  That’s new wine!

Maybe you know what it’s like to come to church with your demons, to be crippled by your bad choices and to be paralyzed by your fears.  Maybe, you’ve shied away from faith because your life is untidy.  Maybe you spend your energy trying to cover it up or cover it over.

God has poured out his grace and truth just for you.  It’s the new wine of absolute acceptance and the new wine of transformational power. If you want to do more than just manage your disappointment, if you want more out of life than just incremental living, if you really want to experience an exponential life of freedom and victory and healing and triumph, Jesus Christ wants to rip the roof off that boxed in life you’ve been creating.  He has powerful, intoxicating new wine which will set you to dancing.  His invitation?  Drink deep!