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lenten journal: lila

6

Lila

she got a special walk
around the green this morning
she didn’t know why
anymore than she understood
that breakfast never came
just a car ride to her
least favorite parking lot
where I handed her over
to a kind tech who spoke
sweetly and led her away
after I told her it would be okay
I hope I told her the truth
we don’t know how it will be
then I sat in the car and
looked out at the snow
that will be a melting
muddy mess by mid-afternoon
when we will get word
of the prognosis
the predictive course
all she will know is
she hurts and we love her
and it will be some time
before we walk the green again

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: sentenced

1

sentenced

picture yourself
as a word
in a sentence that
runs on for miles
one that falls between
before and after

picture the moment
when the reader
spoke you into being
in a phrase of relationship
your whole life
a word made flesh

picture yourself
as a word among words
in the library of love
cataloged in the context
of all that was
is and will be

the sentence
will pass you by
the pages will turn
but fleeting and forgotten
are not synonyms
picture yourself

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: worth saying

0

worth saying

I read the screen or the page
I listen to the other ones talking
as though everyone is waiting
for what I will have to say
as if what matters is how I respond

why would that be true?

social media creates the illusion
that life is a series of little soap boxes
waiting for me to stand and speak

or did I create that illusion
to more easily accept their invitations?

I love putting words to page
or screen or setting them free
into the air to find their way
I love a well-crafted sentence
an incisive thought well-timed
I dream of saying the thing
that gets quoted again and again
but that dream comes up empty

what is worth saying?

not the thing that inserts me
in the conversation like the singer
who doesn’t know how to blend
in with the rest of the choir
not the thing that will make me
feel better or righteous or right
not the thing that allows me
to think I have done my part

the pundits and public theologians
will always beat me to the punch
but is punching the point?

perhaps what is worth saying is
not mine to say but to hear and then

after a long pause

to respond with well-worn words
inhabited by presence more than eloquence
words that bear repeating

I love you
I’m listening
I’m with you
this is not the end
I love you

I love you

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: rise and shine

3

In October, I started a bridge pastorate at a church in the town next to us because the pastor had to take family medical leave. I started posting the sermons and songs here as well. Next Sunday will be my last Sunday at the church and we are going to do the service live on Zoom, so I will not have a recorded sermon, which means this will be my last in this unintentional series. Thanks for being in the congregation.

The passage this week is Genesis 9:12-17, which is the end of the story of Noah and the flood. The song is James Taylor’s “Shower the People.”

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The story of Noah and the ark is one most of us have known since we were children: the pairs of animals, the dove with the olive branch, the rainbow, and, of course, the song. Do you remember

the Lord said to Noah there’s gonna be a floody, floody
the Lord said to Noah there’s gonna be a floody, floody
get those children out of the muddy, muddy
children of the Lord

along with the other seventy-two verses that had great rhymes (the animals they came in by twosies; elephants and kangaroozies) and on the chorus we waved our hands high to rise and shine and give God the glory.

The song almost makes the flood sound like fun, but the biblical account says that God became so frustrated with humanity that God regretted creating them and decided to drown them out–except for Noah and his family and a big boat full of animals. The implicit theology built into our little sing-along is problematic because it says God uses weather as a weapon of justice and regret. Listen to Genesis 6:5-7.

The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth and was heartbroken. So the Lord said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them.”

The story of the flood made the weather in Texas play big in my thoughts as I prepared to preach on our passage today, for a couple of reasons. One is that my family roots are in Texas and many people I love live there are have been severely affected by the unexpectedly harsh weather and its aftermath. Most Texas cities and towns don’t have the resources we do, when it comes to winter: plows and shovels, or even good coats. The second reason is it has brought up again how deeply the thought that God is behind the storm is embedded in our minds and how hard that is to live with. The third is what I learned this week about what it means to take care of each other from both the flood and the freezing cold.

Concerning the flood, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says,

The story of the first eight chapters of [Genesis] is tragic but simple: creation, followed by de-creation, followed by re-creation. God creates order. Humans then destroy that order, to the point where “the world was filled with violence,” and “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth.” God brings a flood that wipes away all life, until–with the exception of Noach, his family and other animals–the earth has returned to the state it was in at the beginning of Torah, when “the earth was waste and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

What we tell as a bunch of stories are part of the same story, he says, and he notices a couple of interesting details. In Genesis 1, the word good repeats seven times; in Genesis 9 the word covenant–promise–repeats seven times. Here’s the thing he said that most caught my attention: In Genesis 1, God said, “Let us make humanity in our image;” in Genesis 9, God said, “I will surely demand your blood for a human life, from every living thing I will demand it. From humans, from a person for their sibling, I will demand something for a human life. Whoever sheds human blood, by a human their blood will be shed; for in the divine image God made human beings.”

Sacks says, “The difference here is fundamental. Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells me that the other person is in the image of God.”

God says to us, “Look in the mirror and see the image of God; now look into the face of another and see the image of God.” And then God models the very behavior God is demanding of humanity. God promises to never again destroy the earth with floodwaters: “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures.”

After the storm, God took a weapon and turned it into a symbol of relationship: “I will place my bow in the sky so I will remember.” God put it there to remind God, not us, of the promises God has to keep. When God is tempted to respond to the violence we inflict on one another with violence, the rainbow is a reminder that God promised to respond to our violence in love. And God’s invitation to us is to live the same way.

The story raises the question of what God does with God’s anger, which is hard for us because far too often, our American model of expressing anger feels petulant and immature: we like to throw tantrums. Sometimes it seems like expressing rage is our national sport. Too often, we use our anger as a way to express that we feel superior to those we are targeting.

God’s anger, as we see it in scripture is often harsh, but it is not impulsive. And God learns from it. God’s promise not to flood the world came after God flooded the world, looked at what happened, and repented. Regretted. God was changed by the encounter, by the ramifications of God’s own actions. God appears to also realize that humanity was not going to quit doing the stuff that fed God’s anger, so God made a unilateral covenant: here is what I am going to do–and here is how I am going to remember it. I am going to change what I do with my anger.

And that takes me back to Texas.

I was living in Dallas in December 1983 when it did not get above freezing from December 18-30. It was the coldest December on record. Roads were icy. People were cold. Some pipes burst. But we didn’t have the systemic problems we have seen this past week. The problem this week in Texas was not just that it got really cold. The problem this time was that the people who make decisions about how to take care of the electrical grid and the water supply had gone years without doing the preparatory and maintenance work to be ready for the storm. They did not consider everyone as they planned for the future, so when it came time to take care of everyone, they couldn’t do it. Put simply, they put profit and political gain before people.

On the other hand, I watched in my Facebook feed as friends reached out for help because they didn’t have power or water and others took them in. Strangers reached out to one another to make sure people stayed warm and fed. Churches and synagogues and mosques opened as places of refuge. One man who owns a mattress business let people come sleep in his showrooms.

I think I can pretty much guarantee that everyone who opened their homes or businesses or buildings to take care of others was angry that millions were without power and safe water. What they did first was take care of each other. I hope they come back to their anger and let it fuel them to make changes in the system so that those in charge prepare for the common good because that is another way we take care of each other. Our personal actions matter, but we undercut our compassion when we allow dehumanizing systems to keep doing violence to others.

God created us in the image of God. Every last one of us. After the flood, God reminded Noah and the others that the place they were to look for the image of God in other people–every other person. Then God painted a bow and hung it in the clouds to remind God of the same thing.

Last week, we rose with Jesus from the baptismal waters to be reminded that we are God’s delightful beloved. This week, the flood waters recede to remind us we are called to treat everyone else as the delightful beloved of God. We can recreate our broken world into the beloved community by taking care of each other, by valuing each other, by loving one another as we love ourselves.

So, let’s rise and shine and give God the glory, children of the Lord. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: spiritual practice

4

spiritual practice

start with a goal
make a promise
to show up then
miss the next day

start with failure
then deal with grace
you will not write
everyday this lent

easter will come
good friday too
the season does
not ride on you

faithfulness
and perfection
are not the same
saints miss the mark

start with a word
then another
tell the story
about how practice

does not make perfect
you will fail again
and love will keep
expecting you

how many times
do I need to
tell you these things
start with again

Peace,
Milton

 

lenten journal: dust wednesday

0

One of the ripples of the pandemic has been that we have gone through a lot more firewood than usual at our house, thanks to both the fire place and the fire pit on our patio, though the latter is filled with snow right now. We bought a cord of word in early December and we’re down to the last few logs. The small mountain range of driveway snow created by the guy who plows has made getting to the wood pile quite a challenge and the prospect of restocking it an even bigger one.

As the wood dwindles, the ashes in the fireplace increase. But a cord of wood burns down to pile of ashes that would hardly fill up a tall kitchen garbage bag. What’s left of the logs is a mere remnant: a reminder of what has been used up so we could be warmer.

The ancient poetry for Ash Wednesday–“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”–is a false parallel. The two phrases are more than two ways of saying the same thing. The creation story says God molded humanity out of the stuff of earth, out of the dust. Our organic makeup connects us to the conversation of all living things and reminds us we are one of them. To return to our original material takes time. Buried bodies decay little by little, not unlike, I suppose the same gradual way we learn to grow into our full humanity.

Decay requires companionship. The organisms that live in the dirt participate in our reentry into dustdom, breaking us down so we can disseminate into all that gave us life and breath as we walked the planet. From dust we came and to dust we will return.

But we don’t start out as ashes. Ash doesn’t grow into trees that then burn back to powder. Ashes are remnants, the leftovers of what has been consumed by fire, because something has to burn to end up with ashes. Our fireplace full of ashes is a sign of a house that has been warmed by wood that was cut and split and seasoned so we could sit in comfort or, even in the midst of the pandemic, gather with friends on the patio to at least lessen the distance between us. What has burned has done more than just go up in flames; it has made of itself an offering.

Dust returns to the soil, but ashes are more complicated. Seedlings of the trees they once were do not spring up where ashes have fallen. I’ve learned from gardening that ashes can add nutrients to soil and compost, but only in moderation. A small amount can bring big changes, not all of which are beneficial. Throw out ashes before they are fully cooled and you spread fire, not forests.

The practice of being marked with ashes on this day is less than a thousand years old, as best I could tell from reading about it. The grey smudge on our foreheads is supposed to symbolize dust. It makes me wonder why we don’t use dust to make our point. It’s not as though it’s hard to find. I love the poetry of burning the palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday to make the mix for Ash Wednesday, still what marks today for me is I am aware ashes and dust are not the same thing, regardless of symbolism.

To say I am dust is to say I am on my way back to where I came from; I belong to the creation that has housed me for these days; each time my foot strikes the soil or my hands dig in the dirt I am connected to the cosmic conversation that is our universe. To say I am ash, at least today, feels like I am saying I am on my way to being all used up, which does carry its own truth, but the story I need to hear is in the dust.

Peace,
Milton

from blessing you have come . . .

1

The lectionary text for the Sunday after the insurrection at the Capitol was the account of Jesus’ baptism. The events of the week took my sermon in a different direction. As I prepared to preach this last Sunday before Lent begins, the notes I had made popped back in my head and it felt like the right word for this week, even though the lectionary thinks differently. Here is where the journey took me. And the song to accompany the sermon is Amy Grant’s “All I Ever Have To Be.”

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At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, in whom I delight.” (Mark 1:9-11)

One of the rituals in my life that I look forward to each year will happen this week. My friend Patty, who lives in Michigan, will call and we will wish each other “Happy Lent.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but we mean it. I love the season of Lent because it is the primary season that calls us to focus, to create some space, to do without so that we can better hear the Spirit speaking.

I have a ritual from the last five years I will not get to do this week because of COVID. My job as an editor has meant, until about a year ago, that I went into New York once a week to our office there–usually on Wednesdays. On Ash Wednesday, I would stop in my walk from Grand Central at the Church of the Incarnation, which offered ashes all day. I usually got there around 7:30 am and I was the only one who walked down the center aisle of the old stone church to where a priest was standing as though I had an appointment. She smudged my forehead with the sign of the cross and said, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.”

That sentence is the reason I chose our passage this morning. I want to remind us of the difference between dust and dirt, which is another way of saying Lent is a season to remind ourselves that we are temporary, not that we are worthless.

It’s my guess that, even though I am sure Mary told him the story of the angel coming to visit, that Jesus grew up hearing that his mother was pregnant before she was married. I’m sure the whole family took some ridicule for their circumstance. I know the gospels offer a picture of a confident kid when Mary and Joseph found Jesus hanging out in the synagogue when he was twelve, yet I also find room to imagine a boy who grew up feeling odd and estranged from those around him.

Mark, as we know, doesn’t tell any of those stories. When Jesus walks into his gospel, he is thirty years old or so, and he comes to John to be baptized. Baptism, in Jesus’ day, was more than a sprinkle. He went into the water and when he came up, Mark says, the sky broke open and the Spirit fell on him like a bird descending and a voice said, “You are my child, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.” Another translation says, “. . . in whom I delight.”

I don’t care if you are the messiah. I don’t think it matters what age you are. A blessing like that is life-changing. Life-giving. And it is the central message God offers all of God’s children: you are my beloved, my delight.”

Maybe one of the reasons it is more difficult to believe that God’s words apply to us as well is that the whole thing is couched in the metaphor of family–between parent and child. For many parents, it’s hard to express their love for their children in ways that the kids really get it. For many kids, even grown ones, it’s hard to hear the blessing; sometimes it is not given.

Years ago, my friend Burt, who was then pastoring a church in Texas, asked me to write a poem related to this passage. Ginger and I were living in Boston at the time–in Charlestown, right on the harbor. Not far from us was the Museum of Science and they had a big billboard across from their building that said, “Come see our new planetarium, you tiny insignificant speck in the universe.” I had seen the sign a couple of days before Burt called. Here is the poem I wrote:

daily work

The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”

When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.

I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives —
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.

I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.

I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.

Yet–if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.

Our schnauzers still offer their boisterous blessing whenever we come home, even though they aren’t the same pups that were in the poem. Their unabashed affection mirrors the love I hear in the words that fell on Jesus like the sunshine and the Spirit: “It’s you! I love you!”

Can you recall a moment, large or small, when you felt the blessing of Love with a capital L? When, even for a few minutes, you knew you mattered just because you were breathing—not because you did something, or said something, but because you’re you? Wherever that place is in your heart, remember it. Visit often. Whoever told you that was telling the truth. Every last one of us is wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

Life changed quickly for Jesus, as we have seen in our study of this chapter: his temptation, John’s arrest, calling the disciples, being challenged in the synagogue, the whole town descending on him because they wanted healing from him. Time and again, he tried to get away for some time alone to pray–to be with God. I wonder if part of that prayer was saying, “Tell me the part about being the pride of your life again.”

And then he would get back in the fray, knowing his life was short and he had much to do—just like ours. The words we say are true. From dust to dust. And also, from blessing to blessing. It matters that we are here, no matter how short our days or how long our years. We have been reminded this year more than most that life is not guaranteed.

But love is. We are God’s children, chosen and marked by love, in whom God delights. May we take every opportunity to remind one another of that truth.

Happy Lent! Amen.

Peace,
Milton

hold on to that question

3

This week’s sermon is a response to my reading not only Mark 1:29-39 but continuing to consider all of the first chapter as well as holding the questions I find there. The song that follows is a favorite hymn: “Come, Ye Disconsolate” by Samuel Webbe.

_______________________

If I were to go back over my sermons, both ones I have preached here and those I have preached for other congregations, I know I would find that one of the consistent things I say about the gospels is that they leave out details. They say little about the tone in anyone’s voice. They do not appear to be concerned with marking the passage of time, or how much time passes between events. They don’t describe the scenery or what people were wearing, for the most part. The conversations are truncated. And I have said those are the places we have to use our sacred imaginations to fill in the gaps.

I stand by all of that and, this morning, I want to say what struck me this week is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in our hunt for details that we miss the message in the big picture: the theme of the story.

As you know, we have been reading the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark for a month–and we are still not finished. The chapter is packed full of stories:

John the Baptist
Jesus’ baptism
Jesus’ temptations
John’s arrest
The calling of the disciples
Jesus in the synagogue
Healing Peter’s mother-in-law (today)

Mark helps us because he breaks each event down into a sentence or two, which make them helpful, as far as sermons go, because one of the realities of preaching is a short passage is easier to work with. It is easier to keep the congregation’s attention when you’re reading it, and it’s easier to find something to say by looking at a turn of phrase or one of the people in the story, or just by using it as a jumping off place for what you had on your heart for that week.

But in most every other kind of reading we do we look for the larger themes. We pay attention to details, but we know all the little things are intended to take their place as part of the larger story. As we have moved through this chapter, I have been pulled away from the details because of a pattern of Jesus emerges in these verses–one that is repeated throughout the gospels: Jesus keeps trying to to get away.

In this chapter, first, he gets up really early and goes to a deserted place to pray. I understand that. Second, once he’s found by the disciples, and then the others, he talks about leaving town altogether and going somewhere else to invite people to change their lives, which begs the question, if everyone was coming to him to be healed, why would he go somewhere else?

Hold on to that question as we look at today’s section of the story.

We have talked about the probability that Jesus knew Peter and the others before he happened by one day and said, “Let me show you how to fish for people.” When Mark says Jesus went straight from the synagogue to Peter’s house to see the sick woman, it makes me think Jesus knew her, too. That she got up and ministered to them after he healed her says to me that she and Jesus had already been talking theology, and there’s a pretty good chance she was the one who had prepared Peter for discipleship before Jesus said a word to her son-in-law.

This quiet little scene didn’t stay quiet for long. Mark makes it sound like everyone in town crowded around the house, hoping for healing. They trusted Jesus could make things better.

One of my seminary professors taught me to look at the miracles in the same way we look at the parables. Most of Jesus’ parables are not easy to understand. He wasn’t telling fables or talking in allegories. His stories were intended to puzzle his listeners, to make them think and ask questions. The miracle stories in the gospels play much the same role. They are not intended to be as simple as “I was sick and now I’m better.”

Mark doesn’t go into detail on Jesus’ temptations, but we know from the other gospel writers that when he was faced with the first temptation was to turn stones into bread so that everyone would follow him, Jesus replied, “People don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God,” which was his way of saying what he wanted to do in the world was more than amaze people; the reason he came wasn’t–primarily–about the miracles.

And that brings us back to our question: if everyone was coming to him to be healed, why did he want to go somewhere else?

And when I come back to this question, I realize it is way bigger than just this passage or just this sermon. The gospels are filled with sick people who were not healed by Jesus, even as we read the stories of those that were. Why were some healed and some not?

That last one leads me to another big question: what do we mean by healing?

Remember what Jesus said when he first came to town: “Now is the time. Here is God’s beloved community. Change your hearts and lives and trust the good news.” He was calling people to look at how they lived our lives, not just how they rid themselves of their ailments.

How do we talk about what ails us? How do we name our illnesses, our troubles? And how do we think about healing? How do we make meaning out of our grief and suffering?

Holding all of these questions calls me to say once more that we are not going to answer them all in this sermon. I have found in my life that often the power of great questions is not so much in definitive answers but in the pilgrimage for meaning they create. There is not an easy answer to why we suffer—well, some have been offered, but they come us short. When we are willing to look at the big picture—to live with things being unfinished and maybe even confusing sometimes—we come to a deeper understanding of life, of God, and of ourselves.

Some things in life heal faster than others. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law by offering a hand to help her get up. In other places, he did it with a few words or with a touch. If we widen the notion of healing, we might wonder how long it took Zacchaeus to heal after he promised to right all the wrongs he had done as a tax collector. If you have ever had to work to heal a broken relationship, you know that trust doesn’t grow back in a day, or a week, or a year. After I had my total knee replacement in April 2019, my doctor told me I would be up and walking quickly but it would be a year before I forgot I had the surgery. He was right almost to the day and healing, as far as my knee is concerned, but I can’t run or jump anymore. It’s also really hard to kneel down. And I am grateful I had the surgery.

Some things don’t heal—not completely, or perhaps in the manner we had hoped. The grief over the death of a loved one does not go away. But here is a powerful thing: shared grief is one of the building blocks of God’s beloved community. When we are hurting is when we need help. When our hearts are broken because we have loved so deeply that it hurts to be without someone is when we are most vulnerable. Those who are broken-hearted know how to recognize it in each other. Compassion means carrying our pain together, which is another way of finding healing and hope.

We are on the cusp of Lent, when we will remind each other that we came from dust and to dust we will return. None of us gets to remain unscathed or unharmed in life. This week, my cousin sent me a letter my mother had written to her mother when I was about seven. My mother said, “They just love people and they don’t think anyone’s bad—they’re going to be crushed one day, bless their hearts.”

Bless all of our hearts. Life hurts a lot of the time. And it also carries deep joy and some pretty good laughs as well. In the short time we have on this planet, we are called to love God with all that we are and love one another as we love ourselves, which is how we help contribute to God’s beloved community. For some, that means staying right where we are. For others, it may mean moving on to make other connections, as Jesus did. Even then, he didn’t go far. Some of you probably commute to work farther than he ever got from Nazareth in his whole life. No matter where he was, he wanted people to know they belonged to God and to one another—and those are healing words.

May our message be the same, wherever we are. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

come from the heart

1

This week’s sermon takes its title from one of my favorite Guy Clark songs, “Come from the Heart,” which I sing as well. The church where I have been interim has some momentous decisions in the weeks and months to come, so the sermon takes a turn towards them at the end. The passage is Mark 1:21-28.

_______________________________

One of my favorite songwriters is Guy Clark. He told stories in his songs that made you feel like he knew your story, too. The first song of his that I ever learned to play and sing—and the song I’ll sing after the sermon—is called “Come From the Heart.” The chorus says,

you’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
love like you’ll never get hurt
dance like there’s nobody watching
it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work

I thought of the song as I read the passage and saw the way people responded when Jesus stood to teach in the synagogue: Mark says they were amazed because he taught with authority, not like the regular teachers. That statement says more about Jesus than it does those who usually spoke. What I hear is that Jesus taught from the heart, and that wasn’t what people were used to hearing.

I remind you, that even though we are through the first month of 2021, we are still in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. So far, Mark has covered John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ time in the wilderness, John’s arrest, Jesus’ calling his disciples, and now his teaching in the synagogue and healing of a man with as “unclean spirit.” And we still have a few verses to go before we finish chapter 1; next week, we will see Jesus heal a woman who was almost dead. We most often look at these stories one at a time, but it matters to look at the big picture also. Mark is painting with a big brush; he’s not concerned with the particulars. We’ve talked a lot about his missing details—that’s where our sacred imagination comes in.

We don’t know what Jesus said, only how the people responded to it. And in the middle of their astonishment, a man with an “unclean spirit” stood up and said, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

We don’t really know what Mark meant by “unclean spirit.” The Greek word is used a number of times in the New Testament and it doesn’t always get translated consistently. But the man was troubled or agitated in some way. In the middle of all that was going on, I wonder if those in the room resonated with his first question: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

In a way, the troubled man said something that kind of sums up the point Mark has been making in the chapter so far: “I know who you are. You are the holy one of God.”

And in the way that Mark describes Jesus speaking and teaching by heart, he lets us know that Jesus knew it too. But what Jesus knew God intended for his life and what people expected of him were, quite often, not the same thing–which is a big part of the story that unfolds in the rest of Mark and the other gospels, and even in the way we read the stories now.

As we stand alongside of those in the synagogue listening both to Jesus and the anguished man, we are offered a chance to relearn an important lesson of life and faith: often, what first catches our attention may not be at the heart of what is happening.

Most sermons I have heard on this passage never get past the statement that Jesus wasn’t like the regular teachers, as though Jesus’ point was to criticize them. But it’s the people who make that comparison, not Jesus; Mark is saying something larger than this first impression.

When Jesus came into Galillee after John’s arrest–and, perhaps, because of it—Mark recorded what Jesus said. He called people to “change their hearts and minds and trust the good news.” Who knows how long he did that before people started to listen. Last week we also noticed he didn’t magically call Peter, Andrew, James, and John. He built relationships with them that set the stage for them to drop what they were doing and trust the good news. They trusted him.

Though it is the first chapter of his gospel, Mark makes no claim that this was the first time Jesus spoke in the synagogue, only that when he started talking, people started listening in ways they had not. As we said, we don’t know what he talked about, but there was something in the way he said it–like he knew he was telling the truth. Then the man with the unclean spirit stood up and, in a sort of Robin Williams in The Fisher King, seemingly-delusional but spot on profound kind of way, named what was going on. Once again without much detail, Mark just says Jesus cast the unclean spirit out of the man. And once again, the people latched on to something other than what Jesus was really about: “A new teaching with authority!”

Tucked into the word authority is the word author, and the root of author means “one who causes to grow” or an “originator.” Jesus wasn’t trying to make a name for himself. I think that is why he often told those he healed not to tell anyone. He came, following in the steps of the prophets, to proclaim liberty and hope and love. When Jesus taught, people heard new possibilities in the scriptures, they heard invitations to live in a way that comes from heart–to grow, to risk, to fail, to become. Whatever the regular teachers were saying, it didn’t invite their listeners to that kind of expansive sense of God or themselves that Jesus offered: “Change your hearts and minds and trust the good news.” Can’t you kind of hear Jesus singing,

you’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
love like you’ll never get hurt
dance like there’s nobody watching
it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work

This congregation faces big changes in the weeks to come, alongside of all that is already going on. As we look into that uncertainty, I am reminded of the words of Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, who says that you need uncertainty to have hope, because it creates the possibility that anything could happen. Hope isn’t the easy road. It’s a little wild-eyed, like the man in the synagogue. Hope is willing to take a step beyond astonishment and ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and the sit still long enough to hear the answer: “Change your hearts and minds and trust the good news.” We don’t know all that the days ahead will bring. We do know we belong to a God will be with us every step of the way. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

salted peanut butter cookies

1

Ginger and I celebrated the thirty-second anniversary of our first meeting this week. Not too long after that, she came over to my apartment for dinner and I had made peanut butter cookies—my mom’s recipe. I offered her one and she said, “You can make these?”

I assured her the Nutter Butter people weren’t the ones who invented the peanut butter cookie.

Though my Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Sriracha Cookies were a favorite back in my Milton’s Famous days, I have hunted for a while for a good peanut butter cookie, particularly because Ginger is quite specific about the kind of peanut butter cookie she likes—done, but still soft. After searching and reading, this link led me to this version of the recipe. (The original is here.)

As you will notice, these beauties are gluten-free and dairy-free without trying to be either. And they come together easily—you don’t even need to use your mixer; it all happens in one bowl.

salted peanut butter cookies

1 3/4 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 16 oz. jar of Skippy peanut butter (approximately 1 3/4 cups)
Maldon sea salt

In a medium bowl, whisk the brown sugar and eggs until they are well mixed and the mixture doesn’t look grainy; then whisk in the vanilla extract. Add the peanut butter and mix everything with a spatula until the mixture is smooth and you don’t see any streams of peanut butter. It will sort of have the consistency of Play-Doh; if you are used to baking cookies, this batter will seem a little soft. I usually let it sit in the refrigerator for about thirty minutes before I scoop the cookies. You can also put them in the freezer for fifteen or so.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a scoop or a spoon, form the dough into 18 two-ounce balls (I have a two-ounce scoop) and place them on the baking sheet, twelve to a sheet. Again, if you put them in the fridge or the freezer for a bit they will firm up. If you want the traditional fork lines, do that now, but don’t press them down too much. Sprinkle the tops of the cookies with the sea salt; be generous—there’s no other salt in the batter. Bake for 20 minutes. I bake two sheets at once, so after ten minutes, I rotate the sheet pans and switch their locations. When finished, the cookies will be lightly golden and cracked on top. Let them cool completely before serving.

NOTE: I said Skippy because the standard brands work better for this cookie than freshly ground or natural peanut butter and, because of Bruno Mars, we’re Skippy fans. If you prefer Jif, that will work as well.

It’s cold here in Connecticut and we’re hunkered down. I hope there are cookies in your weekend plans.

Peace,
Milton