Temple builders

Several of us went on a trip to Germany last year. It was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran reformation, and we toured places where Martin Luther had lived and worked. Before we got on the bus to Wittenberg, Eisenach, and Leipzig, though, we did some sightseeing in Berlin, where our plane had landed.

We got to visit the Bonhoeffer House, and we saw the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial. The Bonhoeffer House is a rather ordinary house in a suburb, but it was extraordinarily moving to step into the room where Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s small desk was sitting under the dormer window and to think of him sitting there reading and writing. The Brandenburg Gate is just one more example of grandiose, imperial architecture, except that many of us, for many years have only seen it with a wall running across the front of it, dividing the city and the country and the world; seeing the gate without the wall was touching. With people moving freely through the open spaces between the massive columns the place had become a living memorial to freedom and unity. Only a short walk from the iconic gate, an entire city block has been rebuilt as a Holocaust memorial, a large structure reminiscent of a cemetery, an attempt to give, in the heart of the capital, a place to the memory of the systematic murder of millions of European Jews and others whom the Nazis had classified as ‘unworthy of life.’

On our first day in Berlin, though, most of us were tired from the long flight and the seven-hour change in time zones, and so we only planned a short visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church was built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and in 1943 it was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid. All that was left standing was a portion of the steeple and the entrance hall, and after the war the remaining structure was turned into a memorial. The construction of the church was part of a Protestant church-building program initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II to counter the German labor movement by a return to traditional religious values like piety, humility, and obedience. The foundation stone was laid on March 22, 1891, the birthday of the Kaiser’s grandfather, Wilhelm I., and the Kaiser named the church in his honor.

Like I said, much of the church was destroyed in WWII, but when I walked into the entrance hall that houses a historical exhibit, I looked up to the ceiling and the upper walls, framed by Neo-Romanesque arches, and covered with mosaics of colorful figures against a background of heavenly gold – magnificent workmanship. Only where I expected to see Biblical scenes or renderings of prophets and apostles, I found myself looking at images of the Kaiser and his wife and other members of the Prussian aristocracy.

When the Kaiser builds a church, he will tell the whole world that it’s to the glory of God on high, but at the same time he’ll make sure that a good portion of that divine splendor also shines upon his own person and throne. When the Kaiser builds a church, the people do the work they cut the stone, they lay the brick and tile, they install the glass, they carve the wood, they haul the slate up the roof, they assemble the mosaics, and, one way or another, they foot the bill but it’s the Kaiser who determines whose images are installed in proximity to the divine, and by what name the magnificent edifice shall be known.

In 1 Kings we read that King Solomon sent word to his neighbor and friend, King Hiram of Tyre, “I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God.”[1] He ordered cedar and cypress timber from Lebanon for which he paid with wheat and oil from the royal store houses. And he conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones.[2]

This detailed description continues for two entire chapters in 1 Kings, but no mention of the thousands of workers: “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, he began to build the house of the Lord.”[3] Solomon built the house and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. He covered the floors with boards of cypress. He overlaid the wood with gold. He made two cherubim of olivewood and overlaid them with gold. He carved the walls of the house all around. He made doors of olivewood and covered them with carvings and overlaid everything with gold. In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In the eleventh year the house was finished in all its parts. He was seven years in building it.[4]

And then he filled the house with intricate bronze work and vessels of burnished bronze and gold. And Solomon led the dedication of this magnificent new building. Solomon gave the big speech. Solomon offered the prayer of dedication. Solomon blessed the assembly. And Solomon led the party that lasted seven days.

It makes me nervous when the king builds a temple or Caesar builds a church, because inevitably, royal and imperial interests will shape the building, the order of worship, and the language of the liturgy. It was common in the ancient near east for kings to build sanctuaries for the gods, complete with thrones on which the deity could sit, and it’s difficult to sort out to what degree images of divine rule shaped earthly kingdoms, or conversely, how royal power arrangements became the templates for how people envisioned the reign of their gods.

There is, however, in Solomon’s long and eloquent prayer of dedication, an important memory, a line reminding the king and the people and us that the Lord God of Israel cannot be boxed in, cannot be domesticated: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” the kings asks. And he answers, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

Nothing we build can contain the creator of heaven and earth, no house, no church, no theological system can contain the One who called Abraham and Sarah, who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, who made covenant at Sinai, who spoke through the prophets, who became incarnate and dwelled among us, the One who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Spirit on all flesh.

Whatever dreams of containment we may have had, when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.[5] This God will not be domesticated. This God will not be put in a box, be it made of stone or wood or gold or royal  or any other ideology.

When Jesus was arrested, witnesses came forward who said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”[6] The next day Jesus was crucified and those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”[7] He didn’t come down, but in three days this son of David began to build a house of God not made with hands. A house built not with forced labor or any kind of coercion, but with compassion and forgiveness and the call to loving service. A structure made of living stones.[8]

In Ephesians, the apostle writes, “In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”[9]

We have long known that any place can be the place of encounter with the living God and that no place can contain the presence of the Holy One. But now Jesus is building the temple, and he challenges us to see every encounter with another person as the place where God is at work, extending the holy of holies.

When King Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” it was a rhetorical question tempering the monarch’s royal ambition. But in Revelation, John of Patmos describes with powerful images his vision of creation come to completion and life fulfilled. This is the horizon against which he invites us to see our own lives unfold:

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
[God] will dwell with them;
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God … will be with them…”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.[10]

In John’s vision, there is no temple in the city because humankind is at home in God and God is at home in humankind, finally.


[1] 1 Kings 5:5

[2] 1 Kings 5:13-18

[3] 1 Kings 6:1

[4] See 1 Kings 6:14-38

[5] Mark 15:38

[6] Mark 14:58

[7] Mark 15:29

[8] 1 Peter 2:5

[9] Ephesians 2:21-22

[10] Revelation 21:2-3, 22

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Kingdom dreams

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.

These are the opening words of Psalm 72, something like the job description of Israel’s dream king.

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.

May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.

May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.

You noticed how many of the verses begin with the wishful sounding may. The psalm is not a job description; it belongs to Israel’s poetry of hope, formed by generations of royal disappointment.

In 1 Samuel 8, the people ask for a king, and the prophet Samuel delivers a warning. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you” and then there’s no hopeful may he, but only a litany of matter-of-fact he-will’s:

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself … some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to … his officers and his courtiers. He will take … the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work … and you shall be his slaves.[1]

The prophet’s warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. Solomon is presented as a test case for the opportunities and temptations of kingship.

King David is dead, and through carefully choreographed deception and with the help of powerful allies, Solomon has secured for himself the highly contested succession to the throne. After that, the first thing we hear about him is that he made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt – of all the princesses of all the neighboring kingdoms he married Pharaoh’s daughter! It’s not a very subtle hint of the proximity of kingship to slavery, but at this point it’s only a hint. He is young, his reign has only just begun: Oh, the promise!

Oh! The places he’ll go!

He’ll be on his way up!

He’ll be seeing great sights!

He’ll join the high fliers

who soar to high heights.

Solomon goes to Gibeon, one of the local shrines, a holy place, to sacrifice, and there, at night, the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” This dream is not like the fairy tale where the fairy godmother grants you three wishes, or the Disney movie where the genie does the same for Aladdin. “Ask what I should give you,” is an offer that comes without a cap. Solomon could just check off a laundry list of everything any king has ever wanted, anything any king could ever want think of the possibilities!

Then the young king speaks, and he presents himself with such piety, sincerety, and humility. He speaks of God’s loyal love toward David and of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward God. “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”

He’s so humble, he doesn’t even say “I” until he points out how young he is and inadequate to the solemn task. And then he asks for one thing only: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Can you imagine? A man who has just stepped into a unique position of power and authority and all he asks for is an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil? Not the vanquishing of his enemies, not wealth, not fame, not the unceasing admiration of an awestruck public an understanding mind.

The phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart,” with the heart being, in Hebrew anthropology, the center of thought, intention, and will. The one thing Solomon asks for is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs and hopes of God’s people. He knows that a listening heart is the antithesis of a hard heart, an inability to notice or care for or take seriously the people he governs. Walter Brueggemann wonders if “in using this phrase [Solomon] is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy.”[2] A listening heart is a heart receptive to the purposes of God and responsive to the needs of the people whom God has brought up from Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s answer. He promises to be a king after God’s own heart, and God promises to give him, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare.

In the chapters that follow, we’re told in detail of his magnificent building projects the temple is an extravaganza of gold! of his global fame and of the trade policies that bring never-before-seen wealth to his house and the city. But while he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. He uses forced labor and heavy taxes to build up his kingdom, and he worships other gods, gods more in line with his style of governance. Wealth and honor distort the wisdom he asked for that night in Gibeon and his heart no longer listens. His heart is no longer in tune with the heart of God, no longer attentive to the needs of God’s people, no longer faithful. He has forgotten that the God who appeared to him in his dream did not just promise wealth and honor and long life; God also spoke of walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s commandments, particularly the Torah that instructs God’s people and their leaders in the attentive care for widows, orphans, and migrants.

Governing God’s people well, it turns out, is not merely a matter of successful management  or economic growth or impressive capital projects ultimately it means attentiveness to the socially and economically vulnerable members of the community. The wisdom that Solomon did not learn is how to be and remain attentive to those for whom the God of the exodus has special attentiveness.

Kingdoms are born of all kinds of dreams of power and prestige and wealth and fame. But the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of righteousness is the deep wisdom of human hearts in tune with the heart of God.

So, if you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? “A heart in tune with the heart of God” would be the Sunday school answer, and a good one at that.

Wisdom? The book of Proverbs confirms that putting wisdom first is recommended, and not just for young royal dreamers:

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy

If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? The question is not a hypothetical one, because we are. Only we are not the ones on the throne. And ultimately that may well have been what Solomon in all his wisdom forgot: that the kingdom wasn’t his, but God’s.

Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve God and ambition. You cannot serve God and power. And he continues,

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[4]

When Solomon asked for a listening heart, God was pleased and promised to give him not only what he asked for, but also wealth and honor. And soon the king and, according to First and Second Kings, just about every king after him, forgot that they were servants in the kingdom of God and they made idols of wealth, fame, and power.

Kingdoms are indeed born of all kinds of dreams and the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of faithfulness and righteousness has given birth to God’s kingdom on earth in the person of Jesus. And when we strive first for this kingdom, he reminds us, all that we need and all that anyone needs will be given to us as well.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:11-17

[2] Walter Brueggemann https://www.huffingtonpost.com/walter-brueggemann/i-kings-2-10-12-3-3-14-who-will-be-americas-next-leader_b_1776777.html

[3] Proverbs 3:13-18

[4] Matthew 6:24, 28-33

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Zealous hero?

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess; she was the daughter of the king of Tyre, a port city on the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. She was married to Ahab, king of Israel, not because they were madly in love, but because their parents wanted to strengthen an alliance between their houses against rivals in the region. It was all part of the ancient game of thrones. The alliance meant that those with connections to Ahab’s court were doing quite well, due to new opportunities in trade. Those lacking those connections were dealing with increased economic and social stresses, due to the disruption of traditions.

Take, for example the story of Naboth.[1] He had a vineyard in Jezreel that was next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab ordered Naboth, “Give me your vineyard so it can become my vegetable garden, because it is right next  to my palace. In exchange for it, I’ll give you an even better vineyard. Or if you prefer, I’ll pay you the price in silver.”

Naboth responded to Ahab, “Lord forbid that I give you my family inheritance!”

So Ahab went to his palace, irritated and upset at what Naboth had said to him. He lay down on his bed and turned his face away. He wouldn’t eat anything.

Jezebel came to him and asked, “Why aren’t you eating? Why are you upset?”

He told her about his conversation with Naboth, and Jezebel couldn’t believe it: “Aren’t you the one who rules Israel? Get up! Eat some food and cheer up. I’ll get Naboth’s vineyard for you myself.”

She arranged for false witnesses to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king, so the people would stone him to death. It worked like a charm. As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take ownership of the vineyard of Naboth, which he had refused to sell to you. Naboth is no longer alive; he’s dead.” And so he did.

Elijah went to see the king and said, “This is what the Lord says: In the same place where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up your own blood.”

The people who recorded this story for future generations did not belong to Ahab’s court. At the end they added a comment,

Truly there has never been anyone like Ahab who sold out by doing evil in the Lord’s eyes—evil that his wife Jezebel led him to do. Ahab’s actions were deplorable. He followed after the worthless idols exactly like the Amorites had done—the very ones the Lord had removed before the Israelites.[2]

From the perspective of the people who wrote down these stories, Ahab’s actions were deplorable, but Jezebel was to blame, the foreign princess with her idols and her foreign ways. To them, she was the embodiment of all that led Israel astray — away from the covenant and the commandments and the righteousness of God. Jezebel and the prophets of Baal who ate at her table.

Elijah, however, was the champion of the Lord, and he issued a challenge to Ahab: Send a message and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel together with all the prophets of Baal and Asherah.

When they had gathered, Elijah said to the people, “How long will you hobble back and forth? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.”

The people gave no answer.

Elijah said, “I am the last of the Lord’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire—that’s the real God!” They thought it was an excellent idea.[3]

The prophets of Baal prepared one of the bulls, and they called on the name of their god from morning to midday, but nothing happened. Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” They went on and on, but nothing happened.

When evening came, Elijah repaired the Lord’s altar, dug a trench around it, added the wood, butchered the bull, and placed the bull on the wood. Then he told the people to douse it all with four jars of water. And they did. “Do it again!” he said. So they did it a second time. “Do it a third time!” And they did. Elijah prayed. And suddenly the Lord’s fire fell and it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench.

The people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed. Elijah told them, “Seize Baal’s prophets! Don’t let any escape!” So they seized the prophets, and Elijah killed them.

Sounds like something made for HBO, doesn’t it? The evil queen, the pint-size king, the gawking crowd, and the lone hero of Mount Carmel, wiping off the blood of his sword. Parental discretion advised.

When Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done she sent a messenger to Elijah to tell him, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow.” 

Now we see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, ten days on foot, away from Jezebel. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down under a solitary broom tree, and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life,” and lays down and falls asleep.

Is he exhausted from the showdown on Mount Carmel or from the long journey south?

If he’s ready to die, why didn’t he just let Jezebel take care of it?

And if she wanted to do to him what he had done to the prophets, why did she send a messenger to announce it, instead of an assassin?

Elijah wakes up when someone touches him, and for a second he doesn’t know if this might be someone sent by Jezebel or someone else. “Get up and eat,” the stranger says, and there is bread and a jar of water. It’s a moment of profound and simple grace; bread in the wilderness. Elijah eats, he drinks, goes back to sleep.

A second time the angel of the Lord touches him, and tells him to eat and drink, for otherwise the journey would be too much for him. And Elijah goes in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, the place where the commandments were given, the covenant place. It turns out he traced Israel’s steps all the way back to this place of promise. And here he the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I wonder why this word comes to him now, and why not earlier during the violent spectacle on Mount Carmel. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up for you. I have spoken up for you. I have confronted the king for you. I have ridiculed idols for you. I have killed for you. I have been zealous, very zealous, for you. “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He feels like he’s been left alone in the epic struggle. He sounds like he’s been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways, some display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent and walk in righteousness, and God’s people to return to the Lord.

There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s zeal, his rage, his desire for complete and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion, but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only the sound of their absence; the astonishing sound of sudden silence; the sound of no sound in the immediate wake of very loud sounds, a kind of presence that can only be described as the absence of all that. And from that silence again a voice, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

His answer was the same as before, but again he wasn’t commended for his zeal, nor confirmed in his assessment of Israel’s apostasy, nor comforted about his precarious circumstances. He was told to go back on his way, to make himself again available for God’s disruptions of the idolatrous royal routines of Israel and her neighbors in the name of God’s reign.

And perhaps that is one thing we can keep from these ancient super hero stories: to make ourselves available for God’s disruptions of our idolatrous routines; to seek to serve God’s purposes, and not to identify too confidently our own passion with God’s; and to take our hints for the character of God’s reign not from the palaces, not from any palaces, but from Jesus.





[1] See 1 Kings 21:1-19

[2] 1 Kings 21:25-26

[3] 1 Kings 17:19-24

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Parker Palmer had given a speech in Saskatoon, Canada and he boarded a 6 a.m. flight home to Wisconsin. “Our departure was delayed,” he writes, “because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’” Palmer was up front where all the “road warriors” sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about “incompetence,” “lousy service,” etc.

Once they got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, “Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet…” That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors. Then she said, “Now that I have your attention… I know you’re upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!” As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. The surly scene turned into an excursion of happy campers!

An hour later, as the attendant passed by his seat, Palmer signaled to her.

“What you did was really amazing,” he said. “Where can I send a letter of commendation?”

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ll get you a form.”

Then she leaned down and whispered, “The loaves and fishes are not dead.”[1]

The story of Jesus feeding a multitude is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels, and in Matthew and Mark, it’s even told twice; it’s a rich and generative story. In it, we hear echoes of Israel’s wilderness journey with Moses and the mighty acts of Elisha, and it tells of Jesus who is both a part of that history and its completion. It is a story of overflowing grace and abundant life that points to Jesus as the enfleshed presence of God. Palmer writes,

As far as I’m concerned, that story doesn’t involve any magic. It’s about the miracle of sharing in community, an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off. [2]

I agree that the story doesn’t involve any magic, but reducing it to an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off rips out the heart of the story, Jesus. John has no interest in introducing us to the man who orchestrated the miracle of sharing in community so that we may learn how it’s done. John tells us about Jesus so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.[3]

A crowd of five thousand, a boy’s lunch of five barley rolls and some fish, and all ate as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. At the end of the picnic, the disciples went around and picked up the broken pieces, and they filled twelve baskets. Five plus two, divided by 5,000 equals fullness for all and baskets of leftovers. That’s kingdom math. Palmer is right, the story doesn’t involve magic; it is the testimony of the first witnesses about Jesus in whom we encounter the life-giving power of God. Grace flows freely and abundantly from the source of life, the heart of God, the hands of Jesus, into our hands, our hearts, our lives grace as tangible as bread.

John tells us that Passover was near, the festival of liberation. Passover was very near indeed, not just on the calendar, but in the events about to unfold. Passover was near in the person and work of Jesus. When he saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

John says it was a test, and who can blame Philip for starting to think about budgets when it was Jesus who talked about buying bread? Philip quickly did the math he knew. He understood that it wasn’t a matter of knowing where the nearest bakery was. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” no need to mention that none of them had that kind of cash. It wasn’t a math test. And it wasn’t part of an interview for the position of Director of Procurement and Purchasing. The question for Philip and the rest of us was and is: where do you turn for the gift of life and the gifts that sustain it?

There are echoes of the Exodus story. When the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the land of milk and honey, they were tired and hungry, and soon they began to remember the house of slavery as a land of fleshpots. “If only we had meat to eat!” they cried. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Moses turned to God and said, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’” Moses didn’t have meat to give them, and their memory was being clouded by rosy illusions: the fish they used to eat in Pharaoh’s brick yards, they imagined they ate it for nothing. They were reimagining the reality of slavery as a story of free food.

Jesus’ question to Philip and to us echoes that wilderness scene and implicitly he asks us where we turn for the gift of life: do we think of life as something we buy in exchange for our labor or as the gift of God on whose faithfulness we can depend?

Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

Nobody asked them if they were Gentile or Jew or Samaritan. Nobody inquired if they were rich or poor, or asked to see their papers. They all ate, male and female, young and old, foolish and wise – all ate until they were full. The fragments left over filled twelve baskets – enough for every tribe in the nation; enough for every month of the year, or perhaps simply enough, more than enough. Whether it was wine at the wedding feast or bread at the picnic by the lake, there was, there is, there will be enough for all to be filled until they want no more.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus doesn’t ask this question here, but it is the one lingering in the background. When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” They had tasted life in abundance, and they began to draw their conclusions. In the framework of their experience, they tried to identify the place where Jesus fit in, and they called him the prophet, one like Moses, sent to lead God’s people. And when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew.

Why did he withdraw? Why didn’t he let them crown him? He healed people, so obviously he knew how to make healthcare affordable and accessible. He fed people, so clearly he knew a thing or two about the economy. He taught people, so he had a passion for education. His character was flawless; there was not even a hint of corruption. Some people may have questioned his positions on gun ownership or divorce – but still, wasn’t he the best man for the job? Why did he withdraw? Why did he withdraw at the precise moment when he was about to be confirmed as king by public acclamation?

Jesus gives all that he has to give without claiming worldly power. He is no king in the mold of the Roman emperors who distributed free grain in the capital to keep the people from rebelling. He doesn’t conform to our systems of power by taking over the spot at the top, but rather subverts our dreams of dominion by giving life and the freedom to live as children of God to all. He is indeed teacher and healer, prophet and king, but his life redefines and transfigures all these terms.

Bread tells stories. In recipes handed down generation to generation, bread tells us about our ancestors. In its journey from the field to the table, bread tells stories about farms and cities, about kitchens, bakeries, and factories, about immigration and labor relations.

In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for people to thrive and life to flourish. Dennis Linn recalls how

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”[4]

Bread tells stories. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] He himself is the goodness and fullness we long for, and he freely gives himself to us that all may have life, and have it abundantly.[6]


[1] https://onbeing.org/blog/loaves-and-fishes-are-not-dead/

[2] Ibid.

[3] John 20:31

[4] Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), 1.

[5] John 6:35

[6] John 10:10

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Life, someone said, is what happens when we have made other plans. We never know when somebody will come knocking at the door needing our help, and we don’t know until we open if it’s a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger. We never know when our plans will be interrupted by the needs of others.

Jesus had sent the twelve out two by two, and now they were coming back, tired, I imagine, but also full of stories and questions. Perhaps the weight of responsibility felt a little heavier to them, now that they knew what it meant to be Jesus’ sent ones. He had called them away from their fishing boats, their families, and their plans, to follow him. And follow they did. They tried to keep up. They watched. They listened. They were astounded. They wondered. But then he sent them out, two by two, with the authority to teach and heal and drive out demons. He sent them out to participate in his mission, and they discovered how being bearers of the good news was quite different from just being hearers or observers. Now they gathered around Jesus, eager to tell him what they had done and taught. They wanted to share their joys and frustrations, to get feedback and encouragement, and perhaps a bite to eat. They were excited and exhausted at the same time, and Jesus knew just what they needed and what a joy it must have been for them to hear him say, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

They heard the promise of refreshing solitude. Some of them envisioned mountains, meadows, and trout streams, others could almost feel the sand between their toes as they imagined themselves strolling along a wide beach with waves rolling up on the shore, and another three or four saw themselves sitting on a deck overlooking hills covered with forests, with the setting sun painting the sky in purple, red, and orange hues.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” What a sweet commandment, and what a pleasure to keep it. So they climbed into the boat and sailed away. They pulled away from shore, away from the crowds, the needs and the demands.

Just to be out on the water was great. The town noise was quickly fading, and soon they heard nothing but the sound of the bow cutting through the water. It didn’t last, though. When they were pulling up on the other shore, they discovered that a crowd had already gathered there, people who had hurried there on foot from all the towns. They just couldn’t get away from it all. Perhaps the Twelve sensed how the loving care they felt for the people and their needs was slowly turning into resentment. Perhaps they were feeling guilty for not being more loving, more giving, who knows.

At this moment, Mark draws our attention away from the twelve and the ways in which we recognize ourselves in them, and he points to Jesus. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. Like sheep without a shepherd – what does that mean?

Andre Dubus remembers the first year he and his family lived in New England, in a very hold house in southern New Hampshire.

The landlord wanted someone to live in it while he was working out of state, the rent was a hundred dollars a month, the house was furnished, had seven fireplaces (two of them worked), and in the backyard was a swimming pool. There were seventy acres of land, most of it wooded except for a long meadow, hilly enough for sledding. There were also three dogs, eight sheep, and a bed of roses. … The landlady wanted the roses there when she came home after the year, and the landlord wanted the sheep. They were eight large ewes, and he bred them. They were enclosed by a wire fence in a large section of the meadow. … All we had to do about them was make sure they didn’t get through the fence, which finally meant that when they got through, we had to catch them and put them back in the pasture.

That sounds doable, doesn’t it? Dubus writes,

The sheep did not want to leave their pasture, at least not for long and not to go very far. One would find a hole in the fence, slip out, then circle the pasture, trying to get back in. The others watched her. Someone in our family would shout the alarm, and we’d all go outside to chase her.

At first we tried herding the ewe back toward the hole in the fence, standing in the path of this bolting creature, trying to angle her back, as we closed the circle the six of us made, closed it tighter and tighter until she was backed against the fence, and the hole she was trying to find. But she never went back through the hole, never saw it, and all our talking and pointing did no good. Finally we gave up, simply chased her over the lawn, around the swimming pool, under trees and through underbrush until one of us got close enough, dived, and tackled. Then three of us would lift her and drop her over the fence, and we’d get some wire and repair the hole.

Upon arriving in New Hampshire, Dubus had about as much experience with sheep as probably most of us have had.

When I was a boy, sheep had certain meanings: in the Western movies, sheep herders interfered with the hero’s cattle; or the villain’s ideas about his grazing rights interfered with the hero’s struggle to raise his sheep. And Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep. But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.[1]

Dubus and his family weren’t shepherds, though; they were sheep tacklers at best. James Rebanks was born into a shepherd family with father, grandfather, and generations of shepherds who have tended sheep in England’s Lake District as far back as the Middle Ages, and he is the rare shepherd who wrote a book about the trials and the beauty of the shepherd’s life.[2]

Once he saw an ad by the National Trust for a shepherd for one of its farms in Wales, and he imagined it catching the eye of bored city-dwellers everywhere in the UK, with their dreams of abandoning the “rat race” to live a different life closer to nature. The romantic voice in his head said: great! Some poor lost soul can escape urban drudgery to become a shepherd. But having written the book about the shepherd’s life he also felt he might be guilty of fuelling such escape fantasies. So he wrote a brief article for the Telegraph to shed some light on the attributes any applicant would need:

You need to be tough as old boots. Imagine working for weeks on end in the rain, and then snow, and lambs dying of hypothermia, with the difference between life and death being you and your knowledge. Even if you do your best they still die, and you will need to keep going. The romance wears off after a few weeks, believe me, and you will be left standing cold and lonely on a mountain. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on. …

You will need a couple, or more, great sheepdogs (Training a sheepdog takes a couple of years, so hopefully you started a while ago, or you’ll have to spend thousands to buy them ready-trained). A shepherd without great dogs is just a fool running around a mountain waving their hands achieving nothing.

You’ll need the patience of a saint, too, because sheep test you to the limit, with a million innovative ways to escape, ail or die. For all these reasons this probably isn’t a job for someone unfamiliar with the mountain, its sheep, and its people. The apprenticeship period for a shepherd is … about 40 years. You are just a “boy” or a “lass” until you are about 60: it takes that long to really know a mountain, the vagaries of its weather and grazing, to know the different sheep, marks, shepherds, bloodlines, and to earn the respect of other shepherds. This isn’t just fell walking behind sheep with a dog friend – it requires a body of knowledge and skills that shepherds devote decades to learning.

So by all means apply for this job if you are looking to escape your urban woes. But recognise that doing so without the right experience and skills is a bit like turning up at Nasa and telling them you’d like to be an astronaut. [3]

In the Bible, shepherding is a metaphor for ruling and leading.

Good kings are good shepherds who establish justice and righteousness so life in the community can flourish.

Bad shepherds? They feed themselves, not the sheep. They don’t strengthen the weak, they don’t heal the sick, they don’t bind up the injured, they don’t bring back the strayed, they don’t seek the lost. They rule with force and harshness. They scatter the sheep.[4]

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus didn’t let the needs of the people on shore interrupt his retreat plans, as much as it may look like that at first glance. He let his compassion, the very essence of who he is, who God is, he let his compassion interrupt all the ways in which we diminish and destroy the gift of life. He let his compassion interrupt our self-centeredness, our need to control, our harshness, our desire to be gods rather than creatures of God.

Mark says, he began to teach them many things – not just the folk on the shore, but also the twelve apprentices in the boat. He began to teach them not how to be good sheep regardless of who claimed to be shepherd – no, he began to teach them and all of us how to be shepherds, how to let his life, the life of the good shepherd, be ours.

The apprenticeship period for a shepherd, according to Rebanks, is about 40 years. That sounds about right for our life as disciples and emissaries of Jesus as well; it’s a lifelong project. Walking with him we become for each other what he is to us.


[1] Andre Dubus, “Out like a lamb,” in: Broken Vessels: Essays by Andre Dubus (1991)

[2] James Rebanks, The Shepherds Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015)

[3] James Rebanks https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/agriculture/farming/11569612/Are-you-hard-enough-to-survive-as-a-shepherd.html

[4] See Ezekiel 34:2-6

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Herod's birthday

You could be watching the soccer world cup final now. Instead you’re listening to the preacher who is wondering what you might make of the gloomy story you just heard. You were hoping for a little something to feed your soul, weren’t you? Good news of great joy. Glad cries of deliverance. Gospel. You’re wondering what the preacher was thinking to have you listen to this tale of a ghastly birthday banquet like something straight out of Game of Thrones. Intrigue. Seduction. Fear. Ambition. Brutal violence.

It was Herod’s birthday. This was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. He loved it when people called him king, because that’s what he dreamed of being someday: somebody with enough power to make the truth whatever he wanted it to be. The title the Romans had given him after the death of his father, Herod the Great, was Tetrarch, “ruler of a quarter” in English, because rather than trusting one with the whole realm, they divided it between him and his brothers. Antipas got Galilee.

So this was his birthday, and he had invited government officials, business leaders and dignitaries to a banquet at the palace. There was plenty to eat, and before, during, and after dinner, plenty to drink. This wasn’t the kind of dinner party we imagine Queen Elizabeth II would host. Speaking of the queen, it was common for the women had they been at the banquet at all to leave the room after the meal, and then there would be more drinking and after-dinner entertainment. Herod was in a splendid mood the wine, the food, the lavish praise of flattering toasts and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for his guests.

Herodias was his wife, his second wife, to be exact, but she used to be his brother Philip’s wife, and she wasn’t a widow. No big deal in Roman law, particularly among the leading families, but in Jewish law this kind of marriage was forbidden. John the Baptist, the wilderness prophet, was very clear about it: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”[1] The fact that Herodias was also Herod’s niece apparently was no cause of concern. Anyway, Herod, not known in his realm and the empire as a proud supporter of free speech, had John arrested, bound, and put in prison. Mark presents this as some kind of compromise, protective custody, as it were, because Herodias wanted the Baptist killed. ‘Let him tell his truth to the dungeon walls,’ Herod may have suggested to his vengeful wife.

So, after dinner Herod asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for him and his guests. Feel free to imagine a young princess dressed in a pink tutu, delighting the guests with a sequence from Swan Lake, but this was not that kind of dance. Let’s just say this was something typically done by professionals, and not the kind of dance the average dad would want his daughter to perform in front of a bunch of drunk men. But Herod wasn’t your average dad and so he did ask and he watched and he was pleased and he promised on oath to grant her a wish.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

“Kingdom” was a big word, of course, too big, really, but he did dream of becoming king one day, and he may have had a few drinks too many, and he wanted to impress not just the girl with his wealth and generosity, but his guests.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you.”

She didn’t ask for a pony. She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” Herodias replied.

And the girl rushed back to Herod, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The platter was the girl’s idea, and the dish was brought in like it was the last course at the banquet.

Herod did not really want to grant the request, but he couldn’t afford to lose face in front of his VIP guests, who had heard him make the foolish promise. Not if he wanted to continue to be the empire’s man in Galilee and Peraea; not if he wanted to hold on to his kingdom dreams. So he sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. Death was the final course at the palace, and the closing line of this terrible story speaks of John’s disciples who came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

What do you do with a terrible story like that? What do you do with a story that ends in a tomb like that? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in that horrifying tale of fear dressed up as power and producing only death? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in the daily stories of fear and greed and dreams of domination?

Mark tells us a larger story, one that helps us see beyond the tomb. Mark inserts this tale right after telling us about the rejection Jesus experienced in his hometown and how he responded by sending out the twelve two by two. Be prepared for rejection when you proclaim the nearness of God’s reign! And they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. And they cast out all kinds of evils that bind and oppress people and they brought hope and healing to many communities. Proclaiming repentance, they did what John had done before he was arrested. Driving out demons, they did what Jesus did, with awesome power, and when Herod heard of it, he was afraid, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” He thought the fearless truthteller was on the loose again. He himself had sent men who arrested and bound John and put him in prison, and he himself had sent a soldier of the guard to bring him John’s head …

Mark tells us how Jesus sent the twelve to liberate and heal, and in the next scene he tells us about Herod who sent men under his authority to bind and lock up and kill. It’s the clash between the empire of death and the kingdom of life. The story is a flashback to what Herod did to John, and a flashforward to what Pilate will do to Jesus. The world, Mark wants us to recognize, does not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather sees it as a threat to its own dreams of domination and greatness. And so Mark tells those who follow Jesus as servants of God’s kingdom, to be prepared not only for rejection and ridicule, but also for violent resistance from the servants of empire.

And like the world, we do not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather see it as a threat to our own dreams of power and control, our own dreams of being masters, kings and queens. We would be fools to believe that the line between the servants of God’s kingdom and the servants of empire can be drawn as clearly between us and others as it was between Herod’s banquet hall and the dungeon down below; the line runs through us. The real struggle is not against the servants of empire, regardless of where we see them or how we label them. The real struggle for us as followers of Jesus is to live as servants of God’s kingdom, to hear again and again the call to repentance and to discipleship and to mission, and to follow that call, again and again, with trust in the faithfulness of God, and to resist the whispers of fear and greed and despair.

The larger story Mark tells us, helps us see beyond the tomb and beyond all that buries our hope: The killing of the prophet does not stop the truth of God. The crucifixion does not stop God’s desire to bring wholeness to creation. And persecution will not stop the church’s participation in God’s mission in the world.

In verse 30, not part of today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but very much part of the context that sheds light on this gloomy story, Mark tells us the apostles gathered around Jesus, and they told him all that they had done and taught. They told him about their struggle to live as servants of God’s  kingdom in the world, and even then, they were surrounded by a great crowd of people, men and women longing for life, for healing and forgiveness so many, they had no leisure even to eat. And that’s when we hear about the other banquet, the birthday banquet of the world to come where thousands eat, and the leftovers from five loaves and two fish fill twelve baskets.

You came here hoping for a little something to feed your soul, didn’t you? At Herod’s party of bending tables and overflowing bowls you’d be hard-pressed to find even a morsel that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. You’d eat and drink ambition, intrigue, seduction, fear, and brutal violence. But outside the palace, Jesus is hosting the feast of life. Where do you go with your hunger?

I don’t want to be at Herod’s party any more and I don’t want a piece of his cake. I want to go where there’s bread for all. I want to go where Jesus is leading us. I want to live in the kingdom of God.



[1] Leviticus 18:13-16; 20:21

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And she did

They wanted to touch him. People came to Jesus in great numbers, for he had cured many, Mark says, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him (Mk 3:10). They had heard how Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand and touched a leper, and said to him, “Be made clean!” (Mk 1:41) and other stories like it.

Mark paints a scene of people being drawn to Jesus from every direction, bodies everywhere. Among them a man who somehow makes his way to Jesus and throws himself at his feet. He’s a synagogue official of some kind, an important man, which is possibly why the crowd gave way and let him through; his name is Jairus, Mark tells us.

But Jairus doesn’t behave like an important man. He’s on his knees, his forehead touching the ground; he can smell the dirt, he can feel the grit of sand and gravel against the tips of his fingers. He behaves like a desperate man, a man on the verge of losing it for helplessness and fear. His daughter is at the point of death, only he doesn’t say “my daughter,” he says, “my little daughter,” the little girl he has known since he first held her on the day she was born and she was barely bigger than his hand. “She’s dying,” is what he’s there to tell the man from Nazareth, she’s dying. Nothing else matters for him anymore; not a thought about propriety or social conventions: his little girl is at the point of death.

I see Jairus in the company of the desperate mothers and fathers at the border fences of the world. They have come from Syria and Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, parents whose lives have a single focus: that their children may live.

Jairus is an important man, a man with a name, and love has made him a beggar. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, “my little daughter, she’s at the point of death— and he says, “Come and lay your hands on her.” Come and touch her like you have touched others with healing. Lay your hands on her, he says, perhaps he’s seen it done, perhaps he’s done it himself, kneeling by her bedside, willing to let his own life flow through the palms of his hands to let it be hers, if that was what it took, but he couldn’t give her what he so desperately wanted to give her. “Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live,” he says to Jesus.

He remembers when she was little, how, in the middle of the night when the house was too quiet, he used to get up to make sure she was breathing. He never told anybody, men of status and importance didn’t do such things, but now he is no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick.

One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.

The hardest part: there was nothing he could do.

No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman we loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.[1]

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged, and Jesus went with him, Mark tells us. Surrounded by people on every side, bodies everywhere, Jesus suddenly stopped and turned about and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right? All this humanity pressing in on you — how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

They didn’t know what just happened. They didn’t know that a woman — having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind — had touched his cloak. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” They didn’t know those words had been her mantra as she made her way through the crowd.

That was all the faith she had, a mixture of desperation and magical thinking. She was too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, too single-minded to worry that her condition would render those who touched her ritually unclean. She was determined to touch his clothes and she did. And immediately she felt that she was healed. Immediately she felt that life was no longer slowly draining from her, but filling her. And when Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” she didn’t just say, “I did.”

She fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him of the twelve years of her suffering and poverty, she told him of her loneliness, her shame, her isolation – how life had slowly dripped away from her physically, emotionally, and socially.

And Jesus heard her out and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” He called it her faith, this curious blend of desperation and magical thinking, this unbending determination to touch him because life was his to give and restore and make whole. The single-minded focus she found when she got to the end of her rope, Jesus called faith.

Ruben Garcia works at Annunciation House, a Christian shelter for migrants in Albuquerque. The guests who have stayed there over the years have fled war in Central America, drug cartel violence in Mexico and violent gangs in Central America. They’re seeking a safe haven and increasingly asylum.

“The people that are leaving now are fleeing what is the classic, low-intensity warfare,” Garcia said, adding that their right to file an asylum claim when they arrive at the border and have a judge review their case is protected by U.S. law. In recent weeks, he has escorted a few families seeking asylum through ports of entry because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been turning people away.

“We’re walking up the bridge, and all that I can think of is … they’re the poorest of the poor, and they come to the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, and look at what we’re making them do … We have no idea what hope means,” he said. “The people who are poor will teach us what it means to hope.”[2]

When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” he reminds us that the poor also teach us what it means to live with faith. And he calls her “daughter,” which is such an important part of the whole truth, because she is not just some anonymous impoverished woman in the crowd, but a child of God, a member of God’s family.

And calling her “daughter,” Jesus reminds us that the divine parent’s love for the human family is like Jairus’s for his little daughter. And suddenly we remember the urgency with which that father begged and pleaded, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

But live she doesn’t any longer. “Your daughter is dead,” they tell Jairus. They have come from his house, they know what they’re talking about. Nothing anybody can do about it now; too late. End of story. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they tell him.

But Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? What is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face? And before we begin cobbling together answers, we notice that Jairus didn’t ask; he went to his house and Jesus went with him, along with Peter, James and John.

There the funeral was already underway with people weeping and wailing, and when they heard Jesus say, “The child is not dead but sleeping,” they laughed at him, they didn’t know what else to do. They had been there when it happened, he had just walked in the door.

Jesus put them all outside, and then the six of them went in where the child was. And Jesus doesn’t speak to the grieving parents, he doesn’t speak to the disciples who are probably still wondering what he meant by “not dead but sleeping,” — Jesus takes her by the hand and says to her with great tenderness and care, “Talitha cum.”

We don’t speak Aramaic as Jesus and his first followers did, and Mark is kind enough to translate the words for us, so we don’t think it’s some kind of magic spell or secret incantation, but he keeps the words in Jesus’ native tongue in his Greek text, because somebody in that room remembered them, and they take us a little closer to the sound of Jesus’ voice, “Talitha cum — little girl, get up!”

And she did.

Wherever Jesus went, Mark tells us, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mk 6:56). That is one side of this wondrous pair of stories we heard this morning. It is about our desire to touch Jesus, our deep desire to connect with the divine source of life and blessing.

The other side is about God’s desire to touch us. When we are in the place where hope has withered, courage shrunk, where joy is gone and we can barely imagine what it might mean to believe, and when they come and tell us it’s too late — it’s not. It never is. Because Jesus has entered the room where the child was. And he took her by the hand and spoke the words of life restored and renewed, “Talitha cum – little girl, get up!” And she did.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26

[2] https://www.abqjournal.com/1191394/garcias-mission-reunite-families.html

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Invading this love-starved world

Human life begins in a little ocean inside the womb. We imagine it to be a world of perfect peace. Nothing can bother us in those first months – food comes to us with the regularity of our mother’s heartbeat; all other noises are muffled, the temperature is always right, we just curl up in the water and float in the complete unity of life – until the water breaks, that is.

Then, suddenly, it’s this assault of gravity and bright lights, cold air, strange, unfiltered sounds, and very soon another terrifying sensation – hunger. The peace is gone, until we’re held and gently rocked, until we’re fed and warm — in a word, the peace is gone until we know we’re loved.

It may well be the fact that we spend the first months of our existence immersed in water like fish in the ocean, that we have this life-long attraction to water. There’s nothing like soaking in a hot tub when your muscles are sore – or your soul. You just float in the warm goodness and the memories of every bath you ever had, and the tensions melt, the muscles relax, and your soul sings. We love water; the pleasures of splashing and swimming; playing in the creek; the fun of zipping down a water slide or doing a canon-ball from a diving board; listening to the sound of rain drops drumming on the leaves of the trees; taking a shower at the end of a long, hot day; we are touched by the beauty of rivers, lakes, and falls, and by the sound of waves rolling up on the beach.

When the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus got larger, he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so he could pull away from the shore and teach from the boat.[1] People heard his stories about the sower scattering seed on the ground with the sound of water in the background, little waves lapping up onto the pebbles and rocks. They listened to his parables while looking out at the vast openness of sea and sky. Let that scene sink in, just for a moment: you’re sitting by the water’s edge, listening to Jesus telling stories about the reign of God and its nearness. You don’t just hear the promise of wholeness, you’re living in it.

On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” and leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat. Most of the people on the beach, I imagine, went home; they had things to do, animals to look after, meals to prepare, kids to get ready for bed. But some hung around a little longer and they watched the boat go east. “What business does he have going over there,” some of them must have wondered, “it’s only Gentiles over there, a land full of idol worshippers and all kinds of unholy spirits. They’re not our people over there — what business does he have going to the other side?” Dark clouds were moving in, casting shadows over what had been such a lovely day on the lake shore.

Meanwhile, in the boat, the disciples were enjoying the quiet and the evening breeze — until the wind started picking up, and then a storm broke lose. The waves beat into the boat, and it was being swamped. Chaos had been unleashed, the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.

Water is one of our most powerful symbols because it represents some of our deepest needs and comforts along with some of our greatest fears. We hear this story, well aware that these aren’t days for smooth sailing, these are stormy days. These are days of fear and anger, of disbelief and outrage, of perplexing silence and helpless shouting. We can’t quite name all that has been unleashed and let loose, but we feel the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.

A mighty fortress is our God, the church has taught us to sing. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. I see a stronghold built on rock, surrounded by raging seas, waves battering the walls relentlessly, but to no avail: this fortress is a mighty one. And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear. The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: One little word shall fell them. One little word. But it is so much easier to sing bravely against the storm from within the walls of a fortress built high on a cliff than from inside a little boat tossed about by the wind and the waves.

The disciples saw Jesus, curled up on a cushion, sleeping like a baby, a picture of peace in the midst of the storm. They woke him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Did they need him to help get the water out of the boat or take hold of the rudder? If so, why didn’t they say so or hand him a pail? I wonder if they woke him because they were in the grip of fear and it bothered them that he didn’t seem to be the least bit troubled. “Do you not care that this little boat is going down and all of us with it?” They were panicky and frantic and the fact that he wasn’t only made it worse.

Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and it was so. He spoke and it came to be. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.[2]

One little word, and there was great calm. And the disciples? Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” There is a popular reading of this story where Jesus isn’t rebuking the wind and the waves, but the disciples for being afraid in the storm. According to that reading, we ought to always remember, no matter how high the waves or how violent the winds, that Jesus is in the boat with us – and that we shouldn’t be afraid, and if we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid. According to that reading, we ought to tie ourselves to the mast and laugh at the storm, “Bring it on! Is that all you got?” I believe this is dangerous nonsense, because the next time your little boat gets hit by a storm, and you know it will, you will be afraid, and on top of everthing else, you’ll feel guilty for being afraid. As if fear wasn’t enough.

Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples; he commanded the wind and the waves to be still. Remember, the whole trip was his idea. “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. This was no evening cruise to a restaurant on the other side of the bay. He took them out to sea, away from the land and the life they knew, to the land of the Gentiles. Why? Because idols and demons ruled on the other side and Jesus invaded their territory to bring the kingdom of God. Because sin and death and fearmongering ruled on the other side and Jesus crossed over to bring forgiveness, healing, and wholeness to life. This was no pleasure cruise, this was D-day. Little wonder the forces of chaos tried to stop the little boat with waves bucking like bulls and wind gusts strong enough to break everything in their path.

Jesus’ life and mission is one dangerous crossing after another. His presence, his teachings, and his actions lead to confrontation between the way things are and the way they are to be – around us, between us, and within us. The truth is, when Jesus is near, the storms aren’t far. But when Jesus speaks, we hear the word that brought creation into being. When Jesus speaks, we hear the Author of Life, the One who prescribed bounds for the sea, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”[3]

Ann Schmid used to think about Jesus stilling the storm as something like the scene from Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey, the apprentice, casts a spell while mopping the floor and the mops begin to carry their own buckets of water. The room begins to fill with water, and still the buckets keep coming. As the water rises higher, Mickey tries all sorts of magic spells, but none works. The waves rise higher and begin to toss him about. And just when it looks like he’s a goner, the sorcerer appears. Throwing open the door at the top of the steps, he sees what is happening, speaks a word of power, and the water meekly subsides and drains away. Ann writes,

I used to think about Jesus stilling the storm that way—standing up in the boat, arms raised above his head, powerfully rebuking the wind with an almighty word and commanding the sea, “Peace! Be still!”

And then I became a mother.

When our son was little, he would occasionally have night terrors—those too powerful, too vivid dreams that children can have. In the middle of the night I would hear his frightened wail. By the time I raced down the hall to his room, Wes would be gasping for breath between cries, his body shaking uncontrollably. He’d appear to be awake, eyes wide open in fear, but actually he was caught in the midst of a powerful nightmare.

Ann picked him up, but he couldn’t stop crying. He’d struggle to get out of her arms, the storm inside raging beyond his control. Ann and her husband spoke to him, “Wake up! Calm down! Be still!” with voices loud enough to be heard above his wails. It didn’t work. In time they learned to wrap their little boy in a secure embrace, to talk to him quietly, to soothe him until finally the terror passed and his little heart slowed and his breathing became regular and he fell asleep.

On one of those nights as Ann sat rocking her son, she softly started to sing “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” She wasn’t sure why that old hymn had come into her mind until she got to the second verse: “As a mother stills her child, thou canst hush the ocean wild ...”[4]

Jesus has taken us into the boat with him. He is taking us with him to the other side in love’s invasion of this love-starved world. He is taking us with him because all things become whole in his presence.


[1] Mark 3:9; 4:1

[2] Genesis 1:7ff.; Psalm 33:9; Psalm 107:29

[3] See Job 38:8-11

[4] Ann Schmid, The Christian Century, January 4, 2017, 24; online at


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Relentless sowers

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. Some will say, it’s like the garden where it all began. In the kingdom, we walk about among lush, verdant trees and meadows, and the weather is perpetually mild, the sun is never harsh, the rains are always gentle, and delicious fruits, nuts, and seeds ripen year-round, and no creature is afraid of another.

Some will say, the kingdom is like a garden. Others will compare it to a city. A city of great splendor, where the nations of the world come together for the feast of reconciliation, each person offering their gifts to the celebration of life, and all is done to the glory of God, and none shall be afraid.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. The task before a small committee, meeting for the first time on a July afternoon in 1776, was of a much different scale. The thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from Britain. Against much resistance from British loyalists who admonished the revolutionaries with words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to “be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2 KJV) — the powers that be always gladly open the Scriptures to these couple of verses, especially when faced with protest for ignoring the commandments about justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — against much resistance the thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from British rule, and now these United States needed an official national seal. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin formed a design committee and they asked themselves, “With what can we compare this revolutionary adventure?” They discussed various ideas and eventually agreed on a drawing of lady Liberty holding a shield to represent the thirteen states.

Lady Liberty would later have a long career in France, but the members of Congress were not inspired by the design committee report. And so more committees met, and eventually, in 1782 Congress adopted a seal designed by William Barton, showing an eagle with a shield covering its breast, holding in its talons a bundle of thirteen arrows on the left, and a thirteen-leaf olive branch on the right. The new nation was still at war with England at the time, and the fierce-looking bird seemed to be an appropriate emblem. Congress adopted Barton’s design with just one small but significant change: the golden eagle was replaced with the bald eagle, because the golden eagle also flew over European nations.

Not everybody liked the new design. Benjamin Franklin famously frowned at it. In a letter from Paris in 1784 to his daughter he wrote,

For my part, I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case; but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, no bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

Franklin argued that eagles could be found in all countries, and that “a true native of America” and “a much more respectable bird” would have been a more appropriate symbol: the turkey. He conceded that the turkey was “a little vain and silly,” but maintained that it was nevertheless a “bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”[1]

Royal houses, nations, and empires have long turned to the world of animals for symbolic representations of their power, and in general, predators like the eagle and the lion have been preferred over doves and bees or rabbits and the turkey. When Jesus told his parables about the kingdom of God, a very common symbol for royal power was a tree, the cedar of Lebanon. The book of Ezekiel contains in chapter 31 a particularly beautiful example for the use of this image:

Say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes: Whom are you like in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty (Ezekiel 31:2-8).

But Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, was cut down and fell. Israel’s experience with royal power was that it comes and goes, that kingdoms rise and fall. Ezekiel dreamed of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mountainous highlands, a shoot that would send out branches and bear fruit. And it would grow into a mighty cedar, and birds of every kind would nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs.[2]

When Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” it is easy to imagine a towering cedar whose branches extend to the ends of the earth; the tallest, the most magnificent tree of all, forever defining the center of the world; with its top in the heavens and its roots in the depths of the earth; with beautiful foliage and abundant fruit; with shade and food and peace for creatures great and small, representing all peoples and nations. But Jesus tells us a very different story. He leaves the lofty cedar on the mountain heights of the royal imagination, and goes to the field just outside the village where people work every day. The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Yes it does, at this point of the story everybody in the audience is nodding, mustard plants grow to about 5’ tall or when conditions are right, 8-9’ — tiny seed, big shrub, we get it. But then Jesus talks about the humble mustard plant in language borrowed from Israel’s dreams of royal greatness restored, and he tells us that it is the smallest of all seeds on the earth that becomes the greatest of all shrubs and that it is this shrub that puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Jesus picks up the ancient hope for a kingdom that brings an end to the rise and fall of empires, but at the same time he subverts any imperial dreams of grandeur we might have and our assumptions of majesty and might. There’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard…

… but it spreads readily on its own. Mustard is fast-growing and drought-resistant; it’s an annual plant, so it doesn’t just grow bigger and bigger year after year, but it reseeds lustily and grows dependably anywhere where there’s just enough soil for the tiniest of seeds to take root.

Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like this: Someone scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows — how, he does not know. Who is this farmer or gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits away? Are we to think of God as the sower or of Jesus, or perhaps of anyone who plants seeds trusting that they will grow?

The parable invites us to recognize ourselves in the soil in which the seed of Jesus’ life and teachings takes root and grows into a harvest of life, and we don’t know how — and it invites us to see ourselves in the gardener who scatters seeds of God’s reign: seeds of kindness and compassion, seeds of respect and generosity and encouragement, confident that God gives the growth. I hear in these parables a divine affirmation of seemingly small actions by ordinary people, common as mustard. I hear a divine affirmation of the small things we do and say in the name of Jesus, things that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of global change, but that are indeed kingdom seeds that grow – we don’t know how – until the harvest comes.

Every small act of kindness matters, especially when the powers that be play political games with the well-being of children and families fleeing from violence. Every yes and no, whether spoken with firm conviction or trembling courage, matters. Every gesture of welcome and hospitality matters.

We are called to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. May we be relentless sowers of small seeds that grow.


[1] “The Great Seal,” New York Times, June 20, 1909 http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9405E4DF143EE033A25753C2A9609C946897D6CF

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-24

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Home, finally

Three years ago, I was in Capernaum, a small village on the western shore of Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, not far from Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria. I walked among the ruins of a synagogue built on the foundations of a synagogue from the time of Jesus, and across the street was a church, built on the foundations of earlier churches, and the bottom layer of rocks belonged to a house, the house of Peter and Andrew, according to tradition.

Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. In chapter 3 of Mark, we are told that Jesus went from the synagogue to the lake, and from there up the mountain with the twelve, and then, it says in verse 20, he went home.

Home has to be one of the most powerful words in any language. After a long day of work, he went home. After a short stay at the hospital, she went home. After three generations of exile, they went home. Home we think about familiar faces, the smell of breakfast, the voice of one who calls us; we hear the laughter of children playing outside, the sound of the rain on the roof at night; we see a table and a bed, a porch or a window, and the way the view changes from hour to hour, season to season. Home – the word is heavy with the promise of peace.

It was good for Jesus to be home, I imagine; to sit in his favorite chair, to put up his feet and look out the window. Where do you imagine Jesus went when it says, he went home? Didn’t he say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”?[1]

Other English versions of this passage stay closer to the Greek by translating, ‘he entered a house.’ Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and the house he entered may well have been the house of Peter and Andrew, just across the street from the synagogue. Going there at the end of a long day of healing and teaching must have felt like coming home, but once more, Mark tells us, such a crowd gathered round Jesus and the disciples that they had no chance even to eat. The house sat like an island in a sea of people who wanted to be near Jesus, people who were drawn to him because they had heard of his power to heal and forgive.

And then his family came; his mother, his brothers and sisters. They were the people who had been with him the longest, the people, presumably, closest to him, the people who knew him best. Only they were there not out of concern for his well-being, that he may not be getting enough sleep or may not be eating right, no, they had come to get him — to restrain him, if necessary. “He is out of his mind,” they said. His own family did not recognize the power at work in him. They thought it was madness and had come for an intervention. They wanted to take him back to the life before he let himself be baptized by John, back to the familiar routines untouched by the proclamation of God’s coming kingdom, back to what they considered to be his home.

And they were not the only ones who were deeply concerned about his actions. Religious experts from Jerusalem were watching and they accused him of being in league with the devil, the master of demons. Like his own family, they did not recognize the power at work in him as the power of God. His teachings, his actions were too disruptive.

His family and the scholars from the city were not slow or willfully blind; they didn’t know they were witnessing the liberating work of God. They were living in difficult times, and like us they wanted to maintain what little stability was left in their domestic life and their religious thought. And Jesus was rocking the boat. He was healing people, freeing them from all that kept them captive to powers other than the love and mercy of God, and he did it regardless of who they were or where they came from or what day of the week it was – there was no proper order to it; his words and actions seemed extravagant and reckless, frightening even. Jesus was too disruptive; to them his power felt like chaos. “He is out of his mind,” his family said. “He’s fighting demons with demons,” the scholars from the city concluded.

The presence and work of God in Christ was not unambiguous, and what was liberating and healing to so many, looked like madness or even the devil’s work to others. Again, they were not slow or blind, but they did not know what to make of the disruptive presence of this man to whom the wounded and oppressed were drawn.

Mark paints a scene for us. It’s a little house with Jesus in it, and in it and around it a throng of people, the mess of humanity in all its diversity, beauty, and imperfection; people of all ethnic backgrounds and political convictions, people on crutches and on stretchers, poor and rich; all of humanity with our hopes and our fears, our flaws and our dreams, with our hunger and thirst for life, and we’re pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near Jesus and to touch the hem of his cloak. The only ones to remain on the edge of the scene are the ones who already know what’s best for the family and best for religion, and in their world Jesus must be restrained. In their world, the disruptive presence and work of God need to be brought under control.

Jesus was at odds with his family and in conflict with the religious authorities, and not because he was a young man with wild ideas. When the scribes accused him of being in league with Beelzebul, the master of demons, he pointed out that their charge made no sense. Why would Satan cooperate in the eviction of Satan? If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And Satan, one must assume, would have a strong interest in keeping intact arrangements as old as human memory. But Jesus was about rearranging things significantly and permanently. And to illustrate the point he quoted a line from the burglary manual:

No one can enter a strong one’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong one; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Jesus identified himself as the divine thief who came to plunder the strong man’s house. He had tied up the strong man and now he was ransacking the place.

Jesus is the divine thief who has come to rob the biggest thief of all. Life belongs to God, not to the master of demons, not to the whispering liar who sows the seeds of lovelessness in which our true humanity is lost. Jesus has his eyes on the strong man’s house, a house as big as the world, and he has his eyes on us who are tempted to believe that living in the strong man’s house is as good as it gets. Jesus ties up the strong man, demon by demon, fear by fear, lie by lie, and leads the captives to freedom, leads them home.

Mark paints a scene for us; it’s a little house with Jesus in it. It was first seen in a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but since then people have found it in countless places around the world, wherever and whenever disciples of Jesus live and proclaim the good news. The little house is where Christ’s power to heal and forgive resides. At times we may be standing outside with those who say he is out of his mind. He his beside himself; he’s completely out of it, they say, and there’s truth in their confusion. Because his life, in contrast to ours, revolves entirely around the will of God, and the whisperer of loveless lies can’t get a handle on him. “He is beside himself,” they say and we, at times, say it with them, and there’s truth to it, because Jesus doesn’t fall into our self-absorbed ways and will not think of himself outside of his relationship with God. He entrusts himself completely to God and with reckless extravagance he offers what he receives.

A crowd is sitting around him and pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near him, and they say, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he looks at all the humanity sitting around him, all of us wounded ones, all of us lost ones, all of us with our hunger for life that is really life and not just a prelude to death, and he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus sits in the midst of those who long for healing and freedom, and where Jesus is present, God speaks and shines and rules. The beauty of his mission is that the closer we draw to him with our desire to touch and be healed by his wholeness, the closer we draw to each other. And the closer we draw to the reality of suffering and longing in each other, the closer we draw to him and the wholeness he brings to creation.

There’s a little house with Jesus in it; it was first seen in a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but since then people have found it wherever and whenever disciples of Jesus live and proclaim the good news. It’s where Christ’s power to heal and forgive resides. It’s a little house that’s big enough for all of us. It’s home, finally.


[1] Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58

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