In That Region There Were Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20

The Larson Chapel is a lovely stone building in the center of the Lautenberg University campus. The chapel once stood downtown, not half a block from the old county courthouse. Then a generous (and slightly loopy) alumnus decided that the chapel would look better at Lautenberg U. He bought the chapel and paid to have it moved stone by stone from the city square to the tree-covered campus. There Larson Chapel has stood for nearly a hundred years.

Albert Neugebauer was the Lutheran Campus minister at Lautenberg U. He belonged to old Christ Lutheran Church downtown. In fact, Christ Lutheran stood on the spot where Larson Chapel had once been. Christ was one of four “Christ Lutheran” churches in the city, so people affectionately called it “Christ on the Corner. “

The folks at Christ on the Corner had a special concern for Lutherans at Lautenberg U. It was historically a Roman Catholic institution. Members of Christ on the Corner were afraid some of their young folks might be infected with the alien Romish theology. So they hired a half time lay person to bring the true Lutheran gospel to the benighted campus. Albert was the latest edition of that fortunate person.

It was Christmas Eve. Albert walked toward the Larson Chapel. It was the first time he would lead Christmas worship there. A few students were staying on campus during winter break. Most happened to be part of Albert’s little flock. They begged him for services on Christmas Eve. He offered to transport them to worship at Christ on the Corner. But they insisted that it simply wouldn’t be the same. They loved their little stone church and their tight-knit community

The chapel was in sight. Snow crunched under Albert’s boots. He thought about his little congregation. In the beginning, he had such high hopes. He longed for a church filled with theology students, a choir composed of music majors, and faculty members who would be stirring and credible guest preachers. All of that happened. But it happened during daily mass In the campus auditorium.

For some reason, most of the Lutherans were theater majors. Fine folks all. But as Albert’s grandfather—the sexton at Christ on the Comer—would say, they were all “about a quarter bubble out of plumb.” They didn’t want a “normal” Christmas Eve service. They wanted to act out the Christmas story, complete with script, costumes and special effects. Albert rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and (against his better judgment) agreed.

They were already at the chapel door! Albert shook his head and sighed. The crowd looked like a collision between a camel caravan and a Renaissance festival

“Merry Christmas, Al!” caroled Sarah Potter. Clearly she was the Virgin Mary, ready to deliver at any moment. Brian Bingum dressed as Joseph, complete with a tool belt over his Bedouin robes. He thought the cultural contrast was a powerful artistic statement.

Brian was studying theater construction, so he built a wooden donkey to transport his betrothed. When Brian pulled on the reigns, the donkey’s eyes lit up. A tug on the donkey’s mane produced a braying that caused passersby to believe the poor thing was dying. A switch under the left ear controlled the tail. When turned on, it spun like a propeller.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Albert replied. “Let me get the key so we can go in.” Several groups used the chapel during the week. The university administration, however, would allow only one key. So that key rested in a small hole in the rock above the great double doors. It had been a foolproof system— until tonight.

“Oh, good grief,” Albert sputtered. ‘The key isn’t there! Now, how are we going to get in?” He felt the anxiety of the group go up as the temperature dropped.

H. Randall Hanson produced a cell phone from beneath his robes. The “H” stood for “Herluf,” although Randy revealed that only within the confidentiality of the confessional. “Call Campus Security and I’m sure they’ll let us in.”

Albert did a double-take. “H. Randall, what are you supposed to be?” He wore a pointed wizard’s hat. His robe was fluorescent gold covered with sun, moon and stars. He carried a staff with a bulb on one end that flashed when he tapped the ground. “I’m one of the wise men, Al! Can’t you tell? They were magicians, weren’t they?”

At that instant, Albert grasped his situation. He was surrounded by magicians, belly dancers, Roman soldiers, angels, and a herd of livestock, all anatomically correct and walking upright. He dialed Campus Security at record speed.

No one answered. Albert suspected some well-lubricated merrymaking down at the secunty office. The message said that in case of emergency, he should call the local police. At the moment, Albert wouldn’t have made that call for a million dollars

“I’m afraid we have to go to Plan B,” Albert announced. “We could drive down to Christ on the Corner and have our service there.” His words hung in the suspicious silence that followed. A few cynical souls suspected that he had planned this. Albert beat a strategic retreat. “I suppose we could try some other alternative.”

Amber Ellingson, one of the goose-pimpled belly dancers, said, “Let’s go looking for a church that needs us! We can walk to several from here.” She clashed her finger cymbals together for emphasis.

Albert rubbed his eyes and tried to remain calm. When Lautenberg University was founded, it rested in the little village of Lautenberg. It was a safe haven from the big city. But the city captured the village Now it was a neighborhood of pawn shops, adult book stores, delicatessens, bars, palm readers and vacant lots. The Lautenberg U. brochure said the neighborhood offered a “culturally diverse setting.”

Amber was already headed down University Avenue. The whole group followed. The lone musician produced a recorder and began to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Albert felt like a leaf riding a tidal wave.

They were in their fourteenth chorus of “O come, let us adore him,” when they passed a vacant lot. A ten foot high chain link fence guarded the space. Out of the darkness charged a pair of bull mastiffs. The dogs hurled themselves against the fence. The costumed singers fled in terror.

Albert stood his ground as the growling sentries returned to their posts. Jackie Muller, dressed as a Guernsey cow complete with all the plumbing, said, ‘Now we know what Mary and Joseph felt like when the Roman soldiers announced the census.” People nodded, and the singing resumed.

The lights were on at River of Life Church of God in Christ. ”Let’s go in there!” Summer Judson exclaimed. Summer’s skin was so fair that she glowed in the dark. Albert was certain his little flock would be, shall we say, “conspicuous” in the African American congregation—even if they didn’t look like refugees from an Arabian garage sale.

Summer was not dissuaded. “Come on, Al! It’ll be fun!” Choir members were warmmg up in the front of the sanctuary. They were in red robes trimmed in gold. When the Lutheran parade entered, they stopped singing. The silent seconds stretched to a minute. Then Summer began in her clear soprano voice: “Angels we have heard on high.. ” The choir members joined in. Soon everyone was swinging, swaying, and clapping.

H. Randall Hanson approached the pastor, the Reverend T. Everett Hollandsworth. “Reverend, may we do our Christmas play for your service?” Hollandsworth had served the congregation for forty-three years. He thought he had seen it all. But this was anew one.

“Son,” he said, ‘that’s kind of you. But we already have our young folks ready to lead worship. I don’t think it will work. But please stay and worship with us!”

That wasn’t what the Larson Chapel crowd had in mind. Amid shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and “Thanks anyway!” they headed back down University Avenue.

Two blocks later they were in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Services had just ended, and people were coming down the big stone steps. Frigid stares were common. A few people crossed the street to get to their cars. “I didn’t realize the Drag Queen convention was in town,” someone said in the dark. One compassionate soul came over and said, “Kids, church is already over. We’re going home to have Christmas with our families. You should do the same.”

Heads sank and shoulders sagged. Andrew Norgaard—who hardly ever spoke and was dressed as a lamb—said, “Wow! I guess there was no room in that inn either.”

Albert hoped that common sense might return now. But the joumey was not yet complete. Amber Ellingson saw activity in another vacant lot. “Look, there are people around that fire barrel. Let’s do our play for them!” The tidal wave was on the move again. Albert began to compose the letters he would write to parents explaming what had happened to their precious children. He felt nauseous.

They arrived at the lot and began the play. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be taxed. ” The Roman soldiers began waving their swords at Joseph and Mary.

At that moment a police car pulled up, The officers strolled toward the group with their night sticks unsheathed. Albert started to calculate how much bail might be for twenty-three people. H. Randall Hanson held out his helmet and sword to one of the officers. “We’re telling the Christmas story. Would you like to help?”

The man hesitated for a moment. Then he put his cap on Randall’s head and assumed his post as Caesar’s centurion.

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. ” On cue, Sarah Potter dropped to her knees and uttered a blood-curdling scream. She then produced a naked doll from beneath her robes. Brian Bingum took the doll and swatted it firmly on the bottom. A computer chip—installed personally by Brian—produced a reasonable facsimile of a baby’s cry.

A homeless woman had edged closer during this scene. Without a word, she held out her arms. Sarah gently handed the doll to the woman. She held it close and rocked back and forth. She wept as she rocked. Sarah’s cheeks were damp, too. “I guess she’s a lot more like Mary than I am,” the college girl whispered.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people… ” At that moment, the other police officer hit the spotlight and the siren. The fire barrel crowd scattered in fear. When nothing happened, they returned to see angels glittering in the white light and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ” The police officer’s smile was almost as bright as the spotlight.

The light revealed shepherds kneeling at the feet of the homeless woman. They had used every bit of fake beard material in the theater department. Their robes were musty from decades of storage. Their hands and faces were smudged and greasy. One enterprising youth had even blacked out four of his well-tended front teeth.

One of the University natives declared, “Hey, you guy look just like us! Can we be shepherds, too?” Four homeless men knelt with their university colleagues.

“In that region there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night. ” A few days later, the president of Lautenberg University learned of the Christmas Eve adventure. He decreed that such a thing should never happen again. He also ordered two dozen keys made for the Larson Chapel.

Too bad, Albert thought to himself. On that night, Jesus was once again among his people. Boundaries of class and race and education melted away. Shepherds were once again watching in the fields, and angels told the Good News. The inns were full, but the baby found loving arms. Albert hummed a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Look Deeper

Luke 2:1-20

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise there is nothing to see.

It was the night of November 14th, 1940. Four hundred and fifty German bombers flew toward England. Their target was Coventry. Coventry was a city filled with aircraft factories, munitions works and chemical plants.

The planes dropped one million pounds of high explosives and forty thousand fire bombs. Fourteen hundred people died or were wounded. German Air Marshall, Hermann Goehring, created a new word to describe the devastation. He warned other British cities that they would soon be “Coventrated.”

Coventry hosted an ancient cathedral. Bombs ripped the old building apart. Flames engulfed the structure. Parishioners saved what books, pews, and liturgical vessels they could. The senior pastor laer said, “It was as though I was watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross.”

That was the surface view. On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

The morning after the attack, the cathedral stone mason was picking through the rubble. He noticed two charred timers. They had fallen into the shape of a cross. Parishioners had put that cross on an altar made of smashed stones. Someone wrote two words on the wall behind the makeshift altar.

“Father, forgive.”

That cross and those words remain today in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

It is a strange story. At first, it seems like business as usual. The powerful give the orders. The powerless comply. Only two things are certain—death and taxes. The Emperor calls the tune and the Empire gets up to dance. But then we take a closer look.

While they were there,” Luke tells us, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Here is a look beneath the surface. This night we see the cross in the midst of the rubble. We see hope underneath the despair. We see new life built on the ruins of the old.

In 1865, near the end of another war, William C. Dix wrote a Christmas carol. He named it, “What Child is This?”

What child is this, Dix asks us, sleeping on Mary’s lap? Shepherds show up to hear good news. Angels sing celestial songs. Heaven and earth meet together around a cattle trough. On the surface, it is all just too strange.

So take a closer look.

“Why lies he in such mean estate,” Dix wonders, “where ox and ass are feeding?” If you look beneath the surface, you can glimpse what is happening. Listen to the angelic announcement: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

This child is a sign that appearances are deceiving. What matters is underneath, deep down, in the heart of God. And that’s precisely where this child comes from.

We could stop there and be happy with the clutter of Christmas cuteness. But the story will not stay put. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,” William Dix reminds us. “The cross he bore for me, for you.”

Now we know why our eyes linger on the surface. You don’t see any cross-filled mangers at Wal-Mart. You find no Christmas crucifixion cards at the Hallmark store. Why do we refuse to g deeper? Because the depths hold death. And that is the one deep thing we want to avoid.

The surface is where the world helps us lie to ourselves. Here are some of those lies. I can have love without suffering. I can have happiness without community. I can have peace without justice. I can have power without responsibility. I can be my own god.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

So we look deeper. Like Mary, we ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts. “Good Christian, fear,” Dix reminds us, “for sinners, here the silent Word is pleading.”

Now we can see the depths of God’s love for us and for the world. Here is Emanuel, the Word made flesh. Here is God, who will not abandon us to our own foolish devices. Here is the Creator of the Universe who comes as the Redeemer of the World. Caesar may issue orders for the moment. The world’s one true King has come to overturn all the powers that imprison us.

If we see that, we must be changed. Otherwise, we have seen nothing.

The charred cross remains in Old Coventry Cathedral. A new church has been built along the ruins. In the new church you can find the headquarters for Coventry’s international ministry of peace and reconciliation. This ministry focuses on forgiveness and changed lives as the key to global peace.

A deeper look changes us. Otherwise we have seen nothing. We must not exchange one set of chains for another. It is not enough to climb from one casket into another. In the end, that is all the world can offer.

William Dix offers this invitation. “The King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”

Let loving hearts enthrone him. This is the call of Christmas. This is how we change when we look deeper. Let us be amazed at the words of the shepherds. Let us rejoice in the song of the angels. Let us smile at the coos of the baby. And let us pray about the call of Christmas.

Will Jesus sit on the throne of your heart? Let us pray…

Worth Pondering

Luke 2:1-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

It was such a mean old world. What a time to have a baby! The government raised taxes at the point of a sword. A pregnant women was ordered to travel dark and dangerous roads on the brink of birthing. An old king worried himself into a genocidal rage. Poor people were turned into migrants and refugees at the whim of a distant despot. Housing demand exhausted supply. A damp, dark cave became a delivery room.

And it was all so…so normal. Graft and greed, vice and violence, fraud and fear…this was the order of the day. There was nothing to ponder. No one was surprised. It was such a mean old world.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. This was not just any old baby. This was a promise fulfilled. “For a child has been born for us,” Isaiah declares, “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. So the days of this mean old are numbered. Oppression will be over. Combat boots and bloody fatigues shall fuel the fires of festivals. God’s justice and righteousness shall be the order of the day, every day. God’s passionate longing to set things right shall be satisfied.

For the shepherds it was just another cold night in this mean old world. They lived in the shadows of society, on the rim of respectability. Their safe and familiar darkness exploded into terrifying light. “Do not be afraid,” the angel thundered, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Somehow, their mean old was world about to change.

To you,” the angelic announcer continued, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This was anything but normal.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. Love was born in a manger on the margins. Love was born to migrants on the move. Love was born to overturn oppression. Love was born to defeat the darkness of death and despair. Love was born into to this mean old world to bring all that meanness to an end.

It’s still a mean old world. I confess that too often it burdens me. We live in tribes divided by twisted truth claims. We are divided by race and class and gender and age. The world worships power and rewards arrogance. People are trafficked and tortured, abused and abandoned. Shouting heads and lying lips fill our airwaves. The mortality rate is still one hundred percent. And the meanness rate is close behind.

And it is all so…normal…for us. It’s so easy to forget that none of this is normal for God.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes to Titus, “bringing salvation to all…” Tonight we can treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts. Love is born into our hearts and into our world in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. It is a night to remember all the ways that Love is born into this mean old world.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the gratitude of families as they received bulging baskets of food here for Thanksgiving. I ponder the celebration of one of our own members just a year removed from jail and now building a life of faith, hope and love. I ponder the joy of children hugging our own Santa Claus and receiving gifts from the angels here at Emanuel because their parent cannot give from behind the walls of a prison.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the witness of our young people who showed us the best Christmas pageant ever and pointed us to all the horrible Herdmans in our own community. I ponder the love and care you show to one another as injury, illness, grief and death still shadow our homes and our lives. I ponder how we are blessed as a faith community to serve and to celebrate in this season of life and light.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

So I invite you to ponder as well. Where is Love born in our life today, this week, this year? It is worth some quiet time in prayer and reflection. Amid the mayhem of this mean old world, a manger is filled with light and life. And we are invited to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and see.

It’s a mean old world. But into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. Let us ponder how we can make our world the birth place of Love.

Bedroom Talk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Bedroom Talk

“If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “you will never find him.” Tell that to Mary in her room in Nazareth! God comes as the original alien invader. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary.

Easier said than done.

I don’t share this often, but it seems appropriate today. I was in my bedroom on our farm west of LeMars, Iowa. It was Christmas break in 1978, my senior year in college. A few weeks before, I had failed to take the Graduate Record Exam. That was required for me to apply for the doctoral program in my future. The application deadline had passed. I hadn’t made any conscious decision. I simply forgot.

To this day I cannot imagine how that happened. I can remember the day with relative clarity, but I cannot see how I could have missed such an important appointment. Others have suggested over the years that Divine intervention was the cause. I’m not willing to write off my own sloth, lack of organization, and subconscious resistance (perhaps) as God’s work. Instead, I’m grateful that God could take such shoddy material and create a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

Photo by Tan Danh on

In any event, there I sat in my room, wondering what to do with my life. I was engaged to be married. I was going to graduate with degrees in history and philosophy—highly unmarketable majors. I hadn’t told anyone except my fiancé about my failure—not my parents, not my friends, not my advisor. There was no comfort in that December bedroom for me.

Late one night during that lonely Christmas break, I heard a voice that said, “Go to seminary.” Speculate if you will whether it was a real voice — whatever “real” means in that context. Wonder about my mental stability at the time. I certainly did (and have never really left off wondering). Debate whether this came from vocation or desperation. It makes little difference.

My first question was, “What did you say?” My second question was, “Are you sure you have the right number?” Of course, somewhere in there was the factual question — What’s a seminary?

I didn’t hear the voice again, but the voice vexed me. When I got back to school, I really had to make some sort of decision. One morning, I called my home pastor. I said, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary.” I waited for the laughter on the other end of the line. He said, “I’ll be there by supper time.” He drove the five and a half hours to see me and hear my story.

Before long I visited Wartburg Seminary, registered for my New Testament Greek class, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did not find God in the comfort of my bedroom. Instead, God decided to make my bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed. That hasn’t changed much in forty years.

Because of my experience, I have a special place in my heart for Mary, the mother of our Lord. This week, we read the story of the Annunciation—the angelic announcement that God had big plans for this little girl. She did not find God in the comfort of her bedroom. Instead, God decided to make her bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed.

This announcement is about Mary’s vocation. Her first question is, “What did you say?” Her second question is, “Are you sure you have the right number?”

God comes to us — where we are, whether in bedrooms or boardrooms, in faith or in doubt, in comfort or in crisis. That is the heart of the Christmas message. Strip away the tinsel and trees, the parties and presents, the elves on shelves and hooves on housetops. God comes to us. And as a result, nothing can stay the same.

God comes to Mary with a call. That’s always the way with God’s coming. She is not qualified. She does not apply. She doesn’t even know there’s an opening. God’s grace comes first. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you!” In response to this announcement (and after the questions), Mary sings a song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.”

God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.

The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience, as Lois Malcolm puts it, is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.

“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).

God comes to us. That Christmas message is for you as well. Greetings, favored one! You—beloved of God, marked with Christ, sealed with the Spirit—the Lord is with YOU! You are not qualified. You need not apply. You may not even realize there’s an opening. God comes to you in Jesus. You have found favor with God. That is true even, and especially, when we find ourselves at the lowest points of our lives.

God comes to us – especially at those low points. This is the heart of the Christmas message. God comes to you and me with a call. Now we can return to that opening quote from St. John of the Cross. “If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” he wrote, “you will never find him.”

When we need God’s comfort, God will indeed bring it. But mostly we want God to give us a life that is undisturbed and pain-free. That’s not something God will do. Because that sort of life is not worthy of those who bear the image of God in Creation. We are not called to be boring and mediocre.

God comes to us. And when God comes, God turns our lives inside out and upside down. The Holy Spirit turns our focus from inside ourselves and out into the world. The Holy Spirit turns our worldview from a race to the top of the heap to a love for the least, the lost and the lonely.

Our God does not come as a theological therapist. God comes as the Divine Disruptor. Our God is not nice. Our God is not safe. Our God is not comfortable. Our God is good and loving and merciful — and destabilizing.

God invades our sanctuaries and changes our lives. And our God has big plans for those who are called to bear Jesus to the world.

Just ask Mary.

And then look to Mary as a model of faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” We can relax into self-satisfied serenity. We can resist the call and run the other direction. Or we can surrender to the call of the Holy Spirit and find true comfort and peace.

That surrender will involve struggle. It will require sacrifice. It will produce pain. I tell people that I have spent almost forty years trying to run the other direction. But there is no joy in fleeing. There is only joy in accepting. Accepting God’s call makes us bearers of God’s presence in the world, just as Mary has led the way.

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

God comes to us where we are. These are the last words of the Advent season. God comes calling in Jesus. How will we respond?

References and Resources

Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacobson, Karl.

Jacobson, Rolf,

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275.

Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 7); December 5, 2021

Further Complications

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I think it will be most helpful to read through verse nine of Luke 3 this Sunday. Take a look at the first sentence in Luke 3:7 in particular. “Therefore [John] said to the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him, ‘Offspring of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” It’s worth comparing this to the other Synoptic accounts and then reflecting on the differences.

The Markan composition doesn’t portray John the Baptizer as yelling at anyone about being the illegitimate children of serpents. The writer of Matthew, on the other hand, really likes this description. That writer likes it so much that it shows up three times in the Matthean account, in Matthew 3, 12, and 23. Matthew applies the tag first to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then to the Pharisees by themselves, and then to the scribes and Pharisees.

Photo by Erik Karits on

Luke has John yelling in general at the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him. There may well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in those crowds – as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke share this label from a source upon which they both relied. But why does the Lukan author make the particular editorial choice to spray this insult with a firehose rather than to apply it with a squirt bottle?

I think the Lukan author is addressing a mixed crowd, even though the author appears only to be addressing a member of some elite group, the “most excellent Theophilus.” The Lukan author is not merely worried that the Markan composition is somehow incomplete, although that is a concern for the Lukan author.

I think much more is going on. A generation after the Jewish War and two decades after some thought the End of the Age would arrive, Jesus followers appear to have become complacent. On the one hand, the Lukan author is encouraging Jesus followers to settle in for the long haul and to see the Kin(g)dom of God already in their midst. On the other hand, the Lukan author is challenging the Jesus followers not to settle for the values and practices of the larger culture.

As I read the Lukan account, it strikes me that the author has at least three groups in mind here. Next Sunday, we will hear from the “little people” who come out to John. We’ll look at this in more detail in upcoming posts, but we can make some transition here. The Lukan author does not ask those people to give up their “jobs” to resist the values of Empire. Instead, the author reports that John calls them to do their jobs with integrity rather than in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

In particular, the Lukan author singles out those who would experience the greater pressure to conform – tax contractors and mercenary soldiers. I think these two classes were made up primarily of Jews at the time of John, and that fact continued to hold in the time of the Lukan account. The author will spend more time with such folks in the coming chapters, but we get a preview here of how Jesus followers engaged in “The System” are to behave.

John also addresses the poor and indigent in the crowd. Who could blame them for trying to come out on top in the day-to-day struggle for survival? But John commands the standard of “enough” even for those whose daily bread is a daily question. In John’s time, this group would have made up an increasing percentage of the population, as the Romans squeezed the Syrian province for more and more funds to underwrite adventures elsewhere in the borders of the Empire. The Lukan audience would not have experienced much change in that dynamic in the two generations after the Resurrection.

The third group, the one that seems to get the most attention in the Lukan account, is those who can presume upon their pedigree and privilege. “Produce fruit that is worthy of repentance,” John commands them, “and don’t begin to say in yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father…’” That reliance on the holy genealogy will get them precisely nothing. That status is worth as much as the stones along the road. If God wants to turn those stones into children of Abraham, God can do it with a word.

The Lukan account will criticize repeatedly those who presume upon their power, position, privilege, and property. I think of the parable of the Rich Fool. The real punch of that parable is the smug self-satisfaction of the rich man. “Self,” he says to himself, “you have plenty laid up for years to come; take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry!” Of course, it didn’t work out all that well for the Rich Fool. The conclusion of this line of thought is clear – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It’s clear from the introduction to the Lukan account, that the primary audience for Luke-Acts is this population of the relatively privileged. They have survived the debacle of the Jewish War. Jesus has not returned to make their riches irrelevant. Now they must learn how to follow the Jesus way rather than the Roman way, despite the fact that they are attached to that larger cultural system through their status, wealth, and privilege.

While the Book of Acts moves the narrative into the larger Gentile world, it begins with a concentrated focus on how those with wealth can be part of the community of Jesus followers. In Acts 4, we get the description of the common life of the early Jesus community. They held in common their trust in Jesus as if they had one heart, one soul, and all their physical possessions in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, NRSV).

The Lukan author then tells the story of the Cypriot Levite, Joseph Barnabas. He converted his property to cash and placed the offering at the feet of the apostles. In contrast, chapter five begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They, too, converted some of their property to cash and delivered a portion of the proceeds to the apostles.

The problem, apparently, was that they wanted the community to think they were more generous than they were. They held back a portion for security and thus lied to the Holy Spirit and the community. The result of this deception was the consecutive deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

It should be clear to us as readers that the Lukan author is addressing a number of relatively wealthy members of the Jesus community. There’s no reason to discuss the proceeds of real estate transactions with people whose property inventory consists of a second cloak. One of the questions facing the Lukan community as they settle in after a generation of relative chaos is not whether the privileged can be part of the community but rather what to do with that privilege as part of the community.

References and Resources

Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24,

Chan, Michael J.

Hearlson, Adam.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mora, Raul Alberto.

Norton, Yolanda.

Odell, Margaret.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014).

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

Photo by cottonbro on

I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.”

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.”

Mocking Jesus — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Have you ever been mocked for being a Jesus follower? If so, you’re in good company.

In 1857, explorers uncovered a bit of anti-Christian graffiti in a room of a building called the domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The hand-drawn cartoon depicts a person hanging on a cross. The figure has the head of a donkey rather than that of a human. The caption of the cartoon reads something like “Alexamenos worships his (or a) god.” At the foot of the cross is a figure, presumably said Alexamenos, raising a hand in salute or worship.

In the next room is an inscription that reads “Alexamenos is faithful.” This may be a reply or rebuttal to the graffiti in the first room. Of course, we cannot discern the tone either of the cartoon or the response. This may have been a hostile exchange. It may have been a bit of good-natured ribbing between friends. It may have been a way to identify the location of Alexamenos to authorities seeking to regulate or persecute Alexamanos and other Jesus followers. We can’t know for sure.

Photo by Rodrigo DelPer on

Scholars believe the graffito was drawn sometime in the late 100s to the early 200s of the Common Era, about a century after the four canonical gospels were put to the page. At this time, pagan writers regularly ridiculed Christians for worshipping a crucified and dishonored criminal. It may be that some of these pagan authors believed that Christians practiced donkey worship, an accusation applied to Jews before the Christian era.

Depicting a character with the head of an ass is a time-honored trope in the literature of lampooning. I am reminded, for example, of the fate of Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom and his hapless colleagues provide the comic relief during the drama.

Bottom’s head is transformed by Puck into that of a donkey. In that guise, he becomes the object of infatuation for Titania, the fairy queen, who has been bewitched by a love potion. The situation provides no end of hilarity, mostly at Bottom’s expense. Bottom merits some of this treatment, in Shakespeare’s telling, because he has an inappropriately high opinion of himself and his own dramatic talents. The script takes him down a notch, and (as the Bard might say), all’s well that ends well.

Mockery is in the historical DNA of the Jesus followers movement (what I abbreviate as the JFM). This is especially true in the Markan composition. In his climactic “passion prediction” in Mark 10, Jesus declares that the Gentiles who execute Jesus will begin the process by mocking him and spitting on him. That description comes to pass in Mark 15:20 when the soldiers mock him as part of their practice of torture. Those who pass by the cross continue the mocking in Mark 15:31.

It was no worse treatment than a failed revolutionary messiah deserved. Jesus made it clear that members of the JFM could expect similar treatment in the future. In Mark 13, he tells the disciples that they can anticipate betrayals and beatings, interrogations and internment, humiliation and hatred. This sort of treatment, Jesus declares, is not a sign of failure but rather of faithfulness.

I don’t know about you, but I have rarely been subjected to mockery because I’m a Jesus follower. When I was in college, I took a three-year sojourn into philosophical atheism. I thought at the time that this was the only reasonable path for intelligent people. I discovered that I could not survive the existential vacuum such a perspective seemed to demand of me. After a bit of personal drama, I returned to the path of Jesus following.

Even then, I was not really “mocked.” An honored mentor received the news of my lapse from atheism with a rueful and puzzled shake of the head. Friends and classmates simply thought I had gone crazy in a new but not particularly novel sort of way. Other Jesus followers rejoiced that I had returned to the fold and hoped that I had learned my lesson. Only one of my former atheist compatriots had the integrity to call me “a stupid ass who exchanged hard truth for easy certainty.”

Coming back to the life of the Church did not subject me to ridicule. Instead, it was celebrated and rewarded. Obviously, it led me to my life’s work inside the confines of the Church. I’m not complaining in the least. I’m simply observing. In my experience, being identified as a Jesus follower presented no downside. No one was drawing donkey-headed cartoons to mock me and lampoon my faith. Instead, I was on the path to privilege and respectability.

That hardly sounds like mocking. It has nothing to do with dying. I am not sure I’ve ever gotten very far as a member of the JFM.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that persecution and pain are the means to demonstrate my belonging. The Christian gospels do not valorize victimhood or celebrate suffering. But the gospel accounts certainly remind us that faithful following is likely to get us into real trouble with the guarantors of the status quo. If our discipleship doesn’t get us into “good trouble,” we may need to wonder if we’re on the right path. Donkey-headed cartoons are not the goal of following Jesus, but they are often the outcome of such faithful following.

There is nothing attractive or virtuous about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Markan composition of the gospel. There’s lots of groaning and crying out. There’s lots of blood and screams. There’s plenty of mockery and humiliation. It’s not attractive or controlled. There’s lots of human cruelty and straight-up tyranny.

In the midst of it, however, something strange happens. The world gets turned upside down. In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Joel Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).

Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus, the sign on the cross, “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).

But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was the son of God.”

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Kelly Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.

It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them.

We Jesus followers believe that God ratifies this power to change the world by…changing the world. That’s what the Good News of Resurrection is all about. The powers of sin, death, and the Devil are turned upside down and inside out. The mockery of Creation – the captivity of all things under an alien power – is mocked by the Creator who deigns to be crucified. Suddenly the joke is on the jerks.

If I embrace that Good News and the power of the Resurrection, then I might be given the courage to resist the Powers by mocking the mockers. That would mean stepping out of my safe, establishment, institutional Church bubble and into the hurly-burly world of pagans in power. These days, a number of those pagans in power call themselves “Christians,” so the confrontation has become ever so much more complicated.

At the end of our year with the Markan composition, this is where we find ourselves. Will I put myself in places where someone wants to put an ass’s head on me and laugh themselves silly? Will I keep pushing until the laughter turns to rage and some wish to bash in my ass’s head? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I want to flee in fear like any self-respecting disciple in Mark’s account. But perhaps I’ll do better once in a while.

After all, my story is no more complete than Mark’s story…

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito:

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J.

Diggers, Ira Brent.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition).

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50,

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87,

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.”

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.”

The Fab Four — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:35-44

The Fab Four

Konstantin Stanislavski is regarded as the “father of modern acting.” He was the one who first said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Prior to his time, the bit players and extras in productions didn’t do much acting. Mostly, they just filled in the spaces between the lines of the “big” actors.

Stanislavski rejected this understanding. He required the same depth, commitment, and quality from all his actors – big or small, headliners or extras. This demand revolutionized the theater experience for both the actors and the audience.

In our text, we witness the performance of one of the bit players and extras in the Gospel according to Mark. The poor widow may have a small part in the drama. She is, however, anything but a small actor. The poor widow is, in fact, one of the “Fab Four” in the Markan gospel account.

Photo by Monica Silvestre on

Mark’s gospel features four unnamed women. They are the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, the poor widow here in Mark 12, and the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14.

These women are some of the so-called “little people” in Mark’s gospel. That means they aren’t one of the Twelve so-called “official” disciples. Nor are they among the named characters who have larger roles in the drama. Instead, they come on stage. They play their parts and speak their lines. Then they leave the stage, not to be mentioned again.

The four women are, in the language of the theater, bit players and extras. They might not even rate a mention in the credits at the end of the film or on the back of the program. Yet, these four women – the characters I want to call the “Fab Four” – reveal more about who Jesus is and what following him means than most of the other characters in Mark’s script.

These four women have similar roles in the Markan drama. Each of them takes the initiative. The woman with the hemorrhage seeks Jesus out and takes the risk to touch his robe. The Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus and walks right into the house where he’s staying. The poor widow expresses her devotion to God in the Temple with her whole living. The unnamed anointer comes uninvited, not only into the house, but into the space reserved for the invited male guests.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like. These are not small actors. Nor do they have small parts.

These four women are outsiders to “The System” – the status quo that keeps them sick, rejected, poor, and segregated. They do not allow, however, “The System” to keep them in their places. The woman with the hemorrhage has had enough of ineffective treatments. The Syro-Phoenician woman has had enough of limited access. The poor widow has had enough of gifts evaluated by size. The anointing woman has had enough of men controlling access to worship.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like.

They, however, are not identical. The “Fab Four” each have their own roles and performances. The despair of the bleeding woman drives her to courageous faith. The determination of the Syro-Phoenician woman empowers her to get what she seeks. The devotion of the poor widow requires even a corrupt and broken system to convey her gift to God. The discernment of the anointing woman is beyond that of any of the men in the room.

These women engage in the dance of trust. It is a complicated step that I won’t often get right. Trusting Jesus as my Lord often requires this combination of desperation, determination, devotion, and discernment. The recipe is never quite the same twice in a row. But this complicated dance plays out in the Markan drama for those with the eyes to see it.

Martin Luther describes one function of the “Law” in God’s Word as driving me deeper into my need for Jesus. Luther gets that right. This text drives me deeper into Jesus’ loving embrace. That doesn’t happen as resignation or fear. Rather, I am driven by a joyous hunger to have what the Fab Four have. There is more to this discipleship biz, and I want it.

Yes, perhaps the way to relate to these four women is to contract and nourish a case of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy.” I know it was Krister Stendahl who coined the phrase. And Taylor always gives due credit. But she puts additional flesh on Stendahl’s theological bones in this phrase.

I can envy the widow for her deep devotion, her “ruthless trust” (as Brenna Manning would name it). I can envy her for shedding her last bits of financial and cultural baggage. After all, as that great philosopher, Kris Kristofferson, once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

I can envy her the adventure of not knowing what comes next and the excitement of finding out. I can envy her love without anxiety or limits. I can envy her desire to love God, not for what she can get but rather “for nothing.” I can choose to feel ashamed by her example or inspired by it. I think the Markan composer longs for us to see the Fab Four and know that there are no small parts in the Good News of the Kin(g)dom of God – not even for me.

I am convinced that the Christian gospels are not, in technical terms, “wisdom” texts. They are not advice on how to get along in the world as it is. That work is left for books like Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and, perhaps, James in the Christian Scriptures. No, the Christian gospels are apocalypses. They seek to uncover the world as God intends and destines it to be.

Each of the Fab Four is an apocalyptic actor, revealing more about the Kin(g)dom and Jesus’ role and identity in that Kin(g)dom. They demonstrate that God’s healing love flows into the world. They show that outsiders have faith – often more than the insiders. They demonstrate what it means to give one’s whole life for the sake of love. And they point to Jesus as the true Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God.

In my envy, I am challenged as a disciple to live an apocalyptic life as well. I don’t mean that I should focus on end times prophecies. No, I’m claiming the real meaning of “apocalyptic.” Jesus followers are called to live lives that reveal the living and loving presence and power of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of each person and the whole cosmos. The four women do that in the Markan composition. They show us that we can do that in our lives as well. There are no small parts in the gospel drama, and no one is a small actor.

The Fab Four also uncover The System in its tragic brokenness and terrible power. The critique in the poor widow’s story, for example, is not that the Temple is financially extractive. The problem is that the widow is abandoned with only two pennies to her name. The fact that this widow exists is Exhibit A to prove that The System is broken and corrupt. The rich have a surplus because the widow has a deficit – and vice versa.

Each of the Fab Four reveals, in her own way, a place where The System is broken. The bleeding woman requires us to look at our health care system and know that it penalizes the poor not only for being poor but for daring to be sick. The Syro-Phoenician woman reveals our anti-Other prejudices now expressed in rejection of the migrant. The poor widow reveals our exploitation of the many to enrich the few. The anointing woman shows up in our discounting of the witness and voices of women – especially in churches.

The four women remind us that where we look determines what we see. If we look at the rich donors and the big stones of the Temple, we will not see the poor widows, the bleeding women, the desperate mothers, the grieving prophets of the world. We dare not look at the beneficiaries of The System and expect to see anything other than support for the status quo.

The Kin(g)dom of God is most clearly revealed in the people The System regards as bit players and extras. We who follow Jesus know where to look. It takes immense, self-serving effort to avert our gaze and look in all the wrong places. The Fab Four remind us to abandon that habit of the averted gaze.

The small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into a bigger apocalyptic story next week. Jesus tells us that a system which can treat this poor widow in this way is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. More on that next week, but (spoiler alert), we should be very worried.

More important, however, the small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into the biggest story of all. She gives her whole life in trusting response to God’s goodness. This is a preview, a foreshadowing, of Jesus as he gives his whole life in trusting response to God’s call and for the sake of all.

In the gospel drama, there are no small parts. Please, God, help me to stop being a small actor.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,”

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda.

Cruz, Samuel.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.”

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67,

Kiel, Micah.

Langknecht, Henry.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604,

Powery, Emerson.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65,

On Wanting the Right Thing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:46-52

Last week I reminded you of the wonderful offertory prayer in our Lutheran liturgy. That prayer begins with God’s great mercy. “Merciful God,” we pray. God’s mercy releases us from bondage to sin and stuff. “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we continue. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” This is what Christian stewardship looks like. We are made for mercy.

When I played Little League baseball, I was a splinter-collector. I spent so much time on the bench, I had a spot molded to my eleven-year-old backside. The only time I got in a game was when the issue was no longer in doubt. We were either so far ahead or so far behind that my meager contribution couldn’t affect the outcome.

Thus I hated the Little League “mercy rule.” If we were ten runs ahead or behind in the late innings, the umpire would call the game. I understood the need for the rule. Without it, we might have lost some games by a hundred runs after two days of non-stop agony. But the rule meant that I got to play even less.

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The “mercy rule” is designed to stop the punishment and pain. That’s our cultural understanding of “mercy.” If we beg for mercy, we are asking for the punishment and pain to stop. That’s true on the ball field, on the playground and on the battlefield. We understand mercy as the end of punishment and pain.

Son of David,” Bartimaeus cries, “have mercy on me!” What is he asking? Is he asking Jesus to stop the punishment and pain? No, God isn’t punishing the poor man. So he must be asking for something else.

Our New Testament is written in first-century Greek. But Jesus and Bartimaeus probably spoke to each other in Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew. In Hebrew, “mercy” has the same root as “womb.” So God’s mercy is not about the end of punishment and pain. Mercy is God’s “womb-love” for God’s children. God’s mercy is compassion in action. We are made for mercy.

Bartimaeus begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey. I wonder how many of us have made the same journey – perhaps many times!

I imagine a performance of the Markan composition as I listen to the story. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.

They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.

In our liturgy, we often use a section traditionally called the “Kyrie.” “Kyrie” comes from the Greek word for “Lord.” It is a prayer that concludes with the words “Lord, have mercy.” That prayer reflects the prayer of Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading. We often come to worship crying out with Blind Bartimaeus for we know not what. But we know we need it.

What are we asking in that prayer? I know you haven’t thought about it much. But if you did, I wonder if it would go like this. We pray that prayer so God will stop punishing us. We’re here face to face with God. We’ve confessed our sins. Now, God, cut us a little slack. Ease up out of our faces a bit, so we can get closer to you.

That’s the problem Martin Luther confronted in the Reformation. If God is intent on punishing, then God is not someone we love. In fact, Luther discovered that he came to hate the God of pain and punishment. It was when he re-discovered the God whose heart is all mercy that the Reformation began. We are made for mercy.

So we pray, “Lord, have mercy.” Your mercy, Loving God, is your compassion in action. Your mercy is your womb-love for your people. Take us into your heart, Loving God. Wrap your arms around us. Hold us close and heal us. Remind us of who we are. We are people made for compassion in action. We are made for mercy.

There’s a direct connection between the gospel reading last week and this week’s reading. Last week, Jesus asked the disciples, “What do you want me to do for you?” They wanted status, certainty and security. They demanded position, privilege and power. They wanted the wrong things.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus wants help, healing and hope. He wants to rest in God’s womb of love. He asks for mercy. Bartimaeus wants the right thing. We are made for mercy.

We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” The Markan storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power.

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Let’s pause for a few moments and sit with that question.

“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.

Is that what you want? Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?

Bartimaeus experiences a preview of the Resurrection. That’s what God’s mercy produces. He throws off his cloak. He rises up. He is made whole. He follows Jesus on the way to the cross. That’s how it can work for us as well.

Is that what you want?

Perhaps your congregation or community is in the midst of an annual financial appeal. Many congregations are. We give in response to God’s great mercy. That’s a confusing theme if we use the cultural understanding of mercy. Then it sounds like we’re giving to pay God off. We’re so glad that God is no longer hurting us that we respond with gratitude. That’s like saying it feels so good when we stop banging our heads against a wall.

We give in response to God’s great mercy. God’s great mercy is the compassion of Jesus. God’s great mercy makes us whole. God’s great mercy wraps us in the womb-love of the Trinity. We give joyfully because we are so happy. We give joyfully because we are so glad to let that mercy flow through us into the lives of others. We give joyfully because we are made for mercy.

“And immediately,” the Markan composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.

“Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we pray in our liturgy. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us.” That sounds a great deal like Bartimaeus, throwing off his cloak and leaping to his feet in trust and hope. Is that what you want?

Then we give our gifts. “May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you,” we pray, “dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Signs of our whole lives returned to God. Is that what you want?

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Call me to want the right things…

On Wanting the Wrong Things — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:32-45

James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”

Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.

Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

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We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.

There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.

We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.

The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.

The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.

The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.

Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.

If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.

Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.

It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.

Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.

We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.

When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.

Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.

“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.

Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.

Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.

In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.

Must be the right question.

The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.

Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.