Archive for June, 2018

Reading Between the Lectionary Lines–June 25- July 1

June 27, 2018

A big crowd. Confusing stories about the kingdom of God. A stormy boat ride. We are coming to the middle of the gospel of Mark, and the middle of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.

Sunday June 24 we read the story of Jesus calming the storm— which we also talked about in last week’s RBLL blog.   On July 1 our passage will be a “Markan Sandwich” which wraps one story into another– in this case, the story of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage.

Between the storm and these two healings, however, we have the story of what happens when the storm ends and Jesus and the disciples come to land.  Mark 5:1-20 reads:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

When Jesus and the disciples step out of the boat, on the heels of almost drowning in a storm, they are met by a man who lived in the tombs. That he lived in the tombs, essentially in a graveyard or cemetery tells us he didn’t have the usual life; and in fact the passage tells us that he has an unclean spirit and cannot even be restrained. We are reminded that Jesus also was accused of having a demon and might compare/ contrast Jesus’ behavior (he sat at dinner with sinners, so many he couldn’t even eat) with this man’s behavior (superhuman strength, living in the tombs and mountains, howling and hurting himself.)

Jesus once again displays his power: the unclean spirits cannot resist when he commands them, any more than the water and wind could when Jesus told it to be still.  We can note here that this is the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile region. Crowds come to see Jesus but instead of crowding around him for healing they ask Jesus to leave. Only the man, now released from the unclean spirit, is willing to go with Jesus. He is told by Jesus to go home and tell what has happened to him, and thus the man, now released from the unclean spirit, becomes an early evangelist to the Gentiles by proclaiming in the Decapolis what had happened.

We’ll see, if we read forward to the Lectionary reading for July first, that Jesus leaves the Gerasenes and goes back across the lake, where the “Markan Sandwich” healing stories take place. We notice that we have gone from Jesus being accused to having a demon, to teaching about the kingdom of God to large crowds of people; to commanding the wind and waves to be still, to healing a man by commanding the unclean spirits (demons) to come out of him, to two more stories of healing. The story arc continues to follow Jesus as he moves around in Galilee and aligns himself with the outsiders of the world.

Questions to ponder:

Jesus goes from describing the kingdom of God as something subtle or small that grows without being noticed. How does the growth of Jesus reputation mirror the growth of the kingdom of God?

Jesus commands the waves and wind to be still and commands the unclean spirits to go out of the man. How are these two events related? How is the response of the disciples to Jesus in the boat the same/ different than the Gerasenes? Why do you think the Gerasenes tell Jesus to go away?

To what might we today attribute behavior like that of the man in from the tombs?

Where do we see the power of Jesus displayed today?

What does the boat represent in our lives today? What do the landings of Jesus in different locations represent?

Rev. Sharon is pastor of Community of Faith Presbyterian Church in Covington, KY. Please feel free to leave comments in the box below.



Reading Between the Lectionary Lines, June 17-24

June 20, 2018

This week there is no break in the flow of Mark as we read through the lectionary. June 17th the reading was Mark 4:26-34, which consisted of three parables: one about putting a lamp on a lampstand instead of under a basket or bed; the second was another ‘sower’ parable; and the third was the parable of the mustard seed. A bit of commentary says that Jesus used parables very often to teach the crowds but to his disciples he spoke more plainly. June 24ths reading will be Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus in a boat with the disciples when a storm comes up; the disciples are afraid but Jesus makes the storm go away.

If go back a little further, to last week’s RBLL we remember that the in-between passage was the parable of the sower– the parable in which a sower sows seed willy-nilly so that some falls on the path, some on rocks, some in the weeds, and some on good soil. According to Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997, p132) these three seed parables are meant to be taken as a commentary on Jesus’ ministry to that point. Point 1: the kingdom grows  and prospers when seed falls on the right kind of soil; point 2: seeds grow under their own power and sometimes the smallest seed will result in the largest growth. This set of points would have helped Mark’s audience understand the difficulties in bringing the gospel to the world, as well as give them hope that the way of Christ (and the kin-dom of God) would spread regardless of their difficulties.

We are in a time in which similar questions arise in our churches and our communities. How is it that some people hear the good news and believe, while others (many others, it seems) don’t? Why are there churches that seem to be thriving while others are shrinking? Is growth in numbers a sign of being good sowers of seed? Or is it a sign that the soil around us is fertile (and if there is no growth are we bad sowers or is the soil sterile?) In any event it can be frustrating to pastors and church members and leadership to watch as something you’ve put your heart and soul into, sometimes for many years, grow fallow in the form of membership loss and lack of new members and making for smaller and smaller congregations that are growing older and less energetic.

If you are in the habit of reading church growth and revitalization materials you know that there are many, many explanations of why this happens, and solutions suggested for how to fix it. The world has changed (yes!) Secularization has taken over, ‘big-box’ churches pull away members from mainline denominations; we were complacent or frozen or rude or embroiled in infighting over doctrinal issues. I’d say all of these things and more are true; none of us within the Christian faith are exempt from taking a hard look at ourselves and our ministries to discern the cause of the declines we’re seeing. And none of us seem to be able to stop comparing ourselves to the church down the street when looking for solutions. Rock-concert music and coffee? That’s what works for them– we should do that! Be more welcoming? We should do that! Small groups? We should do that! (never mind that our church is already a small group by itself.) Hire a young pastor who can relate to the young people? We should do that! There are so many ideas and suggestions for change that, frankly, it makes my head spin.

So to look at these parables is to take a step back from the guilt and the shame that a declining church feels; it is to take a step back from rushing to judgement and seeking quick solutions; it is to say, consider the soil around us and be grateful when we find some fertile ground. It is to say, our job is to spread the good news– period. To bring water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and friendship to the friendless– period. Yes, we are called to make disciples; but we can’t force or coerce people into becoming disciples– that isn’t what Jesus did at all. But we can offer loving acceptance to our neighbors, showering love and compassion as Jesus did; we can teach our children to love others and care for others– even if we don’t like them sometimes or if they aren’t the ‘cool’ kids or they look or sound or smell different than we do. We can do all of these things– this is the ‘sowing’– and before we know it new life will begin to spring up in our communities and our fellowships, more than we can ever imagine.



Reading Between the Lectionary Lines June 10-17

June 12, 2018

For the summer I am Reading Between the Lectionary Lines by looking at the scripture passages that the Revised Common Lectionary skips over. 

This week our “in between passage” is Mark 4:1-25. If you recall, at the end of Mark 3:20-35 (June 10) Jesus was eating with a large crowd of people– a crowd of tax collectors and sinners, not the best of company. His family had come to remove him from the situation because he was “beside himself” and the Pharisees claimed he had Beelzebub. When his family arrived and the crowd passed on the information that they were there waiting for him, he dismissed them saying that the crowd was his family, that anyone who does the will of God is his family. The passage for June 17 is a set of parables: the parable of the clueless sower and the parable of the mustard seed; this passage closes with commentary about Jesus teaching by using parables. As we begin to think about these parables for this coming Sunday, let’s look at the in-between passage:

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” 13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 21He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? 22For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 24And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

This is a very familiar passage to most of us, I think– the parable of the sower. It is the story of  someone sowing seeds willy-nilly, not caring if the seeds fall on good soil, rocks, the path, or in the weeds. Not a very efficient way of sowing seed! The second part of the passage is an explanation of the parable by Jesus– the only place in the gospels that this happens. The third part of the passage is a short parable about letting light shine, not keeping secrets or hiding anything. “For to those who have, more will be given; to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away.”

At first glance this passage doesn’t seem to connect to the previous one at all. Jesus goes from challenging the Pharisees and eating with a huge crowd of people at home, to teaching beside the sea. He is still in Galilee, though, and there is still a large crowd of people who have come out to hear him. The passage has a better connection with the text for next week, which contains another set of agricultural parables.

Because we have Jesus’ own explanation of the parable we know he’s talking about: how different people receive (or don’t receive) the word of God. Seeds fall on a path, on rocky ground, on thorny ground and on good soil. A path, of course, isn’t going to sprout seed at all– those seeds are lost. Rocky ground allows the seeds to sprout but their roots aren’t deep enough so they wither. Thorny ground allows the seeds to sprout but the thorns are an invasive species that kill off any seeds that try to grow. But good soil, of course, not only lets the seed sprout but also has the nutrients the seed needs to grow and thrive.

Things to ponder:

  • In this parable, what do the following images stand for? Sower, Seeds, Path, Rocky soil, Thorny ground, good soil, grain.
  • Why does Jesus teach in parables? What does he tell his disciples about parables?
  • How does teaching in parables relate to hiding a lamp under a basket versus letting it shine?
  • Why does Jesus tell the disciples “The measure you give is the measure you get” and “the more you have the more you receive and if you have nothing whatever you have will be taken away?” How does this connect back to the parable of the sower?


Reading between the Lectionary Lines

June 9, 2018

We are in year B of the RCL and I’m starting this sort of in the middle of things, but you have to start somewhere, right? And what better time than at the beginning of Ordinary Time, along with vacation and General Assembly that will take me out of the pulpit for two weeks?

Year B means that we are in Mark, mostly, until about September; then we’re into John for a few weeks and then back in Mark for the rest of the church calendar year. Mark is perhaps my favorite gospel– although they all have their charms! On Sunday, June 3 I preached from Mark 2:23-3:6, a passage about law and observing the sabbath and who gets to decide anyway? (Click here for my sermon on this passage.) Next Sunday the lectionary text is Mark 3:20-35 (spoiler alert! People call Jesus insane and say he has Beelzebub!) In between the two Sundays is Mark 3:7-19:

A Multitude at the Seaside
7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; 8 hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. 9 He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; 10 for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. 11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” 12 But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.
Jesus Appoints the Twelve
13 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles,[a] to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15 and to have authority to cast out demons. 16 So he appointed the twelve:[b] Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

To notice in this passage:

  1. There are so many people eager to meet Jesus, hear his message and be healed by him that he had to put out to sea in a boat to keep from being crushed.
  2. Unclean spirits recognized Jesus and would call out his name, but Jesus orders them not to identify him.
  3. At this point Jesus appoints his disciples and gives them authority to do certain specific tasks.

How does this passage continue the action of the story? What had just happened at the end of the lectionary text (that ended with Mark 3:6) and what happens next? How do these passages begin to establish a picture of who Jesus was and what his ministry was? What in this passage connects to the lectionary text for May 10 (Mark 3:20-35)?