On Staying Until You Leave

My best friend never texts me back immediately.

In fact, sometimes not at all.

And I’m not offended by it one bit because I kind of envy him. He has this practice of leaving his phone in his room when he’s home, at least until the kids are in bed and the house is quiet.

And when he’s at the office? It’s largely on silent mode.

He’s largely mastered the art of being present, mostly because he puts in some long hours on the regular.

I envy that because it’s a practice I have not mastered yet, even with my meditation discipline and my (feeble) attempts at focusing.

This week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 6:1-13) doesn’t look like it’s about being present at first blush, but I think it is, actually.

Jesus is present in his hometown, and the folks are so distracted by the fact that they have known him all his life, know his siblings, know his parents, that they can’t wrap their mind around his gifts and abilities. They aren’t present with his now, they only remember his was.

It reminds me of the time I met Molly Ringwald and was kindly asked not to inquire about any of her film career from the 1980’s (which I can list by heart in year of release). Instead, we were encouraged to ask what she’s up to now.

When Jesus sends his disciples out, he says to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave a place.” (vs 10) It was probably offered as simple lodging instructions because, well, when you don’t have a pillow and someone offers you one, you stay by that pillow until you’re ready to find a new one, right?

But today this verse speaks to my heart differently. I mean, what if we took seriously this idea that we need to stay in the place where we are? That is, when you’re visiting with someone, don’t put the phone on the table, but rather leave it in the car. Or on silent mode.

And when you enter your home at the end of the night, don’t lug that workbag in with you. You’re home, not at work.

Or if you, like me, mostly work from home, the office is off limits after 5:30.

I needed this verse a few weeks ago. On our family vacation I took three separate work calls, and I really shouldn’t have.

I knew I shouldn’t have, and my family predicted I would take them (because they know me much like Jesus’ neighbors thought they “knew” him), and I had the opportunity to prove them wrong and I blew it.

Totally blew it.

But, and here’s the thing: it’s not just about “being present” to be respectful. What if there are insights and spiritual awakenings that are missed out because we’re missing out on the moment?

Like, what if beautiful and wonderful, miraculous even, things are happening in our midst, like they had the potential to when Jesus was in his hometown, but we’re not aware enough to see them?

By staying present our present can change, by God, and even become disconnected from our past…if only we’d stay where we are until we leave there.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this week.

On Real Miracles

I struggle with the miracle stories that the scriptures contain.

I struggle because “miracle” is such a tricky word to define, and so many define it so narrowly, and praying for miracles doesn’t really seem to make them happen very often…

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for miracles, Beloved. In times of desperation all sorts of prayers escape my earnest lips and I regret none of them. I’m just saying that the cause and effect here doesn’t seem to hold much water.

I know it might be weird for a pastor to say that, but I kind of wish more would with regularity. Religion gives shallow comfort when it encourages people to hang their hope on the almost-impossible.

I’ve sat in hospital rooms where someone given a less than ten percent chance of surviving breathed again on their own. Is that a miracle, or is it just a statistically rare situation? Is it both?

Birth is, in itself, kind of a miraculous event if you ask me. Death can be, too. In fact, I’d say any thing that causes awe to blossom in the heart is quite miraculous.

Miracle is a tricky word to define.

In the ancient world there were lots of miracle workers, by the way. Traveling healers, itinerant preachers and prophets, magicians and sorcerers…they were all making their way through the world, and ancient Palestine, making their case for disciples and followers. That’s all to say: the fact that Jesus healed people and performed so-called miracles didn’t make him unique in the ancient world, and it certainly didn’t “prove” he was divine like so many pastors tell you (who obviously haven’t done their homework).

No.

The thing that set Jesus apart was not the miracles he performed, but rather who was blessed by them: the poor, the marginalized, those who couldn’t pay, the outsider, the outcast, the untouchable, the enemy.

That is Divine.

Take for instance the miracle stories we get this Sunday where Jesus raises the dead daughter of a religious leader and is grabbed by a perpetually bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). In both of these cases the true miracle, in my mind, isn’t them returning back to health, but that he would cross the social, ethical, and religious lines of the times, lines that literally defined you in the ancient world, and did so with abandon.

To touch a dead body would make you ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to become unclean in the eyes of the world to bring new life to someone.

To engage with a woman who was have difficulty with a menstrual cycle that would not stop would make him, as a man, unclean. Jesus doesn’t ostracize her or get angry at her or immediately go and purify himself with the rituals of religion. Instead, he blesses her.

Go another layer into the story, though. Jairus, the man whose daughter was sick and dying, was a religious leader of the day and, if we follow the story, was probably at odds with this wandering prophet preaching radical grace. And yet Jesus doesn’t withhold his presence from this man who probably doesn’t think or believe the same way he does. Instead, he extends his hand to him.

I mean, it’s kind of like it’s meant to be that this story is coming just when the headlines are emblazoned with the story of Roman Catholic Bishops seeking to excommunicate Joe Biden. Have they not heard? Have they not read? The Jesus that they (we?) claim to follow and emulate was not about to let disagreements stand in the way of grace.

I struggle with the miracle stories in the scriptures. Miracles that defy the odds are rare, and they don’t seem to discriminate between those who believe and those who don’t (thank God…everyone deserves to beat the odds sometimes, right?). But, then again, everyday miracles that inspire awe are not so rare, but also show no partiality, which is pretty cool.

At the end of the day, though, the true miracle of this story is that Jesus would break down the walls that prevent people from being gracious to one another, and he’ll do so without batting an eye, apologizing, or worrying about how it will look to the public.

And that, Beloved, is a real miracle in my book.

Anyway, if I were preaching this Sunday, this is probably where I’d go…

Extraordinarily Ordinary

The Kingdom of God is like an irresponsible gardener.

The Kingdom of God is like a huge weed that overtakes every other plant.

The Kingdom of God is like a microscopic animal that reacts with the environment in large and explosive ways.

The Kingdom of God is like a hopeful parent on the porch, waiting for their child to drive home long past dark.

These are all examples, in a way, that Jesus uses to describe “the Kingdom of God.” Some of these show in this week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34)

And note: Jesus does not mean some sort of “heaven” when he’s talking here. The Kingdom of God is not heaven in the scriptures, Beloved.

The Kingdom of God in the scriptures is Earth, home, hearth, community that loves each other.

But, why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell us what the Kingdom of God is? Why this fanciful language?

Lazy theologians will tell you it is because Jesus wants you to figure out a puzzle. That’s a cop out.

But what if the Kingdom of God is, in and of itself, a puzzle? What if it is a paradox of sorts? What if the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people who, through Divine love, change reality for the better?

Perhaps Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is extraordinarily ordinary. Like, the components are ordinary. But the result? Extraordinary.

Perhaps when people really love each other it takes over all other grievance trying to grow in the soil of community, like a mustard weed in a garden?

Perhaps when people really look out for one another, that takes precedence over every other selfish desire, and the whole community is lifted like a loaf that has some yeast snuck in it?

Perhaps when we throw true affection around like seeds things just start to grow in our lives, and we’re not sure how, but we start to harvest it and share it together?

Perhaps in a world where society will tell you perfection is wealth, and in a religious reality where establishment churches will tell you perfection is obedience, Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God looks nothing like that, and it’s difficult to describe, but when you see it?

You know.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday.