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Sunday, January 31, 2016

“Answer The Question”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 8: 27-38, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 31th, 2016

As Pope Francis was on his way for his first visit to the United States via Cuba, while walking down a street in Havana,  CBS’s Scott Pelly conducted a brief interview for the 60 Minutes News program.  While the Pope was shaking hands with people,  Pelly asked him several questions about his upcoming visit to the US).   
          “What is your goal for America?,  Pelly asked.    The Pope answered very simply: “To meet people.  Just to meet with them.” 
       Already, the Pope’s more inclusive, compassionate approach has been evident but also problematic for some in the Church.   So, Scott Pelly wanted to ask even more specifically, “What can the faithful expect from his declared “Year of Mercy”?    The Pope gave a great big smile while raising his hands toward the sky and answered: “They can expect that the mercy of God is so great, it will surprise us all.”  (

While the Pope certainly does not speak with great authority for all Christians, we should not hesitate to agree that ‘the mercy of God’ can be very ‘surprising.’   Deeds of mercy that are full of forgiveness and compassion brought Jesus head to head with the political, religious, and popular wall of opposition in his time.   Indeed, it was this surprising, shocking, and alarming mercy that created such a stir of anger that did not cease until Jesus had to be criminalized and silenced by crucifixion.   But did the cross silence Jesus’ message of mercy, or did it only enlarge it?   Whatever we think,  we must admit that the gospel of Jesus Christ was originally intended to be a message of “good news” about God’s mercy to be proclaimed in the world, which should be declared, as Paul wrote, even ‘while we were still sinners (Roms 5.8). 

In Mark, chapter eight, we find an unmistakable ‘declaration’ being made about Jesus.  But as one scholar rightly put it, in the gospel story,  “Jesus is as much the question, as he is the answer”  (Wayne Meeks).   But this question about Jesus’ identity is not intended to be highly academic, nor political, but it is intended to be answered personally.   Jesus poses this question not to the crowd at large, but this “question” about himself is being asked to his closest followers.   As Mark tells it, the question Jesus raised was never intended to be answered for us, as much as it is to be a living question still needing to be answered by us: “Who do we say Jesus is?” 

Most surprising in this whole biblical account, or in any of the gospels recording it, is that Jesus never gives the answer anyone wants.  Jesus leaves the answer as an open-ended ‘secret’.   As Peter discovers, the right answer about Jesus is not one we can easily say we believe, but it is one we must be taught to believe.  Even those closest to Jesus had a hard time learning or accepting it.  

Before we get to Jesus’ very challenging answer, let’s start with the question Jesus asked.   Mark tells us that it was among the hillside towns of Caesarea Philippi, small villages of northern Galilee, located on the edge of known Jewish world, where Jesus first popped the question, “Who do people say I am?”    

These ‘people’ Jesus refers to were not the people of the world as a whole, not the pagans, nor the Gentiles, not the Romans, nor even the political or religious leaders among the Jewish people, but Jesus was asking ‘who’  these who were listening to him and learning from him thought him to be.   The answer came in an almost flattering, very Jewish, even expected way, ‘John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets”  (v.28).

These answers sound very ancient and eastern, don’t they?   These people are all supposed to be dead, but people are saying they have come back to life in Jesus.   How do we take those who have ‘opinions’ about Jesus then, and now?   To take these opinions at face value, we should understand that in the ancient world then, and still in the many eastern areas today, there have been strong beliefs about reincarnation---that after a person dies the soul will somehow rejoin a new body.   While this belief has had a more firm hold among Hindus and Buddhist, it was also held by some ancient Greeks, even by the father of mathematics, Pythagoras.   Even today, this ancient belief of reincarnation remains on display when a well-known ‘holy man’, like the Dali Lama dies and monks launch a dedicated search to find a child who will receive his ‘reincarnated’ spirit so that their ‘holy’ truth can keep marching on. 

While reincarnation sounds very strange to us in the west (even laughable to some), we do find a similar belief in the Hebrew Bible, which promised that at least the spirit of  Elijah would return to earth just ‘before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes  (Mal. 4:5).   Again this is not reincarnation, but it gets close.   If you recall,  this belief was based upon the story in the book of Second Kings where the great prophet Elijah did not die, but was carried off in a fiery chariot lifted into heaven by a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).  Even today, some practicing Jews leave a seat open for Elijah around their annual Passover tables.    

In the New Testament, however, Jesus does declare that in the life and ministry of John the Baptist “Elijah has come’ (Mark 9:13).   But Jesus was not saying that John the Baptist actually was a ‘returned’ Elijah, but Jesus is claiming that the prophetic ‘spirit’ of Elijah, as one who spoke the truth, has returned so that now, God’s greatest promises are being fulfilled.  The  ‘catch’ is, however, that even this is only clear to those ‘who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!”  (Matt. 11.14).

A lot of people say that this is exactly what ‘troubles’ and ‘frightens’ them about religion---all and any religion.   They say that having belief in a god inspires all kinds of beliefs or opinions that can’t be proven.   While I definitely agree that religion is many things to many people, I don’t think religion makes people believe as much as it is the people who believe because they are, by nature, religious.   Sometimes, I’ve found die-hard atheists to be the most religious of all.   They also hold to hopes or beliefs that can’t be proven, reflecting a constant reality that remains a matter of the heart.      

Surprisingly, even in our very secular world, we have more personal beliefs, not less.   As we humans gain more access to information, more opinions and personal interpretations are being voiced.  Haven’t you seen how quickly social media is inundated with a rush of opinions about events, most of which will have little to do with the truth.  With this ‘rush to judgment’, the focused is mostly upon what people want to believe, rather than what belief we should have.  With more and more opinions circulating, beliefs that were once thought to be ‘sacred’ are now being questioned and scrutinized, so that nothing appears to be as ‘sacred’ or ‘true’ as once thought. 

Our text reminds us that the challenge of  many differing opinions and beliefs is not new.  Opinions of the people are always more prevalent and prominent than the truth of a matter.  Coming to know the ‘truth’ will take time, reflection, even effort—and is seldom, if ever instant or easy.    Those who are well known will always get more press about their ‘opinions’, but these are still just opinions.  Remember that person who decided to take Oprah’s advice for a year and to buy each and every product she endorsed, read every book she promoted, or to try every ‘self-help’ method she recommended?   The person who attempted this said that after a year she was poorer and worst off.   Even Oprah’s truths were just ‘opinions’. (

What needs to be answered about Jesus must go beyond ‘opinions’.   Jesus has always been and will always be many different things to people.  This has been true all through the years, and it is true now, and will always be true.    More books have been written about Jesus than anyone else, but what do they prove?   Nothing, if we don’t get beyond opinions and theories.   Mark’s gospel would suggest to us that we can’t get to the truth about Jesus through even the best of opinions.  A living truth can’t be settled by what ‘people say’.  

Since true faith must move beyond those many and varied public opinions, Jesus takes his disciples to the next level:  “Who do you say that I am?   In the gospel story, it is only Peter who speaks out, but he says personally what the others must have been thinking.  “Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ?’”  (v.29).  

This kind of ‘personal’ response to who Jesus was and is, is the direction the Church has been encouraging faith to go, answering for ourselves, personally, who we believe Jesus to be, but is this really enough?    When Peter answers that Jesus is the “Messiah”, Jesus does not want him to tell anyone.   Why is Jesus intentionally slowing down even a ‘personal’ acceptance of who he is and who he should be?  Why did he want Peter to refrain from speaking out his very ‘personal’ faith in who Jesus is?

When we read this word “Christ”, it need to remember that it means “Messiah”.   That was a much ‘loaded’ word in Jesus’ time, with a lot of implications.   We can see this clearly later in the gospel story, as Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem and is welcomed with cheers and shouts of joy.   It was the personal view of many that when the Messiah comes the world will change.   When the Christ comes Rome will be overthrown.  When the Messiah comes, God’s deliverer will come, and like Moses, he will rescue all the people from their hardships in life.    The coming of Messiah was to be like the coming of God’s King, who would come to rule the world, and bring the fullness of God’s kingdom once and for all.   

It was exactly because of all these personal ‘expectations’ about who the Messiah should be, that causes Jesus to demand that Peter to ‘tell no one about him’.   Not only are there many different opinions about ‘who’ Jesus is,  there are just as many personal feelings or hopes about who the Messiah should be; about what salvation should mean, and about what it means to have faith and hope in the coming ‘rule’ or ‘kingdom’ of God.   Jesus holds Peter back, not because he is wrong, but because he does not yet know or except what Messiah or Christ will mean.    Jesus does not want Peter to rush out and tell what he now confesses to believe until Jesus teaches him what it ‘must’ mean (8.31).

In our world today, often a distinction is made between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.   When this term is used, you may have heard it on PBS or the History Channel,  it refers to the truth about Jesus that historians can discover about who Jesus really was as opposed to who the Church has believed Jesus to be.   The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Jesus of the Bible is who the Church or his followers wanted Jesus to be.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The Jesus we encounter in the Bible, this Jesus of faith is not the Jesus Peter wanted, nor would we or do we really want him either.   This is why Mark goes on to tell us how Jesus begins to teach them about how the true “Christ” he will be in history, is not the “Christ” that want him to be in their own personal ‘faith’.  
Notice how it unfolds,  as Jesus tells his disciples that the true “Messiah” or “Christ” “must suffer many things and be rejected…and killed… and then ‘rise after three days’ (v.31).  When Peter hears this, he takes Jesus aside to chew him out’ privately, but now Jesus in turn, calls Peter out publically, naming Peter “Satan”!   Jesus will not let anyone, even Peter, have his own ‘personal’ view of who “Christ” will be.   Jesus will not allow us to have our own ‘personal’ views of who Jesus is, or what Christ means.  The truth about Jesus is not up for grabs, nor is it open for discussion.   The truth about Jesus will get personal, but Jesus does not let you personally decide who you want him to be. 

In the powerful story about a “Jewish Cardinal”, the trouble with personal interpretations about Jesus goes right up to the top, to the Pope.   It is a true story about a young French, Jewish boy, who during the terrible events of  World War II, converts to Catholicism, to escape the Nazi death camps.  But instead of being a ‘fake’ believer, he really does ‘convert’ to faith in Jesus Christ, and be becomes a priest, and a very respected bishop in the church, but he continues to publically practice his Jewishness.  When others in the Church protest, he reminds them that Jesus was a Jew too and did not stop being a Jew even when he became their Savior.  

This “Jewish Cardinal was so talented, gifted, and respected that that Pope John II invited him to Rome often and became they became friends.  But their ‘friendship’ was tested when a group of Carmelite Nuns opened a Convent on the sacred Jewish grounds at Auschwitz.  Jews did not want anything to violate th0se ‘sacred space’---not a Menorah or a Cross, because they wanted the silent screams to continue to be heard around the world. 

The Jewish Cardinal went to see the Pope and demanded that the Nuns leave, but the Pope refused.  He was the convent there to be a sign of Solidarity against Communism that was beginning to crumble.  But the Jewish Cardinal continued to ‘rebuke’, even the Pope, and he told him how even the Pope’s personal beliefs should not overlook or reject the ‘pain’ of that place.   Finally, the Jewish Cardinal’s frustration and pain became clear.  The Pope was moved to ‘tears’ saying, “Oh, How I’ve hurt you, my brother.”  With this realization,  the Pope ordered the nuns to close the monastery.    The pain of that place was so poignant and the memory so powerful that even a Pope could not deny it or remedy it---only God ( .

We all have our own ‘personal’ ways to view life, life’s events, and we even have our own personal ways to believe in Jesus too.    What Mark’s gospel reminds us is that, when we, like Peter, come to confess our faith in Jesus, we had need to take care that we don’t refuse the only Jesus who can save; this Jesus who came to teach us the only way Jesus is the Christ who saves.

The answer we must all come to, as we finish Mark’s story, is that their no true ‘answer’ about Jesus until we get to the answer Jesus  had to ‘teach’ his disciples.    After Peter confesses Jesus privately, and wrongly, too,  Jesus now begins to proclaim publically who the Messiah, the true Savior of Israel and the Savior for the world—who He ‘must’ be.   Satan will try to pull you away from this truth.   This is not according to ‘human thinking’,  but this is according to “things of God”  (v. 33).    So, now Jesus ‘calls both the crowd’ with his ‘disciples’ to teach that the only way to believe Jesus the Christ----is to follow him--- to deny yourself and to live, him.  To ‘live him’ you must not just confess your opinions or beliefs, but you must ‘take up his cross’ and not just your own.   Jesus commands this because only those who lose their lives for his sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it (v. 35).  

These are not the words we want to hear, are they?   This is not the Christ Peter wanted to confess.  But this, according to Jesus, is the only Jesus who can save.    To put it in our own expression, if Jesus is to be our  Savior,  first he must be our Lord---the Lord of all our lives.   There is no salvation to be found in the Jesus of public opinion, nor is there, more shockingly, any true salvation in the Jesus of personal belief either.  The only Jesus who can save us is the Jesus we must follow and the Jesus we must give our lives to.   And we must give all our lives, because there is no ‘halfway’ or ‘part-time” Jesus, but there is only a ‘full-time’ or ‘all-the-way’ life.   “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation,  of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father….” (v. 38).  

The language here has become as graphic as it is direct.   Without this Jesus who dies on the cross demanding us to ‘take up his cross and follow’ him, there is no “answer” and there is no salvation.   As the saying goes, ‘you are either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution’.    Jesus calls us to come to the only Christ who can save, who’s never what we first think.   If you want the salvation God brings, you must learn and when you do, you can’t hold anything back.   You must learn from him and you must follow him too.   This is not a trick, but this is the truth--- the only truth that saves is what Jesus came to teach.    

Along this line of Jesus’ teaching,  the late Marcus Borg wrote that the God and the Christian Faith is ‘not simply about the destination, but it’s just as much about the journey’ (“Meeting Jesus”, p. 125) and he goes on to remind us that this ‘journey’ is about following Jesus in daily discipleship, not just getting comfortable with a belief about Jesus.  Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that Jesus is God, Lord, or Christ, but believing in Jesus means believing ‘on’ Jesus, when we put our whole lives into his hands and we follow him, holding nothing back. 

When Germany was intent on denying Jesus and following Hitler, only a few “Confessing Christians” were willing to take up the cross, even if it meant that they might die.  One of those Christians named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preached his final sermon in Berlin on July 23, 1933,  taking as his text this same gospel story, but from Matthew’s version.  He used it to try to convince his people that there was only one ‘confession’ that would save them.  He preached that only Jesus who could save “Germany” was not the “Jesus people say he is”, but only the “Jesus he said he was”.  But we know that the people followed Hitler, not Christ, but we also know that they did not gain the world, nor did they gain their souls either; but they lost many “souls” and the “soul” of their nation because they followed the wrong voice.  Because he did not stop preaching this Christ who calls us to bear the cross of the truth,  Bonhoeffer was put in prison and finally hung, only days before Germany was liberated 
(Collected Sermons, “Who Do You Say That I Am” Fortress Press, 2012, pp 75-86). 

What we still need to know is that only the one  ‘who loses his life” for the right, good, and just purposes of God, are those who save it.   You cannot gain the world, and save your soul.  But you can lose your life in this world and save your soul.  In fact, the truth Jesus tells is that this is the only Christian truth that really saves.   If you want to save your life, or your soul, you must lose it in the truth Jesus gives.   What is it about this ‘answer’ that you still need to learn?   Are you ready to learn and to live what you learn?   Are you ready to get beyond the opinions!  Turn loose of the options!  You are certainly not entitled to your own beliefs or opinions.  No, this is not your world, nor is it your life,  because there is only one Lord, and your life is not your own, so there is only one option!   If you want God’s salvation, you must live this truth!   You must follow this Christ!   Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Learn to Care!

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 8: 1-6; 14-21, CEB
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Epiphany, January 24th, 2016

Recently the talented author of over 15 novels, John Irving, was on national television promoting his new book, “The Avenue of Mysteries”.  This literary work is reported to be ‘filled with both the miraculous and the mysterious,’ but as one commentator has reported, John Irving ‘doesn’t believe in miracles---yet he is fascinated by them.”

That certainly sounds odd, doesn’t it?  To be ‘fascinated’ by something you don’t believe in?  Well, unfortunately, the same can be said today when people are ‘fascinated’ by the miracles Jesus performed, but they don’t try to understand what they should mean for us now.   Belief in miracles should outlive and be greater than the miracles themselves.  As the gospels confirm, those miracles of Jesus are as much ‘signs’ as much as they were ‘wonders’.

In today’s text a ‘feeding’ miracle is repeated statement after Jesus reaffirms:  “I have compassion for the crowd….”  (8.2). Jesus also gives this specific and practical reason for having this broadening ‘compassion’, saying it is ‘because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat.  If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way---and some of them have come from a great distance.”  (8: 2b-3).  It may all sound so trivial to us, as these miracles do to some, but it wasn’t trivial to them, nor to Jesus. Jesus did not want to ‘send them away hungry’ and His disciples were right to question “How can we feed these people with bread here in the desert?” 

In this ‘wilderness’ story, the gospel of Mark puts us right where we also might suddenly find ourselves in life; between the reality of our own limited situation and the limitless needs of people around us.   How can we have the kind of ‘compassion’ and show the kind of care that reaches out to others, when we must also face the harsh realities and barrenness of life? Will we have ‘compassion for the crowd’ or will we ‘send them away’?  Isn’t it interesting how Christianity is not only about having a relationship with God who helps us, but it is also about having a relationship with our neighbor who may also be in need?  Do we have enough compassion to care this much?

The good news is that most of us do have compassion and care, because all of us have at least known the need to be cared for.  Since we, as human beings, are the most vulnerable of all earth’s thinking and feeling creatures, we do understand the need to have compassion and to care for others.   But what happens when that compassion and care isn’t happening?  What happens when society has become so ‘harsh’, so filled with competition and hate, or so ‘limited’ with empathy and love, that there is a shortage of what we all need to sustain us as people?  Are we still a people who are capable of compassion and care? 

In the real world, that can also be a ‘harsh’ world, caring and compassion are never automatic.  Even after the disciples had witnessed the second ‘miracle’ in this feeding of the four thousand they still don’t get it?  “Do you still not understand? (v. 21).  As Jesus tried to pass God’s healing and helpful truth to them, they had great trouble getting it.

It’s not easy to ‘pass down’ or to ‘teach’ something you feel in your heart?   It can be practically ‘impossible’.  You can’t really teach somebody to care, nor can you ‘preach’ it into them, just like you can’t ‘teach’ them what they should or shouldn’t feel.  Feelings are much more complicated than asking someone to put on a shoe or a shirt.  Feelings are different because they are ‘worn’ from the inside out. 

Because feelings are ‘different’ they can also be ‘difficult’.   Our feelings do not belong to the ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’ parts of our brains, we are told, but they belong to the more ‘emotional’  and ‘relational’ responses which enable us to have the kind of thoughts that will not only feed our bodies but will also feed our souls and spirits.  Mere, cold logic or law can lead to cruel things like Auschwitz or Dachau, whereas feelings of compassion and care can lead to things like the Churches, the Red Cross and other forms of social help.  Or, compassion can raise up people like Oscar Schindler, Oscar Romero, or Mother Teresa; people who risked everything they had to reach out and value people in ways that save. 

Recognizing that such ‘compassion’, even normal compassion, is never a given for a people or for a society is important.  I used to think compassionate feelings innate, instinctive or inborn, but I do not believe that anymore.   It all started to unravel for me when, in the 1990’s, I learned about the tragedy of that South Carolina woman, Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons in her car by driving it into a lake.   Susan was said to have been suffering from mental health issues, which may have been true, but that makes it even more imperative for us learn compassion and to recognize those who don’t seem to be able to have it.  The rise and increase of ‘mass shootings’  in this country, the increasing ‘hate speech’ in public life, and the brutality by some and against some law enforcement officers, ought to be our cue that we can’t just write off or ignore those who lose the ability to feel for other human beings.

Because ‘free will’, choice, chance, and human ‘vulnerability’ are foundational to the possibilities of human life and experience, it remains possible for people like Susan, and even for good people like us, to lose our feelings of compassion and to fail to understand what caring means, either because people are incapable of feeling it or have become incapable due to the conditions within or around us. As now inmate Susan Smith recently told NBC News, who was doing a report on her 20 years after she strapped her two sons into her car and pushed it into a lake; she told reporters:  “Something went terribly wrong that night… I am not the monster many make me out to be…” ( 

Though normal ‘thinking’ people have feelings, we must also realize that not all feelings have 'thinking', or are the ‘best’ or ‘right’ kinds of feelings.  Even people who normally have ‘compassion’ will have times when their normal feelings of compassion fail.  When Jesus conducted his ministry, it was said to be a ministry of ‘compassion’, because ‘….because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36).   Jesus ministry was an itinerant, unofficial ministry, conducted in sharp contrast to the ministry of the established religion of his time which had lost it's compassion and care.  Jesus’ ministry was noticeably different because Jesus was different, for ‘when he saw the crowds, he had compassion’ (Matt. 9:36, 14.14, 15.32; Mark 6:34; 8:1).  But the ‘difference’ here was not simply because Jesus was God in the flesh, but the difference was that Jesus allowed God to rule and command his flesh by not giving in to the self-destructive temptations of Satan, the evil, destructive powers, that would lead him astray from ‘who’ God called him to be and ‘what’ God called him to do.

What I’m illustrating, from this very human side of Jesus, is that having the right kinds of ‘feelings’ within oneself is never automatic.  It wasn’t automatic for Jesus, and it will never be ‘automatic’ for us.  To have the kind of ‘compassion that makes life more positive than negative, redeems more than it destroys, and also reaches out to the ‘crowds’ and to ‘strangers’ not only just looking after ourselves---this kind of living requires the kind of compassionate, caring feelings that we must continue to cultivate within ourselves, and in others, as we constantly sow seeds of care in the world around us.

But what does it take to cultivate, sow, and harvest seeds of care in our church and communities?  How do we go against the ‘grain’ of the uncaring, compassion-less systems of this world, to create a community of compassionate feeling and genuine caring, where ‘miraculous deeds’ of sharing and help will happen? 

Strangely enough, we don’t have to become ‘miracle workers’ to have ‘miracles’ of compassion and care happen.  In fact, Jesus’ whole protest to his disciples, complaining that they still “don’t understand’ (21) comes from the fact that these kinds of miracles of compassion should not be so ‘miraculous’ or ‘strange’ (17), but can and should be the rule, rather than the exception. 

But how is it that compassion and care stop being the rule---in both political speech or civil life?   If the ‘gospel’ story of Jesus Christ can teach us anything, it can teach us that at the same time there is the potential for great love and compassion in the world, there can also be great potential for evil and hate to work against everything that is good, just, and right.  What empowers this evil to overcome the good is not the power of evil or hate itself, but it is the reality of Jesus’ disciples not hearing, not seeing clearly, or not remembering what possibilities and powers are available to them (v. 18).  This is why Jesus told his disciples to: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees!”  (v. 15).

Jesus own ‘disciples’ would not fully understand Jesus until they came to ‘beware’ of the ‘leaven of the Pharisees.’ This was something that did not happen until after their Messiah had ‘suffered’ and was ‘crucified’.  But do we understand this ‘leaven’ any better today, after the cross?   Do we understand that these “Pharisees” were not the ‘bad’ guys but they were really the ‘good guys’ who got caught up in the wrong attitudes or hypocritical interpretations ‘goodness’ which made them lose genuine compassion for all the people who matter to God?  

What we need to understand about the Pharisees is that they were not the Sadducees who denied the power of God and the resurrection, but the Pharisees were those religious leaders who believed in God’s laws and wanted to see Israel become the great nation she once was.  In order to become this ‘great nation’, they developed a way for Israel to keep all God’s laws and had to rid all the sin within and around them.  But to have this kind of ‘holiness’ meant that they also had to ‘hate’ what God hated.  There was no salvation for Israel without negation, which meant separating themselves from what and who was less than God’s best, per the Law.

While there are elements of truth in the Pharisaical call for separation and holiness, the problem with this approach, according to Jesus was that it was not true ‘righteousness’:  “Unless your righteous exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5.20).  It was exactly these faulty ‘Pharisaical’ forms of false, hypocritical self-preserving righteousness which ‘locked (other) people out of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mat. 23.13), made people worst, rather than better (Mt. 23:15), and became ‘blind guides’ and ‘blind fools’ (Mt. 23, 16,17).  Because they ‘neglected’ the heavier matters of the law, practicing ‘justice, mercy and faith’ (Matt 23.23) compassion and care were lost.  In matters of the enforcing the law of God, they ‘neglected’ justice, mercy, and faith, which are always the spiritual building blocks for cultivating hearts and a lives filled with caring compassion--that is a compassion that actually cares.

We often forget that we only ‘cultivate’ feelings of compassion  in this world around us by participating in caring deeds.  When we ‘neglect’ these most important ‘matters of the law’, feelings and deeds of ‘hate’ can easily grow in any of us, so that we become cold and hard-hearted.   When this happens, it can nearly be impossible for us, or for a society to be redeemed or restored, even by God's compassion.   This is why Jesus’ final question to the Pharisees was “How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”  (23.13).

The gospel story does not end well for thehouse’ of religion that becomes “Pharisaical”  (“See your house is left to you, desolate!”, Matt. 23.38).  It is a ‘house’ that loses its ability to do deeds of love and compassion, because it had lost the capacity to care with love and compassion. 

The day I was working on this message, CBS News reported about a an upstate New York ‘independent’ ‘fundamentalist’ church congregation named “Word of Life Christian Church’ that now might be more realistically called the "Deed of Death Christian Church”.  The report stated that several of the members of the congregation, including the parents of an adolescent boy, were being charged with murder by trying to ‘whip’ two young teenage boys into submission with electrical cords.  One of the boys, died as a result of the beatings (

How could something like this happen?  One of the former members of the church, Chadwick Handville, said it all started with good intentions:  “He taught me a lot…. I memorized half of the Bible….”, but what ‘he failed to teach me was how to use what I read, and how to treat people.”   What started out as a fast growing, spirit-filled, Pentecostal Church, ended up in decline after their leader became ‘controlling’ and ‘intimidating.’   Even after their ‘pastor’ had a stroke and died, his wife and children took control of the congregation and continued the same harsh style of its founder.

I think it is wise to keep such strange event in perspective, just as we should keep what happen to Susan Smith in perspective.  David Bromley, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, who was asked about the incident, explained: ‘these cases look very bizarre to outsiders” and are ‘rare, radical events’ that ‘occur in groups that tightly organized, independent, and very conservative’ who have formed ‘in reaction to the liberalization of mainline churches.’  There are ‘thousands of these groups around the country and every now and then, one pops up that has gone awry.’

I don’t know if what the professor said is reassuring, but it does express something true that happens not only in churches, but also in a society where human and religious need turns into human and religious confusion.  But as one person has put it, ‘The answer to bad religion is not no religion’  (Martin Theilsen).  Since we humans we are religious creatures, if we decide for ‘no’ religion over ‘bad’ religion, we will begin to  create ‘our own religion’ that will make matters worse (   

It is ‘good’ religion and ‘good’ faith that Jesus came to teach his disciples when he reveals to them, “I have compassion for the crowd” (v. 2).   It is important to note here that Jesus’ compassion is not just for the ‘neighbor’  (Luke 10), but it is also for the ‘crowd’ who ‘came from a great distance’ (v. 3).  This may be why we have ‘two’ feeding stories, not just one.  In the first ‘feeding’ story in Mark 6, the feeding has twelve basketfuls left over, representing that Jesus’ has compassion for his people--the twelve tribes of Israel.  Here, in Mark 8, the feeding has seven basketfuls left over.  Jesus also has compassion also for Gentiles, those ‘who came from a great distance’, that is all the ‘crowd.’ (From Wm. C. Placher, in “Mark”, Westminster John Knox,  2010, p. 109-111).  

Educator Parker Palmer has implied that having compassion for the stranger means being hospitable to the ‘stranger’ even while they are still ‘strange’.   This kind of compassion ‘goes against the grain of some rhetorical and political ill-will today, but  love for the 'stranger' and even the enemy, is the right ‘grain’ of compassion found in Jesus Christ.  (From Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, Westminister John Knox, 1995, p 128).  

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul picks up on this kind of ‘crowd’ compassion, identifying it as God’s compassion that has been fully revealed in the death of Jesus.  The whole passage in the second chapter is worth reading, but ‘crowd’ or ‘stranger’ compassion can be summarized in only a couple of key verses: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…. So then you are NO LONGER STRANGERS AND ALIENS, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, WITH CHRIST JESUS HIMSELF AS THE CORNERSTONE. (Eph. 2:13, 19-20 NRS).

It is not easy for humans to ‘learn to care’ as big as God cares.  Earlier in that same from his letter to the Ephesians, Paul also spoke about being ‘dead in trespasses and sins, following the course of the world…the ruler of the air…and following the spirit …. at work among the disobedient….” (Eph. 2:1-2).  The Paul puts us ‘all in the same boat', saying, “All of us once lived like that….following the desires of the flesh…like everyone else” (Eph. 2:3).  He says we all were ‘dead’ to compassion and love, until “God, who is rich in mercy, out of his great love….make us alive in Christ…by grace…for good works…(Eph. 2: 4-10).   We learn to feel this kind of ‘compassion’ by experiencing this kind of compassion.  

A sweet Youtube video, illustrates what God does through Jesus’ life and death, to call our attention to ‘good works’ of care and compassion.  In the video, two kindergarten children, a little girl and boy, are arguing over whether it is ‘raining’ or ‘sprinkling’ outside.  Finally, the little girl oversteps her bounds and ‘pokes’ the little fellow in the chest.  The little fellow steps back, hangs his head, as if he is emotionally crushed, complaining, “You poked my heart!”

“Spiritually” speaking, to ‘poke our hearts’ is what the Christ's suffering and death aimed to do, so we will constantly examine, consistently enlarge, or even perhaps, come to regain our capacity to feel compassion and show care to family, to friends, to neighbors, and even for strangers and also enemies.  But you can only ‘learn’ this ‘large’ kind of ‘crowd’ compassion, when you gain a heart as large as God's so you will also ‘feel’ this kind of compassion.  This is why Jesus doesn’t just talk the talk, but he fully displays it by surrendering to a death so God's love will keep ‘poking our hearts’.  Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

“Beg to Differ”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 7:  1-23  NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday After Epiphany,  January 17, 2016

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mk. 7:5 NRS)

As a child I recall the first time I ever heard about concept of ‘globalization’.  It didn’t come as an economic term, but it came as a religious fear, called “one-world-government”. 

The so-called ‘preacher’ who was spreading this fear was an evangelist by the name of Darrell Dunn.  While I never heard him speak, I heard a lot about him from others who did.   I learned that this evangelist claimed that the establishment of the UN by then president J.F. Kennedy signaled the beginning of a one-world-government that served as the foundation for the coming of the Anti-Christ.  This “anti-Christ” would soon rule the whole world with a single ‘one-world-government’  just before the second-coming of Jesus.  By that evangelist’s fear-mongering calculations, this ‘one-world-government’ should already be in place.  The end should have already come, but we are still here.

While those very ridiculous predictions did not come true, the so-called evangelist did reflect a true reality we now experience.  We do seem to be on the way to being one global culture, where the people of the world have much more in common, than we are different.   This reality is being observed already in the rise of the “Cyber Society” that has come with a bang.   But the truth is it was happening long before this.  Right after the fall of the “Berlin Wall”,  I personally saw the rapid change overtaking eastern Europe, where you could quickly see advertisements about Coca-Cola, cars, cosmetics, clothes, and coffee being displayed in the all the cities and towns of eastern Europe, which were being transformed by their hunger for ‘western’ goods. 

This worldwide ‘globalization’ even has implications for us.  If you stroll into the Starbucks in Clemmons, Winston-Salem or Statesville, you can find yourself part of a cultural experiment on a scale never seen before on this planet. In less than half a century, this coffee chain has grown from a single outlet in Seattle to nearly 20,000 shops in around 60 countries.  Each year, its near identical stores serve cups of near identical coffee in near identical cups to hundreds of thousands of people. For the first time in history, your “morning cup of joe” can be the same no matter whether you are sipping it in Winston, in New York, Berlin, Bangkok or Buenos Aires (

Of course, it is not just Starbucks. Select any global brand from Coca Cola to Facebook and the chances are you will see or feel their presence in most countries around the world. It is easy to see how this homogenization is already at work among most of the world’s cultures.  Perhaps it is exactly this blending of cultures that is the primary growing threat to self- identity, to cultural diversity, and to ethnic and religious distinction that is very much part of the reason that a large part of the Arab world feels threatened by the west.  Has this rapid pace of acculturalization overwhelmed a people unable to absorb and accommodate the changes now taking place?  “Change”, especially when it means ‘cultural’ or ‘religious’ change, can be a scary word, can’t it?   Do we have the spiritual, emotional, and cultural resources to withstand the changes that are also coming to us?   As humans who constantly live in a tossing sea of change, we need something that remains constant.  Normally we have turned to our ‘religion’ to be that ‘anchor’ for us.  

But what happens when ‘religion’ itself is the source of challenge for change?  That is exactly what this text from Mark is about.   Here, it is Jesus and his disciples who are threatening the status quo.  Jesus is not trying to bring everyone together, but he is intentionally trying to undo some of the traditions his religious ‘elders’ are holding.   Jesus and his disciples will no longer observe the rituals that have become the ‘norms’.  By ‘begging to differ’ on purpose, Jesus and his disciples are accused of going up against the ‘traditions of the elders.”  Publically, intentionally, and also brazenly, Jesus chooses not to do things ‘the way they have always been done’

How do we know when and how comply and conform, or when we and how we should differ?  Especially as we think about all the powers working to bring us all together under one large, economic, political and global roof, what differences should we retain and which ones should we surrender?    Are there still any good reasons to on ‘beg to differ’ to the culture, to a religious viewpoint, or to the established norms of human order or tradition?   Is there any way we should still say, “Vive la diffĂ©rence!”   

Since this is a sermon, and not a sociological study, we can’t consider every possible answer about what it means to conserve or to conform or what it means to challenge the status quo.  As human beings who live in living systems that must constantly adapt and change to remain alive, we know that every must constantly evaluate when to be conservative and when to be liberal.  

What I do want us to consider, especially in this upcoming year of presidential politics, is to see why Jesus is sometimes viewed as a liberal and other times, he might be called very conservative?   It would be hard to peg or pin Jesus down to any particular political persuasion, yet I do believe, we can uncover the most basic moral, spiritual, and social value that ‘made Jesus tick’.  I think we can also learn what should both motivate and guide us as followers of Jesus Christ.

Whether we consider ourselves conservative or liberal, or anything else beyond or in between, we don’t have to know much about sociology, politics or religion, in order to understand why Jesus was making a lot of people mad with his ministry.   In this text, Jesus chooses NOT to observe or to do what was most expected by the established political and religious leaders of his time.  Jesus’ decision to differ threatened some well-established public ceremonies and religious traditions, which in turn endangered the positions of those upholding them.  Why was Jesus doing this?  Why did he cause so much trouble?

We can understand something of what is going on here, because we’ve also experienced it in our own lives.  My first time experiencing the ‘trouble’ of social or religious change came when I was in the seventh grade, as the ‘all white’ Harmony School was integrated with the ‘all black’ Houstonville school.  Suddenly, one day, Harmony school built a new building so that it would be able to open its doors to a large group of black students, and new black teacher too.   At the same time, I recall hearing on television some of the heated discussions about ‘segregation’ and ‘integration’.   There were all kinds of fear and frustration.  But what I experienced in the classroom at Harmony was all-together different.  I had a new math teacher who was friendly and funny.   I gained some new ‘friends’ who were black.  I just couldn’t understand what all the adult arguing was about.  It wasn’t until I reached High School that the ‘bomb-threats’ that some troubles started to surface.   But all of those threats weren’t real.  What was real was that there was a new integration and incorporation of black into our ‘white’ southern lives. 

Most of us remember something about ‘integration’ and have our own stories to tell.   But what did this ‘change’ and ‘challenge’ to the status quo finally mean?  Have we discovered that we are all more alike than we are different, or have we learned that we are still as different as ever?   Last year, our culture learned that our culture, both south and north, still struggles with our differences and with ‘racism’ on many fronts.  We still see the ‘trouble’ that change brings, even when it is needed and necessary. 

It is now, just as it was then, that Jesus was also inviting social and religious ‘change’ to his own culture, and some of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the culture were very upset about it.  They looked at Jesus’ actions with great suspicion, fear, and mistrust: “Why don’t your disciples follow the tradition of the elders” (vs. 5)?  Why would they ‘eat with dirty, defiled hands’ and dare to do things differently?

There is little doubt, that Jesus was very much a religious revolutionary of his time as he challenged the status quo of his world.   Even today, those who dare to take Jesus seriously and follow his lead, can still be viewed as a threat.   But it was also the ‘purposes’ behind Jesus’ religious, political and social ‘challenges’ that made and still makes Jesus so special, so enduring, and so important for us, as both a religious savior and also as a religious revolutionary.   Let me explain.

Just the other day, several pastors and I were bemoaning the fact that many have little time to consider the method and ministry of Jesus as important to our times.  This came up as we were reading about the remarkable life Billy Graham as it has been critically analyzed by Duke University professor, Grant Wacker, in his book, “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation”.   We spoke of how there probably will never be an evangelist like him who went around the country preaching with a certain amount of authority saying,  “The Bible says… which caused folks to perk up their ears and listen.  Most people today, don’t care that much about what the Bible says, or at least, even if they still believe it, they see its views as archaic, unimportant or irrelevant to most of their everyday lives.

As we continued talking, someone asked me directly, how can we help to make Jesus relevant to those who already think Jesus or the Bible is irrelevant?  I answered that I thought there was only one place where we could go: The Prophets.    If there is anything in the Bible can still awaken us out of our spiritual slumber, it is the sight of those thundering, God-inspired activists, who dared to name the truth and would even call out kings, priests, and people in some very direct, challenging, and counter-cultural ways.  Maybe, just maybe, I said, if people could see just how radical and revolutionary these prophets were, they might see that the Bible still speaks, even to a people who have become hard of hearing or unwilling to heed the truth being told.

When Jesus refused to make his disciples wash their hands, he was being ‘prophetic’.  He was not only trying to speak the truth, but he wanted to display the truth, and make room for the truth in both religion and for life.   This was the ‘purpose’ behind his challenge.  Jesus wasn’t just being different for the sake of being different, but he was being different for a reason.  But what was it?  What was behind all this trouble he was causing by going against the way things were?  And what is it in Jesus that should still inform and motivate us to know where we should draw our own lines of faith and responsibility?

Jesus drew a line when it came to ‘hand washing’?  But what in the world did such a religious ritual like this have to do with helping, redeeming or saving people?   We all know that Jesus was not a revolutionary for the sake of starting a revolution, but Jesus was a revolutionary for the sake of being a ‘savior’---for not only aiming to save the soul of a nation but for saving the souls of people too.  Jesus begged to differ to confront his culture, which was a ‘cause’ that eventually put him on the cross. 

What Jesus confronts, both in this text and in the whole of his ministry, was the fact that his culture had come to care much more about the keeping the traditions of the past and protecting their own coffers for the future than for caring for the real needs of the hurting, the suffering, and the struggling people trying to survive in the present.  The religion and the politics of Jesus’ day was losing its ‘soul’ because it had become so self-serving, so hypocritical, and so careless, that it had forgotten how to be compassionate enough to care.  This is why Jesus drew a line to challenge his world to change.  Jesus begged to differ so that he could initiate a change of ‘heart’.
Do you see that in this text, it is the trouble within the human heart that points to Jesus’ purpose and reason for his challenge?   What Jesus found so troubling was what God also sees as most troubling,  when humans laws, traditions, and human forms of religion do more to cause problems than to solve them.   This is why Jesus challenges the ‘traditions’ of ‘outward’ hand wishing, with what wasn’t coming ‘from their hearts’, Nothing in the culture was going to change through the rituals unless real compassion and care for others and for God was coming from within their own hearts.

This whole issue of ‘hand washing’ might at first seem quite silly to our own modern eyes, but the challenge of Jesus still needs to challenge us.   We too should not accept everything just because it’s always been done, just like we shouldn’t challenge something that is established just because we don’t like it.   In his ministry and message, Jesus gives us a much needed directive for challenge, change and also for establishing what might be called a ‘true’ religion or worthy human tradition.  Can you see what it is?   Can you name it?  Can you follow it?  Would you dare?

Writing about the core of Jesus’ mission and ministry the late Marcus Borg, wrote that right at the center of the conflict with Jesus, was a conflict between two very different ways of looking at life.  One way of life, looked at the established, outward, norms of religion, life, and politic---claiming that people are made good, holy, and righteous by what they do, the rituals they follow, and the responsibilities they obey.  While there this is all true, it is not all the truth.  

The other way of thinking was that it is not enough to be holy, because we can come to misunderstand what being good, holy, or righteous means---either in life, religion, or politics.  What is most important is not the law you follow, but the inward compassion you show, the care you give, and the neighbor you are helping and the good you are doing in this very moment.  This, says Jesus, is the kind of holiness that God desires, This is not the kind of holiness that you only reason out in your head, but it’s the kind of holiness only found in the depth of your soul or heart.  Only when you ‘are merciful’ or you ‘are compassionate’ as God is compassionate, is when you can be are rightly holy as God is holy.   In Jesus’ ministry, message, and even in his death for sinners on the cross, Jesus was begging to differ with the wrong-headed ways of the world and wrong-hearted religion of his own people, who were missing the ‘heart’ of God. 

“It is what comes out of a person that defiles (or pollutes) his life” (v. 20), says Jesus.   He means that if you are going to have a life worth living, a tradition worth holding, or even a faith worth believing, it must have a heart, and always have a real concern and compassion for people.  If it doesn’t, then your politic, your tradition or your faith is nothing more than dead traditions that like junk food, ends up in the septic tank having done nothing to nourish your heart or to save your soul from destruction.

“You had better get to the ‘heart’ of the matter,” Jesus is saying.  And isn’t he also saying not just to them, but also to us?   You had better side with the good ‘habits of the heart’ or you will find yourselves and your nation, washed down the sewer with the all your empty, self-justifying deeds.  But instead of having everything end like this, make your life count for something.  Be different for the right reasons.  And make the right reasons the constant, continual care and compassion of the most vulnerable people, not just the protection of what is holy in you or me.  You let me take care of what is holy.  I’m God.  Don’t you believe I can take care of that?

Your job is to take care of what is most holy in you, your heart.  To do this you must have change of heart so you will have a heart for me, which means to have a heart for those who need your own care and your compassion.  This is the only kind of religion really matters.  Only a religion that cares, is a religion that remains ‘pure’ and  ‘undefiled’  before God’.  (James 1.27).   For as James also says, “Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who hasn’t shown mercy (or compassion); mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jas. 2:13 NRS).  In the end, everything will be ‘judged’ based having a heart that both feels and acts.  If this is true, isn’t it time for us to ‘beg to differ’ with coldness of our culture and popular religion.  Is it time for you to cleanse your heart, and not just your hands?  Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


A Sermon Based Upon Mark 6: 30-44   NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday After Epiphany,  January 10, 2016

And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." (Mk. 6:38 NRS)

"I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I'd rather one should walk with me
than merely tell the way. The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing,but example's always clear; And the best of all preachers
are the men who live their creeds, For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
                                                                                       ---- Edgar Guest

Today, we want to consider the matter of ‘miracles’ again.  

If you recall in our last message from Mark 5, we encountered three very different healing miracles of Jesus.    We learned that these ‘healing miracles’ were not simply  about Jesus’ power to heal physically or temporarily, but these miracles pointed to having faith in the ultimate healing Jesus came to give,  the promise and hope of ‘eternal life’.    Life that endures, without end; now that’s healing isn’t it?   

Today, we are going consider this concept of ‘miracle’ again, but from another angle.  Taking this marvelous miracle of the Feeding of Five Thousand, we are going to dig deeper into the meaning of the miracles.   Within this one miracle, I believe that we see into the message of all the miracles, not just this one.  But before we look more closely into this ‘miracle’, let’s review whole concept of ‘miracles’ again.

We know, that for many people, in a world that is currently dominated by science and high tech, even the mere mention of ‘miracles’ is a discussion that remains ‘off their radar screen’.  Based upon the writings of the 17th century philosopher David Hume, most people just don’t see any sense to believing in miracles at all.  Hume believed that miracles were ‘superstitious delusions’ that should not be believed by rational minds.  He even argued that for a person of faith to believe in a miracle was to believe that God would ‘transgress’ (that is is to ‘sin’ against) his own laws of nature by violating them.  Hume’s main argument, was that essentially, the report of a miracle should not be believed, because it is an unbelievable or unprovable experience which goes up against the reality we already know to be true ( ). 

The problem with Hume’s argument against miracles is that it is based upon the assumption that humans and the Science already know everything.  This just isn’t true, and even I can prove this.  Just the other day, on the news there was a report about how much sleep humans need and what happens to the brain that does not get enough sleep.  During this report the question finally came up:  Why do humans need sleep in the first place?  Why does the body break down when it doesn’t get sleep?  The Answer:  Science just does not know the answer.   Even when it comes to simple questions like why do we yawn, and why do we sleep, human knowledge is limited.

When it comes to questions about God and miracles, shouldn’t humans have limits that go both ways?    Science, which is human knowledge, can’t answer the question of all miracles or it stops being science and it starts being religion.  Religion can’t really prove miracles either, or it starts trying to be science.  Again, it goes both ways: while religion needs human science to keep it from believing in anything, science also needs religion to help humans deal with the reality that remains beyond knowledge.  Christians and other people of faith too, believe that the ultimate reality behind all human knowledge is the mystery of God.  We may see “God” differently, and in this way we should, because if God is ultimate the greatest mystery, God’s ultimate truth will forever remain beyond us.  For Christians, however, while this the ultimate truth of God remains mysterious, His truth has come near to be revealed in life of Jesus. 

This “revelation of Jesus Christ” is the unexpected and the greatest ‘miracle’ we observe in each of the gospels.    Still, even with these ancient documents, we don’t have any proof of this even this great miracle in any rationalistic, scientific or absolute historical way.   We only get up close and personal with the greatest miracle of the Bible, by faith.   Only by faith can we allow this miracle to become real for us.  We never get to the bottom of this miracle of Jesus by simply believing that he lived.   You only get up close and personal to the miracle of Jesus by becoming part of that great miracle yourself.  Today, I want to show you just how that still can happen.  I want you to do more than just believe in a miracle, I want you to let the miracle get inside you.

As chapter 6 of Mark begins, we find people asking all kinds of questions.  Jesus has just returned to his hometown, where His own people have been hearing about his ministry.  As Jesus arrives, many are wondering:  “Where did this man get all this (wisdom)?” “What about these powerful acts he does?”   ”Isn’t this the carpenter?  Isn’t he Mary’s son, and the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon?   Aren’t his sisters here with us? ….(CEB).   They are clearly amazed at Jesus’ wisdom and power, but then we surprisingly read also that, “They were repulsed by him…. (6: 3b). 

Do even the thought of ‘miracles’ or perhaps any kind of talk about God upset, embarrass, or repulse you?  Some religious positions or spiritual events are making more people angry these days.  Recently, on the news, they told of a High School Coach in Georgia who allowed football players to be baptized during football practice.  A group, called “People for Freedom from Religion”, were on his case about organizing it and broadcasting it on YouTube.   The coach said in surprise: “I never dreamed that baptisms would get this much publicity?”  

In this very secular day of our own culture, the once entitled and trusted Christian Faith, does not have the same clout, nor the same public acceptance it once had, if it ever did really have it?  Our founding American constitution, which still provides us ‘Freedom for religion” also provides the “Freedom from” religious expression.  Crossing this line of church and state may have much less room for forgiveness by an increasingly unforgiving culture, who increasingly views religious expressions with more suspicion and sometimes, even a public threat. 

In times like these, we must remember that Jesus knew rejection too.   And in response to being rejected in his own hometown, Jesus announced that “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their hometown” (6:4).    Mark adds, that Jesus was ‘unable to do any miracles there’ …., except that he placed his hand on few sick people and healed them.”   Except?   Just healing a couple of people would still make ‘front page’ news, even in our secular world today, wouldn’t it?   But Jesus is still ‘appalled by their disbelief’ (6:6).  

Why is Jesus so perturbed by ‘unbelief’?  Again, Jesus wants to do much more than heal a few people.   The miracles of Jesus are about Jesus himself.   As you can clearly see, Mark does not tell us that these folks were ‘repulsed’ by the miracles, but they are repulsed by him’ who does them (6:3).  Jesus is the ‘miracle’ getting under their skin.    As the writer of Hebrews once wrote, ‘In the past, God has spoken… in many times and in many ways’, but in these final days, God has spoken to us through a Son” (Hebrews 1: 1-2).   The miracle getting under their skin is not  that a few sick folks were healed, nor even if one or two were actually raised from the dead but the miracle that bothers them is that God speaks  “to us through a Son’ (Heb. 1:2).   When John’s gospel says that in Jesus Christ ‘the Word has become flesh’ and now ‘dwells among us’ (John 1:14), the point is that in Jesus, God has gotten ‘under’ our skin, by getting into it.

Nowhere is this great miracle of incarnation on display to more people at one moment than in this miracle we call “The Feeding of the Five Thousand”.   This is the only miracle story which occurs in all four gospels, (though you could argue that the Resurrection does if you accept Mark’s longer ending).   But again, as great of a miracle as this is,  it is still not a miracle about how to feed many people, as it is about something else (Mark 6:52) needing to be understood.  It is a miracle about this one who is ‘the bread of life’ (John 6.35).  For you see, the message in the miracle is about ‘who’ Jesus is, not just ‘what’ Jesus did.   It is a miracle that shows God’s presence and power becoming known because some of us will dare to follow Christ’s lead.  Are you ready to follow Christ’s lead and see this miracle that can happen, not just in front of you, but should happen within you?    This brings us to….

After Jesus told his disciples he wanted to feed this huge crowd, they immediately started whining about what they did not have.  Do you see it?  It sounds just like us, doesn’t it?  We make far too many statements that begin with the words "If only."  If only I had more talent...   If only I had more money...  If only my parents had reared me differently...  If only, if only, if only….   You will never ‘be’ a miracle, nor contain the miracle that is Jesus, if you maintain an attitude like this.

But the disciples whined to Jesus to, at least at first.  They whined that, "It would take $10,000 or $20,000 to feed this mob.” Counting women and children, there must have been l0,000 people on that hillside. There was no catering service in the Middle East that could have handled such a crowd then, let alone now.  Those disciples rightly asked, “Lord, why do you ask us to do this that seems impossible?"  (v. 37).

So Jesus asked, "How much food is here? Go and see! (v. 38).   In other words, don't bother me with what you wish you had. Go with what you have, first.  Count your assets.  Consider what it is that you have right now.   You’ll never do anything extraordinary or be anything extraordinary, unless you start where you are, with what you have.  And you must not just make a review of it, you must also start ‘using’ it?  Can you see what Jesus is saying about the ‘miracle’ getting inside of us?

In 1872, at the age of 16, Booker T. Washington, a now famous, under privileged black man in the old south, decided he wanted to go to school.  So he walked 500 miles to Hampton Institute in Virginia, and presented himself to the head teacher. Washington later recalled, "Having been so long without proper food, a bath, and change of clothing, I did not make a very favorable impression upon her, and I could see at once that there were doubts in her mind about me."     Finally she said to him, "The adjoining recitation room needs cleaning. Take the broom and do it." A lesser person might have been insulted by being assigned menial work. But Washington recognized immediately that this was his big chance. He swept that room three times and dusted it four times. He even cleaned the walls and the closets. Then he reported to the head teacher that the job was finished. She examined that room like a drill sergeant. She even took a handkerchief and rubbed it across the top of a door. When she could not find a particle of dirt, she said, "I guess you will do to enter this institution."

As a 16 year old, Washington could not do many things. But he could clean a room. And he did it gloriously. Extraordinary living begins with using what we have. What gifts and graces do you have that you have not fully activated?  This is the normal, usual place all great miracles will always begin.  Nothing is ‘entitled’ except the hope of putting ourselves to use and to work.   Can you see how much such an understanding could still be the beginning of a great miracle?  (This and much of this message is from Collected Sermons, Dr. Bill Bouknight, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2002 at

Notice what strange thing Jesus did with that fish and bread that was brought to him. He stopped, looked up to heaven and then, made a personal blessing with the food.

What Jesus did was customary in every Jewish household, at least in theory.    At every meal the head of the family was to pronounce these words of blessing and thanksgiving: "Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who gives food to the hungry."  Notice that it was God who was blessed, not the food.  

Did you realize that the purpose of a mealtime blessing is not to bless the food, but to bless and thank God?  Jesus did not say, "0 God, make these tiny fragments of food stretch a long way or else I'm going to have a lot of hungry folks on my hands."   Neither did Jesus ask God to put a little honey on the bread to really impress folks.  No, Jesus blessed God's name and committed this bread completely to God. That's not the way we usually pray. We usually present our "wish list" to God and then start to blame him if one of them is not granted. But Jesus just committed what he had to God, asking only that it glorify God. Just imagine if in our business affairs, we were to pray regularly, "I commit my business and my work to you, O God; use it for your glory. My greatest desire for my work is not that it be profitable, though I hope it will; my greatest desire is that it glorify you and assist in Kingdom-building.

Just imagine if in our prayers for our families, we always added this heartfelt plea: "I commit my family to you, O Lord; use it for your glory."   Just imagine what God might do in our political endeavors if we committed each candidate to him and asked simply that the political process bring glory to God. If you want to have an extraordinary life, a life that can be a wonderful as any miracle, then just commit each and every part of it to God, asking that all of it bring glory to him.  Finally,

Jesus was the foremost teacher of the power of positive thinking. "Ask and you will receive," he said. "Seek and you will find." Jesus really went out on a limb when he took a mere snack and trusted that it would feed l0,000 people. Never was so much expected from so little.

Remember this, Bill Bouknight said: the level of your expectancy determines the size of God’s workshop.”   Some people expect so little that God has no elbow room in their lives. That was the case in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth where he could do very few mighty works because the people had so little faith. Your expectation dictates God's arena in your life. Is it tiny and cramped, or lofty and expansive?

Let me use an example from the sports world.  One of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League was Fran Tarkenton. As a sophomore at the University of Georgia, he was nothing but a small, third-team quarterback with mediocre prospects. But in a tight game with the University of Texas, Fran did something radical. He sent himself into the game. He just trotted onto the field, and the starting quarterback assumed he had been replaced.  The offensive coach assumed the head coach had done it, and vice versa. Tarkenton took charge, led the team down the field for a touchdown, and, as they say, the rest is history. Fran Tarkenton expected great things to happen, and they did!

But again, let’s not assume anything here.   What is going on in this miracle is not about the Feeding, per say, but it is a miracle about revealing who Jesus is as the bread of life.   What is being revealed is here is not some principle about how to get a ‘free lunch’ or to get the ‘miracle’ you want, but it is about discovering the greatest miracle being revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.   If you want to do see miracles, then follow him as the great miracle, as you trust in him, as you use what you have; as you commit what you have and who you are; and then as you expect great things.
There is a story about two fortune hunters named Sam and Jed. They learned that up in Canada, $5,000 was being offered for each wolf captured alive. So, they traveled to an isolated region of Canada and began looking for their valuable prey. One night they were exhausted and fell asleep in their little tent. A few hours later Sam awoke suddenly to see that they were surrounded by about fifty snarling, vicious wolves. Sam nudged his friend and said, "Wake up, Jed, we're rich, man! We're rich!"

What an attitude of expectancy!   Sam is able to look at the worst and still expect the best.   When St. Paul declared that we are “more than conquerors”  (Roms 8.37) or when he wrote that: "…. no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him"-- (1 Cor. 2:9 NRS) he must have been thinking of what we should expect, when we trust Jesus as the greatest miracle.  We trust Jesus not merely by believing that he existed, but by giving ourselves to him, by using what we have, by committing what we have and who we are to God, and expecting that God always has great in mind with us.   When you do this, you can be the miracle, both in the life you live, and even in the death you die, because you trust that God is also at work in you.   Amen.