A Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney

Thanks to Englewood Book Review for the advance copy and publishing this review.


If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.

Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.

Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory. . .. The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation.” This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics (from prologue, xiii). Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.

Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.

In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (pg. 10).

As Merton journey’s back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.

He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius.  The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.

Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (pg. 57).  Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.

These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.


Called to Serve


February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Preparing a meal for over 100 people weekly can be a challenge. That challenge is multiplied when your ingredients are dependent upon what the local food warehouse receives for the week. Imagine getting, 10 lbs of leeks. Ever tried leek soup? It was interesting. Or 20 lbs of onions. I learned how to make a pretty good french onion soup. Sometimes, you never know where a calling is going to lead you.

The calling to run the Wednesday Community Lunch at the Presbyterian church during my last call was part out of necessity, since my calling as a pastor was part time, and part because I could pass the food safety manager certification. However, I would not trade that time for anything. I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and serve those in the community that truly needed a hot meal and especially a friendly conversation.

It is great that Jesus was able to serve others throughout his ministry. How are we expected to live up to those same expectations? How are we suppose to make time for helping others when we stay so busy? Of course I am being a little facetious. It is true though that we want to make sure that everything in our own little corner of the world is taken care of first. I may be able to help, but let me make sure that all the needs of my family and self are taken care of first. I may be able to support such and such cause, but let me make sure that I have money left at the end of the month. These are struggles that most of us have had at one time or another.

When we insulate ourselves from the world around us, then we are missing out on the opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ working in the world to bring healing and reconciliation. We can do this at all levels of our society, from the individual, to the household, to our greater communities, and beyond. Insulating ourselves from others can create a paranoia of the other. It is where fear is born.

We witnessed that fear last week in the story of the man with the unclean spirit. Again this morning, as the gospel of Mark continues, Jesus continues to heal those that are sick or possessed with demons. It starts when they arrive at the home of Simon and Andrew and Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. There is an urgency to their request for Jesus to go and be by her side and bring her healing as well.

After a while, Jesus had to start feeling like a vending machine. People coming to him nonstop to heal whatever ailed them. It may have appeared that Jesus was inundated with request upon request for healing, yet he continued to cure many. It was tiring work, yet work that carried out his calling to share the grace and love of God. In the healing, it reveals God in the brokenness and pain. God in the midst of the people bringing hope and compassion where it had been lost.

However, Jesus cannot stay in the same place. He has a mission that he has been called to and that requires walking many miles. There are others that must be healed. There are parables to share through his teaching and preaching. First, as we witness many times in the gospels, Jesus must step away to rest. While he is divine, he is also human and his body requires rest and care just as ours. Stepping away to a deserted place also provides him the opportunity to pray and be renewed for the journey ahead.

In the healing that occurs, we witness Jesus serving. It was for this that Jesus came into the world. Later in his gospel, Mark reveals that, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The serving begins as soon as Jesus’ ministry is underway. From the healing of the man with the unclean spirit, to many and varied healings in this mornings gospel. It is in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law that we witness God’s grace and the mother-in-law’s faith played out. This is a tender moment that Jesus has with Simon’s mother-in-law. He reached out and took her hand. To hold her hand in his, in her sickness, was a visible sign of love and compassion that Jesus will continue to show through his ministry. It is a love that knows no boundaries and fears nothing that comes in its way. The fever that she has breaks and he raises her up to new health.

And what does she do? She gets up and begins to serve those in the household. Now, this is not a call for women to be the ones that serve in the household. This passage has been wrongly used in the past to attempt to bolster this very idea. However, it is a reflection of the calling that Simon’s mother-in-law has in her own life. A reflection that shows her thankfulness to Jesus for bringing her healing. In the way that Jesus serves others, she is able to reflect this in her own household for those that she loves and cares for. She moves beyond herself and opens her heart up to everyone that is in her presence.

In Jesus’ serving, he lays the foundation for our calling in the world to be with one another. Not to insulate ourselves, but to surround ourselves with the beauty of humanity that comes in all shades, shapes, genders, orientations, and abilities. What does it mean for us to serve as Simon’s mother-in-law did? What are we doing to serve those in need, just as Jesus did?

Every time that we reach out with love and compassion to the outcasts and those that the greater society has brushed aside, we bring Christ to them. Every time we welcome MCREST into our church, we live out the calling that God has placed upon our hearts. Every time we give a Christmas bag or bike to someone in need, we are God’s hands in the world. Every time we welcome visitors we are given the opportunity to proclaim the Good News and love as Jesus loved. Our faith and thankfulness for the gifts that God has given us are made visible in our actions when we reach out with love instead of ridicule and disdain. Jesus came into the world to show us the way of love and to remind us that God is present with us.

Let us pray. Serving God, you came to walk this earth showing a love and compassion like no other. While we may stumble and fall, continue to be that reminder for us that you are always present and working through us when we love in return. Amen.


A Review: Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson


I am honestly not sure where to start, therefore this will probably become more of a recommendation than it is a review. Dyson uses the format of a worship service to present a flowing oratory on the current state of race relations in America today. I honestly, believe that as a white heterosexual male my response is not worthy. What I need to be doing, as well as the rest of white America, is to be listening. Listening to our brothers and sisters that have walked the road that is foreign to our own upbringing.

I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America, and I could never truly find out. I have been pulled over twice for speeding and not once have I received a ticket. I did not pull out a pour me story or try to make excuses. Both times, my son was in the car with me. I understand how much different the outcomes of those situations could have been if I were a black man in America.

Unfortunately, that understanding falls on many deaf hears throughout the country. While God has created us equal, humanity has decided to divide. This is a sermon to wake up those to the experience of black America. I will never fully understand my brothers and sisters experiences, but I know that I can walk with them and listen. I can stand beside and with them, and do better.

This is a book that should be required reading in schools. Of all of the books that I have read in the past year, this rises to the top of the list.


Welcoming the Unclean


Mark 1:21-28

There is evil in this world. There is no doubt about that. If you have not encountered some form of it in your lives personally, you will at some point. It comes in many forms and the unclean spirits we hear of this morning are just one example.

As I studied this text and read many commentaries, I came across this story that Ismael Ruiz-Millan shared:

“In Tijuana, Mexico, at El Parque del Mapa (the Park of the Map), I approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal. I introduced myself as pastor. ‘I killed several people just for fun,’ he screamed at me, ‘and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!’

As I think back to this encounter, I feel the shivers in my body again. After what felt like a long pause, I responded like this: ‘I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.’

This made him more upset. He started screaming in despair, ‘No! No, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me!’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘God loves you, and I love you.’ Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically. He held my arms and then started to cry.” (Christian Century, Reflections on the Lectionary, January 3, 2018)

While I have not experienced anything as stunning, I recall my first visit to Chicago for a band festival while in junior high. A couple of friends and I, as well as a chaperone, were walking down Michigan Avenue when a man started to follow us and was offering to give us money with no-strings attached. He was quite offended when we kept walking.

Mark’s gospel, while being the shortest of the four, moves at a rapid pace. Even the wording he chooses to share the story of Jesus reflects an urgency. Following last weeks calling of the first disciples, they find themselves in the synagogue as Jesus begins teaching. It is in the synagogue that Jesus’ first public act of ministry takes place. Jesus begins teaching so that all will listen. Confronted by a man with an unclean spirit does not faze Jesus in any manner whatsoever. While we know that this is the first of many stories of Jesus’ healing, the congregation gathered in the temple at that time were astounded.

The unclean spirit that the man is controlled by, is keeping him from living an abundant life. An abundant life that allows him to be in relationship with others. The authority that Jesus spoke with, was one that amazed and shocked those in the temple. They had never heard teaching like this before.  The authority that Jesus exudes is not like the authority that we are accustomed. It is not a visible power that he has over others. His authority that he relates to others is an authority that has everything to do with seeing justice served. This sets the tone for Jesus’ ministry and will lead to the cross.

If Jesus were to walk in here this morning, we too would be astounded and amazed by his words and the care that he showed for others. His teaching to this day still would speak counter to many of our priorities as a society.

We are still surrounded by unclean spirits and evils that rule our lives. These are those things that lead us away from living out an abundant life with the gifts that are given to us by a generous God. We witness evil pop up throughout our community and beyond. We witness evil in the visual reminder of violence that is on our nightly news. This past week there was another school shooting in Kentucky, the eleventh in the country this year. Are we becoming immune to it? Living in Michigan, it was impossible to not hear of the Larry Nassar case and the lives of over 150 women and girls that he forever altered through evil acts. There was a bombing yesterday in Afghanistan that has taken at least 60 lives. We witness evil in the rise of the opioid epidemic running rampant throughout our country. We are not immune to it in the Richmond area as our local police and ems have been using record amounts of Narcan, the drug that reverses an overdose.

The evil that confronts us is overwhelming at times. We wonder if there will be a positive outcome.

“What is this?” asks those who witness Jesus teaching and instructing the unclean spirit to come out of the man that confronts him. They had to be aware of the evil or unclean spirit that was in their midst well before Jesus came to teach. Perhaps it was something the community had been struggling with for some time and not knowing how to help. In walks Jesus, and his care for the outcast and the least of society. His authority brings justice to the oppressed and hope for a future that is en-robed in the love of God.

Jesus is not stunned by anything that he has seen in the synagogue. Instead he embraces every little part of it and makes himself present in the moment to speak words of compassion and love. In these first public actions of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, we witness a Jesus that is willing to break down all barriers that have been constructed by man. Barriers that had led to the separation of families and loved ones. He has come to bridge the gap. He is willing to walk with the unclean and let them know that they are loved.

Jesus does not work in just one place and time. The love and compassion that he opens up his public ministry with continues to this day. To this day, Jesus shows an authority over the destructive forces that attempt to prohibit us from living an abundant life in God.

God is with us to break the chains of those unclean spirits that are holding us back. Holding us back from being the true selves that we are called to be as children of God. The forces that hold us down are no match for a God that loves and cares for all of creation. We are reminded in our baptisms that we are marked with the sign of the cross forever. This is a reminder that we are God’s. We are loved and loved more than we could ever know.

When we begin to embrace this love is when we are able to fully live into lives that God has envisioned for us. Lives that reflect the love and compassion that Jesus shows for everyone. Jesus loves each and everyone of you. In this love, God shows us that God stands against all the forces of evil and that we too will be resurrected into an abundant life, just as Christ.

Let us pray, Loving God, your son, Jesus was born into our world to show us your love and compassion. May we continue to strive to live out the same calling in our lives today. Amen.


Just Sit in the Boat


Mark 1:14-20

Living in Michigan, we quickly become aware of the number of lakes that we have and the beauty and sport that they offer. It is nearly impossible to live by large bodies of water or be surrounded by many lakes and not be a fisher or know someone that is.

As a young child, fishing was one of the activities that I remember doing with my father. Since my father worked the midnight shift, we would find ourselves in the morning out in the fishing boat on one of the local lakes during the summer or out on the ice in the shanty and trying to stay warm in the winter. I was taught at a young age that patience was very important while fishing and you could not be too loud, or you may scare the fish. There is a skill that goes into fishing, and possibly even a little luck. I learned over time that you have to be dedicated to fishing because of the patience that is required.

It is not surprising, that as Jesus begins his ministry, some of the first disciples that he calls are fishermen. The four we hear from this morning, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, were found either in the sea, or preparing to go fishing. I wonder if these four were doing what they really wanted to be doing, or were they simply following the path that had been laid out in front of them by their father’s, grandfathers, and so on. It was a way of life that they were expected to fulfill as they were old enough. Were they longing for a different way of life?

James and John were quick to leave their father, Zebedee, behind in the fishing boat to mend the nets by himself. Perhaps, Zebedee gave his blessing to the boys before they went to follow Jesus. We do not get to hear that part of the conversation.

All four of the disciples that decided to follow Jesus in this lesson understood what it meant to be a fishermen. They knew what hard work it entailed. They also knew that there could be days that they came home with empty nets and full of disappointment. Hoping that the next day would go much better. Jesus promised them that if they followed him, he would make them fish for people. Surely, to catch people would be much easier than it was to catch fish at times.  Yet, the beginning of the lesson points out that Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist was arrested and imprisoned. Once they begin to hear more, the thought had to cross their mind that the same thing could possibly happen to them as they learned to preach a good news that was counter-cultural at the time. Would they have been arrested and imprisoned out in the sea fishing? Most likely not. Now, they decide to follow Jesus and put their lives on the line.

We have learned how hard it is ourselves to fish for people. If it was that easy, our sanctuary would be bursting from the seams.

  • Have all of the fish in the sea already been claimed? Not likely.
  • Perhaps there is a hole in our net and they are just slipping away.
  • Just maybe we are using the wrong type of bait.

More often than not, we have to think our actions through. Many of us are not as spontaneous as the four disciples that got right up to follow Jesus. We have to make sure everything is aligned before we jump right into the deep end. Usually, we just dip our toes in first. The disciples do not seem to hesitate. They are bold and ready to follow Jesus where ever he leads.

Our society has created an independent nature which people feel more empowered to push out on their own without taking the advice or lead of someone else. We begin to feel that we do not need anyone else around us when completing a task because we can do it on our own. When operating in this manner, we forget about everyone else; or at least not put any stock into them. We fall into a sin of arrogance when we do this. God does not intend for us to go alone. The gospel is one proof of that.

Did you notice that when Jesus called the disciples, they came to follow him in pairs. It wasn’t just Andrew, or just James. It was Andrew and Simon. It was James and John. The good news that Jesus is calling them to involves being in relationship. The willingness to drop what what they are doing and be with God. The relationship that they had with one another when they were fishing is a reflection of the relationship that Jesus is inviting them into as children of God and as disciples to share the good news.

Jesus knows that he has a tough road ahead of him and he wants to surround himself with a community of disciples that are going to be present and open to the calling that God has placed on their hearts. He knows that he cannot go it alone because he needs others to learn from him and to carry that good news forward. The good news of Jesus born into a world that is broken and willing to make his presence known so that the love of God can be poured out through the relationships that are formed. This is the good news that Jesus wants them to believe in. The lessons that he is going to teach them are for all of humanity. Not a select few. Or simply the chosen ones. The kingdom of God is going to come to all of us whether we are ready for it or not.

That same good news that Jesus wants the disciples to believe in, is there for us today. Jesus just didn’t come to share tidbits of wisdom here and there. Jesus came into this world to show us that God has not finished. The creation is on-going and in the midst of it we are called to live a life of repentance and love. It is in Jesus that we find out that we are not alone. The presence of Christ is within each and everyone of us, whether we are aware of it or not. We are called to live in community and be in relationship.

We could easily go about our days and sleep in on Sundays. However, there is something that draws you here. Something within you that knows that you should be present. Something within you that seeks to be in relationship with one another and to support one another through times of struggles as well as times of joy. Sometimes those relationships are built organically and at other times it has to be intentional. It may even require getting to know those that we disagree with so that we can come to a mutual understanding.

Can you think of those relationships that you value? The ones that draw you closer to others and hopefully closer to God. I have been blessed for the last year and a half to be part of a mentoring group with three other pastors that provides a chance for reflection and renewal. Being a Franciscan and being a part of the Order of the Lutheran Franciscans provides an opportunity to be with brothers and sisters that have many of the same passions when it comes to social justice and simple living.  Where do you find relationship?

Christ is present with us as we are gathered into community. Even in those times that we are alone, Christ is present to listen and provide the light for us to follow. As the disciples are called to fish for people, we can do the same. If you have been fishing, you may know that sometimes the act of fishing is just being present for one another. Present to listen and share stories. Sometimes, you just have to sit in the boat and listen. Listen to each other or possibly in observing the silence, you may hear God. It is through our interactions with one another that we begin to attract others. It is in this attraction, that we can begin to fish for people.

Let us pray, God that draws near, we give thanks for the relationship that we are drawn into with Jesus Christ. May our relationship with Christ be a guiding example as we return to you and proclaim the good news to all we encounter. Amen.


Who Are you Going to Invite?


John 1:43-51

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nathaniel might as well have said that Nazareth is a decrepit village. Honestly, you cannot make this stuff up. Our lectionary, created over thirty years ago, once again speaks to the world around us.

You would think that our gospel lesson this morning was chosen to speak to disparaging comments that were made earlier this week. I cannot gloss over that fact and not look towards a gospel of hope in the midst of all of the hatred and fear that is visible in our world.

Jesus begins his ministry after baptism by inviting people to follow him. People just like you and me. People that are working to support their families and are coping with their own struggles and challenges. Jesus first calls Andrew to come and see. Andrew invites his brother, Simon Peter to come and see the Messiah that he has found. Following this, we hear from John the invitation of Jesus for Philip to follow him.

Once again, Philip follows Jesus’ example and finds Nathaniel and invites him to come and see the Son of Joseph from Nazareth. “He is the one that Moses spoke of in the law and also the prophets wrote about,” Philip tells him. It is here that we get our first dose of skepticism. You could even say that Nathaniel’s response to Philip hinges on sarcasm.

Nathaniel simply says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth, a village of maybe 400 people at the most. It is not the capital of anything and is not even a village of great importance. Can anything good come out of such a town Nathaniel quips. This sarcasm could make us laugh, if we today did not hear similar remarks being uttered today.

At one time in our lives, I am sure that we have at least thought this about another place. This does not justify our own thoughts, or an elected leader saying it, nor is it following in the way of Jesus Christ.

I grew up in Charlotte. Not a large town in itself, however, it is a little larger than Richmond. We always complained that we would get overlooked by the local newspapers and news stations out of Lansing. We in turn would look towards our neighbors in Nashville, Vermontville, or Potterville and make fun of them and wonder ourselves, what good could come out of such little towns as those. They barely have any stop lights.

We could easily do the same thing around here with Memphis. This is where a lot of trouble starts. We think that everything on our side of the fence, or our side of the tracks is the best. We are skeptical of others that we do not know and fail to listen when it is necessary. We think we always have the right answers and everyone else is most likely wrong. We can mirror that same skepticism that Nathaniel modeled for us in the gospel lesson.

Our skepticism can even stretch to God. We each have our own preconceived notions of what God is and how God even acts in the world. These notions are based upon our upbringing and the families that we were raised. These notions leave little room for the mystery.

While Nathaniel was skeptical, he was still willing to listen. By reading our lesson, we know that he accepted Philip’s invitation to come and see. To at least come and see what Philip was talking about and to meet the guy named Jesus that claimed to be the Messiah.

Despite his sarcasm and skepticism, Jesus welcomes Nathaniel. Jesus speaks the truth to Nathaniel, just as Nathaniel speaks the truth in his own life. He is open to sharing of himself and his opinion. Jesus welcomes this openness and honesty, in the midst of skepticism. Jesus reveals that he had seen Nathaniel sitting under the fig tree and it is in this revelation that Nathaniel recognizes God.

One thing that is probably true about Nathaniel, was that he was well learned. Jesus’ reference to him sitting under the fig tree was a reference to someone at that time that had the time to study and become a scholar. Perhaps it was in his knowledge that made him a skeptic. It was in Jesus’ proclamation that his skepticism was washed away. Nathaniel was hungry to learn and now God had been revealed to him in Jesus, his own Epiphany.

Nathaniel now understands that his remarks about Nazareth were wrong. Yes, something good can come out of Nazareth. There is no where that God excludes from the Word. And in this promise, God is revealed throughout the world.

Many of us could point to the times that God has been revealed to us. Whether it be in other people, in nature, or in prayer. We too have been invited to come and see at least once in our lives. In that invitation, many of us have seen what the disciples and Jesus himself are talking about. For others, you may still be waiting and in your patience, Jesus is working around and within you.

Despite any criticism and skepticism that we may have, Jesus welcomes us into the fold, just as he has Nathaniel. The invitation to come and see is one that is open ended. Jesus does not tell us that we have to do this or do that. There are no mandates that we must follow. Just a simple invitation. An invitation to come and see.

Come and see God revealed in the ordinary.

Come and see love that is spread out for all, without exclusion.

Come and see a community that is built up to support and care for one another.

Come and see the saving grace and love that is poured out for all through Jesus’ death and the hope found in the resurrection.

We still have a lot to learn from Jesus Christ. The invitation that he places in front of us is not one that excludes. The invitation goes out to everyone, everywhere. To those living in Asia, Africa, South America, Haiti, or even right next door. If we could only be so bold to be as welcoming as Jesus. To show a love that knows no ends.

Who are you going to invite to come and see?

Let us pray, Jesus, we come to you this morning and pray for the revelation of your loved poured out for us in the invitation to come and see. A love that is for all people in all times and all places. A love that reveals a grace that forgives. Guide us in this time to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of inviting others to come and see. Amen.


This Calling is Dirty!


Mark 1:4-11

It is a rarity today for a person to start a career and stay employed with the same employer for their entire working life. I am a testament to that. Prior to my calling to become a pastor, I worked for four different companies. Throughout seminary, I had the opportunity to get experience working in different churches and hospitals. I know that it is true for me, but I am sure it is for you as well, when I say that there are days you wonder what you have gotten yourself into.

I recall a day while working as a chaplain that nothing seemed to be going right. I was assigned to the open heart surgery floor for my rotations and had already had a couple of deaths and it had been a very traumatic day in the emergency room. This was just during the day and I had the night shift as well. As I was settling down later in the evening to eat dinner, I received a page that a patient would like to see a chaplain. I placed my food back in the refrigerator in the sleep room and went to visit the patient. When I arrived on the floor I talked to the evening nursing staff and then went to visit the patient. I knocked on the door with no response. I said hello and as I walked in found the patient standing with their back to the door with not one piece of clothing or hospital gown covering them. Needless to say, I exited that room fairly quickly. After a day of wondering what I had got myself into, there are the lighthearted moments that allow you to laugh. I visited the same patient the next morning and had a wonderful discussion.

I have come to find out over the years that ministry is dirty. There are times when surprises come our way and times when you think that surely things could not get any worse. God is in the midst of it!

The bible, the stories of our ancestors in not neat and clean. It is real. It is earthy. It is full of muck and grime and it calls us, the people of God, to live in the midst of it. The story we hear this morning, is no different. The gospel lesson may sound familiar as we heard from part of it at the beginning of Advent as we were introduced to John the Baptist. John the Baptist, the last person we would expect to be carrying out the call to prepare the way of the Lord. Wearing camel fur, and eating locust and honey. Come to think of it, he kind of sounds like a modern day hipster!

While we heard from the gospel of Mark at the beginning of Advent, we now begin our journey with Mark for the remainder of the year, with the occasional excursion into the gospel of John. This is Mark’s introduction to Jesus. We do not get any of the birth story. We get a thirty year old Jesus that is just about to begin his ministry. Our short lesson this morning brings many questions to mind. Does Jesus need to be baptized? Does Jesus know what the journey ahead of him looks like? Is Jesus the only one that hears the voice coming from the heavens when he is baptized?

The answers to these questions are as numerous as the commentaries that are written to address them. I know one question that I have is: did the dove descend gently upon him, or did it dive bomb him? Now, I am serious about this. If you think about, there are times that we can sense that the Holy Spirit comes upon us when we are least expecting it and we are startled and our first reaction is to run for cover.

The Holy Spirit is always working in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Christ works within each of us, and it is up to each of us to acknowledge the movement that occurs within our lives. It may appear stronger at certain times than others. Regardless, Christ is present among and within us.

We fight it. We like to be autonomous and feel that we have complete control over everything. We are not going to let anyone or an inkling of the Holy Spirit guide us when we think we know the right direction. In this sense, we create our own muck and grime. We make things much more difficult for ourselves than what it should really be. We do it individually as well as collectively. We lose sight of the Christ that was born into our world to walk among us and to show us the way of love, and to remind us that we are loved. We look past the Christ that was baptized in the Jordan. We look past the Christ that reaches out to us that live among the messiness of the world and think that we are far better than any of it.

First, Jesus starts out with nothing. When he comes to John in the Jordan, he has no followers. He is following the calling from God to venture out from where he was. In this moment, he lets his guard down. In Mark’s gospel there is no discussion about who should be doing the baptizing. Does John even recognize Jesus right away?

Yesterday was Epiphany. It is the day that the Christ child is revealed to the Magi. Their journey led them to Emmanuel, God with us. In the Incarnation everything is revealed and they have now seen it for themselves. The God that has been revealed to the Magi in the Christ child has been around since the beginning of Creation. In Genesis we hear that the earth was a formless void and God creates out of the muck and grime. God brings the light to the world. A light that journeys with us from the very beginning. A light that brings the truth for all to see and follow. A light that is good! Very good! Jesus is that light.

It is revealed to us, the readers of Mark’s gospel, in the heavens being torn open. God is at work. The dove descending is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work with Jesus. A completion of the Holy Trinity! And Jesus is not one to sit up on a throne or position of leadership to declare himself the best and declare his sovereignty. Jesus comes down to the people. The ones that are hungry and poor. The ones that are looked down upon by those in authority. Jesus comes to bring change to a world so much in need.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that: “Jesus himself is baptized into the renewal movement that began before him.” The journey of Israel and the stories in the Torah, the prophets, and even John the Baptizer all bring us to God working in our midst. Jesus is the continuation of this story. The awesome thing is, that Jesus is not contained to just this one moment. As the heavens are torn open, and God’s son revealed to us, we will again be reminded of this at his crucifixion. If you remember, the curtain is torn in two as Jesus breathes his last. A reminder of God’s love poured out for us.

As God is revealed to us in Jesus’ baptism, we can experience the same thing in ours. While, the majority of you cannot remember your baptism, we are reminded of it every time we come up for communion and dip our fingers into the baptismal font and mark the sign of the cross on ourselves. We are reminded every time we take part in the Thanksgiving for Baptism. There is power in our baptisms. God is being revealed to us. Our own little epiphanies. An epiphany that we are called to go out and share with others.

Lenny Kravitz wrote a song titled Baptized. The lyrics can speak to us

I don’t want to look around
And be turned to stone
All my darkest days awoken
I’m looking for a new way
I can’t make it on my own
Lead me to a place wide open

I need a love that takes me higher
So high I’m never coming down

I don’t want to know emptiness
Take me down to the water
want to be baptized in your love
Far away from the loneliness
Take my heart and wash away the fear
Let me be baptized in your love

In our baptisms, we are reminded that we are loved. Loved by a God that came to us in Jesus Christ to be in the same muck and grime that we find ourselves. Not a Jesus that is self-righteous, but a Jesus that is present for sinners that live in a broken world. A Jesus that embraces every little fault that exists with us and loves us regardless. In our baptisms we meet God present within us and that revelation is just the beginning. A reminder of creation from the very beginning where the light shone out of the darkness. Those words we hear proclaimed to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” are also spoken to each one of us in our baptisms. You are loved! Each and everyone of you!

Let us pray. God of the waters, may you wash over us and bring us to new life through the waters of baptism. In the waters may your love be revealed for us and all of humanity. May we be bold to carry the proclamation forward this season of Epiphany as we invite others to join us in discipleship. Amen.