Lent – the original mud run

As I was out in the community yesterday offering ashes, I was struck by the wide variety of facial and body-language responses of the people who seemed to notice my presence. The least common seemed to be a knowing recognition and appreciation of why I was there – to offer a companioned experience of renewal to those who might desire it. A subset of these people actually came over and engaged me in conversation, some of them requested and received prayer and the imposition of ashes.

Ash WednesdayFar more common were the variations of folks who didn’t really seem to get what I was doing, even though I had a sign that clearly stated the offer —

I did not ask any of them about their thoughts – It seemed important not to insert or impose myself into their worlds any more than I already was by my mere presence and posture. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Granted, the mall or a metro station are not where one typically looks for experiences of forgiveness and renewal. Transformation may be sought many places and in many different kinds of experiences, but there was definitely a disconnect for these folks.

I thought about the work of Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, two scholars from Harvard Divinity SchoolHow We Gather. Their research took them into relationship with an array of leaders in new expressions of community designed to foster and facilitate individual, community and social transformation. CrossFit may be the most well known manifestation of this “new” trend in “non-religious” community formation. In the process, Angie and Casper identify six recurring themes that these gatherings have in common with religious expressions of community. As with religious groups, all six are not emphasized equally, and some are ignored completely. These six themes are:

Community  ~  Personal Transformation  ~  Social Transformation
Purpose Finding  ~  Creativity  ~  Accountability

HWG- six themes

How We Gather, Angie Thurston & Casper ter Kuile, 2015. p8

As I looked hopefully on the people around me, those with smudged foreheads and those who wondered why I didn’t wash my face, it occurred to me. People are always searching for journeys of transformation. And often these journeys connect us with the earth in one way or another. Some people walk the Appalachian Trail. Others walk on hot coals with Trever McGhee. The journey will include at least 4 elements:

  • It is both a solitary and communal act – As the person making the journey, it is you against the elements. And yet you are also surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who have traveled the road before you, or are on the journey with you now.
  • It is an arduous process – The journey includes various forms of pain (physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, mental) and deprivation (going without some creature comforts, or even things typically considered essential).
  • It is transformative – The participant expects to be changed in some way – perhaps to prove to oneself an inner strength, a mastery of the elements, the mind or the body.
  • It leaves a mark – Often the mark is some form of dirt or ash. The road takes its toll, and the marks are a kind of badge of honor for the wearer – and perhaps a cause of bewilderment for the disengaged onlooker (“You people must be crazy…” is a phrase often spoke of or at those who make such journeys.)

And then I realized – Lent, beginning as it does with Ash Wednesday – is the original Mud Run. The Mud Run meets all four tests listed above, though it is certainly briefer than the AT or Lent.

mudrun 1Lent is a journey of transformation, marked with the initiating challenge to runners “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Perhaps things like the Mud Run exist because the way church has offered transformation journeys over the recent centuries has lost meaning and power for many people. Perhaps the church, without coopting (ripping off) the culture’s innate creativity, might take some notes. As Angie and Casper have demonstrated so capably, the culture will create responses to the very real human need for such journeys, whether inside or far beyond religious communities.

One other thing. The people who make such journeys in the wider culture – they really seem to be enjoying themselves, individually and together, despite the pain and deprivation. Personal sacrifice does not result in misery for these folks. I’m reminded suddenly of Jesus counsel to his contemporaries for how to undertake their own Mud Run disciplines:

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others (Matthew 6)

Wherever your journey of transformation takes you, may you have companions by your side, and all the provision you need. And may you be truly different at the end – more fully yourself, and more fully alive.

You Are What You Eat

*Sermon notes for 081615 for John 6:51-58

It is not enough to know about Jesus, we must know him deeply, inwardly, as if we were taking him into ourselves. He wants to transform us from the inside out until we become like him.

“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part of me.” – Jesus

The phrase “you are what you eat” has been common in our culture since the 1960s. It was introduced to the US in the 1930s by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, though it originates in 19th century French Philosophy. In modern times it referred quite directly to the idea that our bodies are literally formed by the food that we intake. In the earlier philosophical context the meaning was more connected to our mental and emotional health and how they might be impacted by our diet.

Either way, the connection seems fairly straight forward. Our popular mythology recognizes that what we eat late at night can impact our dreams. We are aware that we may have more or less energy through the day, and a brighter or darker outlook on things, depending on our food intake. Irregular digestion is both physically and metaphorically related to people with difficult personalities. We call someone “anal retentive”, for instance, if they are obsessive and controlling, and may suggest that they need more fiber in their diet. We say someone has diarrhea of the mouth if they are unable or unwilling to exercise restraint in their speech. The awareness of this connection goes back to biblical times, when the digestive system was thought to be the seat of the emotions (see the Greek word splagchnon). What we eat can disrupt our emotions, as can hunger. Conversely, being in emotional turmoil can cause us to lose our appetite or have digestive distress of various sorts.

In our modern context, there are also social and environmental justice components to this phrase “you are what you eat.” At various times groups have promoted the boycotting of certain foods or companies because of the human impact of those industries, including the Unite Farm Workers Union boycott against grapes and the boycott against Nestle’ Corporation for promoting the use of formula over breast milk in developing countries. Environmental impact has been addressed as well; I remember in the 1980s when my friends and I participated in a boycott and protest of Burger King and other fastfood chains for the way their whitefish harvesting impacted whale populations.

There are two very contemporary and forward looking expressions of these protests. The No_GMO movement seeks to remove genetically modified foods from our food chain over two primary concerns: the impact of genetic modification on our bodies, and the impact on future food production and the environment as plant pests and diseases begin to develop resistances to these products, leading to the “solution” creating even greater problems for the future. Similarly, the “Eat Local” movement that includes a resurgence of Farmers Markets and Community Gardens recognizes that 1) fresher food is better for us, 2) transportation and storage of food increases cost and has a high carbon foot print, and 3) huge multinational corporations that run the “food industrial complex” displace family farms and disrupt communities. These movements have been so powerful that large grocery and restaurant chains are promoting their locally sourced and non-gmo foods. (cf Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Central Market, and Chipotle as national examples. Here in Dallas some of my favorites are The Green Spot Market & Taqueria near White Rock Lake in Dallas, Harvest Farm-to-table Restaurant on the square in McKinney, Ellen’s Southern Kitchen in the West End, and Café Momentum which also trains incarcerated youth to develop life and job skills so that they can be leaders in their community.

The implication in all of this is that our moral compass (a central aspect of what we are as human beings) is directly related to the food we consume. The question they raise: “Are we complicit in any act of injustice along the food production system?” and their answer is a resounding “YES!” When the prophets cry out for justice for the poor and oppressed to roll down like an ever flowing stream, when Jesus calls us to serve our neighbor and love our enemy, and when both remind us that even the rocks will cry out praise to God and longing for salvation and restoration, then how can we not take the moral implications of our food system and our daily diet seriously? (Deut 27:19; Amos 5:24; Matthew 5; Hab 2:11; Rom 8:19-22)

One final thing we might add to this litany – We are called to be stewards of God’s gifts to us (1 Peter 4:10), and to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable (Rom 12:1-2). This means that we should take care of our bodies and avoid patters and habits that do them harm. Reasonable dedication to health and wellness, which include diet, exercise, rest and avoidance of unnecessary risk, are spiritual commitments for people of faith.

Having said all of this, the text from John 6 is actually about something very different. In this chapter John shares with us his understanding of Jesus’ own teaching about the Lord’s Supper which was instituted by Jesus at the Passover celebration which John recounts in chapters 13-17. In those chapters we do not get any of the bread and cup story found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, or Luke 22. John does that work here in chapter 6 by speaking theologically and metaphorically about the union of body and spirit, of human and divine, of Communion and communicant, of Teacher and disciple, of Jesus and his followers.

But just what does John have in mind when we hear Jesus say, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no part of me?” What does “You are what you eat,” mean in this context?


Dear Jesus, you have given us very yourself to feast upon. Your words to us are so compellingly provocative that early Christians were suspected of cannibalism. Theological councils have met and argued over how bread and wine might also be your flesh and blood. Dear Lord, we don’t want to argue any more over these things, we simply want to be transformed by your real presence deep within and among us. We want to become you by taking you into ourselves even as we are taken in and consumed by you. Surround us, clothe us, fill us, transform us to your image and likeness. Redeem our flesh, mind and spirit until they fully reveal your light, life and love. We humbly ask through your amazing grace. Amen.

Download pdf here: Sunday 081615 – You Are What You Eat

The Gospel weighted toward the poor?

Continuing the conversation about Mary’s Magnificat here and here.
This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Perhaps the prepositions need some work here. Good News FOR everyone? Yes, most definitely. Will it sound like good news TO everyone? Not likely. I’m assuming here that we could resolve all of the church’s failures, shortcomings and inconsistencies. This line of questioning has nothing to do with our inability to live up to the Gospel’s call and claim on our lives. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that is all resolved, and all we are left with is the Gospel itself, in its pure and true form.

Hannah and Mary point to what they believe is an essential truth in God’s message of love – that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have been beaten down and left out will be brought in, healed and restored. Meanwhile, those doing the beating and the leaving – they will lose their positions of power over others. This is nearly impossible for us to hear in western culture so defined by power and prestige, where might makes right, growth and strength are signs of privilege to be preferred by us.

from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops http://www.USCCB.org

If Mary and Hannah are to be believed, then the God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth shows “a preference toward the poor,” to borrow language from Liberation Theology. Here is how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops introduces the idea:

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – A  basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society  marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the  story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)  and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. 

And here is an excerpt from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns intro:

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

I would argue that we must lay these ideas alongside Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of God. Children are penniless and powerless. They are humble, weak and poor. And they are our mentors and guides for inheriting the Kingdom to come, which in glimpses and fits and starts is already here.

Follow the weak and the frail?

Could it be that as soon as the church finds itself on the top side of history we must immediately turn, look around, and go sit with those who are on the bottom side?  What if the only way to enter into the presence of God and remain with God is by following those who are dispossessed? Israel was always closest to God when they were the lost bride in need of redemption. When the people were lifted out of oppression and rose to power, almost immediately did they turn their backs on the one who had saved them.

In the midst of all the talk about race relations, community policing, inequity, poverty, crime, and yes, even outright systemic racism, could it be that Christians are missing the point? All of us, White, Black, Asian, Latin, and more? As we are now 12 days before Christmas, I’m reminded of the ways in which God entered into the underside of history, and everyone seems to have missed the point. Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable, which means they didn’t find hospitality from the rich or the poor. Herod tried to kill Jesus, but the wise men did nothing to protect him. The shepherds came and worshiped, and then returned to their fields, filled with joy, but presumably not to change the course of their lives. Even those who may have had some idea who this child was were left untransformed by his presence.

What needs to change in us so that we can finally be humble before those God sends to us as messengers, “Angelos,” to teach us and leads us to peace?

Sin and Forgiveness

Mark 2 Outline

  • Forgiveness precedes Repentance
  • Call before repentance
  • Celebration over Fasting
  • Provision over Prohibition


Forgiveness precedes repentance. Do you notice that? What a strange story. Jesus is “at home” which may be Peter’s home. There is some indication that he was living there during his ministry years. Either way, he is in a home and it is so packed with people seeking healing and hope that no one can get in. Four friends are carrying a fifth on a mat. He’s sick with something that apparently prevents him from standing or walking. Did he want to be there, or had he entirely given up any hope of getting better? We don’t know. Either would be understandable. What Mark does emphasize is the actions of the friends, not the paralytic. And Jesus, in response to the faith of the friends, pronounces forgiveness.

This is an interesting moment. Some in the crowd are very threatened by what Jesus says because they know all about how forgiveness is meted out, and it certainly does not include some rabbi simply saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” Blood must be shed. There must be sacrifice. The law is clear. (Hebrews 9:22) Well, actually, Hebrews references the law, but we don’t have that stated in the Old Testament. Sacrifices were not made to pay God for our sins. As we read in Psalm 50: 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Blood was a symbol of sealing a covenant. That’s what Jesus says at the last supper, “28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. They rightly say, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?”

Jesus does not at that point claim to be God, or to be equal to God, but he does identify himself as the Son of Man, a reference to the messianic leader foretold in Daniel 7:13
“I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him.” This image would not have been taken in a Trinitarian sense, as God or a part of God, but as a representative of and ambassador for God. The next verse from Daniel makes clearer the import of this title: “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away ; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed. Clearly political power, after the example of David, but even then not what Jesus’ contemporaries would consider the authority to forgive sins.

So what’s he doing? How does he proclaim forgiveness of sins if no blood has been shed? How does Jesus offer this man forgiveness prior to the crucifixion if the crucifixion of Jesus is the means of our forgiveness? We don’t get any more satisfactory answers to these questions than the Pharisees got to theirs. Instead, we also hear Jesus say, “So that you will know the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins…” and he tells the paralyzed man to get up. Jesus manifests his authority over spiritual things by bringing about change in material things.

Mark assumes, I think, that some of us are slow learners, so we need the same message repeated in several different ways. Jesus travels on from Capernaum and encounters Levi sitting at his tax collecting booth by the sea. He is there at the center of commerce so that he can see how much people are earning and have a better chance of knowing whom to successfully oppress. He has betrayed his people, to say nothing of violating multiple laws of Moses meant to protect the poor (DEUT15:4; 24 & 27:19). We have no indication from the story that he has been reconsidering his life values or his career. He has not repented or confessed. He is a bold, audacious, public sinner.

And Jesus… Here he goes again. What Jesus does not seem to understand is that there is a proper order for people to receive forgiveness.

  1. They recognize God’s holiness
  2. They recognize that they are sinners
  3. They hear the good news of God’s love.
  4. They repent of their sin and commit to a new life following Jesus.
  5. They are forgiven and welcomed into the Body of Christ.

That’s how we have been told the system works. But apparently nobody told Jesus.

Jesus walks right up to Levi and says, “Follow me.” Jesus’ first encounter with Levi is to welcome him into the fellowship of followers, disciples. Jesus then enables him to serve the kingdom by providing hospitality. Then Levi repents, and commits to a new life which includes making amends to those he has violated. So how does it work?

  1. Jesus calls
  2. Jesus invites into ministry
  3. Levi experienced forgiveness and love.
  4. Repentance comes as a response.

Levi knew the law, and he knew that his life was inconsistent with it. He didn’t need someone correcting him, demanding he change his ways. He needed an experience of unconditional love, and that is exactly what Jesus offered him.

The Jews of Jesus’ day did not only have the Law of Moses. They had a whole tradition of interpretation for how they should live out those laws. It was not enough to be told “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” They had very religious people who had figured out systems of just how to do that.

Again, Jesus presses beyond what people thought they knew and understood to reveal new truth and new life in the ancient faith. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Jesus says, “Don’t you understand that the Law exists to bless humanity and the earth. Any interpretation or application of the law, or its derivative, that brings about suffering or prevents blessing and healing and life, is a violation of God’s love for creation.”

Jesus also recognized that this is difficult to understand, and that some folks will never get it. Some will stay behind in the old way. Jesus says that new wine will need to be put into new wineskins. That is just the way of nature, there is no other option. “Things are going to be different now,” Jesus says. “We’re not going to be playing by those old rules any more. There is a new kid in town.”

What about us? Are there places we get hung up on old rules, laws or traditions? Jesus does not reject Law or Tradition. He honors them by bringing us back to their original intent, which is to lift us up from our brokenness and restore us to relationship with God. How often have we seen law and tradition used to beat people into submission, to handcuff the church and imprison it behind bars in the name of God? That is what the Pharisees were doing – trying to protect God’s reputation. Do we really think God needs to be defended by us? The One who made billions of galaxies and scattered them across a vast universe? Who designed life itself? Does that God need you or I to fend off the bullies? No, but God’s children do. God’s creation does. While we are paralyzed and while we are still sinners, God enlists us for service in the kingdom. It is through being blessed, called and commissioned that we come to experience and believe that we are forgiven. Salvation is a preexisting fact that we have only to come to experience, understand, and accept.

We were taught that faith worked this way:

  1. Believe the right things
  2. Behave the right way
  3. Belong to the “in group” of Jesus’ followers

Jesus actually practiced it in exactly the reverse order:

  1. Belong to Jesus – you already do, even before you realize it
  2. Behave as he blesses and leads you – live into the kingdom as you discover it
  3. Believe that you can be different – because God believes it

What would change if we began to live this way?

  • How would we think about categories like church membership?
  • How would we treat those we consider unrepentant sinners?
  • How would we serve people in need even if they show no hope of changing?

What if Jesus related to us the way we treat the people who have offended us? That would not be very good for us, would it? Thanks be to God that we are all loved so much that God came to be among us and make us whole, not waiting for us to get our act together first, and not counting our sins against us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.