Jesus Meets Human Needs

As the Gospel of Mark unfolds, crowds are a big part of the action.  They form around him as he walks through streets, they seek him out when he wants to be alone, and they adore him up to the crucifixion–but that comes later in the Gospel.  In Mark 8 Jesus saw a crowd and he had compassion for them because they had been with him three days and yet they had nothing to eat.  Jesus worried that if they went away hungry they would faint. The disciples responded to Jesus’s command to give them something to eat saying, “where can we get enough bread to feed them?”

He told the crowd to sit down just as before.  And he took the bread as he had before—he took, he blessed, he broke and he gave. He also distributed the small fish they had as well. And all the people ate and were satisfied. We’ve been here before. You know what comes next, right, the picking up the leftovers—there’s gonna be 12 baskets full—no wait there were seven baskets full. And then then the counting—about 5000 right.  Wait, no, four thousand. The story at the beginning of Mark 8 is the feeding of the four thousand and Mark has already told the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44).

Feeding 5000

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is retold in all four Gospels.  Even the most skeptical biblical scholars believe that it goes back to an event in the life of the historic Jesus.  But Matthew and Mark both record a second feeding of the crowd.  The pattern of the story telling resembles their earlier tellings of the feeding of the five thousand.  So much so, that one wonders if they aren’t trying to hint at something with the way they tell the story.  When two stories in the Bible seem to be largely the same, we pay attention to the differences to understand what they mean.  The feeding of the five thousand belongs to Jesus’s ministry in and around his own home town.  The people he fed that day were his people.  But, the feeding of the four thousand takes place among a different people.

Jesus in Gentile Territory

The passage preceding this makes it clear that Jesus was working in the region of the Decapolis—the name of the region means ten cities though historians both ancient and modern stress it’s difficult to know which ten cities were referenced. The region was united not so much as a political entity as a cultural one.  Where the regions surrounding the Decapolis were committed to ancient forms of religion—primarily Jewish—and they struggled to maintain traditional ways of life.  The people of the Decapolis had adapted more readily to the Greek and Roman influence of the dominant powers of that day.

They were, as we would say, Hellenistic. They were gentile.  They were different. Even the numbers used in the telling of the story suggest this. Where in the feeding of the 5000 there are twelve baskets collected at the end to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, in the feeding of the 4000 there are seven baskets collected representing the seven days of creation (the days when all the world was created).  The number seven—an important number for both Jews and Romans.

Five thousand Jews fed—perhaps to represent the five books of Moses and the five divisions of the Psalms. Four thousand gentiles fed perhaps representing the four cardinal directions—North, South, East West.  The familiar pattern—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—was repeated.  Once with people who were familiar.  Once with people who were unfamiliar.  Once with people who were like him, once with people who were not like him.  Once with people who were close and once with those who were far away.

Jesus and the Other

Theologians have started to refer to those we encounter in these moments as “The other.”  The other could be someone who differs from us culturally or in terms of lifestyle or sexual orientation or skin color.  The other is that person who differs from us in some salient way. We need to think about our response to the other because the normal way to respond is with hostility. For we know the centuries upon centuries of hostility that have been fostered by a distrust, fear and animosity toward the other.  The Egyptians made slaves out of the descendants of Abraham living in their land, the Israelites left leaving a wake of destruction as they went.  They themselves once victims conquered and displaced peoples living in Palestine creating years of bickering and distress.  They themselves were conquered by Assyrians and Babylonians.  Then Greeks and Romans.  The fighting between peoples just continued.  The oppression of the Jews.  The Crusades against the Muslims.  The genocide of Native Americans.  The enslavement of African peoples.  North versus South.  Jim Crow laws and burning crosses.  Walls and barriers and lynchings and strife.  It’s déjà vu all over again.

And our culture of political correctness wants to suggest to us that we can pretend that there’s no such thing as “the other.”  Our culture wants to say that we are all one.  The invitation hymn of such a political correctness  is John Lennon’s Imagine.  “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace.”  The impulse behind this approach to the world is good. And so there’s an impulse to say—let’s just pretend that there is no other.  We are all just the same.  We can live in peace.

It’s a nice sentiment it just doesn’t work.  People are different.  Acting like everyone is the same is how you get restrooms that people in wheelchairs can’t use.  And other shortsighted solutions to deep seated problems. There are differences in the way we perceive time, in the way we regard elders, in the way we pattern our life.  The other exists and Jesus knew it.  It was a fundamental message for him.  It’s why he told the parable of the Good Samaritan the way he did.  Why he challenged the notion of what makes a person clean and what makes a person unclean.  Why he himself was resistant to helping a Syrophoenician woman and said unChristlike things to her and had to be persuaded to heal her daughter.  It’s why the early church wrestled with their own prejudices and met to discuss what it meant to baptize gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’s approach to the other wasn’t to pretend like there was no difference.  Jesus’s approach to the other was to recognize their difference and go toward them and to offer them the same hospitality he had offered to those who were like him.  The people are not the same—but the same grace is offered to them all.

It should all feel very familiar to us.  At least those of us who have passed through the waters of baptism.  Who have said yes we accept the grace that Christ offers to us all.  Jesus wasn’t like us.  He was unlike us in so many ways.  He was sent from God.  Anointed by God uniquely.  He who had given voice to creation through whom all things had come into being.  God incarnate blessed to dwell with us.  He was not like us.  His life was uncommon indeed.  And yet this uncommon life came to us. He willingly loved and accepted us though we are not like him at all.  We are made from the dust and not from heaven.  Our lives have a definite beginning and do not emerge from the eternal horizon behind us.  Jesus acknowledged these differences, responded to them, and reconciled them.  The experience of Jesus encountering the other should seem familiar to Christians because in our otherness Jesus Christ came and had compassion, he stayed with us and taught us, and when our hunger meant that we were perishing Jesus took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to us.

Most of all we are sinners and he was not.   And God demonstrated his own love to us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  Jesus did not ignore the differences between us and himself.  Had he been able to ignore those differences he could have avoided the cross.  He came to proclaim peace to those who were near and peace to those who were far off and to bring them together and by the shedding of his blood to tear down the dividing wall of hostility that stood between them so that he might form one new humanity out of the pieces and to reconcile one reconciled humanity with God.

Encountering the Other

So, now we too encounter the other in our lives and face a choice of how to respond.  We can respond with hostility which is in our nature.  We can respond with the benign neglect which political correctness suggests is the way to peace.  Or, we can look at them with the compassion we have for the people we know.  We can see that they have hungers and needs and if those needs are not met they may also perish.  We can ask one another—what do we have to offer—and we can answer one another acceptance, understanding, welcome, accommodation, hospitality, trust and friendship–seven loaves of bread.  We can invite the other to sit down, to sit down with us.  We can take what God has given to us, give thanks for it and break it and share it with them—just as we have for the people we know, who are familiar, who are near.

Jesus Ate Because He Was Hungry

Seeing Jesus–>Following Jesus needs specifics.  God has designed us to understand our lives through the senses God has given us–seeing, hearing, smelling, touching tasting. Jesus himself entered the world of human senses and felt human needs.  Throughout the Gospel we find Jesus at tables dining with people.  The Jesus at table showed us a number of things, but Jesus was at the table because he got hungry.

In the story about Jesus’s temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1-13) both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus experienced hunger.  It was in his state of hunger that the first temptation he experienced–the temptation to turn stones into bread–really was a temptation.  If he were not hungry, it would not have been a temptation.  It would have been a dare.  Jesus lived a real human life.  His sweat glands worked just like yours and mine.  His taste buds sent the same signals to his brain that our taste buds sent to ours.  He needed food and water to live.

One of the earliest challenges the early church faced came from a religious group called Gnostics.  There were various Gnostic groups and their beliefs differed from one another, but among the things they believed most consistently had to do with the problems with human flesh and the physical world.  They didn’t believe that a good God made the physical world.  They didn’t believe that the true God would become human flesh.  An early Christian writer named Irenaeus described the preaching of Saturnus–a Gnostic teacher–in the late Second Century.  “Saturnus presented it as a truth that the Savior was without birth, without body, and without form” (quoted in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 306).  Irenaeus went on to explain that Saturnus had a radically different proclamation of the cross–that Jesus and Simon of Cyrene magically traded places and Simon died in place of Jesus, “while Jesus himself took the form of Simon and stood by and laughed at everyone” (DECB, 306).  True Christian faith resisted the denial of Jesus’s physical incarnation then and must continue to resist it now. 

Jesus was truly human and only a truly human Christ can empathize with us.  Jesus was truly human and only a truly human Christ can reveal to us our ultimate goal and destiny as God’s people.  In 1 John 4:3 we read, “Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  The Jesus we encounter at the table is a physical human being who needed to eat.  Matthew explained that when the devil had departed from Jesus, “angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11b).  I hope they remembered to pack a lunch–Jesus needed to eat.

The Signals We Send With Boundaries Training

In my new role as Regional Minister for the Christian Church in the Southwest, I have some responsibility for the standing of our clergy.  Here’s a blog post I wrote for our website.  It’s primarily for ministers, but I’d welcome others’ thoughts also.

For many years my wife taught in the same elementary school where at least one of my children attended.  Often, I had reasons to go into the school as a parent or as a spouse.  The protocol for visiting the school was the same each time.  I’d go in, show my license to the clerk working there, register my reason for being in the school, and pick up a visitor sticker.  I was to wear the sticker while in the building.  Sometimes, this process took more time than the actual visit would.  Still, I did it every time.

Occasionally, the receptionist or attendance clerk would apologize to me for the bureaucracy.  Surely there should have been some “frequent visitor” pass I received, but I saw the process differently.  To me, the process sent a signal of respect to the educational staff at their school.  I respected their efforts to keep children safe and cooperated with their protocols.  It also sent a signal to the children themselves.  One of the ways they learn to tell the difference between the people they can trust and the people they can’t trust is by watching whether people follow the rules they’re supposed to follow.  That doesn’t mean that everyone who side-stepped the protocols was up to no good.  And it doesn’t mean that everyone who abided by the protocols was always trustworthy, but it was an important sign.

I view Boundaries Training in the same light.  Every five years, commissioned and ordained clergy are required to go through the Healthy Boundaries training.  Taking this training sends some important signals.

  1. It sends a signal to our colleagues.  Our attention to boundaries training sends the signal that we take our professional accountability seriously.  It says that we abide by the rules established by the region and we expect others who bear the title “Minister” to do the same.
  2. It sends a signal to our congregations.  It tells our congregation that we understand that ministers connect with people in difficult and vulnerable moments and we intend to preserve the trust that has been given to us.
  3. It sends a signal to our culture.  We know that many ministers have over-stepped the boundaries and have acted inappropriately.  We do not intend to ignore the abuse that people have endured and we will take the steps to be transparent and accountable.

If you have yet to take Healthy Boundaries training or you’re about to reach the five year mark since you last completed it, I encourage you to participate in one of the upcoming trainings.  Here’s a list of the ones that have been scheduled.  We will have more scheduled in the coming months.

  • December 2 (Saturday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm) – Healthy Boundaries Training at Riverside Disciples Ministry Center in Fort Worth – register online or call Regional office at 817-926-4687
  • January 20 (Saturday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm) – Healthy Boundaries Training at First Christian Church in Carrollton – online registration or call Regional office at 817-926-4687
  • February 5 (Monday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm) – Healthy Boundaries Training at University Christian Church in Fort Worth – online registration or call Regional office at 817-926-4687

Well That Was Embarrassing

I went to post something on this blog only to discover I had been locked out.  The license I paid for a year ago had expired and I didn’t receive or didn’t see a renewal.  I was going to say something about how Christian faith is something that involves practices.  Repeated and consistent practices–kind of like committing to writing a daily Bible study blog.  I was going to quote Madeline L’Engle who wrote, “The greatest potential violinist remains no more than potential unless the violin is practiced hour after hour, day after day.”  Case in point–the license lapsed over a week ago.  I didn’t notice because it had been over 2 weeks since I last posted and I had dwindled down to once a week before that.

Needless to say, I renewed for another year.  So, I’m back.

That’s Not How Any of This Works!

There’s a brilliantly funny commercial showing an “offline over-sharer.”  She’s created a wall of photos–quite literally a wall with photos taped to it.  And she’s showing them to her two friends.  When she makes a claim about how quickly she saved money on her car insurance, one of her friends claims to have saved more in half the time.  The first lady then “unfriends” the person who argued with her causing her unfriended friend to say, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.”

It plays on our implicit assumptions that rules get set up and people are supposed to follow them.  Of course, the rules change–as evidenced by the women’s literal interpretations of “posting to your wall” and “unfriending” friends.  Claiming “that’s not how it works” implies that somewhere along the line an agreement was made that things were to work a certain way.  In a much more complete and serious sense, the Bible calls these enduring agreements about how things are to work between God and God’s people–and between them people themselves–covenants.  A covenant is a formal agreement.

Psalm 50 assumes covenantal language and agreements.  The Psalm comes in two parts.  The first part consists of Psalm 50:1-15.  Here the covenant concerns the covenant people have made within the context of ritual sacrifice and worship (Psalm 50:5).  God puts the sacrificial system in perspective reminding the people that God God’s self does not need to eat and if God did, God would consume one of the millions of creatures God has made.  The sacrifice covenant depends on a grateful spirit–there needs to be an alignment of  attitude and practice (Psalm 50:14).  This is the covenant of sacrifice.

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 50:16-23–becomes more accusatory.  Here, the wicked are called to account.  Psalm 50:16 connects the two parts as God questions the right of the wicked to participate in the worship life.  Having rejected God’s truth with their behavior, they have forfeited their integrity to participate in worship.

They are guilty of four specific sins:

(1) an unwillingness to heed God’s instruction (Psalm 50:17), (2) theft (Psalm 50:18a), (3) adultery (Psalm 50:18b), and (4) slander (Psalm 50:19-21).   Each of these sins is a violated covenant.  The resistance to learning and instruction violates the covenant a person has with one’s self and God.  Theft violates the covenant to respect one’s neighbor.  Adultery violates the covenant of marriage.  Slander violates the covenant we make with truth.  While we may find the harsh tone of Psalm 50:22 uncomfortable, indeed those who tear up these covenants–with God, self, neighbor, family and truth–will find their lives torn apart by the inevitable consequences.  Psalm 50 is a divine, “That’s not how it works; that not how any of this works.”

 

Psalm 34

The superscription identifies Psalm 34 as a Psalm that emerged out of David’s life when he feigned madness before King Abimelech.  The story reaches back for 1 Samuel 21:10–14. During the period of time when Saul was still king but David was rising to power, David fled from Saul into the Philistine region of Gath.  He was recognized in Gath and they detained him (see “in their hands,” 1 Samuel 21:13).  They probably intended to use David as a bargaining tool.  David pretended to be insane and the King dismissed him.  First Samuel calls the King Achish but the superscription calls him Abimelech.  Abimelech was King of Gerar when Abraham and Sarah were alive (Genesis 20). 

It is a personal Psalm with a public purpose.  The Psalm spoken in first person—“I” but is intended for the benefit of others—the humble (Psalm 34:2-3).  The Psalm has an element of wisdom literature introduced by a calling of children to him for instruction (Psalm 34:11-22).  “Fear of the Lord” or reverence, is a common theme in wisdom literature (see Proverbs 1:7-8). Fear of the Lord is a troubling thought to many Christians.  However, notice the relationship between fears—fear of the world vs. fear of the Lord.  If we think of “fear” as the emotion of having one’s attention completely consumed by something, fear of the Lord isn’t so much dread or terror as allowing the awesomeness of God to overwhelm the anxiety we have over stressors in life. A final element in which the Psalm resembles wisdom has to do with speech. Psalm 34:13 says, “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.”  This resembles the instructions given in Proverbs and James 3:1-12 concerning the proper use of our lips and speech.    

The Psalm looks back at times of distress.  Unlike a simple Psalm of praise, the Psalmist remembers the fears.  However, unlike a lament, the Psalmist’s deliverance has come and he praises the Lord.  Notice the contrast between vs. 15 and vs. 19. David does not suggest that the righteous never experience affliction.  Instead they experience deliverance.  The reward of righteousness during times of trouble is felt in the nearness of God through adversity.

Hurricane Clean-Up Buckets

First Christian Church in Arlington–the Church I currently serve–has been collecting, sorting, and transporting donated materials this week.  We have moved about six full truckloads, two 6’X12′ trailer loads, and two flatbed trailer loads in three trips this week.  We sent everything we had on Friday.  Thankfully, Carter Jr. High sent us a couple of PE classes to help us load.  When that was done, we said to ourselves, that we’d probably not need to take a trip on Saturday.

Then stuff started coming in.  One of our members has a lot of international contacts through his work.  This week he’s been running a go-fund-me account and raised $1500.  He used that to buy push brooms and the stuff for clean up buckets.  It was all there when I got back from lunch.  As were a couple of my members who went shopping for items.  Two more volunteers from the church showed up about 1:45 and then two more showed up with items they had collected at work.  I left them in the gym to sort things out and about 2:30 in the afternoon, my friend Kennedy Jones, pastor of Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church rang the doorbell.

He brought 100 clean-up buckets and about 60 hygiene kits.  Thankfully he also brought some volunteers to help unload.  because the buckets kept coming and coming and coming.

In the conversation and fellowship, Kennedy very quietly expressed his concern that we have an equitable distribution of resources.  Rather clumsily I asked if he wanted me to earmark these for areas that were predominantly African-American.  No, he said.  We–Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church–are part of the whole church and want these to go to whoever.  We just want to remind the whole church not to forget about some of the people we tend to forget about.

I agree and think this is about two concerns.  (1) Getting Resources into less affluent areas; and (2) Getting resources to the areas outside of Greater Houston—Corpus Christi/Rockport area to the Southwest of Greater Houston and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur to the East.

Grace Crossing

We delivered the 100 buckets from Greater Community and the supplies that came on on Friday to Grace Crossing–a community Church of Christ–in Conre.  You can get their official information hereGrace Crossing is known for proactive community service and intentional efforts to bridge cultural divisions.
Work
They are doing several things, but right now they are working on gathering and distributing supplies.  The place people can connect immediately is with the Hurricane Bucket Challenge. I don’t know if the 100 buckets donated by Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church that we delivered today puts them in the lead, but we made sure to credit them to Grace Crossing.   They are the top donating congregation in our little pool.
The buckets given through this challenge will go out in a few ways:  (1) They will supply their ministry partners with buckets and the other supplies they have collected.  Grace Crossing has been helping affected families in Conroe but they have also been sending truckloads of supplies to an Inner-city ministry, a non-profit that helps women who are pregnant, and a company that put its salesforce to work distributing donated items throughout greater Houston, and a couple of local schools where a large portion of the student body lives in home that were flooded. 
(2) They are doing bucket brigades on Sundays for the next month.  Their members will enter affected areas and offer buckets, prayer, and information about working with FEMA and insurance.
Boundaries
Grace Crossing is committed to sharing with whomever without distinction based on race, religion or any other category that we use to divide people.  That said, they do have some geographic boundaries.  As Doug sees it, there are three areas of need–the Corpus Christi/Rockport area (southwest of Greater Houston); Greater Houston (The Woodlands to Galveston); and the Golden Triangle/Southeast Texas.  Their focus will be on Greater Houston.  Hopefully other churches will rise to the challenge the way grace crossing has and serve the affected areas around Houston.
Please pray for Grace Crossing’s work.  Please look at their website.  If you’d be willing to help facilitate getting stuff to him, please do.  The email for this ministry is icanhelp@gracecrossing.net

Psalm 38

This week I have been reading the penitential Psalms. These are Psalms that confess sin. The Psalmists attribute hardship to God’s punishment for sins. In the case of Psalm 38, it’s physical ailments. I don’t know what to do with Psalms like this that draw straight line correlations between sin and catastrophe. I believe in biblical authority, but I do not believe that God sends disasters in order to punish.

As I write this, the Coastal area of Texas has experienced the worst flooding ever. Lives have been disrupted and lost. A small number of people have used social media to claim that this is punishment for everything from Texas voting for Trump to same-sex marriages. I hear things like that and think, surely there is an even greater punishment for making loathsome statements while people are just trying to survive.

The Psalmist said “I” not “you.” The Psalmist interpreted their own experience. Trying to interpret someone else’s is usually where we make serious mistakes. In this life we can waste all our time on the unholy quest for the blame grail. It’s an illusive quest with a treasureless destination. We can point fingers at who did or did not do the right thing in response. Or we can acknowledge that there’s blame to go around and that none of us know how to respond. We can affirm, like the Psalmist, that our only ultimate hope comes from God.

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential psalm.  This designation was given to it by the Church.  The designations in the biblical text say, “Of David” and “Maskil.”  A Maskil seems to be a literary or musical term.  I’m guessing it means that the song was written in the key of G (:

The psalm begins with a couple of beatitudes.  beatitude states a blessing or a condition of happiness.  “Blessed are. . . ” or “Happy are . . . ” is the normal translation/formula.  These beatitudes emphasize the blessing of forgiveness and restored innocence  (Psalm 32:1-2).

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 32:3-5–emphasizes the damaging effect of withholding the Psalmist’s sin from the Lord.  It had both psychological and physiological effects.  The ancients understood intuitively what we are only recently rediscovering–that the Spirit, Mind and Body interact in dynamic and integrated ways.  Psalm 32:5 is the turning point in the Psalmist’s difficulties, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”   It prefaces the promise in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

The Psalm then moves toward an instructive place.  The Psalmist instructs those who would listen about the necessity of listening.

A Penitential Psalm

From at least the writings of St. Augustine, Christians have identified certain Psalms as “penitential psalms.”  Since the 6th century, seven psalms have been classified as penitential psalms:

Psalm 6
Psalm 32
Psalm 38
Psalm 51
Psalm 102
Psalm 130
Psalm 143

Penitential psalms acknowledge either personal or collective sin.  They lament the consequences of the sin.  They pray for God’s healing and restoration. However, Psalm 6, the first of the penitential Psalms, does not actually offer a word of confession or repentance.

It begins with a petition that God not rebuke or discipline harshly.  This initial statement about God’s wrath is what places Psalm 6 within the group of penitential psalms. Clearly the Psalmist was experiencing distress.  If we take the distress literally, it’s physical distress: bones ache (Psalm 6:2), death may be imminent (Psalm 6:5), tears and fatigue are felt (Psalm 6:7).  These symptoms may also be metaphors of the experience of sin.  The Psalmist understood circumstances of suffering to derive from God’s judgment.  While I do not believe God sends physical illness as a punishment for sin, I do believe that sin has consequences–often physical consequences.  I also know that suffering can reorient people to focus on God.  The journey of repentance does indeed begin as the penitent move God back to the center of their lives.

The psalm resolves with a word about evil doers.  One could imagine that David–as he suffered some sort of illness–might have experienced treacherous people circling him in his weakness.  They might have waited like vultures for his life to fail so that they could swoop in and feast on the carcasses.  As healing–whether it was physical or spiritual or both–took place, the Psalmist finds the strength to rebuke them.  If penitence begins with putting God in the center of one’s life and intentionally spending time with God, the next step may be for the penitent to disassociate with people who contribute to sins.  Some people are simply toxic and repentance often requires getting away from them.

You are God's masterpiece

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