Sermon: November 25, 2018 – Exegetical Exercise

Exegetical Exercise

Text: Mark 5: 1-20

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

I mentioned last week in my Thanksgiving sermon a professor I encountered at Iliff School of Theology. I mentioned that I still use some of the techniques he taught in his classes to this day. I thought it might be interesting for you to see some of those techniques in action.

One of the classes I took when I was in seminary at Iliff that this professor taught was titled: “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics”.  I thought that I should earn a passing grade in the class because I knew what the title meant!  But all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class and stimulated my own thinking around scriptural interpretation a hundred fold.  The professor who taught the class is a wonderful scholar and theologian – as I mentioned last week he was wooed away from Iliff  before I graduated and now teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in Southern California and is the author of several books on this very topic.

What topic is that? I hear you asking….it is a valid question if you have never been to seminary, so allow me to interpret the title of the class and what it means.  An exegetical analysis of a scripture is a breaking down of the text and looking at each part individually and seeing what you can ‘pull out’ of the text by looking at the individual parts.  The root of the word has a literal translation of ‘leading out’ and is where other words like exit and exodus derive their meanings as well.  The other part of the class title is the Synoptic portion, which are the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Those three are called the synoptic because they are all very similar in nature and share a lot of the same stories.  The Gospel of John is not included in the synoptic because it is such a different text from the other three.

So a translation of the class title might be something like this: “A Close Examination, Comparison, and Interpretation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke” but I’m sure that “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics” intimidated the freshman which is always an important consideration when compiling a class catalog. (just kidding)

As I said earlier, all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class.  One of the things I learned in the class has stuck with me through the years and that is the process by which you can break a text down and begin to deconstruct the text and look for areas that are consistent or not consistent with a basic theological assumption.  For example, if we look at the text I read a few minutes ago with this in mind we may notice a few things.

One of the techniques is to begin your study of a text with a basic theological assumption; you can then place this assumption in the context of the scripture you are studying and see if there are any inconsistencies, if there are, then this offers you a place to begin.  Some assumptions can be challenging, but if we create a broad, somewhat universal theological assumption you can begin to see this process work.  Hopefully we can work the process with this text without demolishing too many preconceived naiveté’s about the Bible in general.

So with those things in mind, allow me to pose a standard theological assumption; when the presence of God is manifest in the person of Jesus, the result is good news for all.

Most people would not find too much fault with this assumption, after all, that is what the word ‘gospel’ actually means, is ‘good news’ and the life of Jesus is all about spreading the good news to humanity.  The only real issue might be the word ‘all’ in the assumption – and there are certain sects of Christianity that resist the inclusiveness required to recognize all humanity as children of God.  But, this is my assumption and I have no such hang-up, so the assumption stands as written.

Given the assumption that when God works in our lives or the lives of characters in the scriptures, the result will always be good news, we can find a profound problem with this assumption in this story.  I am speaking of course of the swine herders that owned the herd of pigs that was destroyed in this story.  When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, a good sized hog would bring $1500 – $2,000 each; by now that figure is probably much higher.  By today’s accounting, a herd of 2,000 swine probably would represent somewhere between 5 and 7 million dollars!  This is the life’s work for these swine herders and represents a huge financial loss that Jesus rather whimsically just tosses into the sea.  This is not good news, it is bad news.  Did you notice in the text of the story that some of the people were begging Jesus to leave? I wonder if this thing with the pigs might have anything to do with that attitude…but I digress.  So we have a problem with the text; either the story is incorrect in some way or our assumption is incorrect in some way.  This is how the process works, and you sort out things you believe to be accurate and things that you believe to be not so accurate within the texts you are examining. This is also why clarity around the assumption is absolutely critical; you must always use an assumption that you believe to be true in all circumstances.

So what do you do when you find a problem with a text?  Throw the whole thing out?

This is a fair question and is the root of so much of the controversies and divisiveness surrounding interpretation of the Bible.  Of course we don’t want to throw the entire text out; but we also don’t want to take the story as a literal event either.  We must find a way to interpret the story as allegory and metaphor staying true to both the text and the assumption.  This is what good exegetical analysis is all about.

One interpretation which I read about in one of the commentaries I checked with about this text suggested that the name “Legion” given to the many demons is a reference to the Roman occupation of the territory.  A legion of Roman soldiers would be a large number, somewhere between 2 and 5 thousand men and historically it is verifiable that Rome did occupy this part of the country at this time and had done so for quite some time.

Taken as metaphor for a Roman occupation, we can then remain consistent with our original assumption and many other theological assumptions, as we see Jesus overpowering and drowning out the oppression and tyrannical rule of a Roman occupation and Roman Empire.  There are clues here as to how America should be present in the world with regard to American Empire, if we are willing to look.

We can also look to the demon-possessed man as a metaphor for the mentally ill and how they are ostracized and alienated from society.  In this case, the man’s answer to Jesus about his name also makes sense, because there is not just one person who is mentally ill, but rather there are many.  So many in fact, that we cannot name them all, they are legion, they number in the thousands or perhaps millions, worldwide.  Once again, metaphorically, we can see Jesus drowning the oppression of the mentally ill with love and compassion.  When the man is healed and wants to travel with Jesus, he says no and suggests the man stay in his home town and re-enter society as a productive member of that society.  There are clues here as to how we should be caring for those who suffer with mental illness, if we are willing to look.

That is the key; we have to be willing to look.  By keeping the story literal and as an actual event that took place over 2,000 years ago….it stays there, in history, 2,000 years ago.  Through exegetical analysis and truly examining the scriptures and looking for the richness that is there, we can bring the lessons forward into the 21st century to guide our thoughts and opinions of the current day.  But we must be willing to look and we must be willing to understand and we must be willing to always find the good news.  Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.

Sermon, Nov 18, 2018

Text: Luke 17:11-19

Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Isn’t this an amazing story?  Here we have a description of 10 people who literally had their lives totally changed by Jesus, and only one returns to offer thanks.  I can’t imagine what life must have been like as a leper.  I know that there were laws and customs that forced anyone with the disease to remain a certain distance from anyone who wasn’t infected; I have also heard that when it was required a leper enter a public place, they had to move through the area announcing to everyone they saw; “unclean, unclean”.  What kind of life must that have been?  Can you imagine being delivered from a life like that, and then not returning to give thanks?  It is hard to imagine, isn’t it?  Or is it really?

I got to thinking about the people in my life that have formed the process of having me end up here, in Lewiston, Idaho delivering a Sunday sermon.  I can’t imagine anything right now that I would rather be doing, but how did I get here?  What sorts of influences have been parts of my life, what people have changed the course of my life, and how often did I return to say thanks?

Of course, we naturally think of people like our parents or siblings that have major influences in our lives…perhaps a spouse or best friend as well.  And that certainly is true for me as well, neither of my parents are alive for me to thank; but I’m not sure that matters.  I think I can still thank them, and should thank them; after all, this idea of thanksgiving does as much for the thanker as the thankee – don’t you think?

I have credited my sister Sharon in the past for influential conversations that helped me decide to pursue the ministry, and my brother Bruce has given me the confidence to tackle many a project I might never have tried without knowing I could call on him for advice or help, which includes the house project currently underway down the hill.

But what about some of those people you may have forgotten about?  About 30 years ago there was a man, who I didn’t really like all that much.  He was my boss.  His name was Carter Pitts and he was the owner of the daily newspaper where I worked as a Sports Editor.  I say I didn’t like him very much…I didn’t really know him very well, we were not socially active and he kind of scared me, so I avoided him when I could.  But he did give me a job….and it was a job that first opened my eyes to the wonder of photography.  It was a job with virtually unlimited resources of black and white film, darkroom chemistry and photographic paper.  Whatever I wanted to do, whatever I wanted to experiment with, whatever I wanted to shoot, I was always encouraged to do so.  The people there at the newspaper already knew what I was learning, and that was the more pictures you take, the better you get.  I have never returned to thank him for that, and yet, photography has shaped my life from that time on.

There was a teacher I had in high school.  He taught speech and was the head of the drama department; his name was Roger Hallum.  I would say he was the first person to offer me encouragement toward careers in public speaking.  Roger Hallum invited me to Toastmasters where I learned even more about speaking in public. He offered me confidence and wisdom, he offered me the opportunity to fail in a safe environment, he gave all of us tools for life, which I now use all the time.  I don’t believe I ever returned to thank him for that.

I have had two surgeries in my life that could have been life threatening.  One surgery was so long ago it hardly seems real.  I was 14 years old and had a bout with appendicitis.  I have mentioned before that Heidi and I were high school sweethearts; this particular surgery actually interfered with one of our very first dates. If I had not had the surgery, it also would have been our last date. Lucky for me, there were surgeons and doctors who knew what to do and my appendix was removed.  I can’t tell you the surgeon’s name.  I’m certain I never returned to thank him.

I had a professor in seminary that was one of the first to really open my eyes about the New Testament and the many options we have about interpretation of scripture. I found his approach to scripture captivating and enlightening all at the same time. I still use many of the techniques he taught me when I prepare a sermon.  I took every class I could from this man and tried to absorb as much as I could.  Before I graduated, he left Iliff School of Theology and went to Claremont Theological Seminary in southern California as the professor of New Testament theology.  He left before I could thank him.

I learned to ski in 1985 on the bunny hill at Loveland, Colorado. Since that day downhill skiing became a part of our family life for the next several decades. All of our kids still ski to this day – they make it a priority, as we did as a family while they were growing up. The many ski trips we made in Colorado drew our family closer together, we bonded and shared some remarkable and memorable experiences. Skiing has had a huge impact on our family.  I can’t tell you if the instructor was male or female.  I certainly don’t know their name.  Obviously, I have never returned to thank them.

While in high school I had a track coach who was an extraordinary individual.  He taught me a great deal about competition, about winning and about losing.  He often spoke of the individual victories and the team victories.  He often told us that success wasn’t measured in blue ribbons.  He was one of the first to mention that you shouldn’t worry about being the best runner on the track, but rather try to be better than you were yesterday. Cancer claimed Coach Gary Meyer 15 or 20 years ago…I never returned to thank him.

Maybe the story of the ten lepers isn’t so hard to believe after all.  As I thought about all the influential people in my life and how little I have said thank you, it was actually a little embarrassing.  Alive or dead, living close or far away, old or young, I would encourage you to give some thought to those you need to thank.  Write a note or a letter, give them a call, and let them know they did something for you.  Funny thing is, you will be the richer for it.  Go in peace, go with God and go giving thanks.  Amen.


Sermon: November 4, 2018 – “Can You Hear Me Now?”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Text: Mark 7: entire chapter

It seems to me that we live in particularly turbulent times at the moment and many of us have quit listening to the other. We have all developed selective deafness. Hate crimes are on the rise, our political polarization has grown to extreme proportions. We now hear on the news about shootings in synagogues or direct mail campaigns that include pipe bombs. Just this past week there was an article in the Tribune about how we have lost our unity and respect for anyone who doesn’t think like we do. So in light of our current political climate and state of our country I thought it might be a good time to check out if Jesus had anything to say about our current situation.

We all remember this guy, right?  Strolling all over the world, all the remote locations – floating ice bergs, forgotten waterfalls, deserted islands – he always asked the same question: “Can you hear me now?” And apparently, he always seemed to get the right response, because he always said “good.”  I don’t know about you, but I have never had that kind of luck with a cell phone; my experience is usually just about the opposite.  The call is dropped before you even have an opportunity to ask the question!

In spite of the pitfalls of cell phones and the general phoniness (pun intended) of this marketing campaign, what the character in the ads does do for us is remind us of a very valid question; “can you hear me now”, is a very valid question.  It is valid because of the many forms of hearing there are and the many types of deafness there are as well.  It is my opinion that the 7th chapter of Mark deals with some of the many kinds of hearing and the many kinds of non-hearing or deafness we may encounter in our lives.  We need to be reminded sometimes to ask the question of ourselves and of others; can you hear me now?

It isn’t often that my scripture for a sermon is an entire chapter, so allow me to explain this a little bit.  We will not be reading the entire chapter, but I would encourage you to look it up and read for yourself perhaps this afternoon, it is a short chapter and it might take you five minutes.  What we will be doing this morning is working our way through the chapter and dealing with the three different stories we find in chapter seven.  In my Bible each individual story, or pericope as they are called in theological circles, is given a sub-title.  So the pages in my Bible that are Mark 7 look a little like this: Chapter 7, The Tradition of the Elders, The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith, and Jesus Cures a Deaf Man.  Those are the three stories we find in the 7th chapter.

When I was in Seminary, one of the things we were taught to pay attention to when interpreting scripture was something my professor called “structural context”.  In other words, is there a structure or a pattern present in the other stories that surround the one you are looking at that impact the story in some way, or at least inform it with a deeper meaning.  If we look at chapter seven in Mark as an entire unit, rather than three individual stories not relevant to one another, we can find some interesting overlap.  I believe this overlap has to do with the art of hearing and the art of non-hearing, or what I called “selective deafness” earlier.  That being said, let’s take a look at the first story, which is called the tradition of the elders.

In this story, the Pharisees and the scribes are beginning to get on Jesus because he and his disciples have failed to follow some of the traditions and customs set forth in ancient Judaism.  They were eating some of the food without a proper ceremonious washing and perhaps even some of the food was considered forbidden as well.  The disciples were also guilty of not washing their hands properly according to the custom.  So the scribes and the Pharisees confronted Jesus about this; in verse 5 they ask him why this is so.  In verse 8 Jesus offers a very pointed answer: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  In verse 13 Jesus repeats this indictment, with perhaps even stronger language saying: “…you make void the word of God through the tradition that you have handed on.”

Consider these two verses for just a minute in the context of hearing.  Could they not be paraphrased into something like “you can’t even hear the Word of God, when it is spoken to you, because your adherence to tradition has made you deaf.”  You see the scribes and the Pharisees we so certain of their position, so certain that they were right, they could not hear any other ideas.  Do we not encounter that same level of deafness in the church today?  Is not the word of God one of compassion and inclusiveness and of love and yet in our deafness of certainty do we not betray those mandates every day?  Of course we do. I might also point out that this also happens in political circles as well, it is not just the church; this is one of the ways we have become so polarized in this country. By clinging to traditions or clinging to hard party lines or clinging to political rhetoric we make void the word of God.

The second story in chapter seven is equally as interesting because it gives us an example of just the opposite circumstance.  In this story a Gentile woman, a person not of the Jewish tradition, asks Jesus for help with her daughter.  At first Jesus responds negatively; verse 27 is very harsh.  In that verse Jesus says: “…it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Jesus was convinced that his ministry was exclusive to the children of Israel; he was here to minister to the Jews and that was all, and he was going to stick with that position.  He was certain he was right about that.

Then in verse 28 the woman says to Jesus; “…even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Here the woman was challenging Jesus’ position that he could only help the Jews.  She was saying that she didn’t need his full attention, but just a crumb of his attention.  She was saying that he didn’t have to choose one over the other, but both could be fed.

Unlike the scribes and the Pharisees in the first story that could not hear because of their tradition and their need to be right, Jesus actually hears the woman.  Not only does he hear her, but he ponders the words and changes his mind!  Verse 29 says that Jesus told the woman; “for saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter.”  This story is a great example of hearing the word of God, even when it challenges your original position.  Something the scribes and Pharisees could not do. It is also something that you seldom hear about in political circles. With the ability to choose our conversations through social media and choose our news through cable TV we can surround ourselves with only those individuals who think just like we do. We are never challenged or asked to think outside of the box by anyone. We live in silos surrounded by the messages that only confirm what we already believe and never challenge what we believe. This woman challenged Jesus and it had a positive result.

The third story in chapter seven is actually about a deaf man that Jesus heals.  But there are a couple of interesting things to point out.  The first thing I noticed in reading this story is that there was a great crowd, but Jesus removed the man from the crowd before ministering to him.  Verse 33 says “he took him aside in private, away from the crowd.”  Then Jesus did something I think is somewhat unusual, the scripture says he stuck his fingers in the man’s ears.

I think most of us are familiar with many other stories where Jesus was able to heal with just the spoken word or if someone touched the hem of his garment.  Jesus did not need to stick his fingers in this man’s ears to heal him; so perhaps the fingers in the ears are symbolic of something else.  I have the thought that a finger in the ears is an almost universal sign of not listening to the outside world.  If you don’t want to hear what someone has to say, you stick your finger in your ear.  Or you at least cover your ears.

What Jesus does next is also quite interesting; with his finger in the man’s ears, he then says “be opened” and they were.  But the phrase “be open” is packed with metaphor; particularly when you consider that Jesus’ fingers were directed not only at the man’s ears, but his mind as well.  Be open to the inner voice, be open to your feelings, be open to what your gut is telling you – and pay less attention to the outside world.  Being open to an inner voice is yet another type of hearing.

The chapter ends with an example of another kind of deafness.  What is implied in the story is that Jesus and the man return to the crowd and the man can hear and speak.  The crowd is amazed and awe struck.  Verse 36 pretty much sums up what happened next; “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”  The crowd was deaf to the words of Jesus.  There is another form of deafness that is often found and it is simply the mob mentality.  When everyone in a crowd gets the same idea, for some reason, even if the idea is preposterous, the crowd mentality will prevail.

To re-cap the entire chapter, we have deafness by certainty of position or political platform and tradition, making void the word of God.  We have true hearing, even when being challenged on our own assumptions, and based on that true hearing, being able to change our minds.  We have hearing and being open to the inner voice, with open ears and open minds, sometimes shutting out the outside world.  And finally we have deafness through mob mentality; unable to hear a voice of reason because the crowd is too loud.  Two examples of deafness and two examples of hearing all in the same chapter; what a remarkable chapter it is.

Go in peace, go with God and go with a new awareness of hearing, and perhaps a renewed sense of understanding how to listen to one another.