Archives For Mark

Read it again. The lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday in Mark 7.

Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word.

At first, in Matthew’s version, he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.
And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out.
And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.
The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.
It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.
Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.
It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true.

has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true.

Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible.
Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone.

Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle.

I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type.
And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script.

But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle?

And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is.

So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there.

But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%.
Yeah, a b@#$%.

Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!
You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
It never would’ve made it in the Bible.

There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog.
So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it?
How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?
It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.
So maybe that’s the explanation.
Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.
He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.
Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.

As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.
So how do we explain it?

You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.
He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll
call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.
He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have).
But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.
WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

Of course, you could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus.

After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.
Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same. If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first. And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention.
It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him.
All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.
Jesus ignores her.

Tells her there’s nothing he can do for SOMEONE LIKE HER. And then he calls her a dog.

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.
I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.
Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth.
And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy.

Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth. What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?
Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture?
Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people.
Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping, Bible-believing people.
And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy. It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy. It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says. It’s what comes out of the mouth.
And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart. That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.
The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?
He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy. She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever. She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.
But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’
Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.
But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

He acts out what’s in their hearts.
He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts.
He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s
what’s in their hearts.

And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.
What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts: I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

Speaking of hearts-
That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:
‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’

Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:
‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

You see-
That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’
She doesn’t put up any pretense.
She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else.
She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that
she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.
No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them.
And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior.

And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.
She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’
‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’
If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

So the good news is-

If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is If you’re selfish or petty or stingy
If you yell at your kids too much
Or cheat on your spouse
Or disappoint your parents
If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror If you gossip about your neighbors
Or think the worst about people you barely know
If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job
If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot
If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe
If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else
just about all the time
If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here
If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their
mouths
If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways,
that the worst thing someone might say about you would stick…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you.

Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

He came to heal the sick and open the eyes of the blind.

He came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness. To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.
‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’
If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘Christian.’

Did you know Crackers and Grape Juice is now in the top 3-4% of all podcasts on the interwebs?

Boom.

All the more reason for you to check out our latest guest. Ched Myers’ commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man, is one of the most influential books I read in seminary.

Crackers and Grape Juice got to interview Ched Myers to discuss what solidarity and resistance look like in the age of Trump and social media.

Ched is an activist theologian, biblical scholar, popular educator, author, organizer and advocate who has for 35 years been challenging and supporting Christians to engage in peace and justice work and radical discipleship.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with David Bentley Hart, Richard Rohr as well as Robert Jenson. And don’t forget to check out our lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast. We’re calling it Strangely Warmed.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

399px-cranach_calvary2

Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

inigo_montoya

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.