Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In The House Of Simon The Leper

I've been attempting in my sermons here at First Baptist Hyattsville to work through the Gospel of Mark as well as making connections between this Gospel and the Exodus story.  Many commentators believe that Mark was utilizing some of Isaiah's prophetic thoughts about how the Messiah, when he came, would usher in a "New Exodus."  I find that way of looking at Mark's writing very intriguing. 

This week, though, has been particularly challenging.  It has also been made more interesting by both the Bible studies that we do here on Monday at noon and Tuesday evening.  It was made even more so by some conversation I had around the table of my friends Mark and Miranda.  Let me try to tell you what I mean.

In Exodus 4:1-9 Moses asks God what he's supposed to do if he goes to the Israelites and they don't believe him.  God gives Moses a series of signs that are to demonstrate that he represents a God of great power.  Worth noting is the fact that these are signs that are like many of the magic tricks of the Egyptian sorcerers who serve the Pharaoh ..... but that they are more powerful.  Also, they are a foreshadowing of the plagues that will come upon Egypt for refusing to let God's people go.

Then there is the passage from Mark 1:35-45.  In it, Jesus is approached by a leper who tells him, "if you want to, you can heal me."  Jesus, we're told, moved with compassion (or anger, or both...depends on your translation) reaches out and touches him....healing him in the process.

Now, first of all, Jesus' healings are, at least in part, a sign that He is indeed the Messiah; that His announcement that "the Kingdom of God has come among you" is true.  Sort of like the signs Moses is given to demonstrate the truth of Moses' claim that he has met God in the wilderness.  God has seen and heard the plight of God's people in Egypt and has been moved to act on their behalf.  God incarnate in Jesus sees this leper, hears his cry, and is moved with an angry compassion (or compassionate anger) to touch and heal him.  The Kingdom of God is present.

Then I started thinking about Jesus' touch.  What did it look like?  I went looking online for pictures and found that many of them looked like Jesus was trying to protect Himself from the contact (at least it looked that way to me)....like these two

Jesus Heals Leprosy

The ones that moved me most were those in which it looks like Jesus is about to embrace the leper:

I imagine Jesus wrapping this leper in a huge embrace while the fear and pain of his situation just drained from his being.  And when Jesus let him go, he was healed.

Then Jesus sends him on his way to go to the priests and perform the rituals that will let him return home, restored to both family and community.  And though he's been told not to say anything, this leper just can't stop talking about the man who healed him.   Can you blame him?

And that's where I was til last night.  You can make a GREAT sermon out of the fact that the Kingdom is here, now and that we have a God who is moved with compassion for all our pain and dis-ease and reaches out to touch and heal us.   And all of this is true.  Every bit of it.

But then Mark and Miranda got me thinking about what we do with our gratitude.  We had this really deep conversation about how we are all broken and struggling to find healing.  And I went home turning all that over in my head.....and somewhere before I feel asleep I remembered the phrase "Simon the leper" and wrote it down to check on in the morning.

If you go to Mark 14:3-9 or Matthew 26:6-13 (other versions of this story are found in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8) you will find the story of the woman who anoints Jesus.  It is an incredibly beautiful story, rich with meaning and pathos.  But I want to point out to you where this story happens according to Mark.  It happens in the house of Simon the leper.  Now we know that if Simon hasn't been healed, he wouldn't be in his house...he couldn't be.  This is the home of a man who has been healed by Jesus and has opened up his home to Him in gratitude.  And it is in the display of gratitude that he creates the space in which this incredible story unfolds.

We are all broken.  In each of us is a "leper."  We try to hide him/her from everyone, often even ourselves.  But s/he is there.  In our desperation we cry out, "if you want to, you can heal me!" God, in compassion (and perhaps even anger at the situations that have left us broken and wounded) wraps us in God's healing touch.  But that's not meant to be the end.  Our lives are meant to become places of hospitality for both the presence of Christ and those who seek God's healing touch.  We are not healed/saved, or as the song Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven says it, "ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven," so we can go on with our live in a business as usual fashion.

During His time here on earth in human form, Jesus' healing touch and His other miracles were signs that the Kingdom of God had come among those who saw Him.  Today it is our lives that are to be the sign that the Kingdom of God is here, now.  Are our lives being lived in an attitude of gratitude that makes this a reality? 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

House Democrats Re-enact Exodus Scenario

Over the past couple of weeks I've been looking at a comparison between Mark's Gospel and the Exodus story.  I'm not the first person to do this...and in fact it was Rikki E. Watts' Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark that first got me looking in this direction.

So I found it interesting....challenging...worth remarking on....today when I looked at the call passage at the burning bush recorded in Exodus 3:7-12 where God says, "I have observed the misery of my people...I have heard their cry...I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them...So come, I will send you to Pharaoh....."   In essence, God is saying, "I hear the cry of my people, I'm going to rescue them, and I'm going to use you."

Why did I find it "interesting...challenging...worth remarking on"?  Because I saw this passage being re-enacted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this morning.  This morning, under the leadership of John Lewis, the Democrats began a sit-in in the well of the House floor.  They have brought the business of the House to a grinding halt until it has debate and a vote on the "No Fly, No Buy" bill to restrict gun sales to people on the No Fly list.  Soon after the sit-in began, Senators such as Corey Booker, Al Franken, Edward Markey, Mazie Hirono, and Richard Blumenthal joined Senator Chis Murphy on the House floor in a show of their support.

I wrote, in my last post, a poem about our crying out to God in the middle of the recent tragedies.  One of the greatest of these tragedies is the rising tide of gun violence in the U.S.  We continue to have mass shootings.  These shootings continue to be sustained by the availability of weapons of war; assault rifles with no other reasonable purpose than military combat; being so easily obtainable as to be laughable...if it wasn't so tragic.

Our response?  We have "moments of silence."  Then we get on with business as usual.  Not today.  Today some persons of courage listened to whatever the voice was that they heard and sat down in the middle of Pharaoh's chamber and said, "we will have a vote....enough is enough." 

Is God at work here?  You may say "no."  I say, "yes, God is at work."  But then, I also believe God was at work when Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on the bus.  I believe that God was at work when Ghandi refused to eat.  I believe that God was, and is, at work every time we move toward de-fanging the beast of violence and hatred. 

I believe God is a work when Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran gets out of her wheelchair to sit on the floor with those who gathered there in the well of the House.

God spoke to Moses and said, "I'm sending you."  But the people had to listen and follow if they were going to be lead to a new land.  That's the other part of the Exodus story that is going to be played out.  Will we follow?  Having cried out; having been answered by God; having seen the leadership of these who may well be our Moses out of this bondage of violence, hatred, and bloodshed....will we follow.....or will we just have another moment of silence.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

We Cry Out

O God

 We cry out to You this morning,

 like a child lost in the mall, afraid and alone amid the rush and press of strangers,

 We cry out.

 Like a toddler who has wandered away in the woods,

 Surrounded now by noises we don't recognize

 Our feet trapped by vegetation that oozes enmity.

 We cry out.

 For rape victims denied justice

 We cry out.

 For children frightened by the rage of parents

 We cry out.

 For those struggling with addictions,

 and this who have stopped struggling

We cry out.

For those affected by hate crimes and terrorism here and abroad

We cry out.

For those who will feed families today on what we spent for coffee this morning

We cry out.

 For those whose mental health struggles have made them strangers to themselves as well as those who love them

 We cry out.

 For our own reluctance to enter into the struggle,

 for the fear that makes us ashamed of our frozen collusion with evil

 We cry out.

 We want You to send us a Moses,

 but we don't want to be one.

 We want to be lead through the parted waters,

 but we want a day at the beach on the other side,

 not a wilderness journey.

 In our wretched, shamed longing

 We cry out.

 Our tears grow sticky on our faces

 and our voices are almost gone with screaming out Your name

 into the emptiness we've created.

 Come Lord Jesus

 Come Holy Spirit

 Come Fierce Healing God.

 We cry out.

 Rescue us from ourselves.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Rape, Rape Culture, and Living Out The Power of God in a Traumatized World

I want to focus the discussion of the Power of God in a Traumatized World on a particular situation.

Brock Turner, a 20 year old former Stanford University swimmer was recently sentenced by Judge Aaron Persky to 6 months because the judge was concerned that anything longer would have a "severe impact" on Turner.  The case, as well as the Victim Impact Statement of Turner's victim have gone viral.

I have been treating sexual offenders for over 25 years.  I also treat victims of trauma, a practice which often includes victims of rape, both male and female.  Over this 25+ years I have watched the tide turn, then turn again, and again in the ways in which we as a society respond the sexual victimization of the vulnerable in our culture: children, women, the elderly, the disabled, prisoners, the list goes on.  From my experience, there are some things I would like to share:

First of all, the victim in this situation is the young woman he raped.  Turner is not a victim.  Youth is not an excuse.  Drinking too much, while stupid, is not a crime that deserves rape as a punishment.

Had Brock Turner been anyone but a white child of privilege the sentence handed down would have been swift and brutal.  I have treated men who spent 20 years in prison for similar offenses.  They, however, were either poor, or people of color, or both.  It appears that just as we have a 1% who get to make the most profit in this country, we also have a privileged class that is allowed to victimize others sexually and physically with impunity.

Had the Court bothered to have a Sex Offender Evaluation done on Turner (if they did, it obviously wasn't read or taken into account at sentencing), the Court would have noticed a number of red flags that indicated an offender who falls into the High Risk category for re-offense.  I did not do a Offender Evaluation on Turner (I doubt anyone did) so my remarks are by way of general comments that could well bear out in his case.  Make what you will off them.  Perpetrators who rape unconscious victims have less empathy; they don't even have the fantasy that the individual they're assaulting is interested in them.  They tend to see the world in deeply narcissistic terms of "what can I get" and entitlement.  Rapists such as Turner who penetrate their victims with foreign objects are often diagnosable as sadists.  One rarely gets to this place in behavior without previous offenses...sometimes of a lesser, misdemeanor, nature that point toward the offense that finally brings them down.  In the case of many younger (late teens, early 20's) offenders, these offenses have been sealed in a juvenile record.

One would hope that someone with experience on the Criminal Bench would be aware of these kinds of facts and pursued them in making a decision.  There is no indication that this happened in this case.

Should the Judge have been concerned about impact of sentencing on Brock Turner?  Actually, I believe that the answer is "yes," but not in the way you might imagine.  All the available data points to the truth that sex offender treatment is a largely successful, financially wise, endeavor.  In fact, many studies have shown that sex offender treatment is more successful than drug and alcohol treatment in reducing re-offense and recidivism.  Rather than either playing "boys will be boys, we don't want to hurt his life," or "damn them all, lock him up and throw away the key,"  there are other options.  One such option is to impose sentences in which there is a mandatory minimum and opportunity for parole is dependent on completion of an in house sex offender treatment program within the prison system.  Such a sentence says to the offender, "Your crime was serious and we take it seriously.  We will give you the opportunity to do the work to lower the chances of ever committing another offense.  What you do with that opportunity will be up to you.  We will give you the chance to change, use it.  Because if you reoffend after we have given you the best of what we know about treatment, you will not get out again before you are very old and grey."  Added to this should be the responsibility of perpetrators (and Turner should easily be able to do this) to pay for their victims trauma therapy and other medical expenses.

The Power of God Turned Loose In A Traumatized World.....it takes the pain of victims seriously.  It seeks justice for the victimized and the oppressed.  But it also offers the opportunity for change and redemption and recovery for perpetrators.

The pragmatic truth is that the cost of Brock Turner's (and others like him) continuing to operate out of entitlement in a rape culture such as we have in this country is just too high.  It is too high financially.  It is too high in emotional cost to victims.  It is too high in terms of recidivism.  And it is too high in terms of the cost to our corporate soul as a nation.

Oh God, turn loose your power in our world.  Let justice roll down like water; and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.  And may we seek to heal the brokenness of victims and offenders alike with eyes open to the truth about what it will take to do so.  AMEN

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Solitary veterans who died alone at the VA
Tiny infants laid next to teddy bears
Friends ravaged by cancer
Victims of accidents and suicides
Beloved grandparents
old and full of years, surrounded by loving friends and family
Unclaimed bodies of aged inmates
dumped in a Potter's Field

I have stood by the caskets of them all
Listened to the stories
or the silence
And asked myself why I do it

I do it because
Jesus would want me to
Would want me to honor these fragile bodies that we carry through this world
He honored them by carrying one Himself
And He will raise them again
to be the body they were created to be.

So I stand at the grave
and proclaim the Resurrection
Spit in the face of Death
one more time before it comes for me
And trust that my Sure and Certain Hope
is not in vain

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Power Of God In A Traumatized World

When you want to share the best you have, you use what you know best.  Pretty simple, right?  Well, sometimes.  I've been playing with how to share the best I have with the new congregation where I am Interim Pastor.  I've been at First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, MD for a month now (if you're in the area you ought to come out and worship with us some Sunday at 11:00 a.m., 5701 42nd Ave.).

It's a great bunch of people.  They're not shy about saying "amen" when they hear something they can get with in the sermon.  They're wonderfully welcoming.  And when asked, they will turn out for a mission enterprise.  On Memorial Day we had 11 volunteers host 27 guests for a Holiday CafĂ©.  Guests got lunch, as well as a snack bag and a personal care items bag to take with them.  It made me proud to be their pastor (I did very little but show up, so this was all them.  They've been doing it for a while now).

But, like many churches, they've been in "survival mode" for a while.  And being in that mode interferes with being able to truly be Church.  They know this; we discuss it.  I'm not talking out of school.  The question for me is: "how do I teach and preach in a way that helps them move from survival mode to service mode?"  How do we, together, make mission and ministry our number one priority? 

What I know best from the Bible is the Gospel of Mark. I've studied it more than any other single book.  What I know best as a therapist is trauma. I've built my practice and career around how trauma theory relates to a variety of mental health issues.  I'm finding that these two go very well together; and that they also speak not only to the circumstances at the writing of Mark's Gospel, but to those of our day as well.  And so, on Sunday, I will begin a long term series on Mark titled: The Power Of God Set Loose In A Traumatized World.  I owe huge debts of gratitude to some recent Markan scholars as well as to the writing of trauma experts like Bessel Van der Kolk (whose The Body Keeps Score should be required reading for clergy).  I got hooked into this idea though by reading David M. Carr's Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins.

Mark's Gospel in particular was written smack in the middle of traumatic events for Israel.  Depending on whose dates for writing you buy, it was written very close to, or just after, the 70 A.D. Jewish revolt.  And the life of Israel for the past 800 years has been one of oppression and violence.  Thinking about the lives of individuals and the corporate life of Israel from this perspective gives us a different take on how the words of Scripture, particularly the Gospel, might have been heard.

It also gives us a different take on how we might listen to these scriptures. 

Monday was Memorial Day.  On Sunday I reminding our congregation of different people who were collateral victims of war. People like family members whose loved one's body never was recovered; people like my father, both of whose feet froze in Italy and at one point faced the possibility that they would be amputated; vets with serious PTSD who brought the war home with them as sure as if they'd packed it in their duffle bag; and young men and women who return from combat regions with addictions to drugs or alcohol.  Some of these swell the ranks of the homeless in our country.

And if we enlarge the circle from around our veterans outward to include those affected by other forms of PTSD such as victims of child abuse or sexual assault; the "food insecure," many of whom are working people; those suffering from addictions of every sort.....when we widen the circle in this fashion, we realize that we too live in a traumatized world. 

We've done scripture and the Gospel a great disservice when we clean it up.  We've wiped off all the blood.  We've ignored the lamentations of the force immigrations and the refugees that crowd the Hebrew Scriptures (when was the last time we spent time with Lamentations). And while some Christian preachers and film makers have made a big deal out of the torture of the crucifixion, we've ignored or down played the plight of so many of those with whom Jesus interacted.  Just the phrase to "go out into the highways and byways..." (for example) is a reference to going out to the homeless who slept by the roads because they had no other place to be.

We live in a traumatized world that desperately needs for the Power of God to be set loose in it.  Perhaps a new look at Mark will help.  Perhaps we here at Hyattsville will build on what we're already doing.  The Power of God is, indeed, loose in the world.  The only question is, will we join ourselves to it?