The Jesus I See in the Book of Mark

As part of our new sermon series The Jesus I Never Knew Sunday I challenged Mt Vernon to read the book of Mark in one sitting and share their thoughts. It took me about 45 minutes this morning to read through the book of Mark. Here’s what struck me:

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  • The crowds were quick to materialize. The poorest of the poor, it must have been a region and people desperate for any good news. I think Jesus would have had a tougher time gathering a crowd if he came today and had to compete with football, movie premieres, and ball practices.
  • It seems like Jesus intentionally ticked off the religious leaders. Or at least that’s how Mark records it. Every chapter seems to have something else Jesus did to make them mad. Jesus grew up in that society and he well knew the rules. He just chose to break them.
  • It’s amazing how quickly the religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat. Even from the opening pages they were figuring out ways to get rid of him, a threat to their way of life.
  • The story of Jesus commanding the waves to be still has always been an odd one to me. How could he have stayed asleep if the waves were engulfing the boat? What’s odder to me is the disciples reaction when Jesus calms the waves. They were afraid. They’d seen him do miracles before, but something about this one was different.
  • I’m always amazed at the death of John the Baptist. Here he was, God’s messenger, devoted to God since birth, and this is how he dies? Beheaded by the whim of a girl? It’s proof that God’s kingdom is not of this earth. If John’s end was this lowly, who are we to demand any better?
  • Jesus seems to turn a corner in Mark 7 and starts laying into the religious leaders. He’s no longer just breaking their traditions, now he’s dressing them down publicly and rebuking them. There’s no way they would stand for this.
  • I don’t know what was a stronger motive for the religious leaders to kill Jesus: the fact that they were threatened by Jesus’ teaching, or the fact that they were insanely jealous of Jesus’ following. The crowds loved him in a way they never loved the religious leaders.
  • How hard must it have been to include Mark 8 and 14? The writer of this gospel is Mark, who was not one of the twelve apostles. But scholars believe that he got all his information from Peter. This is Peter’s telling. And yet he chose to include those two chapters, where Jesus calls Peter Satan and Peter denies Jesus. It takes a strong man to include those low points.
  • It always seems to me like Jesus is a little harsh to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10). This guy just wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus makes him sell all his possessions first? My selfish self wants it to be okay to pursue Jesus and money at the same time, but Jesus would not allow that.
  • I’m always astonished by the crowds. Jesus had the crowds. But he never sought the crowds. He was focused on his disciples and his mission. What does that mean for churches that simply seek the crowds?
  • Jesus doesn’t give his disciples a sunny picture to look forward to. They will be persecuted, tried, and killed for their faith. What keeps them devoted? They cannot deny that Jesus is from God. What will you give up for God?
  • Mark 15 doesn’t make sense from a human perspective. Jesus has shown miraculous powers now for fourteen chapters. Nature, the human body, the spirit world, all under his command. And yet he allows himself to be tortured and executed without fighting back?

That’s what stands out to me. What stands out to you?

 

Dodgeballs and Slinkies

Growing up church sanctuaries were hallowed, untouchable places. From the stained glass to the pews to the chandeliers, the furniture makeup was unchangeable. I could never quite find the Bible verse that said that the church sanctuary had to look like that, but I always assumed it was somewhere in the book of 2 Opinions. In contrast the meeting rooms for kids and youth were always spartan in comparison. Cinderblock walls, a few posters or bean bags if we were lucky. It was apparent quickly where ministries lined up on the organizational hierarchy. Those were the churches I grew up in. But that’s not the church I’m a part of now.

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Over the past two weekends we’ve had two major outreach events, one for youth and one for children. The youth had a blacklight dodgeball tournament and the children had KidZone Live. In both instances an untold number of volunteers came together and contributed hundreds of hours to pull off an amazing event. In both instances we had more teenagers and more children than we’ve ever had before at our church.

The reason we were able to have these amazing events? Because we broke through the taboo of a sanctuary as an untouchable space and made it a functional environment. Every Sunday morning our Fellowship Center is a worship venue for The Gathering. But two Friday nights ago that large space was turned into blacklight dodgeball heaven, with 300 teenagers crammed in there to spend their Friday night. Every Sunday morning our Worship Center hosts two worship services, but last night it was transformed into a kids paradise as 300 kids and parents filled the room for KidZone Live.

In both instances the worship venues were filled with something you normally wouldn’t see in a church sanctuary: dodgeballs and slinkies. Growing up this never would have happened. Children’s and Youth ministries were important, but we couldn’t touch the sanctuary. So why do it now? Because Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. Because there’s nothing more important than reaching the next generation for Christ. Because a church that fails to reach kids and teenagers is a church that actively digs its own grave. That trumps traditional taboos about what’s respectable in a church sanctuary. That’s why we let our teenagers tear the place up with a bunch of dodgeballs. That’s why I preached yesterday with hundreds of slinkies hanging down over my head from the ceiling. I did it for the kids. Reaching the next generation trumps my personal preferences. From my perspective, our ‘sanctuaries’ were more hallowed when filled with hundreds and hundreds of young people than when ordained with the finest stained glass and chandeliers. People are God’s treasure. The rest is just furniture.

Hope Story: Convicts and Lesbians

Last Thursday was a great reminder for me of what the gospel is supposed to be about. It’s not just for the well-manicured families we typically think of when we think of church. It’s for everyone (at least it’s supposed to be). It’s for the high and mighty and the down and out. Last Thursday I was reminded of that.

The day started with a text from one of our church members saying she recently had a conversation with a member of another church about a new co-worker who happens to be lesbian. Our church member said she was planning on inviting her to church, to which the member of the other church replied, “Yeah, she would probably be comfortable there.” I took that conversation as a compliment, meaning we’ve created a welcoming environment where our members feel comfortable inviting those with lifestyles that you typically wouldn’t see inside a church in the South.

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Later on that morning I wrote a letter to a convict who had written me the previous week. He grew up in our community and has a reputation for wild living. He attended church as a kid but it never stuck. His second trip to the pen got his attention and he gave his life to Christ a few months ago. He’s 2-3 months from being released and is looking for a church home once he gets home. He heard that Mt Vernon might be a place where he would be accepted. I wrote him back and assured him that he has a family waiting here for him, with some great guys ready to mentor him and disciple him.

That was my Thursday. Convicts and lesbians. I was reminded of the truth from Scripture, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) I guess ‘everyone’ means everyone, not just the ones we’re comfortable with.

Or as Jesus famously recounted in his parable: we’re to go to the highways and hedges to invite people to the Great Banquet.

21 ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. Luke 14:21-23

I think convicts and lesbians count as ‘highways and hedges.’ I’m so glad they have a place here at Mt Vernon!

A Conversation With Kushi That Changed My Life

A good friend recently passed away, and her impact on my life is more than maybe she ever knew. Growing up I felt about as average as average could be. I was good but not great, athletic but not enough to make the team, smart but not at the top of my class.

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(I am top row, second from right. Kushi is immediately to my right. Taken in 1998)

One of the bad habits I had developed in my teenage years was to make self-depreciating statements about myself to a fault. I’d try something but verbally tell myself I’d most likely fail (as an out). It was a corrosive defense mechanism that sprang from a deficient self-esteem and lack of confidence.

But then I went to college and met Kushi Jones. She wasn’t a professor or fellow student. She worked in administration, and her office was next to the office I used for a student job. Kushi (if any of you knew Kushi you know this was just her personality) immediately became a friend and mentor to me, a mom on campus while I was at college.

I don’t remember what the conversation was specifically about, but I remember that one day I did the thing where I verbally degraded myself and half-jokingly told Kushi I would most likely fail at whatever it was I was talking about. I don’t remember the exact words but I’ll always remember Kushi’s reaction. She got angry. Mom angry. She looked at me straight in the eyes and sternly told me (something to the affect of), “I never want to hear you talk bad about yourself again. You can do anything if you set your mind to it!

After that she went on with the rest of her day. She worked on her computer. She did some paperwork. But she had forever left an imprint on my life. Because of her loving rebuke, I did exactly what she said. I stopped verbally degrading myself. Pretty soon, my self-confidence followed and I actually started believing that I could accomplish big things. And eventually, I started achieving those dreams: traveling the world, earning a doctorate, becoming a pastor.

Kushi Jones was a small but absolutely integral part in my life journey, and I’ll be forever grateful for her. Kushi passed away last week from a heart attack, but I look forward to renewing our friendship on the other side.

Be a Kushi in someone’s life. Be a mentor. Be a mother. Be a father. Be an encourager. If you ever think an encouraging thought about someone, don’t let it stop with a thought. Tell them. Change someone’s life.

An Amazing Fact From the Superbowl

Guess how many players in this year’s Superbowl were 5-star recruits out of high school? As spring (theoretically) begins to thaw the rage among football fans is college recruiting of high school players. To give a frame of reference to the quality of players, high school players are now given a ranking based on their skill level, with 5 stars being the highest.

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Although this could seem cruel, it’s a reflection of a society that loves to rank everything. We rank students based off their GPA. We rank careers based off net worth. So an article came out right before the Superbowl and blew me away when I came across it recently. Do you know how many 5-star players started in this year’s Superbowl? None. Zero. Neither team had a starter that was a 5-star recruit out of high school! In fact the average for both teams was between 2 and 3 stars. This year’s Superbowl teams were made up of players that were determined to be at best average in high school.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this, but let me give you three:

1. Don’t let someone else’s determination of you define who you are. If these football players stopped playing football because they were only a 2 or 3 star recruit out of high school, they would have missed out on playing a championship game for the ages. Don’t allow other’s determination of you to define who you are. God made you on purpose for a purpose.

2. Past success never guarantees future success. Just because 5-star players were great in high school didn’t mean they would be great at the college or professional level. If you rest on past successes, all you’ll have is memories of past successes. Each new challenge in life has to be conquered the hard way. There are no free passes.

3. Determination and perseverance are absolute keys to success. Many of the great stories of the NFL are the guys who were undrafted but walked on, earned a spot and made the team. Malcolm Butler, the hero of the Superbowl, was undrafted. The guys who started the Superbowl earned those spots because they worked harder than anyone else. They worked longer than anyone else. They persevered, and that counts for a whole lot more than their star count out of high school.

If you don’t feel like life has given you a 5-star rating, don’t give up. There still may be a Superbowl in your future!