Two Texts: Iran, Cuba, and the Gerasene Demoniac

This month, our “Two Texts” series takes seriously the advice of Karl Barth… that we should take the bible and take the newspaper and read both.

All sorts of stories have caught our attention over the summer and have led us to wonder what the Bible might have to say about that.

What do people of faith have to say about these issues of our day?

And how do we, as a congregation with many different perspectives, look at these stories in a way that respects one another?

I and Pastor Todd can’t claim to be experts on world events, politics, finance and sociology. But we do know this book. And so our series this month will not dive into the details of policies, but will instead point us to biblical themes that have a bearing on our world today.

Will you pray with me…


I must start in our exploration of diplomacy in the midst of disagreements by reiterating a confession I just made. I am not an expert on these topics. In fact, the roots of both of the conflicts we will talk about today started before I was born.

In 1960, Cuba took over and nationalized American-owned oil refineries without permission or compensation.   The Cuban Revolution had overthrown the Batista regime, Fidel Castro was in power, and the United States and our economic leaders were … well… not happy. October 19th of that year began the United States embargo against Cuba.

Our national relationship with Iran also changed as the result of a revolution. In 1979, their United States supported leaders were overthrown. Eventually Iran became an Islamic republic, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. There were a number of factors that eventually severed relations between our countries, but perhaps one of the greatest began on November 4 of that year. A group, angry that Iran’s former leader had been allowed into the United States, took over the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for over a year. Over the years that have followed, our sour relations have focused on the attempted development of nuclear weapons by their country.

Our anger, our fears, our troubled relationships have led us to keep both of these nations at more than an arm’s length. We see them as dangerous to ourselves and our interests. We have intentionally cut off our connection with both nations in an attempt to force them to change and keep ourselves safe.


When we turn to the pages of the Bible, I am reminded of someone else who was kept at a distance. In the region of the Gerasenes, there was a man no one could control. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and was causing chaos in his community. As the Message bible tells us, “no one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones.”


How should we respond to those we fear? Or disagree with?

Do we keep them at a distance?

Do we try to chain them up and isolate them?

Do we prefer to turn our backs, avoiding them at all costs, while they in turn self-destruct?

That is what the people in the Gerasene region did. They were helpless. They were scared. And they kept their distance. Can we blame them? They are human like we are.


But what do we do about a whole country?

We think of this biblical story as the story of a single person, but when we dive deeper, this is a story about communities.

As Jesus approaches the demoniac (the demon possessed man) he tries to cast out the spirit. And he asks the spirit’s name…

“My name is Mob.” “My name is Legion.”

The spirit was not one, but thousands. A Legion is actually a military term for an entire unit in the Roman army… between 3-6,000 foot soldiers.

An entire community was living inside that man, tormenting him and everyone around.

So the larger community did what they could. They couldn’t cast them out. They couldn’t change the man, so they chained him up. They isolated him in the hopes that the spirits would leave.

Much like the larger world community has used sanctions and embargos and severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Cuba in order to protect ourselves and to force a change in the regimes of these places.


This summer, we have seen our diplomatic ties with these places soften a bit. We have reached a historic compromise with Iran that we are now debating in our own country. We have warmed up to Cuba and will soon be opening a United States Embassy there. We have reached out as a nation to talk, to imagine new possibilities, to rebuild relationships.


When Jesus approached the Gerasene Demoniac, nothing about the man had softened or changed. He was still as dangerous as ever. But through God, all kinds of healing are possible. Where the rest of the countryside had given up, Jesus knew that the man could be saved.

And so Jesus and the Legion had a talk. They negotiated. They each made some diplomatic concessions.


There are three larger themes I think we can point to in this story.

First, knowing Jesus had the power to cast them out, they begged Jesus to be merciful.

Power is a dangerous thing. In each of the conflicts mentioned, military power has been a thread of both disagreements – whether it was missiles pointed at our country or the development of nuclear weapons. But our nation also has a strong measure of power that has kept the other at bay.

Each week this month, we are also including a bulletin insert from the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Maybe we can think of this as our third text. These are the official positions of our church on some of the issues we are exploring today.

This one, in particular, challenges us to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. It is a reminder that our first moral duty is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises. It is also a strong condemnation against nuclear weapons.

Above all, it is a reminder that our power to hurt one another is great. And as people of faith, our call instead is to always seek peace first.

Rather than destroy the mob of spirits, Jesus showed them mercy.

I mentioned at the start of the message this morning that I wasn’t even alive when these conflicts started, but I learned along the way that over half of the population of Iran wasn’t around for the beginning of this conflict either. Half of their population is under the age of 25. A quarter of their people are under the age of 15. They certainly didn’t start the conflict, but they are impacted by it.

Mercy in these situations looks like recognizing each nation as a part of the human family and prioritizing human values over military claims. It means listening to the hopes and concerns of the other as we seek a way forward.


Second, this story reminds us that there are no easy answers to these negotiations. There are sacrifices and consequences to be made along the way.

As Jesus showed the Legion mercy, he allowed them to enter a herd of pigs that were grazing nearby. As we heard our lay reader say, nearly two thousand animals were possessed and driven mad, they charged over a cliff into the lake and drowned.

While pigs are not clean animals and wouldn’t have been part of the diet of the Jewish families, this was a gentile region. Someone or many someone’s lost their entire herd that day. The economic livelihood of many families was probably destroyed.

Yet, you also have to consider that the economic well-being of the region was probably hampered to begin with if this possessed man had been terrorizing the countryside. Travelers and merchants probably avoided the area as much as possible.

Every negotiation has a give and take. Diplomacy is not easy and it is important to consider what must be sacrificed for the greater good. That doesn’t mean anyone will be happy… and the people of the region, though initially relieved were pretty upset with Jesus over the pigs.

In our diplomacy with Iran and Cuba, we might not all agree on the specifics of the deals. But we must remember that in all cases, a negotiation means we let some things go, so that we might reach other objectives.


Lastly, this is a story of reconciliation. Relieved, embarrassed, ashamed, the man who had been possessed by the Legion, now didn’t know what to do. He begged Jesus to allow him to run away with the disciples.

But Jesus refused. He ordered him to return to his own people, to his own community, to find his place there again.

In every encounter Jesus has with those who are displaced, shunned, or isolated, his end goal is to return them to their own community. It is not to rescue or remove them, but to reconcile them. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the prodigal son, the lepers or the hemorrhaging woman? In every instance, they are healed so they can return to their place in society.

If we are the Body of Christ, then we need one another. This church community needs those we disagree with and those we don’t understand. We all have something to teach one another.

On a global stage, we might not all share the same faith or belief systems, but we are all human beings. We breathe the same air and need the same water. Our economies and politics impact the people of this world, not only their leaders. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.


As we encounter the news and hear stories of our diplomatic ties to Iran and Cuba and other places where our relationships have been difficult, let us think of the Gerasene Demoniac.

Think of the man, the Legion, and think about how Jesus walked right up and offered a path forward. Not an easy path, but a just path, a merciful path, a path towards reconciliation.

May we seek these things in all of our relationships.


Image: Second Coming of Christ With Two Gospel Miracles
Detail: Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac
Artist:  Alexey Pismenny

Apps and Folders

How you categorize something matters.

It speaks to the importance you place on it and the function it serves.

My smart phone has the ability to create folders for my home pages and various apps go in them.

I have one for tools (flashlight, calculator, etc.).

There is one labeled fun (Netflix, Pandora, and whatever game I have loaded – currently 2048).

A folder called work contains my Bible app, pages manager, and the link to our CMS software.

Social media apps like Facebook, twitter and Snapchat are included in social.

And then there is my self care folder. It contains fitness and running apps, a link to our insurance app, and WordPress.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out where to put my blogging app. For a while, it was with the social apps. Relationships, community, conversation are all part of the reason I blog. It could fit with work, because I usually blog about things related to ministry.

But I realized that primarily, I blog for me. I blog to think. I blog to let go of things. I blog to discern. It is a spiritual practice, as every bit as important to my self care as what I eat, or how much sleep I get.

Why do you blog or write? How would you label your practice?


Yesterday, I preached on Jesus and the fig tree.  It is such a strange pericope (aka story).  Both Matthew and Mark tell us (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) that Jesus was walking along, sees a fig tree, doesn’t find fruit, curses the tree and wham-o, it dies.


There is a broader point to the story, as I mentioned in the sermon: about prayer, about asking for what we want, and about the power of God to move mountains.

But, c’mon… what is it with this  fig tree?

This morning I sat down with my devotions and read from Albert Edward Day’s The Captivating Presence:

Sometimes the best of us have days when our dearest friend must say, “you are not yourself today”. That fact gives them a hard time and sends them away deprived of what they should have from us. BUT GOD IS ALWAYS GOD.

“You are not yourself today.”

That’s what I wish the disciples had told Jesus when he cursed that fig tree.  It wasn’t even the right season.  What was he thinking?

Well, probably, he wasn’t.


snickersHave you seen those Snickers commercials with Betty White and Joe Pesci and the like?

You know… the one where  they are handed a Snickers and transform back into their real selves with just one bite?

The tagline is “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry.”

What if this story is a reminder that while God is always God, Jesus was also fully human.

And human beings get hungry.

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. (Mark 11:12)

Early in the morning as Jesus was returning to the city, he was hungry. (Matthew 21:18)

When I get hungry, I get grouchy. Seriously cranky. My head hurts. I don’t want to do anything. I’m a bear to be around and I often lash out at whatever or whomever might be nearby.

What if Jesus just really needed a candy bar?


I wish I had the answers about how Jesus could be fully God and fully human all at the same time, but to me it is a mystery.  And I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with the unchanging, holy, everlasting, eternal, awesome God becoming one of us.

I’m okay with the idea that Jesus can be totally divine and holy and merciful and good and loving AND that he was a human being who cried as a baby and learned and changed as an adult, and yes, got hungry sometimes.

It doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t change my ability to turn to God or learn from Jesus.

Well, maybe it does change my feelings… maybe it deepens my appreciation of God’s love for us.  That God would go so far to get to know us so well.

Team Triple B


My aunt Barb has been diagnosed and treating uterine and ovarian cancer for about two years now. She has been through a few rounds of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Some of it has been successful! Some of the cancer has returned. It has been an up and down journey, but she has had quite a few healthy months in the midst of it all.

Through everything, family and friends have been a huge support and together they have participated in Relay for Life the past two years.

As Team Triple B, their slogan is “Keep PUSHing”

For them, PUSHing means that you Pray Until Something Happens.


Pray Until Something Happens.


In these past six weeks, we have talked a lot about prayer. We started out by talking about prayer as group activity… something we do together. Pastor Todd talked about prayer as an intimate relationship with our parental God. Trevor invited us to think about prayer as something that is always hard and always necessary – a sweet devotion. Our guest preachers, Pastors Ted and Mara, have led us in a variety of disciplines and continued to stretch our thinking on how we practice prayer.

While I was away on leave, I spent every single morning in prayer. I wish I could say that I always spent every morning in prayer, but as Trevor so eloquently stated in his message, prayer is hard work.

Yet, on my renewal leave, my only real task was to pray. To pray for you. To pray for our ministries. To pray for God to guide me and us. And I read a lot about prayer as well.

One of the things that kept striking me is that we need to pray like we mean it.

We need to pray about those things in this world that we really want to change.

We need to pray until something happens!


In our gospel reading, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem and he passed by a fig tree. Even though it was out of season, he looked for fruit and didn’t find any. So he said, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” The tree withered, dried up, and died within 24 hours.

Jesus prayed… and something happened!

Now, I’m going to be honest… this is a rather strange story that leaves us with all sorts of questions:

Why would Jesus punish the tree when it couldn’t help that it was the wrong season?

The scripture says he was really hungry… so maybe he was just really grouchy, like I often get when I haven’t eaten in a while…

Because, I mean, what kind of Jesus is this that arbitrarily causes things to die?

United Methodists don’t typically buy into the kind of prosperity gospel that says if you pray for what you want, you will get it.

We are fully aware that all kinds of faithful people pray for things like healing and miracles and help and the answers aren’t always what we want.

Maybe that is why even though it is a story mentioned in both Matthew and Mark, most of the cycles of scripture readings pastors use completely ignore this passage. We’d rather Jesus didn’t have this encounter with the fig tree.


Yet, the core of the message here… aside from the weird stuff with the fig tree… is repeated over and over again by Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9)

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains… nothing will be impossible (Mt 17:20)

If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

If we pray… stuff will happen! Not little stuff… BIG. GIGANTIC. POWERFUL. MOUNTAIN SIZED stuff!

That’s what scripture tells us.

That’s what Jesus keeps reminding us.

Prayer is powerful.


There is a important thing to remember in this power of prayer, however.

This power only works when our prayers are aligned with God’s will.

If I started praying for a bigger house today… I probably wouldn’t get it. Because that is not about God… its about me.

As 1 John puts it: If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for what he wanted… but he ended that prayer: not my will, but yours be done.

What I love about my aunt’s prayer during this time  is that while she has all sorts of hopes and wants and desires for her treatment, their goal is for God’s will to be done.

They are going to Pray Until Something Happens.

That might be good news and healing. It might be deeper relationships.  It might not be the ending they want, but they are open to discovering God’s blessings and God’s answers along the way.

And through it all… they are going to pray.


I have found that we don’t hesitate to lift up prayers asking for healing. We are even pretty good at lifting up prayers of gratitude.

But there are things in this world that we are called to do and change and work towards… and we forget to pray about it!

We get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to ask God to be a part of it. We keep thinking it is all about us.

And when we do so, we forget to tap into the mountain-moving power of prayer that is right there at our fingertips.



And that is what we need to do.

Last fall, we sat down and spent some time asking God what we were supposed to do here at Immanuel. And out of those conversations as leadership, we set some goals around places we have passion and we felt God was moving. Now… we need to pray about it.

We need to Pray Until Something Happens.


One of those goals was that we wanted to increase our visibility in the community… We want get to know our neighbors better… And our goal, our hope, is that those new relationships will mean there are 10% more people here in worship at the end of this year.

But you know what… we haven’t really prayed about it. We haven’t asked God to help us with this work. We’ve been trying to do it on our own.


Another goal we set last year was create space for people to serve here at Immanuel. We want to make sure that everyone is connected to some kind of ministry beyond Sunday morning. And one of the pieces of this goal is to encourage new people to embrace God’s gifts in their life and we wanted to find a place for 10 new people to serve on our ministry teams.

But we haven’t been praying about it. We haven’t asked God to help us.


And as the Iowa Annual Conference, we have this amazing new goal. As United Methodists, we want to make a significant impact on poverty in our communities and we think we can do something really big by addressing the opportunity gap in education. And so, we are being asked to get involved with an effort to distribute half a million books and to give a million hours of time over the next year. And it is a big and awesome and mountain sized goal and we are just getting started…

So you know what… we had better start praying for it.


In fact, we need to start praying for all of these things.

We are going to need God on our side if these things are going to happen.

If the world is going to change… if the kingdom is going to come… if God’s will is to be done, we need to ask for God to be involved.

We need to start praying until something happens.


As we leave worship today, you’ll find that there are some tables at the back with three different stations.

Each station relates to one of those goals I lifted up in the message this morning.

And at each station is a prayer card I want to invite you to take with you.

I want us to commit to praying for mountains to move.

I want us to commit to praying every day that God’s will be done in our midst.


You don’t have to pray for every single one of them… but pick at least one.

Commit yourself to prayer by name.

If we have at least 50 people here in the church praying for every one of these goals do you think God will hear us. Do you think God will sense we are not only people who care about these things, but we are ready for change. We believe. We have faith that God can make a difference here.


Ghandi once wrote:

If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water,

Or stir up the fire with the bellows

Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table,

Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice-field,

Or standing by the smelter’s furnace

We do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery,

The world will never be saved.


We may not share the same faith as Ghandi, but we all believe in the power of prayer. And Ghandi’s words remind us that prayer is not just for the super-religious, and prayer is not only for renewal leave… prayer is something we are supposed to be doing every second of every day of our lives.


We should be praying when we work.

We should be praying as we play.

We can be praying as we brush our teeth and drive to work.

We can pray at the dinner table.

We need to be praying everywhere, all the time, about everything.


And what I want you to do is take one of these prayer cards this morning and pray your heart out.

Put it on your bathroom mirror and pray it every morning.

Stick it in your car and pray before you get to work.

Take more than one if you want to, and put them wherever they might be a reminder to you.

Bring your prayers to breakfast and take turns each saying your prayer together.


Pray… even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed.

Pray that mountains might move.

Pray that kids might learn to read.

Pray that we might meet and grow with new people.

Pray that every person might find a place to connect and serve.


Pray Until Something Happens.


Competing Goals

One of my goals for this renewal leave was to cook more meals in the evening for myself and my husband.

It is something I love to do, and I use about two more pots or utensils than I need and make a lovely delicious mess every time.

But I love to cook. I love to discover new flavors and adapt recipes and buy fresh ingredients based on one meal and take a few hours in the kitchen.

I can honestly tell you I have made exactly zero of those big fancy meals. Last night, I made a one pot casserole while Brandon was at the hardware store. We’ve had frozen pizza twice this week. Our fridge has never been emptier.

Even though making dinner was my goal, it was connected with the goal to spend more quality time with my husband. And when either of us cook, we get in each others way.

He is also in charge of the dishes (my responsibility is the cats and the garbage), and so my kitchen messes stress him out.

He is a much pickier eater than I am, too.

I realized I had competing goals, so I have ended up cooking very little this past month.

Sometimes churches have competing goals, too.

I was part of a church in Nashville that wanted to both provide excellent child care AND be open to people off the street.  We couldn’t do the second effectively because we needed to keep doors locked and building access limited for child safety.

Denominations have such competing goals and priorities as well. My own annual conference is balancing budget reduction/apportionment reduction AND the goals to reach new people/better equip leaders. To be honest, they don’t co-exist very well.

As I thought about my own competing goals, a few questions came to mind that might help churches discern as well:

1) Where do my goals intersect or overlap? Do they mutually benefit each other? Or detract?  A simple evaluation can bring to light places of competition or cooperation.

2) Is this goal something I want, or something we need? Especially in churches, it is sometimes hard to let go of goals you are personally excited about. But, if it doesn’t fit with the overall direction or priorities of the church, it is easier to let them go.

3) Who benefits from these goals? Who is harmed? This can be a tricky question, especially if you are dealing with multiple vulnerable populations (like children/homeless, or small churches/campus ministries). Yet, sometimes we make assumptions about who is benefiting from our goals or who becomes more at risk. Taking the time to evaluate in this way clears the waters.

4) Can a different goal, or a different ministry do the work just as well? Can you better equip local homeless

ministry and work there, rather than do it in your building? Can you focus on stewardship and helping churches pay their share instead of reducing the payments for everyone? Can you go out to eat more, instead of cooking g at home? We simply can’t do everything and realizing what our options are helps us shift our goals.


Manipulate or appreciate?

Henri Nouwen writes:

It is impressive to see how prayer opens one’s eyes to nature.  Prayer makes men [and women, I’d add] contemplative and attentive.  In place of manipulating, he who prays stands receptive before the world. He no longer grabs but caresses, he no longer bites, but kisses, he no longer examines but admires…. Instead of an obstacle, it becomes a way… (from Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic)

I have spent almost every morning of my renewal leave praying outside.  The squirrels are chattering.  The birds squawking and cirping.  A starling is eating dead leaves off of a dying tree, while a cardinal sits on my garden post, and a squinny is digging a hold in the landscaping. It has been noisy out here on the porch.  And busy.  There is always something to watch and hear.

And I do feel more deeply appreciative of what I am discovering.  The cardinals are new.  I hadn’t seen them before this morning.  The orange and magenta and purple in the butterfly garden are just now coming into full bloom and I can imagine how striking that space will be in a few years as the plants naturalize and spread.

But there has been some manipulation going on as well in my back yard.  Some battles I am choosing to fight.  Putting in the garden, for one. Clearing out the weeds.  Being intentional about what to keep and what to change.

In my organic ministry course, we have talked a lot about paying attention to what the land is telling us.  What does it need?  What grows best there? We can fight against nature all we want, but the land will keep fighting back.  Or, we will strip the land of every good nutrient as we force it to produce what we want, in an efficient manner, every year.

Success looks like a good harvest. Abundant production. With little regard to what we have sacrificed in our manipulations.

My manipulated vegetable garden isn’t producing much this year.  The rabbits have eaten all the green beans. The peas never came up.  It has not been warm enough for the peppers and they aren’t growing as abundantly as I would hope, nor are they putting on flowers to bear fruit.  The raspberries we planted last year blossomed, but I think the birds ate all the berries. Only the tomatoes appear to be on the verge of production and “success.”

But these past few weeks have helped me to appreciate what I have. The tiny garden is feeding our wildlife at least. While I might find the intrusion frustrating, it is also fun to watch the joy my cats take in watching the birds and squirrels. I’m also learning lessons in the process that I can apply next year: the need for better protection, starting my seeds earlier, cultivating a healthier and less sandy soil for growth by adding compost and nutrients. Those lessons are also success.

And I wonder how the time spent paying attention in this season will impact  how I pay attention in the church and community.

How often do we manipulate our people and programs in order to produce the results our conference or denomination or the latest church growth book has suggested?  How often do we use cookie cutter approaches that might bear fruit in the short term, but have no long term understanding of what will keep the church soil healthy and vibrant? Do we appreciate who our people are?  Do we spend time getting to know them before we start to shape them?  Do we allow what they say to use to alter our plans for ministry? What is the community teaching us? What are our children teaching us?  What are the interruptions and oopses and failures teaching us?

Maybe there is a middle ground between manipulation and appreciation. A place where we really pay attention to what is happening in our churches and communities and we explore the places we can make some intentional changes that will honor what is there and create the conditions for healthy and flourishing life… now and in the future.


The itch

Last week, I got into some poison ivy.

First, on the disc golf course as we were looking for a shot that was too long and in the rough. I noticed it after traipsing through.

Then, in my very own backyard.  We had a gigantic bush of the stuff, all viney and spread out everywhere.  I donned my long sleeved shirt and latex gloves and washed everything immediately after pulling the ivy out and tossing it in a garbage bag.

But 2-3 days later, the bumps have arrived. The itchy, red, gross bumps. A streak on my leg.  Both of my wrists, a few fingers and a blotch on the top of one arm.

Last year, I covered myself with this pink itch relief cream, but in reality, it didn’t really help, so I’m toughing it out.

And here is what I have figured out:  If I’m busy with something… if I’m watching television or writing or working out in the garden, I don’t notice the itch.  But as soon as I stop, I can’t stop thinking about scratching!


I have had another itch as well.  The itch to get back to work. And that itch has been a little bit stronger.  Any time my mind is clear… as I’m pulling weeds or sitting at the computer waiting for inspiration to hit on the writing or driving in the car, I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do when I get back to Immanuel next week.

For me, that itch is much healthier.  It is a sign that I’m doing the work I am called to do.  It is a sign that this has been a good time away where I could clarify and focus on things in a new way.  It is a sign that God has been in the midst of this time and that I need to honor the things I have discovered about myself, my relationships, and my calling when I return.

In fact, I had to make a list on my phone.  Every time inspiration strikes, it goes on the list.

It helps soothe the itch for a while so I can get back to resting and renewing.