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Discerning the Spirits

A Sermon for 10 June 2018 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Mark 3:20-35.  We continue to hear about the early days of Jesus’ ministry according to the gospel of Mark.  Listen for God’s word to us.

The words right before verse 20 read:  “Then he went home;”  and beginning at verse 20:  “and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.  28 Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”  31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


The novel The Girl Who Could Read Hearts:  A Family and the Power of Intuition is about six-year-old Kate.  Primarily written from Kate’s six-year-old point of view, the author records in the Afterword that while Kate and her family are fictional; the story is inspired by a vivid dream and influenced heavily by experiences the author has had throughout her life.  It all starts on Kate’s birthday when she accidently puts the candles of her cake too close to her beloved angel doll Etta Ebella.  Given to Kate by her dear grandmother who mysteriously has been left fully paralyzed and unable to speak, Kate knows what her grandmother too knows but no longer can communicate.  That Etta Ebella isn’t a typical childhood toy.  Which is kinda perfect because Kate isn’t a typical child.  The doll is an actual angel whose heart space sometimes turns into sparkly diamonds and whose topaz eyes captivate those in need of help and whose angel wings flutter every now and again to remind Kate to listen to what she hears with the ears of her tummy.  To trust her vision-like dreams.  To pay attention to what she sees when she looks out from the eyes inside her chest.  For Kate has the seemingly miraculous ability to read people’s hearts.

The description of what she sees when Kate looks at people is fascinating.  Like when her favorite Uncle TT takes Kate to the house of a woman friend she didn’t even know he had.  Kate is surprised to see beautiful little sparks coming out of the hearts of both Uncle TT and Dr. Angelique.  As she watches them animatedly talk, Kate sees the firefly-like sparks circling in one between their hearts.  . . .  When Kate looks at her mean-spirited Uncle Vaynem, she sees something else altogether.  There where his heart should be, Kate sees an ugly color.  A hole stockpiled with weapons that are just waiting to be used in stealth against his next target.  . . .  When Kate looks at the sneaky, bigoted nurse at the hospital, Kate sees the color of greenish-grey-black storm clouds.  A heart filled with bumps like warts on a toad.  Kate doesn’t want that nurse to come anywhere near her with her stone-cold, hard as ice eyes and her nasty, pitted heart.  Kate’s angel doll repeatedly tells her to note the gift of her amazing ability to read hearts.

It might be just a fictional story, but it’s remarkable that lots of people similarly see.  Sometimes referred to as empaths; all sorts of people today are paying attention to their ability to see or feel or intuit – as Kate would say:  with the ears of their tummies and the eyes of their hearts.  Thereby knowing just what is inside another person.  The gift might seem as much a curse as a blessing.  True empaths literally feel what others are feeling – often times taking in another person’s emotional energy (Empaths:  16 Simple Habits to Protect Yourself, Feel Better, and Enjoy Life Even If You are Highly Sensitive, Vik Carter, 2017, p. 5).  While it leads to an astounding ability to be extremely sensitive to other people’s pain, being an empath can be totally draining – especially for those who are unaware they are taking in other’s emotions.  Those with such intense empathy can be incredibly generous.  They want to help others, which at times leads to problems.  ‘Cuz empaths can over-give, while others can over-take until there is such an imbalance between two people that one ends up completely empty while the other never can get their fill.  In the story of The Girl Who Could Read Hearts, it’s helpful that little Kate has her Uncle TT with the very same gift, her similarly-gifted grandmother – even if she is incapacitated, and her angel doll Etta Ebella as her guide.  All helping young Kate to make sense of how valuable it is for her to listen to, and act upon, what Etta Ebella tells her are “the whispers of God,” there to guide her so she will “make choices based on what (she) hears and sees with (her) special ears and eyes” (The Girl Who Could Read Hearts, Sherry Maysonave, Balboa Press, 2016, p. 318).

Jesus is talking about the very same thing.  The gospel of Mark records that Jesus goes home – seemingly back to Nazareth – for the first time after he had set out to find John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry.  No sooner do people crowd around him than his family hears he’s back.  It’s noted by the gospel that they’ve grown worried:  Jesus’ momma, brothers, and sisters.  They’ve been hearing the rumors.  They see the mounting fear.  Scribes come poking around from Jerusalem, which can’t at all be good!  Attracting the attention of the spiritual authorities all the way up in Jerusalem means there’s bound to be trouble!  He’s been all over Galilee accomplishing miraculous cures, exercising a new kind of power, making pronouncements that ruffle the feathers of the religious and political leaders of his day.  We have the benefit of the full story as we read of Jesus.  We already believe him the mysterious mix of human and Divine.  His contemporaries did not!  They wanted to know just who he thought he was!

It’s fair to say Jesus was the quintessential empath – with a very special gift of reading the hearts of others.  Certainly, he was expert at listening to the whispers of God.  Paying attention to his vivid vision-like dreams.  Listening with the ears of his tummy and seeing with the eyes of his heart.  People couldn’t understand how he knew what he knew.  It didn’t make sense to them where he got what he taught and how he was able to heal as he did.  They claimed he drove out demons – unclean spirits that might have looked just like six-year-old Kate’s Uncle Vaynem’s ugly-colored, weapon-stockpiling heart; or like what Kate saw when she met the conniving, small-minded nurse with her storm-cloud, wart-bumped heart.  Somehow Jesus was able to discern the spirits of those who came to him.  To cast out the parts that were making the person ill and cure parts of bodies few others dared to touch.  He clearly knew what was of God and what was not.

What’s more, he proclaims that discerning the spirits is key for any who would be his followers.  All his talk about “Satan casting out Satan,” a “kingdom being divided against itself” never being able to stand (Mark 3:23-24).  Jesus knew the difference between that which was of the Holy Spirit and that which was not.  Messing up the difference between a spirit that was contrary to the Spirit of God would have eternal consequences, Jesus taught.  Trying to silence what was of the Spirit of God, as Jesus’ family intended to do to him on his first trip back home, would show one’s real allegiance – would reveal what really was within another’s heart.  Jesus would have none of it.  In word and in deed he proclaimed that being about the will of God shows the contents of a person’s insides.  Jesus teaches that if we want to discern the spirits, all we need to do is look.  . . .  Later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul would give the helpful reminder to look for the fruits of the spirit.  We can distinguish between the Holy Spirit of God and that which is not when we see evidence of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).  The nine signs that the one we’re looking at is under the influence of the Holy Spirt; is up to the will of God.

It might be easier if we all had Kate’s remarkable ability.  Literally to see the colors and shapes emanating from hearts – our own and others.  It might be a welcome gift to be able to notice when fireflies are dancing or jagged ridges are shooting.  When the emotions of another look like turbulence or feel as delightful as a soft breeze caressing our cheek.  Surely then we could rightly see – clearly distinguishing so we’d repeatedly be on the side of God’s Spirit.  Nonetheless, even if all we have are the eyes on the front of our face; our Lord expects us to look.  To discern between the spirits.  To be sure we don’t mistake the work God is up to in the world today, be it different than what we’ve seen before.  So that when authorities question motives.  And families fear for lives; we are not deterred.  With the clarity of those who really know, we follow where blessed fruit grows.  Welcoming in our lives and others’ the evidence of the Spirit, wonderful signs, God’s whispers come to be our special guides.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

All are Loved Here!

Recently I heard a story about a house made out of a cardboard box for a stray cat. It has been extremely cold around many parts of the USA and one pre-teen girl couldn’t stand it any longer for the cat frequently found outside around her home. She got busy. After a day of the box being all snuggled with a cozy blanket, a sign was added: “Shadow is Loved Here!” Not only did the girl name the cat, she attempted to lure it to the warmth of the make-shift home with the depths of her generous heart. She wanted that stray to know that the warmth of the house she had created for it was a place where it was fully loved. Welcomed. Home.

True story.

I want such a sign, don’t you?

One for each of us. A sign over every home to remind us why it even is home for us. Because we are loved unconditionally there. Sheltered from the storms of the rest of life. Welcomed in the safety of such a place where we are cherished. Feed. Protected.

What sign do you have over the threshold of your home? What sign do you have over the threshold of your own heart?

May we be generous enough with ourselves, with those in our homes, with those needing home, and with all — not only to post, but also to enact the message: All are loved here!


How Many Ways to Get Home?

I grew up at an address that literally had only one way in and one way out by car.  The only way to go each day was by the same private drive that led to the one road away from the lake to anywhere else in the world you might want to go.  The physical location of my childhood home may be part of the reason I forget today that I can go to and from my current home by a variety of roads.

I was reminded of that tonight as I was making my way home from an amazing lecture by Dr. Amy Jill Levine at The Temple on the other side of town.  (To be inspired and perhaps learn a bunch, check out her latest book:  Short Stories by Jesus.)  For the third week in a row after incredible insights from Dr. Levine, I took a different route.  And to shake things up even more, I decided tonight was the night I would try to figure out what probably is the quickest and most direct shortcut.  When I got to a particular road, I didn’t go the way I typically would from that point.  I kept going forward to discover another way that road A connects with road B.  I did okay, until I got to Hill Road and went left instead of right.  Around the neighborhood I was sent; when if I would have turned right, the route would have been a bit more direct.  “Make a mental note,” I told myself.  “When you get to that point on the road, turn the opposite direction from home (something that seemed counter-intuitive) and you’ll be going the more direct way.”

How often do we get caught in the trap that only one way exists to get home?  And I don’t just mean the path we take to and from work each day.  Nor am I referring to home only as a destination (e.g. like where I live, or our final union with the Divine that some call heaven).  Home is a set of relationships too.  The people who hold safe space for us to be most fully ourselves and cherish exactly who we are no matter what.  How many different ways are there in this world for us all to get to those kinds of homes?  I’m guessing there’s as many ways home as there is of us.

I needed the tangible reminder tonight.

Some routes might be the tried and true ones.

Some routes allow one to keep away from all the congestion.

Some routes can be quicker.  Others more direct.

Some are already fully known; while others have to be figured out all along the way.

Some are just to enjoy the ride — to make life a little bit better in the living of it.

However you need to get there, may we all safely arrive HOME.

Peace, Love, and Joy on our journeys!



It’s been on my mind a lot lately. Home: where is it? What is it? With whom is it? These are the questions I wonder about these days.

Maybe it’s just me; but then I’m guessing the songs about it from the past few years wouldn’t be so popular if it was just me who wondered about home. Check out “Home” sung by Phillip Phillips, “The House that Built Me” sung by Miranda Lambert, “A Way Back to Then” from [title of show], “There’s A Place for Us” sung by Carrie Underwood, and even “Never Grow Up” sung by Taylor Swift. It seems many of us yearn to know our home.

I know I’m fortunate always to have the home of my childhood — where my parents and sisters still live. Home there included endless hours of building sand castles on the beach, leaf houses on the front lawn each fall, lots of Rook (the card game) and now Skipbo. It wasn’t perfect. I didn’t always feel understood. Sometimes I was really lonely. But it was home. With the unconditional love of mom and dad and all my sisters — all their support, encouragement, and belief in me. The older I get, the more I cherish that home. The more I wish I had heeded the kind of wise advice Taylor Swift gives in “Never Grow Up.” “Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room. Memorize what it sounds like when your dad gets home. Remember the footsteps. Remember the words said. Remember your little brother’s favorite songs” (bridge in “Never Grow Up,” sung by Taylor Swift on Speak Now).

But what of those who don’t know such a home? What of those where sand castles and family fun and unconditional love is (or was) not the norm?

What does home look like for those under attack, like the people trying to live today in Gaza and Israel? What does home look like for those who have been forcibly exiled from the land of their ancestors? What does home look like for the immigrant who seeks to build a life in a new place? What does home look like for those put out of their biological families? What does home look like to you? Who is there with you? Because let’s face it: it really is the tribe that loves you, warts and all, that makes home. What has to be a part of it? Are 2.5 bathrooms really more important than peace, safety, the joy of a true haven from the demands of this world? What if home is what you feel in a pulpit — as I often do when leading worship among God’s people? What if home is just you and your cherished pet, or you and your beloved flower beds, or you and your best friend, or you and the indentation of where your loved one used to sleep in the bed next to you?

What if no matter how far we roam, how much good we do, how many amazing people surround us in our lives — what if, even with all that, we are not home yet and never will be until at last we rest fully in the One who is Home eternally for us all?

Home . . . I am grateful for the gift of the one I had in the past, the one I so graciously have today, and the one yet to come at my end.

What about you: what, where, and who is your home?