Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Reading through Mark: Jesus vs. Satan (Mark 3:20-35)

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash
(During Lent 2024, I'm encouraging my congregation to join in reading through the Gospel of Mark. I'm posting occasional reflections and insights to guide reading.)

Jesus' teaching and actions convince some people that he is crazy while some others suggest that he is in cahoots with the devil (vv. 21-22). Jesus argues back that he can't oppose Satan in the name of Satan and then shares an odd sentence: "No one can enter the house of a strong man and take his possessions unless he first binds up the strong man. Then he can rob the house."


This strange phrase is actually helpful for understanding Jesus in Mark's Gospel. The "strong man" Jesus refers to is likely Satan (or evil, or Sin -- more on that in a moment). In coming to earth as human, Jesus is entering a "house" claimed by Satan for himself. In order to set people free from Sin and Death (that is, "rob the house"), he first needs to defeat Satan by binding him up. So Jesus is coming to defeat Satan/Sin/Evil so that the people Satan claims as his own can be taken and returned to God, where they belong.

This is where I find that some modern readers run into a problem, usually because many people are more comfortable believing in a loving God than in a wicked devil. I don't know if it's because Americans tend to avoid negativity (think happy thoughts!), that the caricature of the devil is kind of silly (the Bible does NOT say Satan is a red goat-man with horns and a pitchfork), or something else, but I find many people are uncomfortable with the idea of an evil being working against God in our lives. 

I'm not going to argue that you have to believe in the literal devil (especially not the red goat-man). Even the Bible is never totally clear on what or who Satan is. But it's important to recognize that the writers of the Bible DO believe there are evil beings/forces/spirits/demons at work in the world that oppose God and God's love. At various times, the Bible calls that evil Satan, the devil, Beelzebul, Sin, Death, or other names. 

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of evil spirits, it might be easier to think of whatever you are most afraid of that you can't control. A disease? Economic collapse? A war? A nasty neighbor or coworker? Our own habits? Jesus tells the crowds that whatever we call it, he has come to disarm and bind up the evil we fear, to assure us that it has no real power, and we are free. 

Evil is the interloper in God's creation and Jesus wants to steal us back.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“If vision is the only validation, then most of my life isn’t real.” -Sam Sparro, “Black and Gold”

Monday, February 19, 2024

Reading Through Mark: What are Rules for, Really? (Mark 3:1-19)

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(During Lent 2024, I'm encouraging my congregation to join in reading through the Gospel of Mark. I'm posting occasional reflections and insights to guide reading.)

In Chapter 2 of Mark, Jesus begins a series of debates with religious leaders because he doesn't follow their rules for being holy. He says a man's sins are forgiven (2:5), eats with social rejects (2:16), and plucks grain for a snack on the Sabbath holy day (2:23-24). 

(The Sabbath day [or Shabbat, or Saturday] is the primary holy day for Jewish believers because it is the day God finished creating and rested. In the 10 Commandments, God orders faithful people to "do no work" on the Sabbath. Leaders like the Pharisees labeled a lot of things as "work" to prevent anyone accidentally offending God.)

Chapter 3 begins with another debate about following the commandments and Jesus asks a question that drives to the heart of their differences: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). The answer should be simple, right? The sabbath is meant to honor God, and what better way is there to honor God than showing care and compassion to someone in need? 

But the Pharisees balk at the question. God clearly says, "Don't work on the Sabbath" and doesn't say "unless someone is injured." Therefore, healing on the Sabbath breaks the commandment. 

Jesus' question and actions, though, show the problem with the thinking. God's commands are meant "to do good" and "to save life." That's the whole reason God gave them. So if your following a command actually does harm or kills, that isn't what God wants from you. 

In churches, we often get caught up on rules about what is appropriate -- what we should wear, how loud or quiet we should be, what kind of music we can sing, etc. -- and enforcing those rules can sometimes cause pain and shame for many people. We then excuse the hurt we cause because we believe we're doing what God wants from us. But as we will see throughout the Gospel, Jesus isn't as interested in us obeying the details of the rules as much as he cares about us knowing the purpose for them: 

  • God is love. 
  • God loves us to create new life. 
  • God wants us to love as we've been loved to create new life in others. 

Commands and rules are good for providing order and clarifying expectations, but if following those rules does not reinforce the reason they exist -- God's love -- then they aren't serving their purpose. For if "holiness" is being more like God, and God is love, then love and compassion is the holiest thing we can do. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“There is no doubt about it: it was the myth of fingerprints. That’s what that old army base was for.” -Paul Simon, “The Myth of Fingerprints”

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Reading Through Mark: Chapter 1 - Start with a Bang

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(During Lent 2023, I'm encouraging my congregation to join in reading through the Gospel of Mark. I'm posting occasional reflections and insights to guide reading.)

I've heard Mark's Gospel aptly described as the "concentrated" version of the Gospels: it's short, but action packed. The first chapter of the book is perhaps the best example of that. Depending on how one counts, there are 8 to 11 different episodes here, including four major plot points in the first twenty verses: John the Baptizer's ministry, the baptism of Jesus, the testing of Jesus, and the calling of the first disciples. By contrast, John's Gospel averages only one story per chapter.

Given the condensed pace, Mark doesn't have a lot of details the other Gospels include about names and places. The details Mark does include are often the words and actions of Jesus and how people respond to them. In this first chapter, we find Jesus mostly healing people and praying. He heals evil spirits, illness, and leprosy. At this time, most people respond with wonder and excitement. In the next chapter, we will see religious leaders start to challenge and question him; they are not excited about what Jesus is doing. 

We also see Jesus proclaiming that "God's Kingdom has come near" and people should "repent and believe the good news" because the "time has come." This phrase is a summary of what Jesus is doing throughout the Gospel, but it is one we can easily misunderstand because so many of the words -- Kingdom, believe, repent, gospel -- have taken on meanings that they didn't have when Mark wrote this. A better translation would be: "A new day is dawning because God is on the move. New life is here if you let go of the past and hold on to God's future."

As we continue through Mark's Gospel, it will be helpful to pay attention to what new things are happening around Jesus, how are they alternatives to life then and now, and what happens when people receive or reject them. Mark is telling a story that he thinks has changed the world and he wants it to change you, but unless you pay attention, you may not see it.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Reading Through Mark (Lent 2024) - Introduction

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For the season of Lent in 2024, I'm encouraging my congregation, Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, to join me in reading the Gospel of Mark. There are many reasons one might want to read one of the Gospels in the Bible, but the most important one for me is this: get to know Jesus. 

Most of the criticisms that I hear about Christianity (many of them legitimate) are criticisms about the institution of the church and its traditions. I always try to explain that there is a difference between Jesus and the churches that claim to follow him. If you want to know the difference, get to know Jesus. 

The media is full of people talking loudly about what it means to be Christian and what you have to believe. Often they are disagreeing with each other without explaining their thinking. If you're confused about what Jesus taught, get to know Jesus. 

Many people in our country have tangled faith up in politics in ways that makes voting and party platforms a kind of worship that isn't of God, but of idols God opposed. If you don't like what you hear about Christianity in politics, get to know Jesus.

Church attendance and Biblical literacy is declining everywhere. Even if you want to understand the Bible, it's big and confusing for most people to read. I believe the Bible is an epic story about God's love for humans that culminates in the person of Jesus. If you want to understand the Bible, get to know Jesus. If you want to understand God, get to know Jesus.

Unlike the stereotypes about Jesus as just a nice, friendly guy, I find Jesus exciting, challenging, and inspiring in ways no one else is. If you want to learn or grow, get to know Jesus. 

Jesus tells a story about God and humans that I find amazing and shocking. His ideas about faith are ones I would never reach on my own, but I've always found them to be true. If you want to be surprised, get to know Jesus. 

And if you want to get to know Jesus, read a Gospel. They are the best record we have of who he was and is. I will be posting a few times a week with reflections and insights about the Gospel of Mark and hosting Bible studies twice a week to discuss together. A daily reading plan can be found at link.martinlutherchurch.net/mark and if you'd like to join a Bible study via Zoom, please reach out to me for the link so we don't have spam bots joining our conversation. I'm posting below some of the background and suggestions I printed for my community as a starting point for understanding Mark. 

Grace and peace to all, regardless of belief or creed, and I look forward to discussions with those who join me in getting to know Jesus in the next 40 days. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari Mattson

“Never underestimate my Jesus. When the world around you crumbles, he will be strong.” -Relient K, “For Moments I Feel Faint”


• Mark is likely the first of the four Gospels to be written, completed shortly after 70 C.E.

• Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark’s gospel.

• Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. Mark is condensed and brief in his descriptions.

• Unlike the other three Gospels, Mark doesn’t offer any background or explanation to Jesus

other than introducing him.

• Mark is writing to a Greek audience. Therefore, he describes Hebrew customs and words as

he writes.

• The culture of the Ancient Near East was very different than ours.

    • Individual rights were only recognized for the wealthy or powerful.

    • Honor and Shame were deeply important. Your reputation affected many aspects of your

life AND your family’s life. Therefore, close relationships with people from different classes,

ethnicities, and genders were usually discouraged or banned.

    • Judea was occupied by Rome, who enforced their way of life on Jews. Some Jews played

along with Rome, but most despised being controlled and prayed for their nation to be free


    • Jews drew from their history and prayed for a Messiah (or anointed one of God) to save

them. Messiahs were typically warrior kings of great faith, like King David.


• Pay close attention to what Jesus says and does and how people respond.

• Try to avoid reading the Gospels like history books. The authors are not trying to tell us

everything about Jesus; they are trying to tell us what they think is important about him.

What does Mark want us to learn? Why does he share the stories he does?

• Because Mark is sparse on details, pay attention to the details that are shared. Why are they


• The Gospel was mostly shared orally in the first century. Try reading portions aloud or find a

dramatic reading online to get a different perspective.

• You may want to read from a few different translations. Sometimes difficult words or ideas

get expressed in different ways.

• It’s okay if some things are tricky to understand. Scripture often shares images and ideas that

don’t immediately make sense on purpose. It’s in asking questions and being surprised that

we often learn most deeply.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

You're Not Great (Probably), And That's Okay

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash
I remember growing up believing I could (and would) change the world. As an X-ennial (borderline Gen X and Millennial), I was awash in all the positive, you-can-do-anything-you-put-your-mind-to youth education of the 90s. And like most generations, my friends and I believed we would have the world fixed by the time we became adults. 

I also remember having my mid-life crisis at thirty years old when I realized I hadn't changed the world or accomplished "all the things" I thought I would. Instead, I had a very "normal" life. It wasn't a bad life, and was actually pretty close to what I wanted when I was younger (the career I wanted, a loving spouse and family, and a mortgage on a modest home). 

But I wasn't "great." I hadn't transformed the world, or published a book, or started a mega-church, or won a Nobel prize. (Okay, that last one was probably never a realistic goal.) And not being great made me feel like a failure, like I'd squandered my potential and was a disappointment to myself and my family -- and even God. 

(Side note: Therapy has helped me recognize there's a ton of space between "great" and "failure," and I'm more content trying to live there.)

I was reminded of my struggle to be great recently as I've been reading through Paul's letters for my devotions. Someone recommended that I read them not as theology textbooks, but as what they actually are: letters from a pastor to his church about everyday issues. 

It's amazing what a difference it has made. Instead of a treatise on the end times, 1 Thessalonians says, "I know you feel discouraged, but keep loving each other as you have and it will be fine." 1 Corinthians is less the final word on how to run a church and more: "Stop bickering and pointing fingers like 5 year olds! You know better than that!" 

I'd always kind of thought of Paul's letters as a roadmap to conquering the world, but while the scope of God's story is universal, Paul's concerns are far more personal. When you realize most of the churches he was writing to were probably fewer than fifty people, they feel even more restrained, maybe even mundane. 

Even Jesus rarely acts on a huge scale. The Feeding of the 5,000 happens when he's trying to get AWAY from the crowds (Matthew 14:13). Instead of "Go plant a mission start in the Sinai," he tells many of the people he encounters in the Gospels to go home and live their lives according to the love they've learned.

What I've come to recognize is that much of what Jesus teaches and Paul writes aren't commands to be successful or great or even effective. They are calls to be faithful and follow. 

Martin Luther was passionate about the Priesthood of All Believers, the idea that every Christian is a "priest," called by God to do holy things, but that those "holy things" are generally in our normal lives: being a parent or friend, being kind and honest in our work, etc. 

In other words, God doesn't expect everyone to change the world or be wildly successful in their job. Most of us won't do "great things, only small things with great love," as Mother Teresa once said. And that isn't failure or second class faith; it's how God operates. 

I continue to learn that I don't need to be "great" (whatever that means). My normal life can dwell in a great love from a great God, and that's better anyway.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“When you find there’s nothing special, yeah, about that big hole in your heart, ‘cause everybody’s got one, with precious little time to talk about it.” -Vigilantes of Love, “Nothing Like A Train”

Friday, September 1, 2023

AI Sermons and Bible-bots Answer the Wrong Question

Back in May, I received an email from one of the software companies my church uses that they were going to launch an "AI Sermon" tool. I made a mention of it on my Facebook that basically amounted to an eye roll and then forgot about it.

A couple months later, a friend sent me an article about a "New AI app lets users 'text' with Jesus." Around the same time, I found another article about Biblemate.io, an AI app designed for people to ask faith questions and get quick answers. My friend joked when he sent the article: "They're coming for your job."

Joking or not, there is a lot of debate happening now in our culture and in churches about AI technology, whether it's a good or bad thing, and how, if at all, it should be used. There are some solid concerns about these tools that claim to have a "biblical worldview." There are hundreds of Christian denominations in this country alone and I've never met one that doesn't claim to have a biblical worldview, but they disagree on what that means. Which parts of the Bible should be taken most seriously? Literally? Which translation? Which scholars or pastors do we trust to interpret?

But the debate over accuracy and bias is not the problem I have with a faith-based AI that answers your questions. My problem is they are trying to solve the wrong problem.

Underlying these tools and the intentions of their creators is the assumption that faith is primarily formed by knowledge. But faith is primarily formed by relationships and experiences.

Nils Gulbranson, the creator of Biblemate.io, said his goal was to create a tool that would answer the questions he had growing up. That is commendable and I think is a worthy goal, but having the answers to questions alone does not create the trust and allegiance that is a living faith, just as knowing my wife's age, name, and favorite color doesn't create the love we share.

Jesus himself often answered questions with more questions -- "Who acted as a neighbor?" or "Who do you say that I am?" -- or with parables that often raised more questions than answers. When he gave direct answers to religious leaders, it often angered or confused them instead of sparking devotion to him. And even his disciples seem confused more often than they appear knowledgeable.

(The men who opened fire on a Black church in Charleston in 2015 and a Jewish synagogue north of San Diego in 2019 were both "knowledgable" about the Bible. They had been raised and confirmed in mainline Christian churches [the former in my own, the ELCA] and they used what they "knew" to defend their hate. As James 2:19 says, "Even demons believe" God is real.)

I love questions and I love knowledge (I used to joke about becoming a professional student), but they are a part of my faith, not the source of it. My faith came about because of the people of faith who raised and shaped me, because of the love and welcome I experienced as a child in church, and because of hundreds of moments of grace and joy that drew me closer to the source of them I've come to know as God. Questions and answers have helped me make sense of these experiences and relationships, but they aren't really the foundation of it.

I'm reminded of a story that was shared with me from a summer church event at the park. People of all ages were playing games, laughing, eating, and talking to one another, when a youth (who was not from our church) said to a friend, "What is going on here?" His friend looked around and said, "This is church." That moment of confusion and wonder is the seed of faith, watered with the knowledge that what you are experiencing is God at work. 

In May, I wrote about Sermon AI: "I’ve long held that a sermon is a living thing that is much more than information. It is an invitation into the ongoing story of God and God’s people. It is a marriage proposal from God asking us to change our lives forever week after week. If I preach well, I am not the focus and I am not the 'expert', but a fellow student ... [AI] cannot be a Living Word that connects the physical and divine. It cannot proclaim with any authority 'we are trapped in sin, but God loves us anyway and wants to set you free.'”

AI tools can be useful for supporting faith, or helping someone along in faith, but they won't take my job because my job isn't really about knowledge or answering every question. My job is trying to create the experiences and relationships that lead people to WANT to ask questions in the first place. 

Or, this may all be a very long way of saying: faith isn't taught, it is caught.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Unbelievable. The gospel according to who?” -REM, “Living Well is the Best Revenge”

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The God I Don't Believe In

Photo by Ari Mattson
If your faith is more interested in drawing lines and building walls between people than building bridges and seeking connection, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith agrees completely with the platform of any political party, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith believes that your nation is specially blessed by God to save the world, but it isn't named in the Bible, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith never challenges you to change, but makes you hyper aware of other peoples' flaws, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith never challenges you to change and agrees with everything you already believe, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith practices fear and compulsion to create "converts" instead of attracting people by its beauty, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith believes it needs power to force people to fall in line, I don't believe in that God. 

If your faith condones violence as anything but a last resort and only to protect others, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith requires hierarchies based on gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, or political persuasion, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith wants to avoid the pain and confusion of the cross and only talk about Easter, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith only cares about your soul going to heaven and not the physical plight of others, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith only cares about physical needs and not spiritual transformation, I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith believes faith is a place you need to arrive and stay, instead of a journey of discovery "to grasp how long and high and wide and deep is the love of Christ" (Ephesians 3:18), I don't believe in that god. 

If your faith is only about what you believe in your head, or what you do with your hands, or what you feel in your heart and not all three, I don't believe in that god.

If your faith offers simple answers to every problem and demands you don't ask questions, I don't believe in that god.