Category Archives: Sermons

Imitators of God

A Sermon for 12 August 2018

A reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2.  Before launching into this reading, it might be helpful to remember that Ephesians is an epistle of the New Testament.  It is attributed to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul.  But as far as we know, Ephesians is what scholars believe to be a circular letter.  The style, language, and meanings are uncharacteristic of the other letters that we know the Apostle Paul wrote to certain church communities.  Additionally, in the opening of the letter, the earliest manuscripts we have of Ephesians don’t mention Ephesus at all.  There’s not some known church crisis outlined and refuted in this letter.  All of which points to the conclusion that the epistle of Ephesians is just a good wholesome letter of encouragement to everyday Christians – probably circulated to several worshipping congregations in Asia Minor.  Perhaps Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul towards the end of his life.  Like a wise old saint, near the close of his days, who passes on his collective wisdom to others on the journey.  If not directly from Paul’s pen, then likely Ephesians comes from someone taught by Paul who similarly sought to encourage other Christians (The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, 1994, NT p. 272).  Which is all to say that Ephesians is for us all – everywhere.  On any old day.  . . .  With this in mind, listen now for God’s word to us in a reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV).

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

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

 

Last weekend I was at the home of my childhood with my parents and surrounded by my sisters.  It was great fun!  Growing up, summers always were the best.  With time to just hang out.  Relax together outside at the beach near our house, in the water, or just wandering through the woods.  As my sisters and I got older, we were alone together a lot.  And it was then – especially in the summer when we didn’t have much else to do but mom’s chore list.  It was then that we eventually turned to provoking each other.  If you’re a sibling or have reared children or grandchildren, then you might know what I mean.  One childhood taunt I dreaded most was when my sister would copy me.  Ever experience it?  If you really wanted to get under the skin of your sister or your brother you’d just start repeating every word they said.  Scrunching your face like they scrunched their face when they protested for it to stop.  Stomping like they did.  Mimicking the whinny tone in their voice.  Relentless – especially when unsupervised ‘cuz then there was no parent to tattle to.  You were totally at your sibling’s mercy!  . . .  I don’t know why children do it – it’s totally immature, yet so incredibly effective.  It can be done without making a peep.  From all the way across the room even once mom has banished you to separate corners.  Still, your sister – or brother – could get 100% under your skin by imitating you!

Imitation’s not always a bad thing.  In fact, it’s also a pretty effect way to grow.  When not done of the purpose of driving your brother or sister absolutely nuts, imitation can lead to mastery.  Think about all the things toddlers begin to do because they see the person in front of them doing it.  Clap your hands with a smile before a little one and they’re bound to start clapping too.  Show a youngster the steps of mastering things like shoe tying or letter writing.  Soon they’ll be at it on their own.  As we age, we go through an entire period of growth called adolescents when it seems imitation will have no end.  Teens wearing the same cloths as their friends just to fit in.  Girls wanting to pierce their ears ‘cuz everyone else is doing it too.  Boys telling silly jokes because the boy who seems to get all the attention tells silly jokes too.  The way to self-assurance developmentally leads through imitation.  As adults observing, our hope is teenagers pick the right ones to imitate!  Avoiding the examples all around of bullying and disrespect and irresponsibility.  Hopefully imitating peers and role models whose values are in line with the way we want them to grow.

I’m not sure the age of those who heard the epistle of Ephesians when it was being circulated around the Mediterranean.  If the letter really was written near the end of the Apostle Paul’s life, then it’s highly likely that those who heard it were at most a few decades in to being committed followers of the Way – disciples of Jesus who early Christians came to believe was the Christ.  The One of God come to deliver the people.  We can debate all day exactly what they needed deliverance from, but it’s clear that some who heard of Jesus were captivated by his teaching.  They were astounded by the way his disciples vowed compassionate care of one another.  They were impressed by the community’s broad inclusion of Jew and Gentile alike.  It would take the established church years to develop the theological doctrines we take for granted today.  In the meantime, those who wanted to be a part of Christ’s movement came to learn just how they were to be in the world each day.

One source tells of early baptismal liturgies that ritualized the expected behavior.  G. Porter Taylor writes:  “in the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness”  (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  We see remnants of this in baptismal vows of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The first vow in the covenant of Baptism reads:  “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” (Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018, p. 409).  “I renounce them,” the baptismal candidate is to proclaim (Ibid.).  In the PCUSA, after professing the One to whom the candidate for baptism will turn, they are asked:  “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?”  “I will, with God’s help,” PCUSA baptismal candidates respond! (Ibid.).  In those first baptismal liturgies, after turning to the west to renounce the forces of darkness; baptismal candidates “then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world” (G. Porter Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326).  Taylor goes on to write:  “They literally stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized.  They were then brought into the community of faith.  In baptism the old self is killed off, and the new self is raised” (Ibid.).  From that moment on, the baptized live as those aligned to the Light of the World!

“Imitate God,” Ephesians 5:1 declares.  “And live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  Imitate God.  . . .  Lest we fail to know what that means, the writer of Ephesians fleshed it out with description after description.  The world may be full of those who want to lie.  Those who imitate God speak the truth.  The world may be full of those who get angry and immediately lose their temper.  Those who imitate God get angry.  We recognize anger and every other emotion as the signal they are from our own body-mind.  Then we act free from sin – not stewing in disgruntlement lest those forces we renounced in baptism have a chance to take hold.  The world might be full of those who labor for their own ends.  Imitators of God labor honestly so as to have something to share with those in need.  Ephesians reminds that the world may be full of those who let all sorts of drivel come forth from their mouth.  Those who imitate God use words to build up others so that grace abounds.  Bitterness, wrath, wrangling anger, slander together with malice may surround us daily in our streets and from our cities.  But those who imitate God practice kindness – in big and small ways.  Imitators of God are tenderhearted – no matter how callous everyone else might get.  Those who imitate God forgive; for we know it’s only so long until we’ll need the same forgiveness.

Imitators of God are beloved children.  A fragrant gift to the world around.  Not always perfect, but still striving for the goal.  We seek to imitate the One we know in full through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord.  In our life together.  In our lives at home.  In our lives wherever we go in the world.  Let us live love, as Christ has loved us.  Let us imitate God.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Knowing Our Need

A Sermon for 22 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56.  Earlier in the story, Jesus had sent out his disciples, charging them to carry out his healing ministry wherever they went.  Upon their return, we hear this.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  . . .  53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

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

We have one more reading today.  It is from Revelation 3:14-18, 20, 22.  Listen.

“’And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:  The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:  15 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.  . . .  20Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.  . . .  22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

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

 

Human need dominates the stories presented today in the gospel of Mark.  Everywhere Jesus goes; the sick, the lame, the chronically incurable are placed upon his path.  The verses from the gospel of Mark that we heard today aren’t as exciting as the ones skipped over by the assigned lectionary text.  Between the disciples of Jesus returning to him and those in need pressing round him no matter where he goes; we miss the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 hungry men plus women and children, and Jesus amazingly walking over the water of the Sea of Galilee to catch back up with his disciples after he sent them on ahead, dismissed the fed-crowd, then went up the mountain alone to pray.  Those might have made better stories for today – awing us with five thousand plus fed from five little loaves and two little fish.  Boggling our minds at the sight of Jesus striding across tumultuous water until finally getting into his disciple’s boat.  Instead we’re left to ponder what seems like transitional verses.  Hastily put before us.  Reeking of human need.

He should have known he was walking into a hornet’s nest of need.  One biblical commentator reminds that “the town of Gennesaret was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Magdala and Capernaum, where numerous hot mineral springs had attracted the sick and injured for centuries” (Robert A. Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 265).  As one who has been about the land healing in word and deed, Jesus should have known he’d be swarmed by human need the moment he set foot out of the boat.  He just had landed in a town of last resort.  Like emergency rooms today, those whose bodies would not get well on their own flocked to the magical mineral springs.  When all else fails, we’ll try just about anything.  The misery of human pain, the weariness of chronic illness, the hopeless out-of-control feelings of our bodies not working the way we want them to can open us to whatever healing we might be able to find.  . . .  People from all over Galilee are brought near Jesus – everywhere he goes.  The gospel records that they “begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6:56).  Which reminds us that no matter how bad the news is today; human need is nothing new.  With the goodness of a committed shepherd, God in Christ still looks upon our need with compassion.

All our needs – at least according to the gospel of Mark.  Though it may be the most recognizable, physical illness is not the only human need addressed by Jesus.  The gospel of Mark records that when Jesus’ disciples return from their ministry adventures, Jesus whisks them away to a deserted place.  He wants them to rest; for, as the gospel records, “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:30).  A wise leader, the disciple’s Lord can see the need in them – the ones who had been sent out to heal human needs.  They only can be out there at it so long until they must take a break.  Rest.  Re-fill.  Refresh so they might journey on.  Which hopefully is exactly what we experience when we gather here.  To worship.  To be re-filled by God in order to go back out to serve a world full of immense human need.  . . .  In the 20th Century, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all humans have needs which, in fact, are hierarchical.  We’d do well to remember – especially as we seek to serve God by serving others faithfully each day.  Maslow explained that if our physiological needs for food, drink, and sleep are not met; it is not possible for our basic needs for safety, shelter, and stability to be met.  Our social needs for being loved, for belonging, and for feeling included somewhere; must be met before our ego needs of self-esteem and personal power ever will feel complete.  And all four of these – what Maslow called deficiency needs because we will feel deficient in some way if these are not met – our deficiency physical, security, social, and ego needs must be attended before we ever are able to reach for our own self-actualization – our fullest potential as human beings who can grow and create and develop.  Even the great philosopher Aristotle believed that “no one can philosophize on an empty stomach!”  (see https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs%3famp).  Jesus’ disciples were filled with their own human needs.  Beautifully, Jesus ensures those needs also are addressed.

Which makes it a little confusing why so often as God’s people, the church, we fail to admit our needs.  All of our needs, not just the obvious ones everyone with two eyes easily can see!  . . .  I once knew a family – a beautiful, picture perfect church family with whom I closely worked in a whole variety of church ministries for about a decade.  I’d been to their home on a number of occasions.  Was present at the birth of all four of their children.  Watched them grow for almost ten years.  One night, several years after I no longer was their pastor, I bumped into the mom unexpectedly.  The next night, I received a late-night frantic call from her.  She bashfully explained that after years of watching her beloved husband drink himself into a messy, depressed stupor each night; the man suddenly had gone missing that very night.  She didn’t know where else to turn; so, in desperation, she called to see if I might be able to help.  Perhaps that family routinely brought their households needs to God.  But never once in their ten years of perfect-looking membership in the church where I met them, never had they EVER brought their broken, chaotic family needs to me or any other person of that church.  Had the crisis of that night never happened, I’m certain they never would have.  The words of one biblical commentator bellow what seems to be true.  She writes:  “Most people in Western Christianity see the story of their life as a self-sufficient text.  This text may intersect with others, but for the most part it reveals a narrative that is self-contained, self-grounded, and self-made” (Cheryl Bridges Johns, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 261).  A picture-perfect public face behind which we all try to hide.

Like it or not, we all have human needs.  The true knowledge of who we are physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually beneath the surface of the public images we seek to continue.  . . .  I am NOT suggesting we have a big cry-fest to let it all come tumbling out before each other.  I’m not proposing a pass-the-mic-around-the-room tell-all that reveals every last need in each of us.  That likely would do more individual harm than good.  We do each need at least one person on earth with whom we safely can tell our truth so that we can continue to function well.  And we need to know that with God, we never need to hide behind our public face.  In fact, with a whole host of older and wiser spiritual teachers; I would argue that if we try to approach God behind our public face, all of our striving will be empty.  For, in the words of that same commentator just quoted:  “the meeting of human hunger and the outstretched hands of Jesus create the possibilities for miracles of grace” (Ibid., p. 265).  He will provide the bread we need; for he IS the Bread of Life.  The true food that can satisfy all our need.  For our part, in our life with one another:  at least we might bring to mind our own needs, so that we can remember that everyone else too is carrying a load.  Needs we never may know of one another.  But needs among which we might gently walk.  Extending grace.  Showing compassion.  Trusting Christ to provide all we each need for the journey home.  For, as the words of Revelation remind – the words of Christ to us:  “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).  Mysteriously.  Miraculously Christ will meet our needs.  “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church” (Rev. 3:22).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

Sent

A Sermon for 15 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:6b-16.  Remember this takes place right after Jesus has been rejected in his hometown.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Jesus went about among the villages teaching.  He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.  He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.  Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”  But others said, “It is Elijah.”  And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.””

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

 

I once read about a Christian woman who is a clerk at a bookstore.  Every morning she gets herself up out of bed, says a little prayer, makes sure she puts on the precious cross necklace her mother gave her years back for her confirmation; then dutifully heads out her door to the bookshop.  Every day, week after week, month after month, year after year this is what she does.  She still is a part of the church – goes to worship every Sunday she can, when her boss doesn’t schedule her for the Sunday morning rush.  Their bookstore, after all, has a wonderful, jam-packed-on-Sunday-morning café.  . . .  Well, the story goes that one morning as she is getting all set behind the bookstore counter, she looks up to see an oddly dressed man.  He’s a Hasidic Jew – these are the ultra-orthodox Jews who take great delight in observing God’s commandments (www.judaism.about.com).  Their clothing sets them apart.  The men wear long black coats over white shirts, black pants, and black shoes.  You can see the knotted fringe peeking out on all four corners of a vest-like garment called a tallit.  Under their tall black hats, you’ll always find a yarmulke which reminds that God is constantly above them (www.mobile.dudamobile.com/site/orthodox-jews/clothing-for-men).  On that morning at the bookstore counter, the man intently looked into the eyes of the Christian book clerk.  After politely asking if she could help him, the man responded:  “I want to know about Jesus.”  Another one for the religious section, the woman thought.  She said:  “You’ll find the books on religion upstairs on the far back wall of the store.”  She was about to go on to her next task when the man leaned in closer.  “I don’t want a book,” the man said.  “Please:  tell me what you believe.”  (Story from Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 216, Michael L. Lindvall).

I’m guessing that it’s not often we find ourselves in similar situations.  After all, it’s been said that Americans would rather ask about sex, politics, and another’s salary rather than ask what someone believes about God.  . . .  But if we did find ourselves asked about our faith, what would we be ready to say?  Would we be ready to tell about what God in Christ has done for us?  Would we be able to make our faith make sense to a post-modern person who is searching for meaning in life today?  Could we tell about the Holy Spirit of God always living in us?  Would we be able to make real the life, death, and life again of Christ because we can speak not only about what we have read in a book, but also about what we have experienced in our own lives – the many ways we have been raised to new life throughout the living of our days?  What would you say if you were asked:  “Please:  tell me what you believe.”

Those first disciples didn’t get a chance to think about it.  After witnessing with their own eyes the unbelief of Jesus’ hometown, he gathers them up.  Pairing them two-by-two in a way that sounds reminiscent of the animals of Noah’s ark, Jesus sends them out.  We’re never really told where he tells them to go.  And we’re not really sure how long they go away.  He is very clear about the way they should dress – simply, traveling light so that they have to depend upon the kind of hospitality expected throughout the land of God’s chosen people.  Perhaps they’d be known in the little villages to which they’d travel.  After all, Galilee isn’t too terribly big and Jesus already has been out teaching, healing, and meeting those who were hungry to hear.  One biblical commentator says of this mission that they, like us, aren’t sent “’to get them on our side’ or even ‘to grow the church,’ but simply to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us” . . .  From the heart, Jesus sends us out to speak.  In our own words, without any sense of shame (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 216, Michael L. Lindvall).  . . . The tricky thing is that it’s not just words these disciples are sent to do.  Actions are to go along with what they say.  They’ve been given the power to be about healing in this world.  Acting in ways that bring peace and hope and restoration to those in need.  It’s words and actions, actions and words congruent with Christ that give powerful witness.  One without the other is empty and will fall on deaf ears.  . . .  The legend about the great Hindu peace-seeker Mahatma Ghandi reminds of that.  For it’s attributed to Ghandi that he once claimed that he’d consider becoming a Christian if he ever met a follower of Christ who truly was seeking to emulate Christ each day.

It’s still like that.  To begin with, we’re still sent.  I know it’s easier to relegate Christ’s mission to his first disciples.  In days gone by the church believed it was just foreign missionaries or ordained pastors who were to be out there for Christ each day.  I’m not really sure how we came to such conclusions in the past few centuries, but it certainly seems we did.  One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation is the priesthood of all believers.  This was the Protestant revolt that proudly claimed that every Christian, in our baptism and confirmation vows has promised to be a faithful disciple of Christ.  We’ve all promised to be in the world as one who follows Christ – not just priests upon whom the Pope’s favor rests.  We ALL are to live as those in whom the ways of Christ can be seen.  We’ve promised to live each day in a way that shows the merciful love of God.  In our baptisms we’ve been engrafted into the body of Christ – we’ve been included in God’s family not alone for our own sake, but also for the sake of everyone we meet in this world who too needs to experience (through us) the gracious love of God.  How ever did life in the church become the norm of walling ourselves in our sanctuaries to dutifully perform all sorts of ministry programs for ourselves and others like us who might come to darken our doors?

I have a feeling God might be glad those kind of days are coming to an end.  Because today we see it in our own families, in our neighborhoods, and all over our city.  People are starving for meaning in their lives – some of them are aware of it and some of them are not.  For about the past ten years, research has shown that the fastest growing religious group in America has been the NONES:  those who might be interested, but claim NO religious affiliation.  It’s staggering to read descriptions of these NONES.  This data is from 2012, so it’s already dated.  But in 2012, 33 million people in the U.S.A. claimed they have no religious affiliation in particular.  Yet, two-thirds of them say they believe in God, more than half of them say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, and one-in-five of them say they pray every day (www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise).  We’re failing them.  We’re failing God if we’re not even willing to try.  . . .  Everywhere we turn we can see people living in the shallow end of life driven by anxiety because they’re listening more to the whims of our consumer culture than the Spirit of God that is dying to be alive in them.  They’re not worried about eternity; they want to know how this Christ, whom we claim to follow, has made any compelling difference in our lives today so that our lives look any different than theirs.  How is Christ the rudder that guides our thoughts, words, and deeds every day?  How has he given purpose to the way we live and the way we face our death?  . . .  We can bemoan the changes we’ve experienced in this world, or we can see it as the opportunity for us to become fully alive regarding God’s work in each one of our lives.  For now, surrounded by those who desperately need the good news of the God who brings life out of every death and lives in us each day; we have the opportunity to show in word and deed just what it is that we believe.  Just what it is that puts peace in our souls and joy in our hearts.  We have the chance to become again the disciples of Christ who are sent out into this world for the sake of Life!  Truly to be the church heartily living the mission of God each day!

A benediction response I love sums it up this way:  “sent out in Jesus’ name, (may) our hands (be) ready now to make the earth the place in which the kingdom comes.  The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love, of justice and of peace.  The task is ours to do, to set it really free.  O help us to obey and carry out Christ’s will” (Sent Out in Jesus’ Name, ENVIADO, Anon.; trans. by Jorge Maldonado; 1996 © Abingdon Press).

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

Belief Beyond Expectation

A Sermon for 8 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:1-6a.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

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

 

Who do you call when your air conditioning goes out on the hottest day of summer – as mine did this week?  An HVAC technician, right?!  Where do you turn for help with a pain in your chest that squeezes tighter and tighter and tighter?  If not the ER, then at least your doctor!  What if you have quandaries about the Divine?  You might expect a pastor would be your best bet or an older, wiser friend in the faith.  . . .  Whether we realize it or not, we live according to a lot of assumptions.  We suppose particular people are best suited to help us with certain things.  We wouldn’t want a lawyer doing our open-heart surgery.  Or a plumber pulling our teeth.  How about a carpenter opening us to the mysteries of God?  It doesn’t quite fit with our expectations of the expertise required.  But sometimes the most unlikely of candidates can turn out to be the exact ones needed.

Early in my ministry when we were having a baptism in worship, sweet little Caitlin was being brought.  And man did that kid have lungs!  From the moment her parents got her from the nursery to be baptized until the moment they took her back out, that child was NOT happy!  She screamed throughout her entire baptism.  During the sacrament, we did all the usuals – including asking members of the congregation “do you promise to nurture this child in the faith?”  In that church, all the children were gathered up front for baptisms so we asked them to make promises too.  We questioned the peering children:  “Do you promise to be good church friends, loving Caitlin, and teaching her about Jesus?”  . . .  Well you know how it is when questions like that get asked in worship rituals.  We say aloud the words printed in the bulletin whether or not we whole-heartedly commit to nurturing the children of God.

The baptism proceeded.  Still screaming, baby Caitlin was handed over.  The water trickled down her brow.  The prayer, the blessing, Amen.  Caitlin’s parents and all the church’s children were released from the font.  . . .  Each week in that congregation, children didn’t stay in the sanctuary for the rest of worship but went to their own children’s worship in a classroom.  When the baptism ended, a stampede of about twenty three through eight year-olds was underway.  I went along, trying to wrangle the running children.  Outside the sanctuary door, I nearly knocked into 8 year-old Christopher.  He stood motionless, his back to me.  Heading down the hall, I instructed, “Come on, buddy, let’s go.”  He didn’t move.  “Christopher, come on,” I insisted.  Still no response.  I finally returned to where he stood, face to face with him.  His eyes were closed – nothing.  I stood there in front of him for a moment, preparing myself to have to handle some sort of excuse about why he didn’t want to go to Children’s Worship that day.  At last his eyes popped opened.  I asked:  “Christopher, are you okay?  It’s time to go to Children’s Worship.”  By that time, he and I were the only ones left in the hallway.  He finally said:  “I know.  I was just saying a prayer for that little baby.  She was crying so much I thought she needed a prayer right now.”  . . .  And a little child shall lead them, Isaiah records.  . . .  No sooner did Christopher tell me what he was up to, than he took off to Children’s Worship.  Meanwhile, I was left standing astonished by his instantaneous commitment to baby Caitlin.  He definitely took his “I do” seriously!  In my haste to smoothly chorale all the kids back to their classroom, I nearly missed it.  I wasn’t expecting such profound wisdom from one so fresh in the faith.

That’s kinda how it was another day long, long ago when folks had gathered for worship in Nazareth.  It was Sabbath rest in the synagogue.  Perhaps they were hoping the rabbi would have a reviving lesson that day.  But they didn’t quite get what they were expecting.  Instead their neighbor, Jesus, got up.  We have to remember that they knew him well:  the little boy who grew up down the street.  Mary and Joseph’s kid – the eldest of their clan.  According to the gospel of Mark, they were five boys and who can remember the scads of sisters.  Certainly, visions of the boy Jesus playing with other neighborhood children ran through the worshipers’ minds.  Some remembered the time the child got lost on the trip back from Jerusalem.  And likely other memories from Jesus’ childhood, his teens, and his twenties before the day Jesus went off the deep end.  Everyone back in Jesus’ hometown knew that not long ago, he ran out on the family.  Left his carpentry work to meet up with that rabble-rousing John the Baptist.  Out yonder in the wilderness John was stirring up a heap of trouble.  Proclaiming folks needed to repent for sins to be forgiven.  Even though they all knew that wasn’t the way sins got cleansed!  The gathered synagogue-goers knew that the Jerusalem priests make their sacrifices.  Their take on the situation was that Jesus had gotten messed up with that John guy and the next thing you know, he too was out shouting all sorts of stuff.  Like the kingdom of God being near.  Jesus had become a disgrace to his family – not to mention an embarrassment to his hometown, because, you know, no one wants to get on the map as the generators of the latest lunatic!  Those in the synagogue that day believed that Jesus had denounced his family that time they tried to take him home – away from crowds that believed he had gone mad.  He said his mother and brothers were the ones gathered with him – the ones doing the will of God (Mark 3:34-35).  Now here he was back in town.  Joining in Sabbath worship.  Yet, it wasn’t just some announcement about the up-coming mission project that he stood to make that day.  Rather, this lowly, un-trained carpenter got up to unlock ancient mysteries about God.  Indeed, no one expected that!  After all, assumptions about who does and who doesn’t know what run pretty deep.  If some completely unqualified handyman gets up to start teaching something new about God – something never before named – something revolutionary, like say a kingdom in which all the tables are over-turned.  Power, prestige, and privilege completely reversed!  Well, we might not be too keen on listening either.  . . .  Homeboy Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations.  So they shoo him off center stage.

How often do we do it?  How often do we miss the marvelous lessons of God because our minds already are made up?  We can’t imagine anything good coming from that kind.  So, instead of listening, we walk away.  Mumbling, “what do they know anyway?”  We keep ourselves comfortably in our pre-conceived worlds.  Not having to stretch too far.  Not opening ourselves to something different.  Because it’s scary, and it’s challenging, and to be honest:  too often, we’re too tired to try.  . . .  But faith requires openness.  Did you catch the chilling words at the close of the reading we heard today?  What a shame it would be if those words from Jesus ever found themselves pointed in our direction.  Mark 6:6a reads:  “And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  In fact, the gospel records that due to their unbelief, Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6:5).  Human beings have rebelled against the unexpected since the beginning of time.  All the while, at least according to what we learn from Scripture and from our own lives too if we’re paying attention; all the while, God has been using the unexpected to do the most marvelous of things.  From Father Abraham and barren Mother Sarah, to the scoundrel Jacob who becomes Israel, to that little exiled nation, to a child miraculously born to a betrothed young lady, to first followers who were totally unqualified in the eyes of the world.  Right down through history to you and me:  regular ole’ people who come together to worship the God whom Jesus embodies.  . . .  The double-edged, good news for us is that God does use the most unlikely of candidates.  The Apostle Paul once reminded that it’s the best way to see the unleashed power beyond us:  the strength of God, who always makes something out of what seems to be nothing.  Who turns death into new life.  And makes a way where there seems to be none.  For our part:  we’re asked to believe.  Which isn’t about accent to a certain set of facts.  We’re called to believe.  To trust.  To keep ourselves open to God.  For then, we just might have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the marvels of the God who works beyond all our ingrained expectations.  Changing the world of our lives one powerful deed at a time!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

How Healing Happens

A Sermon for 1 July 2018

 

A reading from the gospel of Mark 5:21-43.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue our way through the gospel of Mark’s version of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Christ.  Listen.

“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 So he went with him.  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.  25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”  31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  32 He looked all around to see who had done it.  33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the teacher any further?”  36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”  37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.  38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.  39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep?  The child is not dead but sleeping.”  40 And they laughed at him.  Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.  41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”  42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).  At this they were overcome with amazement.  43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.”

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

 

This week, Jesus is back in the boat.  Returning from deliberately crossing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  If we remember that the boat has been a symbol of the Church since the earliest days of Christianity, then our ears perk as we hear Mark’s record that Jesus is back in the boat.  Take note:  what’s about to take place is what happens when Christ is amid the Church.  No sooner does the bow of the boat touch shore, than an important leader of the synagogue throws himself at Jesus’ feet.  His little girl is dying.  Jairus is desperate.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people like Jairus – even felt myself what he certainly must have been experiencing to fling himself unashamedly at the feet of one in his land who had become known as an incredibly gifted healer.  Frantic in despair.  Totally afraid.  Overcome with grief over the pain in his family – the worry of Jairus’ wife, the wasting body of his pre-teen daughter.  Hopes and dreams being dashed with each labored breath as Jairus and his family watch their young girl’s seemingly helpless struggle.  I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in this room as one who has been in – or who has watched a love one endure excruciating physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual pain.  From parents grieving the loss of their still born baby, to middle-aged adults falling out of love on their way to a bitter divorce, to young people telling how they can’t have anything more to do with their childhood church’s oppressive belief system of hate disguised in the name of love, to those who have joined their lives for decades having to let go as their spouse slowly slips away.  Human pain has the potential to break us open so that we cry out in desperation:  “O LORD, make us well!”

With so much pain around us in the world.  So many ways we are inflicting physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dis-ease on one another today, the stories from Mark’s gospel about a healing story within a healing story come at just the right time.  Not only must we remember that healing happens, but it’s also a good time to remember how healing takes place today.

Likely you know that healing is a complex thing.  It doesn’t happen according to our expectations.  We tend to be quite focused on fixes.  Thinking God is more like a skilled surgeon who can cut out what we don’t want before sewing things up good as new.  One commentator of Mark’s fifth chapter writes:  “I have a friend, a man of deep faith, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was still in his fifties.  He and his wife prayed that he might be healed.  Twenty years later, he is in the last debilitating stages of the disease.”  The commentator goes on to write:  “Nevertheless, (my friend) once told me that his prayers had been answered.  He said in all sincerity, ‘I have been healed, not of Parkinson’s disease, but I have been healed of my fear of Parkinson’s disease’” (Michael L. Lindvall, Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 3; pp. 188, 190).  What a wonderful reminder that healing does happen.  Just not always as we might expect!

Healing doesn’t happen on our time schedule either.  While it’s true that healing can happen instantly as it did for the hemorrhaging woman when she stole a touch of the Master Healer’s cloak.  Full healing can take a very long time.  After all, it was 12 years that the woman who was hemorrhaging sought healing before the miraculous moment with Jesus finally took place.  Healing can feel elusive all a life long.  Recently a friend told me that in prayer a few weeks ago, she heard the voice of her father.  She gave me permission to share her experience today.  I knew my friend’s father had died several years ago, so it was quite a shock to hear her explain how she unexpectedly heard him say:  “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.”  My 70-year-old friend has been trying for about the past fifty years to heal from the deep wound caused by her father’s molestation of her during her childhood.  As she told me of the freedom she finally felt after his words came to her out of nowhere during those moments of prayer, I noted the date it happened was Fathers’ Day, just a few weeks ago.  It’s a sure reminder that healing comes in many forms.  And just when you think it’ll never happen, a voice in a prayer might be all it’ll take.  Indeed, healing is incredibly inexplicable!

It’s important for us to remember too that healing happens through us.  On Tuesday this week, I was surprised to be so inspired at a called Presbytery meeting.  A young woman of Northern Ireland who is being ordained by us as a chaplain for a local women’s addiction recovery center was asked what wisdom she could bring to our land from her experience of being raised in a country where Roman Catholics and Protestants long had been in a bitter, violent divide.  Eloquently she told the story of her father, who is a police officer and life-long Presbyterian.  She explained that she didn’t know that checking under your car before getting in it wasn’t something every other child in the world grew up doing.  But because her father was a police officer and the militant IRA often used to target crimes against police and their families, it was a regular part of her childhood.  She told that she didn’t know all the solutions to ancient divides between people because of religion, race, or any other reason we are encouraged by power to keep ourselves separated from those we perceive to be different.  What she did know was the devoted friendship of her father’s police partner:  a Catholic man who served alongside him most all of his adult life.  As a child she watched her Presbyterian Protestant father and her father’s Catholic police force partner daily have each other’s back.  Getting to know one another’s fears, hopes, and heartbreaks as they spent hours together on patrol.  Building a relationship of trust despite the outer pressures of their land that sought to tear them apart.  Connection like that with another – especially those we perceive to be different than ourselves was the wisdom she shared with us this week.  For that’s how healing happens.  Bringing us back together in the bonds of common humanity no matter what other labels we might wear.

I’ve heard of healing happening when at last one speaks their truth.  Sometimes received immediately with grace.  Sometimes forcing another finally to face their buried pain.  I’ve heard of healing happening when the insular bubble in which one has been living at last is broken.  New options visible.  Fresh vistas unfolding like a magic road appearing below one’s feet.  I’ve seen long-held family difficulties carried differently so that others’ pain is tenderly acknowledged too.  I’ve seen people learn to live from the disease of cancer – a dear friend beating the odds after surgical removal by seeking natural alternatives to follow up treatments.   She’s now the most vibrant, health-conscious person I’ve ever met.  I know of people who seem to heal a little bit at a time – like layers being peeled from an onion.  Some days better than others.  And just when they thought it was finished, a little bit more is released.  I’ve seen people healed not just in body, but in mind and spirit too after near fatal accidents.  Sometimes thanks to modern medicine and sometimes from treatments as old as the earth itself.  I’ve seen people have no idea how they will get through until day after day, carefully putting one foot in front of the other, wincing every so often when the wound again aches; until at last they find a new stride – one of deeper wisdom and greater grace for others.  Healing happens.  Mysteriously in ways we can’t ever anticipate.  And I think about Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter.  Can you image the life she went on to lead after that day when her father begged Jesus to help?  It’s been written that “this little girl was raised from death to become a woman.  It was not yet the final victory.  She was raised to die again.  But she could live as one that knew death would not have the last word” (Allen Verhey, Feasting on the Gospels:  Mark, p. 156).  Healed, she became God’s vessel of hope for a deeply wounded world.  After all, that’s how healing happens.  One person after another.  In ways we’d rarely expect.  No matter how long it takes.  Until at last all peoples are free.  All divisions at their end.  Every tear wiped away as mourning gives way to dancing.  Today, tomorrow, and forever.  May it ever be.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Boating with Jesus

A Sermon for 24 June 2018

 

A reading from the gospel of Mark 4:35-41.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

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

 

A few years ago, I was on a boat.  Growing up on Lake Michigan, I’d often been on our boat.  Fishing with dad.  Messing around summer afternoons with my sister as we rowed out beyond second sandbar.  Relaxing with friends in the quiet offshore.  Boats are nothing new to me – likely they’re not to some of you too.  Canoes.  House Boats.  Ocean liners.  I’ve pretty much experienced them all.  The boat I was on in 2014 was not only unexpected.  It ended up to be kinda ironic.  I was on a pilgrimage as the culmination of my work for a Certificate in Christian Spiritual Formation through Columbia Seminary.  We were in the Holy Land.  Staying in a wonderful inn in the city of Tiberias.  When we loaded the bus one morning, we drove north then east to the entrance of a boat launch.  We walked through a museum housing the remains of a First Century fishing boat which at last was recovered from the sea in 1986.  Finally, we got ourselves on board the much sturdier, modern tour boat.  The captain powered up the motor.  And away we went for a ride on the Sea of Galilee.

Never before had I been to the Holy Land.  On the other side of the world.  Reflecting with every step upon story after story I had known since I was young.  It was amazingly eye-opening to actually see the places the stories mentioned:  Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jerusalem, and, of course, the Sea of Galilee around which Jesus spent so much of his ministry.  I’ll never forget that Galilee boat ride.  Because no sooner did we get out into the middle of what seemed to me to be a pretty small lake; after all, it’s nothing like Lake Michigan where all you see is sandy beaches and blue water the whole way to the horizon.  But there we were.  In the middle of that eight-mile-wide lake alongside Tiberias when the wind switched.  Dark clouds rolled in.  And a storm overtook the sea.  Moments before my fellow pilgrims had been standing at the boat’s edge, looking to Tiberias on one end of the sea, Capernaum on another, the southern side of the lake from which the Jordan River flows, the eastern cliffs believed to be the spot the demon-possessed pigs jumped off into the sea.  Then suddenly the wind whipped up.  The waves thrashed about.  The rain pounded down upon us and that little boat.  The captain was panicked.  Barking orders for us to sit down fast.  He did a 180 to promptly cut our sea cruise short – worried not so much about our safety, but of the fate of his livelihood; his precious touring boat.  Inching ever so slowly through the chopping water in hopes we’d make it safely back to shore, we were presented with a few moments to ponder just what it must have been like to be out there on a boat much smaller and more fragile than our captain’s sturdy vessel.  According to the story as record in the gospel of Mark:  in the middle of night.  After a long day of hearing story upon story about God’s kingdom.  Only to find Jesus – the charismatic teacher who had been inspiring his little ban of followers – snug in the stern.  Asleep in the back of the boat!

Boats offer intriguing experiences, wouldn’t you say?  What could be better than speeding across the water, skimming the wake, escaping the heat of summer – good friends and family all around?  Boats offer the tranquility of lazily floating down a river.  Or cruising a mighty ocean.  Boats can be as simple as a single-person kayak, as tough as an industrial barge, or as sleek as an elegant yacht.  It’s hard to escape others once you step foot upon a boat.  From the steadiness needed by all in a little row boat to the teamwork it requires to sail one from shore to shore.  Even the largest ship reminds we’re all in it together if suddenly something like an iceberg buckles the starboard side.

Almost from the beginning, boats have been a symbol of the church.  Perhaps you’ve seen sanctuaries built to the glory of God with rugged vaulted ceilings made of exposed wooden beams, intentionally fashioned to resemble the reversed look of a boat’s keel.  The architecture of many cathedrals contains what’s called transepts – the part of the building extending north to south like the horizontal beam of the cross.  The transepts run between the parts of the building called the chancel area and the part of the building called the nave, from the Latin word navis.  As in navy, naval.  Ship.  Some liturgies for baptism even include these words:  “’Received into the ark of Christ’s Church . . . may’” (the baptized) “’so pass the waves of this troublesome world’ as finally to ‘come to the land of everlasting life.’  . . .  It’s been written that “The nave, then, (represents) the Church into which God, in (God’s) love gathers us together in order to bring us in safety through the storms of life” (http://biblehub.com/library/regester/the_worship_of_the_church/symbolism_of_the_church_building.htm).  Like Noah and the two-by-two animals that made their way into the big boat right before the rains began.  The Church is the boat of God that holds us all.  And like Noah and all the animals in the big boat, it’s important to remember.  It might get a little stinky inside; but it sure beats drowning outside the ark alone in life’s flood waters.  One source writes of the boat of the Church as “tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls” (Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/ship.htm).

It’s been an interesting week to be reflecting upon the story of the boat that holds the sleeping Christ.  How often do we feel like the battered little boat of disciples wishing Jesus would wake up to save us in the churning sea of today’s world?  It might be helpful to know one commentator’s take on why Jesus was able to sleep through the storm on the boat.  In Feasting on the Gospels, Thomas D. Stegman, writes:  “Jesus’ untroubled sleep shows forth his deep, abiding trust in God’s power and protection.  It also recalls the sleep of the farmer in the parable Jesus just told (4:26-29), the sleep that faithfully awaits God’s creative work of nurturing the growth of the field and bringing it to harvest” (Feasting on the Gospels:  Mark; Westminster John Know Press, 2014.  p. 143).  Might we too be a little boat of disciples, holding the sleeping Christ?  Untroubled, he is with us amid the storm.  Awaiting God’s creative work.

It certainly seemed like it when I read this week of the work of the part of God’s boat called the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Perhaps you followed along too.  As the biennial gathering of our national governing body, the General Assembly, met in St. Louis; I was in awe to see what the part of God’s boat called the PCUSA has been up to.  Of course, the week included vigorous debate like that over whether or not to charge the Board of Pensions to stop investing pastor’s pensions in companies who knowingly are doing further harm to the environment.  It also included money of the church being restricted to help repair Native American churches.  And passing an overture about possibly adopting as a confession to be added to our Book of Confessions Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”  At one point in the week, a young adult attender rose to tell the whole assembly how proud he is to be a part of a denomination that has been becoming more welcoming and affirming for all.  Then, in the very next breath; he came out to everyone there only to be immediately swarmed by a huge group hug (https://marciglass.com/2018/06/21/proud-to-be-presbyterian/).  The week also included something I’ve never before seen reported from GA.  On Tuesday about 400 Presbyterians left the convention hall in St. Louis to march over to the Justice Center with an offering of $47,000.  The money was raised to pay the bail of nearly 3 dozen non-violent offenders charged with things possession of marijuana and public disturbance.  Some have been held for up to a year because they have not been able to scrape together the cash-only required bail needed to release them from jail.  Presbyterians not only gathered to worship and study and debate.  We gathered to serve, as did high schoolers of the Hands and Feet initiative who tagged along from their Presbyterian Churches in Kentucky and Arkansas to do mission work in Ferguson.  The trip was planned in conjunction with the General Assembly gathering so Presbyterians intentionally would bring a positive impact to the St. Louis area (p. 5 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572).  We gathered to serve the underserved in a racially torn town and ensure the release of captives.  We gathered to amend wrongs of the past and embrace a hopeful future for the least and lost among us.  Somewhere I read of a charge from the General Assembly for all Presbyterians to “live up to the qualities reflected in the PCUSA’s acronym:  Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving, and Alive” (p. 3 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572).  At work today!  Members of God’s boat with a trusting Christ asleep among us.  For he already sees in action God’s creative work!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

God’s Tenacious Kingdom

A Sermon for 17 June 2018 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Mark 4:26-34.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’  30He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’  33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

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

 

Let me tell you about a man.  A good man.  Likely living out in the suburbs.  A caring husband.  A supportive father.  A really good dad.  Every Saturday afternoon you can find him on his front lawn.  You see, he’s been to Ace a zillion-times, but each week when he gets up on Saturday morning – wishing he could go enjoy a round of golf instead of heading to hours of pee wee baseball or travel soccer; he knows he’ll be back out there.  On the grass.  Because once again he has awoken to a front yard full of dandelions.  He’s certain the Home Owner’s Association will cite them for a front yard that brings disgrace – and spreading-dandelion-seeds to every other neighbors’ yards.  This will be the week, he dreams, when at last those stubborn things will be under control.  Banished from his property.  Relics of the past.  He pops open his eye with the first sip of morning coffee.  Peeking out the front door, his heart sinks at the sight of the happy yellow heads smiling in the sun.  As if overnight, the little buggers have multiplied.  No matter what he does:  how he yanks, what he sprays; the dandelions return.  Day after day tenacious.  Like an itch no scratching can subdue.  Some things just cannot be stopped.  . . .  According to Jesus, God’s kingdom is like that.

The other day I saw a friend who is 4 ½ months pregnant.  I saw her too on the day she had been at the doctor to confirm the little gift was on it’s way.  She was slim and trim and excited, day one.  Looking great; a radiant glow already.  Four weeks later, when the nausea and debilitating headaches were almost under control, I saw her again.  You have to know she’s a petite little woman.  Standing maybe around 5 feet-two-inches tall.  When I saw her week four after the doctor’s confirmation, the pudge was forming.  Just slightly – only those in the know would notice.  A month ago, she showed up in her first maternity shirt.  Certainly, starting to show.  And just this week, after an ultrasound and in anticipation of an amazing gender reveal party to come; she’s starting to freak out.  She’s already gained 25 pounds.  Even the ultrasound tech accidentally told her:  “you’re having a really big baby!”  Only to correct herself with proper hospital etiquette.  “I mean:  your baby’s really healthy – growing very well!”  From a tiny little spark to over 25 pounds put-on by week 19.  Something so small it only can be seen under a microscope, miraculously growing to something as bulging as a giant watermelon.  . . .  Jesus said, God’s kingdom is like that.

The tiniest seed produces a bumper crop.  Something small and seemingly insignificant, wildly expands to be huge!  In the book Revelation of Love, 14th Century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich put it this way:  “At the same time, (the Lord) showed me something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that seemed to lie in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball.  I tried to understand the sight of it, wondering what it could possibly mean.  The answer came:  ‘This is all that is made.’”  Julian continues, “I felt it was so small that it could easily fade to nothing; but again I was told, ‘This lasts and it will go on lasting forever because God loves it.  And so it is with every being that God loves” (Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, edited and translated by John Skinner; Image Books, 1996, chapter 5, pp. 9-10).  Four centuries later, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn” (source unknown).  The seemingly smallest, most insignificant thing does not escape God’s favor.  The teeny-tiny shall become gigantic!  God alone knows how such a little thing grows and grows and grows.  God’s kingdom is like that.

Automatically expanding.  It just happens, proclaims the parable Jesus told.  Totally on its own.  It’s uncontrollable – like God’s love.  Like wildfire that rips through brittle fields.  Something small becomes gigantic.  Mighty all on its own.  Tenacious.  It cannot be stopped.  The parables of Mark’s gospel insist that the kingdom of God is just like that.

Earlier in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells about various kinds of soil.  Conditions that certainly can impede the seed’s growth.  But even in the most ideal conditions:  we can properly add nutrients to the dirt.  We can plant the seed.  We can ensure the water and place it in proper relationship to the sun.  But we cannot make a little seed grow.  Trust me:  I’ve tried a billion times – sometimes to great success.  God’s kingdom is like that.  The reign of Christ’s Way around the world, according to Jesus’ parables from Mark, is automatic.  The Way of God shall expand.  Despite the daily news reports that everything is so bad.  After all, what the news reports is the anomaly:  the acts that have happened contrary to the daily norm.  It’s not news to report about neighbors who get along day in day out.  It’s not news to report about the simple courtesies that take place in schools and stores and sites of employment.  In a city like metro Nashville, if there are something like five violent crimes a day, at the same time there are like a million-and-a-half daily acts of kindness, compassion, consideration.  Generosity begets generosity, Jesus’s words profess in the verses right before the part of the gospel read aloud today.  Calm too is contagious.  Goodness breads more goodness.  Like the pay it forward trend where one act of unexpected kindness is passed on to another who in turn goes on to perform another unexpected act of kindness.  We can’t make all the chain of events happen.  We can hinder them, for sure.  We can block; and depending on the current state of our hearts, we can try to stamp them out.  Nonetheless, one beneficial act leads to another.  Experiencing love makes us love.  Which might be why, according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus instructed his followers not only to love those who love us back, but to love our enemies.  To do good to those who hate us.  To bless those who curse us (Luke 6:27-28).  In other words, to live in this world as the ferment.  The leaven of love that has the potential to transform hates and hurts.  Showing an alternate Way which gives witness to the reign of grace.  The presence of self-giving love.  The tenacious, ever-expanding kingdom of God.

A few years ago, when I was in the Baltic country of Estonia to organize what would become an annual international mission trip; our Christian hosts took us to the old city of Tallinn.  On the way into the inner square, we walked by an old church building, once under siege by Soviet forces.  Though in 1918 Estonia had become an independent nation after lifetimes of living under invader’s rule as far back as eleven hundred years ago; in 1940, the little nation of about 1.4 million people again found themselves under military occupation – first of the Soviet Union and subsequently of Nazi Germany.  Free at last in 1991, the eldest of our Christian hosts told stories of how it had been.  Their church building demolished in the occupation – bombed out by the Soviets, they had to gather on the sly.  Stealing away to each other’s homes for worship.  Praying in basements.  Hiding physical evidence of their Christianity.  They found a way to carry on the faith despite its illegal status according to their foreign occupiers.  In the 20th Century; communism had come, and communism had gone from that little country.  The Christian faith remained.  It didn’t look the same, they had to alter beloved practices.  Still, followers kept hope alive.  Once again to build a magnificent facility, supported generously from funds sent by Korean Christians who knew too what it was like to continue following Christ despite the ways of those around them.  . . .  God’s kingdom is like that.  Irrepressible. Automatic.  Ever-expanding despite any efforts to stamp it out.  The reign of grace knows no end.  Tenacious.  According to Jesus.  God’s kingdom is just like that.  Forever it shall stand!  On this, we can depend.

Glory be to the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit.  Amen!

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