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Monday, June 29, 2015

Two for the Price of One

Mark 5:21-43

        Who doesn’t love a good bargain? I know I certainly do. When I see the advertisement, “Buy One, Get One Free” I just have to stop and take a second look. And if one item is 50% off, I figure that means if I buy two at 50% off each, I’ve just saved myself some money, right? – Well, only if I need two, I guess.
        Today’s gospel delivers two healing stories – two miracles of Jesus, within this one text of Mark’s. I was going to post “Two for the Price of One” as the title for my sermon today. But advertising a sermon with a  title like that on a church website might be a little counterintuitive.

        While we could all probably use a double-dose of God’s grace most days, what you probably don’t want is a 90 minute sermon.
Healing of a Bleeding Woman,
Peter Marcellinus Catacomb

        All kidding aside, our God is a gracious and generous God whose love is transforming and healing, whose grace, freely flowing through Jesus, brings us new life.
        Today’s gospel texts contain stories of that grace demonstrated in Jesus performing miraculous healing, taking power from death and giving new life and transformation to those who suffer.
        Most of us have some personal experience with healing, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or relational. Some of us may even have stories of miraculous healing – healing that we ourselves experienced or healing that has occurred to others we know.
        Maybe there was a restoration to health that could not be explained any other way than, “miracle”; healing that took place which was out of proportion to anything that was expected, or a cure that took place where none was expected at all.
        I think that most of us probably know that there are times when healing comes with a cure, and times when a person is cured of a disease but still consumed by demons of another kind.      
        All of us could probably tell the other kind of stories as well – the stories of those who prayed, or for whom we have prayed, where there was no cure, and no apparent healing.
        We admit that the ways of God are both mysterious and challenging.
        This truth, however, often makes healing stories like those in Mark’s gospel this morning difficult for us to comprehend, and difficult for us to hear, reminding us of those other stories from our own experience as they do.
        We don’t fully understand why some people are healed or cured and others are not. There are those who laugh us to scorn for faith in the power of God to heal, especially when healing doesn’t happen the way we want it to.   
        Today we have these two-for-one healing stories in our gospel narrative. Each of these stories presents healing a little differently, each includes a miracle, each exhibits the twin forces of fear and faith which often seem to go hand in hand.
        What these stories do NOT teach us, is that if we simply have enough faith, miracles will happen, healing will automatically occur, and we will get whatever we ask.
        This gospel does not say that illness is a test of faith or that with the right kind of faith we automatically get our wish and receive a cure when we pray.
        Instead, what these stories testify to is the transformational presence and power of God, working through Jesus Christ. These stories invite us to take all the fear, sadness, grief and pain we feel in the face of our brokenness, our illness and even death itself and turn them over to God. And God, who promises to accompany us through the chaos and turmoil of our human finitude will transform our fear, giving us faith, strength, and yes, healing.
        In our text today, Jesus has once again crossed the sea, returning from the Gentile side where he has just cast out demons from a Gerosene man. The sea, figuring prominently in the gospel, reminds us of the powers of chaos and darkness, a boundary Jesus not only crosses but ultimately overcomes.
        We remember last week’s gospel story of the calming of the storm at sea which illustrated for us how Jesus brings calm to the turmoil and chaos of our world and our lives.
        As Jesus reaches the shore in today’s text, a huge crowd assembles around him and follows him, pressing him in on all sides. There is something symbolic in the way that Jesus stands between the people and the depths and chaos of the sea.
        What follows is this two-for-one story.
        First, we have Jairus – well connected, Jewish, but vulnerable to losing the daughter who is so dear to him. He may be used to getting what he wants – he is a man of power and prestige, after all. He may not really know what to think of Jesus but he’ll try anything to save his daughter. He calls out to him, revealing for all to see, his deep vulnerability and need.
        Then, we have the unnamed woman – she has lost all status and whatever money she may have had during the twelve long years of her affliction. She doesn’t have a thing going for her except for her faith.
        She is desperate too. Like Jairus, she may not know exactly who this Jesus is or how he works, but she has heard the healing and teaching stories and believes that there is something about him, some way that God is working through him. And so, she presses through the crowd.
Can you feel the bodies pressing against her from all sides? Can you see her stretch out her hand, reaching, reaching, and then finally touching just the fringe of Jesus’ clothing – the only thing she dares touch, and even that in secret.
She likely fears that if she calls out to Jesus and asks him to help her, the crowd, thinking she is out of her mind, will laugh her to scorn, will chase her away – or worse. Her bleeding has left her ritually, sexually and religiously unclean.
        Finally, there is the little girl, Jairus’ precious daughter, standing at the gate to adulthood, soon to reach what would have been an age of marriagability. On her own she has no status, no wealth, and no power, as she hovers in the threshold between life and death.
     As Jesus and the others reach her home, they are told that it is too late. She has died.
Resisting the people’s call to turn back however, Jesus proceeds to enter the home, allowing only the girl’s parents and his most trusted companions to come with him. The people in the crowd laugh. They think he is out of his mind.
     They laugh him to scorn at the suggestion that he can do anything to help her now. They laugh him to scorn at the suggestion that there is any power greater than death.
     As we move with these characters through this narrative, we see the power of God moving people from death to life, transforming fear into thanksgiving through faith, turning vulnerability to vindication through the power of Jesus’ touch.
     Jairus may not have been a believer when he first caught Jesus’ attention; hope was all he had, but the restoration of his little girl to life moved him to faith, made him a believer.
        The woman experiences immediate healing and more – she who was once nameless and without status is given a name by Jesus – “Daughter,” he calls her – and then lifts her up as the epitome of faith. “Your faith has saved you.” She is not only healed, but restored to community.
 The Raising of Jairus' Daughter
George Percy Jacomb-Hood, 1895
        And the little girl? Her role foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection, revealing God’s power over even the darkness of death.
        Experiencing God’s power is overwhelming. It is easier to believe that the trusting, hopeful, believing ones are “out of their minds”.
        These days, fear, turmoil, chaos and death are evident every way we turn. So many people in the sphere of our lives are touched by cancer, other incurable illnesses, addiction and brokenness beyond belief. Terrorism, mass killings, systemic conflict and ills infect every corner of the earth. Perhaps you or someone close to you can identify with one of the characters in this Gospel account – desperate, vulnerable, hopeful, or feeling hopeless.
     Maybe you are the person who has it all together but then, through illness, job loss, a broken relationship, or some other storm suddenly finds himself vulnerable and desperate?
Or perhaps you’re the one who has endured so much challenge or adversity over time that, like the bleeding woman you haven’t much else to lose. Perhaps you are ready to dare to reach out, wondering if just maybe Jesus might be able to heal you.
     Maybe you find yourself the helpless one like Jairus’ daughter, utterly dependent on others to pray for you, to lift you up, to fight for you?
      Whichever you are, whoever you are, this gospel message is for you. God’s abundant love displayed on the cross will show you power that is stronger than death, and love that is stronger than any brokenness or ill.
     We believe in a God who heals, and keeps right on healing because our human nature leaves us vulnerable to illness and pain and loss. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we can learn to trust God’s “I love you,” and to hear God’s “I know you,” claims made manifest in Jesus Christ.
     It is in community that we ourselves can begin to become God’s vehicles of compassion, comfort and healing for others. Perhaps the two-for-one good news of this gospel is that whether you have a strong faith or whether you struggle to believe, or fall somewhere in the middle, God walks alongside you as Jesus walked along the sea, holding back the chaos, and through Jesus overcoming the powers of evil and sin. This gracious and generous God is transforming doubt into hope, hope into faith, and bringing healing to all. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Crossing to the Other Side

Mark 4:35-46
        In the Gospel text today, we see the revelation of Jesus Christ as God’s power and authority in our world. Jesus is God’s abiding presence in the life of the kingdom of God – this life into which God is inviting all people. Jesus is God with us and in our gospel we see God’s power and authority at work as Jesus stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  
        In the wake of the events of this week, in the pain and turmoil, chaos and storm stirred up by the massacre that took place in Charleston, Jesus’ words, “Peace. Be still!” are words we desperately need to hear. We need to know that Jesus can and does still the chaos in our broken, terrified hearts. We need to hear that the power of God is still at work, can and will defeat the powers of evil.  
        We need to hear that in the midst of the maelstrom of our world and our lives, Jesus is the power and presence of God; God with us, withstanding and controlling the crashing of the seas and the deafening roar of the wind and finally, stilling them.
        We need to know that when the storm strikes, God remains faithful, eternally walking with us, and beside us, surrounding us with love and even, with peace.  
        Jesus isn’t just asleep in that boat. Jesus, God with us, is inviting us to a sense of calm. Jesus invites us to believe that he is the source of all peace for us, and that God is powerfully present in the midst of whatever storm may strike. Even the most terrifying.
        The name of the historic church in Charleston where such horror and tragedy unfolded this week is Emanuel.
        Emanuel – which means - “God with us.” Despite the way the events of this week brought yet another reminder of the deep brokenness in our world, there were also signs – so many signs of God’s presence – of the ways that God is with us still – in the outpouring of love and support, for instance; in faith communities across the country praying in solidarity with our AME brothers and sisters; in flowers and notes left at the church; in the outrage poured out against all forms of racism and bigotry.
        We were also reminded of how much work is yet to be done in this kingdom of God.
        The shooting this week brought a searing reminder that racism and hatred are powerful conditions of sin and evil that are fed by an increasingly broken and hostile society.
        This is a society in which you and I are members and, like it or not, we must admit our own complicity in the ills of prejudice and intolerance. Forgive us, Father, for the things we have done and left undone.
        We acknowledge that we benefit from the systemic illness of a world in which the divisions between rich and poor, black and white, Christian and any other group, are widening at an astonishing rate in our polarized culture. If nothing else, we begin by admitting that we don’t stand up fiercely enough, loudly enough or often enough – to speak against the daily hurts and assaults various groups in our world endure.
        My brothers and sisters, we not only live in a society in which these things take place, and are beneficiaries of the injustices, but we also participate in activities that influence the systemic ills infecting our world.
        More than ever before, the media, entertainment outlets, and the very rhetoric that surrounds us daily and in which we often engage, profit by images and language promoting violence and racism.
        Think of the last five movies you’ve seen or the last five television programs you watched, the last five books you read. Think of the images, the way certain groups of people are portrayed. Reflect deeply on the language and rhetoric which occurs on the nightly news program you may watch.
        Consider the inflammatory language and images that cross your computer screen, whether you read them or not. What happened the last time you were in a group and someone used derogatory imagery, language or characterization of African Americans or Muslims for instance? Did any one stand up and say that it was wrong? Did you?
        We live in a culture that is increasingly divided racially, economically and politically, though we would like to ignore that fact, or deny it, or hide it, sweep it under the banner of “look how far we’ve come.”
        Eventually, when the tensions and the truth explode in images and actions we cannot ignore, can no longer hide, and we are overwhelmed, the boat of our complacency becomes swamped, and we cry out in horror and fear as the disciples did that day, “Lord, do you not care…that we are perishing?”     
        This week, another senseless shooting, and this time, in a Christian church, right here in America, with brothers and sisters in faith cut down following a bible study and time of prayer with the shooter himself. Incidentally, they were shot and killed - by another Christian. An ELCA Lutheran, (that’s our denomination) in fact. Let’s let that fact sink in.
        Another act of hatred. Another list of names of those who, whether they were 26 years old or 87 years old, were taken far too soon.  “Truly,” we think, “our boat is going down.”     
        And yet, in the midst of this storm, I wonder if you heard what I heard? God with us.  Did you hear the sound of reason, the voice of peace, from what we might think would be the most unlikely of places? Did you hear God’s message of love and unfathomable calm in the midst of the storm as, one after another the families of the victims spoke up?
        They each testified to the deep pain and bewilderment that has overtaken them since Wednesday night. God with us. They each spoke to the searing sense of loss and grief that is, at times overwhelming. But there was also something else that they spoke to: that though they truly walk through the valley of the shadow of death, they will not let evil win the day. God with us.
        They spoke of forgiveness – for the shooter. They spoke of the light of Christ that is abiding with them, the LORD who is walking beside them. Many of the family members – the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters and even grandchildren of the victims testified to their conviction that they would not meet evil with evil, hatred with hatred, but instead would turn to Jesus for their strength both to forgive and to find meaning and healing in their staggering losses.
        There is no going back to the way things were Wednesday morning. The lives of so, so many people are irrevocably altered.  Acknowledging that change, these disciples of Christ extended forgiveness, perhaps as an act of hope – connected to the grace of God they themselves have received at the foot of the cross.
        This kind of forgiveness points to the Word of Jesus from the cross itself. In the cross, this incredible act of evil and hatred is met with love. In the cross of Christ, ironically, we find our peace. God with us.
        Jesus and his disciples are in “the boat” – when Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go on, across, to the other side.”
        Crossing to the other side with Jesus is transformational. It means being aware of the conditions in the world around us and committing ourselves to the kingdom work of expanding God’s loving justice, as Jesus himself did.
        Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee that day.
        Filled with awe and wonder, the disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” We know the answer – God with us.
        God will not be shaken by any storm. Jesus is God’s peace in the midst of the storm. The wind and seas recognized God with us and obeyed his command. Now, in the midst of our storm, Jesus issues the invitation to discipleship, calling those who follow him to go where he has called, confident that he is with them, confident that no evil will truly overtake us when he is at our side.  
        With Jesus Christ, God with us, let us commit ourselves to crossing the racial divide in our land, the widening economic divide between rich and poor, and all divisions in our socio-economic landscape. Crossing to the other side can raise up storms and risk danger, even unto death, especially because people will get stirred up, but let us not fear, but hope, because Jesus is God with us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Big things in small packages

Mark 4:26-34

Follow the Yellow Brick Road! Follow the Yellow Brick Road! One of my favorite movies when I was growing up was the Wizard of Oz. Lying on the floor of our darkened living room, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of this story about a girl from Kansas, her little dog, Toto, and the ruby slippers that sparkled and shined, it was easy to be transported to the land of Oz.

One of the first times I can remember watching The Wizard of Oz was soon after my parents had purchased our first color television set. I was able to witness the transition from black and white to color, and the story seemed to take on a whole new depth and meaning.
Technicolor added visual depth to an already unusual story. I especially remember the visit to Emerald City, and the “horse of a different color.” But most of all, I remember the element of fear that runs like a thread through the story.

Every time they turned around, Dorothy and Toto, and their new friends were faced with some terrifying situation or another. Despite their fear, however, somehow, some way, they hung on to a semblance of hope, and this hope kept them going; it kept them moving onward even when things seemed hopeless.

Alone, any one of these characters may have given up and given in to hopelessness and despair. But together, they faced their fears; together, hope kept them moving forward, facing the next challenge, giving it their all, because they trusted that if they faced their fears and persevered in following the Yellow Brick Road, their hope would be realized.
They just might reach their destination, and that indeed, hope would win the day over seemingly overwhelming fear.

A few decades after our friends made it out of Oz another blockbuster film hit the scenes: the Hunger Games. Like Dorothy searching for the wizard, the main characters in this film are up against seeming impossible odds.
At one point, the mastermind of the situation declares “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear." But for that very reason it is as perilous for a dictator as it is useful: "A little hope, is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous."

Looking at today’s scripture texts, it is this characteristic of hope that Jesus points us to.

Jesus has been speaking in parables to explain the kingdom of God is like; In this kingdom, hope wins out over fear. In today’s text, Jesus likens the kingdom of God, the kingdom in fact inaugurated with the coming of Jesus himself, to the tiny mustard seed.
I would hazard a guess that mustard is not a seed or plant common to most of us here today. Living in the Mid-Atlantic when I think about mustard, I think about all the wonderful varieties that come in jars in the grocery and gourmet   cooking stores. We don’t really think about the nature of the plant this condiment comes from. But this was a plant people of Jesus’ time would know about.

Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, sown upon the ground, the smallest of seeds, yet when it grows up it becomes so large that it is able to shelter birds as they nest in its shade.

We might think this would be a good thing, right?  Yet, the original listeners to this parable might think Jesus is joking. Mustard was a pesky, even somewhat dangerous plant. It wasn’t the kind of seed you would want to sow in your garden. In fact in some places it was even outlawed.

A few years ago I was in Southern California during the late spring, and the hillsides were positively covered with the shining yellow heads of millions of wild plants bobbing in the wind. As it turned out, it was, you guessed it, mustard; Tenacious, hardy, extremely prolific, mustard.

It was like an invasion of dandelions, or kudzu, or wild grape – or any other invasive plant you can think of – begun somewhere as a single plant that wantonly spread its seed all across the field, and then, greatly multiplied.

It was this kind of mustardly behavior that threated crops and vineyards of Jesus’ time; for these are plants quickly take over and choke out other, preferred, plants.
According to the parable, what else is this plant good for? Sheltering birds. That’s a good thing, right? But if we look back to the parables before this one we will find birds picking off the desirable seed that one might want to sow.

It makes you wonder what on earth Jesus was saying when he compared the kingdom of God to a plant that takes over where it is not wanted, gets out of control, and attracts those who are not necessarily welcome!

This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of God is like. And yet, we are encouraged to welcome, to promote, to embrace the kingdom of God as if it’s a good thing! Holy Flying Monkeys, what is Jesus thinking?

Like the mustard plant, the kingdom of God can’t be controlled. The kingdom of God comes about at God’s will and God will not be contained or controlled by any other powers, and especially not by any powers on earth.

The kingdom of God will draw in and shelter those that might be considered undesirable–
the outsider,
            the powerless,
                        the addicted,
                                    the HIV infected,
                                                the abused,
                                                            the convict,
                                                                        the uneducated,
                                                                                    the starving,
                                                                                                the poor and needy
                                                                                                the sinner – all of us.

The kingdom of God has come to take over, to overturn the status quo, to transform the kingdoms of the earth. For those who benefit from the status quo, this is not good news.
But for the first listeners of these words, many of whom were outsiders in their own communities, many of whom were ostracized in their own community, many of whom were disenfranchised, this is very good news. For the early church, struggling through fear, this gospel was good news.

For us, today, who sometimes feel beat up, like outsiders, like pretenders, this is likewise very good news.

This is news that gives us cause to hope. These are words that we can trust, sent by Jesus to invade the 
                        most isolated,
                                                most shameful,
                                                            most fearsome corners of the world
                                                                        and of our very lives.
The kingdom of God conveys hope; the only thing more powerful than fear.
           A little hope is effective;
                    a lot of hope is dangerous.
                               Jesus gives us is maximum hope.

Yet we might ask, how is it that this hope is as perilous as it is useful? Who is it dangerous to?

The hope Jesus offers is dangerous to the powers that subjugate the marginalized; that benefit from the exploitation of the powerless; for those who enslave the weak and overpower the poor.

The hope Jesus offers is dangerous to those who deal in fear-mongering, like unscrupulous leaders, drug lords, terrorists, both domestic and foreign; like those who promote fear and hatred toward targeted groups of people; like corrupt officials in public and private arenas.
The good news of this gospel, my friends, is that even more than the mustard plant is hard to control, the kingdom of God cannot be controlled. It cannot be restrained. It cannot be contained.

We may sometimes look around us and feel discouraged. Starting right here in the church, we look around, and we see a lot of empty seats here. We feel fear.

We turn on the nightly news or pick up the newspaper, or turn on the internet and we feel fear. We fear for the future of the church, for the future generations, for the future of our country and world. Such fear can bog us down, can keep us from moving forward.

If our friends from Oz had given in to hopeless despair however, they never would have kept going, overcoming the obstacles in their way, defeating the darkness in their world. They never would have discovered the gifts they had already been given.

The good news in this gospel is that God is already growing, spreading, exercising, and God is giving and will continue to give each of us the gifts we need to anticipate, participate in, and to offer hope in this kingdom of God.
We see some of these gifts in food that is gathered to share with those who need it; this week, a young family, whose father was sidelined by an injury and the family car lost in an accident, were fed and given assistance by the donations you have brought here to Grace.
The kingdom is at work in quilts that are made for Lutheran World Relief, change that is collected to bring life to dead places of despair, mosquito nets that are being provided to help prevent and treat malaria, and homes being built for the homeless.

As disciples of Christ, when we share the love
            that God first showed us in Christ,
                        we participate in the kingdom work,
                                    sharing hope in the world.

The kingdom of God is spread through soup kitchens, through blood that is donated, through prayers said for loved ones and strangers alike each week here and worship and daily, by many of us, in our personal times of prayer.
The kingdom of God is at work when we share a smile and a kind word with the lonely, send cards to the homebound and reach outside of our church community sharing a caring touch, prayer or word of encouragement. Kingdom work is being done when we mentor a youth whose life is filled with uncertainty, give generously of our time, our talent and our treasure, because we are so very grateful for all that God has given us.

Where have you seen the kingdom of God at work, and where have you participated in sharing the hope of the kingdom with others?

When we live in hope, we get things done. When we live in hope, we are able to reach out in joy to help those who need to experience the love and joy of this kingdom work. When we remember the indiscriminately shared, sheltering love of God demonstrated in the example of a simple, small seed, we learn what it is to live in hope, trusting that God will grow the kingdom as God has always done.

We share hope that is stronger than fear, driven by the grace of God, who frees us to turn the black and white of the status quo into the brilliant, life-giving, life-sustaining colors of the kingdom of God. God will continue to scatter seed, continue to invade the dark and stormy places of the world.

May God grant us each hope stronger than fear, more powerful than any power on earth, and more dangerous than we can dare to imagine.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Crazy Busy, Harried and Flustered?

Mark 3:20-35

The past few weeks, for me, have been “crazy busy,” and I know the same is true for many of you. Some of you have traveled for weddings and graduations and many other family occasions; some have traveled to get your vacations in before your favored destinations become really crowded. For some of you, school sports have been winding down and all those end-of-the-season tournaments, and there have been school spring awards programs, and concerts taking place.
Some of us have been busy with other things – like doctors’ appointments and moving or caring for loved ones. Some of us have been putting in gardens or putting boats in the water – or both.
 For me, the month of May began doing all those things you do when you know you’ll be away for a while. Then there was travel, and upon my return prepping for our wonderful Pentecost and Confirmation celebrations.
My travels took me first out to Denver for a preaching conference, then to Connecticut to see our daughter graduate from Yale Divinity School, and help her move. A week later I was packing up again, to go to the Delaware Maryland Synod Assembly. Whew!
It is no wonder, I suppose, that I have felt like the month of May was gone practically before I knew it had even arrived. I have felt, at times, harried and flustered, in the whirlwind that was the month of May.
Jesus, too, has been “crazy busy,” involved in a whirlwind of his own, as he has traveled all around Galilee. His travels make mine – and yours – seem like a trip to the corner store. We return to the gospel of Mark this week after several weeks spent in the gospel of John. As we read the gospel this morning, there are some who might even question whether Jesus himself is harried and flustered.
While this morning’s text comes from just the third chapter in Mark’s gospel – early in Jesus’ ministry – there has been a lot of action so far in this gospel.
Right out of the box, after the introduction of Jesus as the Son of God about whom this “good news” is written, the whirlwind through Galilee begins: Jesus baptized in the Jordan River; the Spirit alighting on him; the wilderness adventure complete with the temptations of Satan; and then, Jesus’ first words, announcing the presence of God’s kingdom, and issuing the command for all to repent and believe. Then there is Jesus walking by the sea, summoning common fisher folk to follow him; his immediate circle widening to include the 12 apostles; his teaching in the synagogue with astounding authority; and everywhere he goes, healing and casting out demons along the way; pronouncing forgiveness of sin and even sharing meals with those who might be deemed unfit to spend time with.
It seems that on this whirlwind tour, Jesus is an instant success – he’s reached stardom in these first few chapters of the gospel. The crowds following Jesus have grown to such a point that as we enter the text this morning, everywhere he goes instantly becomes really, uncomfortably crowded – so much so, that Jesus and the apostles are having a hard time moving around or even finding a place where they can eat in peace.
There are some who don’t really know what to make of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees have been watching him, and they are not quite buying into this Jesus, with his new ideas challenging the way things have “always been done.” They have become angry and fearful – especially as they see so many people coming to follow him. I mean, people are coming from all over Galilee - even from regions beyond the Jordan, like Tyre and Sidon to hear Jesus. To be near him. To be healed by him. To be part of the story, perhaps.
As we all know, as we have all witnessed through the events in our own world the past few months, angry people and fearful people often become dangerous people.
So disturbed by Jesus and his rock-star popularity are the Pharisees and the Herodians that they have already begun to try to find a way to destroy him.
And Jesus’s family? They aren’t quite sure what to make of Jesus either. There is no indication at this point in the story that they have any real understanding of who Jesus really is and why he has come. They only know he is their beloved son, brother, and friend. So, having heard what Jesus has been doing and how he has been challenging the status quo, the powers that be, they are worried that he has lost his mind. He is more than just “crazy busy,” or harried and flustered, they think.  Perhaps he is just plum crazy. Or perhaps, they thought Jesus was getting carried away with himself, as The Message tells the story, and they decide they need to rescue him, by force, if necessary.
Now, just a point of common sense if you will, if you live in an occupied territory, and if you are a member of ancient cultural and religious systems with very strict customs and rules, and if you value your relative freedom and your life, you generally try to fly under the radar. Know what I mean? You don’t do things to call attention to yourself. You don’t go about openly questioning, agitating, and advocating for things that lie contrary to the prevailing systems of authority and power. And you don’t go about claiming access to divine authority or power.
When the religious authorities arrive, they don’t actually question Jesus’ power – they know he is truly performing deeds of extraordinary power and healing. But in their anger and their fear, they begin spreading rumors that the source of power Jesus is exercising is itself evil. They are saying that Jesus’ power is actually a form of black magic and devil tricks. They say that Jesus’ power comes from a demon and not just any demon, but chief among demons, Beelzebul himself – we might call him Satan.
They have witnessed the power of God at work in Jesus, they have heard John the Baptist’s proclamation and Jesus’ own assertion that the kingdom of God has come, and they have made the judgment that Jesus’ power is not divine but satanic. Even though they have been witnesses of God’s grace, they reject Jesus and call the power of God shown in his acts of love and healing, evil. They accuse him of being the devil and that is unforgivable.
Jesus immediately confronts their slander with a story, and a warning (again, from The Message):  “Does it make sense to send a devil to catch a devil, to use Satan to get rid of Satan”, he asks? “A constantly squabbling family disintegrates. If Satan were fighting Satan, there soon wouldn’t be any Satan left. Do you think it’s possible in broad daylight to enter the house of an awake, able-bodied man, and walk off with his possessions unless you tie him up first? Tie him up, though, and you can clean him out.”
“Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.”.
Jesus isn’t denying that evil exists or that Satan is at work in the world. There were plenty of instances of such evil – just as there are today. There was human slavery, poverty, hunger, political and religious oppression, just as there is today. There were abuses of all kinds, greed, murder, and rape. There was brutality of one person against another. There was failure to love, comfort, and care for those in need. There was systematic discrimination and abuse of power. Just like today.
These are the powers that work against God. These are the powers that Jesus confronts, fights and condemns.
The good news of the gospel, as stated by Mark in his introduction, is that Jesus is the Son of God and that in him, rests God’s power and authority to defeat the evil one, to tie him up and to take from him what he would like to claim for himself.
In Jesus, there is food for the hungry and water for the thirsty; in Jesus there is healing for those victimized by injustice, hatred, poverty, war, violence and sin. In Jesus, there is acceptance and love for those previously rejected. In Jesus, the only place for condemnation is toward those who would claim his power, his word, and his salvation to be works of the evil one. In Jesus, a new day has arrived.
Not everyone in the world will agree, in fact there are quite a few who would find fault with this reading of the gospel. There are those who claim that the plight of the poor is their own fault and their own problem; there are those who are quick to blame victims of injustice or social inequality or abuse. There are those who say that we – (those who look like us, are of “our own kind”) have enough problems of our own and should not worry ourselves with feeding, clothing, protecting and defending, loving or caring for those outside of “our own kind.”
But Jesus says that whoever does the will of God is his kindred. Jesus says that the will of God is to love; to bring healing even when it is not “convenient” – even when it is risky. Jesus says the will of God is that we should follow the Ways of Jesus, forgiving, proclaiming the goodness of God and the power of God found in the cross. With his words Jesus teaches us. With his actions Jesus shows us. With his very body Jesus feeds us. With his blood Jesus slacks our thirst.
In all of his crazy busyness, harried and flustered as he may at times have been – just as we are, Jesus showed us that there is no middle way. Even when serving the needs of the poor around us makes us takes us out of our comfort zone, or stretches our resources, or challenges us in ways be cannot even begin to imagine, Jesus tells us to have no fear. Jesus says the only unforgiveable sin is to speak against what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst as if it comes from the devil, to mistake what God is up to by calling it the work of the devil. The power of God, for the healing of the nations welcomes into the family of Christ all who believe, who follow the will of God, who know and embrace Jesus in the fullness of his gospel of repentance, love, healing and grace.
To follow Jesus means to look outside of our own comfort as individuals and as a congregation. It means looking around us and seeking ways to serve our neighbors. To invite them in, and to embrace and welcome them when they come. To follow Jesus means to look and act, perhaps, just a little bit crazy, because we follow in the Way of the one who gave his all for the world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It is what is it, - just don't ask me what!

Holy Trinity Sunday

I recently realized that there are three words that I mention – a lot! - in my preaching. Well – spoiler alert - I’m about to do it again. Those words, which come up again and again because they are so much in the nature and work of God, are “relationship,”                “forgiveness,” and “communion. One of those words is especially connected to the scripture texts we just read. (Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17)

The assigned verses we read this morning reveal to us the deep desire of God to exist in relationship with all God has created, especially with humankind. As I thought about what I might say today as we turn our focus to God as Trinity, I of course considered how I could best describe the Trinity when the truth is, God’s workings and nature are in so many ways indescribable.

I guess, it should come as no surprise that I came up empty.

I mean, there are all kinds of cute little analogies that are often repeated whenever we attempt to define or explain the three-in-one, one-in-three nature of God, but of course, none of these quite cut it and we find ourselves asking, as Nicodemus once did, “How can these things be?”

The truth is that we always fall short when trying to define God or explain the reality of who God is and how God works, let alone when we attempt to tackle the complexity of God’s Trinitarian nature. It seems that there are some things that are simply too mysterious and infinitely astounding to pigeonhole, to fit into a box, or explain with human words. Human knowledge and language will always fall short, will always be inadequate, will always be unequal to the task of satisfying our longing to fully understand how the divinity can possibly exist in trinity.

Peculiar as it might seem there is something profoundly comforting for me in that. It seems to me that as much as I want to have a clear, concise, precise way to describe and explain God, the very nature of definition is that it sets limitations and boundaries on that which is being defined.

It is ……this.
It isn’t …..that.

But who wants a God who is limited? We do not worship a God who observes boundaries, especially not boundaries drawn through our ideologies. Such a divinity would not be anyone’s idea of a God who meets the vast needs of the cosmos.  Nor is it a description of the holy one who creates, redeems, shapes and sanctifies us, who abides in this unique and wonderful relationship with us.

Instead, we belong to a God who is transcendent; different from anything that is or ever will be confined within our finite human experience or understanding. Try as we might, and many have tried – the reality is that our best attempts to explain the Trinity are simply a means to master with our words what is truly only God’s to know.

While some have rejected the very idea of a triune God because of the inability to precisely contain and explain the Three-in-One divinity, it is God’s deep desire to make God’s self intimately known which is reflected in the unique expression of a God who is perpetually relational, who goes to means as extreme as joining us in our humanity to bear this relationality out.

Nothing reveals this deep desire more than the incarnation of Jesus. And then, God leaves no stone unturned as God comes to us again and again repeatedly extending what God has promised: forgiveness, accompaniment and eternal love over, and over, and over again as grace upon grace.

At the reception following Confirmation last week, I had a lengthy conversation with one of our guests. He happened to be the grandfather of one of our confirmands, and from the perspective of quantum mechanics, he tried to describe a certain relative theory to me. To be fair, he did more than try. He explained it, and very well, I am sure –   it was me who was doing the trying - and failing - to understand what he was saying. Every now and then I had a glimmer of an inkling of an idea that a window might be opening and I was perhaps actually grasping a little bit of what he was saying, but then the curtain would come down, the light bulb would go out, and my head would start to hurt – it turns out I am no physicist, quantum theorist, engineer, or mathematician, my friends.

Then, after describing in great detail and with authority what scientists in his field have long understood to be absolutely true, my new friend looked at me and told me that lately, after reading about recent discoveries and current theory development he has come to firmly believe that our theories in this field are all wrong. He has come to believe that despite all the study and attention and development in his field over the past few decades, despite the mathematical certainty with which theories have been advanced, he is convinced - we really don’t know a thing.

Quantum mechanics aside - I kind of know what he means.

After a lifetime of reading and hearing the scriptures, at least enough to know many of the stories; after decades of going to church, and studying the foundations of our faith; after being involved in parish ministry in various capacities for decades, I had the bright idea to go to seminary. Well, truth be told, it wasn’t my idea, but that is another sermon for another day. Anyway, I went.

And, after taking classes like Biblical Greek, Old Testament, New Testament, Ancient and Medieval Christianity and the Gospels, all very early in my seminary career, I quickly reached the conclusion that all of my neatly drawn knowledge and determination about who God is and how God works was just wrong.

Despite my certainty that I had a solid foundation on which to begin my studies, the more I read and studied and learned, the more I realized I didn’t know a thing. I discovered my confidence and even my faith wavering because, if I couldn’t trust my intellect; if the facts and rules and laws I had learned and understood to be true about how God interacts with the world, if what I thought about these things was wrong, what in the world was I doing in seminary?

I have to tell you that my succeeding years in seminary, internship and subsequent study have only succeeded in confirming that while prayer and study and immersion in the scriptures is important, none of that is what really what matters. How can this be?
The thing about belonging to a relational God, is that, sooner or later we learn that God is more interested in the relationship than in what bits of knowledge we have amassed and may or may not possess. God is more interested in the relationship God has with each and every one of us – than in how well any of us understand this doctrine or that teaching of the church, or the law, or scholarship.

God is so interested and passionate about existing in eternal relationship with us, that God came to us, sealing our relationship in flesh and bone. God’s deep, gritty, amazing love for us comes to us through God’s all-encompassing drive and movement to save the world.
It is God’s activity in and through Christ that leads us to a new reality and experience of God’s love for the entire creation. God in relationship with us is constantly changing our perceptions, giving us new perspective, challenging our assumptions, shattering the boundaries we draw around our own ideas and theories, and drawing us into an ever deepening relationship and experience of God through the work of the Trinity – thus transforming us for daily discipleship.

This is the good news for today. It is our experience of God in holy relationship that informs our best understanding of who God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is.
All the rest – the mystery, the theories, the doctrine, the analogies, our every attempt to “explain” the trinity falls far, far short of the reality of who this God is, except as one who draws us all so deeply into relationship and gives us faith to keep us there. It is for the sake of love that God reaches out into the universe, claiming us each as heirs of the promise, heirs of the prize of God’s enormous gift and treasure of God’s love.

David Lose writes,
“Some say that’s why God created the cosmos and humanity in the first place, to have more people to love. But the Trinity goes even further, saying that from the very beginning of time the dynamic power of love that is at the heart of God’s identity and character can only be captured – and that dimly! – by thinking of the love that is shared…..And so God’s essential and core being has always been a giving and receiving and sharing of love that finally spills out into the whole of the universe and invites all of us into it. First through creation and God’s series of covenants, then and pre-eminently in the sending of God’s Son to demonstrate in word and deed just how much God loves us, and now as the Spirit, bears witness to God’s ongoing love for us and all creation.

Which means, I think, that when we talk about the Trinity as God being three-in-one, we really haven’t captured the heart of the doctrine and reality unless we recognize that God is three-in-one in order always to add one more – and that’s us, all of us, an infinite “plus one” through which God’s love is made complete in relationship with all of God’s children.
And that’s what these passages testify to – the profound love of God that draws us into relationship with God, with each other, and with the whole of creation and the cosmos.”

And so, yes, that big word, “relationship,” is again at the core of our message today. Today we embrace the fact that God in trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the relational power of God to reach out in love for us, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God!