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Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Power and Danger of Hope (Mark 4:26-34)

 Mark 4:26-34 – The Power and Danger of Hope

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 purchased our first color television set. I was able to witness the transition from black and white to color and back again, and the story seemed to take on a whole new depth and meaning.

Technicolor added visual depth to an already remarkable story. I especially remember the visit to Emerald City, and the “horse of a different color.” But most of all, I remember that making the story come alive in this new way also increased the very real fear I felt at various times during the movie.  

            Every time they turned around, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends were faced with one 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.  

If they had been standing alone, any one of these characters may have given up and given in to hopelessness and despair. But together, they felt stronger; together, hope kept them moving forward, facing the next challenge; together, they gave 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.

A few decades after our friends successfully made it out of Oz and Dorothy discovered that she had never truly been alone, another blockbuster film hit the screens: the Hunger Games. Like Dorothy searching for the wizard, the main characters in this film were up against seemingly impossible odds.

At one point, the mastermind of the horrifying games of survival of the fittest and the strongest after which the movie is named declared, “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." The dictator, you see, counted on the individual bit of little hope inspired by personal strength resulting in a dog-eat-dog sense of survivalism inspired by desperation. Yet, those who ultimately persevered and won the day were those who bonded to work together to defeat the evil around them.

Looking at today’s scripture texts, we find that it is hope that Jesus points us to.

Jesus has been speaking in parables to explain the kingdom of God is like; a kingdom where 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 of mustard found in grocery and gourmet cooking stores and websites. 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 says 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 probably think Jesus is joking. Mustard was a pesky, even somewhat dangerous plant. Because it was invasive, it was even outlawed.

If you’ve ever been in Southern California during the late spring, you will see hillsides positively covered with the shining yellow heads of millions of wild mustard plants bobbing in the wind. Residents of the area can tell you it is, hardy and extremely prolific.

It’s this kind of mustardly behavior that threated crops and vineyards of Jesus’ time and made the plant undesirable; for these are plants quickly take over and choke out other, preferred, plants.

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! (birds)

And Holy Flying Monkeys, what is Jesus thinking when he says this plant is what the kingdom of God is like?

Here is the good news that doesn’t look at first glance like good news: Like the mustard plant, the kingdom of God can’t be controlled.

The kingdom of God comes about at God’s will and like the “invasive” mustard plant, God will not be contained or defeated by any other powers, no power on earth is stronger than God.

The kingdom of God will draw in and shelter those who 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, and most of all -                                                                                       the sinner –  in other words, all of us.

The kingdom of God has come to take over,

to overturn the status quo,

and to transform the kingdoms of the earth.

Now, as you can imagine - for those who benefit from the status quo, this is not good news.

But for those who were outsiders in their own communities, ostracized by society, or otherwise disenfranchised, this is very good news.

For the early church, struggling through fear, this gospel was great news.

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

            This is news that gives 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 might find it dangerous?

How about the powers that subjugate the marginalized; those that benefit from exploitation of the powerless; 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; corrupt officials in public and private arenas who prey on those who live without hope.

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. And Jesus makes us part of that kingdom

Therefore, we shall not fear. If there is nothing else the past couple of Sundays have reminded us, God’s own Spirit comes to give us great strength and the gifts to bless this kingdom in Jesus’ name.

If our friends from Oz had given in to hopeless despair, they would never have kept going, overcoming 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 here, giving each of us the gifts we need to anticipate, participate in, and to offer hope in this kingdom of God. God is here like the mustard plants, growing, spreading, and blessing those in most need of love and mercy, of protection and shelter, of compassion and generosity.

The kingdom is at work here in the thousands of meals prepared, given out and delivered to the lonely and to those in need not just of food but of the love and prayer that goes out with it. The kingdom is at work here in VBS packets being assembled for the children who will learn more about Jesus in a couple of weeks despite our need to do so online.

The kingdom work at Zion includes utility, rent, shelter, and other assistance given to our Helping Hand fund, as well as donations given through your generosity to abused women and children, men and women rebuilding lives after prison, the homeless now being sheltered, at-risk children being provided safe activity for the summer through the Lutheran Camping Corporation, the Wittel Farm Food Growing Project, and more.  

As disciples of Christ, when we share the love that God first showed us in Christ, we are like mustard plants, participating in the kingdom work, providing Christ’s hope in the world.

The kingdom of God is spread through soup kitchens, blood that is donated, and prayers said for loved ones and strangers alike each week here in worship and daily in our homes.  

The kingdom of God is at work with every smile shared, every kind word spoken, and every card sent to the lonely, the sick, and the homebound.

God’s Spirit fills us with hope, and when we live in hope, we get things done. When we live in hope, joy follows, as we help those who need to experience the blessing 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’s full, technicolor love will grow the kingdom as God has always done.

God will continue to scatter seed, continue to invade the dark and stormy places of the world. As part of that work, 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.

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. Amen.






Pentecost and Confirmation 2021 (Acts 2:1-21 & Joihn 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

 Pentecost Sunday 2021 – Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

            Years ago, I heard an interview with then-rising movie star, Julia Roberts. The interviewer was talking with the actress about her beginnings, and it was revealed that Roberts’ father had died when the actress was only 10 years old, fundamentally changing her life.

But the thing that stood out to me is how Roberts spoke about having a relationship with her father that was changed, but resilient and everlasting. When alive, she and her father were separated by distance following her parents’ divorce.

But now, her father is present with her in spirit wherever she is, no longer confined by physical space and the limitations of mortality.

I found that thinking about my own loved ones who have died in this way, was liberating and comforting. And that helps me to understand and speak to the mystery of the Holy Spirit whom we celebrate today, and our ongoing relationship with our Lord, whom we can neither see nor touch.

The pervasive presence of Spirit Jesus gives as both inspiration and accompaniment is part of the promise of which we read of in today’s Gospel text. Jesus will no longer be in literal bodily presence of his disciples as they have known him until now (except for the 3 days between his crucifixion and resurrection); but he will be with them in a new, powerful, and ongoing way through his Spirit.

This Spirit whom Jesus had promised comes upon them not simply as a presence, but as the power that enables, guides, empowers, instructs, and intercedes for the disciples.

It was fifty days after Easter; the disciples were gathered together. Jesus had ascended into heaven just ten days before, right in front of their eyes. so, they know there will be no more of the post-resurrection visits with their master, no more meals eaten together, no more learning from him as they had been doing from the day each one had met him.

But then, something amazing happens as a great wind enters the room and the promised Advocate, the Holy Spirit, pours herself out on them in divided tongues of fire, visibly resting on each of them.

On that day. the Holy Spirit crosses boundaries that had previously confined them and defined them. The Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus and will enable the actions of his beloved disciples, begun and ended in him, to glorify Jesus as well, through the one, true faith.

On this Pentecost Sunday we celebrate that Spirit. For centuries and still in many places, this Sunday is considered to be a wonderful birthday celebration of the Church. The reading from Acts that is always read on Pentecost, which tells what happened in Jerusalem that day is part of the reason for equating the day to a birthday celebration. It’s like each of the disciples there was a candle standing in the room and lit by the candle-lighter God with flame given oxygen by the Holy Spirit.

It was fifty days after Easter that the Holy Spirit crossed all boundaries. In the reading from Acts, the boundary indicated of cour
se is that of language, but we know that there are many boundaries which separate people today, especially in matters of religion, belief, and practice.

The Spirit brings the wideness of God’s mercy to places where disciples gather and work—biblically, to a crowd of strangers gathered from the corners of the earth; and, experientially, to hearts that are divided or weak in faith.

Jesus promises that this Advocate, the Spirit with whom he will gift his followers, will accompany his followers and enable them to do things they never before thought possible, revealing the truth about the identity, power, character, and peace of Jesus the Christ, through whom God loves the world.

Thus, as Jesus was physically lifted up into the sky and now sits at the right hand of the Father, so it is that the Spirit serves as his presence, power, mercy, and peace in every place and land where the good news of Jesus is shared, and his love is embodied.

This is where Julia Roberts’s observation and our own understanding may run parallel. Through his Spirit, Jesus is no longer limited by a human body or the nature of physics. Instead, Jesus is at once everywhere with everyone who believes in him, and he empowers them by his Spirit as they serve him by sharing his story. Through his Spirit, Jesus is always with us, and never apart from us.

A manifestation of the Spirit’s work and Spirit’s power is seen in the two young people in our congregation today. Sophia and Brett, who have completed at least two years of study and will Affirm their Baptisms during the Rite of Confirmation, this week and next.

Baptism is the mark of the Christian, and it is during baptism that we pray for the Spirit’s blessing of gifts of faith on a person. Sophia and Brett were both baptized as babies. Now they take responsibility for opening themselves up to the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Community formed by the Spirit, and to being disciples blessed for sharing the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, in their lives.

We included their Faith Papers with the bulletins you received today, but I wanted to share some of the wisdom, derived of the Spirit, that they shared in their writing:

Brett shared the challenge of living a Christian life in this day and age -

The most difficult thing about following Jesus is that I’m not physically able to see him. I am a hands on learner and I like to be able to see and touch things. This explains the reason I am so successful in science. I am able to touch things and see the reactions that they make. As it may be hard to follow Jesus and understand what is written in the Bible, when I break it all down little by little it is a little easier to follow him.

I feel that the Bible verse Ephesians 4:32 is needed to be heard by all. It states, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” This means that you don’t always know someone’s background…..You should be kind and nice to them even if they aren’t doing it back. God will forgive them and will praise you for the great act of kindness you have committed.

God died on the cross for you, and he didn’t intend for everyone to be mad at each other. He wants everyone to be kind, but that doesn’t always happen. When someone isn’t nice to you, you could throw a fit and start a fight, but instead he wants you to be the bigger person and forgive them.  That one time you forgive them could be the one thing that changes their life forever.

Sophia addressed her favorite verse when she wrote:

“ Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”- Philippians 4:6

I choose this verse because it has an important message that we should remember in our daily lives. To me, this quote means to worry about nothing, and instead pray about everything. This is true and can apply to many situations that we face during our lives.

Trust in God, and everything will be okay. In my own words, the Gospel message is both the beginning of our world and Creation, as well as a “guide” to living a successful life through Jesus, our Creator. Right now, in my life, the Gospel means the pathway to living a Christian life dedicated to Jesus and for him.

The Gospel is proof of our Creator and that He has a plan for all of us. I want to affirm my faith in Jesus right now so I can live a successful life through him. Through Jesus, I will be able to overcome any situation given, push through all my struggles, and know how to handle any ball thrown at me. I was able to grow my faith in Jesus through each Confirmation class. The best part of Confirmation was being able to grow my relationship with God and having great members to help me in this process. Although Confirmation is coming to an end, I intend to continue growing in my faith.

Today as we celebrate the power and work of the Holy Spirit in drawing the church together and blessing it, we remember that it is in Baptism that we are each marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. Due to the restrictions we are still under it seemed inadvisable to “sprinkle” you all with water from the Baptismal font, but we have a gift for each of you on this celebration day. On your way out of worship today, you will receive a little container of water from the baptismal font and a card, reminding you of the power of Christ in you through the power of the Holy Spirit you received in your Baptism.

You will also receive a card with a prayer on it. Take it home and sprinkle or pour that water over your head as you pray the prayer on the card, and remember on this Pentecost Sunday that you, too, are a Child of God, intended for great works and blessed through your Baptism for the same.

If you are not able to be in church, Recite this prayer as you make the sign of the cross upon your body. Know that in Jesus you are loved beyond belief and that through the Holy Spirit, you are blessed in the power of his name. Thanks be to God!