Healing Powers

We were taught in seminary to read between the lines and behind the words of the gospels. Quite often Scripture holds a deeper message for us, but we sometimes miss it because we’re overly preoccupied with the small picture. In other words, what was happening to people, right then, in that moment, instead of considering the bigger picture. Here’s an example of what I mean. Have you ever noticed that many of the narratives about Jesus begin with him crossing the sea.

Now, on the surface, we can view these crossings as kind of a bridge between stories. This happened, they got in a boat, crossed the lake and then that happened, right? But what if we were to look in-between the words? What if we were to look behind the obvious meaning and search for clues to a deeper understanding? For instance, what might it mean that one side of the lake was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile? Can you feel the tension and the risk, even danger, in going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe? If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, would you have needed anyone to set the scene for you? Probably not, you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story.

And the same is true in our time. Think about border a crossing into North Korea or Syria or Iran today: consider the danger such a crossing would hold and the international crises it would provoke. And what about the border crossings during this most recent immigration crisis? What tension might these refugees from Central America be feeling?

Well, it’s this same kind of tension that we find in-between and behind the content of Mark’s Gospel. A tension between words and action. You see, Jesus was not just telling people what the Kingdom of God looked like, he demonstrated how we might live and love and serve God and neighbor in light of, or because of, the present Kingdom or Reign of God. And this understand of the Reign of God leads us to the deeper theme that runs in-between and behind the words found in this passage. And that theme is the tension between faith and fear. In other words, is the faith of the characters in Mark’s narrative, and by extension our faith, strong? Or has it been overcome by fear, or confusion, or hard-headedness, or maybe even hard-heartedness?”[i]

Our text for this week hinges on this tension between faith and fear. The tension between the faith of the woman with the hemorrhage as she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and her fear of retribution for breaking the law by touching him or her fear of being disconnected from her community forever.  As well as, the tension between the faith of a desperate father, Jairus, and his fear of losing his daughter; the fear of death.

You know, there’s often a tension between faith and fear in the Bible because the Bible reflects the real-life tensions and the real-life experiences of God felt by its many, many authors. That’s why this ancient collection of books still speaks so loudly to us today. It’s a reflection of the real-life tension we feel between our faith and our fears as well.

Now, contextually speaking, what we have here is a “story-within-a-story.” This was a common literary technique of that time. “Framing” is the term we use today. So, how does framing work and why is this important? Well, an author “frames” one story with another to create a link between the two; A bond if you will. A bond between characters who are often polar opposites.  And two framed stories we’re looking at today are no exception.

Consider that the woman was probably on the lowest rung of the social ladder. She was a woman, unclean according to Jewish law, and a social outcast.  The little girl however, was the daughter of a religious leader. She would have had a comfortable life; a privileged life. But that’s where the differences end. Mark is careful here to make sure we understand that these two women in crisis were both “daughters” of Abraham.  He accomplishes this by linking them through the use of the number twelve. The woman with the hemorrhage has been bleeding for twelve years and the little girl was twelve years-old. He makes this connection because he wants us to see that Jesus doesn’t make a distinction between them based upon their social standing.  He heals them both.  As a matter of fact, he pauses on his way to heal the privileged one to heal the outcast.

And this is where the faith over fear part comes in. In this passage. Jesus chose to ignore the taboos surrounding uncleanliness brought about by blood and death, and he provide a healing touch to both of these women. He chose to practice the law of grace rather that adhere to the letter of the law. Jesus touched these suffering souls even though tradition forbade it. He didn’t let fear keep him from doing a just and faith act.

So, what does this mean for us? Where might we as individuals, as a faith community, and as a nation become providers of a healing touch? How might our faith overcome the fear of crossing the boundries society has laid down?

My friends, as we celebrate our independence this weekend, I invite you to pause and consider what it really means to be “patriotic.” Does patriotism mean wearing red, white, and blue to the fireworks; or cooking brats on the pontoon boat; or waving a flag at the parade?  I would say that’s a part of it. But can patriotism be something more?

As we celebrate this week, maybe each of us could spend a little of our time trying to figure out way to live-into the final words of our pledge of allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.” I mean, what if “liberty and justice for all” were to become exactly that; liberty and justice for all people. Perhaps, we should take these words to heart and focus our energy and our means on bringing this ideal to light. The American ideal that all people were created equal by God and that all people deserve the same opportunities, the same respect, the same life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, no matter how long they’ve been here, the color of their skin, or what religion they choose to practice.

Now, it’s an American ideal that, frankly, has faltered in the past and continues to be under attack today. But it’s an ideal that worth refreshing and refining. And as we’ve seen in today’s text, liberty and justice for all is the very foundation of Christ’s mission of healing; His ministry of restoration.

My friends, as we continue to evolve as individuals, and grow as (St. Paul) (Cable) United Church of Christ, and progress as a nation, may we learn the art of reading in-between and behind the challenges present in this world. Might we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and then act. Act to make this world a better and more just place for all people.

Happy 4th of July to all of you and may all your crossings be smooth.

Amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Brushing Up Against Grace. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

 

In the Boat Together

I remember the first sermon I ever preached. I was filling in for the pastor at the Apple River United Methodist Church in Illinois.  And to say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century. I was terrified! Now, I don’t completely recall the point of the sermon I preached that morning, but I do remember some of the content.  It was about the faith of Moses and how he needed an Aaron to fulfill his covenant with God.  But the amusing part was the delivery. My text was about a page long, maybe part of a second, single spaced, in a small font, and I held it in front of my face and read it as fast as I could. I just wanted it all to end. But I did get some complements afterward.  I remember on man commenting that since the entire service was only thirty-five minutes long, they would beat the Presbyterians to lunch.

Now, as I stand here eighteen years later, I have to ask myself, “what was I afraid of?” It seems silly now to be so afraid of speaking in front of a small congregation, but was it? I mean, there’s the fear of being in front of everyone, of public speaking, that was a daunting task for me at the time. But there was also a deeper, unnamed fear as well. You see, delivering a sermon on Sunday morning takes on an additional opportunity for hesitation: the question of authority.  In other words, what gives me the right to interpret the Scriptures and share the application of the text with a congregation? Believe me, the question of authority can produce a lot of anxiety.

And the question of authority is a part of what’s going on in the background of our gospel lesson for today and within the wider context of Mark’s witness. In the sinking boat, Jesus asked the disciples the same question I asked myself, “Why are you afraid?” But his question goes deeper than just a mere “question of authority,” and addresses the disciples immediate reaction to the situation.

Remember now, some of Jesus’ disciples were seasoned fishermen, who knew the Sea of Galilee well and the dangers of a storm. But, despite their best efforts at keeping the boat afloat, it was beginning to sink!  We don’t know how far they were from land, but in Mark’s version of the story, swimming for shore apparently wasn’t an option.  These experienced fishermen knew that their chances of surviving in open water under those conditions were not good.[i] So, it’s understandable that they would be afraid for their lives, right?

But instead of confirming their fear Jesus questions their faith. In essence, he’s saying that it’s easy to have faith when the waters are flat and the sailing is smooth, but where’s your faith when the winds kick up, when the waves begin to roll, when there’s a real and present danger? One of the main themes we see throughout the Gospels is that, despite all that they witnessed Jesus do and say, despite all that they discovered him to be, over and over again, Jesus’ closest followers lacked faith.[ii]

Which leads to the obvious question for us to consider. Is it really a deficiency of faith to be afraid when our life is on the line?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do think there’s a distinction to be made here. I don’t believe this passage is necessarily speaking to the obvious fearful situations of our lives.  Let me explain what I mean here. There are some things that are simply frightening, right, and it’s only human for us to respond to them with fear; fear of heights, or of a spider, or a fear of public speaking. It’s one thing for us to feel fear, but it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we don’t just feel fear, we turn it into something that occupies our whole lives. [iii] We don’t just experience fear, we let it move in and take up residence.  We don’t just encounter fear, we turn it into a giant, category-five storm that sends us running for cover and cowering in bunkers.

So, bearing this in mind, we must ask ourselves another question today. How this “environment of fear,” how has letting fear “take up residence” in our collective lives separated the Church from her true mission?

I mean, just look at the news this week. There’s no way people of faith can justify ripping children away from their parents and subjecting them to internment camps, right? Yet, some try.  There’s no rationale from a Biblical perspective, there’s no Scriptural law, not even a misinterpretation of Paul’s understanding about the place of the law in our lives, that demands we simply accept these horrific acts being perpetrated on our Southern border, and keep our mouths shut. None. As a matter of fact, it’s these kinds of injustices, injustices against the most vulnerable of God’s children, that the prophets railed against. They risked life and limb to call-out the powers-that-be, the leadership of their nation, to have compassion for the weak and the powerless. This is the kind of fearlessness that Jesus was demanding in this passage.  He wasn’t challenging their immediate feeling of fear as they faced dying, but he was calling them out for the deeper lack of faith that lead them to panic.

And that, my friends, is what lies at the core of this issue. A deeper fear. A panic that drives people to irrational actions. A panic caused by a fear of the other, a fear of losing dominance, a fear… of the unknown. But Jesus was very clear in this passage and in the wider context of all the gospels when it came to the subject of fear.  He said time and again, “don’t be afraid.” He wasn’t saying, don’t jump when you see a snake. But rather, don’t let that initial fear of the snake lead you to campaign to irradiate all snakes from the face of the earth. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Fear causes humanity to exclude, to push-away, to insulate ourselves from the unknown; the other. But faith, faith can overcome fear and help us to realize that we are all in the same boat. Faith challenges us, the followers of Christ, to be a voice for the voiceless, advocates for the most vulnerable, and it’s our faith that calls us to be champions for justice and equality for all people. This is the authority that we have been given. As people of faith we have the authority to speak on the side of justice because we have been appointed by God, nay commanded by God, to be a prophetic voice for justice.

One final thought. There’s an African Proverb that says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”[iv] We as individuals, as a community, and as a nation have not and will not always find smooth sailing. Sometimes the seas will be rough.  But it’s in the rough patches, in the times when we need to take a step back and evaluate the current situation; it’s in these times that we must choose faith over fear.  And it’s in these moments when Jesus says to each of us, “why are you afraid?”

May we overcome our fear and may our better-selves, our faithful selves, shine through. That’s my prayer for today, tomorrow, and beyond. Amen.

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[i] Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm, Stilling Fear. The Waking Dreamer. (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012

[ii] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 267-68.  Cf. William F. McInerny, “An Unresolved Question in The Gospel Called Mark: ‘Who Is This Whom Even Wind and Sea Obey?’ (4:41),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Fall, 1996): 259.

[iii] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17.  She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering.  It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”

[iv] Katheryn Matthews, Agents of God. She offers this quote for an unknown author as an addition to the understanding of this passage from Mark. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

Flourishing

Mark 4:26-34

I’ve always enjoyed gardening.  When I was first ordained, Becky and I were serving a country church in Iowa and our parsonage was at least a quarter of a mile from the next house. We liked to say that 3,000 hogs were our closest neighbors. Anyway, because we were in such a rural location, we had the opportunity to plant a large garden. Now, it didn’t matter that I’d been gardening most of my adult life or that I had a background in the garden center industry, I was still the recipient of unsolicited gardening advice from some the members of my congregation.

One piece of advice that stands out came when our youth group was planting the back part of my garden with pumpkins and gourds for a mission fundraiser.  I was standing there, hoe in hand, contemplating the best way to plant these seeds, when, one of the kids took the hoe from my hand and, without a word, began to make mounds of dirt. He then planted a few seeds in each mound. It was an amusing and humbling moment. So, I decided that I needed to check my ego and listen to the advice offered by these experienced farmers, even if the farmer was only twelve-years-old.

Now, as I think about that experience, I realize that there are many ways to plant seeds.  You can plant them in mounds, as I discovered back in Iowa. You can scatter seeds. You can plant them neatly in rows, one at a time. You even get seed tapes that space the seeds correctly, so you don’t plant them too close together. There are many ways to plant seeds.

As we come to the Gospel reading from Mark for today, Jesus offers us two parables about seeds; two different ways of planting seeds as it were. First, Jesus shares a parable that compares the Reign of God with the mysterious, hidden way of a seed’s growth. A process that fascinates us even today, in spite of our technological progress. And in the second, the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus tells us that the smallest of all seeds, when it matures, grows into the largest of all shrubs. Now, it’s not explicit here, but in the later synoptic gospels, the writers directly connect the mustard seed with faith.

So, why is this important?

Well, this is a clever way to illustrate the nature of God. We know that God is mysterious, unknowable in many ways. But we also know that God plants seeds.  Seeds of wisdom, seeds of compassion; seeds that help us to understand the nature of God. Now, we don’t fully understand this nature, but we sort of know, because of Jesus and his example of how to live in relationship with others. And it’s when we live-out our faith, even the tiniest seed of faith, that the Reign of God, flourishes; that Jesus’ hope for justice and peace on earth, flourishes.

But what might the planting of one tiny seed look like?

Well, as I said before, there are many different ways to plant seeds. A small act of kindness or service perhaps, or a simple expression of faith, or the slightest movement toward God.  All of these things contribute to making this world a better place; which is what the Reign of God seeks to accomplish. These are the seeds of faith that have been planted within each of us.

As I say this, I’m reminded of the words of Thoreau, “I have great faith in a seed,” he once said, “convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” [i]

My friends… expect wonders. But it won’t always be easy. Whenever we plant seeds, there’s always a chance that birds will come and eat them or that a lack of rain will dry them up or that weeds will choke them out. But, as author Anne Lamott states, “When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”[ii]

We are called to do something amazing.  And whatever hardships we might be enduring right now can be transformed into something wonderful. And whatever “stuff” your friends or neighbors might be going though, calls on us to plant seeds within and around them; seeds of hope, seeds of faith, seeds of healing. When we tend God’s garden, when we become God’s gardeners, when our actions serve as examples of God grace and compassion and love for all people, and when we become preservers and restorers of this beautiful planet we call home; it amazing and it’s wonderful and …and, it’s all a part of the Reign of God; God’s present Kingdom here on earth.

Let me leave you with a quote that I read this week that kind of put all this in perspective for me. “Lord, when I feel that what I’m doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me, and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it.”[iii]

May we all go forth from this service today and continue to be God gardeners in this world. Planting seeds of hope, seeds of faith, seeds of justice and peace; and may we plant in a way no one else could. That’s our calling. That’s our challenge. That’s the seed of our faith.

Amen.

[i] David Henry Thoreau quoted by Katheryn Matthews in God’s Role for Me. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018.

[ii] Anne Lamott. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. (Riverhead Books, 2004.)

[iii] Brennan Manning. Souvenirs of Solitude: Finding Rest in Abba’s Embrace. (www.ucc.org/samuel, 2018)

 

The Will of God

Mark 3:31-35

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? I think we must begin this morning by acknowledging that this is a difficult text. As a matter of fact, several years ago I lead a Lenten study called: Scriptures that Make Us Cringe, and this is one of the texts that I used. I chose this text as one of my “cringers” because, if taken out of context, it seems to paint Jesus as disloyal son and a horrible brother.  And on an even more ominous level, it has been used to across the history of the Church to justify alienating family members who disagree on matters of religion. But this interpretation doesn’t track with the Jesus we know and love from the wider context of the gospels. And when this happens, we must look for a deeper meaning within and behind the text.

Now, as I began to think about his “deeper meaning,” I remembered a film that I watched many years ago called The Way. This film came to mind because it’s a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. The Way stars Martin Sheen, who plays Tom, an American doctor who went to France to collect the remains of his adult son. His son had been killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while on a pilgrimage known as The Way of Saint James. But rather than returning home, Tom decided to embark on the historical journey himself to honor his son’s desire to finish the quest. What Tom didn’t plan on, however, was the profound impact the journey would have on him. You see, because he was inexperienced as a hiker, Tom soon discovered that he could not complete the journey alone. On his way, Tom met three other pilgrims from around the world with whom he formed a relationship. But here’s the twist. Tom came to realize, through his relationship with these other pilgrims, the meaning of one of the last things his son said before their falling-out; “There’s a difference,” the young man said, “between the life we live and the life we choose.”[i]

There’s a difference between the life with live and the life we choose. What if we were to apply this wisdom to family? Is there a difference between the “family” we have been given and the “family” we choose?

In Mark’s account of this exchange, the family Jesus had been given was either frustrated with him, or just plain worried about him. They heard that he’d been drawing crowds again, so they went to restrain him. And it seems to me that his mother and brothers took this action because they were embarrassed; people were talking. So, in response Jesus expanded the definition of what it means to belong to a family. He expanded it to include the family we choose.

And this is an important concept for us to understand.  It’s important because families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. In other words, family was a foundational part of life, and thus, a foundational part of Scripture. The Bible begins in Genesis, not with talk of nations or tribes…but families. Big families. Real families.[ii]  But Jesus challenges this deeply embedded cultural assumption when he determines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God. No wonder some people are bent on killing him in this book.[iii]

But how does this affect us? How might this expanded concept of family speak to us, here, in the 21st century.  How can we, as individuals and as a faith community, “do the will of God.”

I don’t know. Perhaps, with this text in the background, we can live-into the will of God by expanding our understanding of family. Maybe the will of God is for us to find a way to live in community with the family we have been given and the family we choose. My friends, the will of God is for us to extend the boundries of community to include a diversity of family members. We are called to welcome and invite all people into this household and family of God. How do we know this? Again, we must look past these few lines and view them within the context of the entire gospel.  We must look behind this passage and remember that it’s just a small part of a larger whole; a wider concept.  And that concept, the foundational concept of the gospels, is love of God and neighbor.

And this is where Tom ended up in The Way.  He finally realized that his family had grown to include a dusty, somewhat dysfunctional Dutchman, a Canadian woman searching for her identity, and an Irish author suffering from writer’s block. In the end, Tom understood that the family he had been given and the family chose were one in the same. And the lesson he learned was to let love overcome any challenges that arise.

Sisters and Brothers, as we continue on our Way, may we too come to understand that the definition of family is grounded in love. And as we continue this pilgrimage we call life, may we let God’s love and grace and compassion be expressed in all our relationships; the ones we choose and well as the ones we’ve been given.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] The Way. Filmax Entertainment.  Emilio Estevez, director (www.imdb.com) 2010

[ii] Rick Morley. All in The Family. (www.rickmorley.com 2012)

[iii] Matthew L. Skinner. What Makes a Family? (www.huffingtonpost.com, 2017)