President Jimmy Carter (93) and Rosalynn Carter (91) begin their 31st year of serving Habitat for Humanity. This is what Christian love looks like in real time.
President Jimmy Carter (93) and Rosalynn Carter (91) begin their 31st year of serving Habitat for Humanity. This is what Christian love looks like in real time.
Kathryn Matthews shared the following story. “Many years ago,” she writes, “I belonged to a parish that built a beautiful new stone and glass church across the parking lot from our “old” church, a simple, box-like structure that had been designed ahead of time to be converted into a gymnasium for the attached school. My feelings about the move were mixed, at best.
As we prepared for our move into the new church and our final days in the old one, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that humble space: late at night, alone in the sanctuary, during a weekend retreat, with only candlelight to see the shadowy lines of cross and statues; at my son’s First Communion service, listening to him sweetly sing a song he had learned in school about God being always near at hand; in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear straight while they sang carols as only children can.
It didn’t seem to me that one needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” I loved that simple, humble space as much as I ever loved the newer, grander one we moved into.”[I]
This story, I think, expresses the feelings that our Hebrew ancestors experienced many centuries ago as they looked at their Temple. It wasn’t just a well-worn-out but beloved building; it was a destroyed one, ruins that seemed to symbolize their own crushed and broken hopes. They could look back, of course, to a more glorious and happier time; a time when Solomon had dedicated the Temple and celebrated the arrival of the ark of the covenant. And that’s what we humans sometimes do in difficult times; we look back and fondly remember the “glory days.”
And this is where Psalm 84 resides. It’s a joyful song about the glory days, about being in the “dwelling place of God,” in the very presence of God. And as I read this Psalm, I couldn’t help but notice that, according to the psalmist, God’s dwelling place was both within the Temple and beyond it. The author says that his “heart and body” rejoice out loud to the Living God! And that rejoicing is both within God’s “courtyards” and out in God’s beautiful creation.
But this Psalm also picks up on another, albeit related, theme: Pilgrimage. He writes, “as they pass through the Baca Valley (Baca literally means ‘tears’) so, as “they pass through the valley of tears, they make it a spring of water. Yes, the early rain,” the author says, “covers it with blessings.” So, how do these two themes, the presence of God within and beyond the Temple and Pilgrimage, have in common?
I read a quote this week that might help us our here. It went like this: “…the fact that these paths are in the heart points not only to the orientation of one’s body on a journey, but to the orientation of a way of life. Both physically and metaphorically such a person is turned toward [God’s] dwelling place.”[ii]
My friends, faith isn’t a static thing; we’re all on a journey; we’re all on a pilgrimage of faith. And the blessing in all this is that God is on this journey with us, calling us, challenging us, inviting us home. A home that’s not necessarily tied to a building but exists within community; a home that’s not necessarily a house, but rather, a state of being. A state of being that causes our hearts and minds to rejoice out loud to the Living God.
And that’s the crux of this text. Maybe we’re wandering. Maybe we’re lost. Maybe we have to find our way home or make a home wherever we are. I mean, that was the message to God’s people when they found themselves in exile. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Jeremiah preached, “plant crops, take wives, have children, because you’re going to be here for a while.” Because sometimes a pilgrimage, even a forced exile, can lead us back to God. That’s the message, I think, that the church ought to try and communicate to the wider culture. The message that we are a people who attempt to extend a wide welcome to all, opening our hearts and doors to all, creating a place for all to come.[iii] My friends, this is where we are planted but the pilgrimage into the presence of God; the task of realizing that God is with us, that God is Still-Speaking in the world today, is unending.
One final thought. The author of this psalm says that he would “prefer to stand outside the entrance of God’s house,” (some versions of the Bible say ‘gatekeeper’) – he says, “I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of God, than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!” As we extend our wide welcome, as we expand who may be included in our faith community, as we redefine what it means to be a “gatekeeper” of God’s house, the temptation is to “live comfortably in the tents of the wicked.” In other words, to revert back to what was comfortable for so long, even if that comfort comes at a price; the alienation of others; the rejection of those who, for whatever reason, are different.
But, if God is love, and we know this to be true, if God is inclusive and unconditional love, then shouldn’t we, to the best of our ability anyway, reflect that love to all people and all of creation?
My friends, as we go forth today, (and as we embark on this important vote in our annual meeting today) and as we continue this pilgrimage, hand in hand, and stride for stride with God, should we not let love be the guidepost that points us toward God and inclusiveness be the threshold we cross as we come home to God.
This is my hope for the church. This is my prayer. Amen & amen.
[ii] Lorraine Parkinson, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.
I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
It was, and perhaps still is, the most perfect prayer ever uttered. It came out of the mouth of a six-year-old boy. His mother shared the story. They were at a local swimming pool and her son was standing at the deep end, his toes curled over the edge. Still unsure of himself in the water, he stood there for what seemed like forever. Hesitating. Meditating. Palpitating. And just when it seemed that he was going to back away from the edge, he looked up to the sky, put his hands together, and said: “O Lord, give me skills or give me gills!” And he jumped.[I]
Give me skills or give me gills. That pretty much covers all the bases, doesn’t it? Lord, give me what I need to overcome what I’m facing; but if not, give me what I need to endure it. Give me skills or give me gills.
In his book Hustling God, Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote this about the Christian life: “…your calling is not primarily to accomplish something, but to serve God who will always lead you to places where you are in way over your head.”[ii] Barnes is reminding us that life has a habit of tossing us into the “deep end”. The question I think we need to contemplate today is when these “deep water experiences” happen, will we sink or swim? Will we blame God and everyone who crosses our path, or will we trust God enough to start paddling?
And this is where we meet Solomon today. He’s in way over his head. His father died. He’s grieving. He’s afraid. And he’s now the head of his family. Solomon is no longer swimming in the safety of the shallow end of his childhood. With one swift toss, he’s headed into the deep end of adulthood.
And what a deep end it was! It isn’t just the loss of his father that Solomon was forced to confront. It was who his father was. His father was David, the great king of Israel, their liberator from the Philistines, the original Raider of the Lost Ark, the unifier of the tribes, the master musician and wordsmith, the “man after God’s own heart.” So, with David’s death, Solomon not only took his place at the head of his own family; but he was now the head of a great nation. Ready or not. But it was clear that Solomon was not ready.
But the good thing, the saving grace, if you will, was that Solomon knew he wasn’t ready. He said, in effect: “I’m not up to this, God. You put me in the place of my father, but I’m not my father. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m scared to death.” [iii] But it’s then that Solomon demonstrates real insight, it’s then that Solomon utters the words that should come from the mouth of everyone who assumes a leadership role.
Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help”
So, if we find ourselves “in over our heads,” as we all do from time to time, then this humble request from the lips of Solomon is an important one. It’s important because it means we can relax, or at least, we can stop pretending that we have everything under control. It means asking God for what we need to overcome the situations that arise or what we need to endure them. It means we should boldly pray for skills or for gills, confident that God will always give us one or the other. And sometimes, like Solomon, we may even get both. But, however the answer comes, God always comes with it.
You know, I heard a phrase many years ago that’s stuck with me. And the phrase is this. “God goes before you.” No matter what situation you might be walking into; no matter what disturbing thing the voice on the other end of the phone might have just said, no matter what crazy thing happened in the latest news cycle; God goes before us. Maybe that’s the crux of the message for us today. Maybe we should remember that no matter what, God goes before us, beside us, and all around us. God has our back. When life tosses us into the deep end, God’s there with the life preserver.
The challenge in all this, however, is for each of us to try and figure out how to be patient enough, to be humble enough, how to tread water long enough, for an answer to become apparent. That’s a tough one. But it’s also an important part of developing our faith and deepening our understanding of the nature of God’s wisdom.
And that’s final point that I would like to share today. God’s wisdom, by and large, is beyond our perception. God is mysterious, right? But we can come to know a little about God’s wisdom, we can begin to see a bit of what the manifestation of God’s wisdom might look like in real time.
How? Well, the word in Greek for wisdom is “Sofia” (Sofia) and I have some of my own thoughts about this word. First of all, it’s no accident that this is a feminine word. Sofia, wisdom, is always referred to as a woman. Life experience, a mother, a wife, two daughters, three granddaughters, and many wonderful relationships with women, both personally and professionally, have reinforced to me that this is accurate. Guys, it’s true, wisdom is a woman.
But seriously, over the course of many years of study, I have concluded that wisdom is more that just a mere attribute of God; I have come to believe that Sofia is a part of the nature of God.
And this is an important distinction. An attribute of God is something God does. Faithfulness for example. The Hebrew Scriptures often tell us that God is “faithful and slow to anger.” Faithfulness is something God does; it’s an attribute of God.
But the nature of God goes somewhat deeper. The best example is love. The author of the first epistle of John tells us that God IS love. Now, wait a cotton-picken minute, you might say, don’t you always tell us in the benediction, “God – loves – you”? Isn’t that an action of God? Isn’t loving something that God does? In short, yes. But the difference here is that love is actually a part of the make-up of God. I perceive love as a part of the essence, the being, the very core of the consciousness of God. So, yes, God is loving, but while God demonstrates faithfulness, God is actually love itself. Love then proceeds to us from the very core of God’s being.
Now, I realize that this is pretty philosophical, and you might be checking your watch about now. But hang in here with me. I believe that Wisdom, Sofia, is also a part of God’s make-up. God’s being. God’s nature. So, if that is the case, if Wisdom is a part of God’s nature, then what might the procession of wisdom look like to us?
Well, the Talmud, one of the sacred texts of Judaism, might help us to begin to address this question. It states that, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.”[iv] What an interesting way of viewing wisdom. According to, at least a portion of, the Jewish tradition, wisdom is seen in its highest form in acts of kindness.
So, if Wisdom is a part of God’s nature, then kindness, according to this ancient text, is what proceeds to us. And here’s the goodie. It’s a part of God’s nature that we can see and emulate. We can emulate it in our relationships, by showing kindness in how we deal with others; even the difficult ones. We can emulate God’s kindness in how we conserve, preserve, and interact with the natural world. And, finally, we can practice kindness when we, like Solomon, are called to step up and assume a leadership role, even if we don’t feel we’re fully qualified. Think about that for a moment. What if one’s call to leadership was born from a desire to propagate kindness rather than from a desire to rule over others or to satisfy a thirst for power. What if our leaders were to humble themselves before God utter the words of Solomon…
Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help”
May it be so for all of us. Amen.
[ii] M. Craig Barnes, Hustling God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 99.
[iii] Ibid. Boggess
John 6:35, 41-51
When I was serving my very first church my responsibilities exceeded that of part-time pastor. I was also the grounds keeper, building maintenance, and I was my own administrative assistant. I wore many hats in that small church. But the extra duty that I enjoyed most was the once-a-month task of baking the communion bread.
I enjoyed that task for a couple of reasons. First, the smell. One Saturday evening a month my parsonage was filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread. And if I close my eyes, I think I can still recall the fragrance. It was a great way to get into the mood, to get into the spirit if you will, for worship the next morning.
And it’s this idea of preparation for worship leads me to the other reason I liked baking the communion bread: community. You see, I was single at that time. I was a full-time student, served the church part time, and worked an additional summer job. I was also a parent and was beginning a relationship with someone special, who would of course later become my wife. It’s sufficing to say that I had a lot on my plate, so finding the time to make food for something like, say, a potluck was difficult. So, when I showed up to a potluck dinner with a plastic container of potato salad I bought at the super market, I was excused from having to bring food to any of the church functions.
That is, until I came across the passage we have before us today and hatched the idea of baking the communion bread as a way of contributing to the life of the church. In today’s text, Jesus offers us an image of bread as a way to better understand not only who he was but also as an avenue for us to discover ways in which we might contribute to the life of the church. But on an even deeper level, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life as a way for us to connect with God in a very down-to-earth way. And it’s this “earthy” understanding of God, this incarnate living manifestation of divinity, that makes God very real to us today.
Now, those who followed Jesus, his disciples and the crowds, must have wondered about this “earthiness.” How could they reconcile their notion of the set-apart nature of holiness with the idea that God was among them? They must have wondered about this Jesus whose parents they knew so well. They must have wondered how a person who was so much like them in so many ways could even begin to think of tying himself to heaven. And no doubt, they must have wondered how he could have made such extraordinary claims about something so ordinary: I mean, claiming to be the bread which would satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst for all of time?
But, we have come to understand that this is how God always seems to work. Oh, there are plenty of extraordinary things which happen in the presence of Jesus, but in the end, God uses fairly ordinary means to reach us. We experience this over and over again in many of Jesus’ teachings. Consider, for instance, his parables where he speaks of things like seeds and weeds and crops and vineyards and lost coins and travelers and families: all so very familiar to the people who first listened to what he had to say. And today, of course, he brings to mind the nearly universal image and experience of bread. God employs ordinary means to help us understand, embrace, and rejoice in God’s love for and intent for us all: including Jesus himself, whose childhood, no doubt mirrored that of his neighbors.
And, like I said before, we best understand and respond to ordinary things. And by God’s wondrous gift, it’s within the ordinary things, the common elements of life; bread, juice, water. It’s within these things that the Sacred somehow enters and heals and forgives and loves in some very extraordinary ways.[I]
This is important! It’s important because it’s these common elements, the most basic elements of life, that “shape our community”. As a church, as a community committed to peace and justice, to a wide welcome to all, we are invited today, to view this passage as less about our practice of religion; our traditions and rites, than as an invitation to a faithful life, a compassionate life, a real-life, earthy, understanding of what it means to be a congregation of God’s people.
Do you see what I’m driving at here?
Religious practice, and by religious practice I mean the sacraments, the traditions and rites of the Church, and worship in all its forms; these things are important! These practices are the backbone of our shared faith. But religious practice isn’t an end in and of itself. Our worship points us toward something far greater. And that “something” is the experience of God in our lives, both our individual lives and the life of our community. That “something” is a calling and a challenge to turn our gaze outward and to realize that all people and all of nature are interconnected. An interconnectedness on the most basic level; food and drink. When Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life, eat this bread and you’ll never go hungry or ever be thirsty again he was using a power image to remind us that hunger and thirst can be eternally overcome. The physical hunger of our neighbor can be overcome. The spiritual thirst we all struggle with can be overcome. That, my friends, is the beginning of faith. Faith is about action. Faith is becoming aware of God’s presence and building upon that experience by doing and being and becoming the Church to all our neighbors.
Now, being the church comes in a variety of forms. It can come through prayer or devotional reading, through communal worship or individual piety. Being the church can be as simple as performing an act of lovingkindness or as complex as a foreign mission trip. The commonality between all of these things is that we do them to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
And that’s why baking the bread became such an important part of my ritual in that little church I served back in Illinois. It connected me to the congregation, to my faith community, in a way that went far deeper than merely turning on the oven. Remember, I was discouraged from sharing my portion of the basic elements, but through the bread, I too was able to contribute to a larger whole.
Now, in the many years since, I’ve come to understand that sharing is what finally shapes a community of faith and it opens in all to us many, many new possibilities for our faith and opens to all of us many, many opportunities to live out that faith through service.
One final thought this morning. Jean Baptist Lacordaire famously shared his perspective on humanity. He said, “We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, and the flowers of one garden.”[ii] As we continue to evolve and progress as a congregation, what if we were to let Lacordiare’s words resonate in the back of our minds? What if we were to think of those who attend other churches, practice other religions, or no religion at all, as fellow leaves all hanging around on the same branch? What if we were to imagine the world through the eyes of the refugee, the immigrant, the displaced family or the little child separated from their parent and realize that the sea is vast because it is comprised of many, many drops; drops from many nations, races, and creeds? And finally, what if we were to put ourselves on an equal plane with nature? What if we, humanity, are but one of many flowers in the garden of creation? What if our interconnectedness with nature, and our affirmation of life for all of humanity, is finally the meaning behind the Bread of Life. One loaf that is comprised of many grains and one cup that is to be shared. I have to wonder, “What if?”
May you go forth from this place today, with a renewed sense purpose, a restored faith, as we continue on this journey together, constantly reshaping and reimagining what it means to be a community of faith. That’s my wish. That’s my prayer for all of us. Amen & Amen.
[i] Janet Hunt. On Breaking Bread and the Bread of Life. Dancing with the Word. (www. words.dancingwiththeword.com) 2012
I’m going to start today with a confession. I admit it, I have watched America’s Got Talent. Well, I wasn’t really watching, rather I “eaveswatched” it. Eaveswatching, ya know, is a hybrid term that combines eavesdropping and watching. It refers to viewing or overhearing a TV show someone else is watching: eaveswatching. Well, anyway, Manny was watching a YouTube video of a young girl on America’s Got Talent who was an awesome ventriloquist. She really was impressive but my take-away wasn’t so much the girl or her act; no, my fascination was with the format of the show.
You see, America’s Got Talent is like an old-time talent show; only on steroids. The contestants get on stage, do their thing, and whoever gets voted best, whoever gets “voted through” moves to the next round. And whoever is left in the end wins a million dollars and a chance to headline a show in Las Vegas. And it works like this. During each performance the three judges sit at their desks with control buttons. If at any time during the performance they become bored they push an X button and a giant buzzer sounds, testing the mettle and concentration of the hapless juggler, singer, ventriloquist or dog trainer on stage. After each act the judges give feedback. But it seems like it’s always the same advice: “Up the ante. Make it bigger. Make it better. Make it more dangerous. Wow us more or you won’t go through to the next round.” [I]
Our text for this week from John’s Gospel is akin to Jesus’ second appearance in the talent show. He was “voted through” last week when he multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. Which makes sense in a way, but one has to wonder why the crowd demanded an encore? Why didn’t they get it the first time around?
Now, the crowd did “ooh” and “ahh” over him as a “prophet come into the world”, but that recognition doesn’t do him full justice and slips from their minds as soon as their stomachs start to growl. All I can figure is that the hungry crowd didn’t notice what he was doing for their neighbors, because they were too busy focusing on what he had done for them.
They say to him, “What sign will you do for us, so we may see it and believe you?” What? Didn’t Jesus just feed 5000 people? Didn’t he, at the very least, convince 5000 people to share their provisions with each other? But, instead of faith, instead of indwelling and remembering that moment on the hillside, that moment of unconditional sharing among neighbors, they say in essence, “Let’s see your act again, Jesus. If it holds our interest, we won’t buzz you, and we’ll vote you through to the next round.” They’re treating Jesus like a talent show contestant who has to prove himself to them.
Now, lets’ stop here and think about this text from a devotional perspective. In other words, what’s the message for us in our time?
Well, I would challenge you today to consider the most fundamental mistake made by the crowd; I referred to it earlier. They didn’t consider Christ’s miracle of abundance beyond their own stomach, they didn’t consider the full scope of neighbor feeding neighbor. So, unlike the crowd, we must see that the bread of life, the actual, physical, daily bread of life, real food, must be made accessible to all people. My friends, we don’t have a shortage of bread in this nation, what we have is a distribution problem. There’s enough bread for all, both here and abroad, if only we could focus on what we can do for our neighbor in Jesus’ name rather than what he might be doing for us as individuals. The message here is to put the other before self.
That’s the first part, and the second is this: This text goes much deeper than a simple sharing our resources, we are challenged to come away from this story with a spiritual understanding of what the Bread of Life has, can, and will do in our lives, both as individuals and as a faith community. And what better to symbolize a spiritual understanding of the Bread of Life than the sacraments? My friends, today we will be invited to witness and participate in both of the sacraments of the Church: Baptism and Communion.
I was once asked to explain, in the simplest of terms, the sacraments of our church. I thought about it for awhile and this was my answer. Think of the church as a trail. Baptism is the trailhead. A place where the hikers gather, lace up their boots, make sure their walking-sticks are in hand, and begin the journey. Baptism is a person’s inclusion into the family of God and the beginning or the establishment of their individual covenant with God. Infant, child, adult, it doesn’t matter. Whether one is questioning or confident; passionate or struggling with doubt; Whether one is fulfilling a family tradition or establishing a new one; whether one has a faith as great as a mountain or as tiny as a mustard seed; it finally doesn’t matter. What matters is that Christ is calling us, all of us, to invite all people to join us on this trail of faith.
Which, of course leads us to communion. Communion is the trail itself. A trail that is smooth at times, rocky and steep at other times; a trail with many stops along the way. When we take communion, we reaffirm our covenant with God and with our faith community. As we partake of the bread and juice, we are invited to realize our mis-steps along the way and that we are forgiven. And finally, communion is a shared experience. We practice what’s come to be called “an open table”; all are welcome to participate, because all of us are in various stages of our faith journey; and all of us have, at one time or another, gotten lost. All are welcome to the table, because we’re all on this hike together.
Now, here’s the best part, not only are we travelling together on this trail of life and faith, God is with us every step of the way. God is seeking and welcoming and inviting us to hike along with all of these people you see around you today and to offer, beyond these walls and this community, the very Bread of Life. Jesus is the Bread of Life. The physical bread that sustains our bodies and the spiritual bread that strengthens our souls.
My friends, as we continue our hike, as we continue to share the physical and spiritual Bread of Life, as we come to the fount and the table today, may we all be moved to look beyond ourselves and our own self-interest and see the other and recognize in the face of our neighbors, all our neighbors, the very face of God.
May it be so.
Years ago, several Israeli contractors overseeing the construction of a wall between themselves and the Palestinians were prosecuted for stealing Palestinian olive trees. You see, they’d been uprooting these thousand-year-old trees and selling them to Israeli settlers to create new gardens and parks. And the trees they couldn’t sell they destroyed. To their owners, these trees represented their economic lifeblood. To the thieves and buyers, they were merely ornamental details.[I]
It seems to me that peace cannot happen without reconciliation. I know that sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that unless we find common ground with our neighbor, propagating peace is nearly impossible. The contractors, and the buyers of the stolen trees, never considered what the trees meant to their neighbors. Why? Because their neighbors were Palestinian, and Palestinians were considered the “other.” And making someone “the other” is the easiest way to justify stealing from them, persecuting them, or even killing them. But making someone the other is the opposite of what Jesus taught; of why he died.
Paul affirms this for us once again this week. He says that Jesus “…canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body.”[ii] Let that sink in for a second. How often has society, and by extension the Church, sought to separate or divide? How has the Church been guilty of creating “the other”?
I once had a conversation with a woman who was estranged from the church I was serving at the time. We’ll call her Mary. And although it had been many years since the incident, Mary was still hurt by what had happened. The incident? A dispute over potato salad. Yes, I said potato salad. It seems that Mary was famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her potato salad. Apparently, it wasn’t very tasty, but no ever had the courage to confront her directly about her less-than-pleasing side dish. Instead, one day at a funeral lunch, Mary came into the kitchen only to discover her potato salad hadn’t been served but was in the garbage. She left without a word and never darkened the door of the church again.
Now, those trying to justify their action might say, “Well, Mary was too sensitive, she should have had a thicker skin” or “What will people think of our church if we serve bad potato salad.” But, of course, these excuses miss the point. Mary was cast as the “other” and as a result, the body of Christ was wounded. And until reconciliation and forgiveness take place, the wound will continue to weep.
I sometimes wish I could go back to that day and share with that church the words of William Slone Coffin. “Of God’s love we can say two things,” he said, “it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the lowliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.”[iii]
Mary has value whether or not her potato salad tastes good. The Palestinian people have value. The Israeli contractors and the buyers of the olive trees all have value. Paul says that Jew and Gentile alike have value in the eyes of God. Maybe that’s why Ephesians has been called one the Bible’s great hymns to God’s reconciliation of all things and this passage in particular, as God’s call for us to participate in the good works of reconciliation.[iv]
And I think Paul’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a community of faith. So, what might a community that affirms the love of God for all people and espouses reconciliation as the beginning of peace, look like? Well, I think it would be a church that looks beyond itself and embraces “the other.” It would be open and affirming and welcoming to all people. It would advocate for good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food, clean water, and affordable health care for all and not just some. It would promote steps to combat global climate change, providing breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us.
My friends, God’s vision of peace means that we as people of faith must promise to save lives rather than destroy them. It means understanding that God’s house is all of creation and all of it is sacred. And finally, being the church means recognizing that God’s breath dwells within each and every person on this planet.[v]
One final thought. In this epistle, Paul emphasizes the unity brought about between Jew and Gentile through the brokenness of Christ’s body. If we were to view this text through a spiritual or a devotional lens: How might we as a faith community be “broken” for the sake of peace in our world today? I don’t know. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today. But let me leave you with one example of reconciliation.
I read somewhere this week that a group of Israeli rabbis have started a tree-planting movement. Through their efforts, hundreds of new olive trees are taking root in those Palestinian villages where the old trees were stolen. Now, it’s a fragile gesture, a sapling is not the same as a thousand-year olive tree. It can’t bring back all that was stolen.
But tree by tree, a little optimism returns. Tree by tree, you see it, something new.[vi] Tree by tree, reconciliation is being planted. Tree by tree God is building all of us, all people and all creation, into one household. And tree by tree, hopefully, peace is becoming a reality. This is my dream. This is my prayer.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Mary Luti Under Trees (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2018
[ii] Ephesians 2: 15-16a Common English Bible (CEB)
[iii] William Sloane Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 6
[iv] George W. Stroup Feasting on the Word David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)
[v] Katheryn Matthews, Household of God (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018
[vi] Ibid. Luti.
(Sing: If your happy and you know it clap your hands)
That’s a fun song to sing… when I’m happy. But what if I’m not happy. I mean, I can’t be joyous all the time, can I? Sometimes I don’t what to clap my hand or stomp my feet; sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m feeling apathetic, or sad, or afraid and I find no joy when I’m feeling those emotions.
But Paul says that we should “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS” Always. So, what gives? Is he saying “put on a happy face” or “fake a smile” no matter what’s going on around you? I don’t think so. That doesn’t square with we know about Pauline theology or even the rest of today’s text. No, I think Paul was talking about something beyond momentary happiness, he was describing to the church in Philippi, and to us, what a deeper sense of joy might look like even in tough times.
You see, Paul know about tough times. He was in prison and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians was written as much to himself as it was to them. Because, being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, I think he was writing to himself as much as he was to others. Because, you see, we’re not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”[I]
And it’s in our response to the challenges of life, that “…we begin to find and become our true selves; it’s when we notice how we are already found by God; how we are already entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”[ii] And it’s in this discovering of ourselves, our authentic selves, that we find this deeper joy, this unsurpassable peace, that Paul espouses.
“Well, that great,” you might say, “but how can I find this deeper joy within myself, really?” Glad you asked. When we read this text, we tend to focus on the “rejoice in the Lord, always” part and maybe the “excellence” part, but there’s a key line in this passage we often ignore. Verse 5 reads: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” followed by, “the Lord is near.”
Now, you could easily read and understand this passage without verse 5; “Rejoice, in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything, but in everything…” Okay, it makes literary sense but Paul though verse 5 important enough to include. Why? Well, if we desire a deeper sense of joy, if we long for a deeper sense of inner peace, Paul says, we must show an outwardly gentleness.
As I thought about gentleness, I remembered a cute story I heard many years ago. It seems that an elderly woman took her freckle-faced grandson to the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws. “You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line teased the grandson. Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head. But his grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles,” she said. “When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles, freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandma’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Now, that’s one way to let one’s gentleness outshine bullying. I mean, the grandmother could have chastised the little girl, called her a name back, or the grandson could have punched her. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the grandmother chose a non-violent solution. And believe me, it’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to espouse and practice non-violence in a violent world. It’s not always easy to “turn the other cheek” when someone calls you a name, or trashes your family, or belittles your faith. We’re taught and eye for an eye, right? But you all know Jesus took that Old Testament sentiment and turned it upside-down. He offered, no, he commanded us to seek non-violent solutions.
You know, Gandhi once said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in though, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress toward it”[iii]
And I think that’s the golden nugget here. Paul’s “letting our gentleness be known to everyone,” is finally not a weakness; it’s a strength. My friends, it’s when we find the strength to practice non-violence, as individuals and as a nation, that we can truly begin to love our neighbors in earnest. It’s when we find the courage to “turn the other cheek” that we can truly feel the presence the God. And, it’s when we practice gentleness, and all those “excellent” things Paul listed, that we can truly gain a deeper sense of inner peace; it’s then, that we can truly “rejoice in the Lord, always.”
My prayer for all of us in the days and weeks and months ahead, is that we will find that “always.”
May it be so. Amen.
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.
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.
[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.”
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.
[ii] Anne Lamott. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. (Riverhead Books, 2004.)