Uncategorized

A Question of Priorities: My Sermon from Today

Mark 10: 17-31

Today is a very special day for me. One year ago today, I was ordained into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is hard to believe it has already been a year! From my time here as an intern through this past year as a “Big Boy Pastor”, each one of you have played and continue to play a special part in my formation as a pastor. In addition, you continue to accompany and support my family in ways that I will never be able to adequately thank you. It is a privilege- a true privilege- to serve you all here at Cross & Crown. I’m so grateful God called me here and you agreed!
And to celebrate this anniversary with a baptism! What a true joy. The blessings abound.
So thank you.

Now to the Gospel-

This morning we meet what many of our bibles call “the Rich Man”. He races up to Jesus-the Scripture even says he ran up to him, which in ancient times was not really a dignified thing to do. But in his enthusiasm approaches Jesus asking for his specific checklist of what to do in order to get eternal life.
And Jesus questions him- as Jesus is known to do—pushing back a little. Well, what do YOU think- you know the commandments. And in a bit of a subversive act, Jesus mentions 6 commandments. More on that later–

And this Type A guy jumps at this suggestion, noting that yep, he’s not only done ALL that, he’s done it since childhood! He’s checked them all of his list.
But Jesus, knowing the heart of this man loves him and then drops the challenge: ok, then go sell whatever you own, give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.
Then all that you own, all that wealth, will be heavenly wealth, Jesus adds.
And the man’s face drops. He’s not happy with this challenge. The text even mentions this was the last thing he expected to hear. Because it seems like this Type A guy maybe had expected more of an “atta boy” than a convicting challenge.

And he turned and walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, the text reads, and not about to let go.
Jesus asks us to let go of many things and follow him. That’s the key to discipleship. It’s a surrender.

Maybe that’s what makes it so hard. We want to be in control at all times. It’s about us. We want to set the roadmap, the timelines, set the agenda, set the plan.
Our entire identity gets wrapped up in our achievements.
So it’s only fitting that our instincts will be, “show us what to do and we’ll do it!”

I’m guilty of that for sure. And so is the man here.
If you notice in the passage, it starts with an inquiry of what to do, do do.
But Jesus shifts the direction of the narrative to one of receive.
What must I DO? He asks.
Jesus’ response is –well, “nothing if you think you can pull it off by yourself. But every chance in the world if you let GOD do it.”
If you simply receive.

When asked about what he must do to gain eternal life, if you remember Jesus answers with just 6 commandments. And we know there are 10.
The commandments Jesus left out were the ones involving a surrender of self—you shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol, you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the Sabbath.
Isn’t that interesting? Maybe Jesus intentionally leaves out those 1st 4 commandments hoping that this devout man would notice that the list was incomplete. How good really is that checklist? But like most of us, it flies right over his head.

It can often be easy to feel like you’ve accomplished a lot—to feel productive and good about yourself–it can often be easy to feel pious—

–when that which you are serving is you.

Jesus is challenging us to step outside of ourselves and to serve God. But he recognizes the challenge. He even says, Look its difficult. REAL difficult. So difficult it might even be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
But the easy path isn’t part of the deal. That’s not what Jesus calls us to. That’s not the life Jesus wants for us.
Even the disciples sort of panic a bit, with Peter asking, “well then who has any chance at all?”

Because it’s hard on our own. But that’s also not part of the deal.
Again it seems like we are encouraged to go it alone. Rewarded, in fact.
So we try to push through our own agenda in life. When what God wants from us is to break free of that.

Like the man in this passage, even when we are offered a better way, a more meaningful way, a more godly way, we too hold tight to a lot of things and aren’t about to let go. We want control, even if it is an illusion.
The Good Soil group is watching and discussing some of the videos from the Nooma series. Many of you have studied these. They have been around a while, but they are so good. Nooma is a collection of creative short films featuring one of my favorite pastors and writers, Rob Bell. Each film focuses on a specific topic or theme usually at the nexus of faith and life. They’re wonderful.
Last week we watched and the discussed the film, Shells.

This one tells the story of how his young son was at the beach searching for seashells. And he was gathering them up left and right. None of them particularly special- most of them just the broken half-shells and colorful shards that litter the beach.
But then as he’s walking in the surf, he stops and spots in the near distance, a starfish.

His eyes light up with excitement. He looks to his parents and dashes off into the surf. Right up to it.

He pauses for a moment, and then turns and dashes back.
He looks up almost desperately at his parents and rushes back toward the starfish, standing there looking at it.
Again, he returns to his parents.
His parents ask him “Buddy what’s the matter? Why aren’t you grabbing that amazing starfish??”
And he responds with exasperation, “Dad, I can’t! Because my hands are filled with shells!”
So often our hands are filled ‘with other things—things we are unable or unwilling to let go of – which prevent us from taking hold of the right things.
Sometimes we need to be able to say “No” to things- even good things– so that we may say “Yes” to the right things.

This passage isn’t just about money.

Jesus isn’t convicting the man for having great wealth. That’s not the point here.
Jesus is challenging the man to examine his heart to determine where his true treasure is. Jesus is challenging the man to focus not on his accumulations- whether its his money, his accomplishments, his status,- but on God.
Jesus is challenging the man to consider his attachments and to reflect on whether these things are keeping him from a meaningful life with God.
So much of our culture encourages us to “have it all” when the “all” that really matters is our faith in Christ. Our commitment to Christ. The rest of it—it’s all trimming.

Our biggest resource is our time.

We are all busy. Really busy. Probably too busy. And it’s become this embarrassing “badge of honor” to brag about how busy we all are. And in our heart of hearts our intentions are pure.
But it seems like this passage suggests maybe we’re missing the point.
We’re saying yes to all these things deep in our hearts-things we believe are the right things. But in reality, we’ve forgotten to check with the true priority, to determine if they’re the best things.

Are we going to that extra meeting, when we really need to be enjoying a glass of wine with our spouse.
Are we pounding away at that laptop, when we should be sharing a story with our kids.
Are we allowing our kids to participate in a million different activities while allowing ourselves to get out of shape with no time for exercise and stress-relief.

Or are we focusing so much on our needs that we aren’t allowing the time and space to serve others, denying ourselves the unique, life-giving energy God offers when he care for others.
It can be a myriad of things. None more important or more common than the other.

But it’s worth taking a look at.

So today I challenge you. Prayerfully look at your commitments. See where you might be saying “Yes” to things which are preventing you from doing the things that closer align you with your faith.

Who are we truly living for? Are our commitments reflective of a life worthy of God’s kingdom?
What are you saying “Yes” to when it’s requiring you to say “No” to something far more meaningful?
What are things you’re holding tightly to that are keeping you from fully entering God’s Kingdom?
What is it that you can let go of?
I know I’ve got mine. I’m sure you have yours.

Let go of some of those shells, so you can grab hold of the starfish.

Amen.

Radical Discipleship

Mark 9:42-50

This is some passage, isn’t it? The language is obviously quite strong. The descriptions, severe. From the dramatic imagery and the emphatic tone, it is clear that Jesus is making an important point.
On the surface, it seems straight-forward- that Jesus is warning everyone not to be a stumbling block to others’ faith, especially those who might be vulnerable. This is most certainly true.
But it’s also possible that pulling the camera lens back a bit, Jesus might also be making a larger point about how we are to live as Christians.
Jesus might be describing, in quite colorful terms, the importance of proper discipleship.
No, no, no proper discipleship isn’t about maiming yourself! That’s not what I mean.
What I mean is proper discipleship as an orientation toward the well-being of others, oftentimes at the expense of yourself. It isn’t always easy and one which asks a lot of us. But Jesus spent a lot of time imploring this behavior. He describes good disciples as those who would rather sacrifice their own wholeness than threaten the well-being of the community. In this passage he discusses those things which might be stumbling blocks for others. Being mindful of those stumbling blocks and being willing to remove them is a requirement of proper discipleship.
There are many things we do which could be stumbling blocks for others. In fact, we might not even know they are stumbling blocks. The Psalmist acknowledges this in verse 12, “who can detect one’s own offenses?” It’s not always easy.
But for the greater good we, as disciples of Christ should be mindful of them and seek them out.
A friend of mine is an Army chaplain. And in his work he encountered a lot of soldiers struggling with a variety of issues, but many of them struggle with alcoholism and addiction. So years ago when they were deployed, understanding the heightened stress of the situation, he personally abstained from alcohol during that time in an effort not to be a stumbling block for his unit.
And although he often needed a beer. Really needed a beer, he chose what was best for the group, rather than his own comfort.
That’s discipleship.
Discipleship means focusing more on the whole than on your individual part. It’s a selfless worldview. And that’s not always easy. Especially these days, with self as the focus.
Self-esteem.
Self-motivation
Self-care
Self, self, self.
Not that these are all bad, mind you. Of course it’s important to take good care of yourself. But Jesus calls us to a life that requires us to reach beyond the self with a focus on the other.
It isn’t easy.
But Jesus never suggested it would be easy. And on top of this, he even suggests that his demands are to take priority over everything else. His commandments are not convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever else you might hold dear. They replace everything, no matter the cost to us.
My friends that isn’t just proper discipleship, its radical discipleship.
Legendary Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about discipleship. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer strikes a hopeful tone when he writes of the commandment to follow him.
“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burdens they must bear to be light. They will receive strength.
Jesus’ commandment is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not difficult for someone who willingly accepts it.”
By grace Jesus Christ calls us to follow him.
But it’s not normal grace.
It is costly grace.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes,
“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship;
it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly, because it costs people their lives;
it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.
It is costly, because it condemns sin;
it is grace, because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son.”
The Trinity teaches us of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus on the cross; God on the cross
That is the ultimate in self-giving love.
And that’s what Jesus is calling us to.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.
These are dramatic commandments and although they are not to be taken literally.
They are to be taken seriously.
Our focus as disciples should always be lasered in on what is in service to the other. To the community.
Jesus explains that it’s better to be without these stumbling blocks-
A hand
A foot
An eye
Than to be thrown into hell.
Ouch.
Now this concept is also one which merits consideration:
Hell is depicted throughout Scripture as a place of torment and judgment. The fiery imagery, the horror of gnashing of teeth, and the eternal pain leaves little to the imagination in terms of its desirability.
Theologians for centuries have argued about whether Hell is a literal place. And I’m certainly not going to wade into the debate.
But I will speak to the theological implications of hell. Theologian Daniel Migliore defines hell as “the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself.”
Because a preoccupation with self makes it extremely difficult to experience love. And God is love.
So for me, and maybe for others, an eternity without love; an eternity without God. Well, that’s certainly Hell.
Discipleship calls us away from selfishness and toward self-giving. Discipleship calls us to be willing to sacrifice our well-being for the benefit of the community.
Pat Tillman was a linebacker for Arizona State University who as a junior helped his team make it to the Rose Bowl. That year he was voted the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was selected with 226th pick to play Safety for the Arizona Cardinals. He started 10 of the 16 games of his Rookie year.
Two years later, in 2000, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman picked Tillman to his 2000 All Pro Team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles and 2 sacks, among others.
But everything changed for the young football star the next year when on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, terrorists launched 4 coordinated attacks on the United States, killing 2,996 people and injuring 6,000 others.
8 months later in May, 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer for $3.6 million dollars from the Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army.
Soon after, he joined the Army Rangers and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because for Tillman, his personal comforts, his personal career, even his personal safety was secondary to the needs of his country.
For Tillman, what benefitted the community was more important than what benefited him.
And sadly he paid the ultimate price. In April of 2004, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire while patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.
In some ways, the life Pat Tillman lived, the sacrifice he made, was the life Jesus calls us to- an ultimate, all-or-nothing commitment.
It’s daunting to consider, isn’t it? But it’s nevertheless what we are called to do.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot, causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble cut it off.
What is it in your life that is preventing you from living the selfless life Jesus calls us to?
What is distracting you from radical discipleship?
Revisiting the imagery of the passage, it’s easy to interpret this passage as an exaggerated illustration for keeping clear of sin. But maybe the dramatic imagery can be translated into more helpful, practical terms for our lives of faith.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of the hand to conjure up images of one’s handiwork, what one does or produces, or how one makes a living. And if that vocation or work is causing others to stumble or keeping you from the life God wants for you, well then maybe Jesus is inviting you to revisit whether it’s something you should be doing. “Cutting it off” in other words, for the sake of Christ’s call. Challenging words for sure.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of a foot, to conjure up images of our direction- what moves us toward a destination. Where are we going? What are our aims? Are our goals in life keeping with the goals of being citizens of God’s kingdom? If it’s not, well maybe Jesus is asking us to stop and change course.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of an eye, to represent what attracts our attention. Wandering eyes aren’t just in reference to sexual attraction. “Decisions about how one uses time, spends money, and establishes priorities are all based on where the eye is focused.” What are we focusing on, and is that in line with a life pleasing to God?
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. A discipleship that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our personal needs and more on the needs of others.
These words are convicting and the challenges are great. Jesus has again raised the bar.
But his words are also infused with hope.
Because this self-giving, this self-sacrifice, this way of living will ultimately give us the peace that frees us.
Amen.

No One is Beyond Hope

(painting by C&C member Pam Hancharik)

Acts 9:1-19

Chuck Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. Once known as the President’s “hatchet man”, Colson gained notoriety at the height of the Watergate Scandal.

To put it mildly, he wasn’t highly regarded.

Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Chuck Colson as “the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.”

He collaborated with a group to break into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the man known for releasing the Pentagon Papers. He had hoped leaking personal revelations about Ellsberg would help discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause.
When that wasn’t successful, he distributed information from Ellsberg’s confidential FBI file to the press.

News stories claimed Colson once boasted that he would run over his own grandmother to re-elect Nixon.

By most measures, Colson would be considered a very bad man.

It was Colson’s fierce intensity that struck fear in many who encountered him.

When it was revealed that the think-tank Brookings Institution possessed politically damaging documents, Colson proposed firebombing the place and stealing them while firefighters put the fire out.

By his own admission, Colson noted he was valuable to the President … “because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done”.

In March of 1974, Colson was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglaries.

But this wasn’t the end of the road for Colson.

As he awaited arrest, his close friend, Raytheon Chairman Thomas L. Phillips gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity, the classic theological book by C.S. Lewis, which articulated in the plain speech the fundamental teachings of Christianity.
After reading it, like a flash of light, Colson was transformed, devoting his life to Christ, and become an evangelical Christian.

Although several in the media ridiculed his conversion, claiming it was a ploy to reduce his prison sentence, Colson was undeterred. He joined a prayer group led by members of congress from both parties and set out to be a new man.
After prayer and consultation with his fellowship group, Colson approached his lawyers and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
As a result, Colson was given a one-to- three-year sentence and fined $5,000
He served seven months in Maxwell Correction Institute in Alabama— from July of 1974 to January of 1975.

While in prison, God continued to work on Chuck Colson.

He became increasingly aware of what he saw as injustices done to prisoners and noticed shortcomings in their rehabilitation. He became convinced that he was being called by God to develop a ministry to prisoners with an emphasis in promoting changes in the justice system.

After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which today is “the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families”. Colson worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States.

In addition to these efforts, Colson wrote best-selling books and received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his Christian advocacy. He was a well-regarded public speaker, using his experience to share a gospel message of hope to a world in desperate need of it.
Colson once said,

Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.

Power, pride, shrewdness, and corruption led to the collapse of Colson’s life. But after public humiliation and paying his debt to society, Colson elected to place his hope in Jesus Christ.
In doing so, Colson found redemption in the wake of corruption. He became an instrument of Christ, improving the lives of millions of inmates and their families across the globe and sharing the gospel.

Once known for hurting people, Colson later became known for helping people.

Once considered beyond all hope, beyond redemption, Christ used this man to become a vocal advocate for the gospel.

Because if there is one message of the gospel, it’s that no one—no one—is beyond hope.

My prayer is that this message brings comfort to you.

Because we all know people – or know of people-, whom it seems as if all hope is lost.
They’re too far gone.

Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you so badly that forgiving them is 100% out of the question. Time and again they’ve exhibited inexcusable behavior to the point where you have written them off.

Maybe they’re loved ones who continue to make bad decision after bad decision, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
Repeated attempts for assistance- maybe from you, maybe from others, have come up empty. And it’s drained you of everything you have.

Maybe its someone who seems to have had every possible opportunity- every conceivable advantage– but never seems to be able to lift themselves up out of their challenges. We see this a lot with famous actors, athletes, and musicians.

Sometimes it’s addiction. Sometimes it’s mental illness. Sometimes it’s just poor judgment.
But regardless of the reason, hope seems to have escaped them.
They’ve ruined every opportunity.
They’ve burned every bridge.
Hope is lost.

To many, Paul would have fit this category. If you were a follower of the Way, as the writer of Acts describes early Christians, Paul, or Saul at the time, was about as bad as one could be. He brought terror to those outside of his worldview. He was known to not only threaten, arrest, and imprison Christians, but torture them as well. It is no surprise that when Ananias heard God order him to go tend to Saul, he was reluctant.

To early Christians, Saul was lost. Without hope. Lost to the dark side.
But that’s usually when Jesus makes an appearance. And he does on the road to Damascus.

But if you notice, Saul isn’t instantly restored through this appearance.
Jesus works through Ananias. Jesus appears to Ananias and has him go, lay hands on him and says,
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And immediately, he regained his sight. He arose and was baptized.

Ananias became an instrument of Jesus to help Saul restore his hope and step into the future God has planned for him.

Thomas Phillips became an instrument of Jesus to help Chuck Colson restore his hope and step into the future God had planned for him. By something as small as handing him a copy of an inspirational Christian book.

Where could Jesus be using you to help someone the world has deemed hopeless? How could you be an instrument God uses to restore someone’s hope and help them step into the future God has planned.

We can all become instruments of God’s grace. We can all become like Ananias, summoned to go to someone and offer them the love of Christ. A love, which can have transformative power.

They usually aren’t dramatic scenes as Paul experienced on that road. Oftentimes, they are as simple as offering someone forgiveness. Reminding them of your steadfast love. Staying persistent in prayer. Or offering them a book.

No one is beyond hope.

Paul experienced this personally and deeply. And he shared this experience most notably in his letter to the Romans when he wrote,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Christ, hope is ours.
In Christ, hope is for all.
No matter what.

May it be so.

Amen.

A Matter of the Heart

Mark 7: 1-8; 14-16; 21-23

I will never forget when I was younger my sister and I, who were occasionally prone to bickering and fighting, were in quite the heated altercation. I can’t even remember what it was about. But in a moment of anger, pure white-hot rage, I yelled at the top of my lungs,
“GO TO HECK!!!”
Now my sister thought little of it. In fact, she was probably reveling in the fact that she had clearly gotten under my skin. But it’s at that moment when I heard the dreaded sound. Like a fierce warning. That loud, rhythmic clip clopping of high heels colliding with hard-wood floors.
My breath tightened. My sister and I both knew what this meant.
The moment seemed to hang in balance. Neither of us saying another word. I dare say we barely moved.
The dreaded sound drew closer, the heavy pounding of hard wood floors shifting to the muffled, progressive stomp ascending the stairs.
In an instant, my sister’s door threw open and there in the doorway was my mother.
All red hair and fury, glaring at me.
“Justin Brook Seaford. What did you just say?”
In a panic, I responded, “I said go to HECK, Mom! I didn’t even say the word!!”
“But you MEANT it,” she responded. “Which is just as bad. Now go to your room.”
I slinked off in shame, baffled at how my strategically edited verbal assault on my sister had backfired.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, so props to my mom for some effective parenting! And although different in scope, it illustrates one of the messages in today’s Gospel.
In the passage, Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, Pharisees, and even us, that it’s the meaning behind the purity laws that are important, not just the rote adherence to them. The motivations of the rituals.
It’s what they mean.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and legal experts at the time who are calling him to the carpet, wondering why he and his disciples are not living according to the “tradition of the elders”, by not purifying their hands with water before eating.
Jesus lashes out, quite forcefully, accusing them of being hypocrites by quoting Isaiah 29:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me.
To Jesus, it is apparent that the Pharisees and legal experts aren’t concerned with hygiene, they’re more concerned about making sure people are publicly following of the rules.
Because this was a big deal at the time. And before we get too judgey, it’s important to note that the intention of the officials was mostly sincere and devout. The observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them; to give glory to God. In the midst of Roman occupation, these laws were seen as a way to protect and preserve the Jewish faith.
But in execution, well, let’s just say the intention was lost. These rituals or traditions had devolved into legalism, where the intention was no longer the driving force. Legalism takes into account outward actions, but not inward feelings.
There’s an old story about this criminal who was a devout Muslim. As you know, a follower of Islam is required to stop everything and pray at certain times during the day. As a result, they have to carry prayer mats with them at all times. Well this story has this man chasing someone, knife raised in the air, ready to pounce and murder him. Just then, the bells ring out signaling him to pray. So immediately he stops, pulls out his mat, says his prayers as fast as he could, and then rose to continue his murderous pursuit.
Legalism can make what were once devout, meaningful rituals into meaningless external exercises.
The focus becomes more on appearances than honesty.
It’s sort of like when you catch your kids breaking a rule and you call them on it and they passively snap, “Sorry” and then continue on, without truly expressing regret or remorse.
Jesus is announcing that he isn’t concerned about the outward appearances as much as what originates from the heart. Jesus is more concerned with what’s animating the ritual. What’s behind it. Jesus is more interested in what it means.
Because rituals and traditions, in and of themselves aren’t bad as long their meaning is sincere. This is why Jesus doesn’t reject the Mosaic Law or reject the issue of defilement. What he’s rejecting are the interpretations of these laws, referred to as “traditions of the elders.”
Some background:
Originally for the Jew, the Law meant two things: first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and also the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Now it’s true that in the Pentateuch there are a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, they were content with Jews interpreting and applying these moral principles for themselves.
But in the 4th/5th century before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts known as Scribes. These folks needed definition. The needed these principles expanded and detailed into a thousand little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation. Life was no longer governed by the principles, but by these rules. Originally known as the “Oral Law”, eventually these were written down and became known as the “tradition of the elders”.
And to Jesus, these interpretations—these “traditions” had deviated from their intended meaning.
They no longer served their intended purpose, to draw us closer to God.
Depending on the tradition, many of us grew up having to don our “Sunday Best” when we went to church. Any of you remember that? Now at my church in Elkin growing up, you didn’t set foot in that place unless, for guys, you had on a sport coat and tie, and for ladies, you had on a dress and perfect hair. That was just what was expected.
Now if the intent for dressing up is to demonstrate respect and reverence for God, then dressing up is perfectly appropriate. Should maybe even be encouraged. But if its real intent is to show off and bring attention to yourself, well then, Jesus would maintain that its missing the point.
It’s all a matter of the heart.
It’s sort of like volunteering, serving, doing good deeds not for the service itself, but so you can be seen as a “good person”.
Let’s be honest. We are all occasionally guilty of this, aren’t we?
In this passage Jesus is imploring all of us, really, to focus on the heart. Jesus has rarely been about the externals. He urges us to be mindful of our motivations. Not to do things just for appearances, like a ritual whose meaning has been manipulated. But to behave in a way that is an authentic expression of a pure, loving heart.
His heart.
And that is available to us through Christ.
Because as a result of our Baptism, we are indeed joined to Christ. His heart becomes our heart. His purity becomes our purity. In doing so, Jesus is able to work through us so that our actions are HIS actions- pure and sincere.
Each and every day.
I really mean it.
Amen.

A Sermon on Reason & Faith

John 6: 35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
T.E. Lawrence, the archaeologist, writer, and diplomat who was later immortalized in the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia” was a close personal friend of Thomas Hardy, the poet. In the days when Lawrence was serving as an aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force he sometimes used to visit Hardy and his wife while wearing his uniform. It so happened that on one occasion his visit coincided with a visit from the Mayoress of Dorchester, a lofty, regal person. The Mayoress was bitterly offended that she had to engage in a social capacity with this lowly serviceman, not knowing who he was. Speaking in French, as to secretly communicate with Mrs. Hardy she said, “never in all my born days had I had to sit down to tea with a private soldier!”
No one said anything;
until T.E. Lawrence said in perfect French: “I beg your pardon, Madame, but can I be of any use as an interpreter? Mrs. Hardy knows no French.”
A snobby and rude woman had made a shattering mistake because she judged by externals- by her interpretation of appearance, by worldly standards.
That is what the Jews did in this morning’s Gospel passage.
They kept murmuring about Jesus because He said: “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They kept saying “is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Based on their perspective and their worldly standards, it was inconceivable that this man could be what he claimed to be. It defied reason.
It is all the more amusing that their professed knowledge of what is true- that they knew of his father and mother – in itself was wrong. As Jesus’ earthly father might have been Joseph, his real father, of coruse, was the Father in heaven.
Sometimes our “knowledge” inhibits us.
Especially in matters of faith.
In external and worldly matters, by all means, let reason be the judge.
When you’re calculating P&L’s for your business, most definitely use reason.
When you are wrestling with a complicated problem, by all means, use reason.
Reason most definitely has its place. Please don’t misunderstand me.
But in heavenly matters, and matters of faith, it might behoove you to cast reason aside.
Because reason, my friends, will never get us to faith.
Think about it:
Reason is not at work when we consider the transformative work of the sacraments. It just doesn’t make logical sense! Jesus Christ being fully present in the bread, in the wine. There is nothing “reasonable” about it.
Reason comes up short when we contemplate God in 3 persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Reason fails us when we consider the central tenets of our faith:
A man born of a virgin, who suffered death and was buried. And bodily rose again. A man fully human, fully divine, who on the cross took on the punishment for sin we deserved but transformed that into righteousness.
How on earth can that be? It just doesn’t. make. Logical. Sense.
This often happens in matters of faith.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we cling to the words, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Faith is unreasonable! It defies logic!
So how then can we arrive at this faith? How can we overcome our earthly training and ways of being so that we might have this faith?
Jesus offers us an answer in this passage when he tells us “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44)
It’s not really our choice at all. The Father draws us to him.
Interestingly, the original word used here for “being drawn” is the Greek word, helkuein. And it almost always implies some kind of resistance. It was the same word Jesus used for drawing the heavily laden nets to shore in John 21. It’s the word used in Acts to describe Paul and Silas being dragged before the magistrates in Phillipi.
We are drawn by the Father, but often not without some resistance. And that resistance is often as a result of our reason. Even Mary asked the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” Reason suggests that a virgin can’t be pregnant with God’s Son.
Reason cannot accept the fact that Christ came from heaven and is God’s Son, that He is the celestial bread and yet has a father and mother on earth.
But again I tell you, in matters of faith we often must jettison reason to fully embrace the life we are promised.
Luther wrote, “If our God were to present us with sensible doctrines- doctrines which our reason could comprehend- none of us would be saved; we would all be lost”
He continued with his customary, straight-forward style,
“If Christ did say it, then we should cling to it, whether it harmonizes with reason or not, and no matter how it may sound.”
Now, this could lead us to an overly literal reading of Scripture. I’m certainly not advocating for that. But is it possible we occasionally overthink some of the matters of faith, especially when it pertains to Scripture?
Is it possible we say to ourselves, “well, that most certainly cannot be true because it makes no sense at all! I don’t like how that sounds so therefore I’m dismissing it altogether!”
I know there are a lot of areas where I wrestle with that same instinct.
But truth is truth, whether it seems reasonable or not.
As famed writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Yet it’s become almost fashionable to pick and choose which doctrines we believe, or to tweak them so to be more palatable for our modern sensibilities.
Paul warns against this instinct in his letter to Timothy when he says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2Tim 4:3)
Sometimes our reason, our desires, conflict with matters of faith.
But there is good news!
We needn’t’ worry about this. We have a great teacher!
Jesus says in the passage, “All will be taught by God”, quoting Isaiah 54:13 “all your children shall be taught by the Lord and great shall be their prosperity”
We are taught by the Father. But how can this be, really? How does this happen?
In his commentary, Luther explains, “The Father draws us to the Son by His mouth, His doctrine, and His Word.”
We learn by studying the Scriptures. We learn by listening to God’s Word preached. We learn through the teachings of the Church.
This is not to dismiss the discerning work of the Spirit. There is most certainly a role for the Spirit. A big role! Seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential. But I maintain that there can be an overemphasis in spiritual discernment that can be quite risky.
Much in the world today elevates spiritual discernment and spirituality. And in and of itself that is a good thing.
But if your spiritual discernment conflicts with the Word of God, I encourage you to proceed with caution. Wrestle with it in prayer. Engage a trusted fellow believer. In the history of the church, spiritual discernment was never an individual enterprise. It was always in a group of believers. So don’t go rogue!
As the body of Christ, rooted in God’s Word, we hold each other accountable, supporting one another, and guiding one another especially in matters of faith.
This is the nourishment Jesus promises.
The bread of life. Which came down from heaven.
What sustains you, what nourishes you is Christ. Nothing else has this power. And it’s offered to you freely. Other things are wonderful- the love of friends, family, the joys of success and accomplishment. Material possessions are nice, too. But they are not life.
Jesus promises, “This is the truth I tell you—whoever believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.”
And it’s given for you.
It might defy reason. But it is most certainly true.
So again I borrow Luther’s words:
“Believe it and away with your presumption! Do not rationalize and reason it out! Close your eyes! Put down your cup! Quit grumbling! Believe the Word which Christ submits to you, namely, that He came from heaven, that is, that He is God’s Son, revealed to the world, born of Mary… conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Believe these words. Let them into your heart.
Because they are the words of eternal life.
Reasonable? Probably not.
But true? You bet.

Amen.

A Heady Sermon for a Sunday…

Mark 6:14-29
July 11, 2018

If you ever needed proof that we don’t pick the texts for the week, here it is. After being out for the last 2 weeks- one to take some high school youth to Houston for the National Youth Gathering and the other for family vacation, I arrive back to preach on this lovely passage. So HEADS up, it’s also not really the easiest passage for which to find the “good news”. Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance in the story. And it doesn’t even end on a positive note. But I don’t want to get a-HEAD of myself.
Today’s Gospel is sandwiched right between two important movements in the work of the disciples. The one before is of the disciples being sent out on their mission to proclaim the gospel, and the one that follows is about them coming back. So right there in the middle is this story of King Herod hosting this wonderful, fancy party for which to impress his people. I imagine he’s seated at the HEAD of this large table, around it of which sat political magistrates, military commanders, and prominent men. And in the middle of the party, Herod’s step-daughter performs a dance. And apparently not just any dance. We’re talking a dance so pleasing to Herod that he offers her anything she wishes as a reward- up to half his kingdom!
Surprised at this generous offer, she HEADS back to her mom to ask for guidance. And to seek revenge for John the Baptist advising her husband not to marry her—apparently even then it wasn’t exactly celebrated to marry your sister-in-law (In fact, it was illegal) —she advises her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Whew.
Unwilling to LOSE FACE in front of his kingdom, Herod agrees to the macabre request and orders John to be executed.
So if you ever hear folks dismayed about how violent our culture has become, well maybe things aren’t so different after all. I mean, this is some real Game of Thrones stuff isn’t it. Brutal!
So what to make of this story? Where is the message here? Where is the good news?
Luther instructed us to “squeeze a passage until there’s good news” so let’s keep at this and unpack it some more.
Its placement between the two passages- the sending and the return- scholars believe is intentional and artistically strategic. Perhaps Mark is making the case that yes, the disciples are called out into the world to proclaim the good news, but that it can cost you your life. It’s an abrupt position.
One scholar noted, “It’s a sobering reminder to Christians, who might be under political or religious oppression or material allurement, to remain unwavering in God’s mission and commitment. Like the prophets of old, John the Baptist was willing to risk his life or his message and not succumb to public pressure.”
Jesus calls us to boldly proclaim the gospel, even when it’s risky business. We are to speak truth to power even when it’s scary. How many of us have been in a situation where the right answer was one that put us in jeopardy. Maybe your lives weren’t at risk, but what about your job?
A lot has been made in recent years of whistle-blowers. Employees who, upon witnessing unethical or illegal behavior, alert management or sometimes the authorities, to end the behavior. Oftentimes, these employees lost their jobs as a result of their speaking truth to power. Thankfully, awareness of these cases have brought protections for those willing to come forward.
The “me too” movement is a similar example. Women who often had to endure all forms of harassment in the workplace, often at the hands of powerful men, in order to retain their jobs or experience the professional advancement they felt entitled to.
Admittedly every case in these areas are unique, but it highlights the risks of speaking truth to power. The Christian life Jesus calls us to requires nothing less.
Maybe at times, as Christ followers, we lose sight of our purpose. In our daily lives we might forget that the message of Jesus is to live differently. Christians aren’t supposed to look and act like everyone else because let’s face it, following Christ is actually a radical way of life: loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, caring for the needs of our neighbor over ourselves, radical sharing.
It’s not really what you see a lot in culture is it?
I would even argue that mainstream culture works AGAINST many of these values, which doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it seems like cultural pressures play in to our worst instincts.
Think about how easy it is to get pulled into that vortex of professional advancement, material consumption, self-promotion, and individuality. Before we know it, we’ve lost sight of those aspects of Christianity that are supposed to set us apart.
So when we have incidences where we are called to stand up for our faith at the expense of our cultural advancement. Well, we sometimes cave.
Look, none of us are exempt from this. Even churches get caught up in it. Where do you think the “prosperity gospel” came from? Those pastors on TV or any pastor really who preaches that God wants you to be rich! That material wealth is somehow a sign or an indicator that you’re “blessed”. None of which is really in the Bible.
No what’s in the Bible is that sometimes when you preach the gospel
or live the gospel
or witness to the gospel
you can get your head cut off, figuratively and literally.
But to share in the ministry and destiny of Jesus, discipleship will cost nothing less than everything.
At the National Youth Gathering last week in Houston, 31,000 youth—that’s right, 31 THOUSAND from all over the country gathered for a week of service, prayer, music, fun, and worship. Each night there were several speakers. Amazing speakers. And as I was preparing for this sermon, and as its theme sort of took shape, one stuck out.
Her name was Savanna Sullivan, Program Director for Young Adult Ministries in the ELCA. She gave a contemporary witness during the worship service on the final day. She shared her experience of preparing to leave for Rwanda as a Young Adult in Global Mission, but before her departure, her doctor diagnosed her with an auto-immune disease which he informed her had compromised her immune system. As a result, he recommended she not leave the United States.
She had prayed about this trip, she had prepared for it, looked forward to it, and felt deeply called by God for it. And now, she was forced with an agonizing decision to abandon it. After a conversation with her father, who like any parent was understandably weary of the thought of his baby girl going to another country with an compromised immune system, asked her through tears, “Savanna, are you willing to die for this?”
Most of us are never faced with such an agonizing decision.
Most of us will never have to make this kind of choice about our faith, one where our actual lives are on the line.
But after much thought and deep prayer, Savanna determined to think about it differently.
She returned to her dad, and with a shaky voice but one that didn’t portray her faith and resolve,
simply stated, “No dad. I’m not ready to die for this…”
“I’m ready to live for this.”
I’m ready to LIVE for this.
Because as Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that boldly proclaims the gospel. Lives not dictated or controlled by fear. Lives in service to the gospel. Even when risk is knocking at the door.
Jesus says in Matthew “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
They will find it. A life that is truly life.
Yes, the risks are great and yes they are scary.
But God offers us all the courage we need, all the hope we need. Because when we live lives in this way, we are partnering in the ushering in of the kingdom of God.
And that, my friends, is good news.
So the questions I want us all to consider this morning and beyond are these:
Are we willing to speak up or set the record straight under whatever conditions we find ourselves in?
When we see injustice, suffering, or abuse, are we willing to call wrong-doing what it is?

These are tough questions for sure. Heady ones even….
But they are questions whose answers- even in the face of death– open for us the keys to eternal life.
And that’s good news.

Amen.

Facebook and the Challenge of Listening

I don’t know about you, but I’m experiencing a profound weariness from the politically divisive climate for which we in this country are currently living.  It doesn’t matter which “side” you find yourself, there is a palpable tension about the other which leaves many of us on-edge and anxious.  This isn’t the first incidence of this tension in our country’s history, to be sure.  Our United States have weathered many a political storm,  but it’s the first for me.  And being one who DOES NOT LIKE TENSION, it has been a personal struggle.  Consider that I’m also a pastor and the situation only gets worse.  I often find myself seeking tools to lighten the mood or find common ground.  On the surface, Facebook would seem to be the perfect venue, right?

Think again.

It goes without saying that I enjoy Facebook.  I enjoy connecting with friends far and wide,  sharing in signficant life events such as anniversaries, vacations, and birthdays, and learning from news articles and pieces shared from various outlets. I enjoy making people laugh by sharing my family foibles and making fun of my lame attempts at coolness or dieting failures.  I enjoy sharing the various events of my congregation, hoping that it increases the visibilty of our church and encourages locals to visit. 

But it’s become strikingly clear that Facebook is currently NOT the venue for attempting to foster meaningful political dialogue.  On more than one occassion my attempts at carving out a middle-ground have been struck down by strident keyboard warriors either anxious to grandstand with their self-described superior views, or a juvenile refusal to engage in  open-minded civil discourse.  I’ve mourned many a well-intended post which quickly devolved into a petty, nasty, and sometimes personal argument.  I’ve been frustrated by meaningul threads derailed by individuals who seem more interested in espousing their views than participating in a conversation.

It’s a shame really.  Because Facebook could be a productive venue for engaging one another, a forum to exhange ideas and provide opportunities to listen to one another’s perspectives, and draw closer.  It could be dynamic instrument for social and political change.  But instead, at least from my perspective, it is often simply an avenue for folks to be affirmed by those who share their views and alienate those who don’t.  It is often simply an arena to stoke our narcissism.

Let’s not allow that.  I encourage everyone who’s taking a second to read this blog to be more intentional about Facebook engagement.  Try to listen deeply to another’s viewpoint, especially if it’s only different from your own, and seek first understanding.  Behind these posts are real human beings- flesh and blood, whose views, however alien they might be from yours, are usually born from an honest, caring, and sincere place.  

What you deem racist and (insert whatever)-phobic, could be honest ignorance. 

What you deem objective, could be another person’s subjective.

So perhaps with listening we can identify areas of agreement and use that as a springboard to work together to educate one another.

Look, I admire both sides’ attempts at prophetic witness.  Truly I do.  And I admire the passion behind the posts, whatever their intent.  I recognize we are all coming at this from varying points of privilege (or even oppression). 

But we are never, ever going to arrive at a place of peace unless we start listening to one another and engaging in civil discourse.  We are never going to dismantle these walls which divide us until we start working together.

And it starts with listening.  

Even if it’s on Facebook. 

Called Into the Storm

Mark 4:35-51

One of my best friends has the most amazing mountain house. It sits on top of the mountain overlooking a valley. It’s an amazing view. You can see for miles. And one of our favorite things to do was to sit on the porch overlooking the valley and watch the storms roll below from one end to the next. It was beautiful to see the dark clouds with the blinking of the lightning slowly crawl across the valley.
It’s easy to appreciate the beauty and admire the power of a storm when you’re safely removed from it.
But when you’re in the storm, it’s more difficult to appreciate the beauty and power isn’t it? When you’re in the storm you’re often confronted with the risk and the pain and fear that comes with storms.
So it’s only natural that rather than face these storms we would give up and retreat to what is comfortable. To seek cover, where we feel safe. Its only human nature that we would place our hands over our eyes, our fingers in our ears, and stay put with what is known rather than to venture out into the storms that seem inevitable with taking risk.
But safety is not the life Jesus calls us to.
I’m sorry to report that followers of Christ don’t have the luxury of remaining ensconced in safe, comfortable places. We are called to face those storms so we may partner in the development of the kingdom of God. A kingdom defined by love, equality, justice, and peace. And these are not easy tasks and they’re not void of risk. But Jesus gives us a righteous battle cry.
Jesus calls us to speak truth to power even when our safety is at risk.
Jesus calls us to care for the poor and marginalized even when it risks our reputations or livelihoods.
Jesus calls us to risk everything- our jobs, our families, our communities, our reputations – EVERYTHING for the building of the kingdom.
And we aren’t to delay.
“How about I go get my affairs in order, Jesus, then I will follow you…”
Nope.
“What if I wait until I have this much in my bank account, then I will freely give to your ministry…”
Uh-uh.
“Can’t we just process this a little bit, maybe send it to committee, vote on it, and then…”
Nope.
This isn’t what Jesus teaches. There is an urgency to the work of the Gospel. And no place is it better illustrated then in Mark, where “immediately” and “At once” are frequent beginnings to sentences.
Today’s Gospel speaks to this reality.
At this point in the story, Jesus has established a pretty successful ministry. He’s called a team of dedicated and loyal disciples for which to partner in ministry, he’s healed people from all sorts of diseases, he’s cast out demons, and he’s preached to large crowds.
One might think he could even sit back and rest a bit.
But that’s not the call of Jesus.
Rather than resting on his laurels, Jesus announces, “Ok, Let’s cross over to the other side.” There is little time between when he is teaching the crowds from the boat and when he announces the next move. The text reads, “later that day…” and off they go. “Just as he was” the text reads. No preparation. No delay.
I can’t imagine the disciples were very happy with this. Even in the midst of the uncertainty for which they were living, they probably liked this side of the lake. There was the security of it being somewhat known. They knew the lay of the land. They had grown up there, worked there, so they knew folks. Who knows what’s on the other side. They might have even heard stories about “those people”.
But rather than let them get comfortable, Jesus calls them to pick up and go there. To step faithfully into the unknown. Because this is always where God seems to be calling us. God is always urging us to step outside of our comfort zones, to break down the divides which separate us and cross over into the other side.
God doesn’t see boundaries. God is constantly tearing down walls, tearing down boundaries to unite God’s people. God is always pushing us, calling us, urging us to cross over to the other side to care for those who have been discarded, outcast, or ignored. Throughout all of Scripture just when boundaries are established, there is God stretching them, dismantling them, and tearing them down. God knows that these boundaries we create only give us an illusion of safety. And what’s more, they only serve to divide when God is in unity.
As Christians when we encounter the “other” that is where we truly encounter Christ. When we are on the other side- wherever it may be—the other side of the tracks, the other side of town, the other side of our borders, that’s often when we are doing the most effective kingdom building.
This is where the disciples find themselves. Called to go there.
And to their credit, they obediently follow. Leaving behind the shore of comfort and off to spread the good news on a new shore.
And just as they probably feared, crossing to the other side involves some storms.
And despite being expert fishermen, familiar with the territory, the text tells us, they’re afraid. Deeply afraid.
And in their struggle they are aghast to see Jesus asleep in the in the rear of the boat.
“Don’t you care that we are drowning??” they scream. They don’t ask “Don’t you see?” they ask, “Don’t you CARE.” It’s almost as if they’re asking if Jesus values them at all. It’s almost as if they’re accusing Jesus of abandoning them in the midst of their storm.
How many of us have felt this? I know I have.
How many of us have felt like in the darkest of nights, when we are tossing and turning awake, battling the storms in our own lives, that Jesus was asleep, with what we think is little regard for us.
How many of us have felt like, frankly, Jesus didn’t seem to care about us at all?
But Jesus’ response is telling.
When awakened, Jesus speaks to the wind and it settles down. Jesus speaks to the sea, and it calms. Jesus establishes his authority over creation and at once settles the chaos around. With just words, Jesus demonstrates his power. Jesus demonstrates a sovereignty over all of creation- the winds, the rains, the seas, and the land.
And then he turns to them and asks, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith?”
Convicting words for sure. Because even though the disciples had witnessed Jesus performing great miracles and even though they had risked everything to embark on this journey with him, maybe just maybe they weren’t’…quite…sure.
Who could blame them?
But Jesus’s words remind them, and remind us, that his power is ever-present.
Because even when we are called to new shores, even when called to the other side, Jesus is always with us, even when we think he might be asleep in the stern. Jesus is right there with us in the midst of our storms, ready and willing to calm them so that we might do the work for the kingdom.
But notice the purpose is not just to calm the storms in our lives just so we will be happy. That doesn’t seem to be the point at all. Jesus doesn’t seem to be so interested in protecting us from danger and risk so that we will feel safe and protected and comfortable. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
Jesus is equipping us for the journey. Jesus is working with us so that we might continue on in our efforts to help usher in the kingdom. To bridge divides. To love those who are feeling discarded. To accompany those who feel abandoned. To care for those who are neglected. To liberate those who are persecuted. This is the kingdom of God!
Jesus is removing all those excuses which seem to keep us safe and protected, absent from the courageous work of the gospel. Jesus is calming those storms that keep us on the shores of our safety.
But that doesn’t make it less scary. We can know that Jesus has the power to calm our storms but that doesn’t mean the foreboding darkness that builds and threatens isn’t still scary. And those risks can drive us back to our comfortable shore that is known.
What does it look like for you? For me, I often feel reluctant to preach challenging sermons if there is a risk of political backlash. That’s just one of my storms. Sometimes I am reluctant to speak out on social justice issues, even when the Gospel requires me to do so, because I really, really like to be liked.
What is yours? What are the storms in your life that might be keeping you from stepping into the boat with faith?
Those things that frighten us, those storms that keep us at bay, those things that prevent us from building the kingdom of God, Jesus is with us in those storms. Jesus equips us for the journey.
Jesus is telling us to not be afraid.
Even when the storms roar and rain starts to pour.
Even when the waves crash into our boats and we feel like we are sinking
Do not be afraid.
Jesus is with us in the boats.
But when he seems to quiet your storm and the calms has settled.
Don’t rest-
Because this is when the work really begins.

Amen.

Seeds of Hope: Malala Yousafzai

Mark 4:26-34

Malala Yousafzai was a bright, precocious 12 year old girl growing up in Pakistan. She was born into a lower middle-class family with little money. In fact, her family didn’t have enough money for healthcare, so rather than being born in a hospital, she was born at home with the help of neighbors. But what her family lacked in resources, they made up for with ideas, learning, dreams, and a desire to help the world. Her father, a poet and teacher, educated Malala and raised her and her two younger brothers to dream big and to look for opportunities to make the world a better place. He allowed her to stay up way past her bedtime to discuss politics. Long after her brothers had been sent to bed.
But soon Malala’s life was drastically changed. The Taliban rose in power and were implementing drastic changes. Television and music were banned, women weren’t allowed to be in public and girls were no longer allowed to attend school and receive an education.
Responding to an inquiry by the local BBC, Malala began writing a blog under a pseudonym describing life as a young girl under Taliban rule. The blog piqued the interest of the New York Times and soon they made a documentary on Malala.
With this, the young girl gained visibility in national and international media circles. She quickly rose to prominence and used this new platform for activism, speaking out against the Taliban and advocating for education equality. She appeared often on local media and even received awards for her efforts.
But as she became more recognized, the dangers increased.
One day, after finishing one of her exams, she was headed home on a bus with her friends. Suddenly the bus stopped and a masked Taliban gunman climbed on board and shouted for Malala. Upon being identified, Malala was shot point blank in the head.
The extraordinary, promising future of an amazing young woman seemed to come to an abrupt end.
A small seed planted in a violent world.
A seed with so much potential for good but seemingly trampled upon. S
A seed of hope tamped down in the ground.
But God had other plans.
In today’s well-known gospel passage Jesus is using the imagery of a mustard seed and its growth to describe the kingdom of God. Many of us, whether we knew the Bible or were active in our churches or not, knew this parable. Or at least the gist of it. How many of us had a mother or grandmother who wore a necklace featuring a tiny mustard seed encased in a glass, pearl? It almost became a cliché to hear “if you just had the faith the size of a mustard seed…”
And to some extent, they are right. Jesus is speaking to the potential of just a little bit of faith. Like a seed can grow into something large, our faith, too, can grow into large, impactful outcomes. This is most certainly true.
But Jesus is also contrasting for his original audience the expectation of the kingdom of God which they had heard about through their tradition-this kingdom of God is described in Ezekiel as a “noble cedar.” Tall, powerful, strong and stately. But Jesus is describing a somewhat different kingdom of God –one more along the lines of a modest shrub.
Because the mustard seed, when sown, does indeed grow into the largest of shrubs. But it’s still a shrub. It’s not a mighty oak or towering cedar. So this imagery would have been a bit of a shift for the disciples to hear. The prophetic dreams of glory for Israel looks less like power and more like
Hospitality
Inclusion
Care
Despite their size, the branches of these shrubs, actively care for living things. Every bit of their being in service to their fellow beings in creation. Offering shelter and shade- safety and provision.
And these mustard bushes spread like wildfire. Some botanists compare them to ivy- they grow with abandon and soon are popping up everywhere- villages of God’s love and care for all of God’s creation.
Oftentimes, big things come from humble beginnings.
Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God as full of potential. But it often starts small. Like a little seed.
With God’s power something seemingly insufficient grows into something great. Not for its own glory, but to do the will of God. It’s about God’s power.
God’s kingdom.
And as the passage states just before this one, it’s going to happen whether we will it or not. The seed grows not because we make it, but because God empowers it.
As Jesus explained, the grain grows whether we are awake or whether we are asleep. It’s God who does the growing. The sower doesn’t control the outcomes, God does.
God uses the tiniest efforts of faith to explode them into substantial efforts.
But the sower must distribute the seed. This is the partnering God calls us to for the kingdom of God.
But we don’t need to worry about the outcomes when it comes to faith. Nope, God will do that. But we are invited to plant those seeds. We are invited to sow just a little here, a little there. We are invited to nourish the seeds.
Seeds of love.
Seeds of grace.
Seeds of hope and joy and promise.
Seeds of radical welcome and loving inclusion.
These are the origins of the kingdom of God.
Once these are planted. Once these are sown. God takes care of the rest. And then the whole world starts to change.

After the horrific attempt on her life, Malala was airlifted to a military hospital where doctors began operating on her brain, which was swelling as a result of the bullet passing through. After a 5 hour operation, the doctors, calling it a miracle, were able to successfully remove the bullet which had been lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord. Malala was later transferred to the United Kingdom to better her chances. 4 months later, after numerous surgeries, a cochlear implant to restore her hearing, and a procedure to reconstruct her skull, the courageous young activist was discharged from the hospital and released to recuperate in her home.
Malala would ultimately fully recover and rather than let fear drive her into the shadows, she courageously set out to continue her fight for female as well as children’s rights around the world. And at the age of 17, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever to receive this prestigious award. She became a best-selling author, an in-demand speaker, and established a global foundation which funds schools in impoverished countries.
An unlikely seed God used to grow into a mighty force in the world.
Malala might have been a young 12 year old girl in the midst of an oppressive regime which didn’t value girls.
Malala might have been a child in a world which only listens to the voices of adults.
Malala might have been a citizen of a country whose needs many in the Western world turned a blind eye to.
But she was planted.
And God had different plans.
Her curiosity, her courage, her ambition, her passion – they were all seeds which were sown and God took over.
God, along with her community, nourished Malala and grew her efforts to shed light on the oppression of a forgotten people in a forgotten world.
Malala became the face for equality throughout the world and as a result millions of girls in countries all over the world were granted education.
That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God Jesus describes in the Bible.
But not all of us grow into famous, high profile change agents. That doesn’t mean we are any less effective. God uses each and every one of us just as we are with our unique gifts and even our special flaws to help build God’s kingdom.
Yes, we all start as seeds. But our powerful God grows us into something special.
We don’t really know how it works. That remains a mystery. But being open to God using us is part of our task as partners in kingdom building.
So my challenge to you today is to reflect on how your efforts are helping build the kingdom of God. How are you partnering with God in this place at this time to proclaim the gospel?
WHAT IS GOD DOING IN YOU? HOW IS GOD WATERING YOU? MAKING YOU GROW? WHAT NEW THING IS GOD BRINGING INTO FRUITION WITH YOU? BECAUSE IF THERE’S ANYTHING THAT’S TRUE, IT’S THIS: GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU. WHAT LIES AHEAD IS AN ADVENTURE OF DISCOVERING WHAT GOD IS DOING, AND GROWING WITH GOD AS WE SPROUT FROM SEEDS TO DO AMAZING WORK THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD, EVEN IF IT’S ONLY YOUR LITTLE CORNER OF IT.
Because whatever our origins, however small we view our presence, however modest or insignificant we might interpret our potential, God sees as a seed ready to be grown into something great.
AMEN!

Don’t Miss the Magic: A Sermon for Graduates

Mark 2:23-3:6
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is with his disciples on the Sabbath walking through the fields. As they’re walking, the disciples begin to pluck off the heads of the grain. Presumably they did so because they were hungry and maybe needed a little snack. Who knows how long they’ve been walking. A quick look at a map in the back of your bibles show that Jesus walked so much and so far he would be the Fit Bit Champion of all time if he were tracking steps. So they might have just needed a quick bite. But they might not have been hungry at all. They may have just been mindlessly snapping them off as they walked; out of sheer boredom. Who knows.
But all of sudden, the Pharisees seem to jump out and sound the alarm saying, “Look! Why are they doing what’s unlawful on the Sabbath?”
First of all, where were the Pharisees to notice this? Were they furtively walking a few paces behind like private investigators, watching the group’s every move? Or were they hiding in the fields like paparazzi only to spring up to catch them in some sort of misstep? Second of all, why did it matter? Indeed work was technically forbidden from the Sabbath. So would this be considered work?
Jesus seems to take this all in stride. Maybe at this point he’s used to the Torah Paparazzi, so he casually responds by giving the example of how David did the same sort of thing when he was fleeing Saul. When he and his companions were hungry and they had no food, David entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, sharing some with his friends, which would, in the strict sense, have been unlawful for anyone but the priests.
But the point is clear- the Sabbath is made for humankind, not the opposite. The Sabbath rules intended to restore God’s people offering them rest. The point of the Sabbath is to help humanity have a fuller life, not to constrict them. The Sabbath was intended to serve as an intentional time to reflect on God’s blessings and provisions. Like so many of God’s commandments, they aren’t intended to be some mystical power trip but to help God’s people. The Pharisees seem to be missing this. They’re so caught up in the rules and the legal specifics, that they’re missing the larger point.
The passage continues with Jesus entering into the synagogue and encountering a man with a withered hand. Again, the Pharisees seem to be lurking in the background, waiting for a misstep so they can pounce and catch him in an unlawful act. Jesus, knowing this, uses it as an opportunity for them to recall the lesson he just taught them in the fields—he brings the man before them and asks, “ok is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” Basically saying, “ok folks, do I heal this guy or not?”
And the Pharisees are silent.
They’ve chosen adherence to their religious structure over the helping of another human being.
And this breaks Jesus’ heart. I can imagine Jesus with angry tears, glaring at the Pharisees, grabbing the man’s hand and healing it on the spot.
And this seals his fate. With evidence in hand—finally—the Pharisees race off to conspire how to kill him.
As I was reading this passage so many different thoughts came to mind, but one in particular seemed to stick out- did the Pharisees not realize that they had just witnessed a miracle? In front of them, Jesus heals a man! Heals him! Did they not notice that?
This wondrous act, this extraordinary act; that defies the natural order has just taken place right in front of their eyes and they seem to have just dismissed it altogether. In their spiteful tunnel vision they’ve focused so intently on finding fault with this man, on sticking to their rulebook, that they’ve missed the miracle. Right in front of them.
They’ve gotten so brainwashed by the rules that they’ve allowed it to overshadow the reason for the rules altogether.
Jesus has tried to show them that the rules are there to serve a larger purpose- to care for one another. The rules and regulations are intended to point to that which is worshiped, not become the object of worship themselves.
The Sabbath is for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
Maybe this is an area where religion has gone off the rails. Some religious people have become so focused on following the rules and APPEARING religious that they’re missing God’s extraordinary work taking place right in front of them. Seeking certainty, they’re missing the wonder of embracing the mystery of the divine.
They’ve missed the magic of a life of faith.
This is nothing new really. Humankind has been trying to put God in a box for centuries.
And I get the instinct to lean on that which is black and white. I get that there is comfort in what is dependable. And I get that sometimes considering anything outside of that carefully constructed box can be a threat. I get it. It feels unsafe. It’s sometimes even scary.
But oftentimes embracing a new interpretation of something- letting your guard down and stepping into the unknown- allows God to do some incredible work and leaves you with an expanded view of the Creator.
Sometimes when we challenge our comfortable understanding of the world, we end up with a deeper, more authentic worldview and brings us more intimately into relationship with the other.
But when we stay locked in those safe spaces, we miss these opportunities.
We miss the magic.
We miss the miracle of God in front of us.
So don’t miss the magic.
Don’t allow your faith to be so legalistic and constricted that you lose sight of the purpose- to bring you into closer communion with God. Because trust me, our faith can take anything you throw its way.
My favorite author and pastor Rob Bell wrote in his book “Velvet Elvis” about how too many well-intended Christians miss the magic of faith by sticking too stringently to dogma.
He describes faith like a trampoline.
When jumping on a trampoline you recognize the need for springs. The springs support the surface for which you jump.
Those springs are the things in our lives that help us understand God and how to live faithful lives that honor God. They might be rules, regulations, doctrines, what have you. But the springs aren’t God. The springs aren’t Jesus. The springs can be removed, stretched, examined, and explored. That’s what makes them so helpful. They’re able to be flexible to examine its purpose.
But some prefer bricks over springs. Bricks are also those things that help us understand God. The bricks seem sturdy and dependable. They don’t bend or stretch. And together, with an assortment of different bricks, they can build a strong, sturdy faith that might be helpful to some.
But if you remove one brick. Just one brick to examine or question, the whole wall comes tumbling down.
Wouldn’t you rather jump? Wouldn’t you rather bounce? So don’t let your faith become so rigid that you lose the ability to experience the magic of a buoyant life of faith. Because this is the life Jesus offers.
Jumping can be scary. Jumping involves risk. Jumping requires trust.
But that’s where you find the true joy.
That’s where you find the magic.
Being a Christian today is absolutely awesome. But in some ways we’re getting a bad rap.
Now more than ever, Christians are being challenged for hypocrisy. And to be fair there are many examples of Christians who do awful things- make outlandish statements, advocate for horrific policies, and quite frankly do an enormous amount of harm all under the auspices of their faith. And when challenged, they run for cover under their strict adherence to a doctrine that is oftentimes misunderstood. But it’s carefully constructed with little room for examination.
Like or not, the media has in many ways helped establish this misunderstanding of Christians by giving air time to these folks. And as a result have unwittingly maligned a diverse, inclusive, loving faith.
As a result, there will be people who, when you proclaim yourself as a Christian, will be just like the Pharisees—who seem to track your every movement, waiting for an opportunity to pounce to expose you and your faith as hypocritical.
Because they’re used to bricks. And we’re used to springs.
So rather than keep your faith hidden, use it as an opportunity to teach.
Invite them into a deeper understanding of the Christian faith by sharing with them a God who works miracles in the world not by controlling an army of faithful rule followers but by inviting a host of unique created beings into a magical dance, guided by love and shaped by service to the neighbor.
Help them learn to jump.
Don’t miss the magic. And don’t let them either.
Amen.