Jesus Rescues!

This past week at St. Paul’s was Vacation Bible School, with the theme, “Shipwrecked: Rescued by Jesus.” I’ve often heard it joked about that people get more out of the children’s sermon than the normal one. While it is a joke, I think there’s something there. Children’s sermons are kept deliberately simple, but contain the really important basics: God loves you, share God’s love with others, God loves you, God takes care of you, and did I mention God loves you? “Big People” sermons can sometimes get bogged down and miss this simple message. While I hope that all of my sermons are discernible, I purposefully kept this one simpler than most, trusting that what we teach our children is something we need to hear, too. (If you’re curious about Stephen Ministry, please let me know!)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past week was Vacation Bible School here at St. Paul’s, and we spent our time hearing stories about how when we’re in some kind of trouble: whether we’re lonely, or worried, or struggling, or we’ve done wrong, Jesus can rescue us!

And actually our story for Wednesday was our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus calming the storm and stilling the seas. As each group of kids came to Story Time, I asked them: what are you afraid of? The disciples in this story are really scared, what scares you sometimes?

Our preschoolers shared that they were scared of things like spiders, being alone in the dark, getting shots at the doctor. As the groups got older, their fears changed. Being left out. Not doing well at school. Disappointing their parents. Failing.

Everyone has fears. I won’t make you raise your hand and share yours. Maybe some of the kids’ fears are things that you worry about, too. Being alone, being left out. Failing. Disappointing those who are depending on you.

You probably have other fears, things that hopefully kids don’t have to worry about. Maybe you’re dealing with a health issue, or a family member or a friend is. Maybe you’re wondering how to best support and care for aging parents. Maybe your kids are leaving home for the first time and you worry for them. Maybe you worry for the future, worry what kind of world we’re creating and leaving for those who come after us. The news is certainly full of things that make me very scared.

We all are afraid sometimes. There’s no way around it. And sometimes it can be so overwhelming that we want to cry out with the disciples: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you even notice, God? Do you not care that my loved one is dying? Do you not care that I don’t know how I’m going to get through this struggle?

Of course, when Jesus is awoken by these cries, he does care. He stands up and stops the storm and calms the winds. But then he says something that’s interesting: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I think it’s pretty obvious why the disciples are afraid. They think that they’re going to drown. But they’ve seen Jesus do great things already. He’s healed people, he’s cast out demons. And when the storm threatens to overwhelm them instead of trusting in the power of Jesus, they are overcome with fear.

There’s a moment in Game of Thrones, both the book and the show, where a young boy named Bran asks his father, “Can a man be brave, even if he is afraid?” And his father responds: “That’s the only time a man can be brave.”

“Can a person have faith, even when they are afraid?” Jesus seems to make it an either or. Either you are afraid, or you have faith. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think what Jesus is getting at is that even when you are afraid, you can still respond in faith. It’s not an issue of whether or not you’re afraid, but how you respond. Are we paralyzed by our fears, like the disciples? Unable to truly do anything but panic?

Or, can a person have faith, even when they are afraid? That’s maybe not the only time, but one of the times when our faith can shine through the darkness of fear and truly be a beacon of hope and guidance.

When we talked about this story with the kids this week, we used our catchphrase of the week: Jesus rescues! When you worry, Jesus rescues! When you’re lonely, Jesus rescues! When you struggle, Jesus rescues! We tried to be clear though, what that rescue is and what it isn’t. Our faith doesn’t magically make our fears go away. As adults we know that. If only that were the case.

But our faith makes it possible for us not to be paralyzed by our fears, not to let our fears or our struggles be the things that rule us. That control us. Our faith means that we are never alone in our fears. God is with us. Yes, God cares. God cares that we are afraid. God cares that we are struggling. And we are never alone. And a God who cares cultivates people who care. Part of our most basic Christian vocation is the calling to care for each other.

After the hymn of the day, we will be recognizing our Stephen Ministry’s ten-year anniversary. Our Stephen Ministers are people from our congregation who have been trained to help provide support and Christian care-giving to those who are struggling or in need of help. Some of those who receive care are dealing with grief or coping with an illness. Others are trying to handle a change in their life situation.

Whatever the situation, our Stephen Ministers are here to provide one-on-one care for a period of time. When we struggle, we do not have to do it by ourselves. If you think you might benefit from a Stephen Ministry relationship, please reach out to me or to one of Stephen Leaders, Beth McElvenney and Hazel Pelletrau.

“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asks? Well, much like the disciples, the reasons for our fears seem obvious. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. But, to borrow from VBS, when we are afraid, Jesus rescues! Not by making our fears disappear, but making it so that we might live by faith in spite of our fears. Making it so that we might live knowing we are loved. Knowing we are not alone. Knowing that our fears don’t get the last word. God’s love does. Amen.

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Like a mustard seed

Below is my sermon from June 17, 2018. It focuses on two of Jesus’ parables: the seed growing on its own, and the mustard seed. But I also include an brief introduction to parables and the kingdom of God in general. A lot of Jesus’ parables can make us uncomfortable. That’s good! He was trying to challenge a lot of the assumptions of his listeners in way designed to make them think. When you feel uncomfortable with the emphasis of the parable, don’t run away from it, see where it might be leading you.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus starts so many of his teachings with this phrase. It’s the beginning of many of his most well-known parables. The kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great worth. The kingdom of God is like yeast in flour. The kingdom of God, we hear today, is like a seed that grows on its own. The kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds, with exponential growth in its future.

At the end of these parables, we hear that Jesus did not speak to the listening crowds except in parables, although he did explain everything privately to his disciples. So, what is a parable? How are supposed to understand them? And wouldn’t things have been a lot easier if Jesus had just explained publicly the point he was trying to get across?

Yes, I’m sure it would have been easier. But I’m not sure it would be better for us. Jesus’ parables are stories, or short comparisons that put together seemingly unrelated things. The kingdom of God and a seed. The kingdom of God and a gardener. The kingdom of God and a woman baking bread. Ordinary things.

Parables don’t have easy answers. We rarely get an explanation of what the parable means, and so we are left to struggle with them. Parables often question our assumptions and shed new light on things we accept without question. They ask us to see with new eyes.

Yes, Jesus could have simply told us the answers. And we could have memorized them and known them. But as any student who’s just finished their finals could tell us, learning by rote memorization will only get you so far. It might get you a good grade on the test, but you’re more likely to forget it than something you had to struggle with, experiment with, and come to conclusions about yourself.

And so Jesus tells us parables. Because the Kingdom of God is not like having an easy answer, but the Kingdom of God is like wrestling with our assumptions. The Kingdom of God is like testing our preconceptions. The Kingdom of God is like viewing things a new way.

I should say something, just briefly, about the “Kingdom” of God. That’s the traditional translation for what Jesus says, but it might not be the most helpful. We often think of kingdoms as places, nations, countries. Jesus isn’t talking about a physical place, but a different way of being. A way where God’s will for humanity is being realized. Perhaps a better word might be the reign of God. Whenever we are living in the new reality inaugurated by Jesus, we are living in the Reign of God.

So, what do these parables have to say about what the Kingdom of God—the Reign of God—is like? It is like a plant growing on its own, automatically. It both surprises and mystifies us. The farmer is able to help the seeds along but, at the end of the day, cannot force them to grow. They must do that on their own.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which, when it is grown, becomes a mighty shrub. So big even that birds will nest in its branches. A mighty shrub. Never say that Jesus isn’t funny. He could have compared the kingdom of God to the cedars of Lebanon, towering over the landscape, majestic and imposing. But instead he picks the biggest of all…shrubs.

So, the Kingdom of God isn’t necessarily something majestic or grandiose to look at. At least from our eyes. But it is mighty. Mustard is a weed, you know. It will grow and spread and completely take over a landscape, infiltrating every area. It’s difficult to control, and very difficult to eradicate. It wasn’t something you would plant, or try to cultivate, for that very reason—you can’t control it.

And Jesus says: this is the kingdom of God. Often unwanted, seen as a nuisance. But once it’s taken root, good luck getting rid of it. Good luck keeping it contained to one neat little area. We cannot relegate the kingdom of God to a “proper” place. We cannot carve out a separate, sacred space for the Kingdom and think that it will not sneak into all the other places as well and take them over, too.

And that includes within ourselves. We cannot partition ourselves and have our faith only impact some areas of our lives. Only be relevant to some of our decisions and not others. There is no such thing as an apolitical kingdom of God. There is no such thing as an economically neutral kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a kingdom of God that is not interested in our lived, embodied existence, in our relationships, in how we treat each other. We cannot separate our faith in Jesus into one neat area of our lives.

When we are faced with moral dilemmas, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with political decisions, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with economic choices, our faith must be part of the conversation. I’m not suggesting that there is only one right answer to any of these difficult questions. But when our faith is not part of how we seek our answer, that is a problem.

Right now, on our southern border, children are being torn away from their parents. Children are being kept in holding facilities by the thousands. There is not an easy solution to the immigration and refugee crisis facing, not just our country, but the world. I’m not saying that there is. But, as people of faith, we must say that whatever the solution will be, it does not start with this. It does not start with dehumanizing children. It does not start with destroying families.

We cannot separate our faith from the real-world situations we find ourselves in. Faith doesn’t work like that. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. It refuses to be kept in a neat and tidy box. It is like the mustard seed, growing and spreading with abandon, taking over wherever it will.

These parables of seeds and growth have both promise and provocation within them. The Kingdom of God comes without our help. Without our even understanding it. What great promise that is! It is not all up to us. Even when we feel as though nothing is happening, the seed is not growing, God is at work. It might be imperceptible, it might be painfully slow, but God is at work bringing about growth.

It is like Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “What do we mean when we say, “Your kingdom come?” “In fact,” Luther writes, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” We ask that the kingdom may also come to us.

We ask that we might have our assumptions challenged. That we might question things we take for granted. That we might see with new eyes, the reign of God. Paul describes what it is like to live in that reign in 2 Corinthians: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

When we pray, “your kingdom come,” we ask that we might see the world through God’s point of view. That we might let God’s kingdom take root in us, knowing ultimately it might get out of our control. Let’s hope it does.

Who do you listen to?

Below is my sermon from June 10, the third Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the readings from Genesis and Mark, which both deal with the question of discernment. How do we determine what is good and what is evil? Or, in my title, who (or what) are you listening to? As I mention in the beginning of my sermon, both of these readings start somewhat abruptly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read from the beginnings of the chapters to get some context.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I was tempted to begin this sermon by starting in the middle, as our readings from Genesis and Mark do today. Sometimes picking up right in the middle of a story can be interesting, but other times, like today I think, it’s often confusing.

This Genesis reading is a really well-known story, and maybe that’s why the powers that be thought we could start in the middle. But the thing about well-known stories is, we often remember our own version of the story, rather than what it actually says, so I’d like to spend a little bit of time focusing on this story of Adam and Eve.

Except they aren’t called Adam and Eve, not yet. They’re just the man and the woman. Prior to our reading, they had been instructed by God to live in the garden, and do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But along comes this serpent, who the Bible tells us is very crafty. And he strikes up a conversation with the woman and convinces her to eat by telling her that eating the fruit will make her like God. And she gives some of the fruit to her husband, who was with her, and he eats, too. That’s a detail we miss a lot. The man is with the woman the whole time. He’s not some unsuspecting bystander, he knows exactly where this fruit is coming from.

And their eyes are opened and they are ashamed of themselves. Ashamed of their nakedness. Ashamed of their humanness. This is where our lesson this morning picked up. Ashamed, they hide from God, who, because of their disobedience condemns the snake to crawl for their rest of its days, and also casts the man and the woman out of the garden.

This story raises so many more questions than answers. Didn’t God know all along that the man and woman would eat this fruit? Why did God put the tree there in the first place? Who created the serpent—God? How are Adam and Eve supposed to know what they’re doing is wrong if they don’t yet have the knowledge of good and evil? Bible stories like this are meant to make us wrestle with big questions—questions to which there are no easy answers.

There’s too many questions for one sermon, and I’d like to focus on just one: how do we discern what is good and what is evil? Or, put another way, to whose voice do we listen? The man and the woman were told one thing by God (do not eat from that tree) and another by the serpent (you can eat that, it’s good). Why did they choose to listen to the serpent over God?

They knew what God said, they knew that God had only been good to them, and yet they did not listen. It reminds me a little of a time when, flying home with my family, I bought one of those huge Toblerone bars in the duty-free shop. Like, five pounds of chocolate. My mom told me, “Don’t eat all of that chocolate during the flight.” I was a teenager. She shouldn’t have even had to tell me that. I knew she was right. But you can all guess where this story is going. Despite knowing that I shouldn’t, I ate all the chocolate. And I still can’t eat more than a tiny piece of Toblerone at a time.

Adam and Eve chose not to listen to God, but instead to listen to the serpent, to listen to their own desires instead of the will of God. Adam and Eve knew what they were doing was against God’s will. They had it pretty easy, if you ask me. They literally saw and talked to God and knew exactly what God wanted of them. And still they screwed it up.

How do we, who don’t have the luxury of hearing directly from God’s lips, decide what is good and what is evil? How do we decide what is from God and what is not? Discernment, making these decisions about good and evil, is not easy.

The scribes in our gospel reading come down from Jerusalem to meet this Jesus who is making such a fuss. And they see his power and they discern that he is from Satan. Now, this story would be easier if the scribes were purely evil. They’re not. They are the educated religious and cultural elite committed to maintaining domestic and religious life in challenging times.

They recognize Jesus’ power: the power that has cast out demons and healed the sick. And yet the scribes confuse good for evil and evil for good. They say that Jesus and his work are evil, are from Satan. Now, Satan is not some little man with a pitchfork and a spiked tail. We don’t think of the devil in that way anymore. But we would be kidding ourselves if we did not acknowledge that, while we don’t believe in a physical devil, there are still powers of evil that continue to seek our allegiance. That continue, like the serpent, to try to make us confuse good for evil and evil for good.

They have even craftier names nowadays. Nationalism, which will tell us that good and evil are relative, so long as our nation is safe; which allows us disregard fellow human beings, simply because they come from another country. Patriarchy, which has its very roots in today’s Genesis reading, tells us that human beings are not equal, and that it’s okay for us to treat some as less than. Racism, which does much the same thing along the falsely constructed lines of race. Consumerism, which tells us that what we have and what we own determines our worth and our power over others. And that insidious idea that comes from so many corners that tells us that we are never good enough: never rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, important enough. We must always be seeking to improve.

These voices are crafty like the serpent, because they usually don’t seem all that evil on the surface. In fact, they often seem good. So how do we know what is good and what is evil? The easiest way to tell might be to look at the outcomes. Listening to these voices of evil sows divisions and alienations—which is exactly what they want. When the man and the woman stand accused by God, things go south quickly.

The man blames the woman, and blames God for giving him the woman in the first place. The woman blames the serpent. And so it goes. The voices of evil which seek our allegiance want to turn us against each other, rather than toward each other. They want us to be divided from each other. A house divided cannot stand. And evil wants us to fail.

But the voice of Jesus, the voice of God, says something different to us: do not be confused. Call evil, evil; and good, good. Do not divide your allegiance, do not divide your very self, but belong to God. The people around him, including his family, thought that Jesus was out of his mind. Maybe he was. But maybe that’s what we need to be, too.

To trust so much in God’s promises that people call us crazy. To believe that all people are made in God’s image, that no one is any less worthy of love and respect because of their gender or the color of their skin or their nation of origin. To believe God when God says that we are enough. That we don’t have to be anything other than what we are to be loved.

There are so many voices seeking our attention, trying to claim us. And it is not always easy to know the good from the evil. Life would be much simpler if it were. The serpent is crafty, but God will not let the serpent get the last word. Let us cling to the voice of God, which says that we are brothers and sisters. Which says that we are enough. Which says that there is always room for more at the table of grace. And which, at the end of the day, when all the other voices fade away, says that we are loved. Amen.

Sabbath

What is the Sabbath? Who is it for? These are the questions that take center stage in our reading from Mark. How are you doing with Sabbath in your life? Who do you see around you that needs to be released in order to experience Sabbath?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Sabbath?” Perhaps it’s the idea of a rest or a break, a respite, or a vacation. Maybe you think of church. The third commandment telling us to “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Maybe you were forced to memorize Martin Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation, and so when I say, “Sabbath,” you immediately think: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn from it.

Or maybe you think of the blue laws that used to be in effect in many states, restricting what types of activities were acceptable practices on Sundays. It wasn’t that long ago that liquor stores were closed on Sundays, and not too long before that that almost every store was closed for a Sabbath rest. But what is Sabbath really? Who is it for, what good does it serve?

These are the questions at play in Jesus’ arguments with some Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. Now, it’s easy to take these arguments and look down on the Pharisees. They seem single-mindedly focused on following the law to the detriment of caring for others. But our gospels do us a disservice in their portrayal of the Pharisees. They are often depicted as very one-dimensional characters, when in fact they were a complex group. In many ways they were a reforming group, trying to help the people of Israel worship God everywhere, not just the Temple. And so they were concerned with the law—how to apply the law in different circumstances. They are doing their best to help people follow the law by interpreting the law.

Jesus is doing the same thing—only he comes up with a different interpretation, and so we have these two arguments about keeping the Sabbath in our reading. Is it lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath, and is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Or, as Jesus puts it: what is the Sabbath about, life or death?

Jesus interprets the law through this lens: The Sabbath is about giving life. And so, life-giving activities are indeed allowed on the Sabbath. What if we could reclaim that idea that the Sabbath is about life-giving? All recent studies have shown that Americans are not really good at Sabbath. We’re working longer hours and seeing it as a badge of honor. A lot of people—myself included—often don’t use all of our vacation days. Every bit of down time is filled with more and more activities: sports, bands, arts. And then there are those who have no option but to work every waking hour, two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. They do not have the privilege or the luxury of Sabbath.

Sabbath is more than just a quick rest—a nap or a vacation. Sabbath rest is oriented towards life and the things that bring abundant life. The first Sabbath ever is in the Genesis account of God creating the heavens and the earth. In six days, God does God’s work: bringing forth life out of nothing-ness, creating order out of chaos, delighting in the goodness of God’s work. And then, on the seventh day, God rests.

God’s work isn’t finished. The story of God and God’s people is only just beginning, and yet God rests. God rests in order to be able to continue to give life and create life. And in our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the reason that God commands the people to keep the Sabbath. Because they were slaves, forced to work every day, they ought to now rest one day a week. And not just them, but all of their slaves, the immigrants in their land, even their animals, need to rest. Need to be rejuvenated. Sabbath is intended for everyone. For all creation.

Jesus says that Sabbath was created for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. I think, because it’s a commandment, we sometimes confuse the purpose of the Sabbath. We start to think of it as something we do to honor God, or to make ourselves “holy.” But God created the Sabbath as a gift to us. Perhaps God knew we’d need to be forced to slow down. God definitely knew that without Sabbath, we would be off-kilter. We would forget that we belong to God and not to our labor. We would forget that we belong to each other, instead of just using each other for gain. The Sabbath is a gift meant to force us to stop and to remember to whom we belong.

When was the last time you took a Sabbath? It can feel almost impossible. The demands of work, of family, of all of our activities can make it feel selfish to take time to be idle. And the demands of our culture can make Sabbath feel like a self-centered waste of time. With all of the very real, moral crises in our nation and world—from guns and school shooting, to the refugee crisis and the separation of children and parents, to the ever-present sin of racism—taking time for Sabbath can feel like being an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

But Sabbath is not an escape. Sabbath is not forsaking the world’s problems. Sabbath is for the sake of the world’s problems. Sabbath rest is rest that anticipates action for the sake of life once again.

In our Gospel story where Jesus ignites these Sabbath controversies, it is not because he does not believe or honor the importance of the Sabbath. In fact, it is because he honors it so much that it is offensive. If the Sabbath is about the people being free, he looks around and asks: who is not free right now? On that day, it was the man with the withered hand, bound by his disability in a time when it meant not being about to work or be a whole part of the community. And when faced with bondage and captivity, Jesus gives freedom.

From what do you need Sabbath? What are you captive to? Is it the constant demands and pressures of your work? Is it the pressure of our social media world, always needing to present the perfect image? Is it perhaps something deeper—are you captive to your own insecurities and doubts? Are you captive to fear of change or inaction?

We all have things that hold us captive. That seek to keep us from being the free people of God. “Stretch out your hand,” says Jesus. Stretch out that part of yourself, whatever it is that is keeping you from being whole. From being healed. As we say in the prayer of confession, we cannot free ourselves. But God can. The good news of Jesus is that God comes to free us from the things that bind us. God freed the people from Pharaoh and God continues to set us free today.

The Sabbath is for us. The Sabbath is God’s great gift of freedom to a world desperately in need of it. And as we are freed by God, given the gift of rest by God, we need to ask as Jesus did: who is still bound? Who does not have Sabbath? Rest is essential—even God rested. We rest so that we might join God in love for the sake of the world. Let us thank God for the gift of Sabbath today. And renewed by that gift, let us join God in love and active service. Amen.