Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Anchored in faith

Image result for jesus in boat during storm
Peace Be Still by He, Qi
Pentecost 4B, June 21, 2015
Mark 4:35-41
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In today’s gospel, a great storm arises. Some of the disciples grew up on and around boats, so for them to be afraid enough to think that they’re going to die, it must have been quite the storm. Of course, even with all their experience, they were simply fishermen on a simple boat: no life jackets, no radios, far from land. This storm pushed them beyond their comfort zones, right into fear and panic.
Storms have a tendency to do that- to push us to our limits and overwhelm us as we marvel at the power of wind and weather. As 17th century English poet George Herbert wrote,
 “He that would learn to pray, let him go to sea.” 

 But the storms of life don’t always come out on the water, and there are storms of other kinds beyond rough weather.
The Storm at Sea by C. Malcolm Powers
Think of most days of your life- going along in the normal way, then out of nowhere, you find yourself in unexpectedly deep waters, with circumstances beyond your control, and you’re unable to continue in your usual course. At this point, there are some common reactions: panic, fear, blame. With the disciples, we cry out in some version of their question to Jesus, “We are perishing, don’t you care?” We may wonder, “Where is God? Why doesn’t God save me?”
Jesus responded, “Have you still no faith?”  Maybe Jesus thought that he and the disciples had gotten past that question, that they were farther than that in their learning.
But to give the disciples credit, they own up to their lack of faith, as if to say in answer to Jesus’ question, “Have you still no faith?” they say, “yep, that’s the one. This is where we are. We can’t pretend. We lack faith. The boat is sinking. Help!”
Santosa Hari's Jesus Stilling the Tempest
This is where many of us get fouled up, tangled. We pretend that things are better than they are, even when we know they are bad, even when they are beyond our capacity to fix, change, or even wade through. We insist on keeping up appearances. And for what? Sooner or later, a sinking boat is obvious, and by then, appearances don’t matter in the least.
So how do we get out of the stuck places of our lives, when we’re filled with panic and tangled up in blame? Like the disciples, we can get honest with our selves, with our God, and with each other, that the situation is unmanageable, that we need help. Pride has to go so that faith can be born.
That word, faith, by the way, it’s one of those words that people toss around a lot as if everyone knows what it is or how to get it. Martin Luther wrote in his explanation of the Apostles Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith then, is not about blindly believing things we cannot see, but is rather a gift from God, a relationship that begins with God. It's God, reaching a hand out to us, and God's always reaching toward us. So faith is not something we can make or do or perfect or even lose because it’s a relationship given to us, and it’s always there, even if we can’t see it or feel it.

So when we’re in storms of our own, God is right there with us and will never turn away from us in our need. That means that we can be bold in confessing our weaknesses and fears to God. We can admit that we don’t have it all together.

Last week, I read a short interview by the photographer of Humans of New York. The guy he interviewed told this story:  “Seven years ago, I was sitting on the ledge of a thirteenth floor window. I’d tried to quit drinking so many times but I couldn’t do it, and I’d finally given up. My mind was racing through all the shameful things I’d done, and I kept hearing this voice saying: ‘Jump you piece of [garbage]. Jump you piece of [garbage].’ So I put my hands over my ears and started rocking back and forth on the window ledge. Suddenly I heard this small, still voice: ‘Say a prayer,’ it said. And I didn’t want to hear it. It was kind of like your mother knocking on the door while you’re watching porn. But then I heard it again: ‘Say a prayer.’ So I started praying, and I totally surrendered, and I felt an evil presence leave me. And I just kept saying: ‘I can’t believe you still love me. I can’t believe you still love me.’ Then I cleaned up my room, threw away my baggies of coke, took a shower, and went to work.”

Your moment of crisis may not be as dramatic, but moments of change happen all the time. You know them by the edge of discomfort they bring. This last week, I felt them as I was practicing docking my sailboat. I saw it in my son as he practiced swimming. Think of the last time you felt that edge of discomfort, when you weren’t competent at doing what you had to do. Maybe you were getting in the driver’s seat for the first time or trying out a new sport. Or maybe you were in new territory in a relationship, opening up and sharing deeply for the first time. Those experiences are often uncomfortable, but they are exactly where growth happens. That growth happens best when we can be honest about where we are about how uncomfortable it is and then be encouraged by an accepting teacher.

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The exact opposite of what it means to be community
As a community, we come together, not because we are perfect or have it all together, but because we support one another in our lives of faith. We are all in this boat together, learning to trust God more and more. Being in community with each other means that we have people with whom we can be honest. None of us is perfect and we are all committed to supporting one another in growing in relationship with God.
As we encounter difficult times in life, we affirm together that God is with us, that God Immanuel stands with us in our fears and calms the raging storms.

A better image of the church, but missing almost all the women
As the Body of Christ, we say to one another, “Peace be with you.” As the Body of Christ, we say to you, “Jesus loves you.” As the Body of Christ, we remind one another that God does not give up on you, that you are accepted, loved, and forgiven. We commit to this way of life as a community when we say those words, “yes, with the help of God.”

Confident in the loving acceptance of our God, let weather storms together, encouraging one another, speaking boldly the truth that is on our hearts, and growing a grace-filled community. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Room in God's Roost

Pentecost 3B, June 14, 2015
Mark 4:26-34 26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

A few weeks ago, I went on a communion visit to one of our parishioners who has a hard time making it to church. She graciously welcomed me into her home, and when I sat on the couch, she insisted I take the easy chair facing the window, the better to enjoy the many birds swooping down to feast at her bird feeders. As we chatted about life, her memories and important relationships, our conversation was punctuated by comments about the birds outside.

Image result for steller's jayWe saw a whole variety of birds, all feeding in apparent harmony, taking turns at the feeders.  But then the most beautiful blue bird arrived. He pushed his way onto a feeder, scaring off the smaller birds.  As beautiful as he was, the Stellar’s Jay was not a very good neighbor.

Do you know any people like Stellar’s Jays? How are you doing with living alongside them? Or maybe you are courageous enough to admit that you might be the jay yourself.

In our gospel and in our Old Testament readings for today, we have parables about birds of the air, winged creatures of every kind. The promise is that they will all roost together, that God will give them all a resting place. The chickadees and the owls, the wrens and the jays.

In parables, we come to understand the world around us through stories. Parables break us open and break us out of stuck thinking.

The parable we hear from Jesus today is that of the mustard seed. A common interpretation of this parable is that small things can accomplish much. And that is one meaning of the parable, to be sure. But parables are meant to contain multiple truths.

Mustard seeds were not a seed that farmers planted intentionally. In fact, it was a weed. So why does Jesus talk about sowing a mustard seed? In Jesus’ time, it had been 5 generations since the Romans had come to town. People were losing hope that 
anything would ever change, that God would or could rescue them. Yet they kept hope alive, even though times were desperate. In the whole region of Galilee, only 3 landowners owned most of the land. And the descendents of the former owners? The lucky ones were tenant farmers. Most were day laborers, lining up outside of their version of the parking lot of Lowe’s hardware.

Those day laborers knew they needed a job to feed their families, so they would fill their pockets with insurance of next year’s work. They filled their pockets with 
mustard seed, and as they worked, they sowed the seed. It not only insured the need for workers in the next year, it also probably felt pretty good to be thumbing their noses at the owners and the Romans who had stolen the land.

Five Birds in Garden Tree by Karen Fields
But Jesus does not simply leave the shrub of  the mustard seed as a symbol of resistance. It becomes something more- a symbol of God’s peace.  Using the image of the tree that becomes the roosting place for every bird of the air, every winged creature, Jesus revives the imagery from the prophets.  The mustard shrub remains a symbol of resistance, but Jesus makes the point that resistance is not the end, God’s peace is. The point of God’s ways is not war but peace. God’s purpose for all things is reconciliation and wholeness, rest and restoration.
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Copyright Dan Erlander 

Jesus tells the crowd and us: Go sow the seeds of resistance, but when you are done, know that God will make room in the tree for all the birds, even the Stellar’s Jays, even the Romans.
There is room for everyone in the branches of God’s shrub. There is room for us and there is rest for everyone.

So our job is to be a bird in God’s tree, participating in the coming of God’s kingdom, making room for one another, insomuch as we are able. This is our prayer every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. In his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther  wrote: In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.  

In a moment, we will bless our graduates and give thanks for them. As they go out to work in the world, they will confront bullies and aggression.  May they be strong, sowing seeds of resistance, and may they also know God’s love for their enemies.

 I pray for them and for us: May we all be part of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, and may God’s grace and mercy restore us and unite us. Amen. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Because we are part of God's family

Pentecost 2B, June 7, 2015
Mark 3:20-35
20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain Jesus, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
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28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
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This week I was chatting with a neighbor about her family. She was marveling that she is now the last of her siblings to be alive, and also currently the matriarch of several generations.  She reflected that her family values: “Never think you’re better than anyone else. Always treat people how you want to be treated. Keep on doing the right thing no matter what anyone else says or does.” She watched her father instilling those values in her siblings as a child, and now she sees great-grandchildren living those same values out, even as the circumstances have changed, and even though it hasn’t always been easy over the years. Although that great -great-grandfather died decades ago his enduring legacy of humility and kindness has led to stronger community relationships and a tradition of service.

In the case of that family, the values they live by have been a blessing for them and for the community around them. But it’s not always that way. Not every family is willing to stay strong in the face of adversity. Think of the situation we heard in the gospel. Jesus was out preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons.  In verse 21, Mark tells us, ‘When his family heard it, they went out to restrain Jesus, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”’

And what was Jesus doing that made people think he had gone out of his mind? He was taking a new role in the community, re-ordering the hierarchy, restoring outcasts to their place in the community, and nullifying the rules that kept people on the outside. People were saying, “Isn’t he a carpenter’s son? Who does he think he is to be preaching with authority?” Here was one of their own who seemed to be stepping out of his place.

Jesus had stepped out of his place.  And his family came to put him back into it. I wonder what they feared?

Image result for god's familyWhen I went to visit Dylan's family to prepare for today’s baptism, we talked in depth about the commitments that his mom and dad made today.  Baptizing their child means not only covering him with God’s blessing, but also acknowledging that he is part of two families- the family into which he was born, and God’s family, into which he was baptized this morning. Being part of God’s family brings an element of the unknown into Dylan’s life, and requires faith on his parent’s part, as they entrust Dylan into God’s keeping.
When we take the baptismal covenant seriously and live by it, our lives may be turned upside down, and we may find ourselves stepping out of family traditions and into new roles in our community. When we bring our children to the waters of baptism, we promise that we will nurture them in faith so that our children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. As part of Jesus’ family, his brothers and sisters, we have family values that we share the word of God’s love, that we heal and restore community, that we work for justice, and we do so without considering the cost.
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Image result for greenpeace volunteerAs part of his baptismal life, it could be that someday Dylan might come home at 18 and tell his parents that he has enlisted in the military to protect the vulnerable and to restore peace. Or alternatively, his faith might call him to become a Greenpeace protestor or a Peace Corps volunteer.  Either way, today, Dylan's parents have promised to support him in whatever God has called him to do.

Jesus claims us as brothers and sisters, redefining kinship to include all of us who do the will of God. The will of God defies our understanding or our definition, and following it may take us into unexpected places and on unimaginable adventures. We may be called to love our enemies, serve the poor and criminal, care for the vulnerable, give away our riches, or even take up our cross and follow Jesus. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that we can never predict where the Spirit will lead us.

Author Annie Dillard may have put it best. She writes, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Whatever crazy or unexpected things might happen in this life of faith, we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, are here to support one another and to live out the legacy that Christ gives to us- to love one another, to forgive sins and work for justice and peace, and to proclaim the good news of God’s love. Amen.