Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pentecost 3 - Year B

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

A good question, don't you think?. Perhaps the ONLY question. That wasn't the first time it was asked. And it definitely wasn't the last. It's the question that haunts us. It's a question that maybe even haunts God.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It's a question that all of us ask. Or WILL ask. It's a charmed life that doesn't need to ask that question. At the doctor's office. In the hospital bed. Behind closed doors. In drought-stricken Africa. On the streets of Tehran. This question is prayed through tight jaws and clenched teeth.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It's as if Jesus set up his followers. The disciples weren't anxious to cross the lake. Especially at night. It gets dark on the lake. They didn't know where they were going. And worse than that, they believed a storm demon lived in the water. A demon they didn't want to arouse.

But, it looks like they did. The lightening from the distance hovered over their boat. The thunder drummed in their ears. The rain made their clothes feel like they were made of lead.

But Jesus is sound asleep. Dead to the world. It seems that not even ear-bursting thunder could rouse God's only Son.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus answers, not with a word to his followers, but with a word to the storm. “pephemoso” or “Peace. Be still.”

If you know your bible, you'll know it's the same word – pephemoso - that Jesus uses to subdue the demon-possessed man in chapter 1, verse 25. For Mark's first listeners, this wasn't a story about Jesus having authority over nature. This was a story about Jesus have authority over unseen forces.

“Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They ask each other. “Who is this, that even the storm demons are subdued by his word?” “Who is this that defeats the power of evil?”

Who is this, indeed?

The early church heard this story as about them. The Hebrew people would have remembered the story when God slept while God's people suffered in slavery. Now Jesus was sleeping while the disciples were in danger.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

This question didn't appear out of thin air. Mark's listeners had known danger. They had known suffering. The Romans had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Roman Emperor Nero was crucifying Christians upside down, when he wasn't cutting their heads off or turning them into lion food. They probably wondered if God was sleeping after sending them out in to the forces of darkness and evil.

But, in this story, they hear that they can rouse the power of God. They hear that God does calm the storm. They hear that God defeats the principalties and powers that threaten to destroy them. They hear that God hasn't abandoned them. They hear about hope in the midst of trial.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

That question no longer hung in the air, waiting for someone to take hold of it. The answer came, not with a word to the storm, but with a word to his followers struggling to make sense of what was happening to them.

And I think we struggle with that too. At some point in our lives, sooner or later we'll try to make sense of what's happening to us. A failing marriage. Job loss. A terrible illness. Devastating abuse. Paralyzing loneliness. Grief. We all – at one point – will try to rouse a sleeping God. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I love that this question is in the bible. It's a human question. It's a faithful question. It's a question that takes God's promises seriously and demands that God act in our lives.

That question also reminds GOD of our frailty. Our helplessness. Our weakness. It reminds US that we are not, at the end, fully in charge of our lives. That we need God to bring us to the other side safely.

Today, we baptize baby Sophia. “Sophia” as many of you know, if the greek word for “wisdom.” The bible reminds us that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But the word “fear” doesn't quite describe what it means. A better way of saying it is, “Being in AWE of Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

This 'awe' of God that the bible describes is what the disciples felt after Jesus calmed the storm, subduing the storm demon. “They were filled with great awe” the story says, “and they said to one another, 'Who is this that even the sea and wind obey him?”

In the waters of baptism, God is saying “Be still! STOP!” to all the forces of evil that have their designs on Sophia. In these waters, the power of evil is put to death. And God grabs hold of her with a grip that will never be let go. Today she is marked with the cross of Christ and filled with the power of his resurrection.

So, when the day comes when she asks, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” She'll know that he does.

In what we do here, God is telling us that, no matter what happens to us, no matter what storms we face, no matter what demons threaten to destroy us, Jesus will calm the waters. And guide us safely to the other side.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pentecost 2 - Year B

It’s called “Q” like the letter “Q.” It’s “[quote] a rare gathering of cultural and church leaders from all over the world [unquote].”

If you go on their website, you’ll see that all the big names are there from the church world. Well, at least the big names from the biggest churches. The most published authors and the most celebrated Christian speakers. World famous speakers telling us how to build world famous churches.

The problem is, it’s by invitation only. You have to be either a best selling author or pastor of a mega-church to attend. They want Big Name Christians talking to Big Name Christians. No small church folks allowed.

Or they make it so expensive that most, everyday church folks can’t afford it. Only the rich and successful need apply to this Christian gathering.

Once upon a time such an event would have made me drool on my shirt. After all, I had read TONS of books exploring the cultural landscape that the church is called to inhabit, if not imbibe. After all, they say, how can a church impact the culture for Christ if it doesn’t know what is happening IN the culture?

But lately, when advertisements for such events cross my desk they most often end up in the blue box rather than my inbox.

And it’s not because they’re a bunch of snake-oil salespeople peddling easy answers to life’s toughest questions. Nor is it because they pontificate about a future that God only knows about.

It’s because these types of events, and the life they’re offering, is so contrary to what Jesus wants from us. It’s so opposite of how Jesus lived. At least the way the bible describes it.

Think of this morning’s gospel:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” Jesus asks, “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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.”

Tiny mustard seeds growing into big...shrubs. Shrubs! Not trees. Shrubs. Hardly the image of the kingdom that we’re looking for if we want build a movement like some of those “Q” guys say the churches should.

It would be more impressive if the mustard seed grew into a massive Red Wood that could be seen from the next county, offering shade and sustenance to ALL, impacting EVERYONE’S life, spreading seed until every neighborhood had their own massive Red Wood, which would dominate the landscape.

But Jesus seems to delight in pulling the rug out from underneath our overblown ambitions. He has a way sticking out his tongue at our need for self-aggrandizement and personal empire-building. He seems to glory in mocking our need for social significance and status.

And no one really likes it when he does.

Jesus measures his followers not by how much we build, but by how much we serve.

He measures discipleship not by numbers of people coming to church, but by how many people we’ve loved the way he loves.

Jesus measures faithfulness and fruitfulness, not by how fast we grow but by how many tears we wipe, how many of our hearts break with the hearts of others, how many lives around us experience God’s unrelenting forgiveness.

What would it look like if our church took up Jesus’ mustard seed challenge?

What would happen if we stopped counting noses at worship services, and worried, not about whether the number is increasing or decreasing, but about who is here, and is NOT here, and why?

What would happen if council meetings were less about business and more about prayer?

What would happen if we thought less about getting people to church, and more about helping people grow as followers of Jesus?

There are times when I worry that our aspiration as a church looks more like the Q gathering I talked about earlier, and less about Jesus’ mustard seed kingdom.

The mustard seed is small and it doesn’t become big. It grows underneath our feet when we’re not looking. God's upside down, subversive, kingdom sprouting unseen until it quietly provides sustenance and shelter to those who need it.

In many ways, I see Good Shepherd as the Mustard Seed Church. We quietly, but faithfully, go about God’s business without drawing undue attention to ourselves. Our building is hard to find. Our advertising budget is pretty minimal. We’re not exactly bursting at the seems.

I don’t know about you, but I find that the more we TRY to grow, the more we decline. And when we find that our numbers are going up, it happens when we least expect it, when we hadn’t planned on it.

How could have predicted that Palm Sunday would be our biggest service of the year? Even bigger than Christmas or Easter? In fact, we ran out of communion bread that day.

While numbers in themselves don’t mean success, after all, we could hand out free beer on the way in and draw a pretty big crowd.

But God DOES want people to worship, to pray, to hear God’s message of forgiveness and new life. And God does bring people here. No matter what WE do or don’t do. It’s God’s mustard seed ministry in action.

But mustard seed ministry DOESN’T mean small for small’s sake. Too often, I hear people say that the church isn’t necessarily supposed to GROW, it’s supposed to be FAITHFUL, as if the two were mutually exclusive. When growth happens, it comes from God's handiwork, not our own.

As Sharon Ringe, professor of New Testament (at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC), notes about our reading, the coming of God's rule is "automatic" (automatē) and not of our doing: "the earth produces of itself" as Jesus says in verse 28. It's not us, although we sometimes get to be farmers and assist a bit. But it's God at work, whether it be in the seed growing by itself or the mustard plant taking over.

In the steps along our journey towards God's kingdom of love, I think we're prone to two problems: believing that we're the ones who've got to make it all happen, and believing we're alone in the journey. And Jesus tells us these parables that we might take heart, for the seed is scattered everywhere, and as any glance at a field can tell you, though we've used hands, hoes, and pesticides, the weeds are still here.

God is not going to stop with the project of transforming this world, including us. God is not giving up, and it is God's reign, after all. As the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero said,

We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise....

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

The seed will grow, we may not see how, but it will, and one day – one day, all the birds of the air will rest in its shade.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity - Year B

NB: With a wee bit ' help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource.

Maybe its my adult-onset-ADD, but I like to fidget. But my fidgeting usually involves my iPod and the Solitaire game on it. I noticed the other day that I've clocked over 35 hours of solitaire playing that game over the past year or so.

It's incredible how quickly the time gets eaten up. A few moments standing in line at the grocery store while the guy in front tries to haggle with the cashier. A couple games while waiting for supper to cook. A series of games before bedtime to quiet my mind.

Moment by moment. Game by game. If I'm not careful, my life's summation will be a series of card games that offer little or nothing to the world.

Don't worry. This isn't a sermon about making the most of what we have with the time we've been given. While such would be a worthy message, this isn't really the time nor the place for that since we have the perspective of eternity. Our lives may tick-tick-tick away, but God's life doesn't. As believers we know that we'll have eternity with God.

But does that mean that we can fritter our lives away on something as frivolous as a silly computer game?

Maybe. After all, isn't that what freedom means? To decide for ourselves how we're going to live, whether it's solving world hunger or sitting in front of a TV; creating world peace or playing computer games? Isn't that called “Freedom of choice”? The foundation of our economy and culture?

I can see the parents trying to flag me down, “Shut! Up! We have enough trouble wrestling the joysticks out of their hands as it is, we don't need the pastor giving them ammunition!”

And it's true. Parents have a lot of trouble teaching their children to make good decisions, how to use freedom wisely. Being a parent can be a fearful thing because we know that our actions NOW affect our children into adulthood – and beyond.

Rebekah did a funeral for a fellow in Halifax who died of an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He had just turned 65 and was planning to enjoy a well-earned retirement with his family, especially, his grandkids.

The diagnoses devastated him. Every time Rebekah visited with him he asked the same question, “Why? Why did this happen to me? I eat my veggies, I exercise. I do everything I'm supposed to do. So why is this cancer eating me alive?”

Apparently, the pesticide his family used on the farm growing up killed more than bugs, it caused the cancer he had now. From spraying the fields as a boy, he contends with deadly disease as a man.

It makes me wonder just how many decisions am I dying from right now? How many decisions will kill me?

And not just decsions for me, but for my family, my kids. After all it wasn't Clyde's idea to spray those fields with that pesticide.

It makes you see the world and your actions through newly minted eyes, doesn't it? I know it does for me.

At our house we put up with a few stray dandelions because we don't want to scatter poison on the grass where our kids roll around. We try to buy local food and to support local businesses in order to shrink our environmental footprint and help grow the local economy. We read and learn, read and learn, read and learn, so we can make the best choices for our children's' future.

And yet, as much as we read and learn there is ALWAYS more we don't know. Added to the mix is what we can't control. So, life can be a series of anxious choices about a fearful future. We hope our choices matter. And we're afraid that one day we'll see we've made a mistake, and someone we love will be hurt by our choices.

To hard-working, goal-setting and goal achieving, conscientious people like us, perhaps we're here today to hear a different gospel, because we know – somewhere – that we are not fully the sum of our choices. I'm pretty sure it's why I'm hear.

If Easter means anything – and every Sunday is supposed to be Easter Sunday, the Day of Resurrection – then it means that I'm not the only person busy choosing and deciding and acting in the world. God is ALSO choosing, deciding, and acting in the world. And God's choices and actions always trump our choices and actions.

It seems to be that our greatest temptation is to live as though God doesn't exist. We're “functional atheists.” Saying we believe in God but living, working, deciding, acting as though we don't believe God does.

I don't think we're consciously doing it, but I think it's easier to live according to our own understandings of how the world works, rather than to conform to the expectations of some unseen deity. Many of us live anxious lives and we want to do something about it NOW rather than wait for God to intervene in our lives.

When we learn the global ice caps will melt 40 years sooner than previously expected, we cruise the ads for a Prius and change the lightbulbs in our houses. When we read about the 30 000 children who died last night of malnutrition and hunger related diseases, we boost our giving to Canadian Lutheran World Relief. In other words, we want to ACT!

And that's a good impulse. I think that impulse to act comes from God. Even when we have a healthy dose of self-interest thrown into our actions, God still can use those impulses. Even when we are a bundle of mixed motivations, God uses even our darkest desires and creates something beautiful.

I think this is what Paul was talking about in today's second reading when he said:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Certainly, by God's grace, our actions DO matter. But God's actions do as well. Even more so.

And I think we need to be reminded that most of what we do is in RESPONSE to what God has done, is doing, and will do. God has asked us, in the first chapters of Genesis, to join in creation, to be co-creators with God, to participate in what God is already doing.

It's not ultimately OUR choices that matter, but God's choices. The world is in our hands. But maybe more importantly, the world is in God's hands. And that's why we have hope.

I think that's what John was getting at when he reminded us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

It's the world God loves. It's the world God saves.

May this be so among us. Amen.