Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 8

Pentecost 8, 2018
Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Okay, it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to point out:  That was a bizarre story we just heard!  I mean, it honestly pained me to say, “The Gospel of the Lord,” just as much as it probably pained you not to put a question mark after “Praise to you Lord Christ?”  How can we even end up having this as the entire Gospel reading for today?  Well, of course, the Revised Common Lectionary committee gave us this reading for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost.  But really.  Is this any way to start the eighth week of summer vacation?  Really?

Let’s review . . . Herod, who is sort of the local governor of the Jews hears about Jesus and his disciples, and the amazing things they are doing, and everybody’s got a different opinion about what is going on.  Some say that John the Baptizer is giving Jesus the power, and others are saying Jesus is really Elijah the prophet coming back to usher in the kingdom of God.  But Herod . . . Herod has a totally different idea.  Because Herod has a very guilty conscience, that’s why.  Herod responds how any of us do when we feel guilty.

Imagine you are driving down some dark road, and you accidentally run over a cat . . . Well, if you see some cat hanging around your house late at night, looking in the windows, you’d probably start to have some strange thoughts about being haunted by the cat’s ghost.  Or, put it another way, Edgar Allen Poe didn’t have to make up his guilty-conscience stories.  You just look around and talk to your neighbors, and before long you have a long list of material from people who feel guilty enough that they are being persecuted by someone or something that anyone else would say is long gone.

So, in this gospel text, we hear Herod say, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."  Cue the scary music and dark forest right?  But people hearing this story for the first time would be asking, “When did Herod have John the Baptizer beheaded?”  And then the screen becomes misty, and we flash back to a party at Herod’s house in order to answer that question:  Why is Herod so convinced that John is coming back to haunt him?  You wanna know why?  Oh Mark will tell you why . . .

Herod was living in sin with his brother’s wife, whatever exactly that means.  And John the Baptizer has called him out on it.  Told him that it was wrong to live that way.  Herod has John thrown in prison, but does not have him killed because, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

I find this fascinating.  Almost like Herod knows John is sent by God.  He fears him, but he is intrigued by him.  He likes to listen to him, even though John is telling him things he does not wish to hear.  Almost like, by keeping John locked up in his prison, Herod has his own private spiritual advisor or something.  And for those who remember the story (or the musical I happen to despise), Joseph and his coat of many colors is a similar tale.  At least up to this point.

And then, Herod throws this party.  His daughter, Herodias (same name as her mother, Herodias) does some impressive dancing--you know, how you make your kids show off when you have guests--and then Herod is so proud and boastful that he promises her anything.  Herodias goes to Herodias and asks what to ask for.  The mom, who hates John the Baptizer, tells her to ask for John’s head, and . . . Well, you know what happens then.  Great story huh?  Makes you feel all inspired I bet.

It’s a story that begs for a superhero, doesn’t it?  A case where we want John’s disciples to show up and bust him out of prison right before the guards come to behead him.  Some nick-of-time example that evil will not win out over good.  We want the lesson to be that Herod and his stupid ego and hate-filled wife will not win the day, because that’s not the way stories are supposed to end, right?  John speaking truth to power is supposed to make him loved and respected, not headless in a dungeon.

Which raises the question that I really want to ask.  The elephant that is not in the room, in this case . . .
Where is Jesus in this story? 
And the silence that follows that question tells us all the answer, right?  If I say, “Tell me a story that isn’t about Jesus,” today’s gospel could be one of them, right?  Jesus is not in this story.  And it’s then tempting for us to say, See?  This is what happens to you without Jesus in your life.  And that is a very dangerous thing to think, because it then sets you up to start thinking that if you do have Jesus in your life, then bad things won’t happen to you.  

Everyone in this room has Jesus in their life.  So, let’s have a little poll.  Raise your hand if anything bad has happened in your life.  Exactly.  So, if Jesus had been there at the party with Herod, would he have stopped John from being beheaded?  Of course, we can’t tell for certain, but I’m thinking the answer is probably no.  Even if Jesus were sitting in the house for whatever reason, Herod still would have had John killed because of his boastful promise.

So now what?  What’s the point of Jesus if he can’t save you from dying?  What good is Jesus if he can’t help you when you are most in need of being helped?  Why follow a Savior who seems unable to save?

Maybe the best way to answer my own question there is to say this:  Jesus is saving up his saving for the big leagues.  Even though God is intensely interested in every aspect of your life, Jesus does not save you a parking spot in front of the store.  Even though Jesus came that we might have life and have life abundantly, we are each still going to face death at some point.  Jesus does not save us from death.

Jesus saves us IN death.  The ultimate truth is that each of us is going to die.  But the greater truth is that each of us will be raised to new life.  God is in the resurrection business, is what it comes down to.  Jesus brings life out of death.  Hope to the hopeless, joy to the sorrowful, life to those who are dead in sin.  Forgiveness.  Jesus does not save us from suffering; but Jesus does save us in our suffering.

Essentially, the point is, bad stuff is going to happen to us.  This is not a new thought for you, I’m sure.  And I don’t need to spend time reminding you of the suffering in the world around us; you’ve seen a newspaper.  Living is a painful business.  And if you come to Jesus looking to avoid problems, or for protection against crazy kings who may have you killed because some little girl asks, well . . . I’m afraid Jesus isn’t going to be much help to you in that moment.  At least circumstantially.

However, if you come to Jesus looking for comfort in the midst of life’s tragedies, and the assurance that you are loved beyond measure, no matter what happens in this life . . . Well, then Jesus is the one you’re looking for.  God is with you every moment of every day, and that is what makes things different.  You have been baptized into the death of Jesus, and you will be raised to new life in the resurrection of Jesus.  And along the way, in the midst of the struggles of life, you can come to this table and receive the reassurance of forgiveness, in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sally Stevenson

Sally Stevenson, July 11, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39
John 14:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 If you mention the name Sally Stevenson around St. Timothy’s Church, people will tell you two things:  Sally was amazing with kids, and Sally walked everywhere.  They didn’t always know where Sally was going, but Sally knew.  Both these things that everyone knows about Sally happened  before my time at this church, but they are still what she is known for.  Being great with kids, and walking everywhere.  If that’s the kind of thing people remember about you and me, we will have done enough with our lives.

By the time I got here, two years ago, Sally was already spending her days at Amherst Meadows, where I would visit her.  Sometimes she was at Mercy hospital for some sort of treatment, and I would visit her there.  As I sat with her, she would tell me about what worried her, and her hopes for other people’s futures.  But she always spoke with confidence about where she was heading, and that she would one day be reunited with her brothers, Tom and Bill.  Sally knew where she was going.

In the gospel reading we just heard, Jesus tells the disciples that he is leaving them, and not to be afraid because they know the way.  And Thomas speaks up and says, Lord we don’t even know where you’re going.  How can we possibly know the way?  And Jesus tells them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  The disciples did know the way, just as Sally knew the way.

Sally was amazing with kids, and she walked a lot, and she knew where she was going, because she knew the way.  And as Jesus says to the disciples, do not let your hearts be troubled.  In God’s house there are many dwelling places, and Jesus has come to walk with Sally to the place he has prepared for her, because she knows the way.  May God give us the confidence to know where we are going, and the comfort to remember that we know the Way.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 7

Pentecost 7, 2018
Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123   
2 Corinthians 12:2-10    
Mark 6:1-13

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As you probably noticed, what we really have are two separate stories in today’s gospel reading.  They seem to be one story, since Mark has this tendency to move from one thing to the next in his particular ADD style.  But there are two very different situations we just heard.  We have Jesus being rejected in his hometown, and then we have Jesus sending his disciples away from his hometown.  They’re kind of one story, but each one could be its own sermon, is my point.

So let’s start at the beginning.  After last week’s amazing healing and dead-raising story, Jesus returns to his hometown, which might be Nazareth, or Capernaum, depending on whom you ask.  And Jesus is doing what Jesus does.  Namely, healing the sick and casting out demons and proclaiming the kingdom of God.  The people are with him, until they remember who he is.  That is, one of their own.  At first they say, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”  So far so good, right?

But then they ask, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter . . .?”  You see the little doubt starting to set in, right?  A man who should be using his hands working with wood is using his hands to do something much greater.  And then the final blow:  “The son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  The neighbors go from astonishment that anyone can do this, to skepticism that someone trained for one thing might also be able to do something else,  to the recognition that they know his family of origin.

It’s a quick downward slide from amazement to familiarity.  (And we all know what familiarity breeds, right?)  And this realization changes things for them.  Knowing that they know Jesus, makes things different.  It’s hard to tell, from the text, at what point they jump off the train, and for what reasons, but several things are at play.

We respect someone for doing amazing things.  We value someone’s incredible deeds, until we know their real position in life.  We admire someone for their contributions, until we know their origin.  How many fairy tales are rooted in the tragedy of someone’s true station in life being laid bare?  Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Ugly Duckling, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and on and on.

We keep these stories with us over the generations because they tell us something important.  Something that we see in today’s Gospel reading.  And that thing is this: Deep down, we don’t want people to be judged by their station in life.  We want people to succeed on merit, not the family they are born into.  We love a story where someone pretends to be worthy and then ends up proving themselves worthy, despite what it says on their resume’.

And then there is the even uglier doubt of the crowd.  This one is based on family, but easily turns racial and even worse.  This doubt starts with You Can’t be somebody, because we know where you come from.  In subtle ways it can just be Wrong Side of the Tracks.  In more obvious ways it can be from the wrong country.  At it’s worst, it is based on skin color itself.  This person can’t amount to anything because of where they come from, be it Nazareth, or Harlem, or Mexico, or Syria.

We have this constant struggle inside ourselves.  We want people to rise above their origins and succeed.  And at the same time, we don’t want anyone to rise too high, or too fast, or without our permission.  We want to be proud of the locals, but we want to be in charge of their rise to fame.  And that first part of the story in today’s Gospel ends like this: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  As if that’s nothing right?  Which immediately makes me ask, if that’s what Jesus did despite their unbelief (lay hands on sick people and cure them), what might he have done if they had believed?  How much did they miss because of their prejudice against him?  We often overlook how much we personally lose out when we keep others out.

So then, we move on to part two of the story: Jesus’ sending out the disciples.  The basic point here, in contrast to what we just heard, is that Jesus sends them out to rely on strangers.  (Notice that it sits opposed to relying on people Jesus knows, right?)  He sends them out, utterly dependent upon those they meet.  No extra nothing; just relying on the kindness of strangers, like the ultimate Blanche DuBois.  The very gospel itself is put into the hands of strangers, and is subject to the whim of their welcome.  Given the treatment Jesus just received, this seems like a bad business plan, to say the least.

But clearly, Jesus has set it up so that hospitality is paramount to the spread of the gospel.  And, thus, being inhospitable will hinder the growth of the church.  It’s an easy step for me to now cajole you into being hospitable, of course.  One can pivot here and put all the pressure on you:  If you do not welcome the stranger, or support the traveling preacher, you are thwarting the gospel.  And those visitors can brush the dust from their feet as testimony to you.  (And, I feel compelled to emphasize, the actual phrase is “testimony to them,” not “against them.”)  Welcoming the stranger now seems at the heart of keeping the message alive.

And this, I’m afraid, is where it’s very tempting to get it all wrong.  I’m going to just tip my hand and admit, the most common interpretation of this passage is this: You must be hospitable.  You must welcome the stranger.  You must be good hosts.  Otherwise, the visitors will shake the dust from their feet and curse you.  (And I say again, the phrase is testimony TO them, not against them.)  If you don’t welcome the stranger, are you cursed?  Is there some voodoo shoe dust nesting on your doorstep that will bring you bad luck?  Of course not!

So how about it?  If you are inhospitable, are you inhibiting the gospel?    Though it would pain lots of preachers to hear me say it, the answer is no.  The gospel will survive and thrive, no matter whether you welcome everyone or no one.  It’s great to offer hospitality, and there are plenty of Hebrew scriptures that tell us the importance of doing so.  But I would take us back to the first part of today’s gospel reading.  By which I mean specifically this:  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

We have these amazing miracles from Jesus, despite their unbelief.  Just imagine what would have been possible if they had believed!  And similarly, you are free to be inhospitable, and to disbelieve.  But what greater deeds might be possible with faith and hospitality?  Do your disbelief and lack of hospitality mean Jesus does not come to you?  Of course not!  Do faith and hospitality make your life better?  Well, if you listen to today’s gospel reading, that seems to be the case doesn’t it?

So, let me put it to you another way: We know that at our best, we do believe, and we are hospitable to strangers.  When the church welcomes visitors, and feeds the poor, and visits the sick, and clothes the naked, and cares for widows and orphans, we are doing what Jesus has told us we should do.  And the world is a better place, and the church is a better place, and we are better people.  Everyone is better off when we practice hospitality.  And that’s exactly why we should.  Because it is good for the world, and brings the kingdom of heaven into the present.

But what about the times when we don’t practice hospitality?  What about the times when Jesus is amazed at our unbelief?  “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  In those times, Jesus comes to us anyway, even when we reject him.  Even when we are at our worst, Jesus does not give up on us.  Jesus still comes to us with healing and forgiveness.  And if you want proof of that, come to the altar this morning, stretch out your hands and you will find the welcoming hospitality of Jesus: In the body of Christ, and the bread of heaven.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Mitzi Ruwadi

Mitzi Ruwadi, July 5, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
John 10:11-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I do not know much about Mitzi’s life other than what I have heard from others, or read in her obituary.  Her active years at St. Timothy Church happened before I got there, but I’ve been her priest for about two years.  I’ve visited her and Ray a few times, more frequently in the final weeks of her life.  But there are two things I know for certain about Mitzi.

First, she loved taking communion.  I don’t think she had the words for why the sacrament mattered so much to her—and, if I’m honest, I feel the same way.  She had a deeply spiritual experience every time she took communion, and it was an honor for me to be the one to bring it to her.

The second thing I know about Mitzi is that she loved the 23rd Psalm.  And many of us share her love of that little piece of poetry.  Maybe it’s the pastoral imagery.  Or maybe it’s the assurance of God’s presence in our lives.  Or may it’s just that final line, about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

But what I really love about Psalm 23 is the actual language of the part that gets translated as goodness and mercy following me.  The Hebrew word that becomes “following” is actually more like chasing, or hunting down.  Goodness and mercy don’t follow us, like a stray kitten.  No, God’s goodness and mercy hunt us down like a tiger.  We cannot escape them, even if we wanted to.

Mitzi lived her life hunted down by God’s mercy and goodness, and she did not mind getting caught.  And receiving that goodness and mercy from God, she turned right around and passed it on to others, her family, and friends, and fur babies, and of course her wonderful home health aids.  Mitzi responded to God’s love by passing it on to others, and I hope you will take inspiration from that and continue to do the same in your own lives.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”  Mitzi knows her shepherd, and her shepherd knows her.  May God give us all the grace to hear the Shepherd’s voice, and to be led to lie down in green pastures beside still waters, where Mitzi now rests in peace.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 6

Pentecost 6, 2018
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, as I hope you remember by now, we’re reading from the Gospel of Mark this year.  As a little refresher course, the Lectionary goes in a three-year cycle, ABC, and those letters go with the first three Gospel books, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, each with it’s own style and emphasis.  Now, we’re in Year B, so Mark is our main text until November, when we’ll start into Year C with Luke.  Mark doesn’t have a lot of the key stories of Jesus’ life (most notably his birth and resurrection), so we often end up having readings from other Gospel books during Year B.

Today was a classic example of Mark’s style of fast-paced storytelling.  The Greek word that gets translated “immediately” comes up three times in today’s reading.  And the chaos and speed of Mark is on full display.  Jesus is heading to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter, and while he’s on the way, there’s another healing inserted into the story.  Things happen fast in Mark.  Immediately fast, in fact.  And, in another classic Mark move, the disciples come across as complete doofuses.  Plus, as always happens in Mark. Jesus does his typical, Don’t tell anyone what just happened here, okay?

All these things are particular to Mark’s way of telling a story.  And, as you may know, Mark’s version was spoken aloud long before it was written down.  Meaning, you’ve got to hold the crowd’s attention as you’re telling it.  All these techniques I just mentioned do exactly that.  In particular, today, this method of interrupting a story with another story.  It’s like saying, So there was this girl who was dying, and Jesus goes with the girl’s father to heal her, but before he can get there, this other crazy thing happens.  So, now you  have two stories going on in your head, and you want to hear how the second one ends so you can get back to the first one . . . And, before you know it, the listeners are hooked.  Welcome to Mark's gospel.

And now that you recall some of Mark’s methods, let’s look at the specifics we just heard.  Other than Jesus and the disciples, we have three main characters in this little snippet.  There’s Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, and his daughter who is sick, and “the woman” who is also sick.  Jairus’ daughter is not really a player in this scene, though she’s obviously important.  So let’s set her aside for now and think about Jairus, the leader, and the unnamed sick woman.

First, Jairus approaches Jesus in the midst of a large and unruly crowd, falls at his feet, and repeatedly asks Jesus to come and lay hands on his sick daughter, so that she may be made well, and live.  Notice that it says repeatedly there.  Those of us with children get this immediately—as Mark might say.  When a child is sick and dying, we are desperate for a solution.  Even if it means throwing ourselves in the dirt in front of some rogue healer and a large crowd of people who know us.  Consider what this Jewish leader is doing here.

He comes to Jesus—the same man some of his fellow clergy are already planning to kill by this time—and he professes his faith in Jesus’ healing power.  Throws himself in the dirt at Jesus’ feet.  Begs Jesus repeatedly to come and heal his daughter.  What it really shows is two things:  The desperation of Jairus to save his daughter, AND, his faith that Jesus can actually do it.  Desperation and trust.  And those two things, desperation and trust, are the themes of this story . . . And the story within the story, to which we now turn . . .

So as Jesus is heading to heal Jairus’ daughter, this woman interrupts the story.  Who is this woman?  Well, the real answer is, nobody.  And especially in that culture, because first of all, well, she’s a woman.  And secondly, she is bleeding in some untold way, and has been for twelve years . . . (Which, you may have noticed is the same length of time that Jairus’ 12 year old daughter has been alive.)  A woman with a hemorrhage is an absolute outsider in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  She is at the top of the list of people to be avoided at all costs.  Or, at the bottom of the list of people you’d consider to be important.

Jesus is headed to the house of a VIP, and he allows himself to be interrupted by an absolute nobody.  And the way she interrupts is stunning.  She says to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."  And she does; and she is.  But look at what brought her to that moment.  She had been consulting with “the experts” to find a cure for her illness.  She has spent everything she had, hoping to be made whole, and hoping against hope to be able to at least remove one of her two stigmas.  She can’t stop being a woman, but she is convinced she can be healed of her illness, if she just touches Jesus’ clothing.

Desperation and trust, just like Jairus.  She is desperate for a cure to her illness.  She has spent everything on so-called experts, and she has nothing left.  She is desperate alright.  But what is even more telling is her trust.  Trust that if she can just touch Jesus’ clothing, she will be made well.  Just like with Jairus, it is a very risky thing to do.  Nobody wants to be touched by this woman, because doing so will make them impure.

She is like a false disease in their midst, and she is probably assuming that she cannot throw herself at Jesus' feet like Jairus did, without risking being beaten and worse.  And yet she trusts that touching his garments will heal her.  Desperation and trust.  Just touch his clothes and sneak away, nobody the wiser.

But, of course, Jesus is the wiser.  And he notices in an odd way.  He feels “that the power had gone forth from him,” whatever that means, and asks, “Who touched my clothes?”  Isn’t that strange?  Of course it’s strange!  And the disciples get a bit snarky and say, Hey Jesus, you see all these people?  Of course someone touched you!  And Jesus ignores them and keeps looking around.

Now here’s a fascinating thing . . . This woman, the one who touched Jesus’ clothes, she is totally anonymous.  Even though Jesus felt “that the power had gone forth from him,” for some reason he doesn’t seem to know who dunnit.  Or maybe he’s pretending not to know.  But either way, this woman could quite easily have slinked off into the crowd, all healed up, no questions asked.

But.  She.  Doesn’t.  She had first come to Jesus in desperation and trust.  And now she returns to Jesus in fear and trembling.  But she didn’t have to come back, see?  She didn’t have to risk having the eyes of this large crowd focused on her.  She is no longer desperate, but she trusts more than ever.  She trusts that Jesus will not treat her as everyone else has.  She trusts that Jesus will see her.  Really see her, as no one has ever done before.  See her as a child of God, made whole through the power of Jesus.  And Jesus does.  He does not address her as someone impure and outcast.  Instead, he addresses her as family.  He says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  This is huge!!!

But immediately (thanks Mark), some people from Jairus’ house come up and tell him, “Your daughter is dead.”  Let’s not bother Jesus anymore.  Jesus can heal, sure, but it’s too late for that.  (And maybe there’s even a subtle hint of, Jesus just wasted his power on that lowly outcast, which means your important daughter could not be saved.)  And Jesus turns to Jarius and says, “Do not be afraid, only believe.”  From desperation and trust, to pure trust.  Same as the woman who was just healed.

And they go to Jarius’ house, where some people laugh at Jesus for saying the girl is only sleeping.  Jesus takes her by the hand, and raises her back to life.  She has no desperation; she is beyond being able to trust; and yet Jesus comes to her anyway.  Dead and never having had faith.  And Jesus comes to her anyway.

Now look again at the different situations of those in the story.  A respected leader and a despised outcast both come to Jesus in desperation and trust.  The whole spectrum of everybody, and Jesus removes their desperation and they are left with trust.  But then, we must also consider the little girl.  She does not come to Jesus in desperation and trust.  In fact, she does not come to Jesus at all.  She dies, without ever knowing Jesus.  And yet, Jesus comes to her, despite the crowd, despite the distractions, despite the scoffing opinion of those who say Jesus cannot raise the dead . . . That it’s too late for her.

It isn’t too late.  It is never too late.  The message is clear: Jesus comes for everyone, not to judge, but to restore to life and wholeness.  Jesus heals when we fall at his feet and beg.  Jesus heals when we touch the hem of his garment.  And Jesus heals when we are lying silently in death.  And what does Jesus tell the parents after he has raised their daughter back to life?  This is the best part of the story.  He tells them to give her something to eat.  A meal.  He has restored her, and wants her to be fed.  Life and wholeness.

She was dead and has been raised to life.  Actual life.  The kind of life where she needs to be fed, like you and me.  And—I like to think—what they offer that faithless girl raised to new life comes with words like this:
The gifts of God, for the people of God.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 4

Pentecost 4, 2018
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Back in the day, people used to make a distinction between the word “raised” and the word “reared.”  Essentially the difference was that, say, cattle were raised, and children were reared.  But over the last fifty years or so, the words have become kind of interchangeable.  Or, I guess it is that “reared” is disappearing.  If you say, “I was reared in Massillon,” people would look at you funny.  The point being, we now typically use “raise” for everything: children, cattle, and crops.  To bring something from a small state to a fully grown state is what we call raising.  We raise funds, raise salaries . . . You get the idea.

But we can make a distinction somewhere in here between things we actually raise, and things that kind of raise themselves.  Sheep, for instance, have to be intentionally raised or they will die . . . from stupidity.  Wheat does not grow naturally, at least not the kind we eat, and without human help, wheat will disappear from the earth.  In cases like sheep and wheat, we need to actively raise them.

And then there are the things that we only sort of raise.  Here I’m thinking of cats, and children.  In the case of cats, if we stopped feeding them, they’d be angry, but they’d work it out.  In the case of children, when our kids were behaving, that’s when I was raising them; when they were not, that’s when their mother was raising them.

And that brings us to the third kind of raising things, which is completely different.  Here I’m thinking about things like dandelions, or squirrels.  If you claim you’re raising a healthy crop of ants and weeds, people would assume you’re being sarcastic right?  In the case of dandelions,  all you need is one family on the block with a broken lawnmower and pretty soon everybody is raising dandelions.  We don’t raise these kinds of things; they invade.

So what I’m trying to do with those different levels of raising is just to point out that we don’t always mean the same thing when we use a word like “raise.”  Sometimes raising something means 24 hour a day involvement.  And sometimes raising something means it’s going to grow whether or not we even notice it.  In today’s gospel lesson, we want to be careful that we don’t mistake the orchids for the kudzu.

Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself . . . .”  The kingdom of God is like someone blowing dandelion seeds across your lawn, see?  Scatter these seeds on the ground, go to sleep and get up, and presto!  Harvest time.  But, of course, that goes against our basic principles of how life works.

As we know, anything worth having is worth working for, right?  If lawns were truly maintenance free, I don’t think people would have lawns, to be honest.  A field of dandelions is actually quite beautiful.  But maybe the reason we hate them is because there’s no pain, and therefore no gain.  We want to work for what we have so we can be proud of the results.  Dandelions don’t need us to raise them, so we don’t want them around.  We want to be able to point to the fruits of our labor, to be the ones responsible for the harvest, when the time comes.

We do not value what comes easy, you know, like when someone scatters seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.  The farmer, the one sowing this seed, has nothing to do with the process at all.  She throws out the seed and goes to bed.  She has no right to say she is “raising this crop,” that’s for sure!  And it’s true; she doesn’t.  Hear that again: The earth produces of itself.  This crop is going to grow, with or without her help.  All she has to do is show up at harvest time and cut it down.  And in our way of thinking, that just ain’t right.

And then Jesus has another example: The kingdom of God 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."

Now here’s one we can get behind, right?  Tiny little mustard seed grows into a huge oak tree that brings shade to the whole neighborhood, and I can then stand out front with a rake and receive the admiration of my neighbors.  We often use this mustard seed analogy.  Fits with our thinking.  The Little Engine that Could kind of thing.  Underdogs, David and Goliath, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it’s all the same . . . Don’t underestimate something just because it’s smaller than the others.  If you’ve ever seen my wife angry, you know what I’m talking about.

We resonate with this idea of a tiny little seed growing up into a huge gigantic tree.  It just fits with all our stories of human endurance, and strength of character and stuff.  Incredible things can be done if we just put our minds to it, right?

However, what Jesus says about the mustard seed is nothing like that.  Jesus says, 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.

A mustard seed does not grow into a towering redwood.  It is a shrub.  It is an invasive species that takes root and spreads out in an ugly tangled mess.  A scraggly bunch of mustard shrubs coincidentally give off the same bright yellow of the dandelion.  And they require just as much work when it comes to raising them.  One tiny seed and before you know it you’re the French’s Mustard Company.  The point is not that the little seed grows into a towering beauty of symmetrical tree-ness.  The point is that this tiny seed grows outward and covers everything.  It’s sprawl cannot be stopped.  The kingdom of God invades every aspect of everything

And, once again, there is no “raising” of the mustard shrubs.  Nobody can walk by in a couple months and say, “Look what I raised!”  The seed is planted and the planter no longer matters.  Plus, the seed is thrown on the ground!  Not even planted in the earth.  In neither of these cases is there any room for pride of accomplishment.  And that’s really the underlying point.

The kingdom of God is like this: YOU do not raise it.  You do not control it.  You do not do anything.  It happens in spite of you, when it comes right down to it.  The kingdom of God happens for your benefit, but is out of your control.  The kingdom of God is like a field full of dandelions.  The kingdom of God is like skunks, squirrels, and chipmunks.

And so what does that make us?  What is our part to play in this kingdom?  How do we claim some ownership of the whole thing?  You know, what about us, growing the kingdom here in Massillon?  Jesus said of the mustard seed, “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."

You and I are making our nests in the shade; that’s what we’re doing.

The kingdom of God is all around us.  Growing while we sleep, invading every inch of creation.  And you and I are like little birds that build our nests in the shade God provides.  We don’t need to be out there planting mustard seeds.  We need to be inviting the other birds to come and rest in the shade.  Come into the kingdom and you will find rest for your souls.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 3

Pentecost 3, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You know how when someone is trying to tell you something, but you can’t stop thinking about something very strange they said a minute ago?  Something that worries you?  Like if I called up my wife and said, “The kitchen isn’t completely destroyed, but let’s talk for a while about where you’d like to go for dinner this evening.”  We wouldn’t get too far through the possibilities without her saying, “What do you mean the kitchen isn’t completely destroyed?”  And in that same spirit, let’s talk about this . . .

Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  Kind of jumps out at you, doesn’t it?  Makes you wonder, “Have I blasphemed against the Holy Spirit?”  If Jesus says it’s the one unforgivable sin, then I definitely don’t want to be guilty of that!  Well I can tell you straight away that if you’re worried about this unforgivable sin, it means you are not guilty of it.  We do not come to faith on our own; we do not decide to follow Jesus.  No, the Holy Spirit calls us to faith, nudges us in the direction of God, gives us the desire to follow Jesus.  So, the very fact that you are sitting in this room today tells you that you have not blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.  You don’t have to worry about this sin.  Now then, let’s talk about someone else’s sin . . .

In the first reading this morning, we heard the familiar story of Adam and Eve.  Or, at least part of it.  Adam and Eve have already disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and are now hiding from God in the garden.  And today’s reading starts with God finding them hiding in the closet with a blanket over their heads so God can’t find them.  And then we get the first instance of what-aboutism, and throwing your companions under the bus, and kicking the dog.  You may think those are new concepts, but we have them right here in the first book of the Bible.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.

However, Adam is really swinging for the fences here when he says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”  He blames both “the woman” and God.  As though, in the previous chapter, when God was creating everything, God had said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner . . . so that he has someone to blame besides me when he messes things up.”  Adam hasn’t been with Eve for more that a few verses and he is already blaming God and her for his own mistake.  It’s like you buy your kid a new car, he crashes it, and then blames you for giving him a car.

Anyway, then Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent is cursed forever for working against God’s plans.  And, you know who else worked against God’s plans?  The scribes in today’s Gospel reading; that’s who.  As we heard,  “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.”  (This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where the name Beelzebul comes up, but that demon is sort of like the ruler of demons.)  So the scribes are saying that he has the authority to cast out demons because he has a bigger demon.  Which is silly, of course, and Jesus shows them that it doesn’t make sense by quoting Abraham Lincoln and saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Or, wait.  That was Lincoln quoting Jesus.

But what really matters here to them is that the crowds have gathered around Jesus, such that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.  So the scribes come down to sow doubt into the people.  Clearly, everyone agrees that Jesus is actually healing people and casting out demons.  That’s why the crowds are there.  So the scribes figure the way to get the crowds to abandon Jesus is to call into question the authority of these miraculous deeds.  Good things are happening, as everyone can see, so their strategy is to get people to think Jesus is with satan, to undermine their faith in him, and to say that he is insane.  And the response to that from Jesus is, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  So, again, if you, personally, are not trying to align Jesus with satan, and undermine people’s faith in him, and say that Jesus is insane, then you are not guilty of the unforgivable sin.

Taken as a whole, in this quotation, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness”  We get all distracted by the second part of the sentence, because it worries us.  Worries us needlessly, as I have already pointed out.  But the first part of that sentence is the good news.  The very good news!  And it’s even better than the translation we have.  Because in the Greek the phrase is, “all will be forgiven to the sons of men, the sins and the blasphemies which they might have blasphemed.”  All will be forgiven.  All.  That means even throwing your companion under the bus will be forgiven; even blaming God for giving you that companion to throw under the bus will be forgiven.  All will be forgiven.  Full stop.

And that sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  If everything will be forgiven, what is to prevent people from acting badly?  If all will be forgiven, why should I bother to be a law-abiding citizen?  And all I can say to that is, if the only thing keeping you from being a criminal and a jerk is that you think you might not be forgiven . . . well, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. 

But, of course, we all know that civic and criminal law works that way, yes.  Fear of punishment keeps us from doing things that will harm other people.  But God is not part of the Ohio Revised Code; when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” he’s not talking about heavenly jail cells.  And so hearing that all will be forgiven should be good news to us.  That’s the kind of thing that should make us crowd around Jesus such that Jesus and his disciples cannot even eat. 

And then we have that other uncomfortable part of today’s reading.  The part where Jesus seems to turn his back on his family.  His family sends word that they are outside, and Jesus asks, “Who are my brothers and sisters?”  And as we heard, “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.”  Is he speaking metaphorically when he calls those seated around him his family?  Well, of course he is.  But here’s the important thing about that.

The people sitting around Jesus, just listening to him, are doing the will of God.  The people who accept his miraculous deeds of healing are his family.  On the other hand, the ones who say he is working with satan or that he is insane are not doing the will of God.  They are blaspheming the Holy Spirit, because they are denying who Jesus is.

If you want to do the will of God, sit near Jesus.  If you want to be part of Jesus’ family, embrace his words and healing.  Don’t try to call Jesus away from the people; don’t try to undermine his authority.  Just sit and bask in the glow of Jesus.  Stay close to him.  And in that, you will be doing the will of God.