Belief and Unbelief, Repentance and Rejection

 

Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 14     Mark 6:1-13     July 5, 2015

 

It’s always interesting to read what’s actually in the Bible.  In this morning’s stories from the gospel of Mark, do you notice what’s going on?  These are stories of rejection!  Nearly everyone rejects Jesus in his hometown, and Jesus has to prepare his missionaries to deal with rejection when they go out into the surrounding villages.

As the gospel writer of Mark tells the story, Jesus has been teaching and healing and performing miracles.  He has even stilled a storm!  Now Jesus has come back home.  Here’s the thing: he’s among the people who watched him grow up.

Has that ever been a problem for you?  Have you ever come back home and found that you’re immediately slotted back into the role you played when you were a child?  (I have a friend who’s in her 50s now.  But, in her family, she’s the baby!  She’s the youngest of five daughters.  When she was growing up, and the family was preparing Thanksgiving dinner, she was given the job of arranging the celery – because that was all she was considered capable of doing.  Do you know that’s still her role, now, when everyone is working on Thanksgiving dinner?)

In the story so far, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been teaching and healing and performing miracles.  He has even stilled a storm!  But now, back in his home town, he stands in the synagogue and begins teaching the people who watched him grow up, and they reject his teaching.  Is that because they’re not willing to receive him as an adult?  (I know a lot of young adults who chafe at the way “more experienced” older adults patronize them.)  Or, could it be that the people in Jesus’ hometown are upset with the fact the he’s been shirking his responsibility, as a son?  He’s supposed to be taking care of his mother!

(In fact, we’ve already seen that Jesus’ relationship with his mother and siblings is rocky.  Do you remember, a couple of chapters earlier in Mark, how Jesus’ family reacted to his teaching and healing and performing miracles?  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”[1]  Later we read this: Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And 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.”[2]  Don’t you bet Jesus’ family members went back home fuming?  And now, don’t you bet they have told everyone about how Jesus has gone off the deep end?)

No wonder the people in the synagogue would be closed off to Jesus’ high and mighty claims about himself in his teachings!  On the sabbath [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!   Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

It’s a story of rejection, isn’t it?

Then Jesus sends out “the twelve,” to go out with his same power and message, to take his mission out more widely.  They actually have more success than Jesus himself had in his hometown!  So [the twelve] went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  But do you remember that Jesus warned them that they would experience rejection, too?  He tells them: If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

Isn’t it strange to see that Jesus can’t cause people to believe in him?  Jesus’ amazing power seems limited by human unbelief!  And [Jesus] could do no deed of power there [in his hometown], except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.   And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Are these strange stories to read – these stories of rejection?  They are, I guess, when we assume that it’s “normal” to believe in Jesus.  For many generations in our nation, that’s been the case.  Some of you are old enough: do you remember when being a member of a church was part of being an upstanding citizen?  In fact, these days many are rejecting the call to repentance in Jesus’ name.  Or, more precisely, many too preoccupied or too distracted to be open to the call to repentance in Jesus’ name.

What does repentance look like for you?  Repentance means turning away from anything that leads you away from God.  Repentance means turning back towards God, centering ourselves in God’s presence, becoming aware again of how God is moving in our lives as Holy Spirit.  But what’s necessary, before repentance even becomes a possibility?  What’s necessary is to know God, to be open to God.

I’ve been thinking about this since a verse caught my eye, in one of the Psalms appointed for daily prayer, this past Thursday morning.  In Psalm 9, verse 10:

And those who know your name put their trust in you,

            for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Many do not “know” God in a way that leads us to trust God.  For many, it’s because daily life is “nuts.”  (Here I’m quoting one of our members, from a conversation this past week; someone who always has much too much to do than he has time to do it in, every day).  How many find life to be “nuts?”  How many are simply frazzled by demanding jobs (made worse by electronic communication technologies keeping them “on call” 24/7 unless they create their own protective boundaries)?  How many feel the weight of family responsibilities: parents who are constantly running full-speed because they’ve scheduled their kids so heavily to participate in an incessant array of activities; or adult children who are struggling to help their elderly parents through crises; or spouses who are facing high demands in caring for their partners?

Does it seem to you that there are more people reacting to the anxiety of daily life with more anger?  Doesn’t that infect our conversations about politics and social issues?  How often is there conversation that is reasoned and rational, with people open to the arguments of those they disagree with?  Michael Paul Williams, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (who is African-American) wrote this, this past Tuesday: “Last week, I suggested relocating the [Confederate] statues from Monument Avenue to a museum where they could be displayed and placed in a context that’s sorely lacking at the moment.  Some of the response was thoughtful, even among those who disagreed.  Others accused me – via e-mail, social media and elsewhere – of being a terrorist, in league with the Taliban or ‘the biggest racist of all.’  And then they really got personal.”

With all the daily demands and pressures and crises, with all the fear of change, with all the anxiety, life in our culture is “nuts!”  In fact, unless we are vigilant, we import the insanity into our life together, as a congregation of Jesus people.  Unless we are vigilant, we think we need to worship efficiency and productivity and accomplishment is the point, even in our work as a congregation!  Of course, that mindset turns us away from what is truly important for us, as members of the body of Christ: nurturing our relationships with each other, which is where God’s healing happens; which is why God even calls us together.  What a shame it is, that many have turned away from their congregations of Jesus people because they don’t find any grace, any relief from what they encounter “outside.”

Do you find that, with the demands and pressure you feel, day-to-day life is “nuts?”  When we follow the lead of the insanity of daily life in our culture, it’s hard to function well, with any sense of a healthy perspective.  Isn’t it true, then, that Jesus’ amazing, healing power is limited by our unbelief.  There is so much that causes us to be just as closed off from Jesus as were those in his hometown, those who rejected him and his teachings!

But there is good news, because this is God’s world.  What is God doing, all the time, every day?  Jesus, our Lord, is calling us to repentance, through the movement of the Holy Spirit!  To say that another way: God the Holy Spirit is always calling us to turn away from what is “nuts”; to turn back to God, to be renewed and restored in God’s love and grace and compassion.  God is always inviting us into God’s healing.  God is always inviting us to receive God’s power to cast out the demons of fear and anxiety and anger.

God is always doing that.  We remember that when we are gathering together, and when we are open to receiving the teachings of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.  And God is always sending us out (just as Jesus sent out “the twelve”) with that same power and message, with that same Good News of grace and compassion for the world, out where life is “nuts.”

What joy we receive in all of this!

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

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Mark 3:19b-21

[2] Mark 3:31-35

Mourning into Dancing 

Lamentations 3:22-23, Psalm 30, Mark 5:21-43    

Time after Pentecost–Lectionary 13      June 28, 2015

I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me. O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. So writes the Psalmist.

This Psalm is engraved in my memory. It was Sunday, September 17, 2005, right here in this worship space that Bishop Mauney spoke those words during his sermon. The occasion was my ordination.

I had not thought of this Psalm as mine until that day, and it has sustained me ever since. My calling as a pastor long preceded my graduation from seminary. I was in my last year, living on campus at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. My family still lived in Yorktown. My body didn’t feel right that fall, and I saw many doctors, and even went to Hershey Medical Center emergency room. After many misdiagnoses, it was determined that stage three colon cancer was the problem. This was a threatening diagnosis, and I, like the Psalmist, bargained with God. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”

I had surgery over Christmas break. When winter classes started, I began chemotherapy in Virginia. The combination of drugs was harsh, and I found that I could only attend classes every other week. For most of the week of chemotherapy, I could not leave my bed. My faithful husband drove me to Pennsylvania, stayed with me, and then drove me home. My husband worked every other week, and I went to classes every other week. I graduated on time, and then began radiation.

God blessed me with a call to ministry, and my ordination was planned. “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.”

It was at Gettysburg seminary that I met Bernadette, who was also a student. In class, her spark and humor set her apart. A few days later, I learned that she had been living with stage 4 colon cancer. We became friends, and together we talked openly about God, life and death. Bernadette’s zest and energy dwindled, and a few months later, she stopped treatments, knowing that death would come shortly after. It was in Bernadette’s dying that she lived her life differently than most. She loved people, and her greatest joy was to be with them in service. I had hoped that if this cancer was going to kill me, that I would die as gracefully and full of life as Bernadette did.

In our Gospel reading today, there are two females who are ill. Jarius’ daughter, and an unnamed woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Perhaps she had been misdiagnosed, too. The woman touched Jesus’ clothes and immediately her bleeding stopped.

Jarius’ daughter had been ill, “to the point of death.” Jesus was on his way to heal her when he encountered the bleeding woman, and by the time he got to the girl, she was dead. “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping,” Jesus told those who were gathered. Then he “took her hand and said, ‘Little girl, get up.’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.”

I love these stories of two females and their faith and restoration to life. I want to cling to their stories, and to believe that daughters and sons, women and men are always healed. Bernadette died. My personal stories are not so different from yours. You know people who have died, and among you this morning are those who have survived transplants, cancer, kidney failure, and other serious illnesses. Many of you are living with bodies that are not 100% healthy. What do these stories have to say to those who are in the midst of these challenges, and to those who won’t recover? How does God turn mourning into dancing? How does God take us from a place of brokenness to wholeness?

Jesus said to the woman who was hemorrhaging, who “felt in her body that she was healed of her disease, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Her bleeding had stopped, but after twelve years of living with her disease, it came to define her life. Afraid and forgotten, her illness cut her off from family and community. She had no control over her own life. She had gone down to the Pit, as our Psalmist says. Jesus claims this unclean, unnamed woman as his “daughter.”   Her faith has “saved” her, as the Greek reads, and Jesus blesses her. There are two different aspects to the unnamed woman’s recovery, the stopping of her physical symptoms and her restoration to wholeness.

It is possible not to be healed from disease, but to be healed with it. Our scars will never be removed, but can we look at them as we do Jesus’ scarred hands and feet—that it is through suffering that we are brought to new life? The Psalmist says that God turned mourning into dancing. It is important to mourn our loss of health, of loved ones, and other losses. Jesus did not go from Palm Sunday to Easter resurrection.

Our hurt reminds us of our need for healing. Henri Nouwen writes, “Our glory is hidden in our pain, if we allow God to bring the gift of himself in our experience of it. If we turn to God, not rebelling against our hurt, we let God transform it into greater good….Our life span, whether thirty years or ninety, gives us opportunities to say yes to a hidden gift from God, to a reality that, while difficult, provides a place for divine encounter and deep growth. To find healing means to belong completely to God, to be born into a life and love that is lasting. It has more to do with seeking first God’s kingdom and finding the deepest longings of our hearts fulfilled than the condition of our bodies.[1]

Five years after my treatment, I was found to be free of cancer, and my doctor pronounced me cured. During treatment, on the worst of days, I could simply give thanks for God allowing me to breathe and my heart to beat. I took comfort in knowing that with or without me, God would continue to bring love, peace and forgiveness into our world. The prayers of others sustained me. Ten years later, I remember that in an instant, life can change. I discovered through the making of the scars I bear what is important for me and my life–relationships, acts of kindness especially with those who cannot repay us, gratitude for even simple blessings, and prayer. Through God’s continued presence with me, I have learned to be present with others. As Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, celebrate what you have instead of focusing on what you have lost.

“Daughter, your faith has saved you,” Jesus told the woman whose name no one knew. When she touched his clothes, she did not know what would come, but surrendering to the only one who could heal her, opened herself to God’s blessings. God promises never to abandon us. When we lose part of ourselves because of illness or death of a loved one, we have the one who has been through it all before us, Jesus.

Our reading from Lamentations expresses our divine hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in him” [Lamentations 3:22-24].

Let’s dance!

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Nouwen, Henri. Turn my Mourning into Dancing. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001. 14-15, 94. Print.

 

Homily for the Wedding of Sarah Harms and Ray Beatty

Colossians 3:12-17     June 28, 2015

 

What is God like?  How does God want us to live?  Does the Bible give us any guidance that would be helpful in the context of what we’re celebrating today?

Here’s the thing.  The Bible presents many views of what God is like, and how God wants us to live, and some of these views contradict others, in other places of the Bible!  I guess that’s understandable, when you consider that the Bible is a library of books, produced by writers from different ancient near Eastern cultures over a period of 1,300 years, including stories that were told hundreds of years before that and finally written down!  Imagine the vastly different circumstances that the people of God were experiencing, in different eras during those 2,000 years.  They knew times of national power, as well as periods when they had been conquered by other world powers and scattered into exile.  During some of those eras they were sure of what God desired for them, but at other times they thought God had abandoned them!

Think of that diversity of experience, that multiplicity of cultures and situations.  As those many writers were witnessing to their understanding of who God is and what God desires, there’s no wonder that there’s a great variety of testimonies in the Bible, and that they even contradict each other!  Everyone reads the Bible selectively, giving greater weight to some passages over others.

Here’s what that means.  We need a lens through which to read the Bible.  We need a center point, from which we can interpret all the testimonies.

That lens is Jesus the Christ.  That center point is what Jesus did and said and modeled in his behavior.  We use Jesus as the criterion to judge what to take more and less seriously, among the multiplicity of messages in the Bible, of what God is like and how God wants us to live.

Some of the verses that Sarah and Ray chose for today’s wedding come out of that center point of of what Jesus modeled.  They are verses from a short letter that St. Paul wrote to the Jesus people in the ancient city of Colossae.

In the New Testament of the Bible, Paul begins with Jesus, God’s love born into our human flesh, and then Paul addresses particular situations: what does this mean for day-to-day life?  Paul wrote letters to the communities he had founded: about how to live together, how to love each other.  Listen to what Paul writes to one of those communities, in the verses Ray and Sarah chose for today:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  (Can you tell, already, that Paul loves lists?  Paul offers lists like this in several of his letters to other congregations!)  God is love.  Jesus the Christ is that love in human flesh.  With this list, Paul is describing what love looks like; the love that Jesus brought into our human flesh; love that you and I are to “clothe” ourselves with; the love Jesus modeled for us to imitate, in our love for others: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Paul continues with these instructions to the Jesus people living together in the ancient city of Colossae: Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.

“Forgive each other.”  “Clothe yourselves with love.”  “And be thankful.”

St. Paul wrote these words to a tiny community of Jesus people who were learning how to live together in everyday life.  He did not write these words for a wedding, expressly.  But what great verses to read this afternoon!  What an opportunity Sarah and Ray, and all marriage partners have, to live this love in a particular intimacy.

Those of you who have been married for a while: which of these have you found to be especially necessary, for your marriage to endure?  Compassion. Kindness.  Humility.  Patience.  Forgiveness (of yourself as well as your partner!).  Love.  Peace.  Thankfulness.

May I even suggest that family life, and particularly marriage, is a school for cultivating these gifts from God?  (We cannot manufacture compassion or patience or forgiveness or any of these on our own, by our own power.  They are gifts from God.  This is why we pray God to bless this and all marriages.)

So, let me conclude with some blessings.

Sarah and Ray, we bless you to be present to each other in kindness and humility, in patience and peace and thankfulness that are gifts from God through Jesus the Christ.

And all of us gathered here as family and friends, let us pray that God will use us to be blessings for Ray and Sarah; that we will bring to them the blessings of compassion and love that are gifts from God, through Jesus the Christ!

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.   And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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

Pastor Andy Ballentine

A Sleepless Night?

Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41   

Time after Pentecost — Lectionary 12   June 21, 2015

What disturbs your sleep? I hope my sermon isn’t interrupting your morning nap. What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night? Those nights in which you are tossing and turning and twisting the sheets into a knot, what is it that is preventing you from sleeping soundly? Maybe your restful peace is disturbed by a 21 year-old hate-filled racist murdering 9 people as they were faithfully studying God’s word. Maybe your sense of peace is disrupted to learn that two of the people killed at Emanuel AME Church attended Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, including the pastor, and the shooter was on the rolls of an ELCA congregation. Maybe it disturbs your peace that, although we think that racism among younger generations is waning, statistics say it is not.

What is it that disturbs your sleep? I am worried about… you can fill in the blank for yourselves – money, the welfare of a son or daughter, a relationship. Maybe you are waiting for medical test results. Maybe you have gotten the test results, and that is what is disturbing you. Worry is often fear of the future. What is going to happen when I can no longer work, if this surgery doesn’t fix the problem, when my loved one dies. Fill in your own worry for the future.

Maybe your fear and anxiety is for others or for our world—racism, children in refugee camps, carcinogens in the environment, those who need to choose between food and medical care, genocide in Africa, or the upcoming presidential campaigns. There are life-threatening storms and chaos all around us, no shortage of disturbing situations that can cause a sleepless night.

It is interesting to observe that while the disciples are faced with a life- threatening storm, Jesus, the one who put them into this situation, is sleeping. The disciples, fisherman by vocation, were used to rough weather, but this storm terrified them.  The winds were blowing so hard that the water came up over the sides of the boat and began to fill it. You can feel the boat rocking and rolling. They were facing death, and Jesus was in the back of the boat, sleeping on a cushion. All are in tremendous danger ., and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, sleeps.   “Wake up, Jesus!! We’re going to die! Don’t you care?”

Jesus wakes, and with three words, “the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” “Who is this?” the people in the boat asked. “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Of course, this question is not answered, not then and never directly.

Job had similar questions about God. You might have heard the expression “patience like Job,” but that is not an accurate assessment of the story. Job had done everything right. He prayed, he worshipped, and he obeyed God. Life was good for Job, and then he lost it all within a matter of days. His donkeys and camels were stolen, his servants were killed, and his sheep were struck by lightening. His children died when a wind blew their house down on top of them. Then Job himself got sores all over his body, and they itched.

Over the course of thirty-seven chapters, Job maintains his innocence. In response to his questions, God remains silent, much like Jesus sleeping in the midst of the storm. Exasperated, Job shakes his fist in the air, demanding that God answer him. “Why is this happening to me?” Finally God speaks, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” God continues, “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” God asks, and we are brought back to the calming of the chaos of the sea, the disciples in the storm, and Jesus.

“If there is an answer to the problem of unjustified suffering in Job,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “then, it is only this: that for most of us, the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason but to suffer without God—without any hope of consolation or rebirth. All other pain pales next to the pain of divine abandonment. When there is nothing left—when all the flocks have been stolen and all the children have been buried—when there is nothing left but a potsherd with which to scratch our sores, what is still left is the God of all creation, who laid the foundation of the earth, who has walked in the recesses of the deep, who has made Behemoth and Leviathan and everything that breathes. This is the Lord of all life, who never runs out of life, and whom we may always ask for more.[1]

“The worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason but to suffer without God.” God never did answer Job’s questions. At the end, it was enough for Job to know God was there with him.

Jesus was in the boat. The striking thing about this story is not that Jesus calms the storm. It is that Jesus slept through winds and waves, and the screams of his disciples. The Lord, the Messiah, was surrounded by his friends, friends full of fear and anxiety, and it did not disturb him. He was at peace. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” maybe he was saying to them, “Don’t you know that if you had sunk to the bottom of the sea, I would be with you? Don’t you know that if you drowned, I would be holding you all the way down?”

In a moment, we will be singing “Peace Like a River,” written by Horatio G. Spafford . His story reminds me of Job’s story. Spafford was a highly successful Chicago lawyer. He was married, and had four daughters and a son. Their young son died, and shortly thereafter the Great Chicago Fire destroyed many of Spafford’s real estate investments. Two years later, he planned to help Dwight Moody with an evangelism campaign in Europe. Some unexpected business came up, and so Horatio sent his wife and daughters over ahead of him. Several days later, he received notice that the ship had encountered a collision. All four of his daughters died. Only his wife survived. On his way to England to join his grieving wife, he wrote these words, “When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

Today, James Kenneth Stein will be baptized. Through water and the Word, he will be joined to Christ’s death and resurrection and be marked with the cross of Christ forever. One day, James will encounter turbulent waters and storms that threaten his peace. Having been drowned with Christ in the waters of baptism, James, and we, the baptized, are assured that Christ will hold us through whatever life or death brings.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999. Pp 166-167. Print.

 

Working, Waiting, Trusting, Watching

 Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 11     Mark 4:26-34     June 14, 2015

 

I might have become a monk – if it hadn’t been for that darn vow of celibacy,.  I find that my day-to-day spiritual practice is Benedictine.  St. Benedict lived in the 6th century and all monasteries live according to his Rule for monastic life together.  A basic practice in the Rule is to stop several times during the day for prayer.  Many Benedictine monasteries gather for prayer four times each day: first thing in the morning, at noon, at the end of the afternoon, and just before bed.  Trappist monks (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) assemble in the church for prayer seven times each day!

St. Benedict’s Rule sets out a daily rhythm that encourages spiritual, emotional and physical health: a balance of prayer, work, and rest.  Benedictines teach each other that prayer is our chief activity as a child of God.  Work itself becomes prayer, especially when it’s farm work or other repetitive manual labor (which it usually is in a monastery).  But when the church bell rings at the monastery, the monks stop the work they’re doing, right away.  They move into the church to sit in silence for a few minutes, to center themselves in God’s presence.  Then the leader begins speaking, to begin the prayer office.  When a person does this four and even seven times a day, there grows a consciousness: it is not a matter of interrupting work for prayer.  Instead, it’s interrupting prayer to head back out of the church to work!

Who here has experienced your work to be a grind, just having to keep at it, especially when you have too much to do?  I find that, when I observe Benedictine interruptions, when I stop for prayer several times during the day, it becomes easier to remember that, in fact, this is God’s world; and it is God who has given me the work I do; and that each day is full of blessings; and I am not at the center of the universe; in fact, I am only a small piece of God’s great creation of animate beings.

In other words: I become conscious of the worldview that Jesus is teaching, in the two parables we read this morning!  Do you want to hear the basics of this worldview, in 24 words?  We do the work God gives us to do.  Can we cause that work to yield results?  No!  God grows any and all results.

Some of you have read many of the stories of Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible.  Have you ever noticed that when Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, he only does that by telling parables?  In a parable, Jesus uses the example of something very ordinary to point us towards understanding the kingdom of God – which cannot be fully understood.  Jesus doesn’t present a Power Point of eight characteristics to describe the kingdom – because we can’t comprehended the kingdom intellectually or rationally.  Instead, Jesus tells parables.  And do you notice how parables begin?  They begin with words like, “The kingdom of God is as if…”; or, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God,…?”

So, what is Jesus teaching in the parables this morning?  First: God gives us work to do.  Our work for the kingdom is scattering seed.  And the kingdom of God grows in ways that are entirely surprising and beyond our control!

“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.”  What a curious depiction!  The seed sprouts and grows.  But do you means that it’s not because the seed sower is doing the most effective and efficient job of the work?  It’s not because he’s observing the “best practices” of seed-sowing?

I wish I could believe this.  Instead, I have absorbed what our culture teaches: that there are “best practices,” that there are more and less effective ways of working that yield greater results.  No matter what your work is, there are books written by “experts” that will help you achieve greater effectiveness in your work.  (You should see the piles of books that pastors are urged to buy.)  Of course, doing a good and effective job is important!  But here’s what happens.  It’s nice to think that there is a God and, in fact, we come together on Sundays to think about that!  But practically and realistically, in our everyday lives, it depends on you and me, right.  And how hard and effectively we work.  Right?

Isn’t it a shocking thing to read this morning’s parables and to see that Jesus is calling us to repent from such self-centeredness!?

Our work for the kingdom is scattering seed.  That word, “scattering,” grabs my attention!  Scattering is more reckless, more extravagant, less planned and controlled than sowing seed in an controlled, best-practices sort of way!

“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 seed of the kingdom of God sprouts and grows, but we do not know how that happens!  Think of this.  The growth of the kingdom is unhurried, and perhaps even unnoticed.  And it’s not up to us, but it’s God who grows any and all results of our work.  Aren’t we called to lives of working, waiting, trusting, watching?   “Just as the seed has its own power and dynamism that is finally revealed at the harvest, so too does the mystery of the kingdom of God.”[1]  “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Think of this, fellow followers of Jesus who scatter the seed of the kingdom of God.  That’s the work God gives us to do.  And aren’t we scattering that seed when we do the work of loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves.[2]  And isn’t there a huge feeling of relief – Of grace!  Of good news! – when we are free enough to simply do this work that God gives you and me to do, and to leave the results to God?  What joy there is in such repentance, in turning away from the bad news that we’re taught: that it’s all up to us.

And could it be that even our smallest actions, day-to-day, of loving God and loving others, could grow to become the most significant witness to the kingdom of God growing among us?

[Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  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.”

God gives us work to do.   Whatever our occupations or avocations, even as we are performing those duties and tasks, God gives us the work of loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  When others see that, we are scattering the seed of the kingdom of God!  But it is God who grows any and all results of our work.  .We are working, waiting, trusting, watching.

One final question.  How much are you and I able to hear this?  (As I always say, I preach each sermon to myself!  If it’s helpful to anyone else, well that’s good too!)

Do you notice that even the ability to understand any of this is a gift from God!  Do you remember these words, near the end of this morning’s passage: With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;…  “As they were able to hear it.”  Even that is a gift from God!

How radically dependent we are upon God’s grace.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 154.

[2] See Mark 12:28-31.  (During this “Year B” of the three-year lectionary cycle we are reading through the gospel of Mark.  Mark 12:28-31 would be the gospel reading on Sunday, November 1, but we will celebrate that as All Saints’ Sunday!)

Trust, Anxiety, Sin, Sinners and Saints

 

Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 10     Genesis 3:[1-7]8-15     June 7, 2015

 

All of us are sinners, it is true.  This morning we read one of the most famous stories of all time.  It’s from the second creation account in Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  It’s a story about the first woman and the first man and a snake and God.  It’s a story about sin.

Each week, we do pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Even so, sin is not so much doing something bad.  More profoundly, sin is the  condition we are in.  It is the condition of brokenness, because of our self-centeredness, which is our sin.  Over and over again, we act out of that selfishness, which is our sin.  We break our relationships with God.  We break our relationships with each other, even our most intimate relationships.   Could it be that the worst damage from sin is broken trust?  “I can’t trust you anymore.”

The human creatures trust God perfectly when creation is finished, in the second creation story in the book of Genesis.  Do you remember this story?  It’s not the one with the seven days of creation, the one in which all of humanity is created at the same time:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.[1]

The second creation story is the one in which God creates one man, and then, one woman.  (This is the story that begins with verse four of chapter two in Genesis.)  This is the story where God puts the man and the woman in the garden.  They are given the good work of caring for the garden.  They have all that they need.  All is perfect!  And there is only one rule.  Because God is God, and human beings are not God, God tells them, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[2]  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.[3]  Perfect vulnerability, perfect openness, perfect trust.

Enter the serpent.  Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that God has made.  He said to the woman, “Did God say, You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”[4]  Well, of course God did not say that!  But the woman chooses to respond to the serpent, and things turn out badly.  The woman says to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[5]  Here, now, is the crucial moment in the story.  Will the woman trust God?  Will she trust that God has everything in control, that God will continue to take care of her, that God will continue bless her with all that she needs for life to flourish?

Why is it so difficult to trust God?  Why do you and I feel the need to eat the fruit?  Instead of trust, we feel anxiety: the need to control, to manage, to direct — because, without me, it will all fall apart, you see; “it’s all about me.”  Where does that anxiety come from, in you?  Anxiety is a sign of sin and brokenness.  Whenever you’re feeling that self-centered anxiety, you’re suffering from your sin.  You do not trust God.  You do not trust others.  You need to be the one who is controlling and managing and directing.  What a terrible way to live!

Well, in the story in Genesis, you know what the woman and the man do.  They eat the fruit.  And here’s what comes next.  The man and the woman heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…  (Isn’t that a lovely depiction of God?  God has created the natural world, and is now enjoying that creation.  God is even taking a stroll in the garden in the early evening, when there is a pleasant breeze!)  But now, there is sin.  There is brokenness.  They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…  Oh, what has been lost!  The man and the woman do not trust God any more.  They hide from God!  They fear God!  What tragic brokenness!

And now listen to how the man and the woman break their relationship with each other, and with the natural world.  But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  [God] said, “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”  Do you remember what comes next?  The man says, “It was the woman!”  The woman says, “It was the snake!”  “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  We act out of our sin, our anxious self-centeredness.  We blame others to cover our tails.

Trust is broken.  Anxiety is overwhelming.  Sin is profound.  We are lost.

No, let me be more precise.  If it is up to us, we are lost.

Do you want to know when this sermon came together for me?  It was when the three or four of us were gathered for noontime prayer this past Monday, sitting right over there.  I was listening to one of us read the passage from Second Corinthians in the daily lectionary for that day.[6]  Here are the words that caught my attention: [W]e entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

[S]o that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God.  It is God who has done that, made us righteous, through Jesus the Christ.  It is God who has won our salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  God has done that!

But still: aren’t we still mired in sin, in brokenness, in anxiety – even though God has won our salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ?  That is our human condition.  Luther has a wonderful, grace-filled description of that: we are sinners and saints, simultaneously; both at the same time.  We are “saints”: we have been saved!  We are “sinners”: we can never perfect ourselves, no matter how hard we work at it!  Here is how we suffer from our captivity to sin: whenever we feel self-centered anxiety; whenever we do not trust God to bless us with what we need; whenever we do not trust another person to do it as well as it should be done; whenever we feel the need to control, to manage, to direct.  What stories can you tell of that joyless suffering?  We are sinners.  We can never perfect ourselves, no matter how hard we work at it.

And, at the same time, we are saints, and here is the grace: because we have been saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ!  We love God!  And so, over and over again we feel the desire that God creates within us to turn to God, to return to God (to repent!), to trust God.  God creates that desire for repentance within you and me.

What practices do you engage in, in response to that desire?  What are the actions that God creates among us, in response, for the good of the world that God has created?  How does God use you to bless others who are broken and anxious, sinful?  Think of another fellow sinner who comes to mind.  How can you bring God’s love and forgiveness to her or him?  How does God send you to speak kind words to someone who is suffering from brokenness; to act in compassion towards those who are anxious; to surrender your own need for control and busy-ness and success and reputation; to offer hospitality to people who challenge us; to seek reconciliation; to hold tension; to do the work God gives you to do with great love for God and God’s people; your words and actions blessings from God, signs of the Kingdom that Christ has brought into the world God has created?

Blessings to you, sinners and saints, on the daily journey of faith.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] Genesis 2:16-17

[3] Genesis 2:25

[4] Genesis 3:1

[5] Genesis 3:2-5

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:11 – 6:2