Words from Our Pastor

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pentecost 20, 10/7/18: All In the Family

Sermon for Pentecost 20, 10/7/18                 Mark 10: 2-16                              "All In the Family"
 I titled today’s sermon “All In the Family” for a reason—this passage is not strictly about marriage, but about the larger picture of community and family that God painted in creation. But once I decided on that title, I couldn’t erase the “All in the Family” image of Archie Bunker sitting in his recliner, beer in hand, feet up, and a game on TV. That 1970’s sitcom was a cultural hand grenade, exploding into our living rooms, flashing its light on issues that were still ‘hush-hush’ in many American families: from racism to drug-dependency to D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Part of its beauty was that Archie and Edith’s story was dysfunctional enough that most families watching could safely say, “Thank God we’re not that bad.” 

And remembering that show, you, too, can probably say with confidence, “My family is NOT that messed up.” But every family story IS messy. Every family has its scars, and for many the scar of divorce remains visible and tender years after it happens. For some, deep anger persists. Others find themselves grateful to have put the pain behind them and found joy again. But nobody wants to talk about divorce, and I can tell you no preacher is eager to tackle this Gospel story (PB might say this passage is ‘just deserts’ for me after the hard ones he’s been dealt lately—but this one takes the cake!)

I’ll start with the Pharisees. I don’t think the Pharisees are concerned one bit about the pain of divorce. Their question is a legal one: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? It’s meant to make Jesus squirm, or at the least to spark politically dangerous debate. Or, spinning it more favorably, maybe they’re hoping he’ll give them an answer that works when this tricky question comes to them. But he knows they know the story of their own people’s brokenness, and he’s not about to do their work for them. So he throws it back to them: “What did Moses command you?”

“Dang! We do know the story: Moses allowed the husband to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they say. Then Jesus pushes deeper—Moses did that because of your hardness of heart. Jesus didn’t have to explain the connection between them and the ancient Hebrews because Jewish people knew they were all part of the same big story from the time of Moses forward. Yes, YOUR hardness of heart. In Moses’ time and their own, men were indeed putting aside their wives at will, their calloused hearts making it impossible for these cast-off women to find another partner. But with that paper, women were free to marry again. Moses had made this allowance to protect vulnerable women and children.   

But Jesus doesn’t leave the matter there because concession that it was, even this had not been God’s original intent. God’s intent was community, inclusion, and peace—not only between husband and wife, but within the whole family of creation, through nurturing, respectful, lasting relationships.

Jesus’ words to his disciples, when he is alone with them, are meant to support that good story that set life in motion. Contrary to the assumption in their time that a wife is property, with no rights, Jesus wants them to remember that she is from the beginning of time part of God’s family. Both what happens to her and what she does matter. Everything is connected.

But make no mistake—for that culture, this teaching was counter-cultural, even subversive. Because God’s people still had hard hearts:
·      The Pharisees—questioning IS IT LAWFUL for a man to divorce his wife—they don’t even consider the pain behind the action. (hard hearts)
·      And the disciples—sternly scolding those who bring children to Jesus—"Get them out of here. He doesn’t want them touching HIM”—they forget the value of every living thing God made. (hard hearts)
These behaviors do not align with the way of life God intended.  When Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them, he overrules those stern hard hearts and plays by the rule of love, which affirms the abundant and good creation of God—all the creatures matter. All the creatures matter.

I think we’ve got it….until Jesus stumps the disciples and us by going just a little further: “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” From where we stand, we might think of the innocence and energy of children and their wide-eyed trust—maybe Jesus means that those qualities would teach us how to receive the kingdom. We should be like them.
(Aside: But every parent will admit that children have their sweet, innocent days and their horrid ones. Nevertheless, their innocence and wide-eyed trust captivate us.)  

But I don’t believe anyone around Jesus would have jumped to that interpretation (being like children is what gets us closer to the Kingdom). Children in that time and place, as you know, were valuable only when old enough to work. First-century families tried for multiple children mainly because they needed them to carry on the family name and contribute to its livelihood. And because the mortality rate was high: 60% of first-century children died before their 16th birthday.

Since few in that time would have even noticed the wide-eyed innocence and trust of children, receiving the kingdom of God as a little child may have referred less to being like a child and more to doing something: doing what Jesus did. And what did Jesus do? He gathered the little children to himself. He gathered those who didn’t measure up. Some were little children, but not all—throughout Jesus’ ministry they were little ones of all kinds: women and blind men, lepers and tax collectors—all God’s children, all in the family. The ones no one else honored, Jesus did.

Is this the model we are to follow? Because that’s not going to be easy. Some of God’s children make some of us very uncomfortable. I walk by them just as often as you do. Maybe we turn our eyes away when traffic forces us to stop near them, with their hand-written placards: ‘Put Me To Work’…..‘Need food’.... It feels threatening to open the door just a crack to their hopelessness and our ability to do something about it. I say NO a lot.

So does Jesus. He says NO to the throwing away of a relationship that leaves the vulnerable party penniless and alone; NO to the shunning of children who are helpless and have nothing to offer in return for love; NO to a way of life that never looks beyond the rules; And NO to the repeated choice we in this broken world made for exclusion rather than inclusion.

But Jesus also says YES! To the Gentile woman begging for her daughter’s healing and willing to grovel under his table for it. YES to the ruler whose daughter is dying. YES to the deaf man who couldn’t speak. YES to the two followers on the Road to Emmaus who needed more than talk, who needed to see him break the bread. And, thank God, YES to us, flawed and prone to poor decisions but needing so much, ourselves, to be included.
Yes, the Kingdom of God does belong to such as these.

What better news than to hear that we are now and always IN God's family! Remembering the loving community God wanted for us who were made by God’s own hand, we can even help with our hands and our soft hearts to mend the cracks in this broken world.
What better model to follow than Jesus himself for becoming, in gratitude to him, the very best we can be? I plan to work on that, and I pray that you will, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.   

Monday, September 24, 2018

Pentecost 18, 9/23/18: The One Who Knows


Sermon for Pentecost 18, 9/23/18                   Mark 9: 30-37                     "The One Who Knows"
 Jesus had some hard points to make in this story—he was doing some heavy ‘show and tell’ to make them. He started with telling: the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and then rise; and if that isn’t hard enough, take this: the one who wants to be first has to be last of all and servant of all. But the disciples just weren’t getting it. So he added some ‘show’ to his ‘tell.’ He added a little child, set down right in the middle of that tight group.
Now most of us would welcome into any group. But children in that day were not always welcomes. They were largely looked OVER. Until they could work and contribute to the family’s resources, they were more a liability than a joy. Dependent and powerless, they had no place among people of status. For Jesus to take a child in his arms and hold it there, in the midst of the disciples—it would have been distasteful at best, at worst scandalous.
But sometimes God throws jarring moments like that at us. I had one of them this past week, in fact. As I finished a good visit with one of our homebound families, I pulled out of their driveway looking at my watch. I realized I’d need to pick up the pace in order to keep on my schedule.
Just as I was just getting close to the main road, I looked to my right, and stepping from grass to pavement was a very large goose—behind that one were 4 more lined up, ambling along behind goose #1. Now geese move slowly until they’re mad, and I knew it wasn’t smart to make them mad. But I WAS mad. I was no longer in control. I had to sit there and wait for all 5 of those guys to poke across in front of me. And in that moment I felt Jesus saying to me, “Just slow down and wait. It won’t hurt you to take last place here.”
Maybe it sounds silly to you, but while 5 gutsy geese were taking their sweet time to cross the road in front of me, I truly felt the presence of Christ. Maybe you’ve never been held up on your way by a gaggle of geese, but I bet you remember a moment when God stopped you and demanded your attention.  Maybe it was a time when you were angry or confused and not in any mood even to talk to God about it—but God put someone or something in your path that made you see things differently.
That’s what Jesus was doing when he added that child to his teaching huddle with the disciples. When they were forced to look at her—vulnerable, dependent on others, and in that culture never a candidate for first place—Jesus was inviting them to see themselves differently. Not as candidates for first place, but as powerless and vulnerable.
He knew they needed this transformation….because before this moment with the child, while they were on the road with Jesus, they’d gotten completely out of hand. They’d been confused by what he’d said about his own death and were too afraid to ask him to explain. Hard stuff! But instead of admitting their fears, they covered them up, with ‘macho.’ They started grabbing for control, vying for who was the greatest.
Jesus didn’t have to ask them what they’d been arguing about. He knew already. And he knew they needed a turnaround.
That’s when he told them, “Look, if you want to be first you have to first be last. If you want to lead, you have to first be a servant.” Problem was their world didn’t work that way. You didn’t get ahead by going to the back of the line. You didn’t rise to the top by serving everyone else first. You had to show your stuff, and in the process push others down. What Jesus proposed was just the opposite, and it made no sense to them.
Things haven’t changed so much. Last time I was listening, the world was still telling me that being on top is best. It’s so very easy to go after that, to head with all our might right to the top. Don’t you get a rush when you’re moving up the ladder, in control of your life and making things happen?
But God knows what we need. God stops us in our tracks, like I was stopped a few days ago by 5 very slow geese. In the midst of that forced slow-down, God gave me the invitation to turn around, and get focused again on following him instead of pushing my agenda.
Writer and pastor Daniel Erlander tells of a time when God turned him around. When he and his two brothers moved their mother from a hospital to a nursing facility, they were concerned about how much attention she’d get there. So they made a pact that they’d be with her as much as humanly possible, taking turns spending a full week with her.
During his weeks, Daniel sat in her room holding her hand, singing to her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. Three times a day he pushed her wheelchair to the dining room and sat alongside workers paid to feed people who couldn’t feed themselves. He slowly lifted spoon after spoon to her mouth.
One day, back in his mother’s room, he overheard two workers out in the hall referring to him as ‘one of the sons.’ He felt resentful. I have a college degree and a Master of Divinity, with honors, from a very good seminary. They don’t care that I’m ordained, happily married, a pastor in good standing in the Lutheran Church, a writer and well-known speaker. Here, I am just ‘one of the sons.’
But then he took his mother’s hand and suddenly felt proud. Stripped of all his credentials, he was simply her son, loved because of that alone. He thought of the baptismal waters, where he’d been named a son of the living God. In that moment, holding his mother’s hand, he felt refreshed and free, with no need to be any more than ‘one of the sons.’  
God knew what Daniel Erlander needed. His mother helpless before him was like the child Jesus put in front of the disciples. Welcoming this child, Jesus had said, is welcoming me. The more closely Daniel cared for his mother, the nearer he was to Christ himself. Now that was transformation!
Last Sunday Pastor Brook spoke about the stunning transformation of Saul, persecutor of believers. In that amazing story the worst man any Christian could imagine was offered a new life. No one is beyond hope, Pastor Brook said. Transformation is forever possible.
None of us has committed the atrocities Saul did. But even so, every one of us needs transformation, over and over. It happens as Christ opens up a space for us to be still and know him. The one who knows what you and I need is forever offering us opportunities to wake up to Christ’s presence and catch a glimpse of the life that is really life.  
That life that is really life is not found in titles or credentials or bank accounts. It’s often found in people who don’t count for much, or experienced in the brush of a hand as vulnerable as a child’s. It comes most often in unexpected ways, like the way Jesus came to us at his birth—small and weak and smelling of fresh hay.
I don’t understand why God chooses these ways to come to us, instead of the way of the powerful. Jesus tried to explain it to the disciples. But in the end he had to show it by dying on a cross for the love of them.
And once in a while, when we slow down and let the geese cross the road, or when we feed parent or spouse or friend by our own hand, spoonful after slow spoonful, we can catch onto that love.
What better way to spend our lives than receiving that love in all the mysterious and perplexing ways it comes to us. And each time we do, falling deeper in love with the one who knows us best.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pentecost 16, 9/9/18: Be Opened

Sermon for Pentecost 16, 9/9/18                       Mark 7: 24-37                                   “Be Opened”
             A liturgy for baptism created in 1523 by our own Martin Luther instructed the pastor to spit on this fingers and touch the ears and lips of the baptized child. At the same instant, the pastor was to speak loudly the word Jesus spoke to the deaf man: “Ephphatha” - that is, be opened. At which point I imagine that baby would start to wail! Not a way we would choose to liven up our baptismal Sundays!
There’s something raw and real about this action, as there was when Jesus healed the deaf man.  It’s forceful, powerful—Jesus doesn’t just put his fingers into the man’s ears. No, he thrusts them hard into those ears. The Greek word used for that action is ‘ballo,’ which means to throw. This is a big gesture—intentional and bold.
Today’s Gospel begins with intentional, bold movement on Jesus’ part. From his home territory in Galilee, he heads north to the region of Tyre. Now Tyre is some 35 miles from Galilee: at a walking pace it’s maybe a 2 day trip. He wasn’t on the way to anywhere convenient or familiar. This was Gentile territory. In other words, Jesus was on a mission.
And after the incident in Tyre with the Gentile woman, he didn’t turn around and go back home the same way. Instead he went 15 miles further north, to Sidon. Jesus didn’t go to these places to be with HIS people; he knew he was entering territory that was home to more Gentiles than Jews—more of the ‘dogs,’ as he named them in his coarse words to the Gentile woman who begged for her daughter’s life.  
Clearly Jesus knew where he was going and why. But it seems that even the Son of God had something to learn. Because on that trip he encountered two challenges that were life-changing, not only for those he healed but for himself.  
So go with me again to story #2, about the deaf man with the speech impediment. Jesus’ work on this guy was dramatic. Remember, he ‘threw’ his fingers into the man’s ears, then spat on them and touched the man’s tongue! As if that weren’t forceful enough, he groaned (the word was translated ‘sighed,’ but the action was probably more like a deep groan, as if Jesus were deeply disturbed. That groan climaxed in a command, “Be opened.” (ephphatha). It’s all part of a primal kind of movement, as if Jesus were physically opening this man up to hear and speak and live in a new way. This is serious business.
It’s a holy act, an act of re-creation. And what comes to my mind is the thing God did in the first creation, the story in ch. 2 of Genesis: God reached down into the dust of the earth (the ‘adamah’) and formed a human, Adam. (Named for the earth from which he came)
The healing of the deaf man has that kind of power. Surely it could have stood alone this morning. But no, we have it paired with the odd story of the Gentile woman who bows at Jesus’ feet and begs for crumbs of his power for her daughter. You might wonder why we need that story. I’m going to say it is necessary. Because before Jesus is ready to open the deaf man’s ears, Jesus has to be opened himself.
His own ears have to be opened to someone who is NOT one of his own—a Gentile mother who pleads for a place at the table and a share of his love and power. Jesus has to be changed.
Now this idea may be uncomfortable, and not everyone who studies these stories agrees with it. But here’s what I think….hanging around with Gentiles was hard for Jesus, good Jew that he was. The historic animosity between Jews and Gentiles had been part of Jesus’ upbringing, so it’s not hard to think that perhaps he had to grow into his mission. Growth is painful. If we believe Jesus was 100% divine and 100% human, then no wonder the human side was pushing against a wider mission that included ‘those people.’ Maybe opening up to that strong-willed Gentile woman was part of living into his divine side. Maybe she was part of his transformation.
Only when Jesus was opened was he ready to open someone else. Surely he felt pulled back toward the old way, the way of sticking close to his own peeps. The groan we hear as he touched the deaf man, and his labored word, “Ephphatha”— might these have been an outward expression of the exhausting human battle between the old and the new within him? Maybe God his parent was whispering feverishly, “Be opened, Jesus, son of the most High God. And then move forward, to open others.”
What a story for this very moment in our church’s life—Rally Day, when we launch a new year of learning, of hearing and telling the stories of Jesus, of modeling for our children what it means to grow in Christ’s love and to discover the Christ within us.  
In all of this, the ears are indeed more important than the tongue. (Every children’s Sunday School teacher longs for kids to learn to listen before they speak, and adults have trouble with the very same thing.) That’s why Jesus opens the deaf man’s ears before setting free his tongue. And it’s why before he does either, he himself must hear the Gentile woman plead for her daughter. She out-argued him, and he gave in to the power of her words: “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”
We could learn from Jesus’ model—To listen first, before we speak. To really hear what others say. To open up to the Good News in all the ways it comes—maybe in the words of someone you’ve never have trusted before, or in a story of transformation that could transform you, or in the simple opening of your hands to receive the body of Christ. In all these ways, some of them stretching us beyond the limits of comfort, Jesus longs for us to be opened!  
Then and only then, from that openness, are we ready to speak the Good News:
·      to repair a broken relationship with loving words,
·      to share faith with a friend (out loud),
·      to say a resounding ‘yes’ to a leadership role that is a definite stretch,
·      to speak for someone who is bowed down,
·      to openly welcome someone who is rejected by others.  
Once you’re open and listening intently to God speaking in the world, you’ll be as surprised as the deaf man was once he could hear—by new melodies, new voices, the sounds of a fresh day full to the brim with God’s love.
Never in any Lutheran Church have I witnessed Luther’s 16th century baptismal practice of anointing a child’s ears and lips with the pastor’s spit. And I’m not in favor of trying it, so don’t worry. But I do wonder if we should go back to that powerful word, “Ephphatha”—be opened. In fact, maybe we ought to use it regularly, not only in baptisms, but in weekly Confession. It’s a word about being transformed, a word about starting fresh, a word about deep connection with God and each other.  
So, friends in Christ, BE OPENED! Then you will find yourself empowered to speak and act, and to be a partner in God’s kind of change, God’s kind of healing, God’s kind of love—love that can reshape this whole wild and scary and wonderful world.
Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pentectost 14, 8/26/18: A Holy Tug

Sermon for Pentecost 14, 8/26/18                   John 6: 56-69                                            A Holy Tug

            Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” And he had sure given them reason! Eat my flesh? Drink my blood? They would have been disgusted by this invitation! Jews were forbidden to consume the blood of any creature—that was God’s law, recorded in Leviticus. Jesus’ words contradicted their faith and their obedience to God’s law. A big deal.
Even in our day, it’s a hard invitation to, well, swallow.
Pastor Martin Copenhaver remembers a Communion moment in worship when as he repeated Jesus’ familiar words, ‘This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you,’ a small girl, from her pew, suddenly responded in a loud voice, “Ew, Yuck!” Sometimes kids say aloud what the adults are thinking.
Ew, Yuck! And yet……
there is something about what Jesus says that tugs at us, and tugged at the disciples in their day, even when who they were and what they knew best was already pushing against the limits of trusting Jesus. Peter, despite his disgust and confusion, answers Jesus’ question, “Do you also wish to go away?” in a powerful way: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Something deep in Peter told him Jesus’ words were true and trustworthy.
But for some others, this was the last straw. What Jesus said was simply too much. Jesus as the living bread from heaven—as he stood before them, that was not so hard to swallow. But gnawing on his flesh? (This is what the Greek word for the verb ‘to eat’ used here would have meant.) No. “Does this offend you?” Jesus asked. Indeed it did, and many of them walked away, so many that Jesus was left with, well, just the 12.
Fast forward 20 centuries, when today people are offended over much less, especially in church. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “If this church comes down on that side of this issue, I’m out of here.” Or “I can’t belong to a church that would fund a project like that.” Or perhaps someone you know doesn’t go to church anymore because she simply couldn’t take any more of the hypocrisy. Or he couldn’t stand the liberalism. Or maybe it was the literal-ism when it came to the Bible that sent him running.
            So IS there a church out there that’s perfect? Not if you’re searching for a place that is perfectly aligned with you. The problem is if I’m looking for a church  that agrees with me on everything from the choice of hymns to where to stand on gun control or abortion, then I have a really good excuse never to belong to a church with more than one member—me. And that’s not church at all.
Truth is there is no perfect church. And, in fact, (going out on a limb here) there is no perfect God….IF you take perfect to mean that you understand or agree with everything Jesus appears to say or God seems to sanction. It doesn’t take much looking to discover the Bible itself includes plenty of violence that out in the real world most of us would renounce. (Note today’s reading from Joshua, in which the Amorites were ‘driven out’—a violent removal, initiated by God.) The only word I can find to describe God’s behavior in some of those stories might be the word “inscrutable.” Sometimes what God does simply does not make sense to us. And yet… we stick around like glue—to the church, to God. It’s as if there were a holy tug at work, the tug of the Spirit, to keep us coming back.
I met a young man at a local Harris Teeter recently who was feeling that tug. His name was Carmichael. He called to me from beyond three checkout lines of full shopping carts: “Ma’am, how’d you like to have elite customer status today?” (What? I looked behind me—who’s he talking to? But it was clearly me.) “Come down to Aisle 5 and I’ll get you checked out in a flash!” Nobody in those lines but me was happy about this special invitation, but I took it.
As he started ringing my items, Carmichael said, “You’re here in the middle of the afternoon. Where do you work?” I told him I was a pastor in a local church, and he lit up. “I’ve never met a lady pastor before,” he said. What church? I told him. Then out spilled something I hear a lot, nearly every time someone finds out I’m a pastor…… “I need to get back to church,” he said. “I’m in school and work almost full time here, and Sundays I’m just trying to catch up. But it’s important. I grew up in the church. I used to love going. I need it, I know. But the devil’s been working on me. Maybe I’ll come visit your church.” I invited him and gave him my business card. He bagged my groceries. I paid him and said thanks.
I’m sure he was serious about the devil. He’d obviously felt tempted not to live up to who he was. But Jesus was working on him, too. He had plenty legitimate reasons not to have had time for church lately. And yet… he was feeling a holy tug that would NOT let him go. The Jesus who was abiding in Carmichael wasn’t giving up on him.
The way Jesus abides in us is not always comfortable. He can offend us, embarrass us, make us squirm. His teaching can be confusing, his stories unsettling, and his people aggravating. Folks sometimes walk away. You can do that, too—you are free to choose.
But you are also free to trust. And trust is not as hard as our culture of suspicion and deceit tempts us to think. In fact this very culture of suspicion creates a longing in us for something that IS trustworthy. Don’t you think?
We are made to trust, and it’s already planted within us. It is the person of Christ himself who was planted there in baptism and has put down deep roots in you and me. So finding the trust we long for is no more, really, than embracing the life and strength of Jesus, already inside us.
So to Carmichael and to you, and to my own heart that aches when I’m feeling far away from Jesus, I say this: Take heart. You don’t have to shop for the answer to that deep longing…or open it with a corkscrew…or work long hours to get it…or search for it in someone else. It’s tugging at you right now, from the inside. It’s the Christ in you; patient, but also insistent that you notice him.
He asks, Do you wish to go away? Oh, there may be times you are so annoyed with him and with church that you do—it happens to all of us. .and yet..
·      Where else will you hear words of eternal life?
     ·      Where else will we receive his body and blood (incomprehensible as that may seem)? 
     ·      Where else will we, all of us together, remember the sacred stories and recognize once more the love that from manger to cross to resurrection promises us unending life?

Nowhere else but here, friends in Christ, right here. Amen.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Pentecost 13, 8/19/18: Jesus On the Road

Sermon for Pentecost 13, 8/19/18                             Luke 24: 13-35                             Jesus on the Road

              Here’s what I don’t get about this story: If those guys knew enough about Jesus to have been in on the story of the empty tomb…if they’d been close enough for long enough to see the drama of resistance to him build…if they spent hours on the road talking about what had happened to him…then why in Heaven’s name did it take them so long to recognize him when he came right alongside them? 
Their eyes weren’t so sharp, but their hearts were. They sensed on the road that something big was happening, but didn’t put it all together until he’d vanished. Then they remembered their hearts burning while he talked. Sometimes hearts catch on before heads. 

It’s kind of like we ‘know’ before we actually know.
            Maybe that happened on the very first date with your spouse, when your heart was burning long before your head had any idea of long-term commitment. Or did a teacher once say in response to an idea you proposed, “You may seriously have something there. I’d never thought of that before.” Or is there a particular way your dad moved his hands as he showed you how to do something? And even now, doing that thing just like he showed you brings him back to your heart?
The encounter on the road with Jesus felt special in all these ways, though it was only later that the travelers realized why. 

Whatever the psychology of it, this encounter was more than chance. Jesus had a purpose in coming up alongside them on the road. He meant to change them, to make them ready to recognize him and know him deeply. After spending time with him and beginning to trust him, they did finally see him clearly for the first time. And that can happen to us.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you’re going to meet Jesus in the flesh on the road, or sit down with him physically at the table. But we do get this promise: visible or not, he is at work in us and with us, to reshape us from the inside out. And his work may take you by surprise:
·       You may discover, for example, while listening to someone whose actions have always puzzled you, that you finally understand them.
·      You may feel a strength you never before had, to resist a habit that’s dragged you down for years and damaged your relationships.
·      Or in a dark moment at the end of your rope, you may hear Jesus’ voice in someone who walks beside you, and from that voice find purpose and direction that you’ve needed for a very long time.

That happened here in Charlotte for graphic designer and stay-at-home mom Kathy Izard, whose book The Hundred Story Home was read in our church's Book Club. She and her kids had been volunteering at the Charlotte Urban Ministry Center soup kitchen for several years, doing their bit for the homeless. And on a plane traveling cross-country, Kathy read a book called Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, a formerly homeless man. It was about homelessness, and it touched her deeply.
When the Urban Ministry Center needed a killer fundraising event, she thought of inviting the authors of that powerful book to speak in Charlotte. They came, and she gave them a tour of the Urban Ministry Center: the soup kitchen, the display of art from homeless folks who used the center, the vegetable garden they tended. Denver Moore, the formerly homeless man, seemed unimpressed. He asked to see the upstairs, which, she explained, housed only office space. Then he looked at her and asked, “Where are the beds?” She didn’t get it. He continued, “You mean to tell me you do all this good in the day and then lock them out to the bad at night?” His question haunted her.

Thus began Kathy’s dream of building a home for the homeless. She started the journey of fundraising, campaigning, and recruiting for the dream of this home. But months of hard work wore her out, emotionally and physically. Her fundraising partners had faith—the  money would come and God would provide. She did not. She wrote: “God certainly didn’t know we had a capital campaign that was short $6.5 million; that success or failure was resting squarely on me.”
Realizing she was near the end of her rope, she sought counseling from a minister at the Episcopal Church her family had been attending. She admitted she wasn’t big enough to make this dream a reality by herself. She had felt Denver Moore’s question, “Where are the beds?” as a call, maybe even God’s call, and her heart burned again as she remembered it. She wanted desperately to believe in that call, to stay on the road. She asked, “How can I know for sure that God is behind this project?” To which the minister replied, “You will know. God has a funny way of showing off.”
After that conversation, Kathy Izard started trying to pray (which she had never done), awkwardly at first, for the things she needed immediately: more donors for the project, openness from the neighborhood where it was to be built, the energy to finish a particular grant application.
Then the ‘God moments’ began to happen: a new volunteer at the Urban Ministry Center, whom she barely knew, suddenly turned out to have exactly the right skills and passion to take on a project task for which no one else had been qualified. The congregation across the street from the building site had recently read the book Same Kind of Different as Me, and they were eager to help, despite opposition from neighborhood homeowners. Izard wrote, “Once I was looking and listening, it seemed God was everywhere.”

When Moore Place was completed and she toured the building, she was struck by the Donor Wall, on which hundreds of names were listed: 168 individuals; 28 foundations; 60 houses of faith; state, local and federal funds given. All together totaling over $10.5 million.
God does indeed have a funny way of showing off!

Is showing off what Jesus did on that evening at the table with those two travelers? Maybe. As he blessed and broke the bread—the ultimate God moment—their eyes recognized him! And once they were looking and listening, they began to see God everywhere.

What a way to live your life, feeling Jesus beside you on every road you take. Who knows where that partnership might lead you? To take on a project you always thought was too big for you alone? To offer illogical hope to a coworker whose life seems hopelessly broken? To invite a friend to church who’s never seemed open to faith before, and to trust God to draw from him a YES?
So be on the lookout for Christ Jesus on the roads you travel. Once you start looking, you’ll find out he’s not shy at all! He’s everywhere. And he’s a show-off! He’s out to make a racket inside you and me, set our hearts afire, and through us make a holy difference in this wide world. 
Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Pentecost 9, 7/22/18: The Still Point

Sermon for Pentecost 9, 7/22/18                       Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56                          The Still Point                                                                                             

Today’s Gospel is another of Mark’s ‘sandwich stories,’ and if you had heard the whole story, including those two dramatic, in-the-middle miracles, and I’d asked you, “Where’s the beef?” you’d have said the miracles. And I would have agreed. But this morning we aren’t focusing on them—thanks to those who craft our Sunday to Sunday lectionary (the ones who gave Pastor Brook last week’s ‘heartwarming’ story of the beheading of John the Baptist), those miracles were left out.
So we get to focus on the bun, the big, fluffy bun—that is, the stories of the crowds before and after the miracles, wearing themselves out trying to get at Jesus. This rushing around has been common in Mark’s Gospel so far. Everywhere Jesus goes, crowds gather and pursue him. The world around Jesus is spinning.
I remember the world spinning around in my own life. I remember sunny summer mornings as a kid, when my friends and I had run at top speed through the neighborhood yards and then through my side yard and into the backyard green. We stopped there, breathing hard, and then started to twirl. Round and round in place, arms out and sky spinning above us, we twirled until we tumbled down dizzily into the grass and lay still. It was pure joy, that moment of being suddenly still, as all around me continued to spin. At age 9, even with boundless energy, I was tired. I welcomed the still moment.
The disciples who returned from their first assignment in ministry were like twirling 9 yr-olds. They ran out of steam and ran out of words as they breathlessly narrated their adventures to their Lord. All they’d seen and said, those who had welcomed them and those who had not, the generous meals they’d been served, the times they’d shaken the dust off their feet and moved on, weary and worn. They’d performed miracles, and they wanted to tell Jesus everything. They were full of themselves—spinning around.  
Come away, he said, take a load off and rest. Let’s find a deserted place and a still moment, to recover. Maybe he was, very simply, taking care of them. But maybe he also wanted to show them something—that all that busy-ness, while it had paid off in impressive successes, was not the most important thing for them. Maybe he wanted them to see the value of being still and finding their center again—finding him.   
Jesus wanted that for the crowds, too. Did you notice that just at the place in the story where our reading stops and skips over the big miracles, Jesus had begun to teach the crowd many things. So the teaching comes before the miracle. Teachers can make a difference in our lives—if you’ve ever had an excellent teacher, you know that. One sentence, one image created by inspired teaching can stick with you through your whole life.
The flashy miracles may pack a more powerful punch. But for Jesus the teaching part seems pretty important—more substance than flash. Maybe the teaching is a different kind of miracle, happening not in a grand moment, but in a still moment.  
And Jesus just kept going at the teaching (and the healing that came later), with a store of energy that never ran out. Jesus had energy enough for every sick person lying on a mat, squirming forward for a chance to touch his cloak. Slowly and deliberately he moved through the marketplaces, person by person. A young boy with crooked legs here, an old woman coughing and gasping for breath there, someone’s father, or sister—someone like you, someone like me.
Oh I love the flash as much as the next person: walking on water, making food for thousands from a basket of 5 small loaves, casting out ‘large and in charge’ demons. But for my faith and my trust, I’ll take the ‘savior’ over the ‘performer’ any day—the one with loving hands that move slowly, the one with quiet words that are life-changing, the one with gentle eyes and open arms.
In today’s times, that kind of savior may appear weak to some, and even trivial. Stillness and gentleness may look ineffectual against the strong forces of this time, when on any given day world powers and their dangerous quarrels may seem to hang in the balance of one sentence and how it’s heard, how it’s meant.
But appearances can fool us. We can forget that God has redefined what it means to be powerful. Isn’t our savior a God whose foolishness flies against the wisdom of worldly powers? And isn’t it true that our God’s power comes in the most unlikely forms—a broken body hanging on a cross that becomes the bread and wine for our very lives?
*  Jesus is that broken body…. But at the same time Jesus is the powerful body whose wholeness brings wholeness to anyone he touches.
*  Jesus is the powerhouse of abundance…. But at the same time Jesus is the one still point in the swirling chaos of a storm, or a restless crowd, or a band of disciples that’s breathless to describe all that they’ve done.  
In the midst of confusion, chaos, weariness or just plain busy-ness, Jesus IS a still moment—a gift of grace.
Writer Frederick Buechner assures us: grace “means something like this: [God says] Here is your life. …. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.” (Listening to Your Life, October 30)
We are saved by grace, Buechner says. But grace is a gift. He puts it this way: “There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.”
All the breathless talk-talk-talk, all the twirling in place that makes you so dizzy you collapse, all the rushing around to get things done…none of that makes you any more filled up with God. And grace doesn’t come your way on account of any of that. The odd truth is that lying still on your mat in the marketplace and allowing him to come to you, or simply collapsing into God’s arms—that’s when grace can touch you. Jesus wanted that for his disciples. He wanted that for the crowds. And he wants that for us.
I’m not advising any of us to stop ‘doing.’ I am simply saying this: No matter how much good we are doing, let’s not sell short the peace and promise of being still, and in the stillness feeling Jesus right there. Let’s fall gladly and often into his everlasting arms. … 
(sing with me)
            What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
            Leaning on the everlasting arms.
            I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
            Leaning on the everlasting arms.
                        Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.
                        Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Amen, and Amen.