Monthly Archives: January 2016

Sermon 24 Jan 2016: “Access, Perspective, & the Kingdom of God”

Text: Mark 5:21-43

There’s the old saying: “It’s all a matter of perspective.”  You know, the glass is half empty or half full; you’re either the hammer or the anvil; life is what you make of it.”  The other day I was getting the oil changed in my truck and while I was sitting in the waiting room at the dealership, I was checking my email on my phone.  One of the emails was an advertisement for a Christian conference.  It had some catchy title I don’t remember, but I do remember the caption below it: “Keeping Christ first and at the center of your life.” 

It’s a pretty common concept, isn’t it?  Christ and God at the center of our lives.  Isn’t that the goal, the sweet spot for every Christian?  Through thick and thin, good or bad, the ups and downs….God first.  God at the center.  As I read this morning’s text this past week, the perspective of God first and at the center of our lives got me thinking: how does that affect how we read these stories about Jairus and this hemorrhaging woman?  If it’s about Jairus and this woman keeping God at the center of their lives, or at least the idea that God is at the center of their lives, just what kind of faith and what kind of life is that?  

I would seem that Jairus has an easier time of it.  He’s a leader of the synagogue, he’s got some clout, and so he’s got sort of a backstage, all access pass to Jesus.  All he has to do is walk up to Jesus and make his request: “heal my daughter” and no one questions him for doing it, save for a few skeptical laughs that Jesus can actually raise his daughter from the dead.  The woman on the other hand, healing is a bit harder to come by.  Her bleeding makes her unclean, so to even touch Jesus would be a violation of religious laws and customs.  Add to that fact she’s a woman…..she’d be lucky to just get Jesus’ customer service to answer the phone much less get through the lengthy screening process.  So she has to sneak around, fight her way through the crowds, and try to touch Jesus and walk away undetected.

If a life of faith is about keeping God first, keeping Christ at the center of our lives, then the implication is that well, it doesn’t work the same for everyone.  Access to Jesus is a walk in the park for some, and a constant battle for others.  Not everyone has the same access.  There’s a pecking order in the Kingdom of God; it’s based on status, who you are, and whether your fit the norms and rules of the day.  And then there’s the whole thing about healing in our modern day world: what does it mean when our longing and prayers for healing go seemingly unanswered?  Does it mean that God is NOT at the center of my life?  And what does that say about the Kingdom of God?

Now I understand the perspective of God being at the center of our lives…..I see how that works for people.  But perhaps such a narrow perspective keeps us from a different perspective this morning:

What if God isn’t at the center of OUR lives, but rather, we’re at the center of GOD’S?  

What if Jesus was right when he announced that the Kingdom of God had come near to us, and not the other way around?

In our text today, despite all the complexities around who has access to the Kingdom of God, the implications on what that means to live a life of faith, and if we can even do that well, people like you and I find themselves caught up in Jesus’ healing power and the Kingdom of God.  Jairus is standing there with his backstage VIP pass and the woman standing there, having snuck past the crowds and Jesus’ security guards.  The wailing and crying and scoffing and skeptics are caught up in it too. The Kingdom of God isn’t anything like Disney’s Magic Kingdom where all life’s problems go away. The Kingdom of God is the grace and power of God coming near to us in a messy, complex world and catching us up in something completely different: the wholeness and healing that comes when God’s grace raises us out of hopelessness and despair that crushes and kills people on a daily basis….people, whom God loves.

And if the Kingdom of God is indeed that near, if we all truly are already standing at the center of God’s life, then we as Jesus’ disciples, we as the church have to ask: how have  people’s access been limited to it, whether intentionally or unintentionally?  Are there barriers and attitudes and boundaries that exist that push people to the margins of the Kingdom, and how do we work to remove them so those same people might turn towards God and believe in the good news that they are at the center of God’s life?

While we do that discernment and work, let us remember that no matter where we find ourselves in this life or in our faith; no matter what OUR perspective might be, we always find ourselves at the center of Jesus’ life and the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

 

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Sermon 17 January 2016: “The Parable of the Sower, Lottery Tickets, Wrestlers, & the Kingdom of God”

Text: Mark 4:1-20; 33-34

I left my house Wednesday morning to head over to church for a meeting and while I was driving down the road, I realized I forgot my coffee!  Well, like a lot of you I certainly can’t function without it, so I stopped by the local Wawa (convenience store) to grab a cup.  As I walked in, I noticed something that I hadn’t really paid attention to in all my trips into the store, despite the fact I’ve walked by it plenty of times.  But it was right there, in big, bold letters: POWERBALL.  The Powerball Jackpot was up to 1.6 billion dollars and I thought, “Why the heck not?”  So I went up to the machine, put in my 4 dollars and bought two tickets for the big drawing on Wednesday night.  I bought my coffee, jumped in my truck, and resumed my drive to church.

Now like a lot of people who bought lottery tickets on Wednesday, I asked my self the big question, “What am I gonna go if I win?”  And so I started planning out this pretty elaborate plan of all the things I would do with the money: I’d pay off Kelly’s student loans; make some of those renovations to the house back at the farm; Kelly and I would give to a couple of congregations and causes we care about; we’d probably set up investments to take care of our families for generations to come; and I thought, that motorcycle that I really don’t need but really want….that wouldn’t be a problem convincing Kelly…..

As I think about it, I had logically planned all this out as if winning the lottery was all but a done deal, which doesn’t really make any sense at all.  The odds of winning were about 292 million to 1, and as the numbers came out at 11pm that night, those plans really didn’t make any sense as I looked at my ticket and not a single one of my numbers got drawn.

Parables are stories or examples in which there’s a hidden meaning or message behind them.  Jesus used parables to teach the crowds all sorts of things during his ministry.  Those parables often didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the folks listening to them.  In fact, they didn’t even make sense to Jesus’ disciples either, which prompted Jesus to sometimes explain them to them, like he did in today’s story.  Yet even then, Jesus’ words continued to make no sense to them.  And the problem, I think, was this: if you think about parables, at least from a conventional sense, they don’t make a whole lot of sense.  In fact, you run into some pretty significant problems.

In today’s parable of the sower, Jesus’ explanation gives us an idea of who’s who in the parable: God is the sower, the seed is the Word of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus.  And Jesus is sown across all kinds of soil, soil that perhaps we can think of as ourselves.  Yet, the sower doesn’t seem to pay any attention to where’s the seed’s being sown and that seed seems to get wasted.  In terms of effectiveness, the Word of God is only about 25% effective.  And what does it mean that the Word of God goes unheard, and doesn’t always have the power to change things?  Then there’s the whole matter of the soil: it can’t change, it doesn’t get fertilized or worked so it can produce good fruit.  The implication is that if we’re the soil, we can’t change, and what does that mean that there might be some of us who don’t produce a good harvest?  In the parable of the sower, Jesus is describing what the Kingdom of God is like.  This is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Jesus has proclaimed has come near in Chapter One of Mark’s gospel.  Yet it’s a Kingdom that doesn’t make sense, at least in the conventional ways we think or understand.

What then, do we make of this parable and the Kingdom of God?

I know I talk about them a lot, but if you’ll indulge me once more, I’d like to tell you another story about my wrestlers and wrestling team I coach.  This past weekend, our team won yet another tournament…but this time, we beat one of the best teams in the state by about 30 points.  Not expected, but not the story that matters this morning.

The story I want to tell you happened just before one of my wrestlers was about to wrestle his match for 3rd place.  It’s sort of convention that wrestlers will prepare for their matches by going off to a secluded corner, not talking to anyone and with a serious look on their face as they mentally prepare for their match. And it’s convention that you’ll see wrestlers moving around, warming up their bodies, shadow wrestling in that corner as they prepare themselves physically as well.

Well, my wrestler was no different…yet while he prepared in the corner, this other young man began to make his way through the crowded gym, joking around with everyone.  This young man, who happened to be mentally handicapped, picked my wrestler warming up in the crowed, and with a lot of excitement, made his way over to my wrestler and began striking up a conversation with him, and attempting to wrestle around with him.  I overheard a bit of the conversation, and this kid was asking my wrestler all sorts of questions, exclaiming that he too was going to be a great wrestler himself, and wanting to show him some moves.

Now convention would have allowed my wrestler to politely blow off this kid, or pass him off to someone else.  No one would have blamed him since he was about to wrestle a match in 2 minutes.  But my wrestler did something unconventional: he struck up a conversation with this kid.  He wrestled back with him and joked around a bit until the final buzzer sounded on the match before his, I tapped him on the back, and told him “you’re up,” and he headed out onto the mat to wrestle.

He made the kid feel important.  And I saw right there….the unconventional Kingdom of God.

The good news is that God has sown Jesus into all places of the world, and the Word does takes root and flourishes, but in the unlikeliest of places, the unlikeliest of people, and in all sorts of unconventional ways.  The point Jesus is making about through parables like this one today is that the Kingdom of God is an unconventional thing, and works in unconventional ways. As Jesus’ disciples, maybe we’re simply called to listen…and to tune ourselves into where this unconventional Kingdom of God breaks into the world and in our lives.  As Jesus’ disciples, perhaps it’s simply our job to point it out and take part in the Kingdom of God when it makes itself known and comes near to us.  And when I think about what it means to be church and when I think about our church, there have been a number of ways the unconventional Kingdom of God has shown itself in my time with you all.

Maybe you remember two years ago, when we took part in God’s Work, Our Hands weekend by hauling a bunch coolers full of bottled water downtown, and giving them away to people who were walking around the Farmer’s Market on that 90-degree day: The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

Or maybe you’ve provided food or helped back meals for elementary school kids as we’ve worked with Faith Lutheran, Suffolk on their Micah’s Backpack feeding program, which provides food over the weekend for kids who may not have things to eat when they go home: The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

Or maybe you took part in the Unconventional Kingdom of God this past summer,  as a tour of the Portsmouth Colored Library Museum and Emmanuel AME Church downtown, which was a hiding place for slaves on the Underground Railroad, was organized by one of our members and people came together to reconnect to the history of race and civil rights in our country, so that we might address issues of race that plague our country today.

And then there were four women this past summer who never thinking this would be there thing, accepted the invitation to attend Synod Assembly this year.  These four women, two from each congregation, traveled together and endured a lot of sitting on uncomfortable chairs, but a relationship between them took root, ideas were shared, and a monthly book club where folks from both congregations have taken part has grown.  The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

And you have learned to share…..you’ve learned to share when for years you’ve never really had to consider sharing with any other church.  And in sharing things like pastors and secretaries despite some of the growing pains fruit has been produced out of that endeavor.

God has sown seeds of good news in this place: in unlikely, but fertile, soil.  And as we take time to recall some of these ways the Kingdom of God has come near, we can hope knowing that God continues to sow Jesus and that as God’s disciples, if we just open our imaginations a bit, tune ourselves into the Word of God still speaking, this unconventional Kingdom of God comes near….all we have to do is look for it.  Amen.

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Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, 2013 & Leadership…What do they have in common?

If you opened this up after reading the title, I thank you for letting your curiosity get the best of you. 

So, what’s going on here? I think I can sum this up pretty quickly. First, the Birth of Jesus: God comes to us in the form of a small baby. It goes well beyond salvation, forgiveness of sins, etc. It shows us that God is found in unlikely places. God works in and values things that the world doesn’t – like the humble instead of the grand; vulnerability instead of power.

And John the Baptist…..his whole message can be summed up like this: PAY ATTENTION.  Pay attention because God is near; the Kingdom of God is at hand. Pay attention because God doesn’t reveal himself in the things the world pays attention to.

Which brings me to the New Year (2013)…..a lot of people are making goals and resolutions. I don’t. But I do reflect, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of that. I reflect on tragedies that happen in small elementary schools, small towns, inner cities, and suburbs. I reflect on arguments between politicians and differences over solutions to fix big problems in this world. I reflect on arguments over correct theology. I reflect recent, sudden deaths of people in my life. I reflect on how cancer takes so many people before their time. I reflect on the struggles my wrestlers go through in the midst of our season.

The truth is, I’ve been wrestling with a lot in my life, and I bet that it’s true for people all over. I try to make sense of not only everything that’s happening in the world and what my Christian faith has to do with it all, but also where to go moving forward – in my work, in my relationships, and honestly, just in each day – one step at a time.

Let me be very blunt for a second. We have this preoccupation in our society with “big problems.” We like to get caught up in the big issues, and how everything is going to possibly fall apart. And we have this obsession with trying to fix those big problems. We get fixated on arguing about what legislation, law, or reform will solve things, and we believe in the lie that we will make it all go away.

Frankly, I think our church and Christians get way too caught up in pointing fingers on who’s to blame for the problems in our world. We get way too fixated on advocating and taking hard stances on human solutions and passing them off as being “prophetic” and bringing God’s “justice” to the world. We get too caught up speaking for God, and honestly, trying to be God ourselves. And the whole time God is saying: PAY ATTENTION.

Engaging in the world’s problems and working for justice is certainly a part of being Christian, and being the church in the world. But what does it mean when we spend all our time trying to fix a health care system and lobby for gun control, and we don’t realize we’re marginalizing those who we label as offenders? What does it mean when we spend all our time talking about how the government should be providing for people, when the church doesn’t lift a finger itself? What does it mean when we spend all our time proclaiming how the rest of the world should be the church, and we aren’t being the Church?

In all my reflection, I feel that we’ve lost a sense of paying attention to the simple, the humble, the things and people in our spaces around us. And for me, that’s what I think God is telling us in the story of God coming among us as a small baby of humble beginnings, and in the story of a “voice crying in the wilderness.” Pay attention to the small things, the unlikely things.

Pay attention to your family and friends.
Pay attention to people at work, in your neighborhood, on the street.
Pay attention to people who are angry, without hope, in despair.
Pay attention to people who are hurting and in pain; suffering and mourning.
Pay attention to people who are asking us questions about faith – even skeptical ones.
Pay attention to people without compassion or caring; who are selfish and cold.

Pay attention to them, look them in the eye and really see them. And love them. Reach out to them. Care for them. Listen and talk with them.

Pay attention to need for both accountability and grace in God vision of justice….and in ours. 

It won’t be perfect. It’ll probably scare the hell out of you because well, entering into the reality of our world is scary. Heck, nothing profound or big will come out of it most the time. But, it’s what it means to be the church, and what it means to be a person of faith.

And those of you who lead God’s people, who serve in ministry: PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention to the things and people immediately around you; be fully present in and with them. And be courageous enough to talk about them with others with accountability and grace in the words you say. 

I’m going to take that as a challenge for myself this year and really wrestle with it. And perhaps, that’s exactly where God is and has been telling us he’ll meet us the whole time….now that’s a crazy thought, isn’t it?!

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