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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Fear, Trust, and Response (4 Pentecost B)

4th Sunday After Pentecost (B)

Job 38:1-11; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

What are you afraid of? Really afraid of? What makes that panicky feeling rise up inside you to where you aren’t sure you can fully control your response? Spiders, snakes? Heights, close spaces? You won’t measure up, aren’t good enough? Failure, death?

Regardless of what terrifies us, our fears are real and our response to fear is powerful. When you are beginning to panic, your response to your situation is entirely different than when you are calm and rational.

Jesus’ disciples are panicking. They don’t think about the fact that they really are being rather rude. They don’t think about the fact that this is Jesus in the boat with them—the man who casts our demons and heals sick people. The strength of this storm is so violent that these professional fishermen, who spend their life on this sea, are terrified because they are beginning to drown right now. They are staring death in the eye, and the darkness and chaos of the sea are about to engulf them and take them down under the waves forever.

Sometimes you can’t control what you’re afraid of. When you are experiencing fear, you are experiencing fear. So I think we can cut the disciples a little bit of slack here. I mean, I saw George Clooney in “The Perfect Storm.” I think they probably have reason to be terrified.

We can’t always control those things that terrify us. We don’t have the capability of keeping every situation in our world calm and smooth. Sometimes the chaos comes. Sometimes our lives are out of our control. Sometimes we are just afraid. That is something we cannot control.

But we don’t have to respond out of our fear.

These disciples are terrified, and with good reason. But their response to the storm and the waves comes from their fear. “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” they cry out. It’s a cry of fear, of terror. And they expect Jesus to be terrified with them. “We’re dying! Didn’t you notice? Don’t you care?” They are panicking, losing control. Their fear is dictating their words and their actions.

But it doesn’t have to be so. Jesus is in the boat with them. Their fear is stronger than their trust in him right now. The presence of the storm is more significant to them than the presence of Christ. Their response shows it.

Now Jesus stills the storm anyway. He commands the sea to be still; he rebukes the wind into calm. Immediately the storm is over and the sea gentle. Whether the disciples trusted him in this situation or not doesn’t seem to matter. Jesus is present and takes care of the situation, regardless of how the disciples panic, regardless of their lack of faith, regardless of the fact that they are more afraid of the storm than they are the one who has power over the storm. Jesus is there. He can always calm the waves.

Do you think the disciples’ response would have been different if they trusted Jesus regardless of their fear? The storm would have been the same, they’d still be in the middle of the waves and the wind. They’d still be terrified. The presence of Jesus would have been the same. The outcome would probably have been the same. But what could the disciples’ response to their fear of the storm have been?

Not that trusting Jesus means avoiding storms—absolutely not! Jesus is the one who had them get into the boat to go across to the other side of the sea. He led them into the terror of the storm! Following Jesus may lead us right into chaos and fear! But he goes with us. Trusting that he goes with us can make all the difference.

Since the storms and our fear are out of our control, perhaps our response when terrified might make a difference as to how we handle our fear. When we do face the waves that threaten to drown us, the wind that capsizes us, the fear that paralyses us, what difference might it make to trust in the presence of Jesus in the midst of that storm? How could trusting Jesus change how we approach those things that terrify us? How might our response be different?

Instead of a fearful “God, I’m dying. Don’t you care?” what might be a more trusting response? Not to get Jesus to do what they want, but an expression of their trust in the presence of Jesus in the midst of the waves and the wind and the fear. What would have been better for the disciples to shout? Really. What would have been a response coming from trust rather than from fear? . . .

Think of one for yourself. Say it to yourself. Say it again. Write it down. Say it over and over.

This is your storm prayer. This is your wind and waves prayer. This is what you can now pray when you’re frightened. This is your trusting response.

Everyone’s is going to be a little different, but everyone say their trusting response at the same time. Ready? Together!

Again!

Keep this prayer with you. Every time the waves come, pray it! Jesus is with you in the boat, now we can respond that way. What are you afraid of? Really afraid of? What makes that panicky feeling rise up inside you to where you aren’t sure you can fully control your response? Fear may be there, and the storms and the wind and the waves. But so is Jesus. Now we can respond to him when we’re afraid.

When we pray the prayers of the people later in the service, everyone use this as your response to each prayer petition.

Lord, in your mercy. . .

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Posted by on June 24, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Cognitive, Rational, Intellectual Reasoning–or New Life? (3 Pentecost B)

3rd Sunday After Pentecost

Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

If Jesus is so great, and his message of the coming kingdom of God is of such ultimate importance, why doesn’t everyone buy into it? Why aren’t the whole world followers of Jesus? The fastest growing religious group in North America is “unaffiliated.” Why are there such diverse opinions and responses to Jesus?

Apparently it’s always been that way. Even during Jesus’ ministry there were extreme and diverse responses: From chapter 3 in Mark, great numbers came to him from Judea and beyond the Jordan; he’s out of his mind; great multitudes followed him; he has Beelzebul and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.

The reason for the diverse reaction really lies with the message Jesus brings and the primary way Jesus communicated it—through experiences explained in parables. The kingdom of God doesn’t really fit with what people already know. Parables that reveal the kingdom aren’t intellectual, cognitive imparting of information that one can agree or disagree with. They bypass all that and cut directly to the hearer’s life, attitudes, and assumptions. Parables are kind of like jokes—if you have to explain them, they’re no longer funny, and you’ve lost the experience of it.

I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a young man yesterday. He was recently released from prison, was homeless, is a drug addict and an alcoholic, and is gay. In our culture, there aren’t many people who haven’t passed judgment, ignored, or even hated this man. Yet all through the hurtful, hateful parts of his life he was able to articulate the gospel; he knew who Jesus was; it just didn’t make any difference. He told me that it wasn’t until he experienced God’s unconditional love through the church he’s attending that the gospel had any effect on him. He now owns a business and has been clean and sober for almost a year. He said that he is so deeply loved by his fellow church members that he finds himself actually loving those who have hated him. It wasn’t being able to intellectually understand the gospel that made a difference, it was the experience of the living Christ—enfleshed in the love he experienced in his congregation—that transformed him.

Jesus could have presented a clear, rational, logical PowerPoint presentation on the effects of the kingdom of God based on demographics, interests, and spiritual giftedness. He could have charted its progress, and backed it up with statistics of the difference in the world since the kingdom of God has broken into history. Part of me wishes he had. But it would have killed the point he was trying to make.

The problem is the kingdom of God cannot be encapsulated in an intellectual exercise of cognitive reasoning. That’s the point, I think. It’s not something we understand, not something we grasp, not something we make happen. But like a parable, like a joke, like an experience; it grabs us in our life and changes us by the experience of it. Or it doesn’t. At least not now. Maybe later.

Isn’t that the point of these parables? They reveal the experience of the kingdom of God touching our lives in a way we can experience and live.

The first one: the kingdom of God grows up around us without our knowing how. We could stop and analyze the growth properties of various grains and extrapolate a positive correlation between certain Middle Eastern agricultural vegetation and Christian faith. Yeah, if you wanted to kill the parable and reduce the kingdom of God to a horticultural Science Fair project.

Or the second one: a small mustard seed growing into a huge shrub where birds nest. A mustard seed is NOT the smallest seed and the grown shrub is NOT the greatest one. You can go that way if you want to slaughter the point and lose the experience that Christ is labeling for us.

We don’t have many mustard bushes here, so that makes it even more tempting to analyze this parable to death. But consider this—mustard plants were considered pesky, potentially rampant weeds. And the birds coming to make nests in the branches meant that they’d be eating the seeds the farmer was trying to plant. The people of that culture looked at mustard bushes kind of like we look at crabgrass in our lawns. You don’t want it, and if you don’t do something about it, it will take over your lawn and bring other pests with it.

So try this: the kingdom of God is like crabgrass in your lawn. If you’re not careful, it will take over your lawn.

Don’t you find yourself trying to explain that away? The kingdom of God can’t be like crabgrass! Can you feel that kind of grinding your life gears? Most adults would hear that and their knee-jerk reaction would be, “No way!” But his point is more that the kingdom of God is different than we think, and comes in ways we don’t expect.

Some get it. Some don’t. Some get it now and then don’t later and then do again. Some get it, then get it again, and then again. But these kingdom of God parables aren’t about convincing people with rational arguments, but helping them live in it. Kingdom of God has come in Christ. As it intersects with our lives we have a chance to experience it. Sometimes with “aha!” and sometimes with a “huh?” But hang in there. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come—here in this world, present in your life. It doesn’t always make sense, and cannot always be explained.

But when the kingdom touches you—and you experience the freedom of real forgiveness, the humility of unconditional love, the awe of authentic grace; when the shame, embarrassment and guilt that are part of your life experience begin to fall away, you know the reality of it because you’ve experienced it. You can try all you want to explain it, but it won’t make any difference. The reality of it comes as it touches us in our real lives.

That’s what the church exists for. Not to argue anyone into the kingdom of God with intellect and reasoning, but to reveal its presence in their lives now—to help them experience forgiveness, love, and grace. To point out that these things have touched them because of the presence of Christ.

Listen again as Paul summarizes this in part of our second reading, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That’s the experience in Christ that can’t be rationalized away. Be open. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s just Jesus.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Jesus Meets us in Abnormality (2 Pentecost B)

Pentecost 2

Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1; Mark 3:20-35

He’s out of his mind. Yeah, he’s had some success, but it’s deluded him. He needs to be restrained. And that’s what his friends and family are saying!

What’s happened? What has Jesus done to make even his own family think he’s become unbalanced? Whatever he’s been doing is seen as “abnormal.” However they were defining normal, usual behavior, Jesus is operating outside of that.

That makes me wonder . . .

Do we consider the activity of Jesus “normal”? Do we think of not only his earthly ministry then, but what he calls us to do as the body of Christ today, as usual behavior?

If we get serious about Jesus, I’m pretty sure we’d answer a very clear “no.” But we rarely do. Here’s why. We want Jesus to be normal. We want to see him as being like us—because we want to be normal. If we see him as normal, that validates us as normal too.

What that sometimes means is that we pay more attention to the ways his behavior is like us, and less attention to the ways his behavior is different. Sometimes we just ignore some of his more controversial actions. Or if we’re forced to look at them, we might think he’s gone off the deep end a little too.

But what we’re doing is assuming we know what normal is. We assume that our beliefs, our experiences, our attitudes are perfectly, centrally normal. We judge everyone else by that definition. In most of our opinions and values, don’t we all consider ourselves to be in the center? If anyone strays in any direction too far from our perspective, don’t we think of them as a little closer to radical, crazy, needing to be restrained?

Isn’t that starting in the wrong place? We seem to begin with where we fit with the people around us. Not only are we influenced by what people around us consider normal, but we’re judging Jesus by those same, pretty flimsy standards. That’s what bad politicians to be re-elected. (See how normal I am? I’m just like you. Can I have your vote now?) The Lord of all heaven and earth really doesn’t need our vote to be re-elected as Lord and Savior. He’s pretty much got a lock on that job. But also, when you get down to it, isn’t Jesus the one that ought to define “normal” rather than be judged according to a cultural definition of normal?

For him, normal looks quite different than it does in our world. Normal for Jesus is a deep and full relationship with the Father and a whole life being lived out of that relationship. Normal for Jesus is standing with those things that support this full life relationship with God. Normal is standing against those things that inhibit it.

That’s why Jesus has been doing some things that some people considered abnormal, delirious, or even crazy. He heals people, even breaking the Sabbath law to do so. He casts out demons, even if the religious authorities think he’s a chief demon because of it. He makes friends with the unacceptable, even if that means he’s labeled an outcast. He forgives those furthest away from God, even when doing so means he’ll be accused of blasphemy—and put to death for it. He calls for people to give up power, give away money and possessions, and treat the most undeserving people with love, generosity, and compassion. He even forgives his enemies while they are in the very act of killing him.

These aren’t normal actions. But they are actions that take on powers that get in the way of a relationship between us and God. Sin, illness, demons, abusive power, even religion when it robs humanity of life with God. That’s normal for Jesus, and it should be normal for us. But it’s not, is it?

Admit it, when you see someone doing these kinds of things, you think of them as a little bit out-of-touch, don’t you? The Amish community that completely forgave the man who killed one of their kids made huge news. Abnormal. Someone who gives away more money than they can afford is extreme—not normal. Let’s face it; Jesus isn’t normal, and he doesn’t want us to be either.

Look at this another way. When we’re honest, who among us really thinks of ourselves as completely normal anyway? We may want to be, we may try to be, and we may even pretend to be. But deep down, we all have secluded parts of ourselves that we know don’t fit in.

So here’s a proposition. In our most honest moments we recognize our own abnormality. So as long as we’re abnormal, why not be abnormal in a way that gives us life, connects us to God, and benefits the people around us? Why not let Jesus define our abnormality? Why not claim our abnormality—own it—and recognize it as a way Jesus can relate to us? It’s difficult to trust our culture with our abnormalities, but we can trust Jesus with them. When you feel alone, unacceptable, don’t fit in—Jesus understands and stands with you. And it’s through his own abnormality that he gives us life.

To be honest, the closer we follow Jesus the more abnormal we will probably be perceived. Embrace that. Let Jesus’ abnormality fill you up, let it give you life, let it call you into giving life to others. They’re feeling unacceptable too. That’s probably where we’ll connect with them anyway. That’s where Jesus seems to spend his time. Perhaps we should too.

“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

Jesus isn’t normal, and he calls us to a life that isn’t normal either. There’s life in Jesus; full, real, authentic, honest, gracious life with God. That’s not normal. But thanks be to God Jesus give provides it for us.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Holy Trinity–I Don’t Get It

The Holy Trinity

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I’ve come to accept over the years that I simply will never understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Three persons in one God. God-triune. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All different, yet all God. Not three gods, but one God, just in three expressions.

Don’t get me wrong, I can explain it. I’ve done it several times in sermons. I do it every year in Confirmation classes. I give those middle schoolers an excellent theological explanation of this basic Christian doctrine—a belief that separates Christianity from any other religion, philosophy, or ideology in history. I make the explanation simple yet profound. Humorous yet deep. Theologically accurate yet understandable. And every year I get the same blank stares, the same “I thought Jesus was the Son of God, not God. How can God be both Father and Son to himself?” Which are very good questions.

One of the coolest things about teaching Confirmation is that the second you start blowing smoke, middle school kids smell it. So I end up having to admit to them that I don’t get it either. Don’t understand it, I tell them, just know it, because there will be a test on this.

That’s simply not good enough. And yet, how can you explain that which cannot be explained? How can you understand that which cannot be understood? You can’t.

Which kind of leaves a big hole in worship today, as this is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. If it can’t be explained or understood, what do we do today? Instead of explaining God, maybe our time would be better spent attempting to experience God.

You may have noticed we’ve done a few things differently today. A little more formal, a little more dressed up. Our worship space doesn’t necessary lend itself to formality all that well, but there’s a reason for attempting it today. What we’re trying to do is add a sense of importance, even majesty to our worship. We are encountering God together, and nothing can be more important than that. We’re trying to convey a sense of God’s immensity, grandeur, and splendor this morning. Perhaps something like what the prophet Isaiah experienced.

Consider this: the prophet is in the temple, in the presence of God. He experiences a vision of the Almighty—angels, a high throne, the foundations of the temple shaking, smoke. The entire temple is filled up, not with the presence of God, but with just the hem of his robe. That’s how much larger than life the Lord is.

And Isaiah knows at that moment that he cannot survive this encounter. Not that he’ll be struck dead by an angry God, but that simply being in God’s presence will overwhelm him. The presence of God exposes just how puny and unworthy he really is. He knows that he will be swept away in the power and the holiness of this Lord of hosts. He is helpless in God’s presence. He can do nothing but stand there in awe, knowing that he is not worthy of anything but woe from this One whose hem fills the temple. Isaiah has seen the King, the Lord of hosts, and he knows he brings nothing to the table, nothing to this encounter.

That’s the sense of awe I hope you begin to experience today. We are in the presence of a God whose hem fills this whole building. All the creatures of heaven attend to the Lord who has called us here. The earth is full of God’s glory; it shakes the very foundations of this place. To be in the presence of the Almighty is to realize how unworthy, how weak, how sinful, how limited we truly are. There is nothing about us that can have any value to this awesome God. There is no way to be worthy in God’s presence. We are, at our core, insignificant.

Even though Isaiah knows he is inconsequential in the presence of God, note what happens.

One of the angels, a seraph, takes a live coal from the altar and touches the prophet’s mouth with it. On behalf of God, the angel declares that now that this live coal from God’s altar has touched his lips, he is forgiven, he is holy, he is worthwhile. He has been called  by God. And when God asks who shall be sent, Isaiah is able to respond, “Here am I; send me!” He has been made righteous by the God who is infinitely more righteous than he is, and now he can be sent in God’s name. Not because he’s good or believes or holds scripture high enough or gives enough money away, but because God touched him and made him righteous.

That’s the point Paul in making in the Romans text. God adopts us, God makes us heirs, God does it all—not because we’ve good enough, but in spite of that fact that we aren’t!

This mighty, holy, awe-inspiring God claims us out of love for us. That’s what gospel-writer John is trying to get across in the Nicodemus story. God doesn’t ask our opinion, doesn’t consider whether in our puny self-assessment we think accepting Jesus is a good idea or not. God acts, God moves, God loves, and God gives new birth—new life.

And now we are called. God gathers us here, comes to us in his Word, touches us with his presence in bread and wine from God’s altar. And whether we understand it or not, God is the One who makes us worthy, righteous, and holy.

If we worship well, we are aware each week of how puny and insignificant we are on our own. Yet in worship this unexplainable God meets us in love, touches us, and declares our forgiveness. Though we are nothing, the God of all creation loves us and makes us worthwhile. Not because we deserve it, but because God simply defies explanation.

We can pretend to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. But in reality, that doctrine, like God, is beyond our comprehension. And the Triune God, for some incomprehensible reason, has declared our guilt departed and our sin blotted out. Who will go reveal that to the world? Here we are; send us!

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2012 in Sermon

 

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