Month: June 2018

There are no limits on God’s Love

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was.”

After the storm that was in last week’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples got back in the boat and crossed back to where they were before. Immediately, Jesus is back among the chaos of the crowds, and we have a story of two healings. Often these two are pulled apart and discussed individually, even by biblical scholars, but I think it’s important to look at them together.

One of the leaders of the church comes to Jesus and begs him to come heal his daughter. Jesus has compassion and goes along with this community leader—just as he is doing this, the other story interrupts. A woman, a part of this crowd—a woman who has suffered with a condition for a dozen years, which has ruined her life—she pushes through the crowd to get close to Jesus, the healer. The blood, the force of life, which has been flowing out of her, has made it so that she cannot be touched by a man. She pushes close to reach out to touch this man, the healer. He felt the force leave him and he turned to see her. “Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Jesus had compassion on this woman, who had been an outsider, who transgressed by touching him. He healed her, and commended her trust in God.

This was in the middle of crowds pressing around, all sorts of pressure and confusion. And the other story returns. Jesus is standing there and people come from the house of the religious leader and say, “She’s dead. Let the teacher go away.” Practical, realistic, discouraged people, just giving up. Jesus looked at these fearful and discouraged people and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” The people believed that the chance for healing was lost, so they dismissed the healer. But Jesus would not accept their resignation and dismissal, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus knew far more about life than they knew about death.

Jesus got to the house, and the people laughed at him. He said she was asleep, and they laughed at him, and Jesus said to them, “Please, just go outside for now.” He took the parents into the room, took the girl by the hand and said, “little girl, get up!” And she did. Jesus had compassion on the child, and on those parents of hers, those respectable leaders of the community, and he had compassion on that woman, the ruined outcast. All at the same time. He did not listen to those who were telling him “don’t bother, go away.” Jesus won’t listen to hopelessness, rather he has compassion for those who hurt, who are confused, who are fearful.

There were two healings on that day. Most people would have advised Jesus to pay attention to just one or the other, to choose, to choose the more worthy or the one with the greatest need or the one that agreed with them. Jesus would not do that, and as everybody started to argue more with him, “he put them all outside.” We think we know about compassion and healing, but we don’t, not really—Jesus just tends to healing and being compassionate. Jesus just shakes his head and sends them outside—there are no limits on God’s love, in particular, not limits that we contrive.

People are often most hurt by the limits that others put on God’s love—usually, trying to defend their own claims on God or their own privilege, they conclude that others should get out of the way—like that woman with the hemorrhage, she shouldn’t interrupt Jesus getting to the house to heal the important man’s little girl.

Jesus has mercy and compassion for more than just us here—his compassion is for all those outsiders, for those refugee families being held in detention in the southern deserts, for children taken from their parents. At Calvary, we know that we are called to be a welcoming community. We know that, not because I said it, but because that’s what arose out of our community gathered together. That’s what’s important here, what’s important to you. Anyone who is welcomed, is first a stranger, an outsider—like the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, outcast and destitute. Jesus calls us to welcome those who aren’t inside, but outside, those who aren’t “just the right kind of people,” and perhaps people who like that woman, might make others just a bit uncomfortable.  Why? Because there is always something about every person that is a little on the outside, that makes somebody uncomfortable, and if we don’t give mercy on that score, we’re all on the outside. Our psalm today says,

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.

 

Jesus welcomed them and brought God’s mercy. When they had given up hope, even for their own daughter, Jesus went in anyway, and said, “Talitha cum.”

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,

More than watchmen for the morning.

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He rebuked the Wind, and said to the Sea, “Peace”

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The Sea of Galilee is an inland freshwater lake near the current border between Israel and Syria. It’s quite large, but not nearly as large as Lake Champlain, large enough for a fishing industry, but small enough that one could always see the other side. When I was a little kid, I went fishing with my father pretty frequently. One place we fished was at a local reservoir that was about a quarter the size of the Sea of Galilee. There was one time that we were out in my Dad’s small boat with an uncle and three of my cousins, trolling for bass and mostly catching catfish in the middle of Lake Lowell. Like the Sea of Galilee, Lake Lowell is in the midst of arid farming country. The sun was hot, the sky was blue, without a cloud. Well, except for one tiny one far off to the Southwest. So we were out fishing for a while, and suddenly that little cloud was overhead—I don’t know how long it had been, not long—suddenly it was getting dark and windy and rain was starting to pelt down. As we retrieved our lines, my Dad struggled to get the main motor of the boat started. The waves were higher than the sides of the boat. As soon as the motor started, Dad pointed the boat toward the closest point on shore and ran full speed onto the rocky beach. As soon as we stopped, the boat completely filled with water.

It was scary to be out in the middle of a desert lake in a sudden storm. The disciples’ boat was probably not much bigger than our boat. It was dark, so they couldn’t see the storm coming. When the storm arose they were in real danger and they knew it. The waves were coming into the boat and all they had were their oars working against the wind. They didn’t even have a 35-horsepower Evinrude to push them to shore. And there was Jesus. Asleep in the back of the boat. Remember, he had been doing a lot of healing and teaching and dealing with a lot of people over the past few days. Sometimes it was so crowded he didn’t have time or space to eat. We all know that feeling—sometimes, like Jesus, we all just crash on the nearest couch cushion.

Teacher! Don’t you see that we are perishing? The disciples were about out of their minds. Jesus looks up and says, “Peace! Be still!” I don’t know whether he was talking to the disciples or to the wind. They certainly thought that he stopped the wind, and perhaps that’s just what the story is about. But when I read the story more carefully, it’s about danger and fear.  I remember my Dad, as that storm was coming up, he was very focused. I don’t know how he was feeling, but he was calm, making sure the fishing lines were in the boat, and attending to the cranky old Evinrude, making sure it started, making sure we got to the shore. There really wasn’t any time for panic.

Now the text says that Jesus, “rebuked the wind, and talked to the sea.” The facts were real, the threats from the natural forces were real. Jesus faced those forces of nature and spoke to them and they calmed down for him. We shouldn’t be so naïve or so arrogant as to think that every fact and every threat in nature will be dissolved by the subjective feeling of faith or believing or confidence. That’s not what is going on here. What happened here raises this question: “Who then is this man, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The stilling of the storm reveals Jesus as someone different: the Lord of the Sea and the Sky, the Son of God, who is here to protect his people. He has told them to cross the lake and he is with them, protecting them on that journey.

If we look ahead, in the next verse Jesus and his disciples land at a place and are confronted by a man from the tombs, a man living among the dead, who is possessed by a Legion of demons. This journey is to cast out demons and restore the dead to life—the storm in our story today takes us into the very real dangers and the very real fears that we experience along the way in our journey to life and health in Jesus. We are called on a journey that is not necessarily safe, and it almost certainly will have hardships. The journey is toward abundant life, life in God. We are not significantly different or better than Jesus’ first disciples, there are times of fear or anxiety. Things are happening and it’s unclear where God is or what God is doing. And Jesus is just asleep in the back of the boat. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to our families? This church? This country?

Jesus! Jesus, Jesus! Don’t you see that we are perishing??

And he says …

Be still.

[ …   …   …]

Why? Are you afraid?   Reflect on that a minute. All these things that cause fear, are they keeping you from rowing the boat, getting your line in out of the water, cranking up that outboard motor?

Then the next thing he says—let’s leave off our theological overlay and translate it from ordinary Greek: How is it you do not have trust, or confidence?

 

God is here. Loving us and protecting us. Loving us forward into life, into living in ways that might be less comfortable, but more life-filled. Into life filled with hope because we accompany Jesus in healing and giving life to others, a life of thanksgiving and generosity. Our Faith in God is our Trust in that Love that God gives, our Confidence that God gives life to all God’s people.

I don’t want to forget today to thank Mother Ann Holt for her ministry among us. She is an example of calm among storms, and wisdom when people might be lost or fearful. I have learned much from her, and appreciate her great skill and faithfulness as a pastor. Remember those times that Ann has given love, caring and guidance to each of us. We carry that in our hearts and our lives. Thank you Ann, for continuing with us in our life together in Christ.

The Seed would Sprout and Grow, He does not Know How

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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.

In March, several of us gathered together with Mother Ann on a Saturday morning to read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud to one another. It took about an hour and a half. It’s a profound experience. You get a real feel for the urgency of the story moving forward so quickly; the Gospel of this Jesus moving toward its ending; the crucifixion and the proclamation of his resurrection at the empty tomb. Today’s Gospel lesson is from the fourth chapter of Mark, so I quickly re-read the first four chapters. It starts with John the Baptist calling for repentance and baptism. Jesus appears, is baptized, and emerges in Galilee proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Then what we have is a series of vignettes of Jesus casting out demons and healing people and being criticized for doing so, usually for flimsy or legalistic reasons that masquerade as piety. And then we arrive at Chapter Four and Jesus starts talking about seed.

Why the sudden shift? From the outset of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now he’s explaining it. The word kingdom always referred to the ruler, not to an organization or a region.  You would have the kingdom of a despot, or the kingdom of a tyrant, or of an emperor. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people demanded a king, and God’s basic response was, “You’ll be sorry, but here you go…” The idea was, if you had an army and drove out any other army, then you were the king. At that time, it wasn’t a question of whether a dictatorship or a democracy or some other form of governance would prevail—the question was who would be the ruler. So when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about the Rule of God, pre-empting the authority of the rulers of this world.

Jesus starts by demonstrating God’s rule—casting out the demonic forces that spread hate and distort our views of the world, and healing the sick and those who suffer. In today’s passage, he explains what it all means: “The rule 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.” God is ruling and the seed is growing, but it’s growing of itself. It arises and it is not under any particular control. These little bits of nothing, that make up just a smidgen of what you would grind up to make your daily bread or breakfast cereal, they are alive and they are free. Scattered on the ground, they sprout, take root, and grow. The planter does nothing to make it happen. Now some of us have gardened, and even farmed, and we know many things go into having a successful crop—removing weeds, making sure there is the right amount of water, and so forth. But the seeds grow of themselves, their life is free. And so it is with the rule of God. Life is free, it is abundant, and it doesn’t appear because we control it.

Another thing. The Rule of God doesn’t work out like we expect it to. The second parable in today’s Gospel is also about seed—but it focuses on the single mustard seed—small, but when it grows… it grows and grows… and the mustard plant becomes huge, among the biggest of annual plants, big enough for birds to nest in. All from one very small seed, confounding the expectation of our human intuition. Our human intuitions often lead us astray. We make quick assumptions, based on a couple of observations, and rely on them to make complex judgments. That is dangerous if we don’t adjust those judgments as we go along. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Samuel was instructed by God to go clandestinely to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king. After arguing a bit with God, Samuel follows instructions and goes to see Jesse and his sons. Samuel follows his intuitions and assumes that the tall, strong, good-looking, confident eldest son is the one that God was talking about.  He makes the assumptions that we are all inclined to make. But God calls Samuel to something deeper and much less obvious. After going through all of the candidates that anyone, including Jesse and Samuel, would have thought were appropriate, none of them was actually the one called to be anointed to serve as King of Israel.  It was the little kid, who had been detailed to stay out with the sheep, the least likely candidate, the one who violated all the intuitions and assumptions of those who thought they were discerning. The truth is much deeper than our impulses and the rule of God is not about how we feel about things, or what we choose in order to feel good about ourselves.

The Rule of God is the rule of love—not coercion or control. It is the rule of life growing healthily according to God’s design and not our intuition. God’s Rule is the rule of hope and freedom, not of desolation and violence.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Icon by Kelly Lattimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/

This week we have seen things in the news that are problems stemming from human intuitions that coercive control and intimidation can solve problems. When children are taken from their parents, that is a violent act. The purpose is to control, intimidate and deter people—it is to terrorize people. We have a name for that. This kind of thing happens, not when people decide that they want to be evil, but when they decide that their intuition to control and coerce will be the shortcut to making everything fine. It is not the Rule of God. It is the temptation against which Jesus teaches us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The demons which Jesus cast out are those temptations to evil that embed themselves in people and institutions. They terrorize people and become barriers to trusting the God of Love.

The Kingdom of God is here, like seed scattered in the fields and growing to maturity. At that time God will harvest it, God will harvest the harvest of love.

St. Paul said it this way to the community at Corinth this morning:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: See, everything has become new!