Recovering Hope and Healing

Recovering Hope and Healing

Sermon on Zechariah 2:10; 9:9-10 and Mark 5:21-43 for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, B, June 28, 2015

Zechariah 2:10; 9:9-10

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion!
For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 8.48.15 PM
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

So, we just read a story in which a child who had died is restored to life.  Last week we saw Jesus cross over from JewishScreen Shot 2015-06-26 at 6.31.57 PM space to gentile space, and now he crosses back to the Jewish side.  What is the point of this story?  Surely is is not that we should all expect a miracle at the point of our deaths.

My expectation is that no matter how successful I am at staying healthy, someday I will die.  After that, I do not expect that someone will come along and bring me back to life in this world so that I can have a few more years to live.  I am not alarmed by that.  I do not fear death.

But I have already lived long enough to have married and have children who are adults, so maybe it is easier for me to be sanguine about death than it would be if I were younger.  Certainly, the death of a child is an enormous sadness.   You can feel the sadness in the story as Jairus, the synagogue leader falls at Jesus’ feet, imploring him to come and heal his little daughter.

Whatever this story is about, it starts as a sad story.  Why tell this story, and why tell it this way?  Before we can understand why telling a sad story was necessary, we need to notice some things.

Story Problems and OddnessScreen Shot 2015-06-26 at 7.48.40 PM

The story has several problems that make it odd.  Imagine it: a leading family, the leader of the Synagogue, has a little girl; everyone in the village knows her by name.  Probably many knew she was ill.

How long was she ill?  We do not know. How long did it take Jairus, her father, to get to Jesus?  We do not know – but there is a serious timing problem here.  In the time it takes for Jesus to walk to his house, not only has the girl already died, but already a lot of people have heard the word of her death and have gathered to begin the communal lamenting.

Some scholars tell us that it would have been normal back then for the family to hire professional mourners.  If they did that, time would have been needed to organize it.  So it is at least odd that they all instantly appear with full knowledge of the girl’s death, and the mourning is already in process when Jesus arrives.  Maybe this timing anomaly is one early indication that we should be reading this story as a parable, and not literally.

The ending is even more odd.  All of the people who gathered to mourn her death would then see that little 12 year old girl alive after Jesus raised her up.  She would have bounded out of the house like kids do, and run off to find her friends and start playing.  This would  have caused a huge stir.  Remember, they really believed she was dead – they even scoffed at Jesus’ suggestion that she only appeared dead, but was merely sleeping.   So, there was no way in the world this would ever be kept quiet, as Jesus strictly commanded them to do.

The news would have spread like wildfire.  Then, parents who had lost children or  people who had lost spouses, or anyone who was in grief over the loss of a loved one, would have flocked to Jesus demanding he raise them back to life.  But that did not happen.  Maybe this story should not be read literally, but should be read as a parable.

If so, then it is a parable that starts with a great sadness – the daughter is sick, and at least very near to death.  What could a parable of a sick and dying daughter be about?

The Daughter of ZionScreen Shot 2015-06-26 at 7.56.47 PM

I selected our reading from the Hebrew Bible from the prophet Zechariah for a specific reason.  In this text, now famous as the Palm Sunday reading, the nation of Israel is called “daughter Zion” and the “daughter of Jerusalem.”  The prophet pictures the nation as a little girl, a daughter, named after Mount Zion, the location of Jerusalem, the capital city, adorned with the one and only official temple to Israel’s God.  The prophet imagines a future with hope and sings,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey”

Zechariah is not unique; other prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah also picture Israel as a daughter.  Zechariah pictures a distant future of hope, but before the hope comes true, the prophets picture the daughter as a victim of horrible violence, nearly dead.  The nation, Israel, is at death’s door.

So we just read a story, not set in Jerusalem at the temple, but out in the countryside were the temple is represented by the local synagogue in which the Sabbath is observed and the Law of Moses is regularly read.  The death in this story happens to the daughter of the leader of that synagogue.  This detail cannot be accidental in this parable.

The Hemorrhaging WomanScreen Shot 2015-06-26 at 8.01.21 PM

In the middle of this story in which Jesus raises the dead, or at least nearly dead daughter of the Synagogue leader, we find another story of sadness.  A woman who has been the victim of both a disease and a health care system that has left her destitute, comes to Jesus, seeking healing.

Should we read this as a parable also?  If we do, what details do we begin to notice.  First, that she is not just sick in general, she has a blood problem.  According to the Law of Moses,  this makes her impure, and anyone whom she touches becomes impure as well (Lev. 15).

The oddness in this story is the whole role played by the issues of secrecy and public knowledge.  This is not just a healing story.  It is the story of an attempted surreptitious healing, and then of a public revelation.   She wanted her touch to be undiscovered, but it was not to be.  At the moment when Jesus is surrounded by people touching him, he asks the oddest question: who touched me?  The disciples even point out how odd the question is.  “Everyone is touching you.”

By this device, her touch is suddenly revealed to the whole crowd.  She is identified, and now everyone knows that this impure woman has touched Jesus.  Everyone knows that Jesus is now impure too.

So now, no matter what happens to that poor lady, if Jesus ventures on to Jairus’ house and touches anyone, they too become impure.  But that is what he does.  Remember, Jesus does not just say odd sounding Aramaic words to the girl, Mark tells us he took her “by the hand.”

But anyway, as soon as the impure hemorrhaging lady was discovered touching Jesus, what was his response?

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Did you hear Jesus call her “daughter?”  She too, was a “daughter of Zion,” a  representative of the nation.  There is another detail to notice.  She had been sick for twelve years; as many years as the other daughter had lived; sick for as many years as there are tribes of Israel.  The parable makes the point clear.

What’s the Problem?

So what are these sad stories of sickness and death, or at least nearness to death, about?  If these daughters represent the nation, what is the illness that needs curing?  What is killing them?

Their understanding of God and what God wants from them is killing them.  Jesus is transforming their whole orientation to God, their entire understanding of what God wants from people.  Following the prophets of Israel even further down the trail they started to blaze, Jesus understood that the purity laws of Moses were only the surface.  In fact, not only were they the surface, their time of relevance had expired.

Moses had played his part.  He had accomplished something huge.  He had replaced polytheism with monotheism.  He had formed a community of people bound together by covenantal obligations and social responsibility.   He had inculcated in them the strong sense that unlike Baal or Zeus, God had moral concerns.  God cares about human behavior.

But now, the time had come to say what the prophets said, and to say it loudly and clearly.

“Mercy triumphs over judgment,”Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 8.28.59 PM

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6).  

“Let justice roll down like waters.”

God does not want rivers of sacrificial oil or thousands of lambs sacrificed to remove the stains of impurity.  As Micah said, instead of those,

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6)

Jesus Shows us God

Basic to our theology is that Jesus gives us our sharpest, clearest view of God.  In what Jesus does and says, we see God’s will and purpose.

God is unmistakably on the side of breaking down walls and barriers between people.   Just as Jesus “crossed over” to the other side, to the gentiles, in spite of the storms of opposition, we see in these stories he he crossed over to women to meet their needs, and he crosses lines of purity taboos.

What God wants most is not for people to keep clear of the sick, the impure, the sinners and the lepers, but to reach out to them with healing love.  The point of Jesus’ ministry is to form a community, not of perfectly pure people, but of repentant people.  People who had come to the conclusion that this could be the kingdom of God, here and now, if we could open our eyes and our hearts, and start receiving it as a child, welcoming the “other” without judgmentalism or disgust, repentant at our past divisiveness and dualism.

And, like those characters in the stories, there is still a lot of sickness left in us all; we all need healing and recovery.  There is no shame in admitting it.  In fact there is shame only in denial – ask anyone in recovery from addiction.  When the disease is faced, and named, then  the healing process can begin.

This Amazing WeekScreen Shot 2015-06-26 at 8.47.43 PM

This has been an amazing couple of weeks in our country.  Our attention has been drawn to the sickness of racism that can still produce death, but also to the hope that the kingdom of God represents, in the form of people committed to breaking down racial barriers.

I am so proud of our governor for single handedly removing the confederate flag from the state capital.  Regardless of the fact that it was not historically the flag of the Confederacy, for most people, including the Charleston shooter, it had become a symbol of racial hatred.  Recognizing that obvious fact, the governor removed it.  There is hope for healing of this tenacious disease.

I am also proud of our supreme court which has removed the barrier to marriage that kept our LGBT sisters and brothers from experiencing equality under the law.  I am proud that our Presbyterian church had recognized that injustice and helped lead the way.

I am proud of this congregation as I have watched you all open your hearts to people of color and and LGBT people.  I am proud that this is a congregation that is on a journey and growing in the kind of boundary-crossing, healing love that Jesus demonstrated.

We are all in processes.  We are all becoming, not just being.  We have come a long way.  As we practice the spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, worship and communion, we find increased capacities for compassion and empathy.   As we stay open to the voice of the Spirit that is still speaking, we are drawn to see that in every category, love wins.  The love of God that brings healing and restoration to our own souls flows though us to bringing healing and recovery to our world of “others”.

And when it works, when strangers become friends, when delight replaces disgust and exclusion becomes embrace, when hostility is exchanged for hospitality, then God becomes present; the impossible becomes possible, mercy triumphs over judgment, and the kingdom of God is at hand, the dead live again, and lamentation gives way to joy.


A Tale of Two Storms: man overboard no more

Sermon on Jonah and Mark 4:35-41 for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, June 21, 2015

Jonah 1:1-16
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,   “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”   But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.18.56 PM

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.   Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.   The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.   Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”   “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”   Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous.  He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.  Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.”  So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.  

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”Storm - Ratner's

One of the things I love about living here on the Gulf Coast is the drama of our thunder storms.  I grew up in Ohio, where it could rain all day in a mediocre way and just make things seem depressing.  But down here, it is different.  Storms can come up quickly in the middle of an otherwise sunny day.  The wind blows, the lightening flashes, and the rain comes down in force.  If you get to watch the storm from a safe place, it is a powerful experience.

Of course, if you are caught out on the water when a storm breaks, it can be deadly, as we all know from the recent Dauphin Island race tragedy.   Ever since ancient times when early humans ventured out onto the water, storms were feared.  Stories of storms at sea abound in ancient literature, including the bible.

We just read two of them, and they are remarkably similar.  In both the Jonah story and in Mark’s gospel, there is a central character, a man in a boat, asleep during a dangerous storm.  In both stories there are other people in the boat, all men, all afraid that they are going to die.  In both stories they wake up the sleeping man, and in both stories, the storm is calmed, and God gets the credit.

You can read this as you wish, but I take all these parallels as an indication that Mark is using the Jonah story intentionally.  He wants us to see the similarities.  The Jonah story, then, becomes key to the meaning of the Jesus story.

The Jonah Boat Story|

Jonah is the story of a miserable man.  He is a Jewish man and proud of his heritage.  He knows who his friends are and who is enemies are.  The people of Nineveh live in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where Israel’s nightmares come from: the Assyrians, the Babylonians.  Both of these empires killed a lot of Israelites; thousands and thousands of them.  The ones who survived were captured and hauled away.

As the story goes, God tells Jonah to go to them, and preach.  So he got on a boat going the opposite direction.  That is a direct “No” to God, so God makes a big storm arise at sea.  Since these are the days of appeasing angry gods by means of sacrifice, and Jonah knows it, he offers himself as the sacrifice; man overboard, the sea calms down, the storm is over.

Then, the fish swallows Jonah alive, and he lives to have a second chance.  This time he does go to Nineveh, the enemy, and he preaches about their impending destruction.  They unexpectedly repent, however, and God relents from punishing them, which makes Jonah angry.  Jonah wanted his enemies eliminated, not saved.  Jonah was a racist.  An angry racist.

The Jesus Boat Story

So perhaps you are now thinking that the surface similarities between the Jonah story and the Mark story are only trivial because they end so differently.  But let us look closer.  Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.45.50 PM

In Mark, when people get into a boat to cross over to the “other side” as it says, they are going from Jewish territory to non-Jewish territory or back the other way.  Think about that for a moment.  There is something deep going on here.  (see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man)

They got into the boat because Jesus specifically asked them to, and it was at an odd time – already evening.  This was not like catching the last bus home; they were not going home, they were crossing to the “other side”.  And the other side was a place where impure Gentile people were.  They were the worst kind of Gentiles, from a Jewish perspective; the were pig farmers.  Now think about what all of those details would mean for the Jewish men in that boat as they crossed over to the “other side.”

This is very much like Jonah going to Nineveh.  It is about going to the “other”.  The ones who are “them,” when you divide the world between “us” and “them.”  And this was Jesus’ specific plan; to cross that border to the “other side.”  It would be like getting in a boat to cross the Rio Grande. The “other side” is not America.

So, on the way to the people who are, the “other” kind of people, Jesus and the disciples encounter a huge storm.  Of course they do.  Storms at sea are perfect symbols of problems, oppositions.

Every person who has stood up for crossing over to the people on the “other side,” that is, for unity, for justice and for equality in places where discrimination and division are the accepted rule of the day,  has faced storms of opposition.

The Brain Storm

Notice, there are always two storms happening at once.  There is the storm outside: the wind, the waves, the environment; the things going on that you have no direct control over.  And there is also the other kind of storm; the internal storm.  The storm going on in the mind, in the heart.  Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.50.01 PM

We all have storms of both kinds going on, practically all the time.  I believe that racism comes from the same place most of our problems come from: a storm-filled mind.

Scientists tell us that there is a primitive part of our brains that operates by instinct and emotion.  If a cat walks by the window of our home, my dog Heart goes crazy, and although she can be trained not to bark, her instincts take over.  The hair on the back of her neck and spine stands up.  She trembles.  She has no control over it.  And, similarly, she has no control over her panic when she hears the vacuum cleaner.  She thinks it is going to kill her.  She is hard-wired to think of herself as either predator or prey, the hunter or the hunted.

Humans have these same instincts. Evolution prepared us to survive and to keep safe by living cooperatively in family and clan groups.  In our evolutionary history, it was important to know who “your people” were because clan groups were often in territorial competition for game and plant-based food sources.   The competition was not symbolic; it was deadly.

So, we developed instincts of recognizing and preferring our kind of people to other kinds of people; we prefer people who look like us, act like us, and speak like us.  And we developed fear, loathing, and disgust for people who were different.

This instinct comes from the same part of the brain that anger comes from.  It is the same place that gives us a black and white, all or nothing way of looking at the world.  We call that dualism.  You are for me or against me.  You either please me or you are my enemy.  This is the judgmental part of the brain.

We humans, because we are self-conscious, can even turn this stormy mechanism on ourselves.  We can fill our minds with storms of self-judgement, self-criticism, failure and guilt narratives.

These mental storms become all the worse if we believe in a judgmental god-narrative to go along with it.  Then, my problems are God’s punishments and curses.  I’m getting what I deserve.  God becomes my biggest problem.

In the Jonah story we have a conflicted God.  On the one and, God gets angry enough about disobedience to cause a life threatening storm.  He is appeased, however, by the man-overboard sacrifice.  On the other hand, God has another side.  God calms the storm, gives Jonah a second chance, and forgives the people of Nineveh after they repent.  In the end, mercy seems to triumph over judgment, without leaving judgment completely behind.

Jesus’ God

Jesus had a profoundly higher view of God, and it changed everything for him.  For Jesus, God was best pictured as a loving Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.56.04 PMheavenly Father.  The kind who would long for the return of the prodigal son, and forgive him the moment he showed up.

For Jesus, there was no mental storm that included an angry God.  There was no fear of punishment, no need for appeasement; no man-overboard sacrifice.

And neither did Jesus have a need for dualistic thinking.  The categories of “us vs. them” seem to vanish.  Look at how Jesus lived his life, crossing over to the other side in every way there was an “other side.”  As a man, he crossed over to women, and as a Jew, to Romans, to Samaritans, and even to pig farming Gentiles.

Jesus was a person who was characterized by acceptance and welcoming embrace of the “other.”  His life was filled with compassion.  He cared about people – poor people, sick people, hungry people, impure people, excluded people; there was no “them” for him; it was all one big “us.”  How could it be otherwise if God was the loving, merciful heavenly father of us all?  It makes all of us family.

Calming the Brain Storm: Spiritual Practices

It is not insignificant that Jesus spent all those times in silent prayer.  Scientists know that meditation and contemplative silent prayer changes us.  It actually does still the storms in our heads.

I cannot believe how helpful adopting this practice has been for me.  I have a long way to go, but now, I have an even clearer picture of how far I have to go. I notice myself, when I let the mental storms clouds build up.  And now I know what to do about it.  I can become still, I can take a deep breath and become present to the moment, and present to the God who is present for all my moments, and say to the storm, “peace, be still.”

There is no room for racism in a peaceful mind.  It is just another useless storm.  Just as there is no room or need for anger and vengeance storms.  When there is calm instead of internal storms, there is no opportunity for resentment and bitterness or jealousy and pride.

Leaving the Monkey Mind Behind

We are not monkeys, living in the trees anymore.  We no longer put bones in our noses or wear animal skins on our backs.  We have no need or use for tribalism.  In fact, we survived, us humans, precisely because we learned how to cooperate.  We became super-cooperators; eu-social as E.O. Wilson explains (The Social Conquest of Earth).
Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.59.37 PM
Our very willingness to not see each other as enemy, even though we do not come from a common clan, is exactly what helped us to achieve civilization, from which comes democracy, freedom and the rule of law, instead of the brutality of instinct.

But the primitive dualistic instinct is still in us.  In the same week that nine people were gunned down in their symbolically important historically black church in Charleston, by a white man trying to start a race war, here in Alabama, in the city of Anniston, two police officers were placed on administrative leave for belonging to white supremacist hate groups.

I have seen the video of one of them expressing his views.  He speaks freely about “our people” to a room full of white people.  The League of the South to which they belong dresses up their beliefs in Orwellian Christian language claiming biblical support.  Storms turn things upside down and wreck them.  This is a perfect example.

Our Vision; the Jesus Vision of the Single Boat

We have a different vision.  We are followers of Jesus.  That means something.  It means that we are in the boat that is Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 1.01.24 PMcontinually crossing over to the other side.  We are willing to face the outward storms that we cannot control, the storms of racism and hostility because we have faced the internal storms.

We believe in a God who is not ambivalent.  We believe believe that mercy triumphs over judgment, and that God’s will is redemption and reconciliation.

So, we grieve over the horrible tragedy of hate crimes, and now, especially we grieve with our sisters and brothers in Charleston.  And we stand with them in their struggle that is not finished.  They are us, and we are them.  We are all in this boat together.  This is the Jesus boat.  And it is always headed to the “other side.”

For this cause we commit ourselves to the Christian practices that still the storms in our heads and open us to compassion to all who are “other”, to contemplation, to meditation, to prayer, that we may join Jesus in his project of reconciliation on the other side.

God in Seeds and Soil

God in Seeds and Soil

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 for Pentecost +3, Year B, June 14, 2015

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Mark 4:26-34Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.18.50 PM
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Our question today is this: how can we know what God is calling us to do and to be?
Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 7.35.41 PM
But before we get to that I wanted to mention something practical and helpful.  I just discovered that scientists tell us that eating nuts reduces risk of death from multiple causes.  That is good news for people like me who like to snack on nuts, at least the ones I am not allergic to.

At this amazing point in history we know a lot that has never been known before about health.  We know that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses and about how  important vitamins and  antioxidants are, such as those found in nuts.

We know a lot about agriculture too.  We now know that the ancient prohibition in the Hebrew Bible against sowing a field with more than one kind of seed is a bit of iron-age thinking that needs to be left in the past (Lev. 19:19).  Planting a garden with what the Iroquois called the “three sisters” corn, beans and squash, is actually beneficial.  The beans grow up on the corn stocks and fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acts as a natural mulch and ground cover.   Now we know.

Seed Parables and Knowledge

We read two short parables about seeds, which is probably what got me thinking about agriculture and modern science and the new things we know.  The parables both reflect an ignorance of how plants grow, and admit to that ignorance.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itselfScreen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.05.49 PM

The farmer does not understand how it happens.  They used to believe that the earth operated automatically.  The phrase “The earth produces of itself” actually literally means, “automatically.”  I am quite sure that they did not mean “mechanistically.” I bet if you pushed them, they would happily tell you that God was behind this automatic process.  Non-Jewish people would probably have a separate god for the different aspects of the process like the rain god, the sun god and various other fertility gods.  Jews gave credit to the one Creator God.  But God seemed to do it automatically; you plant seeds, and they grow.

But though they knew nothing about the importance of nitrogen in the soil, or the antioxidants in nuts, they did know some things about agriculture.  They knew about how many bushels you could expect to grow in your field in an average year.   They knew that some of the seed you tossed would land where it could not grow, like on the rocks (there is another parable about that).  They knew that the pesky birds would eat some of the seeds before they could grow.

They knew that different plants grew to different sizes, and that the size of the seed was not a great predictor of the size of the mature plant.  Mustard seeds are quite small, but the plant grows taller than wheat, which has larger seeds.

They also knew that mustard seeds did not produce trees, certainly not at all like the kinds of tree that, as Jesus says,Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 7.42.58 PM

“puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

So, when they heard this parable of the mustard seed that produced this gigantic tree, they knew that Jesus was talking about something with a deeper meaning.

These parables would have brought up all kinds of questions for the people who were listening to Jesus.  How could the kingdom of God, the God of the entire universe, the Creator God, begin tiny and insignificant like a little mustard seed?  Was not the kingdom, “the age to come”, the “Day of the Lord”  supposed to burst forth like a blaze of lightening or something equally dramatic?

Daniel pictured the coming of the kingdom like a huge rock rolling down a hill, smashing and demolishing a statue, the icon of the empires of the world.  How could Daniel’s rolling bolder be reduced to a mustard seed size?

And, how could anything that started so small and insignificant grow up to become an enormous tree?  As a matter of fact, does not that tree-description sound familiar?  Does it not sound like those magical trees that show up in the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel as symbols of the incredible abundance in the “age to come”, the kingdom of God?  Well of course they do.  The allusion Jesus is making to those prophecies is transparent.

So what is the point then?  What does it mean that the kingdom of God begins, counter to expectations, so insignificantly, and grows to become so great?

When we think about the question we started with, “how can we know what God is calling us to do and to be?” the answer is right here.  God is calling us to catch the vision of the kingdom of God and to join in with all our hearts and souls.

“Kingdom”? or “Realm”: God’s Dream for the World

Maybe we should not use the metaphor of kingdom anymore.  Maybe we should say the “realm of God.”  Kingdom sounds so hierarchical and patriarchal, if not authoritarian.  That is certainly not fitting.  Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.28.45 PM

God is instead inviting people to have a vision of a world that runs by different rules than the world of aggression and acquisition.  It is like a separate realm operating below the surface of the kingdoms of the world.  It is a realm in which people respond to a higher calling.

It is like a  movement of people gathering momentum and building strength, not in response to authority, but in response to a tug on the heart that says, “this is the right way; this is good; this is how it should be”.  In other words, in response to the call of the Spirit, the call of God.  It is saying a trusting “yes” to God in spite of the risks and the fear.

So the realm of God starts small like a mustard seed because it starts invisibly in each one of us as we respond to the invitation.

“Come, follow me,”  Jesus said.  

The Message

Do you remember how simple his message was?  He said, (in the version you probably are most familiar with)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  

Which means exactly this:

“The moment is now, the realm of God is here, change your thinking and trust this message.”

The time is now – not in the future, but already, today.  Change your thinking; how?  In every way that it would have to change if it were really true that Jesus came to demonstrate and to teach something real.  Change your thinking from the standard way of thinking.

So, are you feeling like a lost sheep or a prodigal son or daughter?  Change your thinking about a wrathful angry God, and embrace the loving, God who searches and finds and welcomes all the lost ones back into the family.

Change your thinking from the standard concept about what is important in life, as Jesus taught us.

A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions. 

Rather, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.  Consider the birds of the air.  In fact  spend a lot of time in silent consideration of the present moment, in other words, in meditation, and live in the moment, trusting that your Heavenly Father knows what you need and will provide it for you.

Change your thinking about other people so that you can open your hearts to them.  They will offend you; forgive them.  They will hurt you.  Forgive them.  They will even damage you.  Forgive them anyway.  It is not okay that they act badly, but do not let their actions poison your soul with hate and vengeance.  Rather, wish for them redemption and healing.

Change your thinking about people who are different.  Don’t make them all out to be a threat, but rather, welcome them.  Get to know them.  Ask them questions and find out how they look at life.  You may be shocked at how much you have in common – how you both want the same things: love, respect, safety, to have a meaningful life and a happy family.  You may find out how different you are, how you see the world in such different ways and categories, but you will also learn, by welcoming the stranger, that “different” does not mean “enemy.”  You will learn that when hostility becomes hospitality, the impossible becomes possible, and God is present.

Repent” Jesus said, or rather, “Change your thinking” because the time has arrived and the kingdom of God, the realm of God is here.

Like a Mustard seedScreen Shot 2015-06-12 at 7.42.18 PM

Why can you not see it?  Because it begins small like a seed in the heart.  It begins invisibly like the sprout before it climbs above the surface of the soil.  But it is there, it is growing.  It is producing changes that the eye cannot see from day to day, but over time, growth is happening.

It is like the changes that happen for people who practice contemplative prayer or meditation or yoga; not evident after one or two days, or weeks, but real, and substantial, and cumulative over time.

And eventually, people who answer the call to follow Jesus, to embrace the vision, to trust that the realm of God has arrived, and who live by the values of that realm, experience an abundance of goodness and peace.

The little seed that looked so tiny really does grow up to become a great tree.  The tree is so big that there is even room for the birds to nest.  And instead of needing to drive them off with scare crows to ensure they would not eat your seeds, you leave them be.

They can stay because there is enough.  Enough even after they have eaten their fill, because the realm of God is when people believe that scarcity is not the operating assumption, but rather abundance.

It is a realm, therefore, of sharing food with the hungry.  There will be enough.  In God’s realm, the stranger is invited into the supper table and given a seat.  The oil does not run out in the jar, nor the meal in the bowl.  The five little loaves and scant two fish become a feast for a multitude when they are received with gratitude and broken and shared.

In God’s realm there is justice for all, and no one is rejected.  This is an amazing vision of the world – so unlikely, given our experience of the world around us.  I love what John Dominic Crossan said recently in an interview:

 “The extraordinary thing is that anyone ever came up with a vision of a just world because you sure don’t get that looking around, not in the first century, not a thousand years ago, not today.”  (Religion for Life podcast)

And yet, this is the Jesus-vision of the realm of God.  Where the little mustard seed sized moments have enormous implications.  Like the mustard seed moment when we treat a black person with respect and dignity as we ask them for help at Lowe’s, or when they check us out at the grocery, and it becomes for them a reason to lift their heads up that day.

In the realm of God, the little mustard seed-sized action of accepting and affirming the young person who is gay may prevent a suicide.  Where the mustard seed-sized actions of one person with one vote helps get laws passed and gets people elected to keep us from ruining this planet for human habitation.

Answering the CallScreen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.19.35 PM

How can we know what God is calling us to do and to be?   By answering Jesus’ call:  “Come, follow me.”  Embrace the good news that the time is now; the realm of God is here.  Trust that God is doing something incredibly important and join God in changing every form of thinking needed to follow the Jesus-way.

So, specifically, each of us is invited to hear this as an invitation to ask the question: what is God calling me to do and to be in God’s realm?

What Christian practices do I need in my life to sustain me spiritually as I walk this path of following Jesus?

How can I become more involved in a community of people who encourage each other on this journey?

What direct action can I participate in to live into the vision of justice?

How can I add one mustard seed of goodness into my life, into my family, my community, my nation, my world?


Getting God Wrong: Blood and Soil and the Planet

Getting God Wrong: Blood and Soil and the Planet

Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-4, 11 and Mark 3:20-35 for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 7 2015

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-4, 11
3:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,  2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.  4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 11.10.28 AM

3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Mark 3:20-35
And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

It is complicated to be a Christian these days.  We have just read two texts that bring some of the complexities to the surface.  The issue is how to read these ancient texts as a modern person.  We read from the story of Jonah and the gospel of Mark.  In Jonah, one of the famous characters is a big fish that swallows Jonah and three days later deposits him on land.  I doubt if Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 10.37.35 AMthere are many here who take that literally.

The gospel text included a conversation about demons, Satan and exorcism, and again, I wonder how many of us are comfortable with taking that literally.  I do not want you to feel obliged to.

But both of these texts are about God and what God is doing in the world, and so both of them are also about evil.  I do not know anyone, regardless of what you think about demons, who does not believe that evil is alive and well today.

Both of these texts are also about people who get it wrong; not just a little wrong, but completely backwards.  Jonah shares that distinction along with the scribes from Jerusalem.  There is much to learn from them, so we will look at both in turn.

Jonah’s Family Values

First, Jonah. The people of Nineveh were enemies of Israel.  Jonah has a family problem.  He  wanted God to be the mascot on his family’s flag.  You could say his slogan was “blood and soil” – one the Nazi’s used, and the Hutu’s and the nationalists of countless groups who claim the right to do enormous evil with God’s blessing.  It is not a small mistake; God wants the exact opposite.

Jonah wants judgment and wrath; God wants mercy and redemption.  Jonah wanted a tribal God for his in-group, his people alone; God wanted all the families of the earth to know the blessings of forgiveness.

But Jonah was so emotionally committed to the concept that his own family, the family that descended from Abraham, was the only family on earth that God was supposed to be concerned with, that he would rather die, he said, than to live in a world in which all the families of the earth were blessed, if that included Ninevehites.

If he had bothered to remember the original blessing promised to Abraham, he would have had to recall those exact words: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Gen. 12:3)

To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants.

So, Jonah wants the opposite of what God wants.  The Jonah story is about one way in which people get God completely wrong.  The gospel text is about another, but it also has to do with family issues.

Jesus’ Deviant WayScreen Shot 2015-06-06 at 11.05.24 AM

There is no question that Jesus was acting in a deviant way, and his family was getting alarmed.  He did all kinds of things that violated norms of correct behavior.  In this text we see that even his family tries to shut him down.

Remember, Jesus’ teaching theme is that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  Raising huge crowds and talking about a kingdom sounds like revolution.  If the Romans caught wind of it, it could get a lot of people killed. So, Jesus’ family was upset.  This ends up being fortuitous: it gives Jesus the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a part of his family.

But it goes further than his risky teaching about an alternative kingdom.  Jesus is a direct threat to the scribes, the bible literalists in Jerusalem with their own vested interests in maintaining the status quo (and who, by the way, benefit financially from the way the system works).

In what way?  Already in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has violated the Sabbath by his “work” of exorcism and healings more than once.  He has become ritually unclean by touching a leper.  He has done what only God is allowed to do, by telling a man his sins were forgiven.  He has had dinner with an infamous sinner, a tax collector, instead of shunning him.  He has defended his disciples’ grain-plucking on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the Law of Moses.   The biblical boys were upset.

The issue is whose side is Jesus on: God’s or Satan’s?  The answer should have been obvious.  All of Jesus’ work was on behalf of hurting people.  All of his actions were directed towards their well being.  People who  were isolated and shunned because of their demons and diseases were healed and  restored to their communities.  Sinners were forgiven.  Social outcasts were included.  If a person could look at all of that goodness and think it was the work of evil, they were not just a little confused, they were, like Jonah, completely wrong.

To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants.  What does God want?  Jesus shows us: God wants our well being, our flourishing, our healing.

Jesus and Family

How does that happen?  It always involves family.  A dramatic, but underplayed shift in Jesus’ teaching has just taken place.  Up to now, the central metaphor for what God is doing, has been kingdom.  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  But now, for the first time, the metaphor dramatically morphs from kingdom to family.

The way to think about what God is establishing through Jesus should now be seen as the creation of a new, alternative family.

Perhaps “kingdom” is too structural and impersonal.  Family is relational.  No one can be healthy without a family of love and support.  Which is why this gospel text is so profoundly important.  In this text we hear Jesus redefining his family.  It is not about ethnicity or geography; it is not about blood and soil as Jonah believed.  Jesus’ family is made up of everyone who, as he says, “does the will of God.”

This is an amazing statement:

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

This is called non-dual thinking.  It is way outside the box.  It is outside all the boxes that normally define the parameters of family.  It is outside the bloodline box, outside the shared history box, even outside the religion box.  But this is exactly the kind of non-dual thinking the mystics of many different traditions have spoken of.  It is not a coincidence that Mark’s gospel has told us about Jesus’ spiritual practice of long periods of silent, contemplative prayer.  Meditation changes your brain, and this is evidence.

Getting back to the story, non-dual thinking means that Jesus defines family as everyone who does the will of God.  For Jesus, being family, doing God’s will, means many things.  It means working on the side of the common good; extending God’s circle of inclusion until there is no one standing outside of it.  It means seeing with God’s eyes, people who are suffering, and not being okay with it, but doing something.

Opposition: Vested Interest

It should not be missed that the Scribes who were calling Jesus evil had direct self-interest in shutting him down.  He was a threat to their pocketbooks and their power.  If everyone started thinking that God was more concerned with mercy than sacrifice, their whole temple enterprise would collapse and their income along with it.

It is still the case today that when people feel their self-interest threatened, whether it is a threat to the money in their accounts or to their cherished sense of how the world “has to be” to suit them and to suit their people, they get narrow and mean.

But the family Jesus identified answers to a higher calling.  We are that family.  We are called to goodness.  In the face of any and all discrimination, we will stand for inclusion.  In the face of poverty, we will stand with the poor.  In the face of suffering we will stand with the victims.  These are the defining family character traits we bear.  We are the family that understands that it is still God’s will to bless all the families of the earth.

The Family that Loves the PlanetScreen Shot 2015-06-06 at 11.15.37 AM

Being this kind of family has huge implications that touch many areas of life, but today, I want to bring this down to one issue. Being in this family that Jesus created, in our day, this means that we will stand with the planet itself which is so threatened by human action.  Global temperature change is a fact that is undeniable.  The only people who challenge it are those with clear vested interests, that is, financial interests, at stake.

In the service of personal financial gain they are willing to put everyone else at risk. That is precisely what it means to make money into Mammon and bow down to worship.     That is the opposite of good.

But there is a huge amount of money at stake, and so the climate change deniers own cable news channels, newspapers, radio and internet services, and have created doubt in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus.

Already, “North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee have all passed laws that attempt to cast doubt on established climate science in boardrooms and classrooms.”  (Sources: Livesciene and Miami Herald)

Florida too, has, adopted a policy that banned state environmental officials from using the term “climate change.”

Why?  “The prediction raised fears that home insurance rates would increase and coastal development would slow.”  Development would slow.  That is, someone’s chance to cash-in would be diminished.

This is part of why we need to be here for each other in the way that a family is.  We need each others encouragement and support.  And, we need to work together in an organized way to make a real difference.   It is not the will of God to ruin this planet as a place for human habitation, no matter how much money is on the table.

To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants.

Awe, Wonder, and the Natural WorldScreen Shot 2015-06-06 at 11.11.28 AM

Many of us have moved to this area because of how amazing it is.  We have the Gulf, the wetlands, the wildlife refuges, the parks, right outside our door.  I know from many of you how directly related this beauty is to your experience of God.  You and I feel wonder at the beauty of a sunny day, and the awesome power of storms, like we have had this past week.

We were made for this.  No other animal looks up at the stars and gets goose bumps.  No other creature feels awe at the sight of a pelican skimming effortlessly over the water or a baby turtle wriggling out of the sand.

We believe in incarnation: that God is the ultimate Source, and so we find transcendence in the world of matter and beings.  We are the ones who experience Christ in the physical sacramental bread and in the cup we share, as we gather as a family around the Lord’s table.  We are aware of God’s presence in everything, and in everyone.

God still wishes to bless “all the families of the earth.”  And, as humbling as it is to consider, God does not prefer us to anyone else on this planet.   But God invites all of us to be a part of his worldwide family, by doing God’s will; by joining him in being a blessing.

It is complicated to be a Christian these days.  We need to keep close to the Source in the face of evil. That means, like Jesus, the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation.  I sometimes wonder if Jonah would have practiced meditation or yoga, perhaps he would have had compassion for the people of Nineveh.  I wonder if more of us practiced contemplative prayer if perhaps we too would be better family to “brother sun and sister moon” as St. Francis was.

This is an important part of the reason we gather together as this new family that Jesus has created.  We gather to worship our Creator, and to encourage and strengthen each other to be the people of God in a complicated modern world where so much is at risk and so much is at stake.

So, let us be the family we are meant to be.  Let us be the worshiping community that joins to do the will of God, before it is too late.