Sunday, July 25, 2021

Ventures in Hope: John 6:1-21 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

1Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.


With new Covid-19 cases up dramatically, and the highly contagious Delta Variant accounting for over 80% of new cases, I’ve been holding my breath on what this is going to mean for us: how many more people are going to die? Will the children be able to go back to school? Will we still be having in-person activities? Will nursing home residents and hospital patients be isolated from their families?

One thing we won’t have to worry about is our supply of hand sanitizer. We have enough to last for years. The reason why is that when we put out the call when the pandemic first hit, you shared generously.

But we won’t soon forget how hard it was to find last winter—along with toilet paper, antibacterial soap, disinfecting wipes, and bleach. 

I’m sorry to say that I am guilty of panic buying. I didn’t go nuts, but if I even sense that there’s going to be a shortage of something, I will instinctively go out and stock up. I justify my actions as necessary to be a good provider for my family. But the truth is, this behavior pis nothing but raw, selfish fear.

In today’s Gospel, a similar fear was brewing. A crowd nearing 5,000 persons had followed Jesus into the wilderness, because they saw the signs he had been doing for the sick. But there was no food. At this point, Jesus could have told his disciples to dismiss the crowds and call it a day. Instead, Jesus asks them, “where are we to buy food for these people to eat?”

That’s a silly question—because there was no place to buy food. And, as Philip pointed out, “six months’ wages would not be enough to buy even a little bread for everyone.” But then, Andrew identifies a little boy who has five barley loaves and two dried fish in his possession. I’m guessing that his parents asked him to carry the family’s food bag. 

I’m sure he was paying attention to all the miraculous signs Jesus had been doing for the sick. Maybe he knows; maybe he doesn't know that the food in his possession is vastly inadequate to feed the crowd.  But that doesn’t matter. Here was his chance to be part of Jesus’s ministry. To be a young disciple. And he jumped right in.

Granted, I’m sure that if the boy hadn’t come forward, Jesus could’ve made bread appear from out of nowhere. But he doesn’t do that. The child becomes part of the miracle that declares the power of Jesus Christ. 

Here we have another example of children teaching us what it means to trust in Jesus. 

Keep in mind, it wasn’t children who raided the store shelves, buying ungodly quantities of supplies they didn’t need. It wasn’t children who hoarded gasoline cans following the Colonial Pipeline Cyberattack. Adults did this. To say that they were acting like children would be extremely unfair to children. 

Those empty store shelves and hoarded gasoline cans reflect the awesome power of fear to overwhelm reason and basic human decency. And this is something that predated the pandemic, and that will most certainly endure beyond it. 

Let me be clear: fear is inevitable in life. Fear is good when it drives you to protect yourself and others from danger. It can motivate you to make necessary changes in your life so that you are healthy and living into your full God-given potential. 

But fear can be toxic to your relationship with Jesus Christ, to our effectiveness as a congregation, and our overall ability to live as a civilized society.  You’re grabbing everything you can get your hands on and holding on for dear life. When you see someone in need of what you have in abundance, you aren’t opening your hands in blessing; instead, you’re tightening your firsts. If you give any treasure away, you may be without it in the future, life will become unlivable. So you sit firmly on your treasure chests, convinced that as long as you possess everything contained therein, everything will be ok. But that security is an illusion. Moths, rust,  and time destroy worldly treasures, and you cannot have a free society without charity. What’s more, Jesus can’t do miracles with your tight fists.

The good news, though, is when Jesus shows up, things change. Perspectives change. You change

How quickly we forget that Jesus is with us every day, loving us, caring for us, and providing for  us. Everywhere, there are signs of his gracious love, if only we would take the time to notice. Love is the power of God at work in the world, which is more powerful than all the things that make us afraid, and greater than everything we may lack. To be a disciple is to follow the little boy’s example, and invest your treasures where are hopes lie—because Jesus can do far more good with your treasures and your life than you can on your own. 

So what if, instead of dwelling on what we lack or what we’ve lost; we recognize all the treasures of God’s love which we possess? What kind of church can we become if we invested our treasures and our lives in what Jesus is doing now?

And even if our bank account runs dry, the stores run out of toilet paper and there’s more gasoline to fill our tanks, we would still have Jesus and each other—and the power of his love would not be diminished, but magnified!

I’m glad today’s Gospel ends with Jesus’s disciples on the boat, sailing through a deadly storm. We are sailing through a storm of fear and uncertainty this very day. We don’t know where the future will take us or what we will encounter on the way.  But we go forward together, trusting that Jesus accompanies us through the danger. To go with Jesus means that you will always have enough. It is faith, and not fear, that moves us onward—and that gratitude, generosity, and compassion are the way to go. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

God's Work as Rest: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

 30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

A place to rest. by Bernard Spragg. NZ on flickr. CC0 1.0

Just before I started seminary, my grandfather introduced me to a friend of his who was also a retired pastor. Prior to retirement, he counseled burned out pastors.

He said to me, “Be sure and take your days off. I counseled a pastor who didn’t take a single day off in nineteen years.”

I am amazed that anyone could work for seven thousand consecutive days. There’s certainly no room to question his dedication to his work. But is this what faithfulness to God looks like?

Today’s Gospel presents us with something we rarely consider about Jesus: he was subject to human limitations. He could not be in two places at once. He could not please everyone all the time. Just like you.

For as eager as Jesus was to love people, heal the sick, and preach the kingdom of God, he got tired and needed rest. Just like you. This wasn’t a matter of choice. This was human necessity.

In today’s Gospel, so many people were coming to Jesus that he and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. So they got onto a boat and attempted to get away to a deserted place by themselves. But the crowds followed them, and were waiting for them on the shore. 

So if you’ve ever felt overwhelmed as a worker, a parent, a caregiver, or servant of the church, Jesus most certainly knows how you feel. At the same time, we define Christian discipleship in terms of work. It’s serving, stewarding, teaching, studying, planning, preparing, building, and repairing. Just consider how much work it takes for us to be church! Nothing you see around you just happens without tremendous time and effort. So many people are hurting. Everywhere you look there are sheep without a shepherd. There is enough work to be done that each one of us could work every single day for the next nineteen and still there’d be more work to do.

Therefore, we must be careful in our understanding of what it means to be disciples—because if we define it exclusively in terms of work and activity, we’re missing the big picture. It can’t always be work. Discipleship also demands rest

And what is this rest, you ask? It is to retreat from all the noise and voices calling out for your attention;  it is to slow down and quiet your pace; it is to turn off and tune out to the rest of the world; it is to gather in all the exhaustion, all the stress, all the anxiety, and open yourselves to be served by Jesus. 

Have you ever prayed by telling God exactly how you feel in that moment? When you open your bible or your devotional booklet, do you tell God that you are hungry and thirsty for grace? When you come to church, do you find it hard to pay attention because there’s so much on your mind—or because you’re tired? When you fall asleep in church (and we’ve all done it), that doesn’t mean you’re lazy or disinterested. It means that you need the rest Jesus wants to give you!

It is not a sin to be weary and exhausted. Unlike the rest of the world, Jesus doesn’t judge you by how productive you are or how many people you please. In fact, Jesus accepts weariness, exhaustion, and stress as offerings—because you are acknowledging how much you need him in your life

When it comes to us as a congregation, we so easily fall into the trap of thinking that in order to be a faithful and growing congregation, we must launch new programs and new outreach ministries. In other words, we must do more work. But have you ever stopped to consider that the neighbor needs rest just as much as they need your good works? So how do we give it to them?

Again, we proclaim good news that Jesus welcomes weary, stressed, and broken people. But to truly rest from your burdens, you must be able to speak about them before others who listen without judgment. You must feel safe to cry, to vent, to speak honestly and openly about whatever it is you are feeling. This is what makes our GriefShare ministry, and recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous so effective in healing people. We must take off the masks we so proudly wear which tell the world that we’re strong, hard-working people who have it all together. We must be honest—that without Jesus, we are but bits and pieces. Sharing in our human brokenness together means that we are opening ourselves up to the amazing grace that heals our wounds and refreshes our souls. That is what rest is truly all about. For when you have nothing else to give, you are most open for Jesus to give you his everything. 

A life lived in faithfulness to Jesus is not the sum total of your good works. After all, we know as Lutherans that we are not saved by our own good works, but by Jesus’s good works. Without Jesus, the flesh is useless. You must be served by Jesus: to be fed by him, to be taught by him, to be cared for by him, to rest in him, and be saved by him. 

When your body is bone-tired, your mind is spinning like a top, and your soul can’t handle any more, hear the voice offJesus calling out to you: come away with me to a quiet place and rest a while. This is God’s work that Jesus does for you.

You cannot walk with Jesus, you cannot serve with Jesus, and you cannot live for Jesus—unless you rest in Jesus.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Victories of Persistence: Mark 6:14-29 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

 14King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching,] for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

  17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (NRSV)

Perseverance by Jon Cornwell on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

My favorite movies of all time include the first and third installments of the Indiana Jones Franchise. Unfortunately, having lost two hours of my life to the disastrous fourth installment, I do not have high hopes for the final film currently under production. I found the second installment, The Temple of Doom, to be gratuitously gory and dark—to the point that it was almost painful to watch.

I have similar feelings about today’s “Gospel.” It’s bad enough that John the Baptist was struck down by his king. But the details about his death are so gruesome, you almost want to close the book and read no further. 

But here’s why I believe Mark tells this story: it’s real life. Here, we see the very essence of evil—which we will see again at the cross. Christians throughout history have suffered and died in a similarly brutal manner. At the same time, we see into the darkness that exists inside of every human heart.

What I find so fascinating here is that Herod had taken quite a liking to John the Baptist, even after John had spoken out publicly against him for coveting his brother Philip’s wife. Herod recognized that John was a righteous and holy man. This goes to show you just how powerful the Gospel is—not only that John would minister to the man who put him in prison, but that Herod would pay attention and recognize that John was speaking the truth.

But when Herod heard the Gospel, he was perplexed. All of God’s love and forgiveness was there for him to claim, but it was not possible to live in right relationship with God and keep living as he was living. When he foolishly swears an oath to give his stepdaughter up to half his kingdom, he backs himself into a corner. Does he do the right thing by releasing John from prison, thus risking his reputation, his marriage, and his throne? Or does he take the easy way out and order John’s death?

Tragically, Herod chooses the latter. But Herod soon finds himself in an even greater crisis when he hears about Jesus. He suspects that Jesus is really John the Baptist, raised from the dead—which means that he indeed murdered a righteous and holy man.

On the other hand, when the disciples heard the devastating news about John’s horrific death, it would have been so easy to give up following Jesus, and return to their families and their fishing boats—rather than risk losing their heads proclaiming the Gospel. 

And even though we do not live in a time or place when Christian discipleship poses fatal risks, it is no less easy for you and me to give up on God and give up on the Gospel. When confronted with suffering and evil of this magnitude, your faith can quickly turn to dust.

Do you give in to temptation, believing that it is too strong for you to resist?

When someone rejects you for sharing Jesus’s love, does that convince you to keep your faith to yourself from then on?

As fewer and fewer people believe in God, and non-denominational and megachurches expand, what else is there for us to do but keep the doors open for as long as we can, until the money runs out or there’s no one left to open them up?

How about when you are diagnosed with a serious illness, a loved one dies, or you’re facing a devastating hardship? Does not that convince you that prayer doesn’t work or that God doesn’t answer?

It will always be easier to give up in God rather than keeping faith in God. For the time being, the Herods of the world will have their victories. Death will have victories. You will pray but not see the outcome you hoped for; you will go out of your way to minister to someone, and it won’t make the slightest bit of difference; you’ll come to worship hungry for the presence of God and leave unsatisfied. Churches will close and ministries born of high hopes will end in disappointment. We will fall away from God while attempting to satisfy our wants and desires on our own terms. But are these reasons to give up on God? Are these reasons to give up on the Gospel? Does the present really determine the future? Is death the only real power at work on the world; and resurrection but a fantasy?

The happy ending of John’s tragic death isn’t merely the fact that Jesus’s ministry vindicates John before Herod… The Good news is that the reign of God advances despite all human and supernatural attempts to stop it. The Gospel cannot be silenced, and God’s purposes cannot be stopped. God’s enemies may prevail in the short-term, but never in the long-term. 

God’s victory begins in the faith, hope, and love the Spirit creates within you right now

How can you be like John the Baptist, loving his persecutor and speaking the Gospel to him? How might you be like Jesus’s disciples, spreading love and good news to a hostile and chaotic world?

God’s victors are those who persevere in prayer for what would appear as a lost cause. God’s victors are those who love their neighbors and do good works for them, even when love is not returned in kind. God’s victors are those who prioritize the Gospel even when there are other tasks you could be accomplishing and fun you could be having elsewhere. We are a victorious congregation for as long as we gather to hear the Gospel, share our faith with others, and give generously of the treasures that God has showered upon us to build up the neighbor.

Soon and very soon, God’s kingdom will triumph. In the meantime, you victory is perseverance and persistence in faith, hope, and love. If kings and empires could not silence the Gospel, if death could not keep Jesus in the tomb, why should you give up on God? Why should we give up on the Gospel that changes lives and the world? 


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Adventures in Amazing Grace: Mark 6:6-13 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Then [Jesus] went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (NRSV)

Kanken by Mark Grant-Jones on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s rare that I travel by air. But TSA regulations and exorbitant baggage fees force me to travel light—which is not easy for me to do.

The last time I flew, there was a couple ahead of me at the ticket counter, checking in their suitcase. But there was a problem: their suitcase was well over the 45-pound limit. Rather than pay the outrageous upgrade fee for oversize luggage, they opened their suitcase and frantically stuffed items into the woman’s purse and the man’s tote bag. But even then, that wasn’t enough. As passengers queued up behind them, they had no choice but to throw away the pricey shampoos and lotions they’d packed, because the TSA prohibits large containers of liquid going through the security checkpoint. 

That’s the problem with traveling: the more you pack, the more difficult it is to go. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples two by two into the surrounding towns and villages. He gives them authority over unclean spirits, but permits them to pack no food, no money, no change of clothes; nothing for their journey except a staff—and the Gospel. 

This happens just after the people of Jesus’s hometown reject him and take offense at his ministry.

So why should this rag-tag bunch of fishermen and novices expect success in towns full of strangers, having no provisions or formal missionary training?

But that’s the trap I always fall into when I read or preach this passage: I think only about what the disciples lack for their journey, and how much the deck is stacked against them. 

How easy it is to forget that Jesus gave them power over unclean! He gave them good news that changes lives! Will there not be people who respond in faith? With their hearts and minds opened to the Gospel, will they not open their homes and wallets to those who proclaim it? 

Here, we find the definitive struggle for our congregation, and so many just like ours: our minds are set not on the power of Jesus’s love to transform lives, but on the things we lack and the things we’ve lost. 

We want to believe that we can effectively reach new generations of believers and bring them into relationship with Jesus, but: we’re not as big or as young as we used to be. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have air conditioning. The world has changed. People are too busy to care about church. Young people prefer to go to nondenominational churches or megachurches … Everything about our church screams “old and dying.”

We forget that Jesus didn’t build the church with rock bands, coffee shops, and state-of-the-art facilities. Jesus met people where they were, and he loved them. He showed compassion for the sick and the suffering. He befriended the outcasts and broke bread with sinners. He proclaimed the peace and justice of God’s coming kingdom. He sent his disciples two-by-two, empowered to do the very same. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy. He warned them to expect rejection. I’m sure there were moments when the mission was impossibly hard and they wanted to give up and go home. Even still, they had power over unclean Spirits, they had the love of Jesus, and they had each other. That was enough to change the world. 

How about you? Do you see yourself as blessed and beloved by God? When you survey the wondrous cross, do you believe that all of Jesus’s love is yours to claim? When you receive communion, do you believe Jesus is giving you all you’ll ever need for eternity in the body that is broken and the blood that is shed for you? Do you believe that God’s love is the greatest power at work in the world, despite all the confusion and chaos?

Yet can you imagine where you’d be in life without Jesus? Fact is, there are people out there who don’t need to imagine. They do not know him, but they need him—just as you do. Here is where our purpose as church becomes crystal clear.

It all begins in your mind. With Jesus, you have everything. Without him, you have nothing. But to adopt that frame of mind, you’ll need the Spirit’s help. After all, adopting on a new mindset is what repentance is all about! You will not be compelled to bless others if you do not realize how much you are blessed. It’s hard to trust an invisible God when all you see is trouble and pain. It’s always easier to see what you lack than what you have. It is only in faith that you accept challenge, embrace change, and confront your fear, believing that Jesus is waiting for you on the other side.  It is only in faith that you answer the call to discipleship as an adventure in amazing grace. 

If discipleship was easy, if life was easy, none of us would ever be close to Jesus—because you’d never need him. I don’t believe that God creates loss, pain, and hardship. They just happen. But God uses all of them to be gracious to you—because that is when you are most open to receiving that grace. At the same time, you can be bold to ask God to provide what you need to be his disciple: daily bread, good health, the necessities of life; a compassionate heart, a courageous spirit, gentle words, healing hands, and blessings to share.

When you step out in faith to obey the will of God, you will lack nothing. 

If you want a life that is safe and secure from challenge or change, then disregard all that I have spoken. But if you believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, that God’s reign is drawing near, and that here is hope for the future, then make up your mind to follow Jesus into adventures of amazing grace. For when you go with Jesus, to love others as you are loved, to share with others the treasure you have in him, and be carried along by his grace, you and your world will never be the same again. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Faith on the Fringes: Mark 5:21-43 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

 21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and 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.” 24So he went with him. 

  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And 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. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (NRSV)

Main St. from the Belfry. Photo by author

Last Saturday, only ten persons at a time were permitted inside the clothing closet. This led to many persons waiting to get inside, and I never like to keep people waiting.

But one unexpected gift was time to be in conversation with our neighbors, and nearly every conversation centered around the pandemic, and the devastation it has wrought. Our neighbors are frustrated, angry, and anxious, just like us. But for many of these neighbors, the only time they ever set foot inside a church is when they come to our clothing closet (or GriefShare, for that matter). What will it take to bring these neighbors to baptism and the Lord’s Supper? What will it take to heal their pain and give them hope in God’s promises? 

With these questions in mind, we turn to today’s Gospel, where we encounter two persons from very different walks of life who desperately needed Jesus’s healing touch. The first was a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, whose daughter was dying. This is every parent’s worst nightmare, and he was as desperate as any parent would be in his situation. But his position put him at an advantage. The entire synagogue was likely aware of the situation—and they are going to make sure that Jesus gives Jairus’s daughter priority.

Meanwhile, there’s a woman in the crowd who’s been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years—perhaps longer than Jairus’s daughter has even been alive. Her situation was every bit as desperate as the little girl. But she was at a tremendous disadvantage. Her condition made her ceremonially unclean, meaning that she was prohibited from coming to the synagogue. Do you know how we say, “out of sight, out of mind”? One wonders if anyone in the synagogue knew her name or of her situation. Mark doesn’t even tell us her name.

At this point, she knows there’s nothing she can do that would make the synagogue rally around her like they’ve rallied around their leader’s daughter. The best she can do is force her way through the crowd in the hope that she might simply touch Jesus’s cloak. That was the best she could hope for—but she believed that was all that she needed.

Jesus immediately senses that power has gone forth from him. He turns about in the crowd and says, “who touched my clothes?”

This poor woman realizes that she’s been busted. She’s not allowed to be around people, particularly a rabbi, because she’s unclean! But she admits to what she’d done. 

Jesus is not angry with her. Jesus is astounded by her. She believed in him. And Jesus wanted her to know that she mattered—just as much as the synagogue leader and his daughter. And now, because of Jesus, she will no longer be forced to live in isolation. No longer will she be an outsider in the family of God. 

For us who hear this story, the lesson is that faith can be found in those whom you would not expect—but who need Jesus just as much as we all do, frankly. Faith does exist outside the church—because the Holy Spirit can create faith in anyone, when they come into the presence of Jesus. 

Jesus’s itinerancy is what made this possible. He didn’t stay in one place and wait for people to come to him. He was constantly on the move—because he was so eager and determined to love people, to serve people, and ultimately give his life for people. 

Are we a congregation on the move—or is this building the only place where you express your faith? 

Do you see mission fields in the places where you live, work, and play? Are you open to all the opportunities there are to share the love of Jesus? Or, are you focused only on having fun, getting done what needs to be done, and moving on to the next thing? Are you a 24/7 Christian, or a Sunday morning Christian? 

Do you love strangers as much as Jesus loves them? As we face a difficult and uncertain future as a congregation, do you believe that with Jesus’s help, we can effectively reach people who are as yet unseen, heal their wounds, and be blessed by their presence?

Jesus’s healing of the unnamed woman impacted the community just as much as the healing of Jairus’s daughter. I am sure many came to faith through her testimony. Without her, the community would not have seen that Jesus’s love is more powerful than the barriers we set up to protect ourselves from those who make us uncomfortable. 

If we think that faith can be found only in people like ourselves; if we prioritize certain people over others, we cannot know Jesus for who he truly is. We deny ourselves the blessing of the stranger’s love, their gifts, and their testimony. Worse yet, we deny them the love that is rightly theirs as children of God.

Nobody is invisible to Jesus. To grow in faith, to grow as a congregation, we must pray for Jesus to open our hearts and our eyes to the people Jesus loves whom we do not see or know. We must pray for Jesus to create in us the love he has for all people, and value their potential to be radically transformed by that love. We must pray for Jesus to strengthen our determination to join him in his mission—so that those who are invisible to us now may become both visible and present in our common life—and that through our growth in spirit and numbers, we see the truth together that Jesus truly is here among us, that resurrection truly is happening, and that his love will triumph over everything that has gone wrong or will go wrong. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

For Those Who Doubt Their Sea Legs: Mark 4:35-41 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

35When evening had come, [Jesus said to the disciples,] “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But 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?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (NRSV)

Crashing wave by Nate Zoch on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Commercial fishing ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. This holds true despite major technological advances in storm tracking, navigation, ship construction, and worker safety. 

Several of Jesus’s disciples were commercial fishers, including Peter, Andrew, James and John —and perhaps even Nathaniel, Philip, and Thomas. Without these modern advances, one cannot imagine just how deadly an occupation this must have been. If I was Jesus, and I was about to set out by sea, I’d take great comfort having these men at the helm, because they had the skills as well as the guts to make the journey a safe one. They had definitely earned their sea legs.

The fact that they were scared to death speaks to how severe that storm must have been. The boat was taking on water and about to either sink or capsize when the disciples rushed belowdecks and found Jesus asleep on a cushion.

The disciples cry, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?”

We know, of course, that even though Jesus is asleep, he does care. But Jesus knows something the other disciples do not—he didn’t come to earth to perish in a shipwreck. Thus, Jesus rebukes the wind, and all is calm. The disciples marvel that even the wind and the sea obey Jesus

But why did Jesus let them get this close to death? If Jesus had authority over the winds and waves, why was there a storm in the first place? Wouldn’t having Jesus as a travel companion guarantee smooth sailing? Isn’t that why people put bumper stickers in their cars that say, “Jesus is my copilot”? Nobody wants to go through storms! But that is not the Christian life or the Christian journey. If Jesus faced many dangers, toils, and snares, no one who follows Jesus should be surprised to face the very same. 

But there is nothing wrong with crying out to Jesus, as his disciples do. Somehow, we got the idea that it’s wrong to cry out to Jesus—as if Jesus is going to be disappointed in you or even angry with you—and ultimately abandon you as punishment.

When the disciples cry out to Jesus, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them; Jesus rebukes the wind. Whenever your caught in one of life’s many storms, have you ever visualized Jesus rebuking the wind? Rebuking the cancer that you or a loved one is suffering? Rebuking the anxiety, depression, or even addiction holding you captive? Can you visualize Jesus rebuking death for taking a life God created in love?

You should also know that Jesus also rebukes sin and sinners—as an expression of compassion for those who suffer at others’ hands. When Jesus rebukes you, it’s not to condemn you but to stop you from bringing harm to yourself and others. It’s a big leap of faith to invite Jesus’s rebuke; yet we all need Jesus to save us from our sinful thoughts and desires just as much as we need saving from the storms. 

All throughout Scripture, the sea embodies all the forces of chaos and death. So why does God lead people across the sea? Why does Jesus cross s perilous, stormy sea? To get to the other side! To love and serve the people over there. To proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom coming near. To rescue those caught in life’s deadly storms. 

Jesus leads his people over waves and waters, through winds and storms, because that’s how you get to the kingdom of God. This was true for Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites who crisscrossed the Jordan River countless times to settle the Promised Land; this was true for Paul and the Apostles who traveled great distances by land and sea to build up and support the Church we are part of today. Your new life in Christ began in the waters of baptism!

Jesus shows you who he is—not in the absence of storms, but in the midst of the storms and in the aftermath of storms. In the storms, you learn to trust Jesus, because he is faithful. In the storms, you see that Jesus has ultimate authority over the wind and waves that toss you to and fro. You see that Jesus has the power to raise up what the storms have swept away.

However, if your goal as a Christian, or our goal as a church, is to avoid all storms, never facing change, challenge, pain, or disappointment, you are not following Jesus. The way of the cross is never the path of least resistance. Sometimes, the way of Jesus goes across the sea and through the storm. The wind will toss you to and fro, the waves will try and pull you under. You may even end up shipwrecked, as the Apostle Paul was in his missionary journey. You may call on Jesus and the worsening of the storm leaves you wondering if Jesus is asleep.

You have permission to cry out to him. That may be all you can do in faith, and that is enough. Jesus will rebuke whatever winds and waves are battering you, as he leads you onward towards the kingdom of God.

Jesus has his sea legs! With Jesus as your captain, you will make it safely across the sea and through the storm to wherever God wants you to be. Jesus will lead you to where God’s every promise is fulfilled. 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

God Isn't Finished with You Yet: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 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! (NRSV)

The hardest part of apartment living is sharing walls—because when your neighbor has a bad day, you’re going to hear about it. When they’re watching professional wrestling and following the action with full-throated enthusiasm, you’re going to hear it. And when they decide they are going to raise chickens indoors, you’re going to hear that too. 

It seems that the chickens and their owner were not good tenants—because, for the last seven weeks since they moved out, work crews have been gutting and rebuilding the entire apartment. It’s constantly felt like they’re one swing of the sledgehammer away from breaking through to our side. 

Unfortunately, home construction and remodeling are never as easy as HGTV makes them out to be. In the real world, the process is time-consuming, messy, noisy, and full of nasty surprises. 

But have you ever thought of yourself as a construction project?

I love the T-shirts and bumper stickers that say, “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new.” God is never finished with you. You die and rise in Christ every single day—and no matter how old you get or how wise you become, God’s work in your life never ceases. 

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, because you reach a point in your life in which you no longer “young .” Countless people have warned me against getting old, but despite my best efforts, I keep having birthdays.

How can you become a new creation while you’re getting old? How can you become a new creation as life becomes more difficult? How can you become a new creation when you hit rock bottom?

Many people, if given the choice, would choose the good old days over the present or the future. In the past, life was simpler. In the past, people you love and lost were still with you. In the past, you were younger—and you could do things you may not be able to do now. In the past, today’s problems never even crossed your mind. 

But for some, the past is full of pain and regret. There are no “good old days” to be nostalgic about. The hope of better days is all that keeps you going. For others, these days are the good days—and you worry that tomorrow will be the day when it all goes down in flames.

What these mindsets have in common is the belief that God has stopped, or will stop doing great things, and that chaos and evil have completely taken over everything. I believe this is why so many Christians are so focused on the end-times—as if our only hope is for God to come down and take us away to heaven, before everything goes up in flames.

We’re all eager for God’s kingdom to be revealed in its fullness. Yet it is not bad news if today or tomorrow are not the last day. God’s creating and re-creating work never ceases. 

Every day, you die and then arise as a new creation. Yet you are not the master architect—or the master builder—of the new creation. That’s where this gets tricky. So much of the inspiration we get for construction and remodeling projects comes from what we see others doing, or what we see on television, in magazines, and on Pinterest. “I want mine to be just like that,” we say. Do we not do the same thing with ourselves and the lives we want to live? But a new creation is not a made-to-order life, or a made-to-order you. 

Furthermore, the new creation is a process that is messier, louder, and more time-consuming than any construction project. It’s like Western Pennsylvania road construction: it never ends. For the new to appear, the old must be torn out. That’s what repentance is—God tearing out what has been established in your life but is getting in God’s way. 

But sometimes, things fall apart. You become ill; a relationship ends; a job is lost; a loved one dies… And occasionally, you run your life over a cliff. Everything goes down in flames. But even then, God isn’t finished with you. You are dying and rising. You are becoming a new creation.

But one of the most amazing acts of the new creation is the peace and hopefulness I’ve witnessed God giving to the dying. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen God awakening the faithful to the new creation that waits on the other side of this life. Even in death, God is not finished with you yet!

As long as God is God, you are a new creation. You greet the new creation every morning when you rise; you take part in it during your day; you share it with the people you meet and receive it from those who love you along the way; you go to sleep a different person than who you were that morning. This 207-year-old church in a 118-year-old building is a new creation, serving on the frontlines of the new creation God is bringing to the Kiski Valley and beyond. 

But that is not to say that there will be no death. There will be, and it will be painful. But, it is an insult to God for us or anyone else to go about believing that the best days are the old days.

A new creation has nothing to do with recreating the past. 

A new creation has nothing to do with envying what others have or do, but envying the presence of God. A new creation means getting out of the way and trusting in God’s creative work. And whenever things fall apart, God is already creating something new and something greater. 

This is what hope is in a time such as this.