Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:

When I heard that the Teacher had come to our town, I felt something that I had not felt in a very long time.


For twelve years, I had been sick, the life slowly draining out of me.  At first, we had hope, my husband and I.  We hired the best doctors, had special sacrifices offered at the Temple. 

Then my husband died and hope began to hide from me.  A new marriage was out of the questions – even my late husband’s wealth could not entice a man to take on a sick wife.  So I continued seeing doctors, trying every treatment they could think of while my hope dwindled as fast as the doctor’s fees consumed everything my husband had left me.  Soon, I had nothing left – no money, no dignity, no hope.

The morning’s news that the Teacher was here roused a tiny bit of hope I didn’t even know I had.  He was a great healer, restoring sight to the blind, healing lepers, even casting out demons.  Surely, he could heal my illness.

I started out to look for the Teacher.

He wasn’t hard to find.  There was a crowd gathered not far from the seaside where his boat was anchored.  Everyone in town must have come out to see him.  I could see his disciples talking to the people closest to him and then taking first one, and then another to the Teacher. 

I kept my eye on him as I moved through the crowd, trying to get closer.  There were just a few people ahead of me when suddenly I heard a rough, “Woman, move away!  Let the Leader come through.”  I stepped to the side as Jarius passed me.  He hurried to the Teacher and then – amazingly – fell at his feet.

Jarius, the leader of the synagogue, kneeling at the feet of a traveling rabbi?  Maybe there was more to this man than I knew.  Then I heard Jarius’ plea and I knew that it was not honor that drove him to the feet of the Teacher.  It was desperation.  His little daughter was very sick, near death in fact. 

Raising Jarius to his feet, the Teacher started toward Jarius’ house.  And the crowd followed them.  I moved with the crowd.  My healing would have to wait until the Teacher had seen this sick little girl. 

As I walked, I noticed that there were only a few people between the Teacher and myself.  Again hope began to rise.  I would be close, maybe one of the first right after he had healed the little girl. 

Then a thought occurred. I was almost close enough to touch him.  Did I dare?  Surely if I just – just touched -- the hem of his robe -- that would be enough.  The Teacher wouldn’t have to waste his time on me.  He could keep on his way to that poor little girl and I, I would be healed.

Did I dare?  Touch a strange man?  Especially a man of God like the Teacher?  He’d never notice a quick touch on his hem.  Not with all the crowds around him bumping and jostling him.  What’s one more touch.

There was my chance.  The Teacher was passing right next to me.  I reached out and…

Touched his hem, and…

I just knew!

I was healed!  I could feel it in my very bones.  After all those years of feeling life draining from me, the health flowing through my body stopped me in my tracks.  A quick prayer of thanksgiving to God and I turned to go home.

At that moment the Teacher stopped, looked around, looked RIGHT at me and said, “Who touched me?”

I shrank into the crowd.  Maybe he didn’t see me.  Maybe God wasn’t whispering in his ear, pointing him right to me. 

His disciples tugged on his arm, “Probably everyone in this crowd has bumped or jostled you.  What do you mean “who touched you?” Let’s go.  Jarius is waiting!”

But the Teacher kept looking at the crowd, looking at me. 

What had I done?  It was a little thing, touching him.  Would he punish me?  Could he take back my healing, cursing me to another twelve years of sickness?

I fell at his feet, trembling, afraid to even speak.  He knelt down and gently lifted my head.  He looked into my eyes and I saw, not anger, but great compassion.  Suddenly I began to blurt out everything!

“I touched you.  I didn’t know what else to do.  I knew if I only touched your robe, I would be made well.  And you were close enough to touch and I just couldn’t wait any longer.

“I’ve been sick for so long – 12 years.  I’ve seen doctors, endured their prodding, choked down vile potions, blistered my skin with strange poultices – nothing ever helped.  In fact, despite their treatments I got worse.  Sometimes the treatments made me feel sicker than my disease.  There are days when the pain keeps me in bed, when the pain grips me so hard that nausea rolls over me.  There are days when the pain releases, but I am so tired.  It’s like the life is being drained from me.  I get weaker and weaker.

“My world has closed in on me.  My family and friends have tried to comfort me, to help me.  But my sickness has worn them down too.  They don’t have the energy to care for their own families and me too.  Most days, I am by myself, sick, desperate, abandoned. 

“Sometimes I wonder why God is so angry with me.  Why God is punishing me…”

Tears streamed down my face and as I poured out all my hurt and resentment and fear and anger at this disease, the people around me, and…at God.

The Teacher brushed my tears away.  “Daughter….

Daughter – he called me daughter!  How good to hear someone claim me as family again!  I belonged again. 

As the Teacher was speaking to me, two of Jaruis’ servants came to him and whispered in his ear.  I saw him stagger and his servants steadied him.  Had I delayed the Teacher long enough to cost his daughter her life?

 The servants said, louder this time, “Your daughter has died.  Don’t bother the Teacher anymore.”  I could tell by the way they eyed me, that it wasn’t Jarius that they thought was bothering the teacher.

The Teacher ignored them.  Looking at me he continued speaking…

“Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be healed.”

Taking my hand, he raised me to my feet. Before he let me go, he reached one hand out to Jarius and said, “Do not fear,” and turning Jarius to face me, he said to him, “only have faith.”

The Teacher clasped my hand again and turned to go with Jarius to his house. I never saw the Teacher again, but later that day, I heard that Jarius’ daughter was not dead, that the Teacher had healed her too. 

I’ve thought a lot about his final words to me – “go in peace and be healed.”

Hadn’t I already been cured by touching his robe?  What more was needed?  Why did he take the time to hear my story, to look in my eyes, to touch my hand?  Was there more to healing than curing the body?   

He told me to ‘be healed’ not ‘you are healed.’  Is healing something that happens a little bit every day?

"Go in peace and be healed."  Those just might be the most beautiful words on earth.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Tornados, Water Towers and Other Storms of Life

Readings for this Sunday:  Job38:1-12; Psalm 148; Romans 8:18-28; Mark 4:35-41
Note:  the Psalm and the Romans text are not from the lectionary, but were selected in conjunction with our outdoor worship service.

Fear can distort your vision.
We were at a church for a preschool parent meeting.  I was just days shy of turning 13 and Mom had dragged all of us along because she was helping Nancy, the preschool teacher, set up for the meal before the meeting.  It was a late spring afternoon, the type that turns heavy rainstorms into threatening weather in a heartbeat.  We ran from the parking lot to the church in a downpour, just as the first tornado siren went off.

Mom and Nancy started setting up for the meal with a radio tuned to the weather alerts.  We heard the progression of the storm – warnings for the next county over, the town just 20 miles to the west of us in the path of a tornado.  Pretty soon our county was in the warning area and multiple tornados were being tracked.  The lightning terrified my 5 year old sister, and Nancy’s young children. 
Nancy cancelled the meeting, but we were trapped at the church for the duration of the storm.  It was simply too dangerous to be out on the streets.  My job changed from setting tables to supervising the younger children in the inner room Mom determined to be the safest place in the event of the tornado.  By now the kids were beyond terrified.  We could hear the weather alerts, hear the tornado sighting, and as the paths of the tornados were listed, I thought of all the people we knew whose houses and farms were in the way. 

I knew when they announced a tornado heading for the area of the church.
My eleven year old brother would periodically go out and look through the entrance door at the storm and come back to give us reports – lighting, huge rain drops coming down so fast that he could barely see past the parking lot, then hail. 

After the warning that a tornado was heading toward us, he went and checked and ran back in breathless.
Tornado – heading right toward us! 

He could just see it through the greenish light and flashes of lightning. 
I had to go see for myself.  I ran to the door and looked.

It WAS coming!
I ran back to the room, huddled with the frightened children and prepared to die.

Five minutes – no sounds like an on-coming train.

Ten minutes – still no tornado.

At fifteen minutes, we figured the tornado had missed us.  We calmed the younger children down, thanked God we were still alive, and ventured out to find our mothers.
By then the worst of the storm had passed over us and we could leave.   We asked Mom if she had seen the tornado that just missed us.

What tornado?
We were confused.  How could she NOT have seen it!  Just then, we drove the water tower, grey with a single, slim stalk and a rounded reservoir on top, just a block away from the church.

The water tower was our tornado.  Our fear of the terrible storm, part of the 1974 Super Outbreak, had distorted our vision.  Already terrified, we expected the worst, and a harmless water tower was transformed into the means of our death.

Fear can narrow your focus to only the situation at hand.  Fear can make you believe that the worst will happen, that there’s no way out.
Fear can make you think that you’re going to die.

That’s exactly where the disciples were.  They knew about storms on the lake, about boats.  Some of them were fishermen.  This was not their first time wrestling with wind and waves.
But this storm was fierce and the boat was sinking.  They couldn’t keep up with the bailing.  They couldn’t tack and ride out the storm.

All they could see was the fierce storm around them and the water filling up the boat.  Their vision was limited to their immediate circumstances.

They knew they were about to drown.

About this time, someone remembered Jesus, exhausted from teaching and healing the crowds, was sleeping in the rear of the boat. 
Waking him, they cry out “don’t you care that we are about to die?”

Their vision is limited to their circumstances. They see the storm raging around them, but their fear keeps them from seeing who is really in the boat with them.
They see their Rabbi, their teacher and friend.  They don’t see the man who heals the sick and casts out demons with authority.

Jesus wakes up looks and sees their danger.  He rebukes the wind and the sea, “Silence!  Be muzzled!”

Dead calm.

After taking care of the danger to his disciples and himself, it’s time to restore their vision.
Jesus doesn’t scold them for being afraid of the storm.  He doesn’t say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”  He doesn’t say, “I’m with you, so you were never in any danger.”  He doesn’t say, “If you just had more faith, you could have slept through the storm like me.”

Jesus doesn't challenge thier fear.  The disciples had a right to be afraid.  They were in serious danger. 
Jesus asks them to question their fear. 
"Why are you afraid?”  Actually, the word used here is not the usual word for fear.  This word means ‘cowardly, timid’ and points to the internal condition of the person, not the external circumstances that may inspire one to be afraid.

In essence, he tells them, “This is a fear-filled situation, but why are you letting your fear rule you?  Why aren’t you looking beyond the storm?” 
Their fear didn’t have to control how they chose to respond. It didn’t have to shrink their world to just the very big waves and the very small boat

“Do you not have faith yet?”

Faith quells cowardice, bolsters the timid, corrects the internal condition that shuts off our vision.  Faith allows us to see past the fear to the big picture.  Faith allows us to see beyond the dangerous, past the fear-inspiring to behold the One who controls it all.
Jesus asks them to look past the fear to their relationship with him, their trust in him.  Jesus asks them to look with the eyes of faith to see who he really is.

They haven’t gotten it yet, and won’t figure it out for a long time, but their Rabbi is also the One who set the bounds of the sea and said it could come no further. 
Today, they simply marvel, “Who IS this man, that even the winds and seas obey him.”

Their fear takes a new shape, transformed from the kind of fear that limits vision and cripples potential, to the kind of healthy fear that expands vision, frees the imagination, and opens up possibilities – today the possibility that their beloved Rabbi is indeed the Son of God.

The disciples continue to miss the point.  In fact, there is another sea crossing, another storm and another show of Jesus’ power over creation, and they STILL won’t get it.   They continue to categorize Jesus, to put him in a comfortable box, to limit his power.  And Jesus will continue to surprise them, ultimately revealing God’s biggest surprise when Jesus appears before them in the Upper Room, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, and calms the storm of their fears, with a word of peace and asking once again why they are afraid, encouraging and empowering their faith.

You would think it would be easier for us.  We know how the story ends.  We know God wins.  And yet, we all have times where the terrified 13 year old in us cowers in the storm, seeing tornados in water towers.  We all have times where our boat is taking on water and the waves threaten to sink us and all we can see is the storm around us.  Times where our fear freezes us and we are certain that the thing we fear will consume us.
It those times that God is in the boat with us, calming us, inviting us to trust, healing our fear-induced blindness so we can see that the God of all creation is bigger than the thing we fear.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Third Sunday after Pentecost: Volunteer Watermelon, Mint, and Church Camp

Readings for this Sunday:  Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Back when our kids were little and we still bought watermelons with the seeds in it, I would give the kids a piece of watermelon and send them into the back yard to spit seeds.  It was something my brother and I would do, standing on the back stoop, spitting as hard as we could, trying to see whose seed would go the farthest.

Well, late one spring, we noticed a vine growing on the patio.  I was going to pull it up, but Tim thought it looked like a melon plant.  We decided to let it grow and see what happened. 

Over the summer, we’d check its progress.  It grew and flowered – one lonely blossom.  Then late in the summer, Tim said, “I think we have a watermelon growing.”

That single watermelon never got much bigger than a baseball.  But then, given that we didn’t plant it, and didn’t nurture it and it was growing half under a concrete slab, I thought it did pretty good.  The watermelons that my brother would plant in our garden at home never yielded more than one cantaloupe-sized melon per vine – if that!

If you’ve had a garden, you’ve probably had a ‘volunteer’ or two.  Last summer, I heard about volunteer tomatoes.  I managed to get a salad or two out of the volunteer lettuce that grew in the container garden behind the parsonage.  Sometimes I think the produce from a ‘volunteer’ plant is especially tasty – a harvest gift.

Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a seed that is scattered on the ground.  Did our farmer intentionally plant this seed, or were these seeds maybe just dropped on the way to the barn?  Does it matter?  This farmer is ready to reap a harvest where ever it may be found. 

But between the sowing and the reaping, the farmer does….nothing.  The seed grows by itself, following the instructions deep in its DNA, the pattern written into it by God at creation.

It first sprouts,
          -       and grows,
             -       and puts out a seed head,
             -       and the seed head ripens into grain.     

How is the kingdom of God like a seed that grows by itself, like a volunteer watermelon…
             -       Grows by the design of God;
          -       A delightful surprise;
          -       Mysterious;
          -       Comes to us when we are not looking;
          -       Come to places we wouldn’t expect it;
          -       Grows from a seed we didn’t even know we planted.

“What parable would you use to describe the kingdom of God?  Can you find a metaphor or simile?”

I doubt anyone listening to Jesus ask that question would have blurted out, “Ooh, ooh, Jesus, pick me, pick me! – It’s, it’s, a-a-a mustard seed!”

I mean, Ezekiel compared God’s kingdom to the cedars of Lebanon – mighty, glorious trees, strong and beautiful.  Its wood was highly valued, and expensive.

Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a mustard plant. 

The kingdom of God is like an herb that’s basically a weed?

Mustard is invasive.  It’s nearly impossible to get rid of once it’s planted. So you have scrubby bushes all over your garden, or field. And while the seeds are good for spices and medicines, a little goes a long way. One plant would be more than enough for most people’s needs.  Mustard grew in the wild – if you needed some, you just went to the hills and looked.

Makes me think of mint.

When I first started an herb garden, I planted some mint.  The lady at the nursery warned me to be sure to not plant the mint in the ground.  Mint is hardy and invasive.  If you put in it the ground, soon your garden will be covered in mint.  She knew from experience – one of her garden patches is completely covered in mint, and it has migrated to another patch across the yard.

So warned, I planted mine in a tub.  It was a dish tub turned into a planter and I had plenty of room to put another plant.  So I planted Thai basil in the other half.  Within a few weeks, the basil had been choked out by the mint.  It completely took over the tub.  What’s more, it sent out runners and I had to keep cutting it back before it took root in the ground. 

I had more mint than I knew what to do with!  I gave it away.  I made tabouli, which takes a lot of mint.  I dipped the leaves in chocolate.  I dried it.  I still had more mint than I could use.

By the way, I discovered that catnip is a relative of mint, and apparently mint smells close enough to catnip to make it very attractive to my cat.  Let’s just say that I had to be creative to find a drying place that a determined cat couldn’t get to.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like a mint plant…
          -       We want it, but we like to keep it in manageable amounts.
          -       It defies our attempts to control it.
          -       It grows profusely.
          -       It can plant itself.
          -       It shows up in places where we least expect it.
          -       It survives and thrives in the least likely of places.
          -       It disrupts our ordered, planned lives.
          -       It comes and keeps coming regardless of attempts to eradicate it.
            It might just attract someone unexpected - or maybe even unwanted –to your garden.

The kingdom of God is like a seed that we plant that God makes grow.  We do our little bit and God does the rest. 

We do our bit.  We scatter the seeds of God’s love.  It can be a little thing – like the mustard seed.  We can intentionally plant a seed, or we can be completely unaware that we have even sown a seed at all.

That’s maybe the most amazing thing about the kingdom of God – it’s the little stuff we do because we are children of God, because we are touched by God’s love and grace and mercy that often has the biggest effect in someone’s life. 

Last week I was at confirmation camp.  Here’s some of the places where I’ve seen kingdom of God seeds sown:
       -       A 7th grader prays out-loud in a group for the very first time.
       -       Kids playing 4-square kick ball, giggling at the confusing rules, laughing as a ball lands in another group’s field, learning to share a limited space.
       -       A deep quiet over seventy plus middle school kids sitting on the grass as Jesus tells them to love God and love one another during the “Christ Walk”.
       -       An even deeper quiet as the kids crest a rise later in the “Christ Walk” to see Jesus hanging on the cross.
       -       A cabin counselor engulfed in a group hug as the girls she’s guided this week say good bye.
       -       Looking around at the earnest young adults with a passion for Jesus, and knowing that camp is a garden that produces many of our future church leaders.

Who knows how those seeds will take root, how they will grow, what will be the fruit?  Only God knows.  Somewhere down the road, someone will see the results, someone will benefit from the harvest.

So, this week, look around.  Where do you see kingdom of God seeds sown? Where do you see the kingdom of God push up between the cracks?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Holy Trinity Sunday: God is like an Elephant

Readings for this week:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 6:12-17; John 3:1-17

Once upon a time[i], there were several blind people living in a village.  One day, a trader from far away came to the village, carrying his goods on an elephant.  The villagers were excited to see this new animal and soon all the talk around the village was about the elephant.

Finally, the group of blind people could stand it no longer.  “Take us to this elephant and let us touch it.  We want to know what an elephant is like too!”

So they were guided to the elephant.  Each person reached out to touch the elephant.

The first touched a leg and exclaimed, “The elephant is like a pillar.”

The second touched the tail and said, “No, the elephant is like a rope.”

The third had her hand on the trunk, “A rope?  Are you crazy!  It’s more like a tree branch!”

The fourth, hand on the ear, countered, “No, it’s like a hand fan.”

The fifth had both hands stretched out across the elephant’s belly, “It seems more like a wall to me.”

They began to argue, each claiming that their experience of the elephant was the correct one.  Finally, the village elder shouted over their voices, “Enough! You want to know what an elephant is like?  Well, each of you is right! You each only touched a small piece of the elephant – put all your experiences together and you have an idea of what the elephant is really like.”

What is God like?

The Psalmist talks about a God of might and power, majesty and glory – voice thundering over waters, breaking cedars of Lebanon, flashing forth flames of fire, causing the wilderness to shake, oaks to swirl and strips forest bare. 

This is a God whose voice wreaks havoc.

This is a God whose word stills chaos and brings creation into being.

Isaiah also encounters a grand and majestic God – high and lifted up, so big that the hem of God’s robe fills all the temple all glory and might, the seraphim covering their faces in from the sight of God too bright to bear, screaming “Holy” in the terror and joy of being in God’s presence and in pain of knowing their own unworthiness.

Isaiah, a mere mortal, doesn’t stand a chance here.  He immediately realized his peril – this is a place where mortals cannot live.  He has looked upon God and by all rights should be dead by now.  After all, Moses was given just a glimpse of God’s back and his hair went white![ii]  Isaiah cries out.

And God hears him.  God cleanses him from his sin – sending an angel with a live coal to cleanse Isaiah’s lips.  Then God sends Isaiah to carry God’s word to the children of Israel.

This is a God who cares for those God created.

This is a God who forgives.

This is a God who calls humans to be a part of bringing God’s word to those who need to hear it.

This is a God who sends.

Nicodemus encounters God in a very different way.  Instead of glory and light, he meets God in a dark courtyard.  Instead of an imposing figure so big that the hem of his robe overflows from the temple, there is a simple man.  Instead of angels singing, there are rough fishermen hanging out just out of earshot.  This is an encounter with God who will be high and lifted up, not in glory, but on a cross.

Nicodemus doesn’t dream he’s standing in the presence of God.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s here to have a nice chat with a visiting rabbi, to talk about some of the intriguing things this new rabbi is doing and teaching.

It’s a confusing talk.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that only those who are born from above/again can see the kingdom of God.

What could that mean?  Did Jesus say he had to be born from above?  Maybe Jesus said born again?  The word used there, ‘anothen,’ can mean both “from above” and “again.” How can you be born from above?  But how could you be born again? It’s impossible to physically be born again.

Jesus corrects his confusion: “You have to be born from above, born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.  This is not a second physical birth.  This is being born spiritually, born to a new relationship with God.  It’s as silly to ask how God does this as it is to think that you can tell where the wind is from and where it goes and control it.  This is something beyond you, something of God.”

Nicodemus is stunned.  “How can these things be?”  The implications are staggering.  Born of water and Spirit, born into citizenship of heaven!

Jesus goes on:  “Listen to the one who has descended from heaven, and will be lifted up to be salvation for all: This is how God loves the world:  The Son was sent to the world, not to judge but to save everyone who bonds with and trusts in the Son.”

This is a God who loves deeply all of creation, even those who have turned their backs on God.

This is a God who loves in action, sending God’s Son to the world.

This is a God who does not judge and condemn, but acts to save and heal.

This is a God who became a part of creation, became human in order to gathers all the world back into God’s arms.

Paul also encounters God high and lifted up – a light shines from heaven and God in the form of Jesus speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus[iii], a light so dazzling that Paul became blind.  Paul thought long and hard about his encounter.  He saw the implication that Nicodemus missed – that if we are born from above, of water and Spirit, then God has adopted us as children.  Not only that, we are heirs with Christ – God has lifted us up to be in relationship with him, to be with us in our suffering and our joys. 

This is a God who brings us back into relationship.

This is a God who loves us as the Father loves the Son.

This is a God who generously gives us the same inheritance as the Son.

The whole Bible is full of stories of people who have encountered God and excitedly proclaimed their experience:

This is a God who walked in the Garden with Adam.

This is a God who went on a journey with Abraham.

This is a God who rescued Israel from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness with them.

This is a God who cried over Israel’s disobedience and yearned for their repentance.

This is a God who reached out to the prodigal children of Israel with prophets to proclaim both God’s judgment and God’s grace.

This is a God who came down to us and became one of us.

This is a God who sent the Son to save –not condemn or judge – the world.

This is a God who died as one of us and rose again, making it possible for us to rise again too.

This is a God who adopts us as children and heirs.

This is a God who…. (fill in the story of your encounter with God)

This is Trinity.

"The Trinity is our way of telling the story of how God is at work in the world through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit."[iv]

[i][i] I heard this story as a child, and don’t remember where I first heard it.
[ii] Exodus 33:18-34:1
[iii] Acts 9:1-8
[iv] Quote taken from conversation thread on the Trinity from the ELCA clergy Facebook page, particularly from Clint Schnekloth’s original post and Chris Repp’s reply.