Sunday, June 17, 2012

Small Seeds

Mark 4: 26-34
Summertime and the livin’ is easy.  We are almost there!

Summer preaching is the best!  I really love it.  There is no pressure to distill any theological significance of Jesus birth and death, no pressure to teach about Christmas, Easter and Pentecost and the hidden meanings we might find in them.  Summertime preaching is about Jesus’ life and what he did with it day to day and a chance for us to dream about the agrarian life in the Galilee.

What I also love is that summertime preaching is organic.  Jesus often relates his lessons to nature, his parables revolve around farming, fishing, boating and so we can really settle into the reality of Jesus’ existence, his everyday life and the quotidian concerns that he and his friends and family faced.

Now most of us are light years away from living an agrarian lifestyle; most of us don’t farm or fish for our livelihood except for maybe the Smith’s who know all too well of agrarian living.

But at the same time we are not so different from those first century farmers because we share in the same concerns and joys of life.  We live, we love, we work for economic sufficiency and we work hard to find meaning for our lives. 

So let us listen to this morning’s scripture as if our life depended upon it.  From the fourth chapter of Mark…

He (Jesus) 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.

Jesus shares with his disciples’ two parables about seeds and planting.  He is never without a story, that’s how Eugene Peterson introduces these passages, I think that is true.  Jesus always has a story.  Then he attaches a ‘PS’ almost an editorial note that tells us the purpose of parables which ultimately summons the listener to hear the word of God and follow Jesus. 
by Carl Dixon
This parable, one has to laugh!  What a sense of humor Jesus has!  The parable about the mustard seed is laughable really, ‘the kingdom of God is like a scrubby, invasive bush’.  That’s what Jesus is saying.  Like kudzu growing on a tree, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a bush.  In the Galilee a mustard bush was the equivalent to an invasive weed like kudzu or the Persicaria perfoliata that made headlines in the Wilton Bulletin this week!

And, we know that the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, what he means is that it is the least of seeds, its insignificant in the botany world.  It’s a seed of a weed. 
 by Richard Cassel
And a bush??  Really?  You would think that God could imagine a kingdom that would be a little larger than a bush.  It sure doesn’t give you the impression of greatness like the Ezekiel passage that talks about the lofty tops of the cedars that God will lop off and plant. But yet, the mustard bush’s small stature, offers a safe haven and a home for birds of the air.  In other words, it does its job.  It has a purpose and a function in God’s created world.

You only have to look outside your backyard door to see what God means.  I’ve got large and very old trees, and azalea bushes.  I’ve got invasive vines, and lush pachysandra.  The birds, big and small flit around from tree to bush as they wait their turn at the feeder.  Each sort of vegetation is needed and used for the perching purposes.  It’s a busy backyard.

Never underestimate the power of God's ability to work through the most unusual and perhaps even insignificant ways.  Never underestimate the power of God to work through you.  Never undervalue each encounter that you have with someone, it could just mean that person’s life, or yours.  You never know when a seed is planted what it will yield. 

Rev. Andre Trocme was a protestant pastor in Le Chambon during World War II when the Germans occupied the South of France.  The book about his ministry and life, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” tells how Trocme lead his congregants to peacefully resist the Germans and give refuge to thousands of Jews who were seeking shelter for their lives.  It’s a remarkable and inspiring story.  But it didn’t happen overnight.

Over time and through his life example and preaching Trocme built a firm and ethical foundation for the people, it was a foundation rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ to thirst for justice, to be merciful to all and to be pure in heart.  He charged them to have moral intentions in all that they do that were unpolluted and to not be tempted by worldly things, to always stay focused on God.

In other words he sowed the seeds of justice and mercy in their hearts and in doing so laid the foundation for Le Chambon to save lives of innocent Jews who would have been sent to the death camps.  The good and everyday people of Le Chambon gave shelter to many just like the mustard bush providing shelter for the birds.

A small bush can pack a mighty punch. God has the power to take small things and make them great. You have a place and a function in God’s kingdom.  That’s the way God intended it to be and you will be able to effect change. 

God works through each and every one of us.  Every day is an opportunity for growth, each moment can yield significant outcomes. There is a place in the kingdom for all people because God will use us to the best of our abilities and for God's ultimate purpose.

Each one of us is created wonderfully unique so that the seeds of God’s love and grace can be sown.  God will plant the seed of faith within us to grow so that we, in turn, may plant seeds of hope and healing for others.

A small seed sown, one bush grown as shelter for many.  That’s how God works to God’s purposes not ours.  Be open to the possibilities however small they might seem.  One day you just might be giving shelter to the birds of the air.

Anne Frank, once said, “Everyone has inside of [them] a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

You have great potential and with God’s help you will grow into it.  That’s a promise.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Rethinking Family

Mark 3: 20-35
The American family, it’s a conundrum.  Now days it comes in many shapes and forms.  We only have to look at television to see how the American family has been portrayed through the years.  Here’s a quick, non-inclusive, unauthorized look –

There is the quintessential family in ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave It To Beaver’ where  you have one father, one mother with children, all Caucasian and then there was also the same configuration but with a multi-cultural focus with ‘The Goldberg’s’, a Jewish family living in New York City in the 40’s, ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘Family Matters’ both featured African American families living in urban areas.

There was a rash of television shows that featured widowers like ‘Andy Griffith’, ‘My Three Sons’, and ‘Make Room for Daddy’, although ‘daddy’ didn’t stay single for too many season’s, he remarried after some time yet adding another dimension to the family to make us think.

Then, not to be outdone, divorced women had their hayday in television with, ‘Kate and Allie’, ‘One Day at a Time’, and ‘The Partridge Family’.  They sure had their struggles trying to get by but somehow they always did.  And we can’t forget that maverick mother ‘Murphy Brown’ who had her child out of wedlock.  That controversial season seems like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?  Fortunately she had her housepainter to help her care for the child when she eventually went back to work.
There were reconfigured families like ‘All in the Family’ where Edith and Archie Bunker had to readjust when their daughter and her husband came back to roost, and ‘The Brady Bunch’ a story of a lovely lady bringing up three very lovely girls and a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own.  A blended family!

And today there is ‘Modern Family’ a show that has just about every type of American family you can think of in it; a straight couple with children, a gay couple with a child, and a multi-cultural couple, second marriage for both with a child from her first marriage.

What binds all of these shows together are the families’ ability to transcend the troubles of life, to persevere through good times and bad, and the very human capacity and willingness to love in spite of, in light of, and because of it all.

If television is any mirror of society then the American family has changed through the years and is without any clear definition but we were not the first to rethink what it means to be a family.  Jesus does it quite jarringly in our scripture today.

Jesus had, by now, been traveling around the Galilee healing paralytics and a man with a withered hand, even a leper.  He appoints twelve men to become his devoted disciples and they head back to his hometown of Nazareth.  I’m sure by now he has gained quite a reputation but not really a golden one.  I’m mean who would want a family member who has the audacity to redefine Torah and prophesies such things as the ‘kingdom of God?’ That’s one outlandish family member.

Hear now our scripture from the Gospel of Mark, the third chapter.

Then he went home; 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 doesn’t sound like this is such a proud parent moment for Mary.  Who would want their child gallivanting around Galilee as a self appointed rabbi and prophet?   So when Jesus returns home, and probably an embarrassment to the family, they call out to him to hush up, they wanted to rein him and his activities in.  Gender roles and occupations were very well defined in ancient Palestine.  Prophet was not one of them.  He was supposed to be the son of a carpenter after all, follow in the family business.  He was supposed to be respectable, settle down, and marry a nice Jewish girl.   

They expected several generations of families to live together in one household, to not stray very far.   Even today Arabs in the Palestinian territories build several floors up so that different generations can be accommodated.  The top floor is open with beams ready and waiting to build and enclose for another generation.
Jesus wasn’t quite living up to the family expectations.  His words and his actions upend conventional standards for an obedient son and for what it means to be a family.  For Jesus families are no longer only blood related.  The family that Jesus is talking about are those family members who choose to be together and who choose to do the will of God.

When he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?, he does not reject his own family.  His family of origin is still in tact.  When he says, “Here are my mother and brothers”,   Jesus expands what it means to be a family to include others into the fold.  He invites us to look at the wideness of God’s mercy and love for all people and to call them our family too.  He invites us to follow along in this generous offer.  

His brothers, sisters and mother are those who strive to do the will of God.  And while we will never exactly know what God’s will is, that would be rather presumptuous of us, we do know that God requires us to love kindly, to act and think in just ways and to walk down the divine path always. (Micah 6:8) When we do that we will have achieved the purposes of a just and ethical God who loves us like no other. 

But let’s face it, that’s real hard.  If someone doesn’t look like you or think like you, if someone doesn’t live quite the manner in which you live it becomes more difficult to love kindly, doesn’t it?  But if we are to walk humbly on the divine path then doing the right thing trumps that which makes you feel uncomfortable

It is no less true for a church family.  Being open to each person who crosses the threshold of this sanctuary and saying that you are open to each person achieves the ‘do justice’ part of what God requires of us.  God will get you there and will work through it with you.

Who are your brothers and sisters?  They are people who hurt like you, who hunger like you, who have the same worries as you.  They are people who get up each morning and want to do their best to make meaning of their lives just like you.   They are people who love God just as much as you do and believe in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Aren’t we blessed to be part of the human family of God’s desire?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

As the Spirit Gives You

Acts 2: 1-12
Last week we were intentionally left hanging with our reading in Acts with the Ascension of Jesus. He gathered his disciples and gave them three promises: that his kingdom will come; that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit; and that they would be his witnesses all over the land.  Then Jesus was lifted, he was surrounded by a cloud and was gone. 

The disciples had to re-group and get it together without him.  Probably not an easy task after your beloved, charismatic teacher has gone.  But they persevered and went back to Jerusalem to an upper room.  They were joined by others and spent their time in prayer and devotion in the days following.  There were about 120 of them by now and Peter took charge.  He led them to replace Judas with Matthias so the disciples who were now called apostles were complete with 12 once again.  They began to rebuild their lives.

Fifty days had passed since Passover and that fateful Friday that Jesus had been crucified and three days later rose from the tomb.  It was now the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost and they were gathered once again.

We will now hear our scripture today from the Book of Acts.  It will be different than all other Sunday’s.  It will be visual and it will be fast and loud and I will retell the story when we resume.  Watch now the story of Pentecost. 
This particular piece of scripture is anything but gentle and sweet.  Our celebration of the ‘birth day’ of the church is rather joyful and sentimental; we’ve got red balloons to signify the Spirit, we sing hymns about the gentile spirit of God and we’ll have cake at coffee hour to celebrate its birthday.  And that’s good I’m not pooh-poohing that.  But we need to be reminded that the day the disciples were empowered by the spirit to witness the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ was anything but gentle.  God crashes their party in a pretty significant way.

It was jarring and scary.  Gathered together suddenly, the Bible says, SUDDENLY a great sound came from heaven.  It was like the rush of a VIOLENT wind and fire was involved - lots of fire, tongues of fire that came upon each person who was there.  And then, if tongues of fire wasn’t enough, they began to speak in other languages.  It was not jibberish that no one could understand but it was intelligible languages so that everyone who was in Jerusalem that day could understand and hear their message. 

People thought they were crazy!  Drunk at 9:00 in the morning!  But Peter sets them straight.  “They are not drunk, they are merely a manifestation of the prophet Joel’s words.  The spirit will come and your sons and daughters will prophecy, the young men will have visions and the old men will dream.  And it there will be blood, fire and smoky mist, the sun will be dark and the moon will be blood-like.  Everyone, EVERYONE who calls out the name of the Lord will be saved”. 

Well, day by day, the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved.  Labor pangs of the church’s birth begins.  We’ve come a long way – we’re all grown up now!    

Yet, I believe, we still need that rush of a violent wind, that infusion of the spirit.  We need to be empowered once again to witness, not so  much about the church but about Christ himself, let’s go back to the basics. If you want to add numbers then go tell like the discples.  I think it’s that simple…on one level.  Get real excited about the transformation of your life with Christ and then let it be known.  From Judea to Samaria, from Norwalk to Norwich let it be known that you have been saved in some way, shape or form.    
The disciples didn’t witness about their church and it’s worship and meetings and outreach. The early folks were ‘Followers of the Way’; they didn’t have budgets, meetings and minute takers, they didn’t follow the prescribed lection of scripture or have doctrinal debates. 

They witnessed about what they had experienced living with Jesus in their lives.  The spirit infused them with grace and hope and the living Christ within them.  They gathered together and prayed and had a nice meal.  They were no more of a church as we know it than that proverbial man in the moon. 

Simply, they gathered to eat and to be in fellowship and then they lived their lives telling others.  This was, and still is the great gift at Pentecost.  That God sends the Holy Spirit to gather us, unite us, inspire us and reconcile us as brothers and sisters in the faith.  God calls us to Christian community then sends us out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, pastor, who was martyred at the hands of the Nazi’s once said this about Christian community, “Christian community….is a gift of God which we cannot claim.  Only God knows the real state of our fellowship….what may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God…the more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”1

Thank God for what has been given to us, it is a gift and we should be open to where God’s spirit is leading us.

The Holy Spirit reminds us of Christ, the Holy Spirit is the Christ within us.  We are the Church and the Church is inseparable from Christ.  You cannot have one without the other.  We do not exist for ourselves, we are not an exclusive club and we are not just another social service agency dolling out services. 

The Church is to be the face, hands, heart and intelligence of Christ in this world.  Teresa of Avila, mystic Carmelite nun of the 16th century says this so beautifully in her prayer:

“God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours.  Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.  Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.  Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.”  Amen.

The Holy Spirit reminds us of Christ; the Holy Spirit is the Christ within us.  We are the Church and the Church is inseparable from Christ.  You cannot have one without the other.  We do not exist for ourselves, we are not an exclusive club and we are not just another social service agency dolling out services.  We are alive because of Christ!

In 2,000 years the world has changed and we still are witnesses to Christ’s message.  How do we witness in a post modern world where soccer games trump Sunday School?  Where the Sunday ‘Times’ and Starbucks has replaced the Gospel and communion?  How are we to be the face, the hands and heart of Jesus in this world?

I believe that the Church’s question isn’t so much how can we get people in here but more importantly how can we, individually; take our spirit infused faith in God outside of these four walls beyond mission outreach and into our everyday living. We need to feel the red hot flame of love, of the Holy Spirit above our heads everyday because surely that is a reminder of God’s love through the saving redemptive act in Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit comes, we celebrate in community gifted by God, and now we are to take it out in Wilton and beyond because we are all Christ has.  It might be intimidating, but God will provide you with what you need.

Eventually, after picking themselves up off of the dusty floor, the disciples left that room spiritually scarred by the Holy Spirit.  If we read further in the Chapter we know that they shared their witness with others about Jesus and his miracles, about how he healed blind beggars and prostitutes, about how he went up against the authorities and never wavered in his convictions and love for God, about how Jesus plucked them from their meanial existence and gave them hope, about how Jesus was buried and rose again and how the disciples baptized believers to be Christ followers.  100’s of them.  1000’s of them day by day.  And so, the church grew, and we will too. 


1  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Life Together’, Harper Row Publisher, 1954, p. 30.