Sermon for Pentecost 5B

Mark 5:21-43

Today’s Gospel story is one of my favorites, because I can empathize with the woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. For most of my adult life, I suffered from polycystic ovarian syndrome, which, among other things, involved the kind of hemorrhaging that this woman may have suffered from. For most of my adult life, I went to doctors in search of relief from my suffering, and the doctors were able to help relieve some of the symptoms I was having with medication, but since there was no cure, I was never completely healed and I never felt completely well. When I would ask the doctors if they could perform a hysterectomy, they would always say that I was too young and that I might want to have children someday. It was frustrating to me because I wanted that healing—I wanted to feel well so badly that I was becoming desperate—and I wished that I could sign an affidavit saying I wouldn’t sue the doctors if they did the hysterectomy and I changed my mind later. Finally, two years ago this week, a doctor listened to what I was telling her and performed the hysterectomy. And through that doctor, and through the caring and kindness and help of members of this congregation—and my mother!—God granted me the healing that I was so desperately searching for. Two years of freedom from that particular suffering, and I am still so very thankful for that healing!

Many of us long for that healing. I know that several of you are in that stage where you are desperate to feel well again, frustrated because the doctors, while doing their best, can only relieve symptoms or give a treatment for the disease that causes as much pain as it is supposed to relieve. We cry out to God, we plead with him, we ask him how much longer until the kingdom comes to fulfillment and we are all completely well and healed. And not only do we ask this in relation to our individual, physical illnesses, but we ask this in relation to our societal illnesses. How much longer, Lord, before each person is treated as beautiful not only in your eyes, but in ours as well? How much longer, Lord, before we stop killing one another because we fear the differences between us and the possibilities that we might have to change how we live? How much longer, Lord, until death and crying and pain will be no more? How much longer, Lord, until you will come and wipe every tear from our eyes?

Lest we focus exclusively on the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, let us remember Jairus as well. Jairus knew this urgency. His daughter was ill to the point of death. His whole manner, when he comes to Jesus, is one of “Hurry, Jesus, please!” He had to be frustrated that the crowds were hindering Jesus from walking more quickly. He had to be even more upset when Jesus stopped to ask who touched him. Perhaps he was asking the same question as the disciples did, but adding silently to himself, “Oh, come on already! Would you stop asking stupid questions and hurry up?” As much as we are the hemorrhaging woman who was so desperate for healing, we are also Jairus: urging Jesus to hurry up, wondering why he delays for things that we consider to not be important, and impatient for the healing that only he can bring.

Into all of this mess Jesus speaks peace. Just as he tells the hemorrhaging woman to go in peace, and just as he tells Jairus not to be afraid, Jesus speaks peace to us. And not the superficial kind of peace that covers up arguments and keeps them under the surface until they erupt later. That kind of human peace is the kind that would remove all of the Confederate battle flags and then do nothing to address the issues surrounding racism that lie underneath of that powerful symbol. No, the kind of peace Jesus brings is one that all of our attempts at peace cannot match. The kind of peace that Jesus brings is a peace that brings us complete harmony with all of those around us, complete harmony with the creation. It is a peace that banishes all fear and helps us to extend the hand of welcome to all of those around us, as the nine people who died in Charleston extended that hand of welcome to the person who ended up shooting them.

How can we experience this peace and healing that only Jesus can bring? We can always begin with prayer. We often have this idea that it’s okay to pray for other people, but that somehow, it’s not okay to pray for ourselves and the needs that we have. The woman who was suffering from hemorrhages had no such reservations. She knew what her need was, and although she may have originally had a magical understanding of how Jesus heals—by only touching his cloak—Jesus transformed that understanding into a personal relationship. When the woman saw that Jesus wasn’t going to stop looking for her, she drew close and told him everything, and why she had touched his clothes. Jesus responded by calling her daughter—this nameless woman is now called daughter, child of God. When we come boldly to God with our own needs, as well as those of others, we make the claim that we are God’s children and that we want God to listen to us. While God may not always bring about healing in the way we think we need it, God will always call us his beloved daughters and sons, and God welcomes that personal relationship with each one of us. And being named as God’s children will bring us the peace and the wholeness that Jesus gives.

After beginning with prayer, we can open our eyes to the miracles that we see taking place around us in our daily lives. Miracles are not necessarily dramatic acts of healing, or other kinds of supernatural events. A couple of weeks ago, when we had the parables of the seeds, we heard Jesus telling us that the kingdom comes slowly and gradually, until finally we look up and we see that it has overtaken everything in its path, just as the mustard plant starts out as a small seed and then takes over the field. Let’s define a miracle as those small signs of the kingdom of God coming into our midst. One of those signs of the kingdom of God, a miracle, is the family members of the victims in Charleston forgiving the young man who shot them. Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily, but when it does come, when it is genuine, and when it comes so soon after such a horrible event, then that is a miracle, a sign of the kingdom of God. The peace that Jesus brings not only infused these nine people so much that they invited this stranger to Bible study with them, it also infused their family members so that they could offer forgiveness to the man who first sat with the group, and then shot them. The kingdom of God, and God’s peace, has come among us.

Besides prayer and besides looking for miracles, we can also work for reconciliation. Reconciliation is more than just saying “I’m sorry,” to one another, although it does include that. Reconciliation is more than just a touchy-feely, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” response to an argument. Reconciliation is working to understand the other person’s point of view, and it is working to help the other person in proactive ways. Reconciliation does not always mean that you will agree with the other person, but it does mean that you can work to see that the other person is treated as you would want to be treated. We still have much work to do as we reconcile with those who are different from us, those who, as minorities of various kinds, have experienced discrimination, disadvantage, and dis-ease in our society that those of us who are white cannot comprehend and have not always made an effort to understand. In our Gospel story today, the woman who was hemorrhaging had been considered “unclean” for much of her life, and would not have been able to have physical contact with others in her community, unless they were willing to become unclean by touching her. By getting her to admit what she had done and why she had done it, Jesus is reconciling her to her community; restoring her to full membership. Our call as Christians is to reconcile with those whom we have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, and, with them, be restored to full communion, harmony, and peace with one another; to be a community.

Healing is not an easy thing, and, until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, we will not be completely healed. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should give up and stop seeking that healing. Through prayer, looking for the miracles that indicate the kingdom of God is among us, and through reconciliation, God can bring us a measure of that peace and that healing that we seek. And peace is not simply the absence of conflict. The peace that God brings through Jesus is that peace that means restoration: a restoration of community, a restoration of family, a restoration of living in harmony with one another and with God’s creation. And so healing may not always come in the way we think it will. Let us work with one another towards that healing peace, and let us pray that God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding, would guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 4B

Mark 4:35-41

The year was 1959, in the month of June. My father was 12 years old, and he and his family lived in Connecticut, not too far away from the ocean. My grandfather’s friend, Harry, had just bought a 38-foot fishing boat which was harbored on the eastern Connecticut shore, and he invited my grandfather and his family down to visit for a weekend of boating. They got there on a Friday, my father told me, and as it was stormy out, they did not go out on the boat. The next day started out foggy, but then the sun broke through and it was absolutely beautiful outside. The group decided to go for a boat ride out to Fishers Island, which wasn’t very far. As they went, they checked in with the Coast Guard station, who said that they should have a beautiful day and be able to make it all the way out to Block Island. My grandfather the engineer decided to plot the course, even though Harry said it wasn’t necessary, since they would see Block Island before they lost sight of Fishers Island. As they went, they noticed that there was a storm to the north of them, but they thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, because storms like that usually didn’t turn south. Unfortunately, though, this one did turn south and came at them fast. At first, they tried to turn around, but saw that it wasn’t going to work, so they decided to try to outrace it to Block Island. Suddenly, their boat was caught in this horrific storm that had come out of nowhere: thunder, lightning, and 20-foot waves. My father said that there were 6 kids total on the boat, as well as the two moms and the two dads. He said that the mothers huddled in the corner of one of the rooms and held the smaller ones, while he himself thought that this whole thing was great fun: he says that he was too dumb to be scared. Harry’s nephew, who was 16, crawled out to the tip of the boat and tied himself down to see if he could see the buoy that would mark where Block Island was. Somehow, very possibly because my grandfather had plotted out the course, they finally made it into the harbor at Block Island. But, aside from my father, all of them were very frightened and greatly relieved when they were finally safe.

I think that this is similar to what happened when the storm arose on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus decides, after a full day of teaching, that he wants to go across to the other side. Many of the disciples in the boat with him are experienced fishermen: they know the Sea of Galilee intimately, they know how quickly storms can arise, and yet, as they look out, they seem to think that it looks okay for sailing. They all pile into the boat and start across the lake. And then the squall comes up: imagine, for a moment, those 20-foot waves that my father described in his story swamping the sailboat—with no engine, by the way, to help them out. And Jesus has the nerve to be asleep through all of this! Was he, like my father, “too dumb to be scared”? Or was he just that tired that nothing, not even a storm, could wake him up? Well, we don’t know the answer to that. Nevertheless, there are some good messages that we can take from this very short miracle story.

First, it’s natural, in a situation like this, to be afraid. We shouldn’t scorn the disciples for not having enough faith—had we been in their shoes, we would have reacted in the same way. Remember, they were experienced fishermen, and they hadn’t yet been with Jesus for a very long time. If experienced fishermen who know the Sea of Galilee intimately are getting scared because of a storm, then you know that it’s something to be frightened of. At this point in their journey with Jesus, they’ve seen him drive out demons, heal diseases, and teach in parables. It’s been some pretty incredible stuff, but many other teachers were doing similar things at that time. So, when they wake Jesus up, they’re not expecting him to actually make the storm stop. Instead, they’re expecting him to help them out with navigating the boat through the storm, maybe tie himself to the mast and look out for land. Instead, Jesus makes the storm stop, and then scolds them for their lack of faith. Now they know that Jesus is more than a teacher, but they’re still not certain who they’re dealing with, although they might be getting an inkling. And the Greek here in Mark literally says, “They feared a great fear.” They were afraid when the storm hit, and now that the storm has gone, they’re still afraid. Who is this guy that they’ve gotten themselves mixed up with? Those disciples in the boat who know their Scriptures might think back to the Psalm we read which talked about the Lord making the storm be still, or to our Job passage where God answers Job out of the whirlwind.

So, this helps me understand why Jesus was asking the disciples why they were afraid and if they had no faith. If Jesus was expecting them to believe that he was, indeed, the Son of God, then they should not have been afraid of the storm. After all, they had God in the boat with them. And this brings me to the second point that we can take from this Gospel reading today: If we truly believe God is with us, why are we afraid?

There’s been a lot of fear in the news this week. Up until Thursday, the biggest fear and anticipation was surrounding the encyclical Pope Francis was going to publish about the environment. The fear surrounding that comes because a figure who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, who many people even outside of the Roman Catholic Church love because he has made the Gospel come so radiantly to life, is now threatening the Western way of life and calling it out for what it is doing not only to the environment, but also to the poor around the world. I was going to talk about that today, but instead I decided to save this issue for when we enter our Season of Creation in September. Because something else happened this week that needs to be addressed from the pulpit.

On Thursday we saw in the news that nine black people attending a prayer group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down by a young white man who explicitly said that he was shooting them because they were black. This incident, the latest in a string of racial incidents in the last few years here in America, hit especially close to home for us in the Lutheran church, and not only because this took place in a church, where everyone should be safe. Two of the victims in Charleston were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. And it has become known that the shooter was a member of an ELCA congregation. I can’t imagine what the congregation that he belongs to must be going through: wondering how they missed this, what they could have done differently to prevent this young man from doing this, and all sorts of other questions. But it has prompted many of my colleagues in the ELCA to do some serious soul searching, and I am participating in that, too.

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, in her statement in response to the shooting, says, “”Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly. The Rev. Mr. Pinck​ney leaves a wife and children. The other eight victims leave grieving families. The family of the suspected killer and two congregations are broken. When will this end? I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.”

Powell is an interesting town, in that we are mostly white, although there are some minorities here. And while Powell is generally a very nice and polite town, we need to not make the mistake of thinking that racism does not exist. I’d like us all to ask ourselves what our feelings are toward other minorities in Powell and the surrounding areas as well: Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, African Americans, and so on. Let us examine ourselves, confess where we have gone wrong, ask forgiveness, and strive to do better. I confess that, when I have heard racist statements being made, I have not challenged them as strongly as I ought to have, out of fear of offending the person who made the statement. I am committing myself now to challenge racism where I see it, and with God’s help, to not be afraid. I am asking all of you to make that same commitment today. Because this time, the evil of racism has struck close to home, and we need to forcefully declare that, as far as it is within our power to do so, racism will no longer find a home within the congregations of the ELCA.

Fear has no place in the life of a Christian, and racism is, at its very core, about fear of the person who is different from us. Sometimes, we will be afraid. Fear is a natural instinct, but with racism, fear becomes unreasonable, for instance, when we clutch our valuables tighter to ourselves and cross the street to avoid a young black man who is simply walking down the street and minding his own business. Doing something like that, or making racist statements, or allowing racist statements made by another to pass without challenge, is to be ruled by fear, and as Christians, we should not allow that to happen. After all, we have Jesus in the boat with us, therefore, we have nothing to fear. Jesus asks us today, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Let us make a commitment to one another to no longer be ruled by fear. Let us make a commitment to one another to learn about other people who are different from us, to see things from their perspective, and to be open to changing what we believe. For in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, black or white, Hispanic or Native American, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. And when Jesus is with us, there is no reason to let fear rule our lives. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 3B

Mark 4:26-34

The church is changing. Many of you remember when the classrooms here at Hope were filled to overflowing with children learning about Jesus in Sunday school. Today we get excited when we have 10 or more children in worship and in Sunday school. Many of you remember a time when everyone was in church on Sunday mornings and on Wednesday evenings for worship and for classes. Today the church has to compete with sports programs and other extracurricular activities, even on Sunday mornings, and many people don’t seem to feel the need to come to worship anymore. Recently large statistical surveys have shown a large drop in the number of people who are identifying themselves as Christian—from 78 percent seven years ago to 70 percent today—and a rise in those who identify themselves as agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious”. And we in the church wring our hands and try to assign blame. “If we could only do this new program, then people will come back.” “It’s because we’ve lost our moral compass—we need to regain that and then people will come back.” “It’s because we don’t have prayer in school any longer—if we just allowed prayer in school again, everyone would come back.” Do you hear how many times in those statements I said “we”? It’s as if we think that we alone are responsible for bringing in the kingdom of God, and that God will exact vengeance upon us for losing all of these people.

In contrast, today Jesus gives us two parables about the kingdom of God that show us how mistaken we are about the nature of that kingdom. First, the kingdom of God is like seed that is scattered and grows up from the ground, without our knowledge or help. Second, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown, is the smallest of all of the seeds, but then grows up into the largest of shrubs, so that the birds of the air make nests in its branches. As I approach these parables, I am very conscious of the fact that I manage to kill plants that I try to raise, and that I know very little about farming. But I think that there is a universality to these images of growing plants that can speak to even plant-deficient people like me, and can give encouragement to us in the church as we face this shift in what Christianity looks like.

First, we have the image of the seed sown in the ground, with the sower not doing anything with it, but the earth producing of itself. I think that some of the plants I have had in the past died because I didn’t leave them alone. I didn’t trust them to grow on their own, and I worried that they didn’t have enough water or enough sun. So I watered them more than they needed to be watered, and they drowned. Or I put them in sunlight that was too direct, and they dried up. Notice in this parable that the person who sowed the seed does nothing after the seed lands in the ground: he sleeps, he rises, and he watches the seed grow, trusting in the earth and the weather to do what the earth and the weather do best. Suddenly, the grain appears, then it ripens, and then it is ready for harvest. The sower of the seed then becomes the reaper, and he goes in and harvests the grain. Even though he did nothing to help the grain grow.

We in the church sometimes need to let things go. We sow the seed, yes. But sometimes, well-intentioned though we may be, we either over-water the seed or leave it out in the sun too long, and it dies. My grandmother’s cousin, Bob, and his wife, Lois, were sponsoring a young Chinese man here in the States. He was Christian, but the men he was staying with were not. Sometimes he would bring them over to Lois and Bob’s house for a meal, and Lois would do her utmost to talk to these men about Jesus, trying to get them to convert to Christianity. They would listen to her politely, but would never take her seriously. She would be just beside herself, thinking that somehow she had failed. My mother finally told Lois that it was okay; that she had planted the seed and it was up to the Holy Spirit to nurture and to grow that seed that she had planted, and it was not up to her. Since my family has since moved away, and Bob and Lois have since gone to be with Jesus, we do not know what happened to those young men that Lois talked to. And that’s okay. The seed may have taken root in these men or it may not have, and we probably will never know. But God knows, and God will see to the growth of that seed that Lois scattered. Sometimes we need to let things go, to give them over to God, and to wait for the Holy Spirit to produce the growth.

Paired with this story of the sower of the seed who does not know how it grows into grain is the parable of the mustard seed. The mustard seed starts out small, but then grows and grows—it’s been said that it’s impossible to have just a little bit of mustard in your field. If you let it go, it will take over everything. In the past, mustard has been derided as a weed, along the same lines as dandelions. Recently, though, some scholars have pointed out that in the ancient world, mustard was used for its medicinal value as well as its use as a spice. Like the mustard plant, then, the kingdom of God starts out as a small and unnoticeable seed, but then grows, overtaking everything else in the field, but also providing both healing and spice to those who harvest it.

Sometimes we want to see the kingdom of God in the big things. We see all of the bad things that happen in the world, and we just want God to come down and put a stop to all of it, right here, right now. That is the hope that we have, and it’s easy to become discouraged when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. But did you ever stop to think what would happen if God came down, Avengers-style, and beat the living daylights out of the bad guys? If it’s anything like those superhero movies, there would be a lot of destruction and a lot of innocent people would get caught in the crossfire. And perhaps we might not like what side we would end up on.

So instead, God tells us that his kingdom does not come all at once, superhero style and leaving destruction in his wake. Rather, it comes in the little, everyday things, in the ordinary way that mustard and other plants grow. The kingdom of God comes among us when we harvest the produce from our gardens and share it with our neighbors. The kingdom of God comes among us when we sacrifice something we have so that another might have enough to eat. The kingdom of God comes among us when we stand up for someone who is suffering an injustice. And the kingdom of God comes among us even when we have an ordinary day and nothing special seems to happen. The kingdom of God comes among us even then. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, writing on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” said, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” And sometimes we don’t even know that the kingdom of God has come among us until we suddenly look up and see it all around us, taking over everything in our field of vision.

So, as we go about our daily lives, we do not need to ask where the kingdom of God is or when it is coming. We can talk about the kingdom of God existing both now and not yet. This week I saw an article where scientists working on the quantum level—that is, a level even smaller than the particles that make up the atom—have shown that time is, somehow, not linear as we perceive it, but rather, that it somehow flows both forward and backward. That means that events that happen in the future can influence the events that happen right now, in the present, and somehow have already influenced past events. I know, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it! But let’s think of it this way: the kingdom of God, which will be fulfilled in the future, is somehow flowing backwards to our present time and breaking in all around us, so that we can see glimpses of it in our daily life. So Jesus’ parable of the seeds–the seed that the person sows on the field and the mustard seed—are meant to bring us comfort. So what, if, by the world’s surveys and standards, Christianity seems to be declining in numbers? God’s standards are not the world’s standards. What the world considers weakness, God considers strength. We can see the kingdom breaking in, growing up all around us, without our knowledge, until suddenly we look up and see that it has taken over everything around us. So let us not lose hope. As Paul says in our second reading today, we walk by faith, not by sight. Let us keep up that walk, trusting in the Holy Spirit to give the growth where the growth is needed. Amen.