Monday, June 26, 2006

Sermon texts:
2 Corinthians 6: 1-13
Mark 4: 35-41

I read on my Oklahoma welcome map that our state has more coastline than either the East coast or the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that? I see on my map that we are not too terribly far from Lake Eufala, and I look forward to going down there and checking it out. Judging by the OK department of tourism, I would say it is safe to say that Oklahomans know lakes. We also know wind and storms, don’t we? I don’t think the wind has stopped blowing since I have been here, and those sweetgums in our front yard blow in the breeze and keep our cats entertained looking out the window.
Yes, we know lakes, and we know storms, and many of us know what this storm in the gospel represents—chaos.
One of the most important “surface ideas” that this story communicated was that Jesus possessed the power of the Almighty God. After all, the healings that he had up to this point in Mark, which was the first Gospel to be written, were all replicated by other traveling holy men, healers, and magicians. However, it was known in the ancient world that only God could calm the sea and the wind. The sea was symbolic of the great Chaos that was subject only to God. The significance of this miracle is communicated by the disciples in the story who witness Jesus quelling the storm, and gasp, “Who is this man?!”
Many ancient stories told of particular gods of their culture defeating the forces of chaos. Psalm 107 is a Hebrew version of a common motif found in Babylonian, Canaanite, and Syrian myths—God is more powerful than the forces of Chaos.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
24they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
25For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;
27they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
28Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
29he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
31Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
32Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
If you pay close attention to Genesis 1, you see that God creates the world not out of a void, but out of a turbulent chaotic sea. It wasn’t nothing that existed, it was just hopelessly unorganized.
Many of you have experienced the pain and uncertainty of chaos. I was privileged to meet with the “grief-share” support group last week, and became more familiar with the chaos that has invaded the life of this church family. Chaos wrought by death, by loss, by illness. Mark tells us that Jesus “rebukes” the storm—a word that is used when Jesus is exorcising a demon. In the face of the Living God, the forces of chaos settle and bow. Our Christ has the power to heal—not only to heal physical wounds, but the power to mend those deeper, spiritual ones that take longer, are more intensive.
I am proud of our church for offering a grief group to our community. In the circle of compassion that I participated in last week, I witnessed the Living Christ there among us, quelling the storm of chaos—healing fractured souls, turning sorrow into joy. Grief is not the chaos—the grief that has been and continues to be shared is the healing—it is the voice of Christ saying, “Peace, be still.”
One important thing about this scripture was the disciple’s amazement. Mark wrote this part of the Gospel to communicate with a world that was quite infused with stories of the sea—they were familiar with what it meant that Jesus stilled the storm. It didn’t need to be spelled out for them.
I have a professor at Claremont who likes to read the gospel of Mark in conversation with the Homeric Epics. He argued that the Greek hearers of the Gospel would have made some connections that are probably lost on most of us because the Greeks had the Epics stamped on their mind, much like you and I all know the story of Pecos Bill, Jonny Appleseed, or Paul Bunyan.
Interestingly enough—there is a story in Odyssey that this story of Jesus sort of “echoes.” Odysseus has just returned from the land of Aeolus, the king of the wind. Aeolus is impressed with Odysseus, and gives him a bag of wind to use for his sails. One day while Odysseus sleeps, his shipmates are curious about the bag and open it—they release the winds contained in the bag, and veer Odysseus and twelve other ships riding with them, off course. Odysseus’s shipmates wake him up in a panic, and he laments “We are lost by our own folly!” The word lost is the same Greek word that is translated as “perishing” in Mark’s story of the disciples at sea.
The early readers would no doubt have read this and thought of how Jesus was even more powerful than the great Odysseus. And while Odysseus could only lament that we were “lost by our own folly,” Jesus saves us all from “being lost” by stilling the storm. In most cases, Mark portrays the disciples in a less than flattering light (much like Homer plays the shipmate’s folly off of Odysseus’s own virtuousness.) And in this story, Jesus castigates the disciples—“why are you cowards?” The Greek word that Jesus uses for “afraid” is “deilos,” and does communicate a sense of inward defect that is a cause for the person’s fear, as we often distinguish between “fear,” and “cowardliness.”
In a sense, Jesus poses them with a question that has no reference at all to the waves and wind that are crashing in on them. Jesus knows that they must first remedy the fear from within before they turn to facing their fears from the outside. Jesus wanted courageous captains on his ship—because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to pilot it for long.
According to the traditional imagery and symbolism of the church, you are sitting in a boat right now. This part of the church is called the “nave,” which comes from the Latin “navis,” meaning “ship.” The word “Navy” also comes from this Latin word. You have probably heard before that one way to look at our church’s ceiling is as the bottom of a boat. The stained glass window on the back right of the sanctuary is of a ship sailing on the globe—this is the same imagery that Mark is using in his story.
Let me ask you—“why do the disciples cross the lake?” Any ideas? Well, one might also ask, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” You know why? To get to the other side. On one side of the lake, the people are Jewish. On the other side, the side that Jesus asks his disciples to take him to, the people are Gentiles. The boat sailing on the globe is a symbol—a reminder to ourselves, that we are to take Jesus all over the globe. But we must also recognize that the Gentiles are in our midst. They are in our neighborhoods, they are in our workplaces, they are in our social clubs.
Paul is one who was willing to take the boat to the other side of the lake. His mission to the Gentiles was opposed by Peter and some of the other disciples, including Jesus’ own brother James, who was the leader of the church after Jesus died. Paul recounts some of the storms that he had weathered in his letter to the Corinthians: I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in “the Message,” People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.
You probably notice that Paul alternates between the good and bad fortune in the same breath—it is because Paul faces good and bad treatment with the tremendous power of the Gospel in his heart, radiating outwards. Paul faced intense difficulties because of the message that he brought to the world. He also was exalted and even worshipped by some. Paul knew the steady confidence that came from faith in Christ, and it is because of his faith that he was able to write exuberant letters from prison cells, bounce back from a shipwreck to invite a whole community to the Gospel feast, and stand trial among his own co-workers in the church.
Paul chides the Corinthians in the same tone that Jesus chides his disciples, “Dear, dear Corinthians, I can't tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn't fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren't small, but you're living them in a small way. I'm speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”
Did you hear him say, “the smallness you feel comes from within you?” It is this same inner fear that Jesus can help us overcome. It is this storm from within that Jesus is able to still in our lives at this very moment! Jesus expands our hearts, makes them bigger and mightier. Are any of you troubled by the storms of life? No one can promise you that your faith will be a magic talisman against difficulties arising in your life. What we can promise you is that with faith in your heart—by “opening up your lives” and living expansively with faith in Christ, you will be equipped to face those difficulties.
As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” We will still be afraid, and sometimes rightly so—but our faith will sustain us and give us mastery of fear. Mark Twain also said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A person who lives fully is prepared to die at any moment.” The difference is as keen as the little children who enter the wardrobe and the warriors those children become—standing in Aslan’s honor against his enemies.
Though the storms of life may still come, though we may face the next day with apprehension and anguish, through Christ, we have no need to have a fear from within. We can face the chaos with courage and the peace of Christ. The peace which comes from riding in the ship with Jesus, knowing that even if it may seem that he is sleeping with his head on a cushion, his Spirit is ever awake, ever breathing into our own lives and giving us the ability to stand with these words broadcasting from our heart, “Though I may walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff—thy comfort me.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Is a young adult you know looking for something to do?

GraceWorks Community: The Bishop's Young Adult Initiative

Young adults (age 18-30) are invited to commit one year to serving as volunteers with GraceWorks Community: The Bishop's Young Adult Initiative for the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Participants work full-time at local non-profit organizations, engaging in direct service and advocacy with persons who are poor and marginalized, while living together in intentional community. Volunteers will be placed for service in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from August 2006 to July 2007. We are still accepting volunteer applications for this year.

Young adult participants will share a house and a simple lifestyle during their year of service. GraceWorks Community provides housing, health insurance, a food and travel allowance, a monthly living stipend, and access to an AmeriCorps education award at the end of the year. Volunteers come together each week to reflect on the work in which they are engaged and the gifts and challenges of community life, while local congregations provide hospitality and support. In keeping with Wesleyan tradition, volunteers are encouraged to make connections between spiritual growth and "social holiness" as they learn skills for servant leadership in church and community.

Nathan Mattox First Sermon in Morris: "It's always the last place you look"

1st samuel 15:34-16:13
Mark 4:26-34

I hesitated at first to bring to you the Gospel reading today. This is the story that you’ve probably heard of as the mustard seed. It seems that God’s kingdom is not always spectacular and noticeable at first glance—in fact it rarely is. With the parable of the mustard seed, or the pine nut, as Eugene Peterson tells the story in his translation of the Bible that I read from today called the “Message,” we see Jesus comparing the Kingdom to something quite small and unremarkable.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that “It’s always the last place you look.” I can attest to the truth of this statement, because unpacking boxes creates an enormous amount of mess, and I I’ve spent hours in the last week just looking for things that I had set down a few minutes before. It was only in recent years that I finally got the joke of this saying. Of course it is always the last place you look, because if you find what you’re looking for, you stop looking, right? Even if you find what you’re looking for in the first place you look, it is also the last place you look.
Jesus on several occasions shows us that what we usually don’t notice—what we call small and insignificant—are usually the most potent metaphors for God and God’s glorious kingdom. I hesitated to read this Gospel lesson today because I was just a bit concerned that those of you who helped me unload the U-haul would assume that the opposite might also be true. A 26 foot U-haul full of “stuff” is anything but inconspicuous. Lurching down 3rd street, scraping the branches of trees as I pulled it into our new home, I prayed, “Lord, give these people patience!” To my surprise and delight, we unloaded the van and even set up our bed in less than an hour! While Jesus tells us in the parables that good things come in small packages, I hope that today you might entertain the possibility that in my family’s presence with you here today, good things might also come in big packages too!
From what I’ve been able to tell from the bulletins I’ve seen, this congregation usually only hears one scripture lesson. I’ve been told that we pastors aren’t supposed to change anything in the worship service for at least a few months, and I had at first thought I’d base my sermon solely on the Samuel scripture—but this little pine nut kept coming to mind, and these scriptures go so well together.
Besides—I ride a bicycle okay, but I have never gotten up on a unicycle. Likewise, I need two scriptures to keep a sermon balanced and going in the right direction. With one I might just wobble around and fall on my face. I hope you don’t mind the change—I don’t preach a long time usually, and we’ll probably have room to hear two accounts of God’s story—our story—I think.
What strikes me about both of these scriptures that we heard today is that phrase from the Samuel reading—“the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
This is so clear in our Scriptures—that God always seems to choose those we’d least expect—Jacob and Joseph, Jonah and Ruth, Peter and Mary, even Jesus and David are unlikely candidates for God’s Spirit to stir within them. We all tend to judge on outward appearances.
Believe me, I’m aware of what my outward appearances are—young, green—and in my case the outward appearances are truly part of who I am—but thank God we have a Father in heaven that sees into our hearts--Sees our hearts not as fist-sized organs for pumping blood, but instead dwelling places large enough for God’s own Spirit!
I think this is why Jesus uses little seeds and little children and little farmers and little birds and flowers to point out the truth of God’s Kingdom. God is so immensely present in all things that sometimes it is the smallest things that give us an insight into who God is. We can wrap our feeble minds around the small things. The kingdom is indeed like a seed. Martin Luther said that the whole universe is infused with the totality of God—he said that even a grain of wheat, designed and brought into being by our creator, contains God’s presence. Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic and pastor, said, “Apprehend God in all thingsfor God is in all things.Every single creature is full of Godand is a book about God.Every creature is a word of God.If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature -even a caterpillar -I would never have to prepare a sermon.So full of God is every creature.
Mark tells us that Jesus gives us the Word as we are able to hear it. It has always been inspiring to me that God wants to be known and loved so much that we are given these stories that are so profound and yet so simple. A farmer casting out seed and then falling asleep—while the kingdom sprouts in his midst without him even knowing how. The kingdom is like that isn’t it?! How many times have you simply said something very offhandedly or perhaps even been unaware of how deeply you have touched someone else? My first year of ministry taught me this humbling parable in my own experience. Every week I struggled to find the right words to convey what I believe God wants me to convey, and then after I would deliver a sermon, I usually forgot about it and moved on to preparing for next week’s sermon—
but later in the week a parishioner might come up to me and tell me how something in particular I had said had really made a difference in their outlook that week. It may have even been something I forgot about saying!
What a gift it is to see the grain ready for the harvest! What a mystery it is to know that a simple smile or gesture of good will can make such a difference to someone.
The inverse is true as well of course, the slightest wag of the tongue, the smallest little whisper of a broken confidence sometimes bears the largest consequences of all—even while we “sleep” and forget about what we have said or done, our carelessness can sometimes spiral out of control.
Saul knew of this carelessness. You might ask yourself why Saul had fallen out of God’s favor—why, as the scriptures tell us, “God regretted ever having made Saul king.” It was just the slightest slip up—God had commanded Saul to conquer and kill the Amelekites—from top to bottom—from the King himself to the scrawniest goat in his Kingdom, and yet Saul had given permission to his warriors to take the choicest livestock as spoils of war.
As the scriptures show us, God loves shepherds—God is a shepherd. But God chooses a shepherd who would lay down his life for his flock, not lay down the lives of others for their flocks. Jesus tells us that he is the kind of Shepherd who would spend all day searching for the tiniest lost lamb, and Saul becomes the kind of shepherd who chooses the best livestock for himself.
Jesus chooses the mustard seed, and Samuel calls in Jesse’s youngest son from the fields where he is tending sheep and anoints him as the next king. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and David is celebrated as a fierce defender of his sheep—an unexpected King who comes out of the pasture to defeat giants and to lead a nation in the worship of God. Who would expect this of a shepherd boy?
Samuel tells us that God doesn’t see as we see, but God looks at a person’s heart. In a sense, Jesus is telling us the same thing with the parable of the mustard seed. The heart of a mustard seed is what it will become—and God doesn’t write off the seed because it is small and inconspicuous.
I have been a pastor for the past year at a small church, so I know that at times we can feel somewhat small and insignificant in comparison to the other more “successful” churches, the churches with so much to offer, the churches with the huge programs and the new buildings. But I can tell you that God chooses us as long as we have a heart for God. I’m not saying that God chooses us and not those big churches, because many of them are doing great things for the glory of God—but what I am saying is that God chooses us in the same measure that God chooses those other places.
God loves to dwell in our hearts, and physical size has no bearing on the size of heart. I can attest to you that in my short encounter with you thus far, I see a heart open to God—I see a pine tree with an Eagle’s nest. In the outpouring of help we have received, in the welcome baskets full of brownies and fresh vegetables and salsa and canned goods, in the pounding of steaks and beef and pound cake and other goods, in the in the ministries and motivation that I have witnessed at this past week’s church council meeting,
it is obvious to me that this church witnesses God’s presence. Being welcoming is a response to God’s grace pouring into and out of a place. Jesus says in the gospel of 7th chapter of John, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let anyone who believes in me drink. And out of the believer’s heart will come rivers of living water.” The Living water is the refreshing, purifying Holy Spirit—and in my opinion the Living water is often experienced as “welcoming.” Judging on our reception here, I would proclaim it as good news that this family of faith has felt the thirst in your throats and has dug the well to the heart of Christ—and that you drink from it and are now spilling over with the Spirit’s presence.
As your pastor, I see it as my calling to remind us of our thirst—remind us that this thirst creates possibilities for others to drink from the living waters which in turn flow out of our hearts.
Thirst causes us to see pine trees in pine nuts—to see shepherd boys as kings. Living this way takes constant hope. It takes a relentless hope in the possibilities of things unseen. But—as we have heard, God sees the things unseen, and God puts stock in mustard seeds, and shepherds, and us! amen