Saturday, June 30, 2012

Deliver Us!

Saturday, June 30
Scripture Reading—Luke 4:31-37

I know it’s hard for many of us to relate to stories about demon-possession.  For many of us, demon-possession is the category less scientifically sophisticated cultures employed to explain bizarre behavior they could not otherwise explain.  Demon-possession does make for interesting movie plots, and the realization that there is still a ritual for exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church today intrigues many of us.  Though many of us tend to interpret a text like this in more rationalistic ways, some of today’s best interpreters of Scripture humbly acknowledge that as smart as we think we are, there are still spiritual realities we cannot fully explain or comprehend.  Try as we might, we cannot fully explain to our own satisfaction the presence of evil in the world, nor can we comprehend how human beings can give themselves over to the service of evil, whether their names are  Hitler, Milosevic,  or John Wayne Gacy.    The man who enters the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath is obviously troubled and afflicted in some mysterious, disturbing way.  Whether we call it a demon or some mental illness caused by a brain disorder or chemical imbalance, the problems his condition caused for him—and others—were obvious.  We learn some things here from Jesus that apply in the 21st century every bit as much as the 1st.  First, Jesus’ teaching has authority.  He was not just an eloquent speaker, but his words had authority, authenticity, and power.  His words made a difference in the world.  We in the church use a lot of words—reading Scripture, preaching, and so on.  But our words don’t mean a thing unless they lead to action.  Unless we are inspired and challenged to go into the world to bring healing to the sick, comfort to the lonely, food to the hungry, and to seek justice for all people, our words don’t mean a thing.  And second, and perhaps more importantly, Jesus’ confrontation of the man’s condition makes it clear that Jesus has authority over evil.  Jesus came to challenge, defy, and defeat all the forces that rob people of their full humanity.  However we interpret what happened in the synagogue in Capernaum, we all agree that the gospel is good news precisely because in Jesus, we have found one who has set us free from all the negative forces, habits, powers, and conditions that rob us of life.  And those of us who have encountered Jesus’ authority over our broken, dysfunctional lives experience great joy in proclaiming the possibility of this deliverance to any who will hear it!

 Thought for the day:  Jesus comes to deliver us and our world from all the evil forces that threaten to rob us of  life!

 Prayer:  O God, thank you for the ways you have brought healing to my own disordered, broken life.  Continue to deliver me from all the things that prevent me from experiencing the joy for which you created me, and help me to invite others to reach out to you so that you can make them whole.  Amen. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Give?

Friday, June 29
Scripture Reading—II Corinthians 8:1-9

I have mixed feelings about fund raising letters, maybe you do, too.  Some of them try too hard to communicate excitement about the cause for which funds are sought, making them seem insincere.  Others subtly apply peer pressure.  You certainly don’t want your name left off the list of the donors’ roll for your college or favorite non-profit.  You can just hear your friends talking about why your name’s not listed.  And sometimes, you may feel like,  because of circumstances in your life, you’re just not able to give.    That leaves you feeling guilty.  Besides being a preacher, teacher, organizer, and tentmaker, Paul was a fundraiser.  Paul feels especially obligated to carry through with the collection of money for the saints in Jerusalem, many of whom were probably in great need.  At the Jerusalem conference (see the letter to the Galatians) Paul was asked to defend his work among the Gentiles in front of other leaders who had thought that the first step into the Christian community involved the faithful practice of Jewish rituals like circumcision.  The conference agreed that all these things were cumbersome barriers and asked Paul to remember the Christians in Jerusalem as he travelled the world reaching out to non-Jews.  Paul agreed.  He and Titus are determined to raise a significant amount of money to assist the Christians in Jerusalem. So, in Paul’s fundraising letter, like any skilled development officer, he reminds the Corinthians of the generosity of other donors, many of whom themselves were in great need.  He reminds them of the great need they are called on to help meet.  He tells them of his hope that they will prove themselves to be generous people.  But the greatest motivation for giving is not what the fundraiser or peers will think, or even the needs that will be served.  Rather, it is the fact that God has so generously given us grace in Jesus Christ—a gift we could neither earn or deserve.  We give for many reasons—but at the heart of our best giving is a simple, sincere response of gratitude for all God has done for us.  I can’t help but believe that a church filled with grateful people will be able to find the resources it needs to be a blessing to people in need!

 Thought for the day:  We give for many reasons, but our best giving is always motivated by sincere gratitude!

 Prayer:  O God, thank you for all you have done for me and for the world in Jesus.  Help me to advance the cause of your kingdom through faithful giving, not just from duty, obligation, or a desire for recognition.  Let my generosity arise from genuine gratitude.  Amen 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Difficult Conversations

Tuesday, June 27, 2012
Scripture Reading—II Corinthians 7:2-16

 The church is not perfect.  I know that may come as a shock to some of us.  But on occasion, I have heard that people get upset in churches about one thing or another.  I have heard that sometimes people get their feelings hurt, and that sometimes, because of some disagreement people leave a church.  These tensions are often over profound theological issues like what color carpet to put in a parlor or who gets to decide the placement of the furniture in a sanctuary.  Seriously, though, conflict in the church can be painful and sometimes disillusioning.  This passage in II Corinthians gives us a window into a painful disagreement in one of the churches Paul founded, loved, and had a long-standing relationship with—Corinth.  Apparently some person had tried to undermine Paul’s message and this had caused confusion in the church at Corinth.  Some people had questioned Paul’s authenticity as an apostle and had begun to wonder about the truth of his message.  This hurt Paul.  It made him angry.  And so he sent a letter to set the record straight (and to try to set the church at Corinth straight) by Titus, who had come back to Paul with a report that his straight talk had led to genuine sorrow on the part of Paul’s friends in Corinth and that their sorrow had led to repentance and a healing of the relationship Paul had once enjoyed with the Christians in Corinth.  There is an important lesson here for our relationships within the church—and all of our human relationships.  Unfortunately, we can say and do things that hurt, wound, and offend others—and vice-versa.  That is part of our human condition.  The test for Christians, though, is what happens afterward.  Paul shows us one way forward:  instead of talking about people behind their backs or withdrawing from situations where we’ve been hurt, we need to learn to speak frankly to the person who has offended us so that restoration can occur.  Part of what it means to be a Christian is to be learning to be a person who stays in relationship with those who’ve hurt us. Naming the problem, not in anger or judgment, but with honesty and compassion is often the first step to regaining a friendship that otherwise might be lost forever. 

Thought for the day:  When we’ve been hurt or offended by someone else, healing can begin if we refuse to gossip, backbite, and name call and instead, speak candidly to the person responsible for the hurt, with the hopeful expectation that the relationship can be healed and a friend regained.

 Prayer:  O God, when I am wronged by a friend, especially a Christian friend, give me the grace to honestly pray and work for reconciliation so that precious relationships can be restored and harmony returned to the body of Christ.  Amen. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Faith for Life's Storms

Wednesday, June 27
Scripture Reading—Mark 6:45-52

“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker.  It’s an admirable statement of faith in God’s promises.  I admire people who have that kind of unwavering faith.  But the truth is, our faith often ebbs and flows.  Our sense of God’s presence with us fluctuates.  More often than we’d like to admit, in spite of knowing God’s love for us, we become anxious and stressed.  There are moments of crisis when we feel truly frightened, in spite of the conviction that God will ultimately protect us.  There are days of spiritual apathy when we may wonder if we are left alone in this world to find our own solutions to our own problems. You’re not alone, unique, or unusual if you have these feelings from time to time.  This section of Mark’s gospel is the second account of a miracle at sea performed by Jesus.  This miracle follows on the fantastically impressive feeding of the 5000.  Jesus has withdrawn to pray alone and the disciples have put out to sea.  A fierce storm arises, Jesus sees them, and begins to walk toward them on the sea.  Like the divine presence in the Old Testament that threatens to destroy those who get too close or see too much, Jesus is going to walk on by.  Jesus identifies himself.  The disciples get him in the boat and immediately the storm stops.  You would think that after all the miracles of healing, feeding, and corralling the mighty forces of nature, the disciples would have accumulated a strong faith that God would take care of them, provide for them, and protect them always.  But Mark concludes the record of this miracle not with the disciples professing unwavering faith, but telling us that they did not understand and that their hearts were hardened. Strong faith in the face of adversity would be a constant struggle for Jesus’ disciples.  Even after Good Friday and Easter, they still struggled to understand what all these things meant.  We do need to have confidence in God’s promises.  But we also need to recognize that faith is not something we can stockpile.  Like the manna given the children of Israel each morning in the wilderness, God gives us faith when we need it the most.  And even in those moments when our faith is mixed with doubt, our courage with fear, our peace with anxiety, Jesus stays in the boat with us as our constant friend, guide, and companion until at last the storm passes on by. 

Thought for the day:  It is human to experience faith mixed with doubt.  Even in our moments of questioning, though, God is with us.

Prayer:  O God, like the disciples, I have seen signs of your presence and deliverance in my life, but too often still find myself in situations where I question your purpose for me and your presence with me.  In those times, help me to take heart knowing that when I need it most, you will give me the faith I need to make it through the storms of life.  Amen. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Common Grace

Tuesday, June 26
Scripture Reading—Acts 27:39-44

Sometimes, we Christians think that we find God’s grace only in holy places at holy times through holy people.  When we want to be reminded of the reality of God’s presence and power in the world, we’re more likely to turn to our sacred book, go to a church, wait for a sacred season, or spend time with like-minded people who can remind us what is important.  All these are commendable ways to draw closer to God.  But we sometimes forget that God is at work beyond the walls of a church.  God is at work, often though the unlikeliest of people in the most unusual places, to care and provide for us.  God uses public schools, corporations, financial institutions, and governmental entities for good.  To be sure, these entities often resist and obscure God’s purposes.  But either God is God of all, or God is not God at all.  Sometimes, God’s grace comes to us through people who do not share our Christian faith or hold any faith.  It’s happened to me, and I’m sure it has happened to you.  God has put some extraordinary person in your path to help you learn, to help you do your job more effectively, or to protect you from some danger.  Our Presbyterian friends call this common grace—the recognition that God’s grace and mercy is found everywhere—not just in Christian people or Christian congregations.  Paul learned this.  In yesterday’s reading, we saw how Paul helped protect the centurion put in charge of him, Julius.  In today’s reading, when the ship founders on a reef and it looks like the prisoners would escape, the soldiers planned to kill all of them.  Luke writes, however, “but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan.”  God used a Gentile to save a Jew, a Roman soldier to protect a Christian preacher, a jailer to protect a prisoner.  We never know where, when, or through whom God’s mercy will be given to us!

 Thought for the day:  If we are looking for it, we will see God’s presence and grace in the world every day in the most unusual ways, places, and people.

 Prayer:  O God, thank you for the time-honored ways you have given us to encounter your presence and mercy.  We do feel close to you as we read the Bible, worship in a beautiful sanctuary, and share in fellowship with other Christians.  But help us to be aware that you are working for the well-being of all people, and that sometimes, we ourselves might experience your grace through people who do not share our faith.  Amen. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Loving Difficult People in Difficult Times

Monday, June 25
Scripture Reading—Acts 27:13-38

 Commentators point out that Luke’s detailed description of Paul’s trip to Rome rivals in excitement the great Greek tales of seafaring journeys that are met with great difficulty (e. g. Homer’s Odyssey).   In this part of Acts,  a trip that started with problems gets worse.  Just like an intense car chase in a modern movie, this tale of Paul’s journey reaches a point where it looks like everything—the ship with its large cargo of wheat and over 276 passengers—will be lost.  But Paul echoes words he’s spoken earlier and tells his pagan friends that though the ship and its material content will not survive the storm, all the people will be safe.  Paul is so unlike us in many ways.  His dramatic conversion experience on the Damascus Road is so much more exciting than the experience many of us have of coming to faith gradually over time.  His confidence in his authority as a preacher and prophet, on display in this passage, intimidates some of us who are more tentative in our pronouncements of God’s will.  Nonetheless, there are two things, that,  if in some small measure, could rub on us, would make an impact on our world.   First, Paul has established a rapport with the non-Christians on the boat.  Julius, the centurion in charge of his prisoner, Paul, grants Paul several privileges that seem unusually kind, given the situation.  Paul shows us that one of the ways God’s  love is made known to the world that does not know that love, is by ordinary people willing to love people enough to take responsibility for their well-being even when they are under duress themselves.  (Paul is a prisoner, caring for his captors!)  Second, Paul is laser focused on his mission.  He has dreamed all of his life of going to Rome to proclaim the Gospel and hoped that he’d go further west to Spain.  Going as a prisoner in chains to plead a legal case to Caesar was not what he had in mind, but even in the midst of his personal adversity, he believed God was at work to empower him to fulfill the dream planted in his heart many years before.  What if we as God’s people today could be that focused, that passionate, that determined to proclaim the good news even to our adversaries and enemies, even when we ourselves are in situations of great stress?  Wouldn’t that make a difference in our world?

 Thought for the day:  God can use us, even in the midst of our own adversity, to make God’s love known to those who need it most!

 Prayer:  O God, whenever I find myself in some great storm that threatens my well-being, help me to have such strong faith that I focus not only on my own survival, but on the well-being of others who may be looking to me to see signs of courage, hope, and  your loving presence.  Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Please Check Tomorrow

I've been away, attending the Virginia Annual Conference this weekend.  Please be sure to look for tomorrow's daily devotional.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Surviving the Greatest Crisis of All

Saturday, June 23
Scripture Reading—Luke 21:25-28

 The gospel reading for tomorrow (Sunday) speaks about Jesus calming a fierce storm.  So the assigned readings from the daily lectionary for the next few days have something to do with the theme of storms.  This text from Luke 21 comes in the middle of a discourse where Luke records Jesus’ teaching in the temple and deals with the anger of the religious leaders—chief priests, scribes, and elders—the religious elite of Jesus’ day.  They’re not bad people, really.  Jesus was never one to beat around the bush.  He was so disgusted with the temple system in Jerusalem that he predicted its destruction and Jerusalem’s downfall.  In the year 70 C.E. (A.D.) these things did happen.  Indeed, these events were at least as devastating as the terrible tornadoes that swept through Joplin, Missouri about a year ago.  But Jesus envisions a greater crisis.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.”  Jesus goes on to describe the crisis that will come upon the earth whenever the Son of Man returns in all his glory.  Jesus is talking about the crisis of crises.  The problem is that  he did not return immediately after his death.  What do we make of all this?  All of us will face some great crisis at some point in our lives.  For some it may be a tornado or  a hurricane, an earthquake, war, recession, or famine.  For some the crisis may take the form of losing a job, a loved one or a relationship, or a devastating, prolonged illness.    The truth is, all of us will share in one crisis—death.  The only good thing about any of these crises (if it can be called good) is that on the other side of  them we will find redemption.  The storm will abate.  Jesus told his first disciples that when they saw the signs signaling the impending crisis of his return that they should take courage because their redemption was near.  None of us wants to go through any of these things, but when we do, the thing that will pull us through is the assurance that on the other side of even the worst storm is God’s gift of salvation. And unfortunately, we will go through some storms when that promise is all that will keep us going!

 Thought for the day:  In the midst of life’s greatest storms, we are sustained by our hope that God’s redemption lies on the other side.

 Prayer:  O God, we do not know what tomorrow will bring.  When life seems to be more than I can handle, please help me to have the courage and faith to survive, knowing that you will bring me through safely to a place of peace, healing, and restoration.  Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Finishing the Course

Friday, June 22
Scripture Reading—Acts 21:1-16

The reading for today continues the story of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem.  Again, he seeks out Christians in every city along the way.  At Caesarea something dramatic happened.  A man named Agabaus came down from Judea and enacted in dramatic fashion, what he believed would happen to Paul if he insisted on going to Jerusalem.  He took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands and told Paul that he would be bound in similar fashion in Jerusalem.  Later in chapter 21, we read that Paul was indeed apprehended in the temple, just as Agabaus had prophesied.  The striking thing about Paul is that he knows trouble awaits him in Jerusalem and yet he persists in pursuing his destination.  Just as Jesus went to Jerusalem in response to his understanding of God’s call and mission, so Paul says he is willing to die in Jerusalem if that is what faithfulness to his mission demands.  Many of us, myself included, often try to live our lives by pursuing a path with the least amount of conflict or resistance.  But most great people of faith, and great people we admire in history are remembered not because they played it safe, but because they were passionate about a cause and pursued their goal in spite of obstacles, ridicule, and suffering.  Moses left behind the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace to challenge his power.  Most of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution or death for speaking truth to power.  Most of the disciples died martyr’s deaths.  Gandhi, King, and others lost their lives as they led people to freedom.  Could God be calling you or me to step out of our comfort zone to do something great for God’s kingdom?

Thought for the day:  Is there any noble goal or dream in my life I am so passionate about that I would seek its fulfillment even at great personal cost?

Prayer:  O God, thank you for people of great faith who have changed the course of history because of their passionate commitment to do your will.  In some small way, help me to be gripped by some great sense of purpose that I am willing to pursue even if doing so takes me on a costly and challenging journey that I cannot complete unless you help me.  Amen.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Thing We Need to Make it Safely Home

Thursday, June 21
Scripture Reading—Acts 20:1-16

 This section of Luke’s record of the early church in the book of Acts describes Paul’s final missionary journey to Jerusalem and then on to Rome.  This passage reads like a travelogue; it details all the ports where Paul and his entourage stopped on the way to Jerusalem, the names of the people they met, and some of the most memorable events.  On this protracted “cruise” Paul and his friends celebrated the days of Unleavened Bread (the Passover) at which I’m sure they remembered the sacrifice Jesus made in Jerusalem, and which subtly signaled the difficulty Paul anticipated for himself on his arrival at that city.  At a meeting in Troas, Paul got so long-winded that a young man named Eutychus fell asleep near a window and fell to the ground three floors.  Everyone thought he was dead and Paul said, “Ah, he’ll be all right,” and kept preaching.  (Falling asleep in church is not a new thing!)  The main thing that happens on this journey, however, is that Paul encourages the Christians in the various cities along the way—and they encourage him on his journey that everyone knows will be met with great difficulty, perhaps persecution and even death.  Paul’s trip reminds us that the Christian life is a journey often filled with temptations, struggles, opposition, and even suffering.  But his travels also remind us that the way to successfully complete our journey, wherever it takes us and however difficult it might be, is to give and receive encouragement to one another. (Acts 20:1-2)  So, when you come to worship each Sunday, I hope and pray that before you put out from port for another week on the path of discipleship, you receive the encouragement you need to make it to the next point in your journey, and that you can encourage someone else along their way as well!

 Thought for the day:  As we make this journey of Christian discipleship, following where Christ leads, we need the encouragement of others to help us arrive safely at our destination.

 Prayer:  O God, your people have always been travelling folks.  Moses and the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land, Jesus and the disciples walking from one city to another, and Paul sailing from one port to another, all remind us that we, too are called to walk with Christ wherever he leads all the days of our lives until we arrive at our home in safety.  Grant us faith to trust you, and the generosity of spirit to give and receive encouragement from one another.  Amen. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Inside and Out--One and the Same

Wednesday, June 20
Scripture Reading—Luke 6:43-45

 We live in a world that values appearances.  We want to look young, classy, and chic for as long as we can.  But sometimes, no matter how hard we try to alter our appearance, reality catches up with us.  Just the other day Amy and I went to a movie and were asked if we qualified for the senior discount.  Amy was highly offended.  I told her, “That’s what you get for hanging out with me!”  Just as there comes a point where we can no longer hide the fact that we’re getting older,  so also there comes a point in our lives when the person we really are on the inside cannot be kept out of view.  We often hide our true nature from ourselves and other people.  We call this “denial.”  We go to great lengths to hide our inward anger or greed by putting on a fa├žade of kindness and generosity.  But we know the truth.  We want others to always think of us as competent, upbeat, and positive, so we work very hard to hide our tendencies toward slothfulness, cynicism, or depression.  When we’re tired or under stress,  our true character often comes through, making us painfully aware of our weaknesses.  One of Jesus’ greatest frustrations was seeing people who used their piety or religiosity as a cover for their true character.  He said a bad tree can’t bear good fruit.  The sad thing about all the energy we expend trying to hide our darker tendencies from ourselves, others, and God, is that God already sees us as we are—and God has already decided that despite our weaknesses and imperfections, we are loved.  The gospel is not a threat held over us that we will not be loved until we are good, but a promise that acknowledging our imperfections is the first step toward becoming the person God wants us to be.  Being a good tree that bears good fruit is not all up to us.  It is a product of receiving God’s grace and mercy and allowing God to form us into people who no longer have anything to hide—or anything to prove!

Thought for the day:  With God’s help, we can become good trees bearing good fruit.

 Prayer:  O God, you know me inside and out.  You love me as I am.  Help me, by your power, to become a person who is authentic, never trying to hide who I really am, on my way to being the same inside and out.  Amen. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What Lasts?

Tuesday, June 19
Scripture Reading--Revelation 21:22-22:5

 This passage near the end of this puzzling and sometimes disturbing book envisions the story of our salvation as having come full circle.  It paints a beautiful picture of a glorious city where all the injustices and evils of Babylon are overcome.  In this city, much like the paradise of the Garden of  Eden,  where the story of our faith begins, we see a river with, not the tree of knowledge of good and evil that leads to death, but the tree of life with leaves that provide for the healing of the nations.  It’s a beautiful picture anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom.  But one of the most striking features of this city is stated in verse 22, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  According to the New Interpreters’ Bible this is no small matter.  This aspect of the vision of the eternal city reflects an ongoing tension in the Bible about the role of physical places of worship in the spiritual life of God’s people.    In some respects, the vision of the city without a physical temple signifies the triumph of the conviction that the amount of time and money people spend on buildings can be a detriment to relating to a God who is spirit.  But, if spiritual ideals aren’t given some physical form and we as human beings do not have sacred places to help us connect with God, will those ideals, great as they might be, stand the test of time?  This question puts challenging questions to those of us who treasure beautiful places of worship.   “How do we gratefully use buildings built by human hands as tools that help us encounter a living God who transcends any physical form?  How do we prevent our love and respect for those buildings from becoming the main focus of our work as God’s people?  How do we discern what is of lasting importance as God’s people so that our buildings are tools for mission for a God who transcends all boundaries of time and space, rather than tethers that prevent us from moving freely into God’s future?”

 Thought for the day:  As important as sacred places of worship may be for our faith, they are only meant to be temporary tools that point us and others to the one true God known in Christ whose presence can never be contained in any human edifice, no matter how beautiful.

 Prayer:  O God, thank you for beautiful places of worship where we experience your presence.  But help us never to become so attached to those places that we lose sight of the fact that your presence in the world can never be contained by any physical location.  Help us never to put the maintenance of buildings over your call to go where your mission sends us.  Amen. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

New Creation

Monday, June 18
Scripture Reading—Galatians 6:11-18

 This closing section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is written not by a scribe as had been the rest of the letter.  This custom, often observed in Paul’s day, gives the writer the opportunity to summarize his message and in this case, Paul does so with great passion.  (I suppose this practice would be like sending someone an e-mail today in all capital letters!)  Throughout this letter, Paul has been concerned—angry would be a better word—over missionaries who’d gone to the region of Galatia instructing new Christians that for their faith to be authentic, they needed to embrace Jewish cultural practices like circumcision.  For Paul, reverting to these practices was a denial of the message he’d proclaimed—it is only by God’s grace and not by any human ethical achievement or ritualistic practice, that we are made right with God.  Paul was so passionate because he had learned the difficult, costly, and painful lesson that the cross of Jesus Christ put to death a worldly system in which people’s worth was determined by their cultural status—Jew, Greek, slave, free, male female (see Galatians 3:28).  This new creation is made possible through the suffering of Jesus.  It signals an end to human divisions and human assessments of who is truly religious and thus worthy of God’s grace and who is not.  So, Paul tried one last time, at the close of this letter to shout down what he perceived to be an attempt to make people think that God’s grace alone was not really sufficient for salvation.  We need more people like Paul today—people with the boldness to proclaim that the world’s definitions of human worth are part of the old order that has been destroyed by the cross.  We need to live into the new creation where we all recognize our need for mercy, and where we all acknowledge that whether we like it nor not, we are all part of God’s family.

Thought for the day:  The good news calls forth a passionate desire to celebrate and defend the new creation brought about by the cross--a new humanity where the world's labels and estimates of human worth give way to the acknowledgement that all of us are offered God's mercy!

Prayer:  O God, when the world seeks to define or label me--or anyone else--help me to remember that through the cross of Jesus Christ, we are all invited to be members of a new creation where the only label that matters is beloved child of God.  Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2012

Small Things that Change the World
Mark 4:26-34
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 17, 2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost

 God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love grows, spreads, and overcomes evil from even the smallest of beginnings

Sometimes realities and expectations are two different things.  That discrepancy is probably one reason Jesus used parables.  He knew that people had one set of expectations about the kind of kingdom he had come to inaugurate.  He had another.  He told parables to try to explain the reality of the kingdom of God, but the parables aren’t always straightforward.  They often mystify Jesus’ opponents because they don’t want to understand his message in the first place.  They’ve already made up their minds.  They’re enigmatic riddles to Jesus’ disciples, but because they’re sincerely trying to understand, Jesus takes time in private to help them unpack their meaning.  Parables are like jokes in that they employ misdirection—they start with something you’re familiar with—trees, shrubs, birds, seeds, soils—and you wind up in a place you hadn’t expected.  A good friend put me on to the quotations of comedian Stephen Wright this week.  Some of his one-liners are like Jesus’ parables—they make you laugh because your expectation at the beginning is turned on its head by the line’s end.  Here are a few from a website published by Donald J. Hunt:

 “I stayed in a really old hotel last night.  They sent me a wake up letter.”

 “I have a switch in my apartment that doesn't do anything. Every once in a while I turn it on and off. One day I got a call from a guy in France who said, ‘Cut it out!’”

 “I'm taking La maze classes. I'm not having a baby.   I'm just having trouble breathing.”

 “I just got skylights put in my place. The people who live above me are furious.”

 “I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place.”

 “When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask if I'm leaving.”[1]

 Many of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God offer people more than just a rhetorical challenge to their perception of reality.  They address the disappointment and disillusionment that arises when the beautiful nature of God’s kingdom is finally understood and then compared with the every reality most of us inhabit every day.

 The Hidden Nature of the Kingdom

 The kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ teaching.  Its establishment on earth was the reason he came.  It is a social and political image that refers to the state of affairs that exists when God’s rule and reign over us and our world is fully enacted. This image is not easy to completely define.  Some people have focused on the internal dimension of the kingdom and try to describe what happens in a person’s soul or psyche when they embrace the kingdom of God.  Others focus on the external nature of the kingdom of God and envision a state of affairs where the poor are fed, the homeless housed, war is eradicated, and justice is equally distributed.  Some people have focused on the kingdom’s future reality and see it more as an ideal that won’t be realized until the final day of  judgment; others see it as a present reality that is slowly evolving or organically developing.  We are taught to pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God in general terms is that time, place, situation, circumstance where God’s will prevails.

The problem with this grand ideal, as Jesus was apparently aware, is that whether it is primarily present or future, internal or external, social or personal—it seems so unimpressive when compared to the realities of our lives.

In Jesus’ day, to claim that God’s kingdom had come in his appearance on earth raised many people’s expectations—and created enemies.  To the poor Jews who were tired of living under Roman oppression, talk of the kingdom of God signaled that Israel was about to be restored to the place of worldly prestige and power it had known under its greatest King, David.  To those who had a vested interest in the status quo, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and yes, the Roman authorities, talk of establishment of a new kingdom sounded like sedition, a call to armed rebellion.  The kingdom Jesus had in mind was ruled by love—love that suffers, love that refuses to embrace violence as its method, love that sees rich and poor, old and young, male and female, as of equal worth and value in God’s eyes.  That ideal frankly looks rather pitiful compared to a legion of well-trained, well-armed Roman soldiers. 

 As the early Christian community to whom this first of the gospel’s in chronology was written looked back on Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, his efforts to change the world with love and their recognition that his disciples were called to suffer as he’d suffered, undoubtedly raised questions about the efficacy of such a strategy—a strategy of patience, refusal to take up arms, willingness to suffer.  Where is this kingdom Jesus seemed so confident about?

 Where’s the Kingdom Today?

We have similar questions, don’t we?  Where are the signs of God’s kingdom among us?  Yes, it is true that we have in recent years become more aware of the frailty of the big institutions and powers we humans have created.  We’ve seen that the most brilliant minds in the economic and financial arena could not really foresee how their actions could lead to a colossal economic collapse that affects everyone.  We’ve seen that the most brilliant military strategists can embrace faulty assumptions about how easily or quickly a war can be prosecuted and won.

 But beyond our human inabilities to predict the consequences of our actions, we are made aware daily of all the ways God’s kingdom is not yet a reality. 

 You can see why Christians struggled with their faith in the early years after Jesus death.  They were certain that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the kingdom he’d begun was going to come in its fullness in their lifetimes.  They could endure anything—ridicule, persecution, tension within their families over their newfound faith—because  Jesus was going to come again—soon. 

 But that didn’t happen.  They had to readjust their thinking—either give up their hope of God’s kingdom altogether, or reconsider the nature of this kingdom in light of the kind of king Jesus in fact proved to be.

 Jesus Embraces Small Beginnings

 We don’t just wonder about the kingdom’s presence because of the big tragedies of human history—nuclear bombs, world wars, economic reversals.  There’s enough in most of our personal lives to cause us at times to question the power of this kingdom, it’s presence among us.    

 So Jesus had some teaching to do.  He was determined to change people’s expectations about the kingdom of God,  not by diminishing what it would look like in its final form, but by teaching them about how it begins and how it grows.  Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t begin with   great fanfare.  It is not initiated or sought by a multi-billion dollar political campaign.  It does not depend on huge armies supported by huge budgets.  It does not even begin from the efforts of a powerful, prestigious contemporary mega-church.

 It begins like a mustard seed—a  small seed, one of the smallest of seeds.  That seed is sown,   and slowly, out of the limelight, away from public adulation, unseen, hidden, it slowly, but inexorably grows.  It issues not in a huge cedar tree, an oft-used symbol in the Old Testament for one of the great nations of the world, but a humble shrub—a a healthy shrub to be sure, a shrub large enough to offer shelter and refuge for a large number of birds, but nonetheless a shrub. 

 Jesus had this deep-seated confidence not in human ability, ingenuity, wealth, or even force of arms, but in God to take the smallest of beginnings, and use them to change human lives, even the course of human history.  His own story was an illustration of that confidence.  He was born, not in Jerusalem, the seat of spiritual power, nor in Rome, the seat of  imperial rule, but in a little out of the way place called Bethlehem, and there not in a nice hotel, but a humble manger as his parents sought shelter with the livestock.  He lived in Nazareth, a small town people often poked fun at.    And he chose 12 ordinary men to be his disciples, men without impressive resumes or pedigrees, some who had questionable pasts and few earthly achievements to commend themselves, just ordinary people.  And the people who were drawn to his movement were often people others looked down on for one reason or another—a woman caught in adultery, another woman in Samaria who’d had more husbands and affairs than you could count, a tax collector who’d made a lot of money cheating people, several blind, deaf, and sick people—not people you’d read about in the society page of the Sunday paper. 

 When it was all said and done, his strategy for bringing his kingdom into being was not to amass power and wealth, but to let those things go.  His strategy could not be mapped out neatly in a glitzy power-point presentation, but was finally defined by the symbol of failure and judgment prevalent in his time—a cross.  His own life was a testimony to the truth of this parable of the mustard seed—that God takes small things, ordinary people, experiences others regard as signs of utter failure, and turns these things into the seeds of a great movement that brings shelter, healing, life, and peace to any who will receive it.

 Small Things Can Change the World

 It’s not such a strange notion when you think about it.   I know it’s not the way the world normally operates, but it is true, that sometimes great things do come from small beginnings!

 Imagine a giant sequoia tree, one that is between 500 and 750 years old, the age at which these trees reach their height.  It is 250 feet tall, and 30 feet around.  How did that tree begin?  It had its beginnings from a cone that possessed seeds the size of a flake of oatmeal—a great sight to behold from such a small seed. 

People grow and mature at different rates. Thomas Edison's teacher said he could never amount to anything and advised his mother to take him out of school. Winston Churchill was admitted to school in the lowest level classes and never moved out of the lowest group in all the years he attended Harrow. Albert Einstein seemed so slow and dull that his parents feared that he was mentally deficient.   You can’t always predict how a person’s life will turn out just by the way it begins. 

John Buchanan is a wonderful preacher.  He just retired as the pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  He tells about returning to be inducted into the 50 year club in celebration of his class’s graduation from his alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Five of his classmates were scheduled after a nice luncheon to tell about what they’d accomplished since their graduation from college.  Buchanan wasn’t very excited about hearing these stories.  The first, a man named Earl he remembered as being studious and quiet told about his work as a neurologist doing groundbreaking research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and his work to find new methods of early detection and treatment.  Buchanan said his presentation was breathtaking.  The next presentation was from a man who’d been one of Buchanan’s fraternity brothers.  He’d gone on to earn a Ph. D. in inorganic chemistry and after working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and for Union Carbide, he landed at Michigan State University where he taught and did research into what makes tumors grow and had developed an anti-tumor drug used by oncologists everywhere.  After hearing these presentations, Buchanan admitted how surprised he was.[2]
He wrote, “The presentations were thrilling, and I began to look around the room at my old classmates in a whole new light. What an unpromising group we were as freshmen: unsophisticated, naive, full of ourselves, and so young—still adolescents mostly. And what an interesting group we had become: physicians, business executives, attorneys, research chemists, college professors, clergy, and a White House assistant to President Ronald Reagan in charge of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s office. Each with a fascinating story to tell; each of us with a story to tell that began with a seed or two or three planted at that college fifty years ago.”[3]

The seeds Jesus planted were small.  He had a few dedicated followers, he died on a cross.  But that movement spread until the point that it became the official religion of the empire that had once persecuted it—a mixed blessing to be sure, but nonetheless, testimony to the power of the ideas Jesus proclaimed.

Howard Zinn was a historian who studies history from the side of ordinary, forgotten people rather than from the vantage point of winners and rulers as is often the case. 

In an article in the National Catholic Reporter written shortly after Howard Zinn’s death, the writer told of hearing him advise a  group of students who wanted to make an impact in the world:

 “Look for a peace movement to join,” he told students last November in a talk. “It will look small, pitiful and helpless at first, but that’s how all movements start.”[4]

The writer of this article said that over lunch in Santa Fe a few years ago Zinn told a group  that every major movement for social change in our history was hopeless.

To John Dear , Zinn’s words sounded hopeless.  He summarized Zinn’s thoughts, “Hopeless from the beginning, hopeless through the middle, hopeless up to the very end -- people laboring toward a hopeless goal. But then, like a bolt out of a blue sky, a breakthrough.  The key [ Zinn]said, was that ordinary people kept at it despite all evidence. Ordinary people doing their small acts for justice every day -- here was the key. Over time peaceful acts add up to something big. What the powerful fear most, he said, are the grass-roots movements that won’t go away.”[5]

And then these words of encouragement from Zinn,  “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power than can transform the world.”[6]

So, my friends, I invite us to keep looking, not for the big things that make a splash for a moment, but those small acts of faithfulness and love that Jesus promised would change the world.  Pray—for your friends and your enemies, for our church, our city, and our world.  Share your faith—not in some condescending, brash, off-putting  way, but by letting other people know what God’s love has done for you.  Invite someone, or better, bring someone to worship with you and let them experience the joy of worshiping God and being loved and accepted just as you are.  Serve—whenever and however you can.  Give—of yourself, your time, your money.  God’s promise to us is that when we sow the smallest of seeds, God will use our efforts to change the world, to increase the reality of the reign of God’s love, until one day that reign of love has the final word!

        [1]“The World According to Steven Wright,”  accessed June 14, 2012,   

        [2] John Buchanan, “Seeds Planted,”  (sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, June 14, 2009)
        [3] Ibid.

        [4] John Dear, SJ, “Howard Zinn:  Small Acts Multiplied by Millions,”  National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2010, accessed June 14, 2012,

        [5] Ibid.

        [6] Ibid.