Calming the (Political) Storm

Mark 4.35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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On Tuesday morning, Lindsey and I woke up early to hit the polls before work. We were expecting long lines so we made sure to plan for enough time and double check our voting location. When we arrived, we were both a little shocked to discover the limited number of participants but we walked into the building with excitement.

I went over to the table to receive instructions and eventually went over to the machine to cast my vote. Lindsey, however, was forced to reregister because of a filing error, so I stood off to the side and waited patiently.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into to a building and start shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

On that day, when the evening had come, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side.” As the sun was setting in the distance, darkness was hovering over the waters, and Jesus suggested that it was time to go across the Sea of Galilee. And this was no simple journey; Jesus had been ministering to the Jews in the Jewish territory, but now he wanted his disciples to go across to the other side, to the gentiles.

This is probably Jesus’ first foray into dangerous territory, his first opportunity to proclaim a sense of inclusion that still mystifies most of us today.

And while they were out on the water, making the journey from their side to the other side, a great windstorm arose, smashing waves against the boat so hard that it was being swamped with water. But Jesus was asleep! So the disciples woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are going to die?

Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and there was a dead calm. He turned to his disciples and said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

They were definitely afraid; afraid of the wind and the waves crashing against the boat, afraid about the journey to the other side, afraid for their very lives.

And notice that Jesus does not say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There are plenty of things for Jesus’ disciples then, and now, to be afraid of: isolation, pain, illness, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, death. Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid?”

            Why are you afraid for your lives when I’m here on the boat with you?

            Why are you afraid of rejection and failure when I’m here with you in life?

            Why are you afraid of death when you know that I rose from the grave?

What a fitting text for this political season in our lives. While many of us grow tired of the countless fights and arguments that break out on the news, while the chain of endless debates rattle with sound bite after sound bite, while people go to the polls to vote against someone rather than for someone, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?”

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We are afraid. We are afraid of the wind and the waves that assail our fragile ships. We are afraid for our lives, our church, our cities, our politics, our country, our world. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, death… We are held captive by the power of fear.

And perhaps our greatest fear is of anything that differs from us. We are so contented in life that we fear death. We are so rooted in our Republicanism that we fear Democrats, or we are so Liberal that we fear Conservatism. We are so constantly surrounded by white middle-class Christian America, that we fear anyone who is black, or Hispanic, or Muslim, or Atheist. We are so used to seeing the traditional family unit of a husband and wife with 2.5 children that we are afraid of anyone who is lesbian or gay.

And Jesus is the one telling us its time to go to the other side. Jesus is the one who knows, even better than us, that there is plenty to be afraid of, but those things do not have the final word.

What we fail to remember and realize, is that we were once the outsiders that Jesus welcomed in. We were the gentiles waiting on the other shore for an incredible Messiah to show up and graft us in. If it were not for the incredible inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry, none of us would be here in this place, none of us would have been blessed with grace, and none of us would have received the gift of the cross.

And now we face a time with other outsiders, people for whom many of us are afraid of, people who will rock our boats. And as we get closer, as the scales begin to fall from our eyes, as we begin to see others as brothers and sisters instead of enemies, that’s precisely when the storms start billowing in, playing toward our fears.

“If we start working with the Republicans, we will lose everything we once deemed sacred…”

“If we let another Democrat into the White House, God only knows what kind of terrible things will happen to us…”

“If we start changing what we do on Sunday mornings, the church will die…”

“If we start affirming their relationships, the traditional family will die…”

“If we start opening our borders, our country will die…”

Jesus knows best of all, that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion.

The call to not be afraid bookends the gospel. It is there at the beginning when the angel Gabriel shares the news of the coming Messiah with Mary, and it is there at the end when the disciples encountered the angels on the first Easter. Not because there are no fearsome things on the seas of our days, not because there are no storms, but rather, because God is with us.

That night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus brought peace in the midst of the storm. This kind of thing happens all the time when people are willing to look past their fear and remember that Jesus is in the boat with us.

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It may be at the polls while people are arguing about the fate of our country, it may be at General Conference when people are arguing about homosexual relationships, it may be in our own families when people are arguing about anything under the sun.

We will face strong winds and huge waves in the middle of a storm. Jesus wants us to remember that he will always be in the boat with us; that we can rely on his strength and mercy when ours runs out; that the prince of peace will always calm the waters.

On Wednesday night I had the youth of our church read the story of Jesus’ calming the storm. We discussed the types of storms that we have witnessed in our lives and then we started to talk about fear. I gave each of them a permanent marker and a plate with the instructions to write down their deepest and truest fears. I promised them that whatever they wrote was between them and God, but they also talked about fears they felt comfortable sharing…

“I’m afraid of death.”

“I’m afraid of our government.”

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

Then we went out into the back parking lot and we smashed the plates into tiny pieces. After we collected all of our broken fears, we started to glue them back together in the shape of the cross (you can see it right here).

Christ’s cross shatters our fears, it breaks down the moments that haunt us, and remind us over and over again that we are not alone. To wear a cross around our necks, to see one in the sanctuary, is a witness to the fact that the cross shatters our fears. The cross is a reminder that God is with us; with us in on the seas of life, with us in our most frightened moments, with us when we need him.

This part of the sanctuary is called the nave. The word comes from the Latin navis, which means “ship.” If you look up at the ceiling, it looks like the inside of a boat. In this place we are bombarded with images of the cross and the ship on the sea as a reminder of how God is with us.

Every week we gather here into this boat, with Christ as the captain, calming the wind and the waves of our fears.

Every week we hear scriptures, and hymns, and prayers that help to remind us who is our real hope and salvation while the world feels like it’s falling apart.

Every week we gather in the boat to remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Don’t be afraid. Amen.

But I Say… – Sermon on Matthew 5.21-26

Matthew 5.21-26

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on they way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

 

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Lets assume that all of us are here this morning because we want to be good people. We see what our lives look like on a daily basis, and we recognize Sunday mornings as opportunities to better ourselves, to hear about the kind of people we are supposed to be.

Lets also assume that we are already fairly decent people. I mean look at us. We are sitting here in church on Sunday morning, thats certainly doing better than the people who are still sleeping in at home, curled up under their soft and warm blankets.

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Becoming a better person is what Christianity is all about, isn’t it? One of the main functions of any religion is to be shaped and molded into something greater than we currently are. This journey of faith is aimed at reconstructing ourselves so that we might resemble Jesus in the way that we live in the world.

But, the trouble for us who know a little bit about Jesus is that we know it was the good people, the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who obeyed all the laws, the ones who, like us, showed up for worship on time, the people who gave fervently to the temple, who remained faithful to their spouses, who loved the Lord their God with all their heart, who knew all the scriptures, who walked humbly with God, those people were the ones who eventually yelled, “Crucify him!” 

What drove them to such disregard for the Messiah who walked among them? What could have made them move from strict religious adherence, to crowds thirsty for punishment?Well, one answer is the scripture that we have today.

We find Jesus here in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Let me set up the trajectory: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, returned to Nazareth, was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan, was cast into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights, began his Galilean ministry, called his first disciples, and then gave his Sermon on the Mount.

This sermon marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission to God’s people. The words of the sermon will come to dictate who Jesus will serve, how he will share God’s grace with the people, and why he was dragged to the cross.

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

The sermon begins like all good sermons, Jesus jumps right to the point: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so forth.

With the people no doubt scratching their heads regarding whatever this inversion of the world’s dynamics was supposed to mean, Jesus moves forward, “You all are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

The sermon concludes with Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Mosaic ten commandments, which is where our scripture begins today:

You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What a sermon this is shaping out to be.

Jesus’ teaching is stricter than the law itself. He will go on to proclaim do not get angry, do not lust, do not swear, do not seek revenge, and do not hate your enemy. He takes the law and make it even harder to obey.

Under the old law only murder and other extreme offenses were guilty of death, but under Jesus’ understanding angry temper is to be similarly judged. And he doesn’t stop there! Even those who would call others, “stupid” or “fool” are worthy of judgment by the court.

For Jesus, anger is just as bad as murder. Killing is not done by knives, and guns, and fists alone, but by the angry words muttered between friends, or the casual indifference between classmates that often makes people feel less than human.

Jesus looked out at the crowd and saw people worthy of love. His sermon is not just a message for Christians to follow regarding other Christians, but its a call to recognize the inherent value in all people. In Jesus’ day there was a custom of placing a large gold coin beneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. For those who knew, this meant that even a wreck had value. Jesus recognized that value in all people, and called those with ears to hear to a life of grace, mercy, and love toward all people everywhere.

“You have heard it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…” Thats a classic Jesus move. It is possible to be so good, and right all the time, that you are wrong. You can be so religious that you miss the point of religion. Legalistic adherence to the law can begin to overshadow the importance of love and grace in your daily living. Overvaluing the law can lead to a faith that is cold, calculated, dry, and dull instead of a faith that is warm, wide, fun, and forgiving.

Jesus continues, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar (when you decide to place your offering in the plate) if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

A professor of mine in seminary told a story about a church in Africa that took this command quite seriously. Every Sunday morning the people would make their way to the church located in the middle of the village. Some with sleep still in their eyes would drag their lethargic bodies down the dusty road, continuing the same march they made every week.

At the bottom of the steps leading into the small sanctuary, the local pastor would be smiling from ear to ear greeting everyone as they came forward, however the doors would remain locked. The crowd would grow and grow until everyone from the village was present, anxiously waiting outside the church.

“Look around you,” the preacher’s voice would echo, “who do you need to reconcile with? Who have you betrayed since last we met? Go and find your brothers and sisters, make peace with one another. Until you do, these doors will remain locked.

For the next twenty minutes, all of the African congregants would slowly make their way throughout the crowds searching for those who they had wronged, and who had wronged them. Now this wasn’t a town where you could just stand around and pretend that everything had been perfect since last Sunday. Everyone knew everyones’ business. That meant that they truly had to make peace with the collective church. Without the reconciliation, the people had no business entering the church to worship God. Only after the pastor was satisfied that everyone had been merciful with one another, were the doors opened and worship continued.

Some might say that Jesus’ command that someone should leave their gift at the altar to reconcile with his brother or sister is a depreciation of worship; however, it is actually an exaltation of worship. Just as it happened for that African church, God sees our inmost motives, and we are called to worship God in truth. If we have baggage with others in the community, we mock God by coming before the altar instead of first reconciling ourselves with others. God is concerned with our lives and our worship; we cannot ignore one while participating in the other.

I thought about doing something radical this morning. After reading the scripture for Sunday, and remembering the story from my professor, I wondered what it would have been like to stand outside those doors preventing all of you from entering today. But, after having shoveled at the parsonage and the church the last few days in the cold, I thought better of it. Nevertheless, what would our worship in this place look like, if first we made peace with those in the pews, rather than anonymously continuing down our faith journeys all alone?

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What Jesus presented to the crowd, what Jesus presents to us this morning is not so much a new law to be strictly observed, but instead a new way of living our lives. Jesus makes his point dramatically in order for a change of heart to take place.

Jesus is here with us this morning, addressing us as he did to that crowd so long ago: You already know that you are forbidden to murder anyone, but now I’m telling you that you are forbidden to become angry with anyone. Call someone a fool and you’ll be worthy of punishment. Do you truly want to be good? Don’t just keep the law like the “good” Christians, go beyond the law.

Challenge yourselves to be greater than following guidelines and lists. Strive to love those around you to such a degree that the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

As a professor of mine once said, we are so accustomed to coming to a church like this and, if we should struggle and stumble with a passage like this one, it usually takes no more than 15 minutes for a skillful preacher, using the skills of story-telling, diversion, and trite formulaic expressions to explain it away. To reassure all of us that a nice person like Jesus never would have had a reason to say something tough to good people like us.

I know of no way to do that with this text. No amount of pop-psychology or narratival reductionism can remove the true message of Jesus’ words. The tougher the text, the more likely  it was to have come straight from the lips of Jesus. Being a Christian is no easy thing. It requires us to love greatly, and to forgive deeply.

Now more than ever we need to reclaim the high call of Jesus’ sermon. Young people today find and seek validation in their peers and parents that, when not offered, leads to self-destructive habits. Just think of the cases of bullying that have recently dominated significant media attention. Words and actions are powerful things. We often do not realize how powerful we can be with our words, and how destructive we can be if we are not careful.

Love is the key to all the commands of scripture, particularly Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

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Today, Jesus’ sermon is as hard to swallow as it was 2,000 years ago. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Do this and don’t do that,” but what Jesus says to us is to do more, go beyond the law, strive for something incredible, work for the kingdom, let God’s Word be incarnate in your lives, imagine a more graceful and purposeful life, seek out the last, least, and lost, be better than good, be holy as your heavenly father is holy.

Amen.

 

(I am thankful for Will Willimon’s sermon “Being Good” for inspiring parts of the above message)

 

Weekly Devotional – 2/17/14

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 3.16

Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

 

While preaching yesterday morning I mentioned, anecdotally, a practice regarding ship building. During the time of Jesus (and even today in some places) a gold coin would be placed underneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. Some claim that this practice began with the Romans as they used the coin to appease the gods. Others believe that the Romans placed the coin to help purchase a spot in the afterlife for the sailors who were lost at sea. Regardless of the true beginning of the tradition, it helped to show other sailors that even a wreck had value.

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Years ago, while approaching the end of a mission trip in Costa Rica, I helped lead a group of young people through a foot-washing service. A basin and chair was set up in the middle of the room and, after reading the appropriate scripture from the gospel according to John, I encouraged those present to find someone that had made a particular impact on them that week (positively or negatively) and then ask to wash their feet. With soft music playing in the background I witnessed God’s grace manifest in the tears that poured on the ground from those washing, and from those who were being washed. It is a remarkably humbling thing to kneel and take someone’s feet into your hands, but perhaps even more humbling is to have someone wash your feet.

As the service continued I noticed that one of the older boys was dutifully making his way through the entire room asking to wash everyone’s feet. Every time someone sat in the chair before him he would focus intently on what he was doing, demonstrating God’s love through his fingers and the water.

When I finally had a chance, I stood up, walked over to him, and asked to wash his feet. “I’m not worth it,” he replied, “no one should be washing my feet.” I responded: “Yes you are my friend. The whole point is to wash and be washed. You are worth it.”

While writing to the church in Corinth, Paul asks, “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” This is a question that I want to ask whenever I see someone feeling down or blue. I want to shout out, “You have value! You are uniquely beautiful, made in the image of God, worthy of being loved! God’s Spirit is in you!”

So, as we begin a new week I ask: Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Do you know that you have worth, that you are special, that you are wonderful? Do you know that God loves you for who you are no matter what?

I hope you do.