A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Be A Free-Loader! (Or Accepting What is Given) Mark 6: 1-13 Pentecost 6B, July 5th, 2015 July 5, 2015

True confession time: I love the reality show The Amazing Race. I know, I know, it’s not necessarily deep, intellectually stimulating and a bit voyeuristic of other people’s relationships but it intrigues me on a lot of levels. One, is that I love to travel and they go to some pretty cool places that are on my bucket list. Another is that they travel in pairs, competing against other paired teams of people for prizes.  In the early seasons, they were given no money and they had to figure out how to get money to travel, eat, etc. They travel light with just a backpack of essentials. What’s more, because of all the exotic places they go, they never speak the language of the country that they are in. They have to rely on strangers who might have limited knowledge of English to help translate, to help get them going in the correct direction and keep them safe. I was astounded at the number of people who would help with transportation or money for the teams. It kind of bothered me, actually, that these teams just expected people to help them-felt like free loading a bit. But time and again, complete strangers with the barriers of language and culture are willing to help them. And the people helped them joyfully, happy to be hospitable in their country. Many of the people loved being invited to share in the journey with the team.

The teams also have to rely on each other-every so often the teams are given tasks that they have to complete in order to get their next clue of where to go and what to do. The team members sometimes work together but sometimes have to pick which one of them will complete the task before even knowing what it is. For example, the task could be to climb something and the person who is terribly afraid of heights will have to complete the climb.

It’s interesting to watch the teams navigate the tasks and the challenges together at each step determining who has what skills, knowledge and which of their gifts is needed in that moment. And yes, some arguing ensues.  The teams always get to a point in the race where the façade drops and the vulnerability is revealed. People have to admit that they don’t think they can make the climb, walk the tightrope, eat weird food, run the distance or whatever uncomfortable situation they encounter. The teams that do the best learn to give up on control and focus on encouraging each other, comforting the other and finding a way together when it seems impossible. Even when it doesn’t work out and they are eliminated from the race, I have never seen a team leave the show fighting with each other or ending the relationship. They walk away with a deeper understanding of themselves, others, the world and the gift of community from having to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is at the heart of our Mark reading today on so many levels. Jesus comes to his home town and preaches, shares with those who know him what he’s been up to and it doesn’t go that well. One would think that Jesus’ return home would garner a good old fashioned potluck picnic celebration; a little Galilean hospitality– some pita, olives, hummus and the like. But hospitality is not exactly what happens here. Jesus unabashedly is vulnerable with the people he grew up with, he doesn’t hide any part of his identity or what he knows about God and the crowd questions his abilities, as well as his legitimacy. Naming Jesus as Mary’s son and not Joseph’s son calls his birth into question. This carpenter’s kid teaching like a rabbi offended the people and they reject him. The writer of Mark is showing us Jesus in his full human vulnerability; Jesus is astounded at their rejection and doesn’t have much he can do about it. He had to admit that he couldn’t even do all of the healing that he had done other places. One could call this trip a failure for Jesus.

So what does Jesus do? Well, he calls and sends his disciples to go and do what he just failed at. Huh.  Much like the Amazing Race, Jesus pairs the disciples off and tells them to go and take nothing with them. The disciples had to wonder about the wisdom of this, particularly in light of what had just happened to Jesus with people who actually KNEW him. How is this going to go with strangers? Jesus had removed any speck of self reliance from the disciples. When one enters a house as a guest, one steps completely into the world of someone else. You eat their weird food, you accept their customs, you sleep in a strange place, you smell weird smells, and you delve into their worldview.  It’s uncomfortable at best; disconcerting and stressful at most. It reveals the things that you’re good at, not so good at and even afraid of. As a recipient of hospitality at this level, you give up all of your control and you are left utterly vulnerable and it may not go well.

We, too, are sent, we are vulnerable and we just don’t like to talk about it. We, as the 21st century church, like to think that programs, buildings, pastors, staff, chairs, flowers, robes, candles and the like will guarantee proclamation the word of God and will share the love of God with the world. We believe that those things will help us to control and legitimate our ministry, that we are the self sufficient resource- the host in the community of the community and we will give the community whatever they need. It’s much easier to be the host than the guest. There’s less at risk.

Jesus knows that left to our own devices, we will hide behind extra tunics and bags of money to cover our vulnerability, mitigate the risk of rejection and use them as barriers to protect ourselves from needing other people, so that we can go on believing that we can control our lives and the lives of those around us.  We don’t need their hospitality but they need ours. And our culture of self reliance and autonomy backs us up. It’s not socially acceptable to be a “free loader” even if we come bearing this life giving message of life forever and being created in the image of the One who is pure love, grace, mercy and hope. We forget that God was first vulnerable with us, emptying Godself  to be fully human, to risk and to know what it is to be rejected, scared, and alone. Jesus vulnerably called friends who were less than perfect and would eventually scatter when times got hard and fully loved them anyway. Jesus wasn’t afraid of his vulnerability but embraced it as part of being with God’s people.

Jesus calls us to remove those barriers and brings us back to the reality that who we are as messy, imperfect, and broken humans is exactly who we need to be to proclaim God’ love. When we are able to be authentic, drop our façade and admit our brokenness is when we are most able to connect to one another and share what God has given us so freely. God has already equipped us with what we need for the journey: Jesus and each other, including the stranger, and this grace is sufficient. Our imperfection and vulnerability means that we have to invite others to journey with us because we need them as well. We need those who make us uncomfortable, push our boundaries, will walk with us in pain, wrestle with us in justice for all people and remind us that Jesus gathers us all to God. This isn’t a gospel of “go it alone” self sufficiency but one of radical inclusion where all people with their differing points of view and gifts are not just tolerated but needed for the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God.

God declares that we are never alone and we are already uniquely equipped by God to do whatever God calls us to do-we are enough just the way that we are, even when we are weary, afraid and rejected. Proclaiming the gospel only requires the willingness to vulnerably speak the truth about how the good news of Jesus Christ turned your world upside down with the promise of being made new each and every day, with the promise of unconditional love and forgiveness no matter what, that promise of God’s community, that the promise of eternal life, the reality of abundant life through Jesus, that is available not just someday but today. It’s proclaiming the good news that death is never the final word in God’s kingdom, that the meal of bread and wine we share is a not a pious ritual but the love of Jesus actually going in your ears, your mouth and your heart, and not just yours but your neighbor’s too. And this promise is for all people, in all places even if it’s risky. Amen.

 

God’s love, children swearing, failure and other realities of sowing seeds July 13, 2014

My first teaching job out of college was as a lead preschool teacher at a childcare center name Over the Rainbow that was shortly bought out by a local church in Lincoln, Sheridan Lutheran. My very first day was Dec.26th, 1993, I had just graduated on the 18th (so you can imagine how happy my parents were that I already had a job!) and honestly, I was fairly confident at 21 in my teaching abilities. I had graduated magna cum laude and had been awarded the outstanding student teaching award. I had it goin’ on. So, I came in my first day with lessons, songs, stories, and lots of lovely ideas of how the children and I would spend our days learning, playing and growing. The morning went fairly well and it was time for recess. Which in NE in the winter is a process with young children. I had 16 four and five year olds to get coats, hats, gloves and boots on. Even that went well. They dutifully made a little line and we went outside. They played well for about 15 minutes and I gave the two minute warning as you should with young children and then called out it was time to line up. All of the children did this except Daniel. Daniel kept doing whatever he wanted. I walked over to him and said, “Daniel, you must not have heard it was time to line up.” He looked up at me and said, “No, I heard you b*^%$.” Well, this was not covered in any of my classes, needless to say. He and I went back and forth for a bit and then I realized I was going to have to break a rule of teaching and simply pick him up and drag him inside. I was fairly certain I would be dismissed and go to jail for child abuse as he fought me and didn’t go quietly. He screamed obscenities in front of all of these other young children. So, on my first day, I was going to need to explain to a young mom why her sweet, four year old princess now knows the F word. The rest of the day did not go any better. Daniel screamed obscenities all the way through nap time, hurt other children and was so disruptive that I couldn’t even get through a lesson, a story and any of my lesson plans. Turns out that Daniel came from a difficult living situation of dad in jail for armed robbery, deep poverty and neglect. Any seeds of boundaries, love and even education seemed to not take root. And I was pretty sure that none of the other kids were getting anything either because all of my time was spent dealing with his behavior. Most of the time I felt like a failure as a teacher (and maybe even as a person) to this class and all they would remember is chaos. I know very little of what happened to Daniel, only that in elementary school his behavior did not improve despite all of the work and love myself and others had done with him. He didn’t thrive and I’ve always wondered what more I could have done.
We live in a culture that tells us to avoid failure at all costs and if you do fail, for all that’s holy, don’t tell anyone or admit it. Blame someone else for the shortcoming. But if you succeed, take all of the credit and know it’s because you earned it and deserve it. But here’s the reality of life: what takes root and grows and what doesn’t, is a mystery. And an example we’re all familiar with is our own faith in Jesus Christ.
In our 21st century pluralistic and global world, Christians are not the majority in many parts of the world. In the US and in CO, Christianity is the minority. And those of us who proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life wonder, why? The story of God’s amazing and unconditional love and grace took root in us somehow at some point. Now maybe we can point to all of the ways that the seeds of faith were scattered to us: Sunday School, or a good pastor, or a loving church community, parents and grandparents who passed on the faith, and those things are good. But how many people around us had the same experiences and yet don’t believe? What do we do about that?
I don’t think our situation as 21st century followers of Jesus is that far off from that of the first followers of Jesus. Those following Jesus were in the minority, most definitely. Jesus was walking around, in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching people and yet far more people didn’t follow than followed Jesus. For the disciples this was perplexing and curious. Why didn’t others see what they saw? What would it take to convince them? Should they work harder? Offer whatever the people want to hear? Was this ministry of Jesus a failure?
In this section of Matthew, Jesus and his message were meeting resistance and it was getting hard. Jesus decides to share this parable of the sower to the large crowd, and the disciples, who heard it very differently than I think we do today. We tend to focus on if we are the seed or the sower or get all hung up on the types of soils that Jesus talks about. We wonder which soil we are or which type our neighbor is, but I don’t think any of that is Jesus’ point. I think that the point of the parable comes in verse three, the very first sentence: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Or hear it this way: Listen! God went out to love. God went out to spread the seeds of love and mercy in all sorts of unlikely places not worried about the outcome. God wasn’t afraid to go to the hard, rocky places, to the thorny places where one can get hurt; to the hot, dry places where life is difficult. God didn’t stick to the soil where success was assured. God was’t worried about failure, only that the seeds went everywhere to everyone.
Jesus is naming some realities of ministry and of life that we can’t escape. We will go out with this amazing story of God’s abundance, grace and love and there are rocks, thorns, birds, hot sun, lack of water and nutrients, and all sorts of obstacles to the word of God taking root in the lives of people and in us. There will be more failures than successes in ministry. We will try ways to nurture the growth of the word of God in ourselves, the neighborhood and in the world that maybe won’t work. We will try different ways of worship, education, Sunday School, youth group, confirmation, walking with the community, and serving that may or may not take root. But…what if something we try does take root and is more fruitful than we ever imagined? What if we quit focusing on what didn’t go well and focus on what is growing and is bearing fruit right before us? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus ends the parable with the witness of the abundant harvest. Even in the face of failure, there can be a harvest that defies imagination.
Last October when Lois and I went to Aspen for the think tank on faith formation, there was a young lady there, Katie. We got to talking and she mentioned that my name was familiar. After putting together that she was a life long member at Sheridan Lutheran, she realized I had been her preschool teacher in that class with Daniel. But she didn’t mention Daniel at all. She did say she remembered stories I had told, songs I had taught and the prayer we did before snack and lunch. She told me how much she had loved going to preschool and that she used to cry on the days she didn’t go. It seems despite what I thought of as failure was a seed taking root in Katie.
She was at the time the worship leader for a mission development in Lincoln and she is now spending this year with Young Life and then will be going to seminary. I’m not taking credit for the Holy Spirit’s work in Katie, but I was sure I was such a failure of a preschool teacher to that class and I have thought about that many times. But God says what might look like failure to us, look again, for God is at work. Don’t miss what God is doing abundantly right in front of us because we are obsessed with the failures. That doesn’t mean that we give up on the Daniels but we shouldn’t lose sight of the Katies either. We keep following God out to all kinds of places for God’s seeds of love to be sown through us in people and places we would never expect. God understands that following Jesus is hard and won’t always take root how we expect but God promises to be with us on the path, in the rocks and in the thorns and to love us no matter what. God says there is always more than we can imagine, always more than enough and always room for everyone. And Jesus proclaims to us “Listen! God is going out” with us, to sow seeds in us and through us for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.