Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B] - June 21, 2015 (Mark 4:35-41)

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know about you, but I feel as if that’s the cry of a lot of people around us lately. It comes from the lips of those who feel things are out of control, those who are weary of the suffering and the whirling, swirling unknown, and those who sense the reality of death is beating down on them. It is often, for example, the question that Stephen Ministers are trained to hear in the words of their care-receivers, people who long to be assured of God’s guidance, and we celebrate their service this morning.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It’s been the cry, I would imagine, of those who are weathering the storm of a cancer diagnosis, and our congregation’s prayer list happens to be full of them at the moment. We are no doubt amazed and inspired by their faith and confidence in the face of it all, but as some point they must feel the pressure of the disease’s whirlwind. The carousel of doctor appointments, the rounds of chemo and radiation, the infernal waiting for the next scan’s results: it can all start to feel like waves that are beating into the boat. Patients and the ones who pray for them cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are persishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

My God, it must have been the cry of those in the Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, on Sunday night. Like they had done so many times before, they had simply gotten in a boat to cross the calm sea of Galilee in that church basement with the hopes of learning a little more from their Teacher. They welcomed in a stranger, a guest, into their boat—a young man who, unbeknownst to them, was carrying a gun. The participants in the Bible study warmly made room for him, just as Christ would have asked them to—just as we, in fact, often welcome newcomers into our Bible studies and Sunday School classes and worship services. They had no doubt opened their hearts, shared their faith, their hopes with him but then the guest, whose middle name of all things happens to be Storm, unleashed his anger and bullets.

"Mother" Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
As it turns out, he had not come to study or share.  He had come to kill with waves of violence and racism and hatred that could not be contained. In their boat. As the attack concluded and the ambulances arrived, surely the question on the lips of the survivors was similar to the one that has been uttered by so many of us as we learn about it:“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In many ways, that could be the cry of our whole nation right now, if we’re listening close enough. It’s not just in the anguished cries of this most recent incident where we hear it. It echoes in the violence of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the church in south Richmond that has had to employ an off-duty officer every Sunday since 2006 for fear of a racially-motivated attack. It is evident in every tension created by the prejudice and privilege that still stain our country and from which I benefit.

Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said it very well this week in her letter about to the recent events, “[The Charleston shooting] is not an isolated event. Even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly.”

Yes, they are deadly waves that might just spill over and sink our boat, or at the very least slow it down permanently. Racism is just like waves on a storm-tossed sea. It doesn't just affect people of certain skin color or background. In the end, everyone gets wet. In the end, it diminishes all of us, and everyone is in danger of being thrown overboard by the unrest and injustice it creates. As the heated debates begin to rage about how we can solve problems like this either with more gun control or less gun control, by bringing down the Confederate flag or keeping it up, some of us are just left bailing water and wondering, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In the ancient worldview that the disciples and the first followers of Christ would have lived with, the sea was a symbol for chaos and danger. Although it provided them food and some form of transportation, the ocean was ultimately something that could never really be explained, and certainly never, ever controlled. The only hope one had in dealing with the ocean (and total chaos) was a higher power. God alone had established command over the waters at creation to bring about order and beauty. God alone had saved the Israelites by subduing the waters of the Red Sea. God alone had navigated Jonah through the waters to the place he needed to go.

The Sea of Galilee, where Jesus begins his ministry, is but a small drop of water compared with the vast ocean, but it was still subject to the same unpredictability and peril.

Storms could blow up without warning, and if they did, there were no lifejackets or emergency flares. You went under and didn’t come back up.

And, so, when the disciples find themselves at the mercy of a sudden storm, they begin to panic. They turn to their Teacher only to find him sleeping. I could be wrong here, but I don’t think they turn to him with the hopes he can do something about it. As a mere human, he would be susceptible to the same dangers that they are. They turn to him because they’re stupefied: how in the world can someone remain that non-anxious as the situation is going down the tubes?

It is natural to wonder where God is when things are going down the tubes…to wonder if God is listening, is God is paying attention to the fact that our boat is sinking, that the bullets are flying. One of my seminary professors liked to use an acronym to help us think things through—this was a professor, coincidentally that Pastor Joseph also had, as did Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church who died this week in Charleston, since we all went to seminary around the same time. The acronym was WIGIAT, and it stood for “Where is God in all this?” We were encouraged to ask it in any situation, especially ones that distressed us and those we were serving.

I’ll be honest: I not sure I ever really got the hang of it. Nevertheless, I found WIGIAT—“Where is God in all this?”—to, at the very least, slow down my rush to worry or panic. Thankfully, I have found that some of you are incredibly gifted at asking this question and finding the answer amidst the storms of your lives. But WIGIAT or not, panic and fear still overwhelm us from time to time. And it’s typically even more counterproductive when people tell me I shouldn’t give in to the fright, that it only makes things worse, that it reveals my doubt and weakness. Panic doesn’t help us hear God’s voice, but sometimes there’s just nothing we can do about that.

Another thing we know doesn’t help when we’re wondering about God’s presence in difficult times is the offering of pat answers. Could you imagine how unhelpful it would have been if the disciples, scared to death of what was happening, helpless against the waves that battered their boat, had awakened the sleeping Jesus and he stood up and said, “Friends. Calm down. Everything happens for a reason.”

Or, better yet, if they had nudged Jesus to get off his cushion and he had stood up and said, “Boys, easy now. God never gives anyone more than they can handle”?

Panic, pat answers…they come so easily to feeble people like us, especially when the waves start to rise. Despite our better efforts, our response is often fear and empty words that do nothing but make the boat rock more. Perhaps the one thing, then, that we can take from this story…from the events in Charleston…from the events of our lives when we start to wonder where God is and whether God hears us…is that when Jesus first wakes up, he doesn’t bother speaking to the disciples.

Jesus speaks to the storm.

His first words are not for us, but for danger that threatens us. He begins by confronting the evil before he talks to us because that is what Jesus came to do. He came primarily to silence the evil.

"Christ on the cross" (Albrecht Duerer)
The one in the boat with us, as it turns out, happens to be the one who had navigated Jonah, the one who saved the Israelites, the one who tamed the primordial chaos. And he is the one who, on the cross, will throw himself into it all—the chaos, the evil, our panic, our doubt—in order to demonstrate his ultimate power over it. As we fret and worry only about us, Jesus is stilling the forces of destruction in ways we do not immediately perceive. Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus conquers evil with a humble method we are often too blinded by fear to see.

One thing that is coming to light about the events this week in Charleston is just how connected we all are in this boat of life, how one action of evil or grace can so profoundly reveal our commonalities. We know now that the shooter and his family were members of a Lutheran church in Columbia and at one point had even attended confirmation camp with his youth group. We also know that Clementa Pinckney was a graduate of the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina. What I’ve also learned is that Pastor Pinckney, while on duty as a state legislator in Columbia this past February, attended Ash Wednesday worship at the shooter’s congregation. The pastor of that congregation—that same pastor currently tending to Dylann’s family—shared on Facebook last night—that he remembers placing the ashen cross on Pinckney’s forehead that day.

The human experience, with all its frailness and fear, with its cancer and calamities, its ash and blood, is too much to bear at times, but we have a God who connects us all through the cross. We worship a Father who has given his own Son to suffer with us. And have a Teacher who is apparently already assisting his victims, amidst their pain to forgive and be reconciled. There's that power really defeats evil.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

When all is said and done, let us discover that his cross has been traced upon us, too, and that even the wind and sea, the hatred and the violence, the chaos of death and yes, the life—the blessed, blessed life—obey him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 6B] - June 14, 2015 (Mark 4:26-34)

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

The kingdom of God is as if the parent would put the 5-year-old on the school bus one autumn for his first day of kindergarten, and would sleep and rise night and day, packing lunches each morning and helping with homework afternoon, and the kid would develop and grow, the parent does not know how. The pictures are even there on the refrigerator but the growth still seems like a mystery: the child produces of itself first the lost tooth in 1st grade school photo, then the piano recital in 4th grade, then the cotillion dance and confirmation at church, then somehow the last exam of senior year. But when the child is ready and done with grade school, the principal comes in with the diploma and the scholarship to college, the marching orders for the military, because graduation time has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

And another parable: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter a few dozen Lutherans at the far end of the dirt and gravel section of Monument Avenue in Richmond. At its start it is one of the smallest congregations around, with a budget and staff to match. They have no money for a sanctuary, and instead scrape by, cramming worship services, Sunday School classes, and the pastor’s residence into an old run-down farmhouse. People in the heart of Richmond repeatedly wonder aloud, “Who’s going to go worship way out there?”

But sixty-three years, seven pastors and one diaconal minister later, they are one of the largest of all Synod congregations. It puts forth many strong ministries which branch into the community and lives of its members. It supports two food pantries, regularly houses people who are homeless, and makes hundreds of quilts each year for an international relief organization. Children and youth and adults of all ages are able to find a church home in its shade. And the branches keep growing: the congregation appoints a long-range Planning Team to help them look into the future and wonder where else the small but powerful seed of God’s word needs to be planted. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

And another one: the kingdom of God is like a small, struggling congregation that has voted to close its doors and worship as a community for one last time. They look back on their glory years with thankfulness but nostalgia. The memories of filled sanctuaries and vibrant ministries are sweet to recall, some of which include a young pastor from North Carolina, fresh out of seminary, who meets his wife and begins his family among them. But now they feel so small, lost, and they wonder what will become of their church building, their witness in the wider community but a flicker of what it once was. Yet, their faith still grows within each of them, nourished by God’s Word and the sacraments, and they miraculously move beyond their sadness and bitterness to join and become active members of other local congregations, where they share their gifts that had been honed all those years. Their new congregation homes flourish and thrive with this influx of new faces. New possibilities for ministries open up. Energy and fresh vision emerge that produce branches of gospel shelter that engage the neighborhoods around them. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, too.

With many such parables Jesus spoke—and still speaks—the word to his disciples, in order to illustrate the growth and character of God’s kingdom. With images and symbols that his disciples would experience in everyday life, Jesus teaches to explain that the kingdom of God operates and in ways that are usually in tension with the world and with our own selves.

You see, whereas in our kingdoms we would desire total command of things, God’s kingdom is up to forces beyond our control.

Whereas we prefer foreknowledge of what’s going to happen, a glimpse of the final product before it gets here, the kingdom Jesus leads is full of surprise.

Whereas we like to calculate and measure everything, if possible, the kingdom God runs amok with branches and nests and things that defy being counted.

And whereas we are impressed with grandiosity and extravagance, brute force and pizazz—“Hit ‘em with a brick! #MakeAStatement!—God’s reign likes to start small. And silent. And move kind of slow.

In Jesus’ time, the metaphors that worked best in describing this were agricultural ones that might be a little distant to us now. People back then knew what mustard seeds looked like and were familiar with the bushy plant it turned into. Likewise, no farmer really understood the complicated workings of cellular mitosis and photosynthesis. They just knew that they scattered the seeds in the ground and they just did what they were supposed to do without much effort from the farmer until the very end. These aspects helped his disciples understand that God’s kingdom in and around us involves a growth that is not always easy to perceive. And in the case of the mustard seed, in particular, the parable was a lesson that we should never judge the kingdom’s strength and effectiveness by what it looks like or feels like, especially at its outset, because its size and significance will not impress us.

But it goes farther: Jesus also means to show that the end results of God’s kingdom activity are not always what we think they’ll be. Think about it: a farmer usually plants mustard seeds in order to make mustard, and maybe get more seeds in the process, not in order to attract birds. (Well, some crazy people nowadays might plant mustard in order to attract birds, but probably not first century middle eastern farmers!). But that is part of the surprise element of God’s kingdom. What God is working toward with his kingdom and all of its occurrences along the way is not always what we would imagine.

But as foreign as these agricultural metaphors might be to us now, what I actually think we have the hardest time grasping these days is the concept of the kingdom of God itself. Because when we think kingdom, we often think place. We think boundaries. We think castle and armies and power. Maybe some of us think of clouds and some dimension we go after we die. But Jesus’ parables illustrate that God’s kingdom is not exactly any one of those. It is, rather, an occurrence, a happening, any time or any place where God’s love in Jesus reigns supreme.

And those times and places can be anywhere. God’s love has a secret power that can conquer any darkness, a hidden love that can triumph over any suffering. And typically it takes over slowly and without any grand power or force. Jesus will eventually move away from parables to explain it. He will show it himself on the cross. I think every one of us would be unimpressed with that tree and doubt the power that lies within it. Much like we would regard the small mustard seed, we would dismiss the cross of Jesus at the outset: a sign of weakness, a symbol of shame. But nevertheless we would be unaware of how wide its branches would become…branches wide enough for a dying Savior to stretch out his arms and provide shelter for every sinner on the planet. Through Jesus’ own death, God’s kingdom of mercy and peace will prosper in ways we could never imagine at the outset. First the stalk, then the head, then the full harvest of a faith that trusts in God’s eternal life.

At the Virginia Synod Assembly last weekend we heard the true story of one of our former Presiding Bishop’s trips abroad a few years ago. Mark Hanson had taken a group of people from our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to China in order to meet up with leaders of the Chinese church and learn about how we can accompany them. What they found everywhere they went was that the church was growing faster and becoming more vibrant than they ever imagined. In fact, our speaker last weekend explained in no uncertain terms that it is difficult for the ELCA to keep track of the growth of the church in China, even as the government remains suspicious of Christianity, knocking down crosses and churches on a periodic basis.

One story our speaker shared with us about that trip involved the ELCA contingent’s visit to a church that was being rededicated in the city of Luzho. The church had actually been founded decades before when western Christian missionaries first arrived in that province, but the congregation had been expelled during the Cultural Revolution and the building had been used as a prison. Now the prisoners had been released and removed and the congregation was moving back in. The service that day, we heard, was absolutely packed. In the pews on the floor, people were squeezed in like sardines, and many of the elderly who were worshiping that day had served time in that very building when it was a prison.

What made the biggest impression on the bishop, however, was the fact that the balcony of the church was also standing room only, made up almost entirely of youth from the city who were holding up their cell phones for the duration of the worship service. They had dialed their friends who hadn’t been able to make it into the church and were using their phones to broadcast the sermon and the hymns so that dozens of others could hear what was being preached and sung in that little church of God.  I’d say the branches of the mustard shrub grew quite a bit that day, and the bird nests looked like Samsung Galaxys and iPhone. So in our patch of God’s garden, at this end of the school year with another year of school behind us and summer church programs in front, let us look both within and without and find that small seed somewhere. Because it’s enough. And by the Holy Spirit’s power let us and trust its growth will come. And Let us also give thanks to the God that planted it and look forward to a day when all the world will be gathered in the shade of the mustard shrub cross.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.