Monday, June 25, 2012

Praying for Miracles

This sermon is based on yesterday's gospel, Mark 4:35-41

This was the gospel text 3 years ago on my first official Sunday as the pastor here at Bethlehem.  So I ask you “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

But that is putting a lot of trust in me.  In fact it is putting more trust in me that I’m comfortable with because I’m not Jesus, in fact I’m a lot like those disciples.  See this is the point when after hearing this gospel lesson that you will get the “Jesus is with you during the storms of your life” sermon. But I’m not going to give you one of those sermons today.  I mean they are well meaning, but we have heard it all before and quite honestly when you are going through the storms of your life, that isn’t really what you want to hear – that Jesus is with you, -  what you really want to hear is Jesus yelling at the storm “Peace! Be Still!”

But maybe that is the problem, we spend too much time focusing on the fact that Jesus is with us during the storms of our lives, that we don’t give Jesus enough credit to actually silence those storms. 

Think about this – why did the disciples wake Jesus up?  A great windstorm arose, the waves were beating into the boat, the boat was being swamped and the disciples woke Jesus up.  I’m not saying that was the wrong thing to do, if I was in the middle of a storm on a smaller boat and it was being swamped, you know I would being making sure every person on board was awake to help out.  So what did the disciples expect Jesus to do when they woke him up? 

They weren’t expecting him to calm the storm that is for sure – since afterwards they were filled with a great awe and said to one another “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So if you woke someone up in the middle of a storm on a smaller boat that was being swamped, what would you expect of that person?  You would hand them a bucket and tell them to start bailing. 

I’m pretty sure that is what the disciples were expecting of Jesus – don’t you care that we are all perishing – help keep us all alive here and pitch in a little.  So the disciples were not expecting a miracle; they were expecting a hand. 

And I believe we do the exact same thing today.  We don’t expect miracles from God, we just expect a hand.  Think about it, when was the last time you truly prayed for a miracle?  We don’t at least, not that often, especially in the main line church, the one big exception being in sports.  We don’t pray for someone to be miraculously healed, instead we ask that their pain be managed, that those who are caring for them to be skilled.  We don’t pray for the dead to be raised; we pray for comfort to come to those who mourn.  Granted when you pray for miracles, you will often be disappointed – the sick won’t be instantly healed, the dead won’t be raised, the unbelievers won’t instantly believe, you won’t win the lottery every week. But it could happen.

Maybe we need to stop handing Jesus the bucket and instead ask him for a miracle.  We need to shoot for the stars, and you know if land short and end up at the moon, well God still took us that far.  It is not selfish to have a tiered prayer – Lord heal our loved one from cancer, make them cancer free, let them run like a child, and if that is not your wish, please make their pain bearable and their last days on this earth filled with love.  Lord bring peace throughout the earth, that no one shall die by the hands of another ever again, turn our weapons into tools of peace, turn our armies into armies of workers in your kingdom, but at the very least let peace begin with me so that I may not harm another by the actions that I take.  God feed your people, let the ground of these earth swell with plants to eat and water that is pure to drink, and teach me Lord to not waste so that others may be fed.

So what are the miracles that we should ask for?  What are the storms going on in our lives that we need to ask Jesus to yell “Peace! Be still!” instead of handing him a bucket?  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Scattering Seeds of Faith

Yesterday's Gospel was Mark 4:26-34 which includes two parables - the parable of growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed.  The mustard seed often gets more attention but I was really drawn to the parable of growing seed and how this guy does not know how the seed he scatters grows.  Right now as a congregation, Bethlehem is scattering a lot of seeds - trying to get the word out into the community that we are in the midst of doing God's work in this world and we want others to join us in that mission.  And at the same time we are ready for the harvest - wanting the results of all that seed scattering to be instantaneous.  

So here is my sermon from Sunday - or at least the one I wrote - I didn't actually refer to it much when I was preaching.


We do not know how seeds grow.  Even with all the science that has happened in the last 2 thousand years, our understanding of just way a seed grows when it does has not changed much since when Jesus uttered those words from today’s gospel “someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  Yes we know that seeds need water and sunlight and the temperature to be within a certain range and certain seeds should be planted at certain times of year, but again we do not know why a seed decides to grow when it does. 

Almost 2 months ago I planted 9 tiger lily bulbs in my garden – thus far only 7 have sprouted – and there was about 3 weeks between the first sprouts appearing and the latest.  What about the other 2 blubs?  Why did it take so much less time for some than for others to sprout?  Some seeds can lay dormant for years before they sprout, others like the jack pine need fire in order to start the growth process.  Some seeds grow instantaneously, some seeds take years to produces more seeds. But what any farmer or gardener can tell you, is you sow way more seeds than you grow. 

And the same is true for the seeds of faith that we sow.  We do not know which seeds will take and which ones will sprout instantly and which ones will take years to develop. Right now as a church we are spreading seeds of faith.  Through things like the block party we are getting the word out there that we as a congregation are here doing God’s work in this world and we would love it for others to join us on this mission.  And yet we are ready for the harvest – we are ready to open wide the doors and take people in one after another.  But the harvest is not yet, but trust me it is coming.

We still need to nurture those seeds of faith and even plant some more.  The average person needs to be personally invited to worship 7 times before they actually come.  7 times!  Can you imagine turning a friend down for a dinner invitation 7 times?  But yet it takes that long because worship is more than dinner. 

Worship gets down to our core – worship is a place where we admit that we are not as great as we might like to be.  Worship is a time when we admit that we are vulnerable.  Worship is a time when we come together as a community.  Worship is a time when we give up of ourselves and instead focus on God.  Therefore it takes more than just saying you are willing to go to dinner with someone. 

But trust me, I see you spreading the seeds of faith.  I see you inviting people to worship.  I hear you talking about how you see and experience God in your daily life.  I’ve discuss with you people that you care for that do not worship on a regular basis that you really want to see having a stronger relationship with God.  But you need to keep inviting, keep talking about your experiences of God, keep discussing how your relationship with God has helped you in life and why you want others to experience that. 

The seeds are there, they are being sown, and they will sprout and grow, we just do not know how.  And the absolutely great thing about these seeds of faith, is just like a mustard bush, which is actually a weed and will quickly spread and take over where it is not wanted, the seeds of faith, the seeds of God’s love will quickly spread and take over where it is not wanted.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Baptism and Understanding the Trinity

Yesterday was a great day for me personally at Bethlehem - I got to baptize my goddaughter Lily!  

Lily is Kylie's, a good friend, daughter.  Kylie and I meet when we both moved to New Haven around the same time and got involved in a bible study lead by another friend who also moved to New Haven in August of 2008.  Lily is my third official godchild (I claim a few others) and the 2nd that I have had the pleasure to baptize.  And this was the first time that I also preached when I baptized a godchild.  

And what a wonderful, yet challenging text to preach on, as it was Trinity Sunday and the gospel was John 3:1-17

So enjoy the sermon.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day each year that Christians celebrate a doctrine, a belief, instead of an event.   But this leads to a lot of confusion because how exactly does one describe the Trinity?  Are we worshiping one God or three?  Is it one God with three personalities or three Gods with one personality.  Really the Trinity is hard to explain.  And therefore I really enjoy Martin Luther’s quote “To try to deny the Trinity, endangers your salvation.  To try to comprehend the Trinity, endangers your sanity.”  Therefore there is a lot of mystery to the Trinity.

And there is a lot of mystery to our scripture text as well.  Our gospel reading from John 3, which is so well known to many is about at the core the love of God.  But great debates and schisms and church conflicts has been fought trying to understand what Jesus meant.  Even poor Nicodemus was confused asking twice “how can these things be?”

It is hard to comprehend just how glorious God is.  It is hard to understand just how mighty God is and why we should worship this God and why we need to worship this God.  It is hard to understand just how we are also heirs with Christ in God’s kingdom and in Christ’s suffering as our second lesson tries to explain today.  It is hard to understand just how much God loves us.  Even those well-known verses don’t truly express how much God loves us. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We are loved beyond measure.  We are loved more than a parent loves a child. We are loved beyond understanding.

And that love for us is beyond our understanding because it is hard to understand God.  In fact I would go so far to say that we can’t understand God.  And it is alright to say that.

Many people stop worshipping because they don’t understand God, and they feel like they are the only one in the church, it must just be them, and so they stop going.  But really none of understand God.  Lily, little 9 ½ month old Lily, on her baptismal day, understand God right now as much as any of us truly understands God.  In fact she probably understands God better than many of the adults in this room, there is no questioning, there is no doubt, because at her tender age, Lily understands what love is.  And God is ultimately love.  And today, her parents Kylie and Chris and myself as her baptismal sponsor and you as the congregation will promise to help raise Lily in a life of faith, to pray for her, teach her and support her, and there are a lot of promises to fulfill.  And even if we, each of us in this room, make Lily our own pet project to support and teach and pray for in her life of faith, she will still not understand God any more as an adult than she does right now.  And that is because we can’t understand God, we don’t understand God. 

Instead we experience God.  And as Lily grows she will see and experience God in different ways. As we attest to each week at the beginning of worship, we see and experience God in many different ways.  Through prayer and scripture, through deeds from friends and strangers, through the ways you mention each week when I ask you "where have you seen God this week?".  We may not be able to truly understand God, we may not be able to accurately explain the Trinity and how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another, but we can know that God is ultimately about love and experience that love through the waters of baptism, through our family and friends, through prayer and scripture.  And while striving to understand God might endanger our sanity, striving to experience God’s love, is just a matter of opening our minds to all the places God is already at work in our world. If you open you eyes and see, you will see that the kingdom of God is at hand, here with us.