Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2:1-24, 37-42

Sermon 5/31/20

Acts 2:1-24, 37-42


Today, we celebrate Pentecost, a day when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus to the disciple, sent by God after Jesus’ ascension as comforter, advocate, empowering agent that enables the disciples to stop hiding and start doing the work of Jesus in the world. The word for Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek also means both Wind and Breath - Spirit, Wind, and Breath, all the same word. And so Pentecost is a day when we think of those images and more: the violent rushing wind that produces tongues of fire; God’s breath filling the disciples, giving Peter a voice to preach; the Spirit being poured out on all who gather. 

And we wonder: What is this Holy Spirit thing, exactly? What does it mean for us, what does the Spirit do for us? Sure, God is always larger than our understanding, but I think we can relate to God as creator and parent and ruler, and we can relate to Jesus walking by our side, teaching and healing. But even if Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a Comforter, the Spirit has always felt much more nebulous to me. A Comforter is the delightfully fluffy blanket I can get under to snuggle in my bed on a cold night. The Spirit? The Spirit is weird, elusive, slippery, hard to grasp, even though sometimes I catch glimpses. 

So I’ve been thinking about some of the imagery we use for the Spirit this week. On Pentecost, we celebrate God’s Holy Wind. The wind can cause a turbulent, stormy sea for a ship, putting people in danger. But a sailboat without any wind is powerless. The wind across sand dunes shapes beautiful works of art out of the terrain, and wind also churns sandstorms that congest and blind as sand whips through the air. We’ve learned to use windmills and wind turbines to harness the wind and convert the energy to power our world. At my birthday lunch this year, where I gathered with my mom and brother at a park so we could keep socially distanced, we were delighted when the forecasted rain didn’t come - but then realized the wind was our bigger challenge. My mom’s whole lunch plate got turned upside down, and the balloons she brought had to be tied to a tree, and my brother Tim was chasing my birthday napkins all through the park. The wind, though, was the only thing making some of my outdoor visits this week tolerable in the extreme heat - the wind was a relief, a gift. What kind of wind is God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, in our world? 

This week in my video devotion, I sang for you the song we just shared a few minutes ago: Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness, by James K. Manley. It’s a beautiful piece, and I told you that I especially loved the refrain: “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness, blow through the wilderness calling and free; Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, Wind, Wind on the sea.” It reminds me that the Holy Spirit is not just one thing. Sometimes it is like the gentle wind, and sometimes the spirit is restless, stirring us up when we’d rather be complacent. What kind of spirit do we need moving through our lives, our world, right now? I think usually I’m longing for the gentle spirit, but what I need is the spirit that won’t let me be, the spirit that says my placidness is really complacency, apathy, inaction, and God is calling me to move with the Spirit. 

And I think about breath, God’s Holy Breath. The Spirit as Breath is an intimate image: God wants to give us the gift of God’s own breath! That’s amazing, humbling, overwhelming! God’s breath is in you. God’s breath is what created you, God’s breath is what resurrects you, God’s breath is what gives you life in this world and enables you to embody the work of Jesus, to be the hands and feet of Christ. The Creator of the Universe has given us God’s own breath. How are we breathing, right now? And I cannot think of God’s Holy Breath filling me up without thinking about George Floyd, a black man who we watched die at the hands of a white police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd gasped for air, for life, for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Lord, have mercy on us. We are so broken by the sin of racism. What does it mean to celebrate Pentecost, to be offered the Holy Breath of God, when we have to reckon with the atrocity of snuffing out the breath, the life, the fire, the Spirit of God in God’s black and brown-skinned children? Baptist Pastor and Harvard University Chaplain Cody J. Sanders writes, “We are asphyxiating the Body of Christ by the violence and violation that has become our way of life” a way that we’ve accepted, he says, as an everyday reality of our world. “We expect,” he continues, “– even as we dread – news of another murder of a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery to come across our screens any day. And among the myriad feelings we have when it happens, surprise isn’t one of them. ‘We can’t breathe.’ We’re suffocating in our systemic legacy of white supremacy, and we’re killing our black siblings in the process.” (1) 

What kind of Pentecost do we need today, church? What does the Spirit at work in the world right now, right here, look like? In the midst of a pandemic, one more thing that’s become a source of division, in the midst of our sinfulness, in the midst of pain and suffering and such brokenness, how does Pentecost come to us? What does it mean for us? 


Normally when we gather for Bible Study, even our online version, I ask for someone else to read the scripture. I already do a lot of talking in the study - it’s nice to hear some other voices! But this week, when we read through Acts 2, I told the group I would read the first part of the text. Why? Well, because Acts 2 near the beginning of our reading includes a long list of place names that sometimes don’t roll off the tongue so easily. I’ve read this text in worship enough years as a pastor that I can barrel through, even when I’m not sure, but sometimes for readers, all these place names stop folks in their tracks. When Luke, author of the Book of Acts, is describing the events of Pentecost, he tells us that the disciples are gathered together in one place. Pentecost was - is - an important festival and part of the Jewish faith. Shavuot - the Feast of Weeks - is a harvest festival, and also a remembrance of the receiving of the Torah - the law by the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When the Holy Spirit arrives, it shows up where the disciples are with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. What looks like flames rest over each disciple, and they begin speaking in other languages, enabled by the Spirit. This is important, because people from all over lived in Jerusalem or had come to celebrate the holy day. And everyone, no matter where they’re from, can understand the disciples. Now, Luke could have just stopped at that - telling us that there were Jews from every nation gathered together, and they could all understand. We’d get the point, right? But Luke insists on going into detail. And that’s where the list of places comes in. Who is gathered? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libryans, Cyrenians, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs. Wow! All of them are hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own language. 

Why does Luke need to list out everyone of these places? Why not just leave it at “people from every nation” and save us from the tongue twister? I don’t know Luke’s heart, of course, but here’s what I think. Luke wants us to know that the message Peter shares about Jesus Christ and the gift God shares of the Holy Spirit is for everyone. But not just everyone as a generic, catch all term. Luke lists out all these people to make it clear: Every. One. Luke gets very specific. Luke makes it clear that this message is for each one of the everyone. Sometimes, the broadness of saying “everyone” glosses over the wonderful unique particularness of each person included in that everyone. The generic “everyone” allows us to gloss over the particulars we'd really rather not include. It’s like when we know that we’re supposed to “love everyone” and “love our neighbors” but it gets harder when Jesus starts telling us exactly who he means by everyone and who he means by neighbors and it turns out when it gets specific it also gets really hard. Who is there on Pentecost? Each and every one. Theologian Willie Jennings says that Pentecost prods us toward a Spirit that is “boundary-crossing and border transgressing.” The Spirit prompts the disciples to “go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together.” (2) And when they do, when the wind and breath and fire of the Holy Spirit takes hold of them, it changes the world. 

It fits, then, that Peter uses words from the prophet Joel as the text for his Pentecost Sermon. Peter shares Joel’s vision: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” But for Joel, for Peter, for God, all flesh is not some generic that allows us instead to leave people out. Joel’s words get specific about just what all means: sons and daughters. Young and old. Even slaves. Even those who had no rights, no status, no position, no power. All of these, each of these - they have dreams and visions and truth to share. Peter’s sermon preached to each one of these in the crowd is effective. Thousands respond to a message about Jesus Christ, who cannot be held by the power of death. They respond with repentance. They respond with baptism. They respond by committing to life together - sharing in learning, prayer, and food and fellowship. And together, each one as a part of the one body of Christ - full of life and breath and Spirit - they change the world. 

How will we respond? If we take our cue from Acts 2, we find some direction in our own baptismal vows. We answer these questions when we’re baptized, confirmed, when we renew our baptismal covenant, when we join the church: "Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?" and "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" Can we say yes with our whole hearts? Can we say yes not just with words, but with deeds? Sometimes, friends, I long for the Spirit to be at work in my life - but I have to admit I’d rather it just ruffle my feathers like a gentle breeze, the soft breath of God, moving on the air. And sometimes, God’s Spirit might fill us just like that. But most days, I know that what I need is a wind so strong that it lifts me from my complacency, lifts me from my sin, lifts me from my apathy. I need to open my heart to the Spirit that sets my heart ablaze with a commitment to seeking God’s justice, to seeing each one, to working to ensure that the breath of God is not snuffed out in violence and hatred, to preaching the good news of Jesus’ boundary-crossing love. 

“Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness.” Come, Spirit, come. Amen. 


(1) Sanders, Cody J. , “‘We can’t breathe’: an apt Pentecost prayer for white Christians,” Baptist News Global, Accessed on 5/30/2020.

(2) As quoted by Cody J. Sanders.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Acts 1:1-11

Sermon 5/24/20

Acts 1:1-11


I don’t know about you, but I find it hard not to read every scripture text these days in light of our current global pandemic. It’s similar to that reaction we now seem to have when we see images, often taken before this pandemic unfolded, of large crowds gathered together. “Crowds? We can’t be in crowds!” It’s hard not to process the world through our pandemic-lenses. And I think that’s true of the scripture too. Our current life experience has so changed our world that it is almost impossible to read the Bible without viewing it anew because of what we’re going through. I think that’s a good thing. Not the pandemic, of course, but that we find that we can’t help but bring our now-everyday reality of global crisis with us when we read the text. I think we’ll find that the scripture is more than up to the challenge of feeding our souls when we come to it with a new perspective.

Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s the day that we remember Jesus’ return to God’s home, his physical departure from the earth, forty days after the resurrection. For forty days after that first Easter morning, Jesus stayed with the disciples, and according to Luke, he continued to give many “proofs” that he was truly resurrected, and he also spent more time teaching about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign. He also spent this time telling the disciples that soon they would receive a gift from God - the gift of the Holy Spirit - but we’ll talk more about that next week. For nearly a month and a half, it must have seemed to the disciples that they could breathe again. Jesus, who had been violently crucified was not dead, and everything could go back to normal. They would follow him once more. They were not abandoned. Jesus was with them again. And then, he leaves again. And although this time he doesn’t die - death has no power over Jesus - and this time he isn’t torn from them through violence, this time, he’s physically gone for good. Jesus ascends, and there’s no mistaking that he’s no longer on earth with them. They see it happen. There’s no tomb this time. His body is not on earth. And I think, particularly in these challenging days, it is hard not to feel the grief, the disappointment, the sense of loss that the disciples experience. We talked about that at Bible Study this week. Donna Peck expressed what was probably running through the minds of the disciples: “Jesus, why can’t you just stay?” Why did Jesus have to leave again? How disappointed and heartbroken they must have been! 

We talked about another aspect of their grief in this text at Bible Study too. Before Jesus ascends, the disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore Israel?” This is a question they’ve asked Jesus a lot, in various ways, during his time with them. Remember, all of Israel was under occupation by the Roman government. For minority groups, like the Jewish people, a relatively small and, in the eyes of the Romans, unusual religious group, living under foreign occupation was oppressive and restrictive. To have their homeland, the land God had promised them, controlled by those who were reluctant at best to let the Jewish people worship and live as they chose - it was painful. Roman rule was impoverishing to most of the people. It meant living in fear, trying to be careful all the time not to disrupt or draw too much attention. After all, look what happened when the dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and elders was brought to the attention of Pontius Pilate? So the disciples and others have asked Jesus before about Israel being restored. It’s what people assumed the messiah, the anointed one of God, would come to do. People assumed that the whole point of a messiah was restoring Israel, ending the Roman occupation, letting the people hold the land again that God had given them. Jesus consistently deflected such requests, trying to show that he was not that kind of messiah. The kingdom Jesus was about was the one we’ve been talking about over the last weeks of listening to Jesus’ parables: God’s reign brought to earth, not through overthrowing governments, but through persistently trying to make God’s ways our ways. Still, though, the disciples can’t seem to help but ask again. Because Jesus is now leaving earth, and still, the people are oppressed. Still, Rome is in charge. Has God’s messiah come and gone from earth, and nothing changed? Again in the text there’s a sense of grief and abandonment. Grief over losing Jesus again. Grief over losing hope about what Jesus came to accomplish. So when the men in white - God’s messengers, angels, - appear and wonder why the disciples are gazing up into the sky, trying to catch one last glimpse of Jesus, when the messengers seem to want to hurry the disciples along, I wonder if the disciples are thinking, “Can’t you just give us a minute, an hour, a year to process this? We’re devastated again!” 

I feel like I connect more with the grief of the disciples in these hard days. Maybe you do too. I think we, too, are both wishing that the things that we’ve loved, the “normal” rhythms of life could stay the same, and that the pain and suffering of this season could be alleviated. We know that God is with us always, but sometimes it is hard to feel that God is close to us, and sometimes it seems as if wherever Jesus has ascended is very far away from our everyday experience. What are we to do? Where is our hope? Is there a word for us in this Ascension story? For the disciples, Jesus gave them two messages: The Holy Spirit is coming, and you are to be my witnesses. And I think in those messages, we find comfort and direction too. 

Jesus promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming. The disciples didn’t know what that meant yet. But we know that the Holy Spirit is God, just as Jesus is God. The trinity - that our God is one but also three - God, Christ, Spirit - is sometimes hard to understand. But the gist of it for the disciples was that although Jesus wasn’t going to be present in human form, walking down the road with them, God was going to be very present - as close as their breath, in fact, filling them up with the Holy Spirit. The power that they saw in Jesus would be the same power that would propel them into sharing the good news of Jesus and God’s amazing love. How God was with them was being transformed, but they were not abandoned. 

Some of you know that I enjoy attending - not every year but about every other year - the Festival of Homiletics, a weeklong preaching conference, full of great worship and preaching, and lectures about worship and preaching. It’s really fantastic. I was supposed to have been at the Festival this past week in Atlanta, Georgia. But, like everything else, it was canceled because of COVID-19. A modified Festival moved to an online format, and while it isn’t quite the same, I’ve been enjoying listening to the lectures and sermons. One standout was from Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He preached about Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. That’s a story from Easter day in the scriptures, when Jesus travels with some followers after he has been resurrected, but they don’t recognize him. They spend the day with him without recognizing him, only realizing that it is the resurrected Jesus when he shares bread with them at the end of their journey. 

Moss reflected on how Jesus was present with them for the whole journey, but they only recognized Jesus when the physical exchange of sharing food was made - their needs were met by Jesus. Likewise, he said, God is always present with us, but sometimes we don’t recognize God’s presence. Sometimes, he said, God is just “outside the frame.” Moss, who was, like most pastors these days, preaching into a camera in a mostly empty sanctuary, revealed that the whole time he was preaching, there was someone supporting and praying for him just outside the frame of what the camera could show to us viewers - his wife was there, encouraging him. When the camera pulled back, we could see that she’d been sitting beside him all along, but had been just outside the frame. God is with us, friends. Sometimes, though, God is outside the frame that we’re using to look at the world, to look at our lives. We might need to adjust the way we’re looking to witness God’s presence, but I promise, God is with us.   

And because God is with us, we, like the disciples, can have the confidence to carry out the same assignment Jesus gave to them: we’re called to be witnesses. What are witnesses? Witnesses are those who can verify the truth of events that have taken place. Witnesses can say, “Yes, I was there.” Witnesses say, “Here’s what happened.” We witness with our words and with our actions. In fact, our whole lives are a witness to what our truths are. What does your life - how you live, how you love, how you serve - what does your life say is the truth for you? As I mentioned, we spent some of our last weeks talking about the kingdom of God about which Jesus speaks in his parables. We talked about what things are like when God’s reign is not just in heaven, not just for eternity, but for earth, for here and now. We pray that we would be part of making that possible every time we share in the Lord’s prayer. We say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray that God’s way may be our way, here and now. And so we witness to the reality of God, to the work of Jesus, every time we do something that sort of “narrows the gap,” or at least the perceived gap between earth and heaven. Everytime we  live in a way that exemplifies God’s reign, God’s rhythms, God’s values and priorities, we’re being witnesses for Jesus. And if many people wonder where God is, we are witnesses everytime we help people adjust their focus and realize that God is there, just outside the frame of where they’d been looking. The disciples: they did tear their gaze from heaven and get to work. It was not easy. They did not do it all at once. They had to make many decisions about how they would best carry on the work of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. But these followers of Jesus became witnesses to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus asked. And slowly, that the work of Jesus in the world does restore and renew us, free us from oppression, conquer injustice, even when it comes about in unexpected ways. In these hard days, what is the witness of your life? 

I can’t promise - and Jesus doesn’t promise - that there won’t be some grief-filled days ahead for us, when we wish we could just go back to a different time, how things were before. But Jesus does promise that God is with us, as close as our very breath. And if God is with us and in us, let our whole lives tell the story. Let our whole lives bear witness to the truth. Amen. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sermon, "Planting Seeds: Mustard Seed," Matthew 13:31-33, 17:14-20, Luke 17:5-6

Sermon 5/17/20

Matthew 13:31-33, 17:14-20, Luke 17:5-6

Planting Seeds: Mustard Seed

Today, as we wrap up our sermon series on Planting Seeds, we’re finishing up by turning our attention to the Mustard Seed. In his teaching, Jesus returns to the image of the mustard seed several times. It reads as a favorite metaphor of his. Using the image of the size of mustard seed in a proverb or parable like this seems to be original to Jesus. And Jesus talking about mustard seeds is the first time mustard appears at all in the scriptures. (1) Something about mustard apparently appeals to Jesus, and so today we’re digging into the times Jesus shares a lesson focused on the small seed. 

First, we read a parable from Matthew where mustard seed takes center stage. This parable appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with slight variations. For our reading from Matthew, we’re back in chapter 13, where this parable comes in a string of parables, following two we’ve already explored: the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The parable of the mustard seed is very brief. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Now, the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed - although that seems to be just a matter of translation, and mustard seeds don’t really grow into the largest shrub, and definitely isn’t a tree. But the seed is very small, certainly, and it does grow into something many, many, many times larger than the original seed - as most plants do. Big enough to support bird nests? Iffy. Jesus seems to be exaggerating to make his point. The very small grows into something very large. Remember, the parables tell us something about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign on earth, about how things are when they’re operating as God would have them be, now and in eternity. So God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. Is that it? It seems too simple, doesn’t it? 

Let’s look at the other texts. Our next reading comes a little later in Matthew. It happens just after the Transfiguration. That’s that strange event where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, and Jesus is transfigured - his glory is revealed, he’s dazzling and radiant in white, he’s joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets, and the three disciples hear God’s voice, declaring that Jesus is God’s child, urging the disciples to listen to Jesus. So, these disciples have just had a very clear affirmation of who Jesus is: child of God, creator of the universe. Now, though, a man approaches Jesus, seeking healing for his epileptic son. Apparently, he’d brought his son to Jesus’ disciples first, but they couldn’t heal him. Jesus heals the boy, but not before expressing his frustration with his disciples. “You faithless and perverse generation,” he laments. “How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” Oof. Later, the disciples ask Jesus: “Why couldn’t we heal this boy?” and Jesus does not mince words in his answer: “Because of your little faith,” he says. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Does this mean the disciples don’t have even as much faith as a mustard seed? They certainly don’t seem to be moving mountains, and I’ll confess: I haven’t moved any either! Jesus says with even a small amount of faith, mustard-seed-sized faith, nothing will be impossible for us. But I don’t feel like I can do anything - do you? Does that mean I don’t have faith? That the disciples didn’t? Is Jesus just exaggerating again about what faith can do? Or just speaking out of frustration? 

Our third text is similar in content but different in context. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus again talks about what mustard-seed-sized faith makes possible: “‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree,“Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.” He says this because the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. They need more, they’re sure, to do the work of Jesus. What prompts their request? The last thing Jesus says to them before this scene is this: “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.” No wonder the disciples were asking for more faith! If following Jesus, being a disciple means forgiving like that, who has enough faith to be up to the task? Here, Jesus seems to say the disciples don’t need an increase of faith. What they have already gives them enough to cause a tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea. What an image! Again, I wonder: Is Jesus saying they do have that much faith already? Or that they don’t even have mustard-seed-sized faith? Because again, if Jesus isn’t exaggerating, I can only think I can barely convince my cat to move out of my spot on the couch, much less command a tree to move to the sea. Do we have faith? How much? Is it enough? 

I think our best bet is to turn back to the parable. What is God’s reign like? God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. We asked if that was too simple to be the meaning of the parable, but I think we might sometimes confuse simple and easy. Jesus says it’s simple to sum up all the law and the prophets - love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. The commandments are simple. Are they easy? No! We spend our lives trying to live them out. But the meaning isn’t a puzzle for us to decode. So, God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. Is that too simple? I don’t think it is supposed to be complicated. But it can still be challenging, pushing us as we seek to grow as disciples. 

Pastor John Murray puts it like this: “The insignificant  is overwhelmingly significant [in the kingdom of God.]” (2) I love how he puts that. In God’s way of things, God’s reign, what the world, what culture, what the powerful, what we have declared insignificant turns out to be overwhelmingly significant. We see this again and again in the scriptures. In the Hebrew scriptures, we read about a widow during a famine who has only enough food left for one more meal for her and her son. But they welcome the prophet Elijah into their home, and the food lasts and lasts and lasts. We see God choose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, who Jesse didn’t even think to include, when Samuel came looking to anoint the next King. That same David uses a small stone to defeat giant Goliath. We’re studying the teachings of Jesus, a small town boy born in what should have been obscurity, and yet, he changes the world. Jesus takes up a little bit of bread and fish, offered by a child, and turns it into a meal for thousands. The insignificant  is overwhelmingly significant in the kingdom of God. What’s more, we can remember that God’s focus in the law we learn in the Hebrew scriptures, and demonstrated in the teachings and actions of Jesus - God’s focus is on special care for the most vulnerable - the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the foreigner. Those whom society would declare insignificant - in God’s reign, in God’s eyes, in God’s heart - they’re overwhelmingly significant. Maybe “the most vulnerable” in our society today isn’t exactly the same list, but pretty close, don’t you think? In God’s eyes, those who find themselves continually pushed to the margins, excluded, discarded, overlooked? Those who are repeatedly told they’ll amount to nothing? That they’re worth nothing? That they have nothing of value to contribute? In the kin-dom of God, they are overwhelmingly significant. And so we, God’s people, live more fully in the reign of God when we put at the center of our lives the same things, the same concerns, the same people God does. How are we putting those at the margins at the center of our lives? 

The small mustard seed doesn’t just become the shrub or bush or tree or anything grander than a single seed, though, if it doesn’t get planted. For a mustard seed or any seed to become a plant, a bush, a tree, it has to be “utterly transformed.” (2) Scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes, ““What we see now is potential, but that potential needs to be actualized ... the seed has to be planted. Even small actions ... have the potential to produce great things.” (3) We also know this: We can’t plant a seed today and expect to find birds building nests in the tree tomorrow. (2) Something very small, insignificant, growing into something large, overwhelmingly significant - it’s very possible. But the seed must be planted, transformed, and given time to grow and develop. 

What gardening I can do these days is a little limited, not only by my impending move but also by my very shady yard at the parsonage. But I’ve been having fun this season growing some things inside. I’ve got celery and green onions I started from scraps, and my giant Christmas cactus along with a couple babies cacti I started from pieces that broke off the main plant, and a few other house plants. My mom got me some cosmos this year for my birthday, a flower I loved growing as a child. They came in one of those little kits you can get that contain seeds, soil, and a little pot all packaged together. And that made me remember that I had a similarly packaged set of tomato seeds she’d given me last year that I never planted. I wasn’t sure how long the seeds would be viable. Seeds can expire if they’re not stored properly, and I can’t say my tomato seeds were stored in any special way. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. At first, I didn’t think anything was going to come up. The cosmos were already a couple inches tall, and still nothing from my tomato seeds. But eventually, a few tiny seedlings began to emerge. I forget how much growth happens beneath the soil with some seeds before the first sign of life emerges on this side of things. My long-forgotten tomato seeds might yet bear fruit. But they needed to be planted, and they need to develop and grow, and need more than our fleeting investment if we want to eventually eat some delicious tomatoes.  

When Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples who can’t heal despite Jesus himself giving them the authority to do so, I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell them their faith amounts to nothing. I think he’s frustrated because he knows that even a little faith can have an overwhelming impact, but the disciples haven’t actualized or activated what they have. Their mustard seed of faith perhaps hadn’t yet been planted, and yet the disciples were still wondering why they had no plants growing in the spiritual garden. Can our little bits of faith - when planted, when activated, when nurtured, when given time to form roots - can our little seeds of faith grow into something that can move mountains and plant things in the sea? Maybe Jesus is exaggerating to get our attention. But Jesus tells us again and again that with God, nothing is impossible. Maybe Jesus means it. What’s a small act of faith you’ve seen that has had big results? What’s something that seemed insignificant that has had an overwhelming impact on your relationship with God? Or on your ability to share the good news? 

I think about the little country church I attended in Westernville with my family until I was in 6th grade. I don’t think my Sunday School teachers, helping me memorize Bible verses, realized they were giving me a foundation, and nurturing a curiosity about God that would one day lead me to seminary and pastoring a church. But they were faithful with the seeds God gave them, planting them with the conviction they’d grow. This week, we celebrated that 150 years ago, the cornerstone of this building - well, the other side of this building - was laid. I’m guessing even with the visions and hopes for the future the congregation had in 1870, they weren’t envisioning all the generations of people that would be shaped by the ministry of First UMC. But those folks were faithful to the call of God, trusting that what they built would be a tool for sharing the gospel. Do you have faith? Jesus thinks you might! Jesus thinks that even our mustard-seed-sized-faith, seemingly insignificant, becomes overwhelmingly significant when we offer it God to transform, to grow. Simple? Yes. Challenging? Definitely. Impossible? Not with God. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Amen. 

  1. Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, 170. 

  2. Murray, John, “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” Eastern Mennonite University, Feb 20 215. Phrases reordered for clarity. 

  3. Levine, 182. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon, "Planting Seeds: Jonah," Jonah 4

Sermon 5/10/20

Jonah 4

Planting Seeds: Jonah

Throughout this 50-day season of Easter, we’ve been talking about Planting Seeds. Even if it did snow this week, we’re still thinking about planting seeds and growing and new life and all that comes with spring and sun and warmer days. Resurrection and life. And so suddenly slipping into the book of Jonah might seem like a strange choice for this sermon series, but if you stick with me, I think you’ll see how Jonah’s story gives us an important piece of our journey of planting and growing. 

Many of you might be familiar with the book of Jonah because of its larger-than-life story of Jonah hanging out in the belly of a whale or at least some big fish for a few days. But let’s make sure we know the details of Jonah. Jonah is a prophet in Israel. We don’t know much about him at all. The Bible says he’s the son of Ammitai, and we read in the first two verses of Jonah chapter 1 that God has given Jonah a message to take to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, long-standing gentile enemies of Israel. And by verse three of that chapter, we know that Jonah is heading as fast and far as he can the opposite direction of Nineveh. A prophet, remember, wasn’t a fortune-teller, but a truth-teller. And God wants Jonah to cry out against the people on God’s behalf, tell them that God has seen their wicked ways. Jonah, apparently, does not want to do this, and so he gets on a boat to Tarshish. There’s been some debate over where exactly Tarshish was, but all of the possibilities have this in common: it was very far away in the opposite direction from where God had directed Jonah to go. In fact, the text describes it as “away from the presence of the Lord,” as if such a thing were possible. But that’s certainly where Jonah wishes he could go: beyond God’s reach. 

He finds out quickly, though, that he can’t escape God. Jonah gets on a ship that is immediately caught up in a storm of God’s crafting. The sailors try to figure out what to do, and discover Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of the storm. Jonah instructs them to throw him into the sea, since he knows he’s the troublemaker, and they comply, eager to save their lives. And Jonah is then swallowed up by a big fish which the text tells us “God provides.” The big fish is God’s way of rescuing Jonah. Jonah gives thanks to God, and after three days, Jonah gets spit back out of the big fish, and he heads, finally, to Nineveh. 

Once there, he walks across the city, shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” If there was more to his message, we don’t get to hear it. But there was enough, apparently, because the people of Nineveh believe the message from God and begin to make many signs of repentance: they fast, they sit in ashes, and everyone, the king, the people, even animals put on sackcloth. The king declares, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change course; God may turn from God’s fierce anger. so that we do not perish.” And indeed, God sees that they’ve repented so completely and immediately, and God relents, and brings no punishment on the people. It’s really astonishing all around: most prophets in the Bible seem to be preaching to an unhearing audience. They warn and warn and warn, but no one listens, and when God acts to bring about justice, the people are devastated. Normally, prophets and their messages are unwelcome and unheeded. But for once, as soon as the people hear the words from God through Jonah, they repent. (1) 

That brings us to our chapter for today. If you thought Jonah was going to be delighted that he’s turned out to be such an effective prophet, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Jonah prays to God with complete honesty: “God, this is exactly what I said was going to happen, exactly why I tried to run the other way instead of going to Nineveh. I know that you’re gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I know how often you relent from punishing. God, just let me die already. I’d rather die than live knowing that you let these people off the hook!” And Jonah, sulking, goes and sits down just outside of Nineveh to watch and see what happens, apparently hoping that God will go back to plan A and smite them all. 

As Jonah sits and sulks, God makes a plant, a bush, grow where Jonah is, all in one day, so that it will give Jonah shade in the sun. Jonah is pouting, but he’s happy about the bush. He continues to watch and wait. But the next day, God sends a worm that attacks the bush and between the worm and the hot sun and wind, the plant dies. Jonah is so hot and parched that he again complains to God, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 

God says to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be upset about this plant, this bush?” In one translation that I like God asks, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” (1) Jonah insists he is - “Angry enough[, grieving enough] to die,” in fact. You can hear the dramatic tone, can’t you? And God says: You care about this plant, this bush, so much, even though you didn’t grow it or work for it, and it existed for just a day. But I’m not supposed to care about a great city of more than 120,000 people and animals? And with that, abruptly, the book of Jonah comes to an end. Does Jonah see it God’s way after this exchange? Does he sit there pouting for longer? Does God use him as a prophet again in the future? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But we have plenty to reflect on and ask of ourselves. 

Why, do you think, is Jonah so upset that God relents and forgives the Ninehvites? Aren’t we supposed to be excited and relieved that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love? Isn’t that a relief to us? What on earth would I do if God wasn’t gracious and loving? I’d be lost! Why is Jonah so upset by this? It helps us understand a bit if we think a little bit more about who the Ninehvites were and when the book of Jonah is written. Again, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. And Assyria is the nation that eventually conquers and destroys Israel, setting off one of the most painful periods in Israel’s history. The events in the book of Jonah take place about 50 years before Assyria conquers Israel, but the book of Jonah isn’t written until after these events take place, after Israel is conquered, after Israel and Judah spend time in exile in Assyria and Babylon and finally are able to return home and rebuild. So, Assyria is responsible for the worst collective time the Israelites have as a people since they were slaves in Egypt. How well-liked do you think the Assyrians were by the readers of the book of Jonah? So, are we glad that God is gracious and loving? Of course we are! But when we remember that God is also gracious and loving to our very worst enemies, not just people we dislike but gracious and loving to those who have sought to hurt and destroy and devastate us? Well, maybe pouting and complaining doesn’t sound so dramatic after all. 

I’ve been thinking about loyalty, love, and enemies. I’ve told you before that if I want to look for God’s style of unconditional love modeled in the world, I look to my mother. My mom is great at unconditional love. I’m not saying my mom and I have never argued, but I can’t remember a single time when I’ve wondered, “Does mom really love me? Does mom still love me?” I know she does. I know there’s nothing I could do that would make her stop loving me. And I also know that if someone hurts one of her kids, you’re on my mom’s list. She might seem nice and sweet and gentle, and 95% of the time, she is. But if you hurt one of her kids? My mom has a great death stare. She might not be able to smite like God, but she can try! And I think we feel this way as a family: we’re very loyal to each other. We want to protect and defend our loved ones from “enemies.”  

And that’s what I think Jonah is upset about. Sure, Jonah doesn’t yet know that the Assyrians will be responsible for the destruction of Israel. But the nations were definitely already enemies. And Jonah probably speaks for the then-present-day hearers of the story of Jonah, who certainly would have felt like he did: God is showing mercy to our enemies? If God really loves us, how can God also love the people who hurt us? How can God forgive people who have devastated our lives? That’s the hard to swallow news of the book of Jonah: God really and truly loves our enemies, and it stinks! 

So, what can we do in response to this text other than sit with Jonah and lament that sometimes we don't like God’s gifts of love and grace as much as we think? Truly, friends, it is not an easy question to answer. I only know that at the end of the story, everyone has had a change of heart except for Jonah. God changed direction. The Ninehvites changed direction - king, people, and animals all. But Jonah has had no change of heart. Jonah is pretty entrenched in his sense of rightness, and because of that, he seems not only to begrudge his enemies from getting God’s love and grace, he also doesn’t seem able to absorb any of it for himself. What a shame, what a loss! 

  I think the heartache in Jonah comes, in part, from our expecting God to behave like us instead of seeking after how we can follow in the example of God, imitators of Jesus. As Don Schuessler said in our Bible Study this week, we want to think that we are right and that God is on our side. Jonah seems very certain about what justice would look like - the destruction of Nineveh. But what if, instead, we seek to be on God’s side? Our perspective as humans is always limited. We can’t always see the situation clearly. Our vision isn’t good enough. But God can see into hearts and minds. God’s vision is perfect. God’s understanding is beyond our imagining. And so while we’re sure of what is right and what would constitute justice for our enemies, we really don’t have the skills to make that call. After all, it is entirely possible that we are the enemy of someone else, that they are wondering how God can forgive and love us. We, too, are sinners. And perhaps someone can’t understand how God loves us still, relents against punishing us. Where would I be, though, without God’s grace and love? I would be utterly lost. God doesn’t want us to be lost. God seeks after us relentlessly - the Ninehvites, our enemies, Jonah fleeing to Tarshish, and you and me.    

I think as we experience resurrection and life, as we really experience being new creations in Christ, we learn to see more and more of what God sees. We learn to seek after God’s side, God’s vision, God’s understanding, even when, and maybe especially when  it crashes up against our own. God can change hearts. God changes even the hearts of our enemies. God changes even our hearts. God is loving, gracious, slow to anger, quick to forgive, abounding in enduring love. Sometimes we hear that as a challenge. Sometimes we hear that and grieve! But I promise, it is good news, for your enemies ... and for you! Maybe when it comes to loving our enemies, we’re just works in progress, with no easy answers. But when it comes to God loving and forgiving our enemies? Let’s start with trusting that God’s side is always the right one. Amen.  

  1. Chan, Michael J., “Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11,” The Working Preaching,

  2. Odell, Margaret, , “Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11,” The Working Preaching,

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...