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This is yesterday’s sermon from Community Lutheran Church!

I want to begin by asking you to close your eyes. Imagine before you a beautiful home, expansive and furnished impeccably. As you walk down the hall, you round a corner and see a huge banquet hall. The aroma of rich food and spiced wine reaches you before you see the table groaning under the weight of roasted meats, freshly baked bread, an array of cheeses, and brightly colored vegetables and fruits. Even the dishes themselves are exquisite. You’ve never seen a finer feast and you pinch yourself, trying to see if you are dreaming.

The Feast from Harry Potter... cause who doesn't love Harry Potter?! (From: http://i.imgur.com/VxChzNz.jpg)

The Feast from Harry Potter… cause who doesn’t love Harry Potter?! (From: http://i.imgur.com/VxChzNz.jpg)

Open your eyes. Hungry? This is the feast of Lady Wisdom described in Proverbs. She decorates her home like some sort of Martha Stewart guru and has her servant girls run around the city – even to the very top, inviting everyone to come in. But she doesn’t pass out invitations or even issue a formal decree. No, she calls out to everyone who will listen, “You that are simple, turn in here!” Well that’s one way to invite people! Perhaps she’s not so great with social etiquette after all. You see, if I were going to have a feast, the last thing that I would want to do is run around saying “Hey! Simple, senseless folks, come on over for supper!” I mean, for one, it’s insulting, and two, who knows who might show up?!

So what’s going on here? The book of Proverbs was a book historically designed to help instruct young people in the way to live their lives wisely. Wisdom is personified as a woman who sets a decadent feast, calling those who are in need of guidance and instruction to eat at her table. Here, eating is a metaphor for learning the way of God, being satisfied by God’s teaching and transformed by the meal. Lady Wisdom’s arch nemesis is Lady Folly – personified as a loud, lazy woman who calls out from her doorway, enticing the simple with promises of food and drink that sound appealing, but lead only to peoples’ demise.

Both call out to the simple, calling them to come and dine. The difference is that Lady Wisdom offers true food and drink – instruction in the ways of God that lead to life. Lady Folly offers food and drink that look good, but lead to death.

Given these two options, it seems only natural that one would want to feast with Lady Wisdom. But doing so requires admitting that we’re not as wise as we might have thought. It means humbly admitting that we need help and instruction in order to learn and grow, which can be more difficult than it sounds. As one member of the Wednesday Bible study put it, “we’re stupid and we don’t admit we’re simple.” It also means turning down what might seem appealing in the short term in order to embrace what is truly life-giving. And that can be a challenge.

I like the way David Brazzeal puts it in his book, Pray like a Gourmet: “Does your prayer life feel like you’re eating the same food over and over every day – mixing the same ingredients but hoping for a new, more enticing dish?

Or perhaps you’re experiencing something more like a divine drive-thru. You hurriedly place “your order,” always in a rush, expecting God to deliver it promptly at the next window?

Maybe your most intimate moments with God are akin to grabbing a cheap frozen dinner from the stack in the freezer and tossing it in the microwave: bland, monotonous, and predictably uninteresting.

I understand. I’ve been there too. We all deal with twenty-first century pressures, stresses, distractions, and time constraints. We fall prey to the default mode of our culture- fast and efficient. We’ve even allowed what George Ritzer calls the ‘McDonaldization’ of our society to invade and take root within the very relationship that is most precious to us – the one that, in fact, is the source that sustains and nurtures our soul. No wonder we feel spiritually anemic and malnourished.”

Sometimes we settle for the fast food of Lady Folly and the world rather than attending the gourmet meal of Lady Wisdom and God. I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve been spending so much time talking about Jesus as the Bread of Life. Food is essential to our survival and we don’t usually need to be reminded to eat, but we do need to be reminded of who Jesus is – the One who sustains and gives life – and about how important it is to be nourished in our faith.

In the Gospel for this morning, Jesus pushes the idea of being the Bread of Life even further – to a point where it sounds like, well, cannibalism. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Yikes. Of course, we hear this and we think of the Last Supper, the cross and resurrection, but it must have been shocking to hear. But here’s what I think he’s getting at.

Jesus gives us himself – completely. He gives us his body and his blood on the cross. He gives everything he has for our sake. And he gives us something to chew on. We’ve looked at Lady Wisdom’s feast versus Lady Folly’s and one of the differences is that Lady Folly’s food is an easy meal. It sounds good, but it doesn’t taste great and it leads to destruction. The feast that Lady Wisdom sets and the feast that Jesus offers is not an easy meal.

Jesus says those who eat of his flesh will have eternal life. And the word that he uses for “eat” really means “to gnaw” – yep, it means “to chew.” Christ gives us something to chew on – something to think about. He doesn’t give us something easy to swallow or easy to digest. He gives us something that causes us to wrestle, to wonder, to engage with for the rest of our life. We can’t just down it in one single solitary gulp and be satisfied. It’s something that we are constantly required to chew on, to savor, and to think about.

We’re invited to return to the table again and again to try and figure out what God means for our lives. What faith means for our lives as individuals, what it means for our life as a people in community, and what it means when we walk out of that door and engage with people from different backgrounds and different places. What it means when we go to work or when we serve in our various roles. We are forced to gnaw on our faith and to figure out what it means to live it out. Like a dog chewing on a bone, we are to be engaged with our faith and in our relationship with God.

I love the metaphor of attending the feast, because I love food, but also because it’s an active metaphor. God invites us to the feast and we come to partake of the rich food – to learn and practice our faith, but also to share around the table. Since we’re Lutheran, maybe it’s helpful to think of it as a potluck. God provides the main dish and an abundance of strong coffee, and we all bring a dish, maybe it’s a Jell-O casserole, representing our gifts, skills and experiences to share with others. Together, in community, we worship, learn and grow, and we wrestle with our faith, our questions and our doubts.

We are lavishly saved by God’s amazing grace through Christ’s cross and resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that life will be easy or the way clear-cut. We will always need help, instruction and support in God’s ways – in trying to live as followers of Christ in the world. That’s why we come back to this place week after week to hear God’s word and be forgiven and strengthened at the table. Because we will always be distracted by the loud shouting of Folly that would cause us to turn from God, to live in fear, to belittle ourselves or others, or to seek fame and glory instead of the way of the cross and a life of discipleship.

God wants life for us – abundant life – and not just in eternity, but here and now. God wants to feast with us and to be active in and with us. Christ is inviting us to eat and drink more deeply so we might discover that the food of the world we’ve been settling for – power, riches, acclaim, success, popularity – it might look good, but really ends up leaving a bad taste in our mouths. Just as Christ gave his flesh and blood – everything he had for us – we’re invited to give our whole selves to following him. Bland prayer life? Come on out to Diving into Prayer and try something new. Feeling like you want a refresher in the basics of faith? Sign up to help teach Sunday School – it’s a blast and it’ll help you learn as well. Looking for a way to serve, but unsure of how to do so? Come out on Rally Day to learn more about our ministries here. Christ is inviting us to swap the metaphorical frozen pizzas we’ve been living off of, for the richness of a gourmet meal.

“You that are simple, turn in here!” We don’t like being called simple, but if it reminds us to turn to God instead of relying on ourselves, it’s a good thing. If it points to the good news that God wants us to lay aside our own agendas and ways we’re missing out on God’s abundance by settling for Folly and cheap substitutes, it’s a good thing. My prayer for all of us then is that the Holy Spirit might humble us and open our hearts so that we can see and taste the splendor of the magnificent feast God lays before us each and every day. Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

“Get Up and Eat!”

Sunday’s Sermon from Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.

With all these readings about bread, I’ve been thinking about Holy Communion an awful lot.  In 2004, during my year abroad in Germany, I attended a tiny Lutheran church.  That first day I was there, they had Communion, but I didn’t go forward because I didn’t know the rules.  After the service, I asked the pastor in my slow German, struggling to pull together the right church words in another language, if I could receive communion.  “I wasn’t baptized Lutheran,” I’d told him.  I just remember the smile on his face as he said, “as long as you believe Christ is present there, you may receive.”  I felt so relieved to be welcomed at that table, able to be fed with the others gathered for worship.

When I returned home in 2005, I didn’t go to church since I was nervous because I’d had a difficult experience at a church when I was in high school.  But by 2007, I found myself really missing the community of faith.  I was hungry and thirsty for God, and I knew the only way I could grow in my faith was to try going to church again.  I needed Holy Communion – I needed to hear those words, “the body of Christ, given for you” and “the blood of Christ, shed for you.”  So I found a church, was welcomed again at the table, and I continued to heal from my past experiences with the church.

In 2012, during seminary, I studied for three months in Munich, Germany, living in a wonderful ecumenical community.  One night we gathered for worship in the small chapel, coming together from all different countries and denominations, singing, praying, listening to God’s word and sharing Holy Communion.  When the time came to distribute the bread and wine, the pastor gave to one person, and then that person distributed it to the next person, saying, in German: “Nimm und iss. Christi Leib, für dich gegeben” (“Take and eat.  Body of Christ, given for you.”).  I think the non-native German speakers were a little worried because no one wants to mess up speaking God’s promises to another person.  I know sometimes people get nervous speaking these words in English because they’re such important words of grace.

But then I saw the kingdom break in in a wondrous way.  When the bread reached a man from Brazil, he closed his eyes and spoke in Portuguese to his neighbor.  He spoke these words in the language that was close to his heart and said them the best way he knew how – authentically in his mother tongue.  As we went around the circle, others spoke in their native language.  But even with the variations in the words, you could tell that the words people used were the words that meant something to them.  It was wonderful to hear these powerful words in different languages and voices.  The variety brought such a richness to the experience and made me think about the feast to come – that colorful heavenly banquet, where people will be gathered from every corner of the world, from all different backgrounds and times, all speaking one language – the language of praise.

Running throughout my life, like a beautiful and life-giving thread, throughout various faith communities and around the world, Holy Communion has been there.  It has been a meal of welcome, of healing and forgiveness, a sign of the kingdom, a foretaste of the feast to come, and a challenge.  I would not have been able to make my journey without it and I hear that echoed in Elijah’s episode in the wilderness.  Elijah has just had an epic duel with the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal to see whose god is truly God.  Elijah and the Lord of Israel win the contest, and in a difficult bit of Scripture, Elijah has the prophets of Baal killed by the sword.  Queen Jezebel is outraged and threatens to kill Elijah, so he flees into the wilderness.

There, under a lone tree, he’s scared, exhausted, overwhelmed, perhaps feeling like a failure, and wondering what the future is going to hold for him.  Struggling with his situation and wishing for his own death, he lays down, tired of fighting, to get some rest.  It’s then that an angel of the Lord wakes him up, saying, “Get up and eat.”  He does, and then promptly lays back down for a nap after his holy snack.  But the angel of the Lord returns and tells him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Now, if I were Elijah, and I was exhausted and hungry, that angel would have to be awfully careful approaching me and telling me that I had a journey to get ready for! But he eats, and he’s sustained for 40 days and nights until he reaches Mt. Horeb where he will encounter God in silence and be called to go back into the fray.  He’s fed to go back out to do God’s work in the world.  He’s challenged not just to sit and be fed, but to use that sustenance and strength to be a part of God’s changing work.

Sometimes we find ourselves feeling wiped out, tired of all the rigmarole, and we don’t know how we’re going to make it.  We face illnesses, aging parents, difficulties with raising children, stress at work, struggles with our finances, problems at school… Sometimes all we want to do is curl up in a ball and stay under the covers.  And those first followers of Jesus felt the same way.  Those who followed, experienced his healings, listened to his teachings, and were fed by him, were a people who were tired of oppression under foreign rulers, tired of struggling to eke out a living, and wondering when their circumstances would change.  They knew all too well about poverty, discouragement, and hardship.

And when Jesus, a man whose family they know, says that he’s the bread of life – the one who will give life, not only now but eternally – well, that’s just too much for them! When he says – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – that must have sounded downright crazy to his listeners! They must have been thinking, “teachings are helpful.  Healings, feedings, and miracles, we love! But this is going too far. How on earth can we accept this?”

I think as much as we may try to avoid talking about it, we, too, have these feelings.  We hunger for God.  We long to believe in God’s promises.  We ache to know that things are changing and the kingdom is coming.  But sometimes we feel like Elijah and those first followers: tired, weak and broken down by all of the pain of our lives and the world.  And the thought of heading back out there is wearisome.  We come to this place and we desire to be fed.  We come to Communion and we wonder if a wafer and a sip of wine can change our lives.  We ask, “Can such a simple meal change me? Will Jesus really meet me there in such simple food?”

Yes. Yes, he will.  And this simple meal does change our lives.  You see, the God we worship doesn’t work the way we think or expect God to work.  God works through plain old water and every day, ordinary bread and wine.  God’s voice is heard through normal people reading from a book, through fellow bumbling disciples called to preach, and through every one of us ministering to others.  God’s presence and power are felt in praying for others, in unglamorously serving together in the community, in small acts of kindness and hospitality.  The glory of God worked through frail human flesh, vulnerable and weak, to redeem the entire cosmos.  Yes, Christ will meet us in bread and wine.  It’s just the sort of surprising, outrageous and laughable thing that God would do.

It’s easy to get caught up in life.  To be overwhelmed, even during summer vacation season.  To find ourselves running every which way and dealing with all sorts of things we never anticipated.  To find we have far too much on our plates, but realize we’re, ironically, not really being fed spiritually.  So how do we slow down, stop, and eat? How do we make time to receive and participate in that which is life-giving and life-sustaining?  How do we remember that when we open our hands, we’re not just going through the motions, but saying, “Jesus, I need you.  I can’t do it on my own.  Thank you for welcoming me.  Forgive me for the things I’ve done or failed to do.  Help me to follow you and strengthen me so I can serve you in the world.”

We are called to get up and eat – to receive the God who comes to us, the God who is continually drawing us to himself.  We may, like those following Jesus so long ago, have a hard time swallowing that Jesus can and will sustain us throughout the bumpy journey of life with all it’s twists and turns, peaks and valleys.  But the One who dwelt with us and experienced the hardships of life as we do, has conquered this world once and for all through the cross and resurrection.  We have nothing to fear.  He has promised to be with us and to meet us in broken bread and wine outpoured.  While it may seem that a morsel of bread and a sip of wine cannot possibly keep us going, time and time again, they give us forgiveness, hope and strength.  And as this food with God’s promise sustains us, slowly, but surely, Christ transforms us one little bit at a time.

God knows that it seems impossible.  That it seems too good to be true.  So we’re invited again and again to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that the Lord is good.  To keep meeting God at this holy table to that we can remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life – the one who nourishes us so we can go out and live.  Because God knows we need this grace, we are invited over and over again to join the feast – young and old, rich and poor, no matter where we’ve come from.  God draws us and calls us to come and be refreshed – to get up and eat so that our life’s journey will not be too much for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Sermon from July 12 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

These texts today about Israel losing God’s favor and Herod beheading John the Baptist are not exactly pick me ups.  They’re the kind of texts where you respond to “the Word of the Lord” with “Thanks be to God?!”  What on earth does this have to say to us? Where is the good news? However, these are stories that, oddly enough, have to do with our every day lives.

In Rwanda, one of the first places we visited was the genocide memorial in Nyamata.  It was a Catholic Church that had been the site of the killing of 10,000 people in 4 days.  There, on display, within the walls of this church were the skulls of some of the victims.  I was horrified.  And yet, I knew I had to be there.  I had to learn from what I saw before me.  When we had time to walk around, I found myself in front of those skulls, praying that I would never forget what I had seen.  I asked God that I might know what lesson I was to take away from that place.  The answer came in the form of a question: how many times have I hurt others or caused death in their lives with my words or deeds?

Staring at that gruesome scene, I realized that the truth of the matter is that we all have the potential to do harm to one another.  Maybe not in such stark ways, but in a thousand different ways each and every day.  The potential is there and the temptation to power and force always beckoning.  As the famous Lord Acton quote goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Herod and his wife succumbed to power.  John’s words of truth spoken against them stung and eventually, they proved to be too threatening to the established power.  Herod’s wife Herodias wanted John dead and Herod, for the sake of an oath and to save face among his contemporaries, would not refuse her.

The established court priest and prophet Amaziah didn’t like that the farmer prophet Amos was speaking on his turf – in the king’s sanctuary at Bethel – and saying such negative things about Israel and the king! So Amaziah tried to get Amos to leave, but Amos was following a higher calling.

Jesus and his disciples set out, preaching and teaching, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near and that all people should turn once more toward God.  But this proved threatening to the established religious leaders, to Rome and to those who wanted to put themselves first, rather than God.  Jesus would be crucified and many of his first followers martyred for speaking of God’s kingdom and against the powers that wanted to coerce and manipulate.

We are often threatened by words of truth – they have power – they challenge us, shake us out of our comfort zones and complacency, cause us to reconsider what we thought we had figured out, and make us squirm.  Sometimes we become frustrated or angry because we know that what has been said is something that is really too close for comfort.  Words can make us angry because they pull back the masks we present to the world and ourselves, and we cannot hide the truth from ourselves or anyone else anymore.  Words can cut to the heart and we see revealed, all too clearly, that with which we are struggling.

These words can be read or heard in Scripture, preached from the pulpit, heard in a song, from people we know and love, or even from strangers.  I know that I hate it when someone else speaks that kind of uncomfortable truth to me.  They say something and it’s absolutely irritating because I know in my heart of hearts that the other person is right, but I don’t want to admit it or deal with it.  And now that whatever I was conveniently trying to ignore is out in the open, I have to deal with it.  Has anyone else experienced this?

As much as this can be incredibly uncomfortable, challenging and even painful, it is one of ways I know I learn.  And I give thanks for the people in my life who are patient and wise guides, able to shepherd me through this learning process.  Those who speak truth and gently urge me to give up the power and control I think I have in favor for the forgiveness and healing of Christ.  We all need people and communities that can hold us accountable and call us to be the people God is calling us to be.

Because that’s the paradox of the Gospel.  Real power – power that isn’t coercive or manipulative – springs forth from the cross of Christ.  It was through Christ’s weakness and vulnerability that salvation came about.  It is through death that we are able to experience new life.  It’s through letting go of the things we want to hold so tightly – being right, important, intelligent, rich, or even our mistakes – that we discover true freedom and the power of Christ’s love to heal and redeem.  And without being in touch with those places where we have sinned or fallen short, the good news remains something that sounds good, but stays at arm’s length and cannot change our lives.

The cross, and following Christ, bid us to die to ourselves.  Being a disciple is hard.  Following Christ will cause us to examine our lives and let go of things we thought important in order to follow God.  It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  But it is profoundly good.  And the Holy Spirit is always guiding and strengthening us to follow.  Following God frees us to become more open to what God is doing in the world – to see things through the lens of the cross and resurrection, and to work on behalf of God’s kingdom.

It’s like a scene from A League of Their Own, about the women’s baseball league started during World War II.  In that scene, coach Jimmy Duggan, speaks passionately about baseball to Dottie, an amazing player, who is leaving the league now that her husband is back from war.  Jimmy says, “Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.” When Dottie says, “It just got too hard,” Jimmy responds:  “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great!”

Trying to follow God is hard.  I’m sure Amos, who was a simple farmer, called to be a prophet by God, had his moments of thinking, “this is an awful gig – I don’t want to do this.”  But he knew he had to.  And John the Baptist, as wild and unconventional as he was, probably knew that speaking the truth to the king and to all people would end up getting him in trouble, but he pressed on, knowing he was called to proclaim God’s truth.  Jesus sent out the disciples knowing that they would encounter those who wouldn’t want to listen.  And we, too, are called to listen to what God is proclaiming to us and to share that news with the world.  It is hard, but in doing so we experience new life and resurrection.  And the good news is that God never ceases trying to reach us, calling us to be transformed by God’s grace, and to share the good news with the world.

Words, especially words of truth, can catch us off guard and frustrate, irritate, or challenge us.  But they can also help us to turn once more toward God.  As the Psalmist says “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying.”  Are we listening? What is God saying to us today? Are there things God is calling you to reexamine in your life?

Maybe what you hear is that God is calling you to step out of your comfort zone to follow God into a new place or a new task.  Amos was a simple farmer when God called him to be a prophet.  How might God be calling you?

The stories of Amos and John the Baptist remind us that we need God’s word and other people to speak truth to us, even if it’s hard to hear.  We need that help to remove the masks we wear, to challenge us to examine our sins, to encourage us to seek forgiveness, and to live in God’s grace.  Thanks be to God for the prophets old and new who point toward God and call us to follow.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Sermon from June 28 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Imana ishyimwe! Praise God! Our mission trip to Rwanda was a incredibly eye-opening and moving journey. On the one hand, I learned up close about the depth of human hatred and depravity. On the other, I left feeling like I had never encountered such a depth of joy in all my travels. How could both of these things be present in the same place and even among the same people? As I reflect and try to understand, I can only think that it is because we were able to glimpse both death and resurrection.

During the genocide in 1994, men were both disproportionately the perpetrators and victims. Afterward, some 70 percent of the country was women. Many of whom had been abused, raped, wounded, and widowed. Or whose families had perpetrated crimes against others and were now in prison. How would they be able to go on after such a horrific tragedy? Men had been breadwinners and now the world had been shaken to the core. Those who were left were hurting, sick, suffering from PTSD, dealing with poverty, and finding it nearly impossible to build trust or community.

I think about the woman in the lesson this morning. She had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve agonizing years. No one could help her. And because of her disease, she was unclean and isolated from society. She must have felt so completely cut off from everything she once knew and enjoyed. Perhaps she had once loved life in her village, but now it was a place of isolation, loneliness, hurt and distrust. How could there be hope for a future?

After the woman in the Gospel quietly touches Jesus’ clothes to receive healing, she is unable to hide any longer. She tells him her whole story about all the doctors, the years of suffering, the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and shame, and how she knew she would be better if she could only touch even his clothes. Jesus looks at her and says gently, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

I hear this story and I think about those Rwandan women after the genocide, and what they must have gone through. They, too, struggled to find hope and a future. They, too, must have felt relegated to the land of the dead as opposed to the land of the living. They, too, must have felt shame for what they suffered or what they or others had done.

But slowly, things began to change. Women began to realize that in order to move forward, they needed to work together. They gathered to talk and weave. Hutu and Tutsi women began sitting together, side-by-side, weaving peace baskets, which nest to show how intricate and how long a process the road to peace and reconciliation is. All over Rwanda, co-ops have formed. People have come together across ethnic lines to begin building, or weaving, a future for their country and for their children.

We were blessed to experience this healing and resurrection in many places on our trip, but particularly in the villages of Gitarama and Nyange. In Gitarama, we participated in Azizi Life, an experience shadowing Rwandan women for the day, learning about their lives, and having the amazing opportunity to share cross-culturally.

While there, we helped prepare lunch, we harvested and planted sweet potatoes, we collected water by walking to the spring with jerry cans, we cut elephant grass and balanced it on our heads to take to the cow, we ate lunch together, prayed, sang and danced, and learned how to make earrings and bracelets from banana leaves. It was incredible. Together, these women have a co-op and they make beautiful handicrafts to sell around the world. They receive a fair wage and are able to support themselves and their families.

Sitting on Our Host's Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

Sitting on Our Host’s Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

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With Pauline who Taught Me (Errr… tried to teach me!) How to Make Banana Leaf Earrings and a Bracelet

I found myself sitting on the front porch of our host’s home filled with joy – not wanting the moment to end. We had been so warmly embraced by these women. Their smiles and laughter made me overflow with joy. So much so that when I went to say goodbye and thank you to our host, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. How could this come from the unfathomable depth of suffering of the genocide?

In Nyange, we sat with the village elders with whom Pr. John, Robin’s husband, has been working. They are rebuilding their community by working together to decide what is important for them as a whole. Together, they have decided that they are most in need of new roofs. And in the process, Pr. John has been coaching and encouraging them so that they can put together an action plan, hold meetings, make presentations to government officials, and reflect on their project and its effectiveness. I asked them what has changed as a result of this and one woman said, “We used to not even want to wash our clothes. We were ashamed and we didn’t want to interact with one another. Now we want to take care of ourselves. We are even discussing family planning. We can make presentations to people without being afraid.” Each one of them mentioned how their confidence had increased – how they are once again able to look others in the eye.

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

I hear in that an echo of the woman from the Gospel. She was healed and able to tell her story of her movement from death to life. These communities have been healed, by the grace of God at work in the world and by their faith that there could be a future. And now they are able to tell their stories – to share the joy of their resurrection with us. To point to what God can do – crossing all walls and boundaries and bringing resurrection from the darkest depths of hatred and death.

The day after our Azizi Life experience we heard about the shooting in Charleston. I was sad. I was angry. We had just visited a church in Rwanda that was the site of the killing of 10,000 people. Now here was a shooting in a church in our own backyard. Why? Why do we continue to hurt one another? Our sin runs deep. Racism, lack of compassion for those who are different, hard hearts unwilling to learn and grow and change… We have an opportunity at this moment to begin to discuss what has happened and to work together across races and ethnicities to build a better future for all people. I know that Christ can bring life out of this hurt and death – I know that more deeply after visiting Rwanda. But are we open to his working in us to do so?

Christ healed a woman on the fringes of society and brought her back into her community. He is at work in Rwanda through women and men working together to rebuild their communities. And he is at work even now, starting conversations and reconciliation among Americans in communities across the country. Might we, like the disciples, be overcome with amazement at what God is able to do. Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church on June 14.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” It’s kind of like scattering seed and not knowing how it grows.  It’s kind of like a mustard seed.  It’s kind of like… Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God at least 17 times in Mark’s Gospel.  And with all of these parables and metaphors, it can get a little confusing trying to figure out what exactly this kingdom looks like.

What’s even more confusing is that Mark’s Gospel tells us “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”  Jesus spoke and taught people as they were able to hear – and he only gave detailed explanations to his disciples.  Why not just come out and explain it, Jesus?!

There seems to be something mysterious and hard to pin down about the kingdom of God.  Hmmm… it seems God’s kingdom is just as wily as the Triune God is mysterious and difficult to understand.  I think I’m seeing a trend here! But there’s also a tremendous gift in teaching through parables – they are never straightforward and so they cause us to think and to wrestle with what they mean for our lives.  They’re even flexible enough that we can hear them and understand them on different levels depending on what we’re going through.  But what is Jesus getting at when he’s speaking of seeds, shrubs and birds?

In the Ezekiel reading we hear about the majestic cedar tree, a symbol of power and empire.  God’s cedar grows from a tiny sprig that God has transplanted on a lofty mountain.  It flourishes and becomes the resting and nesting place for a multitude of winged creatures.   God’s anointed, symbolized by the cedar, will rule and point the way to God so that all the nations or birds know who God is.

Jesus takes these ideas and plays on them, saying that the kingdom of God is not like the world-renown mighty cedar, but rather like the mustard plant.  God’s kingdom starts humbly and grows, through the action of God, becoming not an impressive tree but a shrub.  Mustard is invasive and can be a nuisance – while it can be used for oil, as a condiment, or as an herb, it can take over things you might not want it to take over.   Again, Jesus points out that the birds of the air will make their home, not in a huge tree, but in this scruffy plant.

The kingdom of God doesn’t look like the powerful rulers and empires we see in the world.  Instead, it starts tiny and crops up in places where we’d least expect it, being able to thrive and multiply.  I think of the English ivy that Jeff and I have in the backyard.  Last year, when we bought the house, it was all over, covering at least a quarter of the yard, climbing fences and trees, and intertwined with poison ivy.  We had a crew come in to clear it out, and they did.  But guess what? This year, the ivy is beginning to come back, creeping in from a neighbor’s yard and popping up from the root network that the landscaping crew had a hard time getting up.

The kingdom of God is surprising and persistent.  We pray for God’s kingdom to come because we long for God’s rule to be in place rather than the unjust and often abusive rulers of this world.  That being said, God’s kingdom, like God, will surprise us, invade our lives and force us to re-examine what we thought we knew time and time again.  And that makes us really uncomfortable.  As Pr. Joe said last week, so often we want God, but on our terms.  And the kingdom of God is no different.

Both the reading from Ezekiel and from Mark say that the birds of the air will nest in the tree or the shrub God has made grow.  In the Old Testament, there are many different types of birds mentioned, at least 20 of which are listed as ritually unclean in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  In the Gospels, birds are used as illustrations of God’s care and examples of items of very little value.  We hear, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?”  God cares for the birds, weak and insignificant, and God cares for us as well.

So when a variety of birds nest in the mustard shrub, Jesus isn’t just speaking about birds having a home.  He’s pointing to the idea that the kingdom of God has residents from all different backgrounds, nations and stations in life, whether clean or unclean.  Birds of all feathers nest in this tree and Jesus is using a shrubby bush to describe the Tree of Life.  It may not look like much and it may fly in the face of everything we expect, but it is a tree that brings forth life to all who come to it.  In essence, it is the cross.  In the cross and Christ’s death and resurrection, dead wood becomes the Tree of Life.  It is in the cross that we, and all people, can find shade, shelter, and a space to live.

But as I said before, the kingdom sounds nice until it confronts our comfort, the boundaries we have drawn, and whom we think should be in or out of the kingdom.  It sounds great when we hear at Communion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.”  But then we think, “for all people?”  Wait a second! That guy is way worse than I am.  She’s done terrible things.  That person’s lifestyle is completely wrong.  I can never forgive him for what he’s done.  You mean to tell me that these are the birds invited to nest alongside of me under the Tree of Life?! Yes, the birds are not only the “righteous,” but the undesirables, the outsiders, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the least of these.

So who are the outsiders we might be called to welcome? Or, who do we need to realize as already welcomed by Christ into the kingdom? Maybe it’s the homeless person we see on the street.  Or the person who has just immigrated.  Maybe it’s the addict or the person recently released from prison.  Maybe it’s someone of a different race or ethnicity or culture.  Lately, there’s been a lot in the news about Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner.  Just saying that raises eyebrows.  And I realize it’s so easy to become polarized about what we see or hear and to stop there.  But how does Jesus’ parable challenge us to look at welcoming people in the name of Christ for the sake of the kingdom?

Listening to Jesus’ parable and admitting that the kingdom, as wonderful as it is, will probably make us uncomfortable, we can let go of trying to control it’s coming.  “The kingdom of God is as if 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.”  We might not know how or what exactly God is up to, but we can trust that God is at work in surprising and life-changing ways.  Like a tiny mustard seed that invades and transforms the landscape into a sea of yellow, God’s kingdom starts slowly and changes the landscape of our lives and our world for the better.  And we can rejoice that God invites us to be a part of that transformation by following and inviting others to find rest and new life in the Tree of Life.

There are so many things that divide us.  So many ways in which we like to keep God safely in our corner rather than free to do incredible work in the world.  But God’s kingdom is persistent and invasive, growing even now in places unsuspected and surprising.  And guess what? There’s room in that scruffy mustard shrub for all the birds of the world – for each of us and for birds of all different feathers.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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