Tag Archive: God


Sermon #3 (September 27) in our sermon series “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus” at Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.

Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from heading to the cross and got put in his place – told to set his mind not on human things, but divine things.  The disciples argued about who was the greatest and found themselves looking at a child and being told to welcome the least of these.  Now, the disciples run to tattle on someone who is performing deeds of power – driving out demons in Jesus’ name.

Out of breath, they run up to Jesus.  “Teacher! We just saw this guy and he was casting out demons.  In your name! We tried to stop him because he’s not one of us.  We did well, didn’t we?!”  And, much to their surprise, Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”  I can see the disciples stopping short and muttering, disappointedly, “Uh… ok.  I guess we’ll just keep walking to Jerusalem then.”

In order to understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to go back earlier in chapter 9.  A man had brought his son to the disciples for healing. This boy was suffering from a demon that in modern terms seems to be epilepsy.  But the disciples couldn’t drive out the demon.  So Jesus casts it out and tells the disciples when they ask why they couldn’t cast it out, “‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’”

Now there is a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he’s not even in Jesus’ group.  In light of this previous failure to do deeds of power like their Teacher, the disciples seem jealous of the other exorcist.  They are insecure, confused, struggling with their identity as followers of Jesus, and perhaps even afraid that Jesus will kick them out of the inner circle.  After all, they are the handpicked twelve and they can’t even cast out a demon!

The refrain that is repeated throughout last week’s text as well as today’s is, “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of Christ.”  Children are to be welcomed in Jesus’ name.  Demons are cast out and wholeness restored in Jesus’ name.  People are to receive hospitality – a cup of water to drink – in Jesus’ name.  And woe be unto those who cause anyone who would believe in Jesus’ name to stumble.  In short, the name of Christ has tremendous power.

The disciples have heard Jesus predict his death twice already, and they’re trying to get a handle on what they are supposed to do and who they are supposed to be as followers.  In this search for clarity about their identity, the disciples are eager – super eager in fact – to point out the faults and shortcomings of this man operating outside of their little group.  Instead, Jesus uses this encounter to refocus their attention on themselves.  Because they have been called to follow Jesus and bear his name, they shouldn’t stop this man from doing good just because he’s an outsider.  Instead, they should be focused on the ways their actions are preventing healing and good news from flowing to people in Jesus’ name.  Because it’s not about the disciples’ names, but about whose name they carry and how they represent that name.  The actions of the outsider are welcomed while the insiders are warned to be mindful of their own actions.

In baptism, we are marked with the triune name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – often with a cross traced upon our foreheads.  It is this name we are to carry throughout our lives.  It is the name in which we are called to live, to love and to serve others.  It shapes and forms our identities.  But as the Gospel points out, because we bear this holy name, we also bear a great deal of responsibility.  Jesus’ words to his disciples ask us pointedly, “how are you getting in the way of the gospel? How are you a stumbling block to others?”

This week, we have been inundated by photos, videos, and news of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.  While I’ve enjoyed it, and I think the Pope has wonderful things to say, he’s kind of a tough act to follow.  I mean, I can’t say that I’ve talked to Congress, washed the feet of prisoners, called for peace on a global scale, or even had a Fiat take me around DC! What on earth have I been doing with my life?! It is easy to look at his actions and feel like we cannot live up to them, but I really like how President Obama put it in his welcome speech to the Pope: “Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example.  And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency.  All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true, what we know to be right.  But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better.”

Each of us, washed in the waters of baptism and marked with Christ’s holy and precious name, has been given a beautiful gift.  The gift of forgiveness and discipleship in Jesus’ name.  We have been given the opportunity to serve God and the world in the name of Christ.  Jesus issues a challenge, calling us to stop judging others and forcing us to look instead at how we may be keeping others from encountering the good news, the living God in their own lives.  Are there things that we hold dear that might be stumbling blocks to others experiencing God’s grace? Maybe it’s as simple as not moving in our pews to make room for new folks.  Or maybe it’s prioritizing television watching over spending time in prayer or devotions.  Maybe it’s in the way we speak about others which cheapens our witness to Christ.  This is the discomfort we experience when contemplating the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true.  It’s the discomfort the disciples experienced that day with Jesus and it’s the discomfort that can provoke thoughtful prayer, contemplation and change in our own lives.  It’s the discomfort that can lead to asking for forgiveness and opening a space for the healing of our spirits.  Because Christ has begun a good work in us and will bring it to completion.

We are all tempted to look at those outside of ourselves or our little groups and think that others are doing it wrong or shouldn’t be allowed to do it at all.  Other denominations worshiping in the wrong style.  Neighbors tending their yards in the wrong way.  People praying differently than we do.  But Jesus warns us that our time would be better spent searching our hearts and allowing those who bring about good in his name to continue.  Instead of tearing down, how can we take the opportunity to build up and to point to God’s grace and love?

Recently, there was a story of a Turkish couple who took the money they could have spent on their wedding reception and instead spent it, and their wedding day, feeding thousands of Syrian refugees.  This couple, who are Muslims and not Christians, caused me to pause and to reflect on how I was welcoming others – offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, and shelter to the homeless.  The “outsiders” helped this “insider” see and hear afresh the call of Christ.

Today you will have the opportunity to come forward to receive individual prayers for healing.  As James wrote, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.  Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Soon, I will invite you to come forward to receive prayers in the name of the Lord for healing, forgiveness, strength, or whatever you may need this day.  Come and be strengthened, remembering the name in which you live, move, and have your being.  Come, and give thanks for the healing and wholeness that comes through life lived in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

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This is the first sermon (September 13) in our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus,” at Community Lutheran.

 

Today is a huge day! We’re kicking off the Program Year with Rally Day, we’re giving blood, and we’re even training Sunday School and Confirmation teachers.  It’s also the day we’re kicking off our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus.”  Over the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring more what it means to be a disciple of Christ by taking a closer look at Jesus’ encounters with others in the Gospel of Mark.

This discussion in today’s text between Jesus and the disciples, and especially Peter, is a great way to start off our series.  Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Caesarea Philippi, an ancient town, with a strong cult to the Greek deity, Pan.  As part of worshiping Pan, there were frequent sacrifices made.  It’s in this area that Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”  They tell him what they’ve heard – that he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead, or the prophet Elijah returned to earth, or maybe one of the other rock star prophets of Israel’s past.

The Ruins of Caesarea Philippi (Banias/Panias) - January 2014

The Ruins of Caesarea Philippi (Banias/Panias); The cave for sacrifice can be easily seen even from a distance – January 2014

I can see Jesus nodding thoughtfully, taking it all in.  And then I see him looking at them and asking, “But who do you say that I am? Thanks for reporting what you’ve heard – that’s well and good, but I want to hear who you say that I am.”  Silence falls over the disciples as they wonder what’s going on.  Slowly, Peter clears his throat and says, “You are the Messiah.”  Jesus tells them to keep quiet about his identity and they continue walking.

I always imagine Peter smiling, truly pleased with himself for coming up with the right answer and thinking, “I’m in good cause I’m with the Messiah.”  Maybe he was even thinking “YES! I AM AWESOME!” Or whatever the Aramaic equivalent of that is.  But, of course, the story doesn’t end there! Nope, unfortunately for Peter’s ego, they keep walking.  Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.”

In this area where people sacrificed animals to satisfy a half-man, half-goat god, fully human and fully divine Jesus reveals that he will suffer and die.  He reveals openly that he will offer himself as a sacrifice, bridging the gap between God and humanity once and for all.  This is too much for Peter.  It messes with his image of who a god should be and what a god should do.  It’s not at all what he thought the Messiah should be about.  Jesus’ teachings about a suffering Messiah are completely the opposite of God who is glorious, mighty and worthy of praise, aren’t they?

Peter can’t take it and so he speaks up, being the bold and the brash fellow that he is.  Maybe he was thinking he’d get two right answers in a row.  No such luck, because Jesus tells him “get behind me, Satan.”  Zing! From all-star disciple to major failure in a few verses.  That’s why I love Peter! We all have those moments where we feel like we’ve got it and we’re moving in a great direction and then … BAM! We realize we don’t have it at all.  It’s like a scene in the 1980s comedy, “The Three Amigos.”  Steve Martin’s character is chained in the enemy’s prison, but he realizes he can move the chains by pulling his arms and legs forward toward the chain release lever.  He slowly creeps forward, saying, “gonna make it.  Gonna make it. Gonna make it.  Gonna make it.”  He reaches the release lever, and shouts, “I made it!” Then is slammed back against the wall with an “Ow.”

This exchange between Peter and Jesus is just like that – Peter thinks he’s figured it out and Jesus clarifies pretty strongly that he hasn’t.

I find Jesus’ words interesting and not just because he just told Peter that he’s acting like Satan, the accuser and tempter.  I find his words interesting because if I had an enemy, the last place I would want the enemy or the adversary or the accuser to be was at my back – I can’t see him, I don’t know what’s going on.  These words are a form of rebuke for sure because they also appear in the Old Testament, but I think it’s also saying something to Peter.

If you’re behind someone, most likely you’re following them.  Jesus tells Peter to get in line – “get behind me.”  Stop setting your mind on human things – the things everyone in this world thinks are important.  It’s like Jesus is saying, “Peter, don’t you see? Those aren’t the things that God cares about.  God has something else in mind – something that involves dying and rising, sacrifice and new life.”  So Jesus tells Peter “get behind me” and to all who are gathered, “take up your cross and follow me.”  It’s a lot harder to follow someone else, the ways of the world, or our own evil hearts, if we have our eyes firmly set on Christ and we are carrying our crosses.

Ok, but what on earth does it mean to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Christ?  Does it mean saying of annoyances we experience, “I suppose this is my cross to bear.”  No.  It means turning away from the things that would lead us away from God and seeking to live out our lives in a Christ-like way.  Carrying our crosses is a constant reminder of whose we are and what he has done.  It is a reminder of God’s sacrifice on our behalf – a sacrifice made out of sheer love.  Who do you say that Jesus is? And what would it look like to live formed by Christ’s sacrificial love, so that we might share that same sacrificial love with those around us?

It might mean spending time working with the hungry children in our area, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and ensuring that they have food.  It might mean welcoming refugees, offering up your resources and maybe even your home so that someone might have a warm, safe place to stay.  It might mean journeying with someone as a Stephen Minister and providing a listening ear and a loving heart.  It might mean sitting with a friend who has lost a job and being there for them.  It might mean spending time tending the gardens of the church so that it looks welcoming for those coming inside.  The possibilities are endless.

The crucifixion, and indeed all of Jesus’ human life, took place in the midst of a period of oppression, poverty, suffering, despair and difficulty.  And the fact that we are called to take up the cross as well means that we are called not to run from the difficulties, the ugliness, or the pain of the world, but that we are called to journey with those who suffer.  Anglican N.T. Wright even described prayer in this way: “Prayer stands cruciform at the place where the world is in pain to hold together Jew and Greek and slave and free. To hold together male and female, to hold together a battered and bleeding world and say, ‘No, there is a different way to be human.’”

Yes, there is a different way to be human.  And ironically, it looks like letting go of the things society upholds in favor of the cross.  It means that in order to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, we sometimes have to say, “get behind me, Satan.  I want nothing to do with you” to the things that tempt us to despair, to give up, to fear, or to forget God’s love for the entire cosmos. So to what do you need to say, “get behind me?” Is it the rat race? Is it to taking on more work in order to seek some kind of esteem? Is it spending money on things you don’t really need? Is it that dread feeling of hopelessness when you look at the world? Is it the voice of scarcity that would tell you to safeguard everything you have and not share it with others because there might not be enough? Is it that nagging voice that says God cannot or will not forgive?

Today, I want to invite us to say to those things what we need to say – to put them in their right place in our lives.  Behind Christ.  Not before Christ.  To say, “get behind me.  I follow Christ.”  As Jesus says in the reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” The way of the cross is hard.  It’s arduous and often times it’s not as glamorous as the life of those we see on TV or in movies.  But ultimately it is the way of true life – of life that is lived for something bigger than itself.  For the sake of God and for the sake of others.

Peter may have thought he won the prize with his first answer about Jesus being the Messiah.  And he was right.  But it was actually his mistake that led to the life-giving lesson.  Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s the kind of Messiah he is, and the people we are called to be as a result, that is truly life-giving.  God chooses to work through the weak, the imperfect, the foolhardy and often confused disciples, the brutal cross, and ultimately, the surprising, in order to being about abundant life for all people.  As followers of Christ, we are not perfect, but God has seen fit to work in and through us for the good of the world.  It may not be what we were expecting when we set out on this journey to follow Christ, but it is good indeed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was last Sunday’s sermon at Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA

The resting human heart beats an average of 60 to 100 beats per minute.  Thump.  Thump.  Thump.  In addition to pumping our blood and keeping a steady supply of oxygen flowing throughout our bodies, the heart has long been seen as the center of thoughts, personality, actions, emotions, and wisdom.  So I’d venture to say it’s pretty important.

These texts we have for this morning are tough.  And they’re tough not because they have hard words or are particularly difficult to understand.  In fact, they’re fairly straightforward.  But they’re tough because we don’t like what we hear.  Deuteronomy tells us that the law was a gift given to help people to live out the covenant in the new land of Israel, and by living them out, help other nations see who God is.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’re elevating human rules to a divine status, while ignoring what is truly important – hearts that follow God.  And James gives instructions for the new Christian community, calling them to turn from the things of the world in order to live out of their faith.

Each of these texts calls us to a higher standard of living.  As Eugene Peterson translates James: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other.  Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”  Ouch.

These texts hold up the mirror and call us to take a long hard look at ourselves to see where we are missing the mark, falling short and not following God.  They remove the excuses we so artfully craft about our words and deeds and call us to account.  They strip everything down to some basics and challenge us to live out our faith in the world.  They call out, “when did you last say something unkind or hurtful about someone else?”  “How many times have you refused to help another in need because you were ‘too busy’ or wanted that extra money for something else?”  “When have you found yourself looking down upon someone else?”  “Have you been envying what your friends, family, or neighbors have?”  These questions make us squirm.  We don’t want to think about them or answer them.  We don’t want to think about how our speech and action might reflect our hearts.  We rush about, perhaps rarely taking time the think about the effect our words and deeds have on others.  But it is necessary to slow down and sit with them.  To ask God to reveal in us those places where we are not living out the life to which we’ve been called.

As some of you may know, I am a “Walking Dead” fan.  Last summer, Jeff and I began binge watching this show on Netflix.  I’m sure binge watching is another sin! For those of you who don’t watch, the walking dead or “walkers” are zombies who have begun wreaking havoc on society, bringing about an apocalyptic scenario.  The show follows a small band of very different people as they try to survive.  One would think that the zombies would be the scariest part of this show.  But the surprise is that the real threat – the real underlying danger – is not from the undead, but from the living.  The people who have survived the apocalypse are capable of far more hurt, pain, deceit, inhumanity and death than the zombies are.  That’s why the show is so interesting.  Zombies are fun, but the psychology and group dynamics are fascinating.  You watch an episode and think, “who would I be in this situation? And how would I respond?”

And so it is with us.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’ve got things all backwards – it’s not all about the rituals that keep us clean on the outside or insure that we’re eating the right foods.  No, we should be more worried about the inner workings of our hearts and whether or not they are leading us down the wrong path or are following God.  The threat could be coming from the outside as with zombies, but most likely, it’s coming from within.  A truly scary thought indeed.

It is abundantly clear that the human heart is capable of evil things.  This week has brought reports that the Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, that ISIS continues its reign of terror, of two journalists shot and killed in Roanoke, of the continuing struggle against racism, of infidelity on the Ashley Madison website, of migrants and refugees displaced by violence and searching for a place to lay their heads.  The list, unfortunately, could go on and on.  It is easy to hear this and to feel paralyzed by the evil within our own hearts and that we see taking place around the world.

So where is the good news? James uses this beautiful phrase that I love.  He calls us to “…welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”  Looking at our asphalt driveway, I’m always amazed at how weeds manage to push through asphalt and concrete, driveways and sidewalks.  These hearty little plants find a way to thrive in spite of their tough circumstances.  The Word of God, planted in our hearts, has the power to bust up our rocky and hard hearts – to burst through the hardness of our sins and selfishness – and bring about the beautiful flowers and fruits of the kingdom.  The word of God – the grace and promises of God – implanted in our hearts are slowly at work, calling us to account for our sin, bringing forgiveness, and inspiring us to live out God’s love in the world.

Because God loves us far too much and far too generously to leave us with hard and sinful hearts, God becomes human, even ripping apart the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to get through to us.  And at the end of Mark’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, God will once and for all rip apart the Temple curtain that separated God from humanity.  That says something about God’s heart for us.  God’s actions, retold throughout scripture and seen on the cross and in the resurrection, reflect God’s tremendous love for all creation.

Ok, it's not exactly a baptismal image, but Andy escaping Shawshank Prison is definitely being given new life, and the rain is a great reminder of baptism! (From: http://6f9e5b2993b2676fe5af-84a7d838f746c494b9783302a5a26cce.r46.cf5.rackcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Shawshank-Redemption.jpg)

Ok, it’s not exactly a baptismal image, but Andy escaping Shawshank Prison is definitely an image of being given new life, and the rain is a great reminder of baptism! (From: http://6f9e5b2993b2676fe5af-84a7d838f746c494b9783302a5a26cce.r46.cf5.rackcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Shawshank-Redemption.jpg)

That’s the love and the life we’ve been welcomed into in baptism.  When we were washed in that font, we were raised to new life in Christ.  That’s not just a nice phrase! It is an invitation into a new way of being, a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking, and a new way of living.  Each and every one of us has been freed from sin, death and the devil in order to live a new life – a life of Christ-like love and service to others.  As James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  We live out our faith and show others that our hearts love God when we care for orphans, widows, the marginalized, and all those in distress.  And we point to God’s action in our lives when we refuse to give in to the ways of the world – the ways that would tell us to use others for our own personal gain, to put personal riches and power above the poor and the voiceless, or to turn a blind eye to violence, hatred, and injustice.  Because, miraculously enough, the human heart is also a place where wonderful things can happen – transformation can occur, compassion can spring up, kindness and empathy, charity and generosity can flow forth.

We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ and to bear fruit in God’s kingdom.  It is not easy.  It is difficult and frustrating because we run smack dab up against our own selfish desires and the temptations and priorities of the world.  But we are not alone.  Christ has called and equipped us for this work and he will see it through.  Look around.  These are your sisters and brothers whom you have been called to support and with whom you have been called to worship God and serve in the world.  We will not live up to this godly life perfectly – no one can.  But we have been welcomed into this new life in baptism and these texts today call us to pause and think about what it looks like to live that life out.  To ask for forgiveness where we’ve fallen short.  To celebrate and give thanks for the way that God’s implanted word has begun to transform our hearts.  And to dream with hope, wonder, and awe about the amazing things the Holy Spirit might do in our lives and in this place to help others know God’s incredible love.

I’ll leave you with an Irish prayer from the 15th century that is a wonderful reminder and a promise of God at work: “O Son of God, do a miracle for us and change our hearts.  Thy having taken flesh to redeem us is more difficult than to transform our wickedness.”  If God can take on flesh to redeem all of creation, think about how God is at work in our hearts.  Thanks be to God! 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)

DSCN9905

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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