Tuesday, June 30, 2015

“Believe” (Mark 5:21-43)

In J.M. Barrie’s story, Peter Pan, we learn the story of the boy who never grows up . . . lives in Neverland with the Lost Boys . . . and battles the villain Captain Hook.  We read how he encounters and brings to Neverland, Wendy and her two brothers while trying to get his shadow back.  It is a wonderful story that has enchanted and entertained children and adults ever since it was written back at the turn of the twentieth century.  I am sure many of you have either read the story or seen it as a play or movie . . . that you are familiar with the story.

In one part of the story Peter gets mad at Tinker Bell.  Tinker Bell is the little fairy that has a huge crush on Peter and watches out for him.  When Wendy and her brothers arrive in Neverland, Tinker Bell suddenly has competition as Peter begins to give Wendy attention.  This makes Tinker Bell jealous and she begins to play tricks on Wendy and Peter.  This angers Peter and he banishes Tinker.  A woman scorned . . . fairy or not . . . is a woman to watch out for, and Tinker Bell is no exception to the rule.  Mad, Tinker makes an alliance with the evil Captain Hook.  The result is that Wendy, her brothers, and all the Lost Boys get captured by Hook and his men.  He holds them for ransom . . . actually he holds them in the hope that Peter will come and attempt to rescue them.

Which, of course, is what he does . . . he shows up on Hook’s ship to rescue the captured.  At one point, Hook offers Peter “medicine” to drink, but the medicine is poisoned.  Tinker drinks the “medicine” before Peter gets the chance, and it kills her.

Do you remember what brings Tinker Bell back to life?

Falling to his knees Peter recants the lesson he was told to believe . . . that fairies do not exist.  Leaning over the tiny body of the lifeless Tinker Bell, Peter begins a heartfelt confession that he does believe in fairies . . . “I do believe in fairies, I do!  I DO!”  But nothing happens . . . Tinker just lies there.  But soon Wendy senses the despair and heart brokenness in Peter’s prayer . . . and, she joins in.  “I believe in fairies, I do!  I DO!”  As the Lost Boys hear Wendy they, too, join in the prayer. 

It is a moving scene and is difficult not to get caught up in the action.  Before long the audience is chanting the prayer, “I believe in fairies, I do!  I DO!”  In the belief and faith of one there comes new life . . . Tinker Bell springs back to life.

It is faith that brings Tinker Bell back to life.  In the raw emotion that Peter displays for his friend and the simple prayer he offers we discover faith.  From the faith of one . . . it becomes two as Wendy joins in the prayer . . . then it becomes the faith of many as the Lost Boys jump into the fray . . . until it becomes the faith of all as the audience joins in.  It is faith that brings life.

Is that not the message we heard in our scripture reading this morning?  That with faith there is life?

Upon arriving to the other side of the lake, Jesus and the disciples are greeted by a large crowd.  One individual comes forward and asks Jesus to come with him to heal his dying daughter . . . and, so, Jesus goes with the man.  The journey is not easy as the crowd presses in to see this teacher, preacher, healer they have heard so much about.  As they are pushing through the crowd, Jesus suddenly feels a burst of energy leave his body . . . someone has touched him.  He stops and asks the crowd who it was who touched him . . . a seemingly silly request seeing how the crowd is pressing in from all sides as they journey towards the man’s house . . . but, Jesus wants to know: “Who touched my clothes?”

Finally a woman . . . a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years steps forward and confesses to Jesus that it was she who touched his clothes.  She tells Jesus that she knew she would never be able to get an audience with him, but that she believed that if she could just touch him . . . touch his clothes . . . that she would be healed of the suffering she had endured for twelve years.    She trembled at his feet.

“Daughter,” said Jesus, “faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Meanwhile back at the ranch . . . I mean, the man’s house . . . the delay has caused Jesus to miss the opportunity to heal the man’s dying daughter as she dies waiting.  Messengers bring this news to Jesus and the man, and the man insists that Jesus just forget it and go on.  But Jesus insists that they continue on.  He tells the man: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

Of course when they get to the house they discover that the death laments of mourning had begun . . . the girl was dead.  Jesus sends everyone out and goes to the dead girl . . . with the girl’s mother and father, and the disciples with him; he takes her by the hand and tells her to get up.  Immediately she stood up. 

With faith there is life.

As the follower of Jesus we are not called upon to believe in fairies.  No, we are called upon to believe in Jesus . . . to believe in Jesus . . .his words, his actions, his life, his death and resurrection . . . and, that with such faith that there is new life.  Faith and belief are powerful resources for those who follow Jesus through the journey of life.

Life is hard . . . but, it is even harder when one does not have faith . . . when one does not believe.  With the bleeding woman it is her belief that heals her in the end . . . even it was only to brush up against the clothes of Jesus . . . she believed she could be healed.  And, she was.  With the little girl who dies . . . Jesus tells her father to believe . . . and, the little girl lives.  With Peter it is his heartfelt belief . . . heard and embraced by those around him who love him . . . that Tinker Bell is brought back to life.

In life, with all of its difficulties and frustrations, all we can do is to believe . . . not because we are told to believe, but because.  Sometimes that is the best reason to believe.

Maybe we need to join Peter in his simple prayer, but change it just a little bit . . . “I believe in Jesus, I do!  I DO!”  And, who knows, maybe others will hear our simple prayer and join in with us.  There is power is belief . . . power in faith . . . and, there is always new life.

Believe!  Amen!      

Sunday, June 21, 2015

“Underdogs” (I Samuel 17:1-49 and Mark 4:35-41)

Friday as I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of Shopko I thought about the “furious squall” that was mentioned in our gospel reading this morning.  Sitting in the car I endured a quick thunderstorm that produced torrential rain, hail, and winds that were rocking the car.  It got so bad that I could not even see the car that was parked one stall away.  When it calmed down there was a lake in the parking lot and two inches of hail covering the ground . . . it was a mess.  From the moment the darkness of the storm set in and began its furious attack I kept hoping that the hail didn’t get any larger than the pea size that it was and that the wind didn’t flip the car over.  To say the least . . . it was scary.

That little thunderstorm made me think of the story we heard a few minutes ago of Jesus and the disciples crossing over to the other side.  It was an easy journey at first with calm waters . . . one of those sorts of trips in a boat where the boat seems to rock you to sleep . . . which, of course, is what Jesus did.  He laid down to take a nap.  We all know that thunderstorms or squalls know no boundaries and have a tendency to show up when they are least expected.  So it was on the trip across to the other side . . . a quick and unexpected squall unleashed its fury upon the disciples and Jesus in the boat. 

The winds were blowing.  The rain was coming down.  The waves were lapping over the sides of the boat.  They were getting pounded . . . and, all the while, Jesus laid there sleeping.  The disciples panicked . . . “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Now the writer of the story this morning does not say whether or not Jesus was having a great nap, but I would imagine that after all the teaching and preaching and dealing with people Jesus had just done that it was a well-earned nap.  And, I do not know about Jesus, but I know that I can be quite grumpy when I get woke up from a nap I am not really to surrender.  Because of that, I imagine that Jesus was not in too good of a mood when the disciples started panicking and bothering him.

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet!  Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  Then he turned to his disciples and addressed them: “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”

As I was being rocked in my car on Friday afternoon under a torrential downpour of heavy rain and hail . . . swaying in the wind . . . under a deafening onslaught of noise . . . I will admit that I was scared.  It was a mess . . . a nasty mess.  I was scared about what the storm could do to me . . . what it could do to my car.  Yeah I was scared and at that moment I really wasn’t giving my faith a whole lot of consideration.  I just wanted out.

At the end of eighth grade I got what I considered the worst whooping ever when I got into a fight with the class bully.  Billy Zapor was the biggest and meanest kid in the class and he liked using that to his advantage.  On the last day of school he started picking on a kid on the bus when I told him to “knock it off” . . . which, I guess, he thought meant that he should turn all of his attention to me.  Flicking my ears with his fingers, slapping my head, he antagonized me until I had had enough.

You know how you say stupid things when you are mad or scared?  Well, I said a stupid thing . . . I told Billy I was going to pound him when we got off the bus.  Scrawny little me was going to pound big, monstrous Billy.  He just smiled, “Yeah, right, Keener.”  From that moment on I became scared . . . thought about jumping off the bus a stop early to save my life . . . thought about the fact that I was going to be in a world of hurt and it was all because of my big mouth.

At the last stop everyone piled off the bus.  The circle of kids was made with me and Billy standing in the middle facing each other.  I realized that my only chance was one of surprise . . . that I had to get the first punch in.  So, I rared back and punched Billy right in the mouth . . . a mouth filled with braces . . . the blood spurted out.  You know how the sight of blood—especially your own—can make some people crazy?  Well, Billy went crazy.  He grabbed me . . . threw me into a head lock . . . and, began wailing on me.  It was not a pretty sight from my point of view . . . and, then, just as suddenly as it had started . . . it stopped. 

It just stopped.  Billy released my head from his grip and declared that the fight was a draw . . . which, of course, no one was going to argue with him about, especially me.  Bleeding and bruised I took his declaration and crawled home.  From that moment on Billy and I were pretty good friends . . . he never picked on me . . . and, he gave me the reputation that I wouldn’t back down from a fight.  Actually, I think he gave me the reputation of being a crazy person and no one wants to mess with a crazy person.

When it comes to the forces of nature . . . I admit that I am no match.  When it comes to taking on people like Billy Zapor . . . huge behemoth individuals . . . I am no match.  In both situations I am sure the odds makers would put me down as the underdog . . . and, who am I to argue?  I know when the odds are stacked against me . . . I wasn’t going to beat that storm on Friday afternoon—no one was.  Nor, was I going to beat Billy Zapor . . . shoot I never saw a fight in the years that I knew Billy that he ever lost a fight.  I know the underdog role quite well.

Which brings us to the story of David and Goliath over in I Samuel that is a part of our scripture readings this morning.  As we all know, the Philistines had gathered their forces to invade Israel.  Saul, the king of Israel, gathered his forces to opposite the Philistines . . . a battle line had been drawn.  It was a draw . . . or at least what seemed to be a draw until the Philistines sent out their secret weapon—a monstrous warrior by the name of Goliath.  Goliath was huge—over nine feet tall and ripped like Adonis.  Goliath had never lost a battle . . . he was undefeated.  Out steps Goliath who issues a challenge—send out a warrior to fight me and if he wins we are done . . . we go home. 

Now remember . . . Goliath is over nine feet tall, built like a brick house, and has never—ever—lost a battle.  He towers over the competition.  So, what do the Israelites and Saul do upon hearing this challenge?  The writer of the scripture tells us that they were “dismayed and terrified.”  They knew that they did not have a warrior to beat Goliath . . . they knew beating the Philistines was a long shot especially since Goliath was on their side . . . they knew they were the underdogs.  Knowing this, the Philistines pushed forward and encroached on the land of Israel.

This continued for forty days until a challenger step forward . . . a shepherd boy by the name of David.  Now I imagine that David was not an individual who struck fear into others with his presence, after all, he was a mere boy . . . a skinny, scrawny child . . . one with no military training . . . no fighting experience . . . and, no real weapon.  Nope, all he had was a sling shot he used to scare the varmints away from the sheep.  He steps up and volunteers to fight Goliath to stop the Philistine onslaught.  At best, David was a long . . . long . . . shot to defeat Goliath.  He was an underdog.

Now this is not a picture of expectant triumph . . . no, far from it.  Despite their fear of the Philistines and Goliath, I am sure that the mere presence of David volunteering to take on Goliath brought out more than a few snickers of laughter.  But David was adamant that he could defeat Goliath . . . that he could do it with his sling shot.  After all, time after time, when the sheep had been threatened and attacked by bears and lions God had been with David . . . and, he had won by striking them dead with his sling shot.  As far as he was concerned, underdog or not, he had this in the bag . . . God was on his side.  If God was on his side, who could be against him?

So . . . Saul let David take on Goliath.  Not only does he take Goliath on, but he pops him in the head with a rock from his sling shot killing the monstrous warrior instantly.  The battle is over and done . . . just like that to the amazement of the warriors on both sides of the conflict.  The skinny, scrawny shepherd boy takes out the champion . . . the underdog wins.  The underdog wins because he believes that he cannot lose with God on his side . . . he has faith.

So, Jesus looked at his disciples after rebuking the storm, and asks, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”   We are among the disciples that he addresses.

There are moments and times in our lives in which we feel as if face unbeatable odds . . . that we are overwhelmed with life and the world around us . . . that life’s storms are more than we can handle . . . that we are the underdogs.  Times when we are scared and frightened . . . times when we are terrified.  Times when we feel as if are on a boat being lashed upon by a furious squall . . . facing an unbeatable foe.  Times when we just want to embrace our status as an underdog and slink away to our homes.

And, then there is Jesus . . . standing there and asking us: “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”

Where was the faith of the disciples when the storm began to rage?  Where was the faith of Saul and his army when they were threatened by the Philistines and Goliath?  Sometimes in life we are reminded from the littlest things or people what faith is and what its power is.  In the example of David we see the underdog triumph because the underdog believes . . . believes that God will not abandon . . . that God will not desert.  We are reminded that no matter how bad it looks, how unbeatable the odds seem, and now much the odds are against us . . . God will always be there.  In God’s presence we never lose.

As badly as Billy Zapor whipped me . . . and, everyone who was there knows it . . . it turned out okay.  Billy and I became friends.  I got a reputation that saved me from a whole bunch of fights in the future.  And, life was great.  Was it faith that propelled me into that fight with Billy Zapor?  Not really, but I stepped forward anyways . . . took my beating . . . and, reaped the rewards.  God took care of me in the end for standing up for the underdogs . . . God will take care of you.

Have faith . . . out of faith the darkest storms bring new light.  God has always sided with the underdog . . . believe it.  Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

“In the Least of These . . . the Kingdom of God” (Mark 4:26-35)

Jesus began with a simple parable to describe the Kingdom of God . . . the Kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed upon the ground . . . and, the seed grows.  It grows whether the man is awake or sleeping . . . it grows night and day . . . all by itself it grows.  The man does not understand . . . he does not understand how it grows, but it grows and provides food for his family and an income to support his family.  It is a mystery that the man cannot explain, but it happens.

The presence of the Kingdom of God is a mystery.

But, Jesus does not leave his explanation of the Kingdom of God to the mysteries of agriculture . . . no, he takes it a step further in order to explain it.  Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed—the smallest of seeds that can be planted in the ground.  Despite its diminutive size this tiny seed grows into the largest of plants . . . big enough for the birds of the air to build nests in it.

Apparently the Kingdom of God springs forth from the littlest things in life.

A while back my wife, Dana, bought a book for the family library . . . also known as the bathroom . . . written by Fred Rogers.  Fred, for those of you who may not know, was the star of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood on national public television for many, many years.  Though he was a children’s show host he was also an ordained Presbyterian minister . . . in other words, he was a deep thinker.  Dana bought this book for those times when folks had a little extra time in the library while they were taking care of business . . . something to pass the time away.  The title of the book was The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember.

I will have to admit . . . I have had plenty of time to peruse this little book and the “things to remember”.  One particular quote I want to share with you this morning.  Mister Rogers writes:
“I often think of what Will Durant wrote in The Story of Civilization: ‘Civilization is a stream with banks.  The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things that historians usually record—while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, whittle statutes.  The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.’” 

And, so it is with the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is what happens on the banks while everyone is looking at the big show . . . always has, always will.  The big show just distracts us from what is really important when it comes to our relationship with God . . . with our relationships with others . . . and, with the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is always discovered and experienced in the “least of these”.  It is on the banks that the story takes place . . . that the Kingdom of God is lived.

Apologist C.S. Lewis wrote one of the classics of the Christian faith . . . The Screwtape Letters.  The book was written just prior to the Second World War.  It is a simple premise.  A young devil is given his first assignment on earth . . . he is to “convert” an individual over to Satan from the “Enemy”.  He is to use whatever he can to subvert the individual over to Jesus and his beliefs.   Being a young devil out on the field for the first time he decides that it might not be a bad idea to seek the advice from an older, more senior devil . . . in particular, his uncle.  His uncle is named Screwtape.  Thus the book is basically a book of correspondence between a junior devil and a senior devil.

Wormwood, the nephew, writes his uncle.  In one particular chapter of the book there are rumors of war . . . which the uncle affirms as something good.  It is a means of distracting the individual away from the “Enemy” . . . a way of getting him to think of other things than the life and teachings of Jesus.  It becomes a BIG distraction.  Focusing on war the individual does not have time to deal with God . . . to deal with others . . . to deal with the simplest things of life.  It is focusing on the stream while the story is really taking place on the banks.

Isn’t that what happens to us?

Isn’t that what happens to us when we get “hooked” by the latest news that we are watching on our televisions or hearing on the radio?  Isn’t that what is happening when we get snagged on the hottest post on our Facebook page?  Isn’t that what happens when we are constantly looking for the “big bang” while life is happening all around us?

We get caught up in the distraction.  We get lost on what is really important . . . our relationship with God and with one another.  We forget to follow in the footsteps of Jesus . . . we forget to live the teachings of our Lord and Savior.

And, yet . . . we all know.  It is in the “least of these” that the real action is taking place . . . that the Kingdom of God is being experienced.

If you were to take a moment to reflect upon your life’s journey . . . where is it that you have experienced the presence of God?  Where is it that you have stepped into the Kingdom of God?

I would suspect that for most of us—if not for all of us—that it is not in the “big show” of the world around us, but that it has been in the simpler and more innocent moments of our lives.  I cannot speak for anyone else . . . only for myself . . . but, it is in the simplest things that I have found myself the closest to God and to others.

I have found myself in the Kingdom of God . . . with a simple compliment spoken . . . with the hug from my granddaughter . . . in a tickle and giggle from a granddaughter . . . in a good book . . . in hug at the end of worship . . . in the soaring voices of the congregation singing . . . in a visit with another . . . in a singing bird . . . in a starry night . . . I have found the Kingdom of God . . . the presence of God . . . in those places where I least expected.  I have found God in the daily and ordinary of life.  It was not in the extravaganza of what the world tells me is important.  No, it has been in what is taking place on the banks.


Well, to be honest, I do not know.  It is a mystery to me . . . yet, it has been in the littlest of things that I have discovered the greatest thing . . . I have encountered the Kingdom of God.  When I consider the Kingdom of God . . . well, it continues to be more than I could ever imagine.  It is a mystery, but also the greatest of all gifts.

Jesus began the discussion with a simple parable.  It was a simple idea . . . a simple reality.  It could not be explained, but it was as real as the world around the disciples.  It was a mystery.  In the simplest of things . . . in relationships with God and others . . . the Kingdom of God is entered.  I know that we have all experienced it . . . and, true, it is hard to believe that the Kingdom of God is found . . . not in the grandest and most flamboyant of things, but in the “least of things”. 

May we all discover the Kingdom of God . . . not out there, but right here where we are . . . in the “least of things”.  Amen.