Hidden Blessings

Sunday, June 17, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 4:26-34

Any farmer knows that a lot of hard work goes into getting a really good crop. Even an average gardener knows, it’s hard work. You have to get the soil ready before you even plant the seeds – tilling, and fertilizer, and then there’s all that care after the seeds are in the ground – they need water, and sunlight, and constant care.

It requires diligence and careful attention to make sure that insects, pests or other creatures don’t kill the seedlings before they have a chance to get strong and mature. The plants need someone to look out for them otherwise the whole crop could be lost. And nature plays a part as well. Too much rain and certain crops can rot right in the ground. Not enough rain and the plants could wither and die. And let’s not even mention a big threat like a hail storm that can destroy a crop in a matter of minutes.

So when Jesus told the parable comparing the kingdom of God to someone who scatters the seed on the ground, the disciples took notice and were more than a little shocked. Most of them were fishermen, but they knew that farming was more than just scattering the seeds on the ground. Throw the seeds and let the wind carry them away? They had to be carefully placed. Didn’t Jesus know this was hard work?

And let’s not forget about the weeds! No one who is planting a crop of any kind wants to deal with weeds. For those living in the Ancient Near East the mustard plant was such a weed. It came from a tiny seed and could easily slip in among the other seeds without being noticed. This tiny seed could cause a great deal of trouble. Once it started growing, this weed would spread was almost impossible to get rid of. The tiny seed would produce a bush that could grow pretty large – sometimes 10 feet – and take over everything.

We could compare it to the dandelion today. While dandelions don’t grow that large, they do spread out of control. No one seems to want them as they take over everything and the more you try and get rid of them the more they seem to come back. People go to great lengths to eliminate them, particularly with pesticides, but the dandelion is a resilient force of nature. One small seed and the whole process begins again.

Yet there are hidden blessings in these “weeds.” Dandelions have been used for centuries to treat liver ailments. The leaves can be eaten in salads, and made into tea.  Their greens also contain many vitamins including C, B6, thiamin, calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium. So while they may seem like a useless weed, their benefits are many. How often do we dismiss something as useless, or unwanted without knowing the hidden benefits or blessings that they offer?

Yes, the mustard plant was considered a weed, but it’s size could provide shade and a home for the birds to make nests in. Yes, the dandelion can be a nuisance, but it can also be a source of healing. Many of the struggles we endure in life also contain gifts and blessings that we can learn from to help us become better people. God does not give us these trials, but God can transform them. God can give us the strength to draw from these times of challenge resources that make us more loving and compassionate towards others. God’s blessings are often hidden among the weeds. So all this planning, all this controlling to make life produce the way we want it to, and creation happens –even while we are sleeping. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, cannot be stopped.

It reminds me of a wonderful woman I met many years ago. Her name was Josie and she loved to grow tomatoes. Even as her health declined, she would say come and look at my tomatoes! We’d slowly walk out to the patio area where she had a few small pots of tomatoes and her face would just beam with pride. “Look at how these tomatoes are growing!” Yes, she gave them some water, but she Josie didn’t take any credit for the growth of these tomatoes. She gave all the credit to the tomatoes themselves and to God. “The earth produces of itself.” Josie understood exactly what Jesus was talking about in today’s parable. And that was reason for her to celebrate and give thanks.

It’s reason for us to celebrate and give thanks too.  That’s the good news! The kingdom of God is uncontrollable and unstoppable. If the kingdom of God relied on our power it would cease to exist. We are sinful broken people. We make mistakes, and hurt one another, whether intentionally or not. Yet, the kingdom of God thrives despite our failings. The kingdom of God thrives because it is dependent on God’s power and not ours.

The kingdom of God will continue to spread and grow despite the things we may do to mess it up or the things we may fail to do. The kingdom of God is abundant in grace – grace that just keeps spreading and taking over everything – even while we sleep. There are people all over doing things behind the scenes that help God’s kingdom to grow.

Every small and genuine act of kindness helps the kingdom of God to grow. Every act of courage no matter how small helps the kingdom of God to grow. Every prayer, like a tiny seed, helps the kingdom of God to grow. And quietly, while we sleep, “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” and the kingdom of God continues to grow and flourish. A new creation is taking shape.

We are a new creation in Christ. That is what the kingdom of God is all about. It is a creation different than anything we could try and imagine, anything we could try and control. It is filled with unexpected blessings that may come to us hidden in what we think are weeds, but are in fact, agents of healing. God’s grace is unstoppable, and it flows to us, and through us, out into the world. It is scattered like seeds into the wind, and these seeds of grace grow and grow and grow.

The blessings of God may not always come packaged with fancy wrapping. The blessings may be disguised as something unwanted. But rest assured, God’s blessings never end. It is up to us to be aware of them and see them through the eyes of faith, so that we may tell others about the never failing love of God. Amen.

 

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Do Not Lose Heart

Sunday, June 10, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 3:20-35 & 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1

 

The gospel according to Mark tells us how Jesus was teaching, preaching, casting out demons and healing non-stop. Everywhere he went crowds were gathering to listen to him and be near to him. Jesus was quickly becoming one of the most sought after figures of his time. His power was undeniable, and people wanted to experience that power for themselves.

But there were also people who were threatened by his power. He was becoming more popular than even the governor. He was challenging the status quo. His interpretation of scripture was making even the religious leaders angry. He was challenging the way things were always done. Last week we heard how he was healing on the Sabbath, not because he didn’t care about the law, but rather because he was trying to teach people that laws are only good if they are life-giving.

And so in our reading today we hear how Jesus’ own family was trying to get him to back down, lay low, and stop rocking the boat so much. They were aware that while he was doing so much good, he was also really stirring up a lot of people who were starting to think about killing him. You can’t blame them for not wanting to keep him safe. But Jesus didn’t come into this world to play it safe. He came to save people. He came to set people free, and in order to do that he had to be honest. And if there’s one thing that will get people angry quicker than anything else, it’s to be honest in telling them that what they are doing is not right. Yet Jesus couldn’t stop because the kingdom of God is too important to back down. God loves people too much to let them always have their own way. That’s why Jesus didn’t back down. Love is courageous.

As followers of Jesus, we have to be totally honest too, starting with ourselves. We can’t back down either. We can’t close our eyes to the problems that are all around us because we need to be the light of Christ in the world, a world that right now is very much divided.  Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” We have to stick together, and we do that by keeping our focus on God’s mission revealed to us in Jesus. God’s mission cares for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. God’s mission speaks up for those who have no voice. God’s mission says that people are not to be treated like animals. God’s mission says that there is dignity and worth and value in every human being, and we cannot make decisions based on fear, but out of genuine Christian love. This is the mission that Jesus was on, and that we are charged with continuing.

This mission was first given to us in our baptism, when we promised to renounce the devil and all the forces of evil, and to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Everett George Van Sickle’s parents and sponsors will make these promises for him, and we will join in on these promises as well. Everett will be part of the family of God, whom Jesus says is defined by those who do the will of God. Everett will be one with us as a worker in God’s kingdom, which is not a kingdom that we strive to enter when we die, but one that we work toward right now. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is here.” It’s up to us to reveal that kingdom through lives that reflect God’s love, compassion, and mercy. It starts at our baptism and the journey continues throughout our lives.

It’s not always easy to continue on this journey. At times, it may be so hard that we want to give up, and every day people are giving up because they have lost hope. So many have become cynical, believing that it’s too late for them or their situation to turn around. Even many Christians have become cynical and fail to really believe that God can and will ultimately turn things around. We can’t be complacent though. God will turn things around through us, and that is the good news we need to remember and tell others about!

St. Paul says in his letter to the 2 Corinthians, “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” This message of hope needs to be heard by so many people. Renewal and restoration is possible. We cannot lose heart. We’re renewed through the forgiveness and grace we receive through the waters of baptism. We’re renewed through the forgiveness and grace we receive through the sacrament of Holy Communion, which three of our young people will be receiving for the first time today – Samantha Carey, Mason Kirker, and Jack Redding. What a special moment for them as they hold in their hands, and taste and see that the Lord is good. They will receive the body and blood of Christ so that they will become what they eat – the body of Christ in this world. It’s something we all need to remember with wonder and gratitude as we receive this precious gift. Around God’s table, we are all one, united in the love of Christ. We’re renewed through the power of the Holy Spirit that sustains, guides, and leads us so that we do not lose heart.

We have been given this Spirit of faith that unites us, and moves through us to be the change we wish to see in the world, to proclaim the healing, life-giving message of Jesus – that God so loves the world. This is the journey we are on. We might be called crazy or out of our minds like Jesus, but who else would you rather be compared to? So we do not lose heart. Amen.

 

Sabbath Healing

Sunday, June 3, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 2:23-3:6
Deuteronomy 5:12-15
2 Cor. 4:5-12

 

On this second Sunday after Pentecost while we are still focusing on the Holy Spirit, our scripture texts draw our attention to God’s commandment of keeping the Sabbath holy. For many people, hearing the word commandment instantly puts them on edge. Law are not things most people embrace with gratitude. Instead, they are lists of things they have to do, things that they think take away their freedom and fun. Commandments or laws are not something that loved ones sit around a campfire or beside the ocean and contemplate on or talk about with enthusiasm. They are seen as more things to do.

Yet, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” What Jesus is telling us is that the commandment of Sabbath is a gift just like all the other commandments. They are meant to be life-giving not life-constricting. God did not give the commandments as a way to keep people from enjoying life, but rather the commandments or laws were given so that life would be better for all people. The commandments are not just rules for individuals, but rules set up to benefit everyone. Any time we break one of the commandments, we are not simply disobeying God’s rules for us, but we are hurting the whole body of Christ. Every action and inaction that we take directly impacts every person around us whether or not we know it or not.

We see this enacted in countless movies and books. For example, in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the main character George Bailey wonders if his life is even worth anything. In fact, he wishes he was never born. His prayer is granted by a visit from and angel, and he has the opportunity to see that each and every small action in his life has had an impact in the lives of countless people. He may not have become someone famous, but his choices and actions – no matter how small – caused a domino effect of actions that he put into motion. This movie shows us that we never know how the small choices we make, how the simple actions we take, will impact others. Sometimes just a single phrase we say to someone could change their life around – both for the better and the worse. And that’s why the commandments are so important, because the lives of others are impacted by our actions and choices.

It may be tempting to ask how one person’s neglect of keeping the Sabbath holy could possibly have on someone else, but again, when we remember that all lives are connected, it begins to make sense. If we neglect to take time to take a day of rest and to care for ourselves, then we can no longer be healthy enough to be there for others. If we neglect to contemplate on the awesomeness of God, to worshipand thank God for all our blessings, then we can easily think that all we have is a result of our own doing, and become self-centered. If we neglect to take time to contemplate on God, and be aware of what is going on around us, then we will fail to see the needs of others who are praying to God for help – help that God may want to provide through us. Healing and transformation come from being aware. And being aware is part of what it means to keep the Sabbath holy.

Keeping the Sabbath holy is so much more than simply not working. The purpose of Sabbath is to save and preserve life. The purpose of Sabbath is to restore us to wholeness. That is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He was obeying the law of keeping the Sabbath holy, by restoring to life what was preventing the man with the withered hand from living wholly, or living life to the fullest.

Keeping the Sabbath holy means that whatever we do – our thoughts, our choices, and our actions – must be life-giving, and not just for us individually, but for the whole congregation, the whole family, the whole community, and the whole world. Keeping the Sabbath means that we take time to reflect on how we are all connected, and how we can best nurture those relationships for the well-being of all.

In the Church, that relationship begins with baptism, as we are permanently connected to God through water and the word. Today, Cassandra Lovelle Halpin will receive the gift of baptism – not because it is something Jesus’ commands us to do, but because we graciously accept God’s gift of grace in this sacrament. Through baptism Cassandra will be connected to all the faithful – past, present, and future – not because of what she has done to earn this gift, but because of what God has done through Jesus for all people. Today, we also acknowledge our nine Hillenbrandt Scholarship Recipients, because they have understood this connection throughout their lives living faithful service to others.

So today, as we gather to worship and praise God, to thank God for all our blessings, to welcome into the family of God our newest sister in Christ, Cassandra, and to give thanks for the faithful witness of nine young adults, let us take time to experience Sabbath healing. Let us remember the healing waters of our own baptism, the healing bread of life in Holy Communion, the healing of others through the many acts of service that our scholarship recipients have done and continue to do, and let us allow the healing of Sabbath into our daily lives so that as St. Paul says, “the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” Amen.