Sunday, August 13, 2017
Community UMC, Quincy
“When the Storms of Life are Raging”
Pastor Andrew Davis
August 13, 2017
Matthew 14: 22-33
One of the things about visiting the mountains throughout my life and now living in the mountains is that the wind can often come up out of nowhere and come up very strong in the late morning to afternoon. I remember from my many years of fishing the Truckee area lakes how things would be relatively calm when my dad and I got there, only to see the wind start creating riffles on the lake, then by mid-afternoon, whitecaps. It’s one of those moments I would not really want to be out there in a kayak, raft, or small aluminum boat like our old 12-foot SeaNymph we used to have. In fact, I remember how windy it was when my dad and I first went up to Eagle Lake when I was almost 13. Even though we went ahead and launched at Spaulding and got out onto the lake, it was like being on a rough sea. And to compound the rough water, our old Evinrude outboard didn’t want to cooperate by cutting in and out, making it a little more scary. However, as the evening went on and once we got the motor going by making a long run, the wind began to subside and before long, the lake was as smooth as glass and would be that way the next day as well. Even though we had dreams of landing one of those large, legendary Eagle Lake rainbows, we didn’t catch anything, still managing to have a good time despite a few tense moments that first evening. ---
I invite us to imagine being on the water in the boat with the disciples in the evening, as they are sent by Jesus to go to the other side of Lake Gennesaret, aka the Sea of Galilee when the wind suddenly comes whipping up during the night, creating these huge waves and white caps on the lake, much like some days at Eagle Lake, Lake Tahoe, or Lake Almanor. Depending on the size of the boat, which at that time probably was not very big, or stable, that boat could have been rocking hard enough to make even the hardiest of ocean travelers seasick. On the other hand, this particular passage from Matthew kind of reminds me of the George Clooney film from 2000, “The Perfect Storm,” minus the massive wave that ultimately leads to the loss of an entire crew. Although the filmmakers took liberties with the actual story of the Andrea Gail off the coast of New England to make it more thrilling, just the idea of being out in the middle of the lake, the ocean, or river when in a small to mid-size boat can be quite frightening, especially when the boat is rocking violently to-and-fro. It’s no wonder why the disciples cry out in fear!! I would too if I felt like I was going to capsize and sink at any moment.
Nevertheless, Jesus shows up at the right moment, coming up to the boat while walking on the water. Now if I saw someone coming towards me while walking on water, I too would think I was seeing a ghost or something paranormal, just like the disciples did. I'd even want to call the guys from Ghost Andventures to come investigate. However, Jesus is not a ghost, and reminds the disciples and us that when the storms are raging around us, “take heart, it is I…don’t be afraid” (Matt. 14: 27, NRSV). In other words, Jesus’s words are like the cover of this little pack of inspirational cards I keep in my office that say, “Keep Calm and Trust God.” Jesus is more or less telling the disciples, “don’t worry, I’ve got this…keep calm and trust me.”
Of course, Peter being Peter, the man of action and oftentimes overconfident in his own abilities, wants to try walking on water too, as he wants to make sure that it’s really Jesus and not a ghost. Instead, Peter learns a hard lesson, that only Jesus can walk on water because the minute that Peter becomes scared when the wind comes up, he sinks, then gets admonished by Jesus who says, “you of little faith, why did you doubt,” otherwise implying “silly Peter, walking on water’s only for Jesus to do” (Matthew 14: 31).
When the storms of life are raging, there are days where it’s so much easier to be afraid and doubt, especially in times when there is rapid change, natural disasters, the threat of war that is escalating as tensions rise between the US and North Korea, or increasing acts of violence, racism, bigotry, and hatred such as what we are seeing manifest itself in Charlottesville, VA this weekend, oftentimes clashing with those who are trying to witness in love and with those trying to be peacemakers. It’s also easy to equate or even blame the storms of life we face for a lack of faith or other factors in society; although I believe that it’s healthy to wrestle with doubt and faith during the storms of life. As we saw over the last couple weeks during the Minerva Fire, we kept hearing the message to stay calm, stay positive, and don’t panic, even though it’s often our first instinct to panic and think of every worst-case scenario that can happen (something that I am often guilty of doing too!!). Amidst the fear and uncertainty we faced, we did very well staying calm as a community, and even for an anxious person like myself, it was reassuring to know that we had thousands on the ground fighting the fires all night long and from the air during the day. That's where faith came into play as that storm of life was raging.
Even in the other storms of life, there will be questions to wrestle with...am I going to have enough money to cover my rent and pay my bills and have enough to eat? Are the doctors going to be able to find a cure for what’s ailing me? Am I going to be able to get into the class that I really, really need in order to graduate? Are we heading to war soon? When will all violence, anger, animosity, racism, and other forms of hatred in our world come to an end? Will we ever see peace in our world and nation? And so on… We need Jesus to appear, to come up to the boat that's rocking more than ever before as we face these present storms of life. We need Jesus’s assurance, even in the midst of doubt.
Similar to this morning’s lesson, the disciples face another storm in the boat on the same sea in Matthew 8, although unlike today's lesson, Jesus is right there with them in the boat. But the result is the same, the disciples become afraid in the middle of a storm just as they are afraid in the storm without Jesus in the boat. However, disciples get the same admonishment from Jesus to have faith in Matthew 8 as they do in this morning’s Gospel lesson. In the times we have to wrestle, there are times and storms of life when having faith is all we can do. And there are also times where our faith needs to lead us into the places we don't always want to go, or speak up when we know what we have to say may not always be popular with everyone, or when what we have to say meets resistance, or ruffles some feathers. Even being the peacemakers that Jesus called us to be back in the Sermon on the Mount even earlier in Matthew’s gospel involves stepping out in faith and even wrestling with doubt. We may be afraid in some situations, but that's where faith helps us get through and where faith holds us together as a community. ---
Now, there is some caution we do need to take when it comes to talking about faith or doubt during the storms of life. Just simply telling someone to have faith and to not doubt can come off as a platitude, which two of my former seminary professors, Drs. Michael Koppel and Denise Dombkowski Hopkins define as “a superficial comment that stifles further story explanation.” One thing I always caution people in pastoral care situations and was cautioned in pastoral care class is to never equate the storms of life with a lack of faith, or equate it with not praying hard enough. Everyone will experience Jesus’s message differently. While wrestling with our text this morning, I know that Jesus’s message to not be afraid and have faith during the storm is a reassuring message when the storms of life are raging, as this reassuring message is something I had to keep reminding myself and being reminded to do during the scarier times of the fire and other storms of life. Many of us will struggle with our faith at one time or another in our lifetime, and the storms of life will come up and rage, as not everything is necessarily sunshine and rainbows. While we might not or see it right away, or when we see it in retrospect, God is still present when we do turn to our faith, and we can receive hope and assurance from God in the hard times, except it doesn't mean that we won't wrestle either. Think about the disciples on that boat in the middle of the storm. Although they were scared and crying out,
Peter hears Jesus’s claim [that Jesus is here and not to be afraid]…Jesus is the one who makes God present. In a chaotic world where such a claim often appears false, hollow, or meaningless, many would like some experiential, spectacular reassurance that it is really so. Peter knows that Jesus has been left back on the beach, just as [we] know that that Jesus has been left back there in history**. In both cases, it is clearly impossible that he could come to us. So when he appears, walking on the sea, it should be good news... We can resonate with Peter, the typical disciple, when he proposes a test.
**(to clarify as pointed out by some after worship this morning, Jesus still lives on in each of us through the Holy Spirit, even though Jesus is not physically with us…it was not my intention to make anyone upset for the exegetical error and for not unpacking this point more).
As I shared with you last month, I’ve had my own storms of life in dealing with depression and anxiety, and there are many others I know who deal with similar storms of life. I can’t speak for all of my friends or others I know who are dealing with their own storms of life, but I know that from my own experience, there are times I just want to throw up my arms and say the heck with faith and let my doubt take over because doubt is the easy way out; on the other hand, it’s in those moments of doubt when it’s like the boat is tossing violently to and fro where I find that I have my most profound encounters with God during the storm. I feel like Jesus is coming to me on the water like he does with the disciples in both scenarios, saying “do not be afraid.” On the other hand, I have also gotten myself in trouble and have made people angry when I have implied that they don’t have enough faith, something I don’t always catch myself doing until it’s too late and the damage is done, then have to do the equally challenging part of repenting for implying so. It's also one of the many occupational hazards that we clergy have to face in our conversations and sermons, although there are other things we may talk about, actions, our involvement in causes near and dear to our hearts, speaking on political causes where faith and politics intersect, and other things that come with the territory which might make people uncomfortable or upset because we can't please everyone all of the time or because we may have a difference in what we think our occupation is about, even the prophetic role that we have as clergy. However, we do it on faith, and like Peter, we step outside the boat and we sink because we don't walk on water either, and quite honestly, none of us should try, kind of like that ‘don't try this at home’ disclaimer. Walking on water is something only for Jesus to do!! ---
All of us are at different levels on this journey of faith, with some of us having a little faith like the size of the mustard seed, while others have a strong, steadfast, unwavering faith. Yet, each of us will face storms of life at one time or another and will have different ways to navigate those storms and rough seas, some with certainty and unwavering faith while others will wrestle with doubt and cry out to the deep. However, nobody should ever be made to feel guilty for not having enough faith because “faith is not being able to walk on water – only God can do that – but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.” We the church, are the boat and we need each other to navigate through the storms that come up in life, just as we have been able to do at many different points in history and continue to do so today when we believe that God is here with us, even though it may not be quite as dramatic or as spectacular as Jesus walking on water or coming up to our boat when caught in the wind, especially on one of the lakes up here.
While it may not always feel like it, I believe that God is still with us, giving us a sense hope, and saw that God was still with us during this fire, particularly through the crews who quickly descended onto our town to keep it safe. God has also been present through the overall community in our hospitality and care of the fire crews, which caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times and was featured in an article earlier this week. The amazing part of living in a small town like ours is that we take care of one another, and in the midst of high anxiety when our collective boat is being tossed around in the sea of danger and uncertainty during the storms of life, Jesus shows up at the right moment and reassures us that God is still with us, assuring us that we don’t have anything to be afraid about. Amidst the moments of high anxiety last Friday while seeing flames a little too close for comfort, I was able to feel a sense of peace and reassurance from God after praying, especially knowing that the ground crews were on it. Putting our trust in God when when we pray can help give us a calm and sense of peace in the midst of the storm, and that includes things that are going on in the world around us beyond our community, but I am doing my best to trust God and not be afraid in all of the chaos and will not stop trying to be a peacemaker or call out injustice. When we got to last Sunday and the threat to our community was abated, I kept hearing the saying of the theologian Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, all shall be well” playing over and over again in my head. And when the disciples were once again with Jesus in the boat and the waters stilled, all was well once again. My constant prayer in the wake of escalating tensions among nations and the constant uptick in violence is that all will be well, even if it feels like being in a boat on the sea rocking violently about in the storm.
The Good news is that in the midst of the storms of life, all can be well by putting our trust, faith, and hope in Jesus who can pull us up from the water when we start to sink, but gets in the boat with us, and calms the storm by giving us a sense of peace and calm. Our fears and doubts will not necessarily go away completely, especially right now with things we are seeing around the nation and world, but we have this all loving, all knowing savior in Jesus who shows up at the right time, and assures us not to be afraid, even in the moments when it feels easier said than done. We are all here together, staying in this boat together as we navigate through the waters of the good, the bad, and the ugly just like we would still navigate our boats through the calm or through the whitecaps on the many lakes we live around. So as we go into this new week, where have you experienced Jesus showing up at the right time when the storms of life have been raging around you?In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN!!
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Community UMC, Quincy
“Give them Something to Eat”
Pastor Andrew Davis
August 6, 2017
Matthew 14: 13-21
What a crazy last week this has been, although it's still quite eventful as we speak!! As I reflect on the year 2017 to this point, it’s like we’ve gone from one extreme to another, from floods to fire. However, I cannot say enough about how proud I am of this congregation for all of the ways that you have stepped up in love…from helping donate snacks and drinks for our fire crews that have been watching this neighborhood, to being willing to house people in the case of evacuation in which the voluntarily evacuation was lifted at 8am, and for helping create contingency plans in case of mandatory evacuation, and for your overall willingness to help in any way possible. It's also a time of high anxiety, as this is a situation that I have never, ever had to face in my lifetime even though I've been through a hurricane and through a tornado warning back east.
Earlier this week, my mom and I were talking on the phone and reminiscing back to 1995 when Rio Linda experienced significant flooding that caused evacuations. Although my family’s house was high enough and was not in any danger of flooding, many people in the lower-lying areas lost their homes on Cherry Lane and those that were closest to the banks of Dry Creek. However, instead of sitting around and waiting things out the day after the massive rainstorm that caused the flood and cancelled school, our church sprang into action and opened up as a shelter, starting with a just a coffee pot and a place to hang out. But before long, the Red Cross became involved and food, clothing, and cleaning supplies began pouring in, and things were humming with activity and would be for awhile. School was cancelled for the rest of that week, so our family helped where we could, sorting clothes, carrying boxes of supplies in, and just being present for the people who had been evacuated. It was an eventful week that culminated with a visit from President Bill Clinton, and yes, I even got to shake his hand. It’s a core duty that we have as a people of faith to provide hospitality and aid, hence why our church office has been open for the fire crews this past week. And they have been very grateful to all of us for our hospitality and for being able to provide a place of rest and an escape from the heat outside. But more importantly, it’s an essential task of ours as a community of faith to give people a place to rest, a place for a cold drink, and most importantly, a place where we give them something to eat!!
You have to start somewhere and while we started with some coffee and simple snacks, Jesus began with five loaves and two fishes in our Gospel lesson this morning which is also known as the ‘feeding of the five thousand. Now I’m not sure about you, but if someone told me that I could feed five thousand people with only five loaves and two fishes, I would think they were out of their mind. Or if I suggested that we could feed five thousand people with so little, people would say the same about us too. But, I digress here.
In our text, Jesus is actually trying to retreat from the crowds after hearing about the beheading of his cousin, John the Baptist and naturally, he needed a little time alone to process the grief that he must have been feeling. Yet like many celebrities and their groupies, Jesus just couldn’t catch a break because someone heard where he was going and it ‘went viral’ around the crowds, so they went too, as word of mouth was the version of social media in Jesus’s time! But instead of being angry or irritated because the crowds wouldn’t leave him alone, which is easy to do when we want some of that much-coveted alone time, Jesus instead shows compassion on them and still heals their sick and injured even if he couldn't get away. On the other hand, the disciples are the ones who are a little grumbly about it, wanting to send the people away to go buy food in the town on their own; but they quickly get put into their place when Jesus tells them “YOU give them something to eat!” (Matt. 14: 16, NRSV; emphasis mine). When Jesus says it, you do it!! And sure enough, a miracle happens and the crowds are able to eat their fill because God was able to multiply those loaves and fishes, a story that we see in ALL FOUR GOSPELS, meaning that giving them something to eat is of utmost importance!!!
I think back to five years ago during my first semester of seminary when I was dealing with a minor crisis during Thanksgiving week, as my paycheck was lost in the mail and never showed up and of course, we had no meal service in the refectory that week. Yet, I didn’t go hungry because we had an emergency food pantry on campus, plus I received a package of goodies from my parents, and also had classmates who looked out for each other, especially my friend Sia, who currently serves as a pastor of a small UMC in Seattle. Sia (or Momma Sia as she was often known as around the dorm, being one of the oldest residents on campus) is one of those people who will make sure that nobody goes hungry, as a couple of those days she in her loving, yet motherly demeanor told me to ‘get in here and eat’ one day when she was preparing lunch and made lunch for several of us. In the Tongan culture that she is part of, you always look out for each other and always make sure people have enough to eat. Plus, our friend Meg, who lived not too far away from campus invited us to Thanksgiving dinner with her family and made sure we had a place to go. It’s something I cannot ever forget and reminds me of the time in the Book of Exodus when the Israelite people were in the desert and God provided manna and quail for the people. It wasn’t an easy week that week and was full of anxiety, but God provided through different people. Just like God provided through different people, Jesus demonstrated how God provides with the five thousand, in which they did not have to go away. God provides, and it takes trusting in God, even when it means we too give people something to eat.
I don’t think we have to look too far to see that hunger and poverty are right atound us. Incomes might be limited and getting food on the table might be a challenge because there are also bills to pay. In the book that our committee on lay leadership is currently studying, The Passionate Church, Rev. Mike Slaughter points out that “the US Census Bureau reports the US poverty rate in 2014 for children under age eighteen was 21.1 percent.” Although on a slightly brighter note, the poverty rate in that same category dropped to 19.7 percent in 2015, which is the most recent figure available from the Census Bureau, but that’s still kind of high for the 18/under demographic. For people age 18-64, the poverty rate as of 2015 was 12.4 percent and for age 65 and over, the rate was 8.8 percent. However, getting food, particularly nourishing food can be a challenge because healthier, more nutritious food costs more than junk food!! Well, let's be real, junk food can taste better at times, especially if we like sweet and salty. When we think about it, what are some ways we can share our resources to help give others something to eat beyond what we already do? Because when we help to share and make that a possibility, we are then able to become “focused on producing God’s blessings within the lives of others.” Jesus had to show a little tough love on the disciples to stop grumbling and think of the crowd when he said “you give them something to eat” and the crowd was able to experience God's blessings (Matthew 14: 16, NRSV).
Last year when I was just beginning here in Quincy, an article in The Sacramento Bee opened my eyes up about the poverty level among many here in Plumas County. In the article, it was pointed out that
Plumas County has one of the highest concentrations of elderly people in California. Nearly a quarter of its residents are over 65. In recent months, the number of seniors receiving subsidized meals has been shooting up. The county expects to provide nearly 50,000 meals this year, about a 16 percent increase compared to two years ago.
The suggested donation is $2.50 a meal, plus $1.50 for those who have it delivered. But many can’t pay anything.
California’s recent economic expansion hasn’t reached some counties in the state’s rural north. Plumas County’s unemployment rate in April (2016), nearly 11 percent, was among the highest in the state – and unchanged from the previous year. Young people have been leaving for jobs elsewhere. Many of the remaining residents are aging into poverty, their fixed incomes failing to keep up with the high cost of food, rent, transportation and heat.
That’s not exactly something that gives me a lot of hope, but this is an opportunity where the church is able to provide a source of hope, especially when we give people around us something to eat. We do have C.A.N. and a weekly community supper, plus we have emergency bags of food for a day’s provision in the church office. I also have an emergency/discretionary fund that anyone, even people here in our church can use in an emergency situation and a fund that I invite and encourage you to donate to on a regular basis. I also will accept donations of gift cards to Moon’s, Subway, Round Table, or Safeway that could cover a meal for a whole family or for a day’s worth of groceries so that if the need arises and someone comes to our door needing food, we can give them something to eat, not turn them away. Besides giving people something to eat if needed, the emergency/discretionary fund can also cover a one-time payment up to a certain amount on utility bills, phone bills, a month’s rent or part of a month's rent, a partial security deposit, or a hotel room for up to two nights; however instead of cash out the door, there is a vetting process that requires documentation such as a copy of the bill or rental agreement, as checks are made directly to the utility or landowner. Even though we need some of the essential services, we need to eat too and when our money is going to other services on a limited income, we ultimately may not have enough to eat in the long run. Plus once a month, there is a food giveaway at C.A.N. in the parking lot at St. John’s Catholic Church too.
If we have gardens and have extra produce from it, I encourage everyone to share anything that you might not use, and will plan to do the same when my garden starts producing very soon. Even offering a meal in our homes with people who we know may not necessarily have enough to eat can go a long, long way, just like my friend Sia would do for us that lived in the dorm during our time in seminary, or when we had our communal dinners on the third floor of the new dorm three years ago. In fact when we think of giving people something to eat, I think back to last Fall’s contemporary topics study around Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived it. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was particularly big on serving the poor and the disadvantaged. In Revival, Adam Hamilton writes that
In the world as it should be, no one goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough to eat. No one is cold because they don’t have clothing and shelter. In the world as it should be, all are treated with respect and compassion and receive justice. There are no wars. No one receives a subpar education, and racism and bigotry have vanished. If that is the world as it should be, then Christians are meant to work to close the gap between realities of the world we live in and Christ’s vision of God’s kingdom on earth. This means that our task as Christians is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, provide quality education for low-income children, minister to the sick who can’t afford medical care, and so much more.
Hearing something that’s a little convicting is kind of overwhelming in some ways and might even afflict the comfortable a little bit, and perhaps even ruffle a few feathers; although sometimes being a person of faith requires being a little uncomfortable at times, something that I’m still learning along the way too. Then again, when John Wesley preached such a message as this, it got him banned from some of the pulpits around England!! However, this also means that we can’t be like the disciples in this morning’s lesson and grumble about feeding the crowds when they become hungry, but instead, give them something to eat as Jesus says. Just like last week in our gospel lesson, things have to begin small, but one small act of kindness and generosity, even if the size of a mustard seed or grain of yeast can go a very long way. After all, “Instead of commanding them to leave, [Jesus] orders [the crowds] to stay and sit down on the grass. He then gets to work doing what he has come to do -- curing every disease and sickness among the people. The multiplication of the loaves of bread and the fish harken to the previous parable that Jesus speaks to the crowd concerning the mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven produces a plentiful harvest from the smallest of seeds.”
And helping in our part of giving people something to eat also goes a long way too, and is an ongoing and essential mission opportunity that we have before us, just like the small gesture of thanks to the fire crews by offering snacks and drinks this last week. I hope it’s a small foretaste of the Kingdom of God to come and also helping to bring the Kingdom of God to the here and now. This past week, we could easily scoff that we had a lot of food and drink for the fire crews and yes, they were being well fed at base camp at the fairgrounds, but we still are able to give people something to eat with the stuff we weren’t using, as it goes to use for the community supper and can also go to base camp, or C.A.N.. It’s also been amazing seeing the generosity of people donating money to Quincy Provisions and The Scoop at The Toy Store for ice cream and treats for the fire crews, or seeing Moon’s provide a cool place and complimentary soft drinks -- all of it is a testament to how we as a community have lived into our calling to give people something to eat and drink. I hope that perhaps something like that can also be done for others in our community after this fire is over. And as we prepare to come to the Communion table in a few minutes, Jesus too offers us something to eat, but also offers us grace and spiritual nourishment as we partake of the meal, chew on the bread of life, and drink from the cup of freedom. By giving us something to eat, Jesus offers us a chance to renew our faith and to renew ourselves on this journey. So that as we renew ourselves and renew our faith through from table of grace, we too can keep living into our calling to give the people something to eat, as we never know who we may see the face of Christ in.In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN!!
Note: This was originally intended to be the sermon for July 30, but because of the Minerva Fire in Quincy, we did a guided meditation in-lieu of the sermon. We hope that you will still read the intended sermon and as always, let's talk more!!
Community UMC, Quincy
“That’s One Small Seed”
July 30, 2017
Pastor Andrew Davis
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
I think by now, it’s probably safe to say that all of us who were involved with VBS are now fully rested and recovered, or at least I hope we are. I was telling several of my friends and family that I forgot how much energy kids have…in fact, they have boundless energy, something I wish I had more of at times even though I still consider myself still on the young-ish side. I think it was best said last week that many of us feel young again, but also feel old at the same time too. But as we talked about a couple weeks ago, it was wonderful time of planting seeds, especially as we saw many children who are not associated with our church or Our Savior Lutheran Church taking part, and I hope that some seeds were planted along the way. Along with VBS, I’ve also been able to go to the weekly Farmer’s Market each Thursday and have been able to chat with various people from our community, including some of you from our church, and meet new people as well, which is another seed planting opportunity. Since I have the weekly ‘coffice’ hours on Thursdays at our various coffeehouses, I guess I could coin the term ‘FMoffice’ hours for Thursday evenings. Along with the weekly Farmer’s Market on Thursdays, another favorite summertime tradition that I really enjoy is the county fair, which is coming up in a little more than a week, as we also have a chance to meet various folk from around town and around the county when we’re out and about at the fair. In fact, if we want to do a group outing any of the nights that the Fair is on, let me know. We do need to have a little FUN as a congregation too!! Of course, with the county fair also comes deep-fried-everything and everything-on-a-stick!! Okay, it’s not the state fair, but when I think of the county fair, I especially love the funnel cakes and corn dogs, although I absolutely MUST have mustard with my corn dogs (even though that’s one indulgence I’m not partaking in at the moment on this journey of renewed health and wholeness).
Now mustard is something that is hit and miss with me, as I usually love the classic French’s yellow mustard. However, I did expand my horizons several years ago at the weekly wine tasting at Bel-Air in Natomas on family date night when their wine steward, Ron also served mini corndogs in honor of the state fair and featured samples of various kinds of mustard as part of the snacks that are included each week. Some of the mustard we got to sample was very grainy and still had seeds and added a distinctive texture to it, with some mustards being on the spicy side. Indeed, those seeds in the mustard are very, very tiny, just like the mustard seed that Jesus talks about in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, which includes ‘The Parable of the Mustard Seed.’ In it, we hear the message that the mustard seed is one small seed, but creates one, huge plant!! But the mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl, and hidden treasure can also say something about our faith journey and our part in discovering the Kingdom of God (KOG) too, as we are still in some ways on the idea of seeds and planting, but also about seeing the products and fruits that come from those seeds that are scattered and planted.
In each of these small parables from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus equates the KOG with something small and perhaps even insignificant to everyday life; a mustard seed, a yeast particle, a pearl; but then Jesus adds some bigger stuff like finding hidden treasure. Even though Jesus is focusing on these small, maybe insignificant items, they can lead to something much bigger like the great bush that mustard seeds produce, or the many loaves of bread that are leavened by the yeast and baked, or the great riches that can be found when pearls are sold and turned into necklaces (which one of my good friends loves to wear). By using such parables, Jesus is trying to get the crowds and us to understand and “expand our understandings of God’s kingdom.” God’s Kingdom is much bigger than we expect, but can come out of something small and ordinary. Something so small can still lead to something that is great and something mighty. It’s kind of like the late astronaut Neal Armstrong’s famous quote when he first stepped on the surface of the moon, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s one small seed, yet one big bush; that’s one small yield of yeast, yet many loaves that come out of it. The same can be said for the KOG, that while we may not see it immediately before us, yet it’s actually quite large there and a includes major role that we have as the community of faith, as part of our job is to help bring the KOG to the here and now. But in order for us to bring the KOG to earth here and now, we have to start somewhere and that even means starting small, just like that little seed of mustard or that tiny particle of yeast, or those tiny grains of sand that form the pearl in the oyster.
In his book, Change the World, Rev. Mike Slaughter explains that Jesus’s time on earth was a time of eagerly awaiting the coming KOG in the messianic age which was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. However, Mike further explains that “this expectant kingdom was not a disembodied heaven that people would ascend to in the afterlife but a righting or restoration of God’s created order on earth” in which “Jesus proclaimed the arrival of this new kingdom order. His message was clearly focused on the KOG’s present influence in the world rather than on going to heaven when we die.” --- Now, there are many different ways that we are already bringing the KOG to earth, even in small ways like the little seed of mustard and particles of yeast when we put our faith into action. The KOG can even be a hidden treasure that we heard in our Gospel lesson; and that’s something that’s my hope for those who may be a little on the skeptical side or don’t know what they are missing out on by not being a part of a faith community and helping bring God’s kingdom to earth. Mike Slaughter continues to write that “Jesus followers are not waiting for heaven but are actively rebuilding, restoring, and renewing the lives of broken people and the shattered communities of despair. Yes, we are waiting for the return of [Jesus]. But it is not passive waiting.” ---
So what’s holding you back? What are some priorities that need to be changed? As we said together in our call to worship, we should strive to see the potential that is possible in the KOG, not so much our limitations, because each of us has that small seed of faith just like the mustard seed, tiny yield of yeast, and may have a pearl of wisdom to share. I admit that seeing myself through my limitations, not my potential is something that held me back from doing what I’m doing now. Even though it’s a struggle at times to look at what is possible, I have to keep reminding myself and being reminded that I’m not limited by my limitations or all my shortcomings, which are still many. When I was in the early stages of candidacy process for ordained ministry, I kept lamenting my lack of self-confidence with my pastor at the time, Tina Ballagh and Pastor Tina would always tell me just to proceed as if I was confident and am glad to say it was that little seed of faith that I needed to hear. And in the moments where I feel like I lack self-confidence, I have to remind myself to grab that little seed of faith, because my part and work in the KOG and helping bring the KOG to earth is much bigger than my limitations and my own shortcomings and I hope that all of us can start seeing that within ourselves too.
Like we’ve talked about before, starting new ministries and trying new things as a community of faith is part of that small seed of faith, that small yield of yeast, or that pearl. We want others to discover that hidden treasure that people can find in the KOG, but it takes being active, especially when we try to reach others and that may also include trying to create new spaces for new people so that they can see for themselves the hidden treasures, mustard seeds, and granules of yeast when they encounter what it’s like to be in the KOG in the here and now. We have to keep looking at what’s possible, not what we are limited by. One such example of a church that turned around from looking from the lens of their limitations and saw what is possibtle through the lens of a tiny seed of faith is Mount Vernon Place UMC in downtown Washington, DC. which is also a partner church with WTS and is the seminary’s downtown campus. When I interviewed to be director of music there five years ago while beginning the journey of seminary at Wesley, the senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol told me of the transformation that they were just starting to experience. When she was first appointed there in 2005, the church was literally on life support, as most of the committee chairs were in their mid-90’s and fondly remembered the ‘good old days’ when things were bursting at the seams and thousands attended worship. Doesn't seem any different from many church’s stories, as all of us love to remember the ‘good old days’ for whatever they meant to us. When Pastor Donna arrived, church’s main financial safety net was this massive endownment that they were spending, and when the endowment dried up, they determined that would simply lock the doors and walk away, as the church’s giving was not enough to sustain the long-term future of the church.
However, there were still some small seeds of faith left in the remaining people there, although it would involve letting go of the past, selling the Christian education wing which was then demolished and a mixed use building built in its place, undergoing a full restoration of the building, and forming new partnerships such as the partnership with WTS. In the book she recently co-wrote with Rev. Roger Owens, A New Day in the City, Pastor Donna explains that in order to see what was possible and live into a reality and do their part of bringing the KOG into the here and now,
The congregation [of Mount Vernon Place UMC] literally had to move out of the building and let go of nostalgic dreams of the past in order to make space for God to first bring detachment and then bring visions of what could be. It was not long after moving day when the congregation started to learn how much they loved the building and all its contents for their sake instead of Christ’s sake. We love more than fifteen pianos even though we only had a need for two. We loved silver tea sets even though they had not been used for forty years. We love our stuff enough to fight over it at a garage sale when neighbors finally stepped inside the building. The stuff made people feel good, bringing back memories of the past. But our stuff will never have the power to touch, change, and transform lives.
When we think of the little seeds of faith or the little grains of yeast that can become something significant, what are we doing that will touch, change, and transform the lives whom we encounter as if people have found a hidden treasure in us? I know it’s easy to get consumed by our buildings and our stuff, but is that part of building the KOG in the here and now, although to turn that question on its head, how can we best use our building and our stuff for the glory of the KOG? Because to be a little bluntly honest, sometimes it’s easier to see the church Asia it's a museum, just like what the people of MVPUMC did before acting on a small seed of faith to go from a congregation barely on life support to a now growing and thriving congregation. Something for us to think on and chew on here!! As we go into this new week, let’s think about the hidden treasures that people can find in this community, but also think about how we can all contribute even just one little seed of faith to bringing the KOG to the here and the now as we go about transforming lives and making our world a better place, seeing the bigger things that can come out of those mustard seeds.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, Amen!!
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