Sunday, June 24, 2012

Stilling Fear

Stilling Fear
Mk. 4:35-41[1]
I think it’s safe to say that most of us have some experience with fear.  We all have some kind of situation or thought that can instill a feeling of fear in us.  As for me, I have a mild fear of heights.  When I was a Seminary student, one of my jobs as a part-time security guard was to check two towers—each about 30 to 40 stories tall.  And a tower check started by going up on the roof and making sure it was secure!  I’m also a bit uncomfortable around snakes.  I guess that puts me in company with Indiana Jones!  And, as I have mentioned before, I have some mild anxiety being alone in a dark place. 
These are fairly common kinds of fears.  Many of us have other fears in common.  Some of us fear the future because of all the changes that have happened or are happening in our lives.  Some of us fear losing our health, and being dependent on others to take care of us.  Some of us fear being unable to support ourselves financially.  Especially in these troubled economic times.  Some of us fear losing a loved one, and the loneliness that would entail for us.  And some of us fear the ultimate unknown, death.
In our Gospel lesson for today, I’m somewhat intrigued that Jesus asked the question, “Why are you afraid?”  Some of his disciples were seasoned fishermen, who knew the Sea of Galilee well and the dangers of a storm.  Despite their best efforts at keeping the boat afloat, it was beginning to sink!  We don’t know how far they were from land, but in Mark’s version of the story, swimming for shore apparently wasn’t an option.  Even the experienced fishermen knew that their chances of surviving in open water under those conditions were not good.
So Jesus’ question strikes me.  It makes me think that perhaps he wasn’t just asking the obvious question.  In the follow-up, he asks, “Have you still no faith?”  It seems to me that the question Jesus is really asking is about their faith.  One of the main themes throughout the Gospels is that, despite all that they witnessed Jesus do and say, despite all that they discovered him to be, over and over his disciples lacked faith.[2]  It strikes me as ironic that the very ones who were closest to him struggled just like everybody else to trust in him when they were confronted with something that they didn’t understand, or that instilled fear in them.  Over and over, they seemed all too willing to abandon their faith.
I think the questions Jesus asked of his disciples are worth asking of ourselves.  Why are we afraid?  Again, I don’t think that necessarily applies to the obvious situations of our lives.  There are some things that are simply frightening, and it is only human for us to respond to them with fear.  But it’s one thing for us to feel fear, and it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we don’t just feel fear, we turn it into something that occupies our whole lives.[3]  We don’t just feel fear, we let it move in and take up residence.  We don’t just experience fear, we turn it into a giant, category-five storm that sends us running for cover and cowering in bunkers. 
Part of the problem with fear is what it does to us when we give it that much power over our lives.  We cling to whatever it is we fear losing—we hold on for dear life!  What we desperately fear to lose, we will sometimes do anything to keep.  In the process we try to control what we cannot control, we try to cling to what we cannot hold, and we can become incredibly selfish, childish, and even angry and bitter when things don’t go the way we hoped they would.[4] I think Jesus’ question addresses our tendency to obsess about the things we fear to the extent that fear controls our lives.  It addresses the problem of what fear does to us when we give it that much power over us.
But I think his other question can help us here as well.  Have we still no faith?  I don’t think this applies to the content of what we believe so much as our ability to hold onto a basic trust in God no matter what.  We say we believe God is a God of love, and that God loves us unconditionally.  But the real challenge is to entrust ourselves, our loved ones, our hopes and dreams, our very lives into the care of this loving God—especially when we’re afraid.[5]  The only way to do this is to let go whatever it is we’re afraid to lose—whether our health, our financial security, our relationships, our even our very life.  If the essence of fear is trying to control, the essence of faith is letting go.[6]  When we can do that—when we can let go, we find peace, and contentment, and even joy taking the place of fear—regardless of our circumstances.[7]  I’m not going to pretend that this is easy, because it’s not.  The challenge is to look beneath the fear and see the sustaining hand of the God of grace and mercy, even when life’s twists and turns are so frightening.  That’s something that we have to do day by day, hour by hour, sometimes even moment by moment.
Faith is not a magic charm that somehow protects us from loss or hardship or catastrophe.[8]  Faith is basic trust—trust in the God who says, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).[9]  That doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen to us.  What it means is that when they do, our faith keeps us from going under—or perhaps we should say, the one in whom we place our faith keeps us from going under!  When the fears of life come our way, if we can simply let them be, let go of whatever it is we’re clinging to, and turn our attention away from our fear to the one to whom we have entrusted our lives, we find that even a giant storm can be stilled.  Our faith can still our fears and enable us to live our lives with joy and contentment

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/24/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 267-68.  Cf. William F. McInerny, “An Unresolved Question In The Gospel Called Mark:  ‘Who Is This Whom Even Wind And Sea Obey?’ (4:41),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Fall, 1996): 259.
[3] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17.  She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering.  It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”
[4] Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:233-242.  He says (p. 236), “The distinctive feature of the New Testament faith in miracles is that it was faith in Jesus and therefore in God as the faithful and merciful God of the covenant with Israel; and that in this way and as such it was this confidence in His power.”  Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 102, where he suggests we might paraphrase Jesus’ question:  “Why are you afraid? Do you not yet trust God, whose rule is present in me?”
[6] Cf. Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, 14, where she emphasizes that we can respond to fear in this way by taking it as “a message that it is time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.”
[7] See Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 52.  He says that not clinging to and not rejecting our feelings but letting go is a way to not only learn about ourselves but also helps us discover the peace and happiness available in the present moment. 
[8] In fact, the reason Mark was writing his gospel was to assure Christians of his day that God was with them in their sufferings.  See Pheme Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:581; Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 269. Cf. also Jim Callaghan, “Weatherproof,” The Christian Century (June 7, 2000):643; and Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:733, where he argues that Mark uses this story to remind the early church that Jesus is “the sure basis of their existence as his people.”
[9] The author to the Hebrews is adapting the Greek translation of Deut. 31:6,8 here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In Over Our Heads

In Over Our Heads
Mk. 4:26-29[1]
I guess you could say that for most of my life I’ve been obsessed with competence.  Whenever I would start a new job, I would go into overdrive to “learn the ropes” and feel like I knew what I was doing.  That applied to student jobs as well as the various jobs I tried during my “wilderness wandering”—working as a Realtor and running a Senior Center.  The only job I didn’t obsess about when I started out was teaching as a Seminary professor.  I had been in the academic world for years, and it was like a duck taking to water.  I will say that my first class teaching New Testament Greek was a challenge.  I had to adjust my expectations to the actual situation of a student with no knowledge of a subject I had been studying for almost 20 years!  With that exception, I just walked right into teaching and felt very competent in what I was doing. 
Being a pastor is a very different undertaking.  There is a very real sense in which a pastor is more like an entrepreneur trying to build a business to attract a niche market.  Like any entrepreneur, you take a risk on something without every really knowing whether it’s going to work.  I’ll tell you a little secret: when ministers get together, if we’re good friends, we admit that we’re making it up as we go along.  Like entrepreneurs, we’re always improvising and adapting.  We’re not always sure what’s working or not working.  And we don’t have a clue what strategies will help our churches to thrive.  We’re all in over our heads, but we keep trying.  All that may come as a shock to you, but I think that’s built into the nature of church.  In a very real sense, when it comes to the church nobody is competent—we’re all in over our heads. 
In one of the parables from our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about a farmer who simply scatters seed.  He makes a point to say that the seed grows by itself while the farmer doesn’t know how it happens.  Now, I doubt that most farmers were so incompetent as to not have any idea whatsoever what causes seeds to grow and produce a crop. And I doubt that most farmers only planted seeds and never did anything more to tend the crop.  But for the purpose of this parable, this particular farmer is clueless, and has very little to do with the fact that the seed bears fruit.  He’s in over his head. 
Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what the Kingdom of God is like—the realm of God’s peace and freedom and justice.  Despite the skepticism of many of his enemies, Jesus claimed that this realm was already becoming a reality through him.  Many of them looked around them and saw a lack of peace and freedom and justice and they rejected Jesus’ message.  In fact, some of them thought he was either crazy or demon-possessed, or maybe both!  I have to think that maybe Jesus’ own disciples saw that same lack of peace and freedom and justice, and may have had their own doubts.[2]
I think that’s why Jesus told them this parable.  He was reminding them that when it comes to understanding how God’s Kingdom works, we’re all in over our heads.  We’re clueless.  The realm of peace and freedom and justice that Jesus was talking about is something that only God can create.  Some may find ways that are more or less effective at bringing people in.  But from the biblical standpoint, the only source of any lasting growth is God (1 Cor 3:6-7).[3] 
So what does this mean?  Do we just sit back and wait and pray that God will do something?  Well, in the first place I think it means that we have to begin by recognizing the simple fact that we’re all in over our heads.  We’re dealing with matters that are beyond our understanding and abilities.  But I think it also means that we have to recognize that it’s our job to keep on persevering in the planting and tending the gospel seeds of mercy and kindness and love.[4] And we keep on planting seeds even when we don’t seem to see many results.  Because we’re in over our heads, we have to recognize that we may never know what comes from the seeds we plant.  But because they are gospel seeds, they will bear fruit—in their own way and in their own time.
I think this also means we can’t judge by outward appearances.  By outward appearances, Samuel should have chosen Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son, instead of David, the youngest.[5]  By outward appearances the folks in the church at Corinth probably should never have followed the Apostle Paul.  If church tradition can be trusted, he wasn’t much to look at, and even less of a public speaker.  By outward appearances, churches under 100 members seem irrelevant compared to those with thousands of members. But over and over again, the Scriptures remind us that we simply cannot judge by appearances.[6]  That’s especially true when it comes to what God is doing in this world.[7]
I think all of this means that we have to operate based on faith.  Imagine that—operating on the basis of faith in the church.  But there’s faith, and then there’s faith.  And it seems that Jesus is calling us to approach our task with a faith that cannot know the outcome—at least the immediate outcome.  Investing our lives in the church that seeks to bear witness to God’s realm of peace and freedom and justice in this world requires us to step out in faith that what we’re doing is the right thing and will eventually bear fruit—even if we may not see it.  It means persevering in kindness and love, and looking beyond appearances.  It means recognizing we’re in over our heads, but we can trust that God is working in and through us constantly.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/17/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1:1-8:26, 245, where he suggests that the parable was meant to “assure those who were finding it difficult to comprehend how the Kingdom might be present and at work in a manner contrary to their expectations.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:644.
[4] Cf. J. D. Crossan, “The Seed Parables of Jesus,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (June 1973): 266.  He says the parable is an image of “resolute and prudent action.”  Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:850.
[5] Cf. Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” in New Interpreters Bible II:1099.  He says, “The theme of David as an unlikely instrument for Israel’s hope continues throughout the story of his early years.” He also reminds us that this is another example of the fact that “One of the most basic themes of the entire biblical message is that God finds possibilities for grace in the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely persons.”
[6] Cf. Birch, 1100, where he says, “If the church is both to discern and to mediate God’s grace in the world, the it, too, must seek to look on the heart—to see as God sees.”
[7] Cf. Guelich, 246: in the context of this chapter, Jesus’ message is that “The Kingdom is present, though unexpectedly vulnerable (4:3–8, 14–20), hidden (4:21) and small (4:31) with a power of its own (4:27–28).”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:850.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye
2 Cor 4:7-20[1]
We tend to operate our lives based on all kinds of measurements.  We measure time to keep us on schedule, whether we’re traveling or going to classes or playing a game.  We measure the distances we drive so that we can turn in expense reports and be reimbursed with currency in a measurable way.  Many of us have instruments on our cars now that tell us what our average gas mileage is so we can know whether we’re driving in an relatively efficient way.  Teachers at all levels have objectives that they’re supposed to be able to measure by how well or poorly the students do with their assignments and exams.  At work we have performance evaluations that are based on numerical scales! 
All of this measuring assumes that we can accurately evaluate our lives based on what we can see and hear and touch.  It assumes that what meets the eye is what is truly real.  But I think that’s a huge assumption when it comes to the quality of our lives.  What objective measurement can you use to determine a person’s worth, or relationships like friendship and love, or the value we attach to the people and activities that define our lives?  It seems to me that the things that really matter in life are hard to measure based on what meets the eye.
In our lesson for today, the Apostle Paul insists that there is more than meets the eye going on when it comes to our experience with faith.[2]  The reason he insists on this is because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  In a very real sense, although Jesus touched thousands during his life, only a relative handful remained loyal to him at the end.  By all measurable standards, when he was dead in the tomb, Jesus’ enemies had every reason to think they had defeated him.  But when Jesus appeared alive to his astonished disciples on the third day, it changed everything about the way they looked at things.
In a very real sense, St. Paul was in a similar position.  Although he had actually founded the congregation in Corinth, spending eighteen months with them as their pastor and teacher, he found himself in a position of battling for their loyalty.  He had taught them “the message of the cross”—that Jesus’ death and resurrection calls us all to a life of sacrificial love and steadfast faith in the midst of the trials of life.[3]  But after St. Paul left Corinth to cultivate churches in other places, others came to Corinth preaching a very different message.  Apparently, they claimed that all the weakness and suffering Paul endured was prime evidence that he was a failure as a preacher of the Gospel and a pastor.[4]
But St. Paul insisted that his sufferings were in fact prime evidence that he was following in the path marked out by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  He could claim that the hardships he was enduring were a way of “acting out” the death of Jesus so that he could also demonstrate the life of the risen Christ.  That may sound like a strange way to look at things, but listen to what he says, “We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.  In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again” (2 Cor 4:8-9, The Message).  The fact that he could endure the hardships he faced with faith and perseverance was a way for him to show how the new life he found through the risen Christ makes a difference in real life.[5]
We still face this issue today—how do you measure the benefits of faith?  For some our faith guarantees that we will never have to suffer, that we will never have times of trouble, that we will never find ourselves knocked down by what life brings our way.  The message that God wants us to be happy and healthy and wealthy is one that is very attractive in our day.  There are a lot of people who embrace that message.  And those who promote it seem to think that they can measure their success by the numbers of people they are able to attract.
But what happens when life comes crashing down, as it so often does when we least expect it?  As those of us with any experience with life know, it happens all the time.  That doesn’t mean that we’ve somehow done something wrong and God is punishing us, or that our faith is somehow lacking.  The lesson of Job is that life just happens that way sometimes and it’s beyond our ability to understand.  But St. Paul insists that the new life God gives us through Jesus’ death and resurrection shines most clearly in the midst of the suffering that real people experience all the time in real life. [6] The measure of our faith is not how “perfect” our lives are.  God never promises us a fairy-tale, animated cartoon-world life as a reward to for our faith.
As St. Paul insists, the measure of our faith is whether it can sustain us when life comes crashing down.[7]  That’s when we need to be able to trust that God will never abandon us, no matter what we may have to endure.  That’s when we need to be able to hold onto the faith that sees the possibility of new beginning in every ending, that sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair.  That’s when we need a faith that consists of more than what meets the eye

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/10/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 92. St. Paul advocates “not allowing our aim in life to be determined by what passes before our vision, for such “phenomena” are only surface impressions of reality, which is open only to the eye of faith.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 286: “The new life is seldom experienced in any other way than as: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed (II Cor. 4.8).”
[4] Cf. Ronald J. Allen, “2 Corinthians 4:7-18,” Interpretation 52 (July 1998): 286: They “adapted Christianity to conventional hellenistic religiosity that was famous for spectacular displays and intense emotion. It was high-voltage religion. Cf. also B. C. Lategan, “ 2 Corinthians,” in Guides to the New Testament, ed. A. B. Du Toit et al., V:80.
[5] Cf. John B. Polhill, “Reconciliation at Corinth: 2 Corinthians 4-7,” Review and Expositor 86 (1989): 347.  He says, “For Paul, death and resurrection go together. His portrayal of the death attests the reality of the resurrection.”
[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 279, 281-82, where he argues that our experience of faith points beyond itself to the new creation.  Cf. also Polhill, 348: He calls it “the new life of the new humanity that God has brought about in Christ.” 
[7] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 88: Paul “was convinced that God would never let him go.” Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:330, where he contrasts the visible suffering of our lives with the “invisible” new life that is also working in us.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Majestic and Merciful
Isa. 6:1-8; Rom. 8:15-16[1]
Most of us aren’t much on protocol and etiquette these days.  But in certain circles, they are essential and strictly enforced.  We found out a bit about that when the President and First Lady visited the Queen a few years ago.  Apparently, the First Lady “bent” the royal protocol by responding in kind when the Queen put her arm around Mrs. Obama’s back![2]  According to protocol, no one is allowed to touch the Queen!  That’s only one of many protocols that apply to the Queen.  You only speak to the Queen when you’re spoken to.  If you’re dining with the Queen, you don’t start eating until she does, and when she’s finished, so are you!  You only shake her hand if she offers it to you , and then you make it light and quick.  And you absolutely never, ever turn your back to the Queen.
To some extent, our lesson from Isaiah puts us in a level of protocol that goes way beyond whether you can speak to the Queen or not.  To understand Isaiah’s experience in the temple, it might be helpful to remember that there was an elaborate ritual by which only the High Priest could enter the most holy place, the place where the Israelites believed God’s presence dwelled.  Even though there were several exceptions, like Isaiah, they believed that no one could see God and live.[3]  They took it so seriously, that the High Priest had bells on the edge of his robes so the others could hear him moving around when he entered the most holy place.  If the bells stopped, they could know that something had gone wrong. 
That may put into perspective something of what Isaiah experienced in his encounter with God in our lesson for today.  In fact, it would seem that Isaiah had a full-fledged vision of God, complete with smoke and angels and the temple foundations shaking!  Isaiah’s experience of God was so awe-inspiring that he feared for his life!  He experienced God as majestic and awesome.  He experienced God as overwhelming and all-powerful.  I think it’s a good thing for us to be reminded of this aspect of God’s character.  God is the one who made all the universes, who created the earth in all its beautiful variety, who planned the life cycle in its wondrous complexity.  God is the one who is majestic beyond our ability to imagine or even comprehend.
But our lesson from Romans presents us with a different side of God.  The Apostle Paul talks about the Spirit of God living in each of us.   And he says that the Spirit of God is there to assure us that we are God’s beloved children.  And so he says, like beloved children, when we cry out to God, we cry, “Abba, Father.”  It is the address of a beloved child to a loving parent.  It is the language of family intimacy.[4]  This is the side of God who is as close to us as the very air we breathe.  This is the side of God who welcomes us like a doting father or a loving mother.  God is the one who is merciful to everyone in every way.
It’s no coincidence that these two passages describing seeming opposite sides of God’s character are brought together on Trinity Sunday.  It’s our understanding of God as “trinity” that brings all this together.[5]  As one of my favorite Scriptures puts it, “thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa 57:15).[6] God is at the same time the one who is far beyond our ability to conceive or imagine and  also the one who is so intimate that we can approach God like a doting father or a loving mother.  God is both majestic and merciful.
The question is, what do we do when we encounter this God who is majestic and merciful?  I don’t know that we have to fear for our lives like Isaiah did, but the majestic aspect of God’s character should make us feel a little bit exposed, at least somewhat uncomfortable.  When we encounter the God who made all universes, who created the world and all it’s beauty, who planned the life cycle in its wondrous complexity, it would seem that the only proper response is humility.  I think we recognize that before this majestic God all our illusions about controlling our own lives are just that: illusions!  I think that’s at least part of what humility means in response to the majestic God.
And when we encounter the merciful God who is as close to us as the very air we breathe, who welcomes us like a doting father or a loving mother, it would seem that the only proper response is honesty.  As Isaiah did, when we find ourselves before this merciful God we too ought to be transparent about who we are and who we aren’t.  In the presence of the God who loves us unconditionally and irrevocably, there’s no reason to hide anything. 
When we encounter the God who is majestic and merciful, what matters is not speaking when spoken to, or how we eat or shake hands, but rather humility and honesty.  When we can have the courage to respond in this way, we find ourselves connected to the source of all life, all love, and all joy.  And we find ourselves somehow more connected to ourselves, and to everything and everyone around us.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/3/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Murray Wardrop, “Michelle Obama Hugs the Queen,” The Telegraph April 2, 2009; accessed at Michelle-Obama-hugs-the-Queen.html.
[3] Exod. 33:20; cf. also Gen. 32:30; Judg. 6:22.
[4] Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:593, says this reflects the sense that “God was known in an intimate familial relationship for which this term [“Abba”], used by adults as well as children but still tender and personal, was entirely appropriate.” Cf. also Robert Jewett, Romans, 499; and James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 453-54, 461. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2:241–242, where he says that the Spirit is “the One who attests the kindness revealed in the only-begotten Son of God, of Him who wills that we too should call Him Father.”
[5] Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 139.
[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:493, says of this passage, “In one fell swoop the righteous learn that God is both [just and healing] in equal measure: as high and lofty as divine holiness demands, and as low and accessible as human nature requires (57:15).”