Sunday, February 28, 2021

Remembering God’s Goodness (Lent 2)

Psalm 63: 1-8
Roger Lynn
February 28, 2021
Second Sunday in Lent
(CLICK HERE for the audio of this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video of this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video of the whole service)

Life can be a challenging and overwhelming experience sometimes. There are times when it feels as if our inner as well as our social resources are depleted, and we have no where left to turn. The title of Psalm 63 declares it to be “A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.” We know what it feels like to be in a wilderness. The news announces yet mass shooting and our hearts sink once again. The political turmoil continues to swirl and we recognize the familiar feeling of frustration. The pandemic just keeps going, and friends and family get sick, and we find ourselves distressed. There are times when we long for the comfort and security of a life which seems to be rapidly disappearing. The familiar landmarks are fading fast.

Those of us for whom faith is an important part of life can draw strength and comfort from our relationship with God. But sometimes even faith seems to falter. We focus so much on the present distress over what is or is not happening right now, and it is ease to lose sight of the bigger picture. We can’t see God in this instant, so we despair. How, then, do we maintain and nurture our faith in such a way that we not only survive but thrive even in the midst of our wilderness experiences? There are no simple answers or easy solutions, but we might begin by paying attention to our relationship with God. As with any relationship, it will almost certainly atrophy and flounder if we take it for granted and neglect it. A healthy and vital relationship of any kind, including one with God, will involve active and ongoing participation on our part. We would do well, then, to follow the example of David in the Psalms.

When he found himself in the wilderness, it was God to whom he turned. And when he could not immediately discover God’s presence, he sought after it until he found it. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) And where he begins his search is in his own memory – remembering those times in his own life when God had not felt so distant and difficult to find. “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” (Psalm 63:2-3) “...for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” (Psalm 63:7) Looking back to God’s goodness which had previously been experienced led directly into a present-tense awareness of God’s ongoing presence, even in the wilderness.

A steady diet of nostalgia is certainly not healthy. Simply longing for “the good old days” was not what David was doing. Such attitudes can easily keep us trapped in the past, unable to move forward. But there are times when it is helpful and healthy to look back in order to gain the strength for the journey ahead. In a relationship with friends or spouse, the practice of “remember when...” can be an important part of strengthening the ties which bind us together. Sitting at the kitchen table looking at pictures of important moments in your shared history is one way of remembering who you are for each other. The same is true of our relationship with God. Reflecting on those times when God felt particularly close can help attune and focus our spiritual senses in times of wilderness isolation. Remembering those occasions when we felt very grounded in the faith which sustains us can strengthen hope for our present circumstances.

And it is about more than simply the courage to endure. The power of God in our lives can transform the very fabric of our reality. God is fully present in every moment of every day of our living. But sometimes we forget to notice. Or we are too overwhelmed by the weight of the moment to see. Remembering God’s goodness is a way of drawing our attention back to what has always been and continues to be true. We occasionally need to be reminded of the reality to which Isaiah points us. Even when it feels as if we are in the wilderness, distracted by the pain and the stress and the loneliness which the world can throw at us, God is saying to us, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . . Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2) Paying attention to our relationship with God can help us to remember this important truth. And paying attention before we find ourselves in the wilderness can help prepare us for those occasions when the familiar disappears and life becomes overwhelming. May we remember God’s goodness which has gone before, so that we might continue to experience God’s goodness in this present moment. In this season of Lent may we continue our journey from darkness into light.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Spending Time in the Wilderness (Lent 1)

Luke 4: 1-13
Roger Lynn
February 21, 2021
First Sunday in Lent
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent - the part of the Church calendar which leads us to Easter. It has traditionally been a season marked by thoughtful prayer and reflection. There are valuable reasons why the Church has developed the cycle of seasons which now take us through the year, from Advent and Epiphany, through Lent, Easter and Pentecost, into a long period of “Ordinary Time,” and back again to Advent. Each season has its own themes, its own character, its own gifts to share. They offer us opportunities to spend time exploring a wide variety of ways in which life and faith intersect – from times of joy to times of grief, from experiences of deep spiritual connection to “dark nights of the soul,” from mountain top ecstasy to the “valley of the shadow of death,” from extraordinary moments to ordinary days. The genius of paying attention to the seasons of the Church year is that even if we aren’t experiencing a particular theme in our lives at that particular moment, the chances are good that we will at some point. The seasons provide us with a way of practicing faithful responses – trying them on, so to speak – so that we might be better prepared to face the experience when it does come our way.

One of the themes we find in the season of Lent is that of wilderness. It is the experience of being outside the normal, everyday flow of life. It can be an unsettling time when the routines in which we often find comfort fall away and the assumptions of life are reexamined. It is no accident that such experiences are often described in terms of wandering. The fact that there are no clear directions is central to what it means to have such a wilderness experience. It can also be a time of powerful growth, as previously hidden strengths and resources are discovered and explored. It is a time which is ripe with potential and new possibilities.

Luke describes Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a Spirit-led experience. This is an important note which is often overlooked. When we find ourselves in the midst of such an experience, cries of “Why me?” and “Where is God?” seem to come easily to our lips. There can be a sense of isolation and abandonment. In the midst of such an experience it can be helpful to remember that we are not alone on this journey. The routines of our living may have disappeared, but God is still with us, ready to shine light on the path if we will open ourselves to such guidance.

And remembering God’s presence is at the heart of what will help us deal with the temptations we face along the way. Luke describes these temptations as coming from the devil, the force which has been described elsewhere as the “Prince of Lies.” That is a pretty good way of understanding what seems to be a common human tendency – we lose track of the Truth and then try to live our lives based on that which is not true. In Luke’s story of Jesus’ temptations, all of the things which the devil offers are, at their heart, real and important and needed – food, security, power. The problem was not in what was being offered. The problem was the untruth behind how they were being offered. “God is not in the picture. Community is nowhere to be found. You are on your own. You have only yourself to rely on.” When we find ourselves in the midst of a wilderness experience, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing such things. Our culture certainly promotes such thinking. It can seem so true. Which is precisely why it is so vital that we remember who led us here in the first place, and who is present with us still. Jesus’ response to each of the temptations is essentially the same. “I am not on my own. My strength is found in my connection with Sacred Presence. That is what is real. That is what is true. That is what will see me through.” Jesus survives the experience because he remembers to stay grounded in this foundational truth.

And the, immediately following this story of temptation, Jesus moves out of his wilderness experience and begins teaching in the synagogues of Galilee. He is, in the words of Luke, “filled with the power of the Spirit.” It is important to note, however, that this powerful beginning to his public ministry occurs on the far side of the wilderness. Sometimes it takes spending some time in the uncomfortable wilderness of “not knowing” before we can find our way into a sense of knowing. Sometimes the only way out is through. And in those times when we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, we would do well to remember that we are not alone. We are never alone. And even in those moments when we can’t see a way out we can draw strength from knowing that we are forever embraced in the care of the One who does.

As we journey through this season of Lent, I invite you to spend some time in the wilderness, remembering again the power which comes from knowing that God is always with us, no matter what.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

God’s Radical Newness

Mark 2: 13-22
Roger Lynn
February 7, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

God has always been the same. But we human beings have not always been very good at figuring out who God is, and how best to relate with God and with each other. And so it is that down through the years God has continued to challenge us to expand our horizons and push past the barriers we have erected in the name of faith. What we discover in Jesus is a living illustration of God’s ongoing and radical newness among us.

Jesus didn’t allow himself to become caught up in the limitations of the culture around him. As a consequence he often found himself in conflict with those in positions of power. He made them nervous because he challenged their understandings about the ways life works. Indeed, if we are honest, we will often find that Jesus makes us nervous as well, for all of the same reasons. It seems to be a human tendency to want life contained and controlled. Jesus, on the other hand, models a way of life which is decidedly not contained or controlled. In contrast to playing it safe and having things remain the same, we are presented with a call to take risks and step beyond the boundaries of our self-defined safety zones into the world of God’s radical newness.

One of the places where all of this comes into focus is in our relationships. Who we share life with, and how we go about sharing that life matters. It both shapes and defines much about who we are and how we experience life. Will we be open or will we be closed? Will our lives resemble a party or a prison?

An important metaphor in scripture for our relationships is the dinner table. Eating together is about more than just sharing a sandwich – it is about intimacy. It is no accident that some of the first controversies in the Church centered around who was eating with whom. And it is not merely coincidence that the central act of worship in the Church is a meal. 2,000 years later meals remain significant. Remember that in our own recent history it was at “lunch counters” where the battles for racial equality and civil rights often began. So we find Jesus eating with all the “wrong” people – those who were the outcasts and cast-offs of society. “Tax collectors and sinners” is what they are called in Mark’s Gospel. Definitely not appropriate dinner guests for polite society or for those who would seek to maintain an respectable religious position in life. But that is exactly who Jesus seeks out. It isn’t that he just accidentally finds himself in their company. He goes looking for them. He deliberately invites them to join him, or else he invites himself to eat in their homes and at their parties.

“Why does he do that?” is what the Pharisees wanted to know. And if we are honest with ourselves, it is probably what many of us would have wanted to know as well. It is simply not what nice people do. It is one thing to talk about loving your neighbor, and perhaps even helping them out of a jam from time to time. But to actually eat and drink with them, on purpose, on a regular basis – well, that’s just too much! And Jesus’ answer doesn’t really help us feel much better about things. “Those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) It is as if Jesus says, “If your life is working for you, then don’t worry about what I have to offer. But don’t try to stop me from offering new hope to those for whom life is not working. And, while you’re at it, don’t get too over-confident about assuming that your life is working for you.”

Jesus’ message is clear – God is calling us to a life in which there are no “outsiders.” Everyone is invited to the party, and there are no pre-assigned seating arrangements. We all get to eat with each other. It is a way of life which doesn’t always fit with our old patterns. If we allow ourselves to become too concerned with the cultural expectations which have been handed to us, then we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from the full abundance of life which God has in store for us.

We are not necessarily the Pharisees, and in many respects we have come a long ways since that time. But it is an ongoing struggle, and God continues to challenge us. There are many “tax collectors and sinners” who now find themselves welcomed at our table. But we must always be on the lookout for the barriers we haven’t yet noticed, and the new ones which we continue to erect. Sixty years ago we were being called to expand our horizons regarding racial distinctions. Along the way we’ve also been challenged to examine the socio-economic differences which divide us. More recently the line has centered around the issue of sexual orientation. And lately we’ve come back around to the challenge of racial inequality. Each time we invite someone new to the table, there is rejoicing in heaven. And each time, we are reminded once again that there are still more to be invited. Where is the next line for you? Is your comfort zone threatened by people with different theological perspectives? ...or worship styles? ...or political views? ...or cultural backgrounds? ...or levels of education? Or perhaps the challenge for you is not so much in who you can accept, but rather in how active you will be in inviting them to share life with you. It is easy to grow complacent as we go about the daily routines of our life. We associate with the same people, because that is who we come into easy contact with. When we meet other people we are accepting, but how much effort do we make in actively reaching out beyond our comfort zone?

Where is God calling us to go? What walls are we being challenged to tear down? How can we actively participate in the ongoing and inclusive celebration of God’s radical newness in our world? It is an ongoing journey, and we can take the next step now.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

God’s Yes!

Mark 2: 1-12
Roger Lynn
January 31, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the entire service)

Yes, you can have the last piece of chocolate cake! Yes, you can go outside and play with your friends! Yes, you have been accepted into the college of your choice! Yes, the bank will loan you the money to buy your first house! Yes, your one true love will marry you! The word “yes” can be used in such wonderful and life-affirming ways. Sometimes it just makes us smile. Other times it can change our life forever.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where “yes” often seems to be in short supply. Whether in the form of war and hatred and bigotry, or hunger and disease and poverty, or tragedy and disaster and loss, there is much which surrounds us and fills our days which is life-destroying, rather than life-affirming. At times it is tempting to wonder if “yes” really even belongs in the human language or has become obsolete. There seems to be so much around us (and sometimes even within us) which is ugly and hurtful. How can a word like “yes” find it’s way back into our experience in any truly meaningful way?

But when we open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives and in our world, “yes” is precisely the experience which comes into focus! Despite all the darkness which at times seems to fill our world, God chooses to affirm and call forth the light which is within us. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul declares Jesus Christ to be God’s divine and glorious “Yes!” to all of us – both affirmation and promise. It is as if God is saying, “I am sending Christ to you so that you can begin to understand just how much I believe in you!” What a powerful message for us to receive! God says “Yes!” to humanity! That is front page, banner headline news!

Jesus certainly proclaimed this message during his life among us – not only with his words, but also with his actions. In the passage which we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning, we find Jesus confronting the religious authorities of his day. At the heart of this confrontation was the tension between authority and power which is based in rules versus authority and power which is based in compassion. For the religious leaders, rules defined their lives. In contrast, Jesus put people ahead of rules every time. Such an attitude often placed him in conflict with those in positions of power, but it is one of the ways in which the message of God’s “Yes!” is communicated to us.

A paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by four very determined friends. Even the crowd which had surrounded Jesus could not keep them away. Not even physical barriers such as a roof would deter them. Their friend was in need and they believed that Jesus could help, so they did whatever was necessary to bring the two together. And when the man is finally presented to Jesus, the first thing Jesus does is announce that his sins have been forgiven. This kind of language can seem less than helpful, in part because the idea that we are all sinners carries with it so much negative baggage it can begin to feel like it wholly and completely defines us. But I believe there is good news to be found in this story from Mark’s Gospel. Whether or not you think this heavy emphasis on sin and the need for forgiveness is helpful, such an understanding of the world was certainly central for the people of Jesus’ day. And directly linked with that view was an understanding that such forgiveness was closely regulated and not freely available. Then along comes Jesus, openly, freely, and liberally declaring the forgiveness of sins. The religious authorities were disturbed because they thought Jesus was being presumptuous in offering forgiveness, when in reality what he was doing was simply announcing that which was already true. God’s forgiveness (or love, or compassion, or whatever other “yes” word you might care to substitute) is freely offered to any and all who will open themselves to receive it. It is interesting that the crime which they thought Jesus guilty of – offering that which only God can offer – was far less dangerous than what he was actually guilty of – throwing open the doors to an expansive new understanding of who God is and how God relates to us. By comparison, the mere healing of the man’s physical paralysis was almost an after-thought. But whether Jesus was bringing wholeness to spirit, mind, or body, he was declaring that God’s “Yes!” is more powerful than any “no” which could possibly confront us.

So, what form does God’s “Yes!” take in our lives today? What are the specific messages of “no” which God is countering with the divine “Yes!” of God’s love and grace? Do you believe you are unworthy of love? God believes otherwise! Are you afraid to step out and risk experiencing some new opportunity? God is offering both courage and companionship. Is there some hidden shame from your past which is weighing you down and holding you back? God invites you to let go of old baggage and turn towards the light of God’s future which is waiting for you. Are there broken dreams or broken relationships which have left you wounded and paralyzed? God is calling you to a new wholeness and limitless new possibilities. Whatever specific shape the “no” in our lives takes, God’s “Yes!” is up to the challenge of transforming us. God stands waiting to affirm us in all of our glorious, messy, God-given potential. We can accept the limitations of the world’s “no” or we can accept the possibilities of God’s “Yes!” May we choose to agree with God, and say “Yes!”

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Beating A Path To God’s Door

Mark 1: 40-42 & Psalm 30
Roger Lynn
January 24, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

I believe that God is always present and active in our lives in profoundly powerful and intimate ways. There is nothing we can do which can change this reality. I also believe that there are times when it doesn’t feel like that at all. There are occasions in each of our lives when it feels as if God is a million miles away and has no interest in us whatsoever. Sometimes it can even feels as if God is actively working against us. One of the great gifts which the Psalms offer us is a powerful expression of this experience. “For God’s anger is but for a moment – God’s favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night – but joy comes with the morning. . .You hid your face – I was dismayed.” (Psalms 30:5&6) Ultimately, in the bright light of our better moments, we can know that God and God’s relationship with us are not defined by anger, judgment, and punishment, but at the very least the Psalms provide us with insight into how it feels sometimes when we find ourselves in those “dark nights of the soul.” In Psalm 30 we find a marvelous contrast between the highs and the lows which life brings. The challenge of faith is not found so much in the good times, when we are inspired to offer praise, but rather in how we handle the struggles which come in the hard times. One of the things which I appreciate about the Psalms is their tenacity. Nothing is out of bounds. If the psalmist is angry with God, they say so. If they feel abandoned by God, they say so. And they keep coming at it until they find some resolution. In Psalm 30, we find emotions ranging from elation to dismay, but finally we find a willingness to hang in there with the struggle long enough to discover the joy which God has to offer. “You have turned my mourning into dancing. You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.” (Psalm 30:11-12) Such a conclusion was not reached quickly or easily. It came at the end of a long and difficult journey.

The man with leprosy in the story from Mark’s Gospel exhibits that same kind of tenacity. It is likely that he grew up being heavily exposed to the Psalms because some of their approach to life and faith seems to have rubbed off. But whatever the reason, he sees in Jesus an opportunity for change and he grabs it with both hands. “A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40) As with the Psalms, this says more about the leper’s experience than it does about the nature and character of Jesus or God. It is not that God requires us to beg and grovel. When faced with this encounter, Jesus immediately responds, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:41) But from the leper’s perspective, the situation was desperate. He had spent his life being shut out, cut off, and isolated. God may have been fully present in his life, but it was a presence the man was unable to experience or appreciate. And so it was that he found himself drawing upon the approach which is modeled and encouraged in the Psalms. He chooses to confront Jesus with his desperation. And in so doing, his life is forever transformed.

What, then, does all of this have to do with our lives? What are the ways in which we feel cut-off and isolated from God? How can we respond to such experiences in positive and life-enhancing ways? We might begin by simply acknowledging that there are, indeed, times in our lives when God does seem far off and removed. Such experiences may be common for you or they may be very rare. They may be short-lived or they may last for long periods of time. They may be profoundly disturbing or quietly unsettling. But regardless of the specifics, I suspect that most people experience such isolation from God at least once in a while during their lives. The causes can vary from the dramatic to the mundane – a tragic and devastating loss or the boredom which gradually creeps into our routines, the overwhelming barrage of the horrific news which comes to us every day in the media or the slowly numbing stress of a pandemic that’s been building for months. But however such experiences happen and whatever particular form they take, it is important to acknowledge such experiences when they find their way into our lives, rather than simply ignore them and hope they will go away. And for that, we can draw on the example of both the psalmist and the man who confronts Jesus. The way out is through.

When we feel like God is a million miles away, a helpful course of action is to begin beating a path to God’s door. In his book “Wishful Thinking” Frederick Buechner offers some thoughts about prayer, which, however we understand it, can be an important way of establishing, restoring, and maintaining a connection with God. He writes, “According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. . .Be importunate, Jesus says – not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before God will open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door. . .(What about) when, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. . .Keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if God does not bring you the answer you want, God will bring you God’s self.” (Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking,” page 71)

So what do we do when we feel like God has abandoned us or has turned against us. We wait. But we need not wait passively or meekly. Take a cue from the Psalms and practice persistence. Don’t be afraid to tell God how you feel, in no uncertain terms. Yell and scream and kick if you have to. Beat a path to God’s door, because maybe that is the only way to clear the path to your own door. May we remember that God is always present in our lives and in our world – even when it doesn’t feel that way at all. God will come, because God is already here, and in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.” (Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking,” page 71)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Love In Practice

1 Corinthians 8: 1-10 & Mark 1: 21-27
Roger Lynn
January 17, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

Paul debates with the Corinthian church about eating food offered to idols. Jesus drives out an evil spirit. These two scripture passages are obviously from another time and another way of looking at the world. In our modern view, we tend not to believe in demons or unclean spirits, and food offered to idols is really a non-issue. So, at first glance both of the scripture passages for this morning would seem to be completely irrelevant for us. OK, I’ll just stop talking now.

Or, we could spend a few minutes exploring what these ancient and seemingly irrelevant passages might have to say about faith even in these modern times in which we live. First, it must be noted that while spirit possession and idol worship are not generally a part of our world view, they were very much a part of the way in which people understood the world 2,000 years ago. They were not silly superstitions which could simply be dismissed. Second, it is important to recognize that what they have to teach us is not so much related to the specifics of those issues as it is to the broader topic of how faith shapes the ways in which we live our lives in the world.

Paul was writing to the new Corinthian church because it was being torn apart by people’s selfish disregard for the well-being of others with whom they shared fellowship. This took a number of different specific forms, but the one which is addressed in our scripture for today centered around an arrogant self-confidence in personal knowledge which had failed to include love in the formula. The issue was whether or not to eat meat which had been offered to idols. The city of Corinth was a very cosmopolitan center with a poly-theistic world view. Amongst the abundance of gods being worshipped, animal sacrifice would often have been involved. One of the side-effects of such activity was the sale of the excess meat which was not required for the sacrifice. This is where the problem arose for folks newly converted to the Christian faith, with its emphasis on One God and the mandate to worship only that One God. Did the eating of meat which had been a part of a pagan sacrifice constitute participation in that sacrifice and thus a compromise of their faith? For some, having only recently come out of such religious practices themselves, the answer was clearly yes. For others, filled with the new notion of “freedom in Christ”, the answer was just as clearly no. “Since we know that there is only one true God, then whatever other idols and gods might be found have no real power or substance. Therefore, whatever sacrifices are made to such gods are also empty and without meaning. Eating such meat cannot affect the person whose confidence is in Christ.” To some extent, Paul was in agreement with this position, but that was not ultimately the point. “Freedom in Christ” and the “knowledge” which comes to us through our new faith cannot be the ultimate guide for our lives. If, by exercising such freedom and knowledge in “non-essential” areas such as eating meat, we injure the faith of someone else, however much weaker we might consider such faith to be, then we have sacrificed the heart of the gospel, which is love, and we have ignored one of Jesus’ central teachings, which is wholeness. For Paul, faith is more than a personal matter and it is more than an intellectual exercise. We are called to care for the needs of others and we are called to do so in practical, real-life ways. This doesn’t mean ignoring our own values and sacrificing our personal integrity, but it does mean considering the well-being of others when we make our choices.

In Mark’s Gospel we find an interesting combination of stories which says much about how Jesus understood faith. The passage begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the people being amazed at his teaching. Then we are told about the incident with the unclean spirit. And finally, we return to the theme of Jesus’ teaching. These are not unrelated incidents which have been accidentally or carelessly lumped together by an inept storyteller. Mark apparently understood Jesus’ teaching to be about more than just words, since the whole Gospel of Mark reports far fewer of Jesus’ words than any of the other Gospels. What we do hear about, however, is Jesus’ actions. And we hear about those actions within the context of Jesus’ teaching. They are not separate issues. To speak about his teaching is to speak about what he did and who he was. Jesus came teaching about God’s love and he demonstrated that love by getting personally involved in the lives of those around him and doing what he could to make a positive difference in the quality of their lives.

So, how do we put our faith into action? How do we make love a practical part of how we live our lives? Today both unclean spirits and meat offered to idols take different forms and are called by different names, but the need for us to be involved remains as real as it was in the days of Jesus and Paul. We don’t think in terms of unclean spirits, but there are certainly a myriad of disruptive forces in our world which prevent people from experiencing whole and abundant living. Such forces range from the very personal, such as loneliness, grief, depression, and various addictions, to the truly global, such as poverty, ethnic hatred, violence, and unbridled greed. And we in the Church, as the Body of Christ, can still bear witness to the power of God when we participate in healing such brokenness in our world. We do this through the various outreach ministries of this congregation, including the monies we give and the other community organizations we support. We do this through the wide variety of efforts made by individuals within the congregation whose work makes a difference in our community, including volunteering in the schools and working at Food Share. We do this simply by being the kind of congregation we are, offering a non-judgmental environment where people are welcomed and invited to experience first hand the love and grace of God through the accepting fellowship of this faith-community. We do this whenever we allow love to be our guide in the choices we make and the ways in which we relate to others – when we value connections above rules, and when we remember that our own self-interest is intimately connected with the well-being of everyone.

May we continue to become the people whom God is calling us to be – people who put love into practice as we seek to make a difference in the lives of those around us. May the Spirit of God continue to be present in our midst, binding us together, and leading us into the world to share God’s love in practical, tangible ways. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The God Of New Beginnings

Genesis 1: 1-5 & Mark 1: 4-11
Roger C. Lynn
January 10, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

I prepared this sermon prior to last Wednesday. And as it turns out, it seems an even more appropriate message for us to hear in these following the events of this past week. I am grateful for the ways in which God’s Spirit is actively present and working in my life and in the world, often even before I am aware of it.

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Chaos! A formless void! Darkness! Since the very beginning, God has been remolding and shaping such material into something new. In one way or another, new beginnings are the gifts which God offers to the world and those of us who live here. God’s Spirit, sweeping over the face of the chaos, brings with it the refreshing breath of change which is, finally, the hope of the world. From the opening verses of Genesis, “In the beginning...God created...” (Genesis 1: 1) to the closing verses of Revelation, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21: 5), the scriptures speak over and over again of the God who offers us new beginnings.

And that is good news indeed. Words like chaos, formless void, and darkness often seem to describe more than merely the world as it was before God formed and molded it. Sometimes (often) they are descriptive of our lives and our world as well. The year we have just exited seems like a prime example. There are times when we need nothing more desperately than a new beginning. Whether through unfortunate and unhelpful choices, or circumstances beyond our control, in relationships or our jobs, finances or our internal emotions, we all reach places in our life journey where we find ourselves at the end of a road or the end of our rope, with no idea where to turn or what to do next. Fortunately for us, we worship the God who specializes in transforming dead-ends into new beginnings. We must still do our part – opening ourselves to God’s guidance, stepping out in faith by taking the risk of trying something new. But gifts of insight, wisdom, and courage help to equip us to take such steps with confidence and hope.

John the baptizer stands as a road sign pointing to the ultimate example of God’s gift of new beginnings. He came preaching a baptism of repentance, challenging people to turn their lives around and choose another path. But he also knew that by itself such a message was not likely to produce much in the way of long term results. Even for those folks who took his message to heart and genuinely wanted to begin again, they were still faced with the overwhelming challenge of being human. On our own we are simply not very good at turning around and going a different direction. At least we’re not very good at finding a more helpful directions in which to go. So John’s message did not end with the call to repentance. He also proclaimed the coming of One who would do something to shift the balance in favor of making a lasting difference. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me... I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1: 7-8) The odds of a new beginning actually sticking increase dramatically when, a) God stands behind it, and b) God’s Spirit is present in the midst of it. No longer are we simply called to change course. God offers us the strength and encouragement and inspiration to make the change in the first place, and then the ongoing guidance and support of God’s presence to keep us moving in the right direction.

In one sense we see the dawning of God’s new age as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan. To follow where he leads is to be a part of God’s great gift of new beginnings. In another sense what we witness in that dramatic moment is nothing new at all. It is simply the definitive declaration of what God has been declaring since the opening moments of the world – God believes in new beginnings, and will keep offering them for as long as we need them.

In Genesis, chaos and darkness are no match for the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the waters. Something new emerges and God declares it to be good. In our lives, the chaos and darkness which sometimes threaten to overwhelm us are no match for God’s Spirit sweeping over our world and blowing through our lives. The despair of a relationship gone wrong, the boredom of a job without purpose, the pain of a past which seems to control us still, the turmoil of a life without direction, the upheaval of a world turned upside down by a pandemic, social unrest, and political strife – all of these begin to pale and fade in the face of God’s overwhelming desire to offer us a new beginning. As we learn to trust God and seek God’s direction for our lives, we begin to discover new options to explore. We are touched by this new life whenever we dare to risk leaving the old behind and beginning again with God’s help. We have but to remember that the touch of God’s grace is an ongoing reality which we can experience over and over again. God is always and forever seeking to transform our dead-ends into new beginnings, in every moment of every day. It is a gift which is ours for the asking. Indeed, it has already been given. We have only to accept it. May our lives be transformed by the ongoing gift of new beginnings.