Saturday, June 29, 2024

Are You Afraid

 Are You Afraid

A Sermon Preached at Vashon United Methodist Church

Mark Fredericksen, ND, MDiv

June 23, 2024

Job 38:1-11

Mark 4:35-41


When I was a wee lad, my sister and I would be left at my aunt and uncle’s in Soap Lake for a week or two in summer, and then my three female cousins would come to stay with us in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, for the same amount of time—giving both sets of parents a break from our hell-raising ways. I, being the boy amongst the rest, was never the troublemaker.  But I digress.  One of these summers in Soap Lake, I was around 8 years old; it was getting on toward evening, and a thunderstorm was moving in.  My uncle always felt sorry for my lone maleness amidst all the females and would try to do something with me when he got home from work.  On this particular evening, he said, “Let’s take my rubber raft to the north end of the lake and row back down to their house, a distance of probably a mile or two. My aunt, being a mom, raised questions about the sanity of this venture – “have you seen the weather?”  But my uncle – pshawed her – and handed her the car keys so she could chauffer us to the north end of the lake.  They argued on the way, my aunt memorably saying, “If you drown him, I and my sister are going to kill you.”


Fast forward to setting off in the rubber raft.  We got in the boat; you may be slightly relieved to know that he had brought a life jacket that he put on me.  You should also know that I am from another planet because, for my entire life, I’ve known that I cannot swim a lick – I have a denser mass than most humans, and I sink in water. Innumerable people have tried to teach me to drown, I mean float, and I just go straight to the bottom, so now I just avoid water over my head.   We started rowing.  We are making decent progress, and we’re about halfway; I’m having a ball. We’re cracking jokes.  The waves are getting a little higher; occasionally, one sloshes over the side of the boat, but it’s like a riotous fun roller coaster ride to me.  But the sky is getting darker.  Some lightning flashes are visible behind the cliffs around the lake. And a wind out of the south is blowing pretty large waves at us by now and even pushing us. More concerning, my uncle's demeanor changed from jovial to serious as he said, “We need to row harder and watch for large waves to turn the boat into them. The change on his face from smiling to grimly focused scared me.


So, when I read this gospel lesson, I am right on board with those disciples, knowing all about the fear of waves and storms. Jesus is not rowing.  He is asleep on a cushion.  So, while it was only on his orders that they had to “go to the other side,” putting them in this pickle, he isn’t helping at all.  And like me, they thought they were going to die.  We could take a simplistic surface view of this story and chalk it up simply as a miracle story of Jesus having authority over the wind and waves and move on with a “Trust and Obey” kind of hymn. And there would be nothing wrong with that.


But Jesus' question to them, “Why are you afraid?” (Other translations say, “Why are you cowardly?”) piques my curiosity.  Doesn’t it yours too?  To look a bit deeper, it’s helpful to explore the context of looking for the author’s placement and possible purpose in telling this story here in this way, as well as knowing a bit about the culture and geographical/demographic layout of the area.


So far in Mark, Jesus has been teaching and healing among the predominantly Jewish population on the right side of the lake to the point he’s exhausted.  Suddenly, with no warning, he is throwing a huge monkey wrench in his Jewish disciples’ wheelhouse stating flatly – “Let’s go to the other side.”  The other side of the dividing line – the Sea of Galilee – where on the other side meant going to the Gentile side, the side where no good Jews go.  The side where the riff-raff, weirdos, and unclean live.   So, the weather disturbance taking place on the water also perhaps reflects the disciples’ internal emotional state and discomfort being pushed out of their comfort zone.  He is pushing them beyond their safe boundaries.  And maybe I’m alone, but I always feel a little edgy or a crabby pants when I’m pushed out there.  In the disciples’ minds, a taboo is being broken, and meanwhile, Jesus is sleeping on a cushion.


The other note I can add is the gospel’s structural setup.  This story is happening as Jesus’ venue of ministry takes a marked shift.  What immediately follows this passage is that they land at Gennesaret, where they come upon the crazy man with a legion of demons in the cemetery; then, on those heels, they have Jairus’ dead daughter to deal with and the woman who had been bleeding for years.  So Jesus is widening faith’s boundaries – he’s reaching out to a far wider circle of hurting people where wealth, nationality, gender, and religion do not matter.  Along with this inclusiveness, is also woven Jesus’ sense of justice.  For Jesus, there is no partiality.  Oppression is oppression – in death, in mental state, in health, in spirit and it is incumbent on the faithful, if you’re going to be hanging out with Jesus, to be laboring for the sake of justice.


So, knowing what we know now, we return to Jesus’ words and his question: Are we afraid or cowardly?   Is our faith boundary set to avoid challenge and change?  If we stay in our safe harbors, letting Jesus snooze in the back seat, is anything won for the Realm of God?  Most of us may not feel like we’re in a storm-tossed boat. But was Jesus aiming his criticism at their fear of the storm or was it aimed at their inner grumblings of having to open their safe zone to mingle with Gentiles?  And to bring the question home, perhaps uncomfortably so, of whom are we afraid, or where is our cowardliness holding us back?  You can hear me starting to make the shift here  – where I’m posing the questions not just for you personally but also for the group/community setting.  All of Jesus’ disciples in this day.


If we can answer the who we’re afraid of question, then we can ask what is the faithful response?  In short, the answer is simple.  “Get in the boat.”  There is an old Christian symbol of a cross in a boat. We’re living in the boat. The waves around us can be or are substantial – personal and the church and the country writ large.  There are storms underway.  But without faith to steer the boat - informed by Jesus’ own acts -- WE are libel to drift either into purposeless anxiety or a stagnant backwater where change is not even possible. These same cowering disciples went out not just across the lake to the other side – but across out of their known world in order to bring Jesus faith and justice to a planet – the size of which they could not begin to imagine.  So I leave you with this to ponder and perhaps discuss among yourselves in the coming weeks or months.  What’s steering the Vashon United Methodist Church boat?  Is it Jesus-faith & justice?  Or is it fear?  Where are you being called?  Across to the other side?  Or closer amongst your own?   Amen.  

Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Realm of God is Like A Seed -

 The Realm of God is Like a Seed

Mark Fredericksen, ND, MDiv.

A Sermon Preached at Vashon United Methodist, June 16, 2024

 How many of you are gardeners?  My wife and I have gardened for a large portion of our married life, which is nearing 50 years.  In the Spring, we have the “garden debate” of whose job it is to do what.  I like to prepare the ground and plant the seeds, and for her to water, weed, and harvest.  Yeah.  She doesn’t like weeding any more than I do – so you can imagine the tensions that division of labor puts into our gardening.

I love the planting part because the seeds represent a potential for glimpsing the wideness of God’s Realm. I think I may have mentioned in my sermon here with you back in April that our concepts of God are too small. If our God is too small, then our faith will also be small.  So this week and next, I’m going to try to enlarge your glimpses of the God who cares for you, with a goal, hopefully, of blessing you with a more vibrant certainty because, as Paul said to the Corinthians, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” 

Because I have lived a large chunk of my life learning and every day using what is known about biology and chemistry with a little physics, I want to bring us around to view our faith in God from a whole different angle than we usually use when we’re in church. Angles are important.  If you want to see a rainbow, for instance, you have to be looking from the right angle. So here is another one.

It starts with seeds. Seeds, essentially, are power-packed stardust.  Jesus used seeds in parables intended to awaken faith.  He only had a tenth of the knowledge about seeds that exist today. The startling thing to me about them is that they’re so tiny relative to what they can become.  In the past couple of weeks, I have held a beet seed and a seed from a Sequoia tree in my hand, and they are about the same size & not that different in appearance.  But General Sherman, the name of one of the largest Sequoia trees in the world, down in California, is 31 feet in diameter and 275 feet tall, while a beet – well, you all probably know about how big a beet plant gets.  That’s really amazing, don’t you think?  God is amazing.  All the time.

But that’s just a simplistic beginning point. How do those two different seeds know what they’re supposed to become?  How did/does God write their calling into their being?  Thomas Merton, one of my favorite theologians, Roman Catholic, mystic and good-trouble-making priest (died too soon!), talks in his book Seeds of Contemplation how a tree gives glory to God just by being a tree.  It’s that simple.  You give glory to God just by being you. Just by being.  Being yourself. Not what you do, how much money you have, or what you accomplish by this world’s standards. The glory you give to God is just being you. Period. Now, let me insert here -- Glory is a tricky word that has always been hard for me to get my head around until I realized that it’s the God-Light, the interstellar glow of eternity that God places within each of us at our birth.  One of the old Catechisms asks, “What is the purpose of human beings?”  And the answer is, “The purpose of the human being is to give glory to God.”  So, how cool is that?  That God puts God’s-light, that interstellar glow of eternity --God’s glory-- within us so that we already have what we need to reflect that outwardly back to Godself.  Do you feel the glory?  Perhaps it’s like the mud Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer got slapped on his nose to stop the glow?  It doesn’t remove the glow; it just hides it.  All the shadows, negative self-talk, and ancient power games religious hierarchies played spooning us fear of hell in order to extract money or labor for big cathedrals and shore up a Bishop’s own lack of self-worth?   Sin it is labeled.  Maybe all we need to do is polish up our fogged-over mirror with Love such that through us, others can see God.  1 Corinthians 13 – at first we see dimly, but then face-to-face.  That’s a lot to take in.  Let’s just sit with this a minute and let it soak into our being.  At your birth, the glory, the God-Light, was bestowed upon you.  Nothing can take that from you.  All that is required is to be yourself the best you can be to fulfill the only real purpose God wants or needs from you. Faith is not about doing but about being. Some of us turn out to be Sequoia trees and some weeds, but you know it is all okay because all are equal in God’s sight, appreciation, love, and embrace.

How does a tree or any plant or any living being (or you) know what it is supposed to be?

I’ll tell you how—at least from what humans have learned about the process. It’s all wrapped in a complicated molecule we call DNA. How do I know that DNA is God’s tool of choice in making us? A) Because DNA is so foundational to the blueprint of life itself.  99.9% of your DNA is the same as anyone else you meet. You’re not very doggone different from the person you love or the one you hate.  We share 85-98% of the same DNA with other mammals.  Heck, we share 60% of the same DNA as fruit flies and bananas!  B)  Because of just how impossibly difficult and unlikely it would be for any life to be here at all. DNA is a very uniquely structured molecule. It is made up of thousands, perhaps a million atoms. Five essential atoms: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen were spawned along with the other 93 naturally occurring elements in the furnaces of galaxies and exploding stars light-years from here.  So what are the odds of those elements landing here by random chance?  Through eons of time, they randomly gathered here from comets and meteors and space dust and our galaxy’s and solar system’s movement through the universe.  Then we’re asked by the atheist to believe they just randomly coalesced into a very complicated DNA molecule.   Look – a simple 30-digit combination lock where you need 3 numbers to unlock it has 4,062 possible combinations. If you have 93 elements and you need those 5 particular ones to get together the odds are 1 in 5.2 million. But those five alone don’t make DNA.  They have to be combined into sugars and phosphate groups and nucleotides and bound in a double helix hundreds of thousands of times.  Making the odds mind-numbingly overwhelmingly remote that the first DNA could have just fallen together. Leading me to the conclusion that purposeful loving intelligence with powers to manipulate very, very large bodies as well as quantum-sized particles has been and is at work.  And I will be so bold as to claim, based solely on faith, that human beings are catalysts in the process of Love Unfolding from here on in.

But it has never been enough in God’s mind to have a simplistic black & white world.  Sure, humans have played that game – the game of limiting choice, cutting back freedoms, indoctrinating and controlling one’s own tribe or clan, diminishing or eliminating the other, and hoarding resources. All of that is the antithesis of Love.  It goes against Creation.  It is not who we were created to be.  From Love, we came. In Love, we live. To Love, we return.  And our purpose while on this earth is to reflect God’s glory simply by being the beloved & loving creatures that God instilled us to be. Are you in?

Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Connection of Gardening With The Cosmos

 "With what can we compare the Realm of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."  -- Mark 4:30

It's Springtime, and summer is approaching quickly. Gardens are getting planted or already are. I don't know about you, but every packet of seeds I open surprises me and amazes me with how small the seeds are.  However many billion years it has been since the startup of Project Creation, quantum particles, atoms, and molecules have been generated by the formation of stars and galaxies.  Those particles have traveled untold light years to coalesce on Planet Earth and form themselves into larger molecules that humans have come to call DNA - the blueprint for life.  Looking at a seed, the most amazing part is the DNA molecules packed into those seeds determine what the plant will be.  There is very little difference in size or weight between the seed of a Sequoia tree and a common beet --yet tiny differences in the DNA create all the different plants and their characteristics. The entire encyclopedia of fauna covering Planet Earth is present because of tiny seeds. Viewed even more broadly, all reproductive cells contain this myriad of physical properties we see in every form of life.

The act of gardening connects us through seeds, to the food they supply, and to the life that we possess for however long we have on Earth. We are all being fed by elements of stardust. Is that not a humbling realization?  Many people, a couple of weeks ago, marveled at the Northern Lights brought about by magnetic storms arising from sunspots,  Yet just as amazing is every seed that has ever taken root.  

So, how is this a parable for the Realm of God?  The Realm of God is grounded in diversity.  In all forms of life, enriching and expanding to interact and fill the Earth with good and beautiful things. It is rooted in the primordial birth of the universe, which I believe was (and is) the outpouring of God's love.  That may be too large to get one's head around, but then God incarnated in the form of Jesus to give us the tangible how-to manual on how to behave with one another.  Let's take that to heart.