Sermon Pentecost IV (RCL Cycle B – Proper 7) June 20, 2021

Storms at Sea and Taking a Nap

When I was serving as a Navy chaplain, one of my assignments was aboard U.S.S. CONCORD (AFS-5) out of Norfolk, Virginia.  She was a fleet replenishment ship and we carried “Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil” (she’s now resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii as part of an artificial reef).  Our mission was to make sure in other ships in our battle group had the necessary supplies to help them carry out their mission.  CONCORD was not a large ship, but she could hold her own at sea. 

One day a little windstorm named “Hugo” popped up (this was in September of 1989).  Since the National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit the east coast of the United States somewhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Cape May, New Jersey we were ordered (along with the rest of the Atlantic Fleet) to “put to sea and scatter,” meaning we would ride out the storm at sea.  That night as “Hugo” slammed into Charleston, South Carolina, we face the wrath of an angry sea with waves breaking over the ship, plunging head-long into troughs between the waves and taking “green water” back to the pilothouse.  The ship rode like a chip, because we were only carrying about half of our usual load (replenishment ships and tankers ride better when they are fully loaded.”  Needless to say, no one aboard got any sleep that night.

There is nothing more terrifying than being caught in a storm at sea.  In the midst of the wind and the waves one can get a clear glimpse of just how small and insignificant we are in the face of nature in her rage.

This was where the disciples found themselves in today’s Gospel reading.  There they were, out on the Sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night, in the midst of a raging windstorm.  The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden, violent wind-storms that were known to sink boats.  Peter. Andrew, James and Joun being fishermen understood the peril of the moment, and all of them had friends and acquaintances who disappeared because of one of these storms.

There they are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in a storm that is about to sink their boat.  There were terrified, and rightly so.

They begin looking for Jesus.  Where is he?  In the stern taking a nap – it had been a long day and he was tired.  The disciples wake him up, and he responds by saying to the storm, “Peace, be still.”  Shush!  Be quiet!  The story continues that the sea became calm and the waves ceased.  Jesus chides them, by asking, where is their faith?”

It’s the same for us.  How many times have we felt battered and bruised by the storms and tempests of life?  Jesus response to us is the same as then when he speaks to our storms and says, “Peace, be still!”  In other words, “relax, calm down.” Our faith reminds us that no storm will every overwhelm us.  That’s the Good News for us this morning is when the storms of life arise, and they will, our faith empowers us to hear the still small voice speaking to our souls – “Peace, be still.”  Then maybe we can relax enough to take a nap.




Sermon, June 13, 2021 – Pentecost III

Growing the Kingdom

All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country.

As they went walking along the road, they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled.

“Why on earth is he doing that!” they wondered. “He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?”

Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows.

“That man must be crazy!” they exclaimed. “He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt.” “I don’t like the country!” said one in disgust. “Only crazy people live here.” So, he returned to the city.

His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So, he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change.

His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed, they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer’s work.

When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: “The farmer is crazy! He’s insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I’m disgusted with such an idiot and I’m going back to the city!”

His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.[i]

The passages for today challenge us to look beyond surface appearances and worldly assumptions for deeper meaning and new ways of seeing.

Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel comprises a major sermon of Jesus in which “He began to teach them many things in parables …” (Mk. 4:2). In today’s reading, Jesus portrays God’s Kingdom through the imagery of two parables about seeds.

The parable of the self-growing seed (Mk. 4:26-29), found only in Mark, describes the growth of the Kingdom as a Divine mystery, not dependent on human effort. The farmer who plants the seed actually does nothing to bring about its growth. He sleeps at night and rises in the morning to see what has come forth — until, seemingly without effort or explanation, the grain is ripe in due time. He then takes his sickle to harvest the crop (cf Joel 3:13).

The seeds of the Kingdom that have been planted through the ministry of Jesus will produce a crop that it will be up to the disciples to reap. It is God who gives the growth (cf 1 Cor. 3:6-9), and they must be ready to bring in the harvest. Thus, discipleship requires being prepared to follow the way of Jesus, which brings new life to the world.

This parable not only describes the growth of the Kingdom; it serves as an announcement that the Kingdom, like the harvest, has in fact arrived. The seeds that were planted long ago have been fulfilled in Jesus. The power of Jesus himself will ultimately be manifested, even if it is now hidden like the process of the growth of the seeds. The second parable (vv. 30-32; cf. Mt. 13:31-32; Lk. 13:19) shows how great things come from small and seemingly unpromising beginnings. A mustard seed is so small that it is barely visible (it looks like ground black pepper); yet the mustard plant grows to heights of six feet or more and spreads quickly, taking over large areas (it’s the Israeli version of kudzu). Again, we cannot explain how the Kingdom, like the mustard seed, is able to expand far beyond its original size (Mt. 17: 20; Lk. 17:6). We can only say it is God’s work.

By proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus is declaring his confidence that the work he has begun will grow and sustain life. In fact, the shrub grows so large that “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (v. 32). The Kingdom is not only large, it is also life giving and protective. There is an ironic twist here as well. Great, lofty trees such as the cedar often symbolized powerful nations (cf Ezek.17:22-23; Dan. 4:20-22); but here the common mustard plant — hardy and invasive — represents the Kingdom of God.

So, what does this mean for us on this mid-June summer morning?  I believe it’s this – everything centers on the abiding presence of God in every aspect of our lives.  Just like the farmer who can do nothing but watch his crop grow from seed to ripe grain because the grain grows from God’s working through the natural forces to make the transformation possible.  The farmer may irrigate his field and apply fertilize on it, but the growth process is out of his control.  So, too, with God’s Kingdom.  While we may work at bearing witness to the good news of God in Christ, and care for our brothers and sisters, especially the marginalized, the inner work of the Kingdom belongs to God, not us.  In other words, the Kingdom’s growth is the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world.  We are invited to watch in awe and wonder.



[i] From A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, Nathan Ausubel, ed. (N. Y.: Crown Publishers, 1950)


Sermon, June 6, 2021

Take Heart

Pentecost/Ordinary Time II (RCL Cycle B; Track 1)/6 June 2021

This morning we start our long journey through the “Green Season,” also known as the Season After Pentecost, or Ordinary Time.  The term “ordinary” does not mean common place, every day, or the usual; rather it refers the number of weeks – as in “ordinal numbers.”  Anyway, our time together for the next six months will take us through much of Mark’s Gospel as well as several excursions into the Gospel of John.  Here we are given an extended opportunity to consider the depth and meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is accused of being possessed by Beelzebul, the “ruler of the demons” (Mk. 3:22). Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing had attracted wide attention and a large following. Therefore, he not only drew opposition from the religious authorities, who viewed him as a threat, but also from his family, who misunderstood his actions.

In the opening verses of the reading, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth for a time of respite from the crowds that press upon him and his disciples, to the extent that they don’t even have time to eat. But there were those who thought that Jesus had lost his mind. Unable to comprehend his activities, and perhaps concerned by the unfavorable attention they might draw from the religious and political authorities, some of his family sought to “restrain him” (3:21).

Scribes from Jerusalem who questioned Jesus’ authority were also present. The power manifested by Jesus was clearly undeniable — the blind received their sight; cripples were able to walk; lepers were cleansed; the possessed were restored to normal life. But he also presumed to forgive sins, ate with sinners, and broke Sabbath laws. Thus, the scribes accused Jesus of being in league with the devil and casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the chief of demons. If Jesus transgressed the law, then it followed that his exorcisms and other actions could not be of God.

Jesus refutes their accusation by pointing out that if Satan is divided against himself, his power is annulled. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (v. 23). In like manner, a house or a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

This truth is further illustrated by a parable (v. 27) in which a strong man (Satan) guards his property until he is overpowered by one who is stronger (Jesus as the Messiah), who plunders Satan’s household. With the full power of God, Jesus has burst into the realm controlled by Satan and shattered the effects of evil — the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus goes on to declare that “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter” (v. 28); but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an “eternal sin” (v. 29) that cannot be forgiven. Here blasphemy is used in the sense of abuse or insult.

Jesus had been filled with God’s Spirit (1:10). Therefore, to accuse him of being allied with demonic forces is to attribute the work of God to Satan. This charge is beyond forgiveness because it is a conscious denial of the goodness and grace of God’s Spirit, who is present in all of Jesus’ actions.

What places one in mortal danger is deliberate rejection of God who is at work in and through Jesus. Ironically, by attributing the liberating and healing activity of Jesus to the sphere of Satan, the scribes themselves are committing the ultimate insult toward God.

In verses 31-35, the narrative returns to Jesus’ family, as his mother and brothers wait to see him. When Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v. 33), he calls attention to a broader dimension of relationships. The arrival of the Kingdom of God has changed everything and takes precedence over all other loyalties, even as it redefines relationships. Thus, the person who performs God’s will is the one who truly is mother or brother or sister to him. This pronouncement does not belittle family loyalty, but is a reminder that devotion to God’s purposes is foremost.

In this somewhat puzzling passage, Mark shows us that Jesus is the one who brings liberation from the power of evil. The radical nature of true discipleship is defined in terms of the formation of a community that responds without reservation to the outreach of God’s love through Jesus — and does the will of God.

In the Epistle reading from the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms the connection between the faith of Israel in the past and in the present. The “same spirit of faith” (2 Cor. 4:13) that inspired the Psalmist (cf Ps. 116:10) now enables the preaching of Paul. Through this Spirit we know that God raised Jesus from death and will likewise raise “us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence” (v. 14).

Paul goes on to offer encouragement to the converts in Corinth, telling them not to lose heart. For while in this present life we may know affliction, it will be merely transitory. In our trials we need to focus on what cannot be seen. Our external life — our temporary shelter, or “tent” — may perish. But we know that we will have an eternal dwelling with God: “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (5:1).

This is our hope and consolation today as well. For no matter what we may face in our lives, the future we anticipate with Christ will overcome our suffering and losses. Through Jesus Christ, who died and rose, God’s presence endures forever and will bring about the deepest fulfillment of our souls.  Consider how easy it would have been over this past year with the pandemic to fall into fear and despair.  I believe that the sustaining power and presence of the Holy Spirit kept us and nurtured us even when the only way we could gather was via “Zoom.”

What does this mean for us on this 6th of June 2021?  It’s this.  We are encouraged not to lose heart no matter what the circumstance; because the Reign of God is near at hand and is already here.



Sermon, Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2021


Trinity Sunday (RCL Cycle B)/30 May 2021

 Today is Trinity Sunday and it marks a transition from our past six months considering the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus the Christ to the long green season of Ordinary Time.  This six-month long season goes by several names – the Season after Pentecost, the Season after Trinity, as well as Ordinary Time.  This first Sunday is always given over to a consideration of the Holy Trinity – that core doctrine of the Christian faith.  It is a Sunday that will see preachers through-out the Church struggle to describe a mystery that will never be solved.  A majority of sermons preached today will skate on the edge of heresy, and more than a few will fall off into the abyss.

 Allow me from the outset state that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery, and we will NEVER be able to wrap our minds around it.  I know that even after forty years of ordained ministry have been able to wrap my mind around it.

This Trinity Sunday I would like to invite us to think of the Holy Trinity as an on-going, eternal conversation between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier.  This is a three-way conversation that invites us to first stand silent before the Holy and second to enter into that conversation as beloved children. Since human speech is inadequate to describe the mystery of the manifold aspects of the infinite God; one of the ways we get a glimpse of the glory and majesty of the Divine is through the visions of prophets and mystics, as seen in the call of the Prophet Isaiah.

Our first reading describes Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry in terms of a vision of the Holy One in the Temple.  Isaiah sets the beginning of his ministry in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), probably around 736 B. C. E. (Before the Common Era) His vision unites heaven and earth, as Isaiah describes the heavenly court where the Lord is enthroned in a vast temple attended by six-winged seraphs singing the familiar threefold hymn “Holy, holy, holy …” (v. 3) that anticipates praise of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As Isaiah views this splendor, he feels unworthy, declaring himself “a man of unclean lips” (v. 5) from a sinful nation. However, his sin is purged as his lips are cleansed by a live coal brought by a seraph from the heavenly altar (vv. 6-7). Thus, when he hears the Lord call for someone to send as the bearer of the Word, Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

This passage reflects the profound sense of awe and wonder at the glory of God, as well as the transforming power of God’s presence that enables a positive response to God’s call. Here we see that prophetic speech is not derived from human insight and intelligence but is a gift — indeed a demand — from God.

The Gospel reading gives us another example of Divine revelation and invitation to spiritual transformation through the story of Nicodemus, a truth-seeker and a leader of Israel’s religious establishment who recognizes a unique spiritual power in Jesus. But the circles in which Nicodemus moves do not consider Jesus respectable; thus, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” thereby honoring him with the title reserved for those learned in Torah and masterful in teaching (Jn. 3:2). Further signifying his respect, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus has come from God, because of the signs and good works he performs.

Jesus then proceeds to tell Nicodemus what is most necessary for salvation: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). This is a transformation from the inside out, a reorientation of the self, not toward the world, but directly toward God.

However, Nicodemus cannot move beyond a literal understanding of the words of Jesus. When one has reached full maturity, the thought of a genuinely fresh start is as difficult to imagine as reentering the womb. But the rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a spiritual rather than a physical birth.

Jesus continues by saying that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (v. 5). That is to say, everyone who would enter must be sealed with water upon profession of belief and repentance as required in John’s baptism. Fully renouncing the values that separate one from God is accomplished by receiving the Holy Spirit, whom John said Jesus would bring (Jn. 1:33).

Birth from above by the Spirit is a gift of faith that enables one to believe. Birth from flesh, the acceptance of personal identity on a purely earthly level, cannot bring anyone into this experience. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Thus, spiritual transformation derives from Divine, not human, authority and power.

Jesus then compares the Spirit to the mystery of the wind: one can observe the effects of the wind, but no one can control it. In the same manner, the activity of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the transformed lives of those who accept the Spirit. Like the wind, God’s Spirit cannot be predicted or fit into any human categories (v. 8).

But Nicodemus still remains confused and cannot move beyond his literal understanding and into the world of the Spirit. When he asks, “How can these things be?” (v. 9), Jesus chides him by asking how one who is a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10) cannot comprehend what Jesus is telling him. If Nicodemus is not able to believe the evidence of “earthly things” Jesus has told him, how can he even begin to imagine “heavenly things” (v. 12)?

Jesus declares in verse 13 that he can speak of these heavenly things because, as the Son of Man — the link between heaven and earth — he is the one who has “descended from heaven” to bring eternal life. The “lifting up” in verse 14 refers to the crucifixion, but also recalls Moses setting a serpent on a pole so that those bitten by snakes could look up and be healed — a symbol of salvation (Num. 21:8-9).

The Johannine connection between belief in Christ and eternal life is fully stated in the familiar words of verse 16. Through the selfless giving of the Son, the way to eternal life is opened for those who believe in his name. We have the promise that the Son comes not to condemn the world, but to offer salvation for the whole world.

Thus, through this dialogue with Nicodemus we learn that God, as Father, offers us boundless love.

God the Son is the one who came down from heaven; through him we have eternal life.

And finally, God the Holy Spirit infuses our lives in mysterious and surprising ways.

Another way to illustrate this idea of the eternal conversation between the members of the Godhead is in the icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” painted by Andrei Rublev in Russia during the 15th century.  A copy is in your Order of Worship.  It is a depiction of the three angelic beings who visit Abraham in the Book of Genesis.  They are seated around a table.  The being on the right extends his hand toward an empty place at the table.  Notice the square on the table’s pedestal.  It is thought that the icon originally had a mirror placed there so that the one looking at the icon would see his/her reflection.  The extended hand seems to be an invitation to the one looking at the icon to take a seat at the table and join the conversation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf puts it this way

Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. … Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. [i]

On this Trinity Sunday, once again, we are invited into a divine conversation that will transform us and renew us.