Message for 01-25-15: “LISTENING to the Call” Scripture: Mark 1:14-20

On Wednesday night, Jodi and I walked over to the middle school for a discussion on stress and how it affects tweens and teens. While much of what we heard was good, valid information, the one piece that really stuck with me was a comment made by one of the teen panelists. This young woman, a high school junior, remarked that one of the most important things parents and adults can do to help young people is to listen. To listen actively, openly, and without judgment is key to getting folks to really understand what is going on in the lives of young people; listening helps teens to open up authentically and to reveal entirely the various stressors and tough experiences that are a part of their world. To hear this reminded me again that even though my son is 22, I still have a parental responsibility to him, and that a major piece of living into that role is to listen.

For me, listening means going way deeper than just to hear something. To listen is to work to understand the meanings and experiences behind the words that are said; to attend to and heed what we hear. It is to earnestly and intentionally participate in the two way street of communication; to not just give a superficial or casual response when someone speaks to or with us.

Listening is also VITAL when considering the tools of faith; as we respond to the scripture read or the words offered in prayer or ministry; or for us as Friends as we listen in the holy silence. This is nowhere more evident than here and now as we consider the words of Mark 1:14-20. We’ve heard these words or others like them often. Anyone who attends worship regularly throughout their lifetime has heard these words many times. However, to fully realize the message contained in them, we must listen. We must make an effort to understand and internalize the meaning of this passage; for within it, we may discover the life-changing power of the person who speaks and the events or actions that his words provoke.

You’ve got to love the Gospel of Mark…it’s the oldest of the 4 accounts of the life of Jesus that we have. It’s the shortest. Its style is both simple and super concentrated. Scholars recognize that within it’s boundaries we can uncover the historical Jesus and the clearest expressions of the meaning of the cross to Jesus’ followers then and now.

That all is initiated with the reading we heard this morning; if we take care to really listen to the words, we begin to realize the importance of what Jesus came to do.

The words Jesus speaks here are his first ones in this gospel; “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

“the time is fulfilled…” WHAT time?! The Greek word used here for time is not the minutes, hours, and days of regular, ordinary chronos time. This is the serendipitous Kairos; a word used to express that “right or opportune moment”. It is the culminating instance that brings forth God’s purpose. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. Kairos speaks to the crucial instance when God will be revealed. The phrase “kingdom of God” immediately suggests to the listener that God is in charge as ruler in contrast to the other kingdoms of the day who built huge palaces and towns to convey their power and authority. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was not bolstered by the construction of monumental buildings and great cities. God’s kingdom is manifest in the human embrace of God’s rule through repentance and faith.

The declaration concerning the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is followed by an imperative—or a command: “repent and believe in the good news”. This imperative to repent and believe, turning away from prior trusts and loyalties, is a response to the claim that the kingdom is at hand; that God is already graciously at work.

To repent does not mean to just change our ways, but rather to radically reorient our whole being so that we might receive and fully participate in the kingdom; which is the good news. Additionally Bible scholars Bartlett and Tayler say this about repenting:

We do not repent in order to usher in the time of redemption, but because that time is already at hand. We do not become fishers in order to meet the quota that will summon up the reign of God, but because that reign has already come near. And we do not follow Jesus with the hopes that one day we might find him, but because he has already come to us and called us. As Mark tells the time, God takes the initiative. The reign of God is not the product of discipleship, but the precondition of it. The Greek word translated good news—evangelion– is the one from which we get the word “evangelical”. In our culture, this term means “conservative” both with regard to politics and religion, or the emphasis of personal salvation by the instantaneous accepting of Jesus into one’s life. The present meaning of evangelical does not do justice to what Mark’s author was suggesting. In the words of Pope Benedict the 16th:

This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world.  The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium, regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful and pleasant.  The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better.

When the [gospel writers] adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this:  What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here — a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk, but reality… Mark speaks of the “Gospel of God,” the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God.  And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place.  For here it is the real Lord of the world — the living God — who goes into action.

Jesus’ first activity after proclaiming the presence of God’s kingdom and the power of this good news, imploring his listeners to get onboard with decisive, life-changing reorientation and new identities, is to gather some followers that exemplify and model what he’s talking about. You talk about radical reorientation; how’s walking away from a vocation and a lifestyle that is stable and secure in order to follow Jesus who knows where? In calling the Galilean fishermen to discipleship, Jesus does not just ask them to add one more task to their busy lives. He calls them into new ways of being… These disciples leave behind a whole matrix of work, family, and place—all the stuff of a new identity. The best translation of verse 17 will reflect this new identity. The NRSV has Jesus say, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This makes it sound as if fishing for people were a task. The better translation receives fishing for people as a new identity. A literal translation might read, “Follow me, and I will make you to become fishers for people.” There is a world of difference between “I will make you fish” and “I will make you to become fishers.” “I will make you fish” gives us one more activity to work into our datebooks. (“Right, Jesus, fish for people. How about every fourth Monday? Can anyone else do fourth Mondays?”) But “I will make you to become fishers”? That promises a whole new life.  

Let’s step back from these word meanings and consider their importance in our lives today.

By LISTENING to this passage we are invited to understand that Jesus is declaring HERE AND NOW AND FOREVER, the presence of God’s presence and power in a kingdom that should inspire us to radically reorient our lives by believing in the reality of the message that changes everything. The difference that this makes should alter our identities personally, professionally, and as members of this faith community. What could it mean that we have already exactly what we need to possess and prosper a meaningful life that shows and shares this way? What parts of our lives can we eliminate? What paths might we avoid or re-do in order to follow Jesus?

As we continue to explore the gospel of Mark this year; we will see that the author has some specific ideas about what it means to become fishers for people; as well as receive examples from Jesus’ life and ministry that illustrate it. Are we up for the journey? First– and then always– we MUST listen…

In my house, if I had 10 dollars for all the times Dennis and Andy and I said things like “what did you say?!” “I didn’t hear you say that!” or “WHEN did you say that?!” to one another, I could probably greatly reduce the meeting’s gap between what we have and what we need for this year. And, this condition is not mainly a result of hearing loss by the parents…

Friends; LET US LISTEN—LISTEN CAREFULLY AND CLOSELY to what is being offered here in scripture; to what God is calling us to do each and every day. To LISTEN and then take inside ourselves deeply these words of Jesus, will CHANGE OUR LIVES.    ALL WE NEED TO DO IS LISTEN.

Italicized quotes from:

Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 10223-10226). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Message for 01-18-15 “Immerse Yourself!”, scriptures Genesis 1:1-4, Mark 1:4-11

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Farmington Friends Meeting; the only other programmed meeting in the yearly meeting. I had been invited to officiate at the dedication of Pastor Margaret Webb’s two children—Teddy and Claire. It was a delightful experience! Both children are beautiful creations of God and their parents. A dedication among Friends is an opportunity to bless a new life, and for the faith community to officially recognize the role they play in supporting and nurturing the children in their midst. We are not the only denomination who dedicates babies and young children; however we are THE ONLY ONE that does not baptize people with water at any stage in their faith life….For many denominations the rite of Baptism signals membership into Christianity– in addition to that particular denomination, as well as a blessing. Many baptized Christians view their baptism as the initiation of their Christian journey…

As Quakers or Friends, we have a slightly different view of baptism and the use of water for that ritual. I’m quoting Wilmer Cooper who says: “For more than three centuries Friends have proclaimed the essentially spiritual nature of the believers’ relationship to God. For most this has lead to a testimony against the outward use of sacraments. . . .the inward way to the Spirit is not to be dependent upon rites, ceremonies, and liturgical aids, Friends maintain that “the presence of Christ in the midst” can be a living experience for all who open themselves to the Spirit of God.” So because we view the crucial experience of baptism to be inward, spiritual, and something that can happen anywhere-anytime, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about water and the way it can reflect or symbolize God and God’s qualities or aspects. I think that sometimes this is a detriment and impediment to our exploration of the reality of spiritual things….that we don’t often talk about water and its role in the relationship of God with God’s people. Obviously, based on our list, water has been a key concept or ingredient down through time according to scripture. So-let’s talk about and explore water as it pertains to our faith journeys a bit further today!

“What do you know about water? A lot. You drink it, you bathe in it, you swim in it, wash your clothes in it. lt is necessary for life. Water can be benign, as when we use it for washing, it’s use can be healthful, as when we use it for drinking, and it can be downright dangerous as when there is an undertow and one is pulled into the depths of the ocean.” Water is present in both scriptures read this morning…in very specific, useful, dangerous ways. They both invite, encourage, and challenge their readers to be immersed — which is what the literal meaning of the word baptism is-to be soaked and saturated in the presence, love, power of the divine, as the divine creates, interacts, influences, redeems humanity down through time to right here and now.

Let’s look a little closer at these scriptures. What exactly are we being called to immerse ourselves in?! Both the Genesis and the Mark readings contain the element of starting something new…ln Genesis we are at the beginning of everything as God creates the known world. In Mark, Jesus is called to begin his public ministry with a new awareness of what it means for him to be God’s child. We’re reminded that as God begins with creation there are dangerous, strong forces that must come under God’s control in order for there to be life. Also in Mark, if one lays aside the “Nice, tranquil scene of John dipping Jesus beneath the waters of the river and Jesus hearing God up above claiming him as God’s beloved son, and a sweet dove, the holy spirit, hovering above” and really reads this description it’s realized that the heavens are torn apart and the spirit of God enters INTO Jesus: THUNK. This too is a scene of much power, and a strong unsettling dynamic… lf God has torn open the heavens, then where is God?! GOD lS ON THE LOOSE!!! Right in our neighborhood….! These beginnings invite and challenge us to begin again, with new awareness, the journey– within which God is up close and personal, and the ruler of powers which can shake up our world! We certainly aren’t in control are we?! Are we ready to begin — immersed in this wonderful, dangerous, redeeming water of life?

Another presence in both our stories is God’s spirit… lt is the spirit of God that speaks to the waters and reigns them in “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”.
It is the spirit of God that forms and fashions all creation. ln Mark, God’ spirit descends, and then enters in, ready to accompany Jesus as he moves out from that river. This is where I really appreciate the Quaker interpretation of the baptism experience… The key element is God’s spirit, which can and will enter into each human’s being as a constant and continual guide and companion. Can you feel that? Do you connect with that presence here in worship during the silence? Or on the way to shop or to work? ls it that spirit which enables you to think and do during times of stress, fear, or joy? lt can be…

There were two readings I came upon this week that for me captured the essence of what we are called to in these waters of God from scripture, and I want to share them with you now:

First, this excerpt written by Rufus Jones from Britain Yearly Meeting’ Faith and Practice:

While I was too young to have any religion of my own, I had come to a home where religion kept its fires always burning. We had very few ‘things’, but we were rich in invisible wealth. I was not ‘christened’ in a church, but I was sprinkled from morning to night with the dew of religion. We never ate a meal which did not begin with a hush of thanksgiving; we never began a day without ‘a family gathering’ at which mother read a chapter of the Bible after which there would follow a weighty silence. These silences, during which all the children of our family were hushed with a kind of awe, were very important features of my spiritual development. There was work inside and outside the house waiting to be done, and yet we sat there hushed and quiet, doing nothing. I very quickly discovered that something real was taking place. We were feeling our way down to that place from which living words come, and very often they did come. Some one would bow and talk with God so simply and quietly that He never seemed far away. The words helped to explain the silence. We were now finding what we had been searching for. When I first began to think of God I did not think of Him as very far off. At meeting some of the Friends who prayed shouted loud and strong when they called upon Him, but at home He always heard easily and He seemed to be there with us in the living silence. My first steps in religion were thus acted. It was a religion which we did together. Almost nothing was said in the way of instructing me. We all joined together to listen for God, and then one of us talked to Him for the others. In these simple ways my religious disposition was being unconsciously formed and the roots of my faith in unseen realities were reaching down far below my crude and childish surface thinking.

And then this recent writing of Frank Yamada from Christian Century Magazine:

When I remember my baptism, I reach back to hear the voice that speaks to me out of the waters—the voice that proclaims to a world of conflict that we are all “very good” and claims us all as “Beloved”. The Spirit moves in and out of our busy lives, and there are times when I recognize the Spirit’s hovering presence beckoning all to a different otder, to a new creation. As I reach for the water, whether in a font or on the ocean’s edge, I find myself trying to connect to the chaotic, life-giving, and mysterious power that resides in its depths. One day I hope that I can say along with Langston Hughes: “I’ve known rivers; ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

So again, I query; are YOU ready to enter into the pool of God’s grace-filled and dangerous power and newness? To be swept up and held in the waves of God’s eternally near and abiding Spirit?

COME ON IN! The water’s fine!

Immerse yourself!

message from 01-04-15: “Abiding and Pruning”; with scripture– John 15:1-12

In June, I shared some information with folks at meeting for business regarding the current demographic make up of our community…It was that when I considered the members and attenders who we saw in worship or heard from– at least on an occasional basis, I counted over 10 people whose ages were above 80 years old; at least 7 who were over 85; and about 4 over 90. Highlighting these statistics– that reflect an aging population –opened up for me a consideration of other ongoing changes in the meeting. We seemed to be gathering less people at our fundraiser dinners; as well as extra curricular events like luncheons, book studies, and trips that also attract a smaller number of participants. Our efforts this year at recruiting folks to serve on our standing committees and to fulfill leadership roles have yielded MANY blank slots. There are less people consistently in worship, and our newsletter has ceased to exist. Now, the ongoing changes are not all negative. We are a group that over the past few years have obtained a better handle on the financial numbers—expenditures and income. We have successfully planned and calendared fundraisers each year at a brainstorming session. Our efforts at communication now include a website, a Facebook page, and extensive use of email. We have a small core of young children who are so interested and engaged in their Sunday school class. In the fall, our series on Quaker Faith and Practice yielded a relatively large group who met for discussion after worship each Sunday. All of these changes –for better or for worse—indicate that we are not the same meeting as we were 10 years ago or 5 years ago or even last year. These changes have also culminated in a number of informal conversations that expressed concerns about the future of our meeting…Our goal here today is to bring all these variables into a forum where as many of us as possible can worship, discuss, and discern a way forward in the light of all our transitions.

The scripture reading we heard earlier from John is set in the context of a time of turmoil and anxiety among the followers of Jesus. These are a part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples just after the Last Supper. His comments are given in the form of a farewell discourse, which is a common literary practice of that time that gives the last testament or farewell remarks and instructions of a famous or important person.

One of the major objectives of this discourse or speech is to prepare and equip the disciples to carry on after Jesus departs. Believers today understand these words to be an ongoing encouragement to modern disciples, which describe and guide our efforts to remain a faithful and viable and life giving community within the ebbs and tides of an ever-changing world.

Jesus describes our communities—then and now—as a living, breathing, growing, changing plant. Jesus himself is the vine—the source of all the branches; the core of the plant that makes it a plant. Disciples—then and now—are branches, that when connected to the vine, grow and produce fruit. God is the gardener who tends the whole thing—fertilizing, caring for, loving, and pruning—all over time to keep the plant healthy, and growing and developing and producing.

When I consider our meeting, set against this description of Jesus’, I envision a beautiful plant originating from a vine that we call Christ, Source, Word, Spirit, or Light with a number of branches heading in a number of directions in various phases of fruit development. If we follow through with this illustration, we, as faithful productive branches, will be pruned by the Gardener, as we abide—or stay connected or persevere or remain with the Vine. I also am led to consider the changes we have been through and the changes we will continue to experience as a part of that pruning process.

It is challenging for me to consider that pruning as something positive. I really love the good old days, and the people and activities that comprise them. As bible commentator Barbara J. Essex says: The paradox is that the vinegrower must cut away lifeless, unproductive branches and prune those branches that are productive. At some point, all the branches need to be cut. Young vines are not allowed to produce fruit for the first few years. This means a drastic pruning is needed each season so the plant can develop to its fullest. Vineyards, then, are long-term investments and labor intensive…The mystery of these actions—cleansing and pruning—is that the plant looks useless and dead. Yet the branches’ connection to the vine ensures new life and new growth. When God is doing the maintenance, we are assured that new life and new growth will result. Despite what the plant looks like, its connection to the vine renders it alive and not dead.”

New York Yearly Meeting Superintendent Christopher Sammond describes last year’s pruning of his apple orchard in this way: “When we moved onto our property the old apple orchard had not been pruned for many years. I invited Friend Ron Peterson to come take a look. He removed all the dead trees, and then pruned those that remained. I was shocked when I looked at the pruned trees. I thought they would die as well. So much had been cut and what was left, looked ill equipped to grow and develop, let alone bear fruit.” When Christopher confronted Ron about his methods, Ron said that the goal of someone who prunes is to make sure that each branch get the benefit of direct sunlight. The result of Ron’s pruning of Christopher’s apple trees was a GREAT ABUNDANCE of apples this fall. The neighbors say they have never seen this old orchard look so good and healthy.

Another account of someone’s pruning efforts was that the one apple tree in their woods was one fall, pruned “by the book”, which means seemingly drastic trimming was done to it. A severe ice storm late in the spring annihilated all the surrounding tress. The pruned apple tree not only survived but thrived and produced a great amount of fruit.

If we are in fact being pruned a bit, let us work to abide well within this environment of God’s love. As previously mentioned, the John passage goes on to describe abiding as remaining connected to the Vine, which is Jesus. Another synonym used for abide is “wait”. As Quakers we understand waiting to not be a passive phase, but to entail active seeking and learning and being made ready to receive the nurture that promotes growth. As disciples are nurtured and prepared for bearing fruit, “Jesus invites those disciples to enter into a more profound relationship by urging them to abide in him. Rather than sounding a note of despair, Jesus speaks a word of hope and trust for their souls. Reassurance comes from remaining close to Jesus, weathering whatever storms may come. Jesus tells the disciples to abide in him, as he abides in them. In his translation The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene H. Peterson uses the words, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” The notion of making a home, of finding the heart’s true home in Jesus, brings a settled peace to the turmoil that often characterizes our lives.”

My hope and prayer for us as a faith community is that we see this season of change in our meeting not as turmoil or disorder or an ending, but rather as the opportunity to discover and experience new ways of producing the fruit of abiding in that divine presence which enables, encourages, prunes, and challenges us so that we work to bring forth the Reign of God in this time and place with those of us who are here, as well as with those who will join us.

The paper of queries that we distributed last week outlines a way to engage in a process that can illuminate our vineyard with the Light necessary to grow fruit as disciples of the one who is our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. I also want to mention at this time that we are accompanied in our efforts today as we consider these queries, by the thoughts, prayers and Light of a rich and diverse collection of many who know and love this meeting Quakers and non-Quakers alike.

As we continue in worship, I am going to offer a couple of the queries for your consideration, along with some personal comments that have resulted from 10 years of ministry among you. You are encouraged to record your own responses to these queries for us to utilize as we continue to discuss and discern together.

Who are we called to be?

What is the mission or purpose or reason for existing as a faith community?

To experience and share WITH EVERYONE the mercy, grace, love and peace of God from a programmed Quaker perspective.

What values will shape and guide our work together? Our testimonies are a good start.

What is God’s Vision for us? To invite, engage, support those who will accept it from us; to be ACTIVE in the community…to be in prayer for those in our community.

Where are we?

What is the specific geographical, social cultural context in which we are located?

IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR VILLAGE!!!

A community affected by the close by recreational opportunities, increasingly culturally diverse population.

What are the needs of the people around us? Many need basic necessities, treatment for addictions, support for young families.

What issues are unique to our community? Pollution of the Hudson River, the presence of a path that provided heroin and other drugs to this area, the need for a new source of employment.

When are we?

What is going on in this season of our history?

What changes, issues, opportunities can we see appearing on the horizon?