The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

Fear Factor (sermon 9/20/15)

ahmed mohamed

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgm-y2NOG0I&feature=youtu.be

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”   – Mark 9:30-27

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I’m sure you’ve all seen the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old Muslim-American high school student from Irving, Texas, who used his expertise and passion for electronics to make a digital clock, and took it to school to show his teacher – who completely freaked out and turned him into the school administration saying the clock looked like a bomb. Then the police were called and they handcuffed and arrested him for supposedly making a “hoax bomb.” And even though the police eventually dropped the charges due to the huge public outcry, never once in this whole ridiculous story has the school or the police ever apologized for their overreaction – causing thinking people all around the world to just scratch their heads and wonder if Irving, or Texas, or America, is full of crazy people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – which, ironically enough, Ahmed may actually become – to understand that this crazy overreaction was the result of irrational fear, arising out of Ahmed’s name, religion, and the color of his skin. Fear is one of our most basic, reptilian-brain reactions. It’s at the root of virtually every negative thing we do, and every good thing we leave undone. And it’s got a lot to do with what’s going on in today’s gospel text.

We’ve all heard this story many times. We’ve heard the “last shall be first” and “welcome the little children” messages in any number of sermons. But while they can stand on their own as independent thoughts, Jesus is using them here with a very specific purpose. As we heard last week, Jesus had been predicting his arrest and execution, and it wasn’t sitting well with the disciples. It meant that this whole movement they were part of was about to change dramatically. Jesus, the founder and leader of this movement, was soon to be out of the picture, and that caused uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in their hearts. At first, the fear paralyzed them into inaction – they couldn’t bring themselves to ask Jesus for details of what he was talking about. But then that same fear led them to get into a power struggle, arguing about who was the greatest among them – who was the heir-apparent in the movement, who’d take over when Jesus was gone and who’d have power and authority not just in the by-and-by, and also the here-and-now. Their fear, their anxiety, over this looming power vacuum was causing them to think they could resolve things by being the position of power and control, so they could call the shots.

That fear at the root of their actions was what Jesus was speaking to when he said what he did to his disciples. Fear had paralyzed them from doing good, and was goading them to do wrong. Jesus pointed out to them that the solution to their fears didn’t lie in power or position or control. He was telling them that their fear was causing them to miss what God wanted them to focus on. They were missing out on living the abundant, loving, just, compassionate life that God had designed them for and called them to. Instead of focusing on fear, Jesus called on them to focus on faith.

A lot of times, we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t think that’s really true. Doubt is actually a necessary component of faith; otherwise it wouldn’t be faith at all, it would be certainty. The opposite of faith actually seems to be fear. And faith isn’t just intellectual assent of something. It isn’t just belief. As the preacher David Lose once pointed out, faith is actually movement. Faith is taking a step, even a small step forward to living more like Christ, in the face of doubt and fear. Dr. King meant the same thing when he famously said “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is movement in the face of feelings that would keep you from moving. Faith is deepened and fear is overcome, in the doing.

Pretty much whatever sin or shortcoming you can think of, fear, in some way or another, is at the root of it. Fear within each of us keeps us imprisoned in a mentality of anxiety and scarcity. It keeps us from living that abundant life that Christ opens the door to for us. So today, when we think about the fear of those disciples and Jesus’ words that spoke to those fears – What are your fears? Are they related to health, family, work, finances?

I fear what the future might bring for me. I fear insecurity and instability in my life, and I fear whether I’ll ever be able to set roots down again and restart a normal life. I fear for the future of my parents as they’re getting older, and I fear for my own health as I age. I fear for my daughters, that they might have to endure some of the terrible things I’ve had to go through in my own life. I fear that some day when I least expect it, someone’s going to come up behind me in a restaurant and sucker-punch me, or worse, just because I happened to be holding George’s hand. I fear over whether I’ll be able to have some financial security in my retirement. Those are some of my fears. Some of the things that make me wake up in a cold sweat and feeling like a steel band is tightening across my chest. That keep me from experiencing and living and enjoying that life that God wants for me.

I share those fears with you because here, in this is the place if nowhere else, we need to be open and honest with each other as God’s people. We need to speak the truth, and hear in truth. And I share those fears with you because it wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to name your fears, even if only to yourselves, in your own minds, if I didn’t do the same thing. So now I ask you to think about exactly that: What, exactly, are the fears in your life? What’s holding you back? What’s leading you down the wrong path? What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Seriously think about that, and actually put those fears into words, to yourself, because one of the odd things about fear is that just giving it a name, and putting it in concrete words and acknowledging it, automatically takes a lot of its power away. Here’s another little exercise that I stole from David Lose. I’ve done this same sort of thing in other settings, too, and now I guess it’s your turn. When you came in today, you got a 3×5 index card. Take that card, and maybe right now, or maybe some time later today, write down on one side a fear in your life. And then, on the other side, write down some small step of faith that you can make this week – it might be something very small, and it doesn’t even have to be directly related to the particular fear you wrote down. Then carry that card with you, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse. Commit to doing that one step of faith this week. If you get it done, great! Then think of another one and write it down, and keep carrying the card until you get it done, too. The point behind the exercise is that by starting small, taking small steps, we can strengthen our faith to the point where our faith can overcome our fears. It doesn’t mean that the fear disappears, but we’ll have faithful ways to deal with it, to respond to it, to overcome its negative power and control over our lives. Eventually, by repeating that same process of facing our fears, naming them, and taking more and more steps of faith, we’ll be able to overcome even the really big fears and anxieties in our lives. We’ll be able to deal with times of uncertainty or anxiety. We’ll discover that that abundant, peaceful, joyful life that we want, and that God wants for us, is really right here in front of us. And with God’s help, each of us will be able to step out in faith, even if it’s just a little one at first, and grow and strengthen over time as we take more and more steps up the staircase.

We can do that. We can do it! It really isn’t rocket science. Really, we have to do it. Because if we don’t – if we allow our fear and anxiety to overpower us, to take control over our thoughts and actions, then we’ll all just be a problem waiting to happen. We’ll always be just one moment of anxiety away from doing something wrong or hurtful or stupid, taking us further away from the direction God is leading us. In our own lives, in our churches, in our society in general, that’s the ticking time bomb we should really be worried about.

Thanks be to God.