The Tiny Dog Now…

(sermon 7/22/18)

doug the pug
Just for the record, this sermon actually has nothing to do with dogs.

Mark 6:30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” If you grew up primarily speaking and writing English, and you’re older than, say, 25 or so, you probably know that sentence. You know it because when you were learning to write cursive, you likely had to write that sentence over and over again, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet. It’s a silly, maybe even absurd statement, but it’s a useful device that helps us to understand or remember something; it’s a means to an end. We use those kinds of devices in a number of aspects of our lives. We remember the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES – for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In music, we remember the lines of the Treble staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine; or the Bass staff lines, Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Today, I’m going to very briefly introduce you to another one of those devices, one that many preachers have been taught as a tool to help them organize and structure and stay on point as they develop a sermon. There are all sorts of ways to prepare a sermon, but this is one common tool. It’s the sentence “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine.” TTDNIM. Here’s what those initials represent:

The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine

Today, I want to focus on the “N” in that list – what existential human need does the text speak to, both within the story itself, and by extension, in our own lives?

We heard in this gospel story that Jesus and the disciples had been working hard, and they were being besieged by people coming to hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. As the story begins, Jesus tells his disciples that they all needed to get away for a bit to enjoy a little bit of downtime – similar to a text we looked at a few weeks ago. But the people still followed them, and we end up with this story of Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A lot of people get caught up in the miraculous aspect of the story, and in all honesty, it is a curiosity to wonder about, how it all happened. I suppose if it had happened here, around this time of year, it might have been a lot more believable if instead of fish, they’d started out with a few zucchini, since those seem to just multiply beyond all human comprehension this time of year.

Putting the miraculous aspect aside though, at least for today, can we focus on Jesus, and the disciples and all those who had gathered to be there with Jesus, and see what’s going on here as a model for the church, in this sense: Like us, they all had gathered in that place, coming with different backgrounds, different motivations, different thoughts, different energy levels; bringing all of their own particular problems and stresses and needs. And there’s the key word – they’d all arrived with their own particular needs. And together, in that time, in that place, their particular needs were being addressed, being spoken to. They were being taught. They were hearing God’s good news that they were loved. They were being healed. They were being fed. They were being reassured that they mattered to God, in a world that often told them they didn’t.

And ironically, considering that Jesus and the disciples had originally intended to escape from the crowds, maybe their existential needs were being addressed, too. Maybe in that moment, when they were feeling exhausted, and worn down, they had begun to wonder if they were really making a difference in anyone’s life at all. If they were making a dent. If it was all worth it. Now, in this moment, this existential need of their own, to know that they really were making a difference in people’s lives, was being addressed, too, when they saw how these people’s lives were being affected in this dramatic, truly miraculous way. Maybe their existential need at the moment was validation, and they definitely got that in a big way.

So does this idea that this story can be seen in at least one way as an illustration of what the church is like hold water? Personally, I think it does. We all come here with our own stuff and stresses. We all come here with our own needs, not wants, and for the most part, not material needs, but rather, emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe we have concerns about our health – a troubling diagnosis, or a long recovery. Or maybe we have concerns at work – maybe the boss is a jerk, or maybe they can’t keep their foot out of their own mouth, and that’s going to create instability and stress. Or maybe we’re dealing with a strained family relationship. Or we’re battling loneliness, or we’re feeling like we’re insignificant, that the world has passed us by. Or we’re just burned out and exhausted by the chaotic, divisive nature of our public discourse these days, and you just want to get away from it all.

All these things, and so many other examples we could come up with, create deep, existential need within us. And in most of the examples I could think of, they all seem to boil down to the need to know these core, essential Christian truths:  a.) That the God who created all this, and us, too, is really present and caring for us, even when it’s hard to see or feel that presence; b.) That we’re loved by that God and by others around us; and c.) That our lives matter to that God, and others around us. 

A part of our Presbyterian Constitution, part of our Book of Order, is a list of the six “Great Ends of the Church” – what the Church is supposed to be all about. One of those “Great Ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” We the Church, were established to be the original “safe space” for people. We haven’t always lived up to that, but we can, and sometimes do. We were established to be a literal “sanctuary” where we can sometimes get away from all the craziness and negativity and hopelessness and uncertainty outside our walls, and where this existential need of ours is answered by proclaiming, and reminding, and reinforcing those three truths: God is present and caring for us even when it doesn’t feel like it. We are loved. We matter.

And like the gospel story we heard this morning, together, we help to meet that existential need for one another – bringing all of our own stuff and stress and baggage, along with our goodness, along for the journey, and somehow, with God’s help, melding ourselves into a community who has committed to love and accept and support one another through it all, and to let one another know just how loved and important they are. We make this happen, together, when we truly are a “safe space” for one another. While we can’t, and we aren’t supposed to, just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of these walls – some of those other “Great Ends of the Church” make that clear – we need to be able, sometimes, to set all that outside stuff, and craziness, aside and simply enjoy the fellowship that we have here, among ourselves. To provide one another with the kind of love, and acceptance, that maybe isn’t possible anywhere else throughout our week. We need to be what the Church always is when it’s at its best – a real, genuine, intentional, mostly non-biological family.

We love one another not in spite of, but because of, our differences and diversity, instead of hating and mistrusting one another because of them, the way so much of the world seems to be geared right now. Here, inside these walls, we recognize one another as God’s people – all different, all flawed, all in our own way a little weird and funky and half-baked – and if you think you aren’t, you’re mistaken – your friends are just keeping a secret from you; trust me, we all fit the pattern. But that’s OK, because we’ve all committed to loving one another, with God’s help, just as we are; and because God already loves us, just as we are.

That’s a different way to live than the world says is normal. It’s a strange way. Some would say it’s an absurd way. And maybe it is absurd – maybe it’s as absurd as a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. But by living that way, absurd though it may be, we end up seeing the face of God in everyone around us – and maybe, if we’re lucky, in ourselves, too.

Thanks be to God.

The Not-So-Excellent Adventure

(sermon 1/21/18)

cow in sackcloth

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that they were to have brought upon them; and God did not do it.

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The Book of Jonah is short, but powerful. It’s only some forty-odd verses long, but in its few short words, it manages to give us some of the most memorable imagery in the entire Bible. Each one of its four short chapters tells what could be a fascinating little story on its own, while still weaving together to form the whole.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book, but part of what we do know is that it was intended to be a response against an extreme, exclusionary, nativist mindset that had taken hold in society, and that had caused great turmoil by causing the forced breakup of families, where Jews had married foreign non-Jews, and requiring that all people from different places and who had different religions had to leave. The Book of Jonah is meant as a protest against all that, by telling a story to emphasize that God is the God of all people, and the God loves and cares for all people – even, the story makes clear, the despised Assyrians living in the enemy’s capital city of Nineveh.

The book makes its point by telling a story of this poor shlub, Jonah, who really just wanted to be left alone, who didn’t want any part of what God was telling him to do, and as we know, who was willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to run away from it. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he’s afraid that as soon as he’d enter the city and start proclaiming their impending doom, the Ninevites would attack him, or throw him in prison, or worse. And near the end of Jonah’s story, in the last chapter, we also learn that he didn’t want to do it because he suspected that after Jonah put his own life and reputation on the line, foretelling the Ninevites’ doom, before that would happen, God would go all wobbly on him, and have mercy and compassion on them, and not wipe them out, leaving his enemies off the hook and leaving Jonah to look like a fool on top of it. Jonah wants God to take a harder line against his enemies than he trusts God will actually take.

Of course, for his part in this protest story, Jonah represents the political and religious leaders of the time, who, the author is saying, want to take a harder line about who are supposedly the people of God, and who aren’t, than God would take.

So we do have this social/political commentary going on in Jonah, along with all of the great imagery, and even some comic aspects. Just imagine: smelly, seaweed- and gastric-juice-covered Jonah getting barfed up onto the beach, much to the surprise of the fisherman and the sunbathers. The Ninevites being so convicted of their sin, and being so repentant, that they don’t just cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes in the traditional sign of repentance, but they have all of their livestock do the same – which wasn’t some quaint religious tradition of the time; it would have seemed as bizarre and comical to see back then as it would be today. Taken together, it all makes Jonah one of the truly amazing books of the Bible.

But what does it mean for us today? What about it speaks to us, in our own lives? Well, it does pretty clearly offer a word of protest against the similar kind of extreme anti-foreigner, nationalist mindset seen in so much of our current government policies and in the words of so many people. It’s important to know that, and to take that message to heart, but honestly, that’s another day’s sermon. Today, I want to think more about how Jonah’s story resonates with our own personal lives – how we personally hear and respond to God’s call.

Last Sunday, and again today, we heard gospel accounts of disciples who essentially dropped whatever they were doing and immediately followed Jesus, seemingly without question or hesitation. Jonah is the opposite of that. He hears God’s call, and is worried and afraid and not at all happy about where he sees it all going, and he tries to run away from it all. Even when he finally gives in, and he sets off on his not-so-excellent adventure, he enters Nineveh, but he still only does it in half-measures. The author of the story tells us Nineveh was a three-day walk from one end to the other – but Jonah packs it in and leaves town after going just one day’s distance into it.

I know that I’m supposed to be more like Jesus’ trusting and unquestioning disciples. But the truth is, I see much more of myself in Jonah, and the way he responds to God’s call. In all of his crankiness and doubt and self-interest and his wanting God to hate all the same people he hated, I have to say that Jonah seems much more human, much more real, to me, personally, than those disciples who seem to have just dropped their nets and walked away with Jesus without even asking if the job came with health insurance and a dental plan.

Jonah’s relationship with God is messy, and that resonates with me because I know that my own relationship with God can sometimes be messy. I’ve been known to be a pretty reluctant follower of where God seemed to be calling me. Just as was the case with Jonah, part of that reluctance was that I wasn’t sure I liked what the likely outcome would be for myself. Also like Jonah, I’ve tried to run away from God’s call, and also like him, I’ve found myself in the belly of the whale, as it were, before I learned that there really wasn’t much future in trying to run away from God. Thankfully, I also eventually learned that by following where God was leading, even with doubt and reluctance, God always had something better in store that I could have ever imagined.

Maybe some of you have felt the same kind of feelings as Jonah, too. Have you? Have you ever sensed that God was drawing you to do something that you were less than enthusiastic about? Maybe you’re even experiencing something like that now. Do you sense God drawing you to make some change in your life? To take a turn in some new and unexpected direction, maybe one that promised to take you well out of your comfort zone? Maybe it was, or is, a school choice or a job choice. Maybe it’s some family or business decision that promises to take you into new, uncharted waters. Maybe it’s starting, or breaking off, a relationship. Maybe it involves a change in where you call home. Maybe it’s being called to some new understanding, something that’s different from what you’d always been taught before, something that opens up some new understanding about God that isn’t necessarily in line with what you’ve thought and believed up till now, as was the case with Jonah. The possibilities are endless where and how God may be calling you.

But if you do find yourself being called by God to something new, called to follow God in some different direction you didn’t really expect and frankly may not be excited about, remember Jonah’s story. Even though he went into Nineveh giving it only partial effort, God made something amazing happen. Even with Jonah’s doubt-filled and half-hearted willingness to follow, God still blessed those actions, and through Jonah, God’s will was achieved. And through all of it, if you know how the Book of Jonah ends, you also know that God kept looking out for Jonah – grumbling, self-centered Jonah, the same Jonah with all the doubts and fears and presuppositions and stubborn, bull-headed stances that only end up hurting himself. Until the very end of the story, God continued to work on Jonah’s heart so he could see and understand God in a richer, fuller, truer way – and in the process, so Jonah could see and understand more about himself in a richer, fuller, truer way.

Jonah is you. Jonah is me. And because we worship, and sometimes follow, a God who loves the Jonahs, we can all say

Thanks be to God.