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.

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The Sermon You’ll Never Read

I didn’t preach today, since I’m currently sitting in a guestroom at Montreat, enjoying the evening air and the sound of whatever kind of insects are out there in the trees doing doing their insect things.

Last week’s sermon was kind of different for me – no “Four Page”s, no “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine” structure (sorry, Hank), no lead-in image-setting story with a “bookend” return, no powerful “clincher” finale. It was just a simple meditation, on the Luke 12 text for the day. This is kind of an unusual blog post, too, in that I’m making a post about a sermon, rather than posting the actual text of the sermon itself. I felt that this more expanded discussion about how the sermon actually came about was probably more helpful than the sermon itself. Besides, most of the points within the sermon end up in this post anyway.

The Old Testament Lesson for the day was from Isaiah 5:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:1-7 NRSV)

followed by the gospel text:

 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NRSV)

Of course, this gospel text has been latched onto by Dominionist and Triumphalist strands within Christianity to justify their beliefs, and the near-breathless glee they often seem to have in their efforts to battle with supposedly inferior non-Christians. This text, they would argue, is Jesus’ endorsement of all kinds of mayhem perpetrated against others by Christians in their efforts to spread the gospel, all supposedly in the name of Jesus.

I certainly don’t see the text that way at all. As I read and re-read this text in preparation of the sermon, I actually sensed a completely different take on Jesus’ words from when I’d read it in the past. Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry. He’s making his way for the last time to Jerusalem, and he knows what’s awaiting him there. He’s sharing with them from the deepest depths of his heart how stressed and burdened his heart is at this point. He knows that his earthly ministry is drawing to a close. And when he says these words to his disciples, I don’t hear any sort of happiness in his voice about this division and discord that’s to come into the world because of him. I don’t hear any bloodlust or dominionism or a call to battle. I actually hear just the opposite.

I hear the very human voice of the God/Man.

He’s sharing his burdens with those closest to him. He’s aware of what he is about to accomplish – reconciliation between God and humanity, bringing us together again, and modeling the sacrificial, self-emptying love that we’re called to have, that we’ve been created for. He’s aware of that. But he’s also aware, because of the same foresight that makes him aware of the good, of all the awful that will befall humanity because of his having entered human existence. He can see all the division – all the bitterness, and hostility, and arguing, and separation, and rejection, and violence, and bloodshed. He can see persecution and purges and Crusades and pogroms and Holocausts. He can see slavery and segregation and shunning and excommunication and burnings at the stake and beheadings and lynchings and more, and all supposedly done in his name, because he chose to walk among us and be one of us.

And in this very human moment, I can hear in Jesus’ voice, not triumphalism, but despair. I hear mourning, heart-aching sorrow about the coming division and strife. At the risk of blasphemy, I suppose, I hear Jesus’ human nature even wondering if it was really worth it, given all the division and pain and suffering and death that his coming would ultimately cause in the world. I hear Jesus almost questioning, Have I actually made a difference? Has my ministry actually had some positive net effect in the lives of people? In the end, was it really worth it?

It doesn’t take a licensed psychotherapist to understand why I might hear Jesus’ voice in this way at this particular moment in my life. I’m within a month of one phase of my ministry ending, and before the next call is in hand. And while I’m certainly not facing crucifixion, I’m also under a good bit of stress over the extreme financial implications this will have as well as the pace of the call process in my tradition, which makes a snail’s pace look like that of a cheetah. But I also look back on the past six years and find myself asking, on a much smaller scope, the kind of questions that I just imagined Jesus asking himself. In the end, have I made a difference in the spiritual lives of the people of my congregation? Have I been a net positive in the life of the congregation, collectively and as individuals? I think that I have, but I honestly don’t know for sure. I can point to some things that would seem to indicate that it was worth the considerable difficulties of trying to pastor a congregation more than an hour away from my home, and the congregation’s experience of me trying to balance comforting and discomforting, embracing and stretching, embracing and challenging. I wonder what awaits them after I leave, and as they begin a new chapter in the life of their congregation. I wonder if their specific congregational culture will enable them to make the hard and unprecedented transformational changes that will be necessary for them to survive in a location where economics and demographics are working strongly against them. I wonder if I’ve helped to guide them into that conversation collectively. I wonder if all my words, and all my non-verbal pastoring, has had any lasting positive benefit in individuals’ lives.

Those kinds of thoughts were the genesis of the sermon. But it really wasn’t self-absorbed navel-gazing; I didn’t get into those issues from my own perspective, at least not directly or too much. That was just the launching point. My real point was that ultimately, we all end up having this same question that I at least heard in Jesus’ voice as he said these things. We all have this existential need to know that our faith, and the lives that we live as a result of that faith, are actually having some positive effect in sharing the kingdom of God in this world (There you go, Hank – existential need – thetinydogNOWismine). Pastor or pew-sitter, not having the same kind of divine foreknowledge and ultimate assurance that Jesus had, we always have some degree of question whether we’re doing the right thing, headed in the right direction, making the right choices, in order for us to be a net good in the kingdom of God. Are we, in fact, expanding justice and righteousness in the world, and in the lives of othes, as Isaiah says God’s vineyard is supposed to do? In that wondering, as I said to conclude the sermon:

I think that in the end, when we consider our lives and wonder if we’re making any real  difference, we just need to recognize that all we can do in our lives is to give thanks to God for caring about us enough to become one of us. For loving us enough to walk our walk, and to know our human doubts and worries firsthand. And knowing that, God tells us to have faith and trust – and that all we have to worry about is to live out our faith by extending that same kind of love and compassion and grace to others, and to let God worry about the rest. It isn’t our job to see the results of our extending God’s love to others. God has told us that ultimately, we’ll know and see the results of our efforts. Even if we didn’t see it before, we’ll see that living our lives in the way that Christ calls us to really did make a difference. If we live our lives faithful to Christ and true to his teachings, he’s promised that eventually, we’ll know and taste the good wine that our efforts, our vineyard, produced.