Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 14:22-33, “On the Water”

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach UMC
Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the Water

Matthew 14:22-33

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I have learned something in my short time living in Laguna Beach. I have met a number of people, been to a number of places, seen a number of things. This is by far one of the friendliest, most laid-back, beautiful places I have ever been, and daily I have to pinch myself to be sure that I’m not dreaming. But there is one thing here that absolutely defines the character of this area: the water. Every morning, I wake up, and the first thing I do is look out my window to see what the ocean is telling me. When I first arrived the “June Gloom” hadn’t yet cleared, and it was fog that met me, obscuring my view. On those mornings, I had to wait and wonder what the ocean would tell me. My fourth morning here, I was to meet Judy Pettigrew for breakfast. I arrived wearing pants and a sweater on the first morning that it was warmer than 68 degrees by 8 am. At the end of our meeting, I had a sunburn on my shoulders. The fog had lifted and before me sat a clear, turquoise sea, and her waves welcomed us to come to her shores. Most days, when I leave the church, I catch my breath at the beautiful scene that awaits me when I coast down Wesley Drive. The water is the main character in our story here in Laguna Beach. She will be petulant, angry, beautiful and tempting. She will have gray days, where her color matches the skies. She will have blue days where her depth rivals that of any sea under the sun. She has green days, which appear playful, but she will always remind you who is boss. The water here is our star. She is the featured performer, our muse.  
The main character in our story today appears to be my favorite disciple, Peter. I had a youth minister when I was in high school who always referred to Peter as the “Barney Fife” of the Disciples. He was well-intentioned, loyal, and a bumbling idiot. He was the butt of every joke, the very last one to “get it,” and even after denying Jesus three times, Jesus still made him the rock upon which the church was built. Peter is demonstration to me that our God is a God of forgiveness and grace. If Peter, a witness to the miracles, didn’t fully understand Jesus, then it’s probably okay that we don’t either.  
Just prior to this event, John the Baptist has beenimprisoned by King Herod because he insisted that Herod not have relations with Herodias, who belonged to another man – and not just any other man, but his brother, Phillip. Herod was afraid to kill John the Baptist because the crowds believed he was a prophet. But, at a lavish dinner party, a young maiden (Herodias’ shrewd daughter) dancedfor King Herod, and he foolishly offers to give her anything she demands. It never occurred to him she might demand John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  
When Jesus hears that his cousin has been killed, he withdraws alone in a boat to go and pray. But, the crowds followed him. He has compassion upon them, comes ashore and heals the sick until late in the evening. At that point, the disciples point out that it is late and no one has anything to eat. What follows is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread, which Jesus blessed and broke and gave to his disciples to give to the crowds. All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  
As the crowds are dispersing, Jesus takes his disciples immediately into the boat so that they can get to the other side of the shore. After everyone had dissipated, Jesus went up the mountain alone to pray, to mourn, to cry out and bless John, his friend and cousin. John was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. John prepared the way of the Lord, and proclaimed that he was not worthy to tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. John was the baptizer, the one who took Jesus into the Jordan and blessed him there. It was John who used the clear, cold water to baptize Jesus, and together they watched as the heavens opened and a the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, as a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It was water that initiated Christ’s ministry on earth. It was John the Baptist who administered it.  
And now, he was gone. Jesus, a compassionate savior, had postponed his grieving until after the crowds had been attended to, the sick healed and the hungry fed. As he went up the mountain, it was the sea of Galilee upon which he gazed. This body of water, which he crossed many timesgoing to and from Capernaum, was familiar to him. He knew its patterns, he had lured away its fishermen. He had called them away from the water and nets to a life of dust and miracles. Jesus and the Sea of Galilee were old friends. It was this body of water that moved at his command, whose winds picked up when his heartbeat raced. As he prayed for the life and death of his beloved cousin, his heart breaking at the brutal way in which John’s life ended, tears of sorrow rolled down his face. Rivets of shiny, salty tears appeared on his dusty face, and pooled under his chin. Collecting himself, Jesus inhaled and the wind gusted. The waves lapped the shores in rhythm with his breathing.
Jesus realized that the boat the disciples were in had drifted far across the Sea, the waves battering it and pushing them farther away. Early in the morning, Jesus realized that the only way to reunite with the disciples was to meet them in the boat. He took a steady breath, and with the faith of Moses, who had parted the Red Sea, Jesus stepped onto the water.  
It is compelling to believe that this is the miracle. You and I know that the molecular structure of water – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen – isn’t substantial enough to support the weight of a human being. And yet.  
Jesus walked on the sea, approaching the boat. But this man is the fulfillment of the law. He is the son of God, and the heralder of the kingdom. Why should his dominion over hydrogen and oxygen be of such a wonder to us? After all, it’s not the first time that the natural world has bent to his will. Seas had parted, food had multiplied, the dead had risen. Jesus was simply putting one foot in front of the other. The disciples insist on being rational, yet they choose a more irrational explanation. They believe it is a ghost, and they cry out in fear. But, immediately, Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“It is I” Jesus says. But, this is only one possible translation. What Jesus says to them is, “I, I am!” He reassures the disciples by announcing himself using the Divine Name, which was told to Moses, Abraham. “I am,” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” ἐγώ "Iεἰμι: "I-be," What Jesus does is more than offer comfort, he reminds them of who he is ontologically. He is more than a being, more than a physical being walking on water. He IS, the physical manifestation of a divine being. He IS human and God. He IS the fulfillment of the prophecies. Fear not, Jesus says, I AM.  
It is Peter, dear Peter, who cries out. Barney Fife, the earnest and hopeful disciple, who wants so much to do this right. He shouts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Jesus said, “Come.” The water, hardly still, lapped over Jesus’ feet as he walked. Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water. Jesus’ heart beat faster. Could it be? Could it be that Peter finally understood? Could it be that his best friend, the rock upon which the church would be built, truly understood that Jesus was in this world, but not of it. That his very naturewas nature; he was the fulfillment of the law – not just the law that governs people, but the laws that govern the physical world. Peter took step after step and Jesus’ heart leapt in his chest. His friend walked toward him, but the wind obeyed its master. As Jesus’ excitement grew, so did the wind’s response to his hope. The waves began to swell and Peter noticed the strong wind. He became frightened – his eyes, which had been locked on Jesus – glanced down and he realized the impossibility of what was happening. No amount of healing or resurrection or multiplication of food would explain what was happening to him at this moment. 
Peter’s fear spread through him like a virus, heating up his face and palms, his forehead going cold as he began to sink like the Rock that he was. The water that had held him up began to swallow him, and he was no longer in an ocean of safety and calm, but a sea of fear. In an instant its power was clear, as he sank deeper and deeper, “Lord, save me!” Peter finally gasps, and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” says Jesus. “Why did you doubt?”
The wind ceased and the water became as still as glass, as dark as night. Peter could barely make out the lines on Jesus’ face where his tears for John had fallen. They sat down in the boat and the disciples fell all over themselves to acknowledge what had just happened. “Truly, you are the Son of God!” they exclaimed.  
Jesus sat with them silently in the boat, until they reached Gennesaret. There, they were greeted by crowds who needed healing and comfort. The evening he had spent on the mountain was restorative enough for Jesus to fortify himself for the crowds and the Pharisees who were there to test him. Looking back, it was Peter who tried his best to test his faith. But, there was no need. The answer was there before them all along.  
Surrounding them, nourishing them, enlivening them, cleansing them, battering them, soothing them… it was the water that ran its course through the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ ministry. This simple element, this prevalent and abundant resource gave us: 
Waters of baptism 
Waters of birth
Waters of cleanliness 
Waters of calm
Waters of beauty
Waters of a storm
Peter, named Simon, Bar-Jona (Son of John), “Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks. “Didn’t you trust the water?” 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 139, "Search Me, O God"

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach UMC
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Psalm 139

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” 12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
19O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—20those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

One: The Word of God, for us, the People of God.
ALL: Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.


            There are no more radical words in the Bible than the opening lines of this Psalm, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” This Psalm is intimate in ways that are almost unnerving, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” On first read, this Psalm paints God to be the most invasive sort of Big Brother, and we are merely characters in the Orwellian dystopia in which we have no privacy or freedom. A text that appears to be intimately personal becomes deeply political without much effort, because it addresses quietly and quickly some complicated aspects of our relationship with God.
            If ever there was a week in which we could use some comforting words on Sunday, it was this one. From local news – the death of our brother Don Beaver, to national news – the call to prayer for unattended migrant children, to international news – the awful news of Malaysian Flight 17 that was shot down over the Ukraine and the continued horrors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – we needed some comfort.  It was a week in which almost nothing seemed to be at peace, a week when unrest ruled. This Psalm reads, initially, like a word of comfort. I most desperately want to hear it this way. But the problem is that the demands of the world shout louder than the resolute whispers of the Psalmist. So we must listen harder.
            What do we make of the opening lines, then? “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” Something new strikes me in this reading. God is a very active participant in the life of the Psalmist, God is the one who knows and discerns and searches.
            This week, the Bishop in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, Minerva Carcaño, has urged all of the pastors and congregations to join in an interfaith call to prayer for unaccompanied migrant children. This topic has been gaining attention on all sides. Her urging caught my attention, because she sought to engage us in prayer by “helping us to move away from a polarized and hostile narrative to a narrative of compassion and justice that reflects our faith values.” This topic was no longer an “issue.” Our Bishop reminds us, “These are children, and as people of faith and justice, we cannot just turn a blind eye or turn them away. These migrant children are God’s children and therefore our youngest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters for whom we must care.”[1] We must care, because God has cared first. The Lord searches out our paths, who knows when we…. when they, the unaccompanied children of Central America – lie down and when they rise up. There is one who watches, one who waits, one who hopes that we – the people with tender hearts and political influence – will guide these children on a path to safety and rest. (For more information and guides on how we can help, see 
http://www.theyarechildren.com.)
            The next stanza of this Psalm underscores our knowledge of God’s omnipresence in the world, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” It is easy to see how this soothes the soul of the lost and wandering. The Psalmist who confesses many times to feeling targeted and alone, writes this with a calm assurance. But the comfort here extends beyond a personal conviction of God’s presence – it is an invitation for us to see and know God even in the most unreachable places. For 4 months, we have been waiting for news about Malaysia Flight 370, which disappeared without a trace into the Indian Ocean in March, carrying the lives of 239 passengers with it. This week, we heard the devastating news of Malaysia Flight 17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Ukraine on Thursday. All 295 passengers died in the incident, and in such stories as these, it seems as though there is no hope. These 534 people have died an innocent and tragic death. And yet, we hear this strange –almost eerie- word of comfort, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” None of us can know the horrors of these incidents, but we can know that God was present, holding them fast. There is something redemptive about God’s willingness to be present even in the most perilous of times. This knowledge permits us the freedom to be more courageous, more bold. The promise that God’s hand shall lead us and hold us fast is universal, even in the farthest reaches of our journeys. This word is redemptive for those who “Make their beds in Sheol,” and those who ascend to heaven. We don’t always intend to make our beds in the darkest of places, but when we do, we are promised that God abides with us.
            Ultimately, this Psalm offers an assurance for who we are as individuals. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” I love this passage because it holds significant pastoral care ramifications for who we are as God’s children. We are trapped in a linear chronology, who live in a timeline defined by past, present and future. We can only wait and see what God has intended for us, but this Psalm reminds us that though we may be people bound by time, God is not. God knows us in our fullness. Not only as infants, knit together in our mother’s wombs, but as souls who are beloved and sought after by a God of relentless love and grace. The Psalmist writes, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”
            What does this say about our relationship with God, that God knows us more intimately, fully and graciously than we could imagine? In this Psalm there is no consequence for who we are as “known” people. By this, I mean that God is not seeking after our paths and learning our innermost thoughts as a means to punitive action. Rather, God seeks to know us so as to give us comfort. Just as we are known by God, so is God carefully revealing God’s own self to us. In this Psalm, the “I” and “Thou” are in relationship with one another. “Walter Brueggemann describes this relationship by saying, ‘The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You," not an anonymous higher power. What begins as a revelation of God’s knowledge of us ends as a promise of what we can know of God. Just as we are known, we are invited to know.  Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered this insight concerning the relationship between God and humankind. God is the instigator of the “I” and “Thou,” and God invites the intersection of the Sacred and the Profane. 
            Buber’s paraphrase of this Psalm is simply, “Where I wander - You!
Where I ponder - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened - You!
When I am saddened - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!”[2]
            This Psalm is personal, it is universal and it is political. It offers us comfort, just as it has comforted many through all generations. Even before the Psalmist wrote these words, we hear God’s promise to Jacob in his dream, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28: 10-15) What God has promised to Jacob, God has promised to us: that we may be relentlessly comforted, searched for, guided, and formed in the love and grace of our creator, who knits us together and knows all of our days.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we pray.
Amen. 
Pastoral Prayer:
Let us remember that it is most noble to give before we are asked for it ...
Let us remember that our gratefulness to God’s awesome gifts is to protect them ..
Let us remember that children are a mighty & priceless blessing to us and not a curse ..
Let us remember as parents & guardians of our imperative to be a source of comfort to them ..
Let us remember that we’ll be remembered by our care & concern for the voiceless
Let us remember that our joy is in giving rather than in receiving!
Let us remember that in God, we seek refuge and find strength in reclaiming and restoring the lost rights of His most awesome creation and gift to us - our children.




[1] http://www.calpacumc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Interfaith-Weekend-Resource-Packet.pdf
[2] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=226.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon: Let Anyone With Ears Listen!

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
July 13, 2014

Let Anyone With Ears Listen!

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
 
That same day Jesus went out of the house and say beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let any one with ears listen!”

“Hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God
ALL: Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

            What a marvelous week it has been! If ever there is a way to make one’s spirit feel revived and joyful, it’s during Vacation Bible School. This week, we saw 26 children and countless volunteers come to the church for the intent of engaging God’s word in new ways, through worship, drama, engagement with the physical world, and, of course, snacks. Brian and Liz and the volunteer staff did an incredible job of making this week one of intention and purpose, and I got to experience once again the best of church life, when we work together as a community of all ages, for the single purpose of praising God.
            One of the stories we heard this week was the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It seems like seeds and growth are a recurring theme around here! But our text today is a parable that focuses on the seeds sown by the sower. Jesus walks us through the variety of things that happen as the seeds are scattered in a variety of places. First, the sower scatters seeds on the path and the birds swoop in and eat them up. Then, the sower scatters seeds on rocky soil, and though the seeds sprang up, they did not have root and the sun withered them away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, which choked them. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain in varying quantities.
            One of Jesus’ best qualities is that he does his best to give descriptions of the Kingdom of God, but frequently he does so with intentional opaqueness. For us today, however, Jesus offers an interpretation that is so clear that we must get what he means, right? He says directly – hear the word of the kingdom. The problem is that no one has a frame of reference for this. The crowds who had gathered by the lakeshore, crowds so great that Jesus had to get in a boat to address them, were there to listen intently. They knew this man to be a teacher, a rabbi, but he preached different things than had ever been spoken. This man spoke of what it meant to be a participant in the kingdom of God.
            That’s the tricky thing about this parable. It’s difficult to hear it and not try immediately to find yourself in it. It is tempting to say that we know of people who are the seeds on the path, with no defenses, swooped up as a snack for hungry birds. In his interpretation, Jesus mentions The Evil One, which no good Methodist likes to think about. It makes us all very uncomfortable to consider that there might be a force in the universe that is so opposed to God’s intention for good. But Jesus never lets us forget that evil is a real and powerful force. It’s clear in Jesus’ description that this force is active, not passive: “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” The hope for us in this is that it is not the sower’s intention for the seeds to be eaten. It was the work of the Evil One, who preyed upon the seeds.  
            This is why, in our liturgy for baptism, we ask a very strange question. We ask, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world?” It is an astonishing thing to ask, especially to sleep-deprived parents, cradling their newborns, who have lost the spiritual force of showering. What sort of power do we believe baptism holds? The answer is what the pastor asks next, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” We believe that the waters of baptism give us the freedom and power to resist evil. Can you imagine what this would mean if we embraced it? The world would be a different place if we took up our authority, given to us through our baptism, and said no to suffering in all ways. I have the image of the sower watering the seeds on the path, and the gentle stream pushing the seeds into a safe place, where they could root and grow. This is the sort of life-giving power our baptism holds. It is not what saves us, but it gives us the freedom to be stronger and braver than we could have imagined.
            As for the seeds that fall on rocky ground, they are offered no soil, no depth, and they are scorched by the sun and wither away. Jesus interpretation of this outcome is also perplexing. He likens the rocky soil to one who hears the word of the kingdom with joy, but because this person has no root, he or she falls away when “trouble or persecution arises on account of the word.” What Jesus is seeking to describe is the risk that we undertake as people of faith. It is risky to believe in a God who remains mysterious. It is risky to participate in a church that doesn’t always get it right. It is risky to serve others who will challenge us and our comfort. If our faith isn’t nurtured, then it becomes expendable. How, then, do we avoid this? There is a tenant of Wesleyan theology that describes the four-fold way in which we engage our faith: through Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. We call this the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Each of these elements is necessary for a balanced understanding of who we are as people of God. If any of these is given too much (or too little) emphasis, then our perspective can become skewed. If all we have is an experience of God’s presence in our life, then we are blessed. But one cannot have a true encounter with the living Christ and refuse to learn more about what Scripture reveals to us and how the church has practiced our faith. There must always be ways to learn, do and trust more as we become faithful disciples.
            Jesus describes the seeds that fall among the thorns in a particularly condemning way. These seeds are planted, blossom, but are choked by the cares of the world, particularly by the lure of wealth. Jesus talks a great deal about money and the power that it holds over us. It is a necessary evil in this world, and we must do what we can to be good stewards of all that we are given. But the curious part of this result is that the sower scatters seeds here, regardless. Often times, we are too cautious with where we scatter the seeds of our ministry. We want to plant things only where we are certain they will blossom, and this keeps us from taking grand risks with our potential. “In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We resist new ideas for fear that they won’t work, as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher). This is the most convicting part of the parable for me, because I am reminded at how extravagant and risky God is with us. It is our choice to “resist the forces of evil” and to grow despite the snares that may surround us. So, this is our charge to grow in thorny places, to be stronger and more resilient than the obstacles to our growth. This is what baptism promises, this is what a nurtured faith yields, not success, but the ability to be stronger than the forces at work against us.
            Perhaps the most graceful part of this parable is how Jesus describes the seeds scattered upon good soil. These seeds bring forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. These seeds are the ones that hear the word of God and understand it. But how do we know if we truly understand? This is simple: You will see the fruit of the Spirit in your life, just as Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-26). If you have found love, in your family, your community, or in your church, then you have heard the Word of God. If you have joy – not happiness, but a joy that persists even through sorrow – then you have the spirit of God. If you find peace, a peace that passes all understanding – then you have the spirit of God. Patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control… these are the fruits of the spirit that take root and blossom in our lives when we open our ears to hear the Good Word that God has given to us. These are fruits, yes, but they are also gifts to us, that we may be in the world a contrary voice to the injustice, hatred and oppression. But the beautiful part is that the seeds bring forth grain in varying quantities! Some yield much, and some yield a little, and yet, the amount is equal in the eyes of the sower. It is not the quantity of fruit that is yielded, it is the evidence of fruit that matters. This gives us permission to notice even the smallest ways in which our lives are blossoming.
            Sisters and brothers, the waters of baptism are what begin our life of faith. The soil upon which we fall is the result of where life takes us. But Jesus tells us that this is the Parable of the Sower. This is not a story about the seeds or the soil; it’s not a story about water. It is a story for us because it is about the relentless and persistent sower who continues to scatter seeds in all places. We are called to hear this good news, to receive it, and to blossom with love and grace, bearing the fruit of our faithfulness even in the smallest of ways.

In the name of the Creator (Sower), the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sermon: To Inspire and To Respond

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
July 6, 2014

To Inspire and To Respond

Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Springtime Rhapsody
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills. 
9 My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice. 
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away; 
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land. 
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the people of God.
All: Thanks be to God.

            Today, as I stand before you, I do so with shyness and anticipation. The feeling I have is very similar to the butterflies and hope that one feels before a first date. And, truly, there is much in our meeting today that feels as though we are the partners in an arranged marriage. That is why this text speaks so well to us today, as it is a text that is rarely heard outside of the wedding liturgy. It’s sensual and evocative. It is the voice of a woman who is anticipating her beloved returning to her, and her voice reveals both her love and hope for the future. This text captures, in many ways, my own feelings about being here. The United Methodist appointment system is a strange and beautiful thing, and it has given me and my family the great gift of coming here to serve.
            I feel it is appropriate to tell you how I got here, a transplant from Atlanta who has shown up in your pulpit in Laguna Beach, so you can know my story since I have come to know yours. My husband, Matt, has been coming here for nearly 25 years to visit his brother, John. This has been a place of refuge, a place of beauty, a place of learning and always a place of great joy. When Matt and I met during our first year of seminary, among the first things he invited me to do was visit here with him. So, in June of 2001, I booked a ticket to John Wayne International Airport and joined him for a two week vacation. We spent our time those two weeks exploring all of southern California. John and Mark, my now brothers-in-law, were gracious and generous, taking us to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, the zoo in San Diego, for sushi in LA. However, I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Laguna Beach UMC sign. We were heading to the grocery store as it caught my eye. I joked with Matt, “Well, that wouldn’t be a bad place to serve!”
            Almost exactly 13 years later, here I am. I almost cannot believe it. We have visited many times in the last decade. We were here in 2004 when I was pregnant with Jackson and my nephews were coming to make their permanent home with John and Mark. Sloan still totes around binoculars that we bought for Cooper in Dana Point in 2008. I have worshipped at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on numerous occasions and we have always kept Laguna Beach on our short list of places we’d love to live.
            You should also know that I have been serving as an associate minister at a marvelous church in midtown Atlanta. Saint Mark is located on Peachtree Street, just 3 blocks north of the Fox Theater where “Gone With the Wind” premiered. It has had a long, rich tradition as the “bellwether” church in north Georgia. Saint Mark embodies the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” slogan completely, and was revived in the early 1990s when they made the conscious decision to actively minister to the folks in the neighborhood, namely the homeless population and the gay men moving into Midtown. That year, during the Pride Parade which marched right in front of the church, our members – little old ladies and a few young families – handed out slips of paper that said, simply, “You are welcome here.” Across the street sat Atlanta First Baptist, who hired armed guards on horseback to protect the protestors holding up hateful signs. One of our members is famous for saying, "What were they afraid we were going to do? Break in and redecorate?!" The following Sunday, 30 new people showed up. By the end of the year, their membership had tripled. By the end of the decade, they had 2000 people on their roster, mostly from the GLBT community, who would drive for miles on end to worship in a place where they knew they were welcomed, loved and cherished, just as God had first loved them.
            I tell you this because serving at Saint Mark shaped me in a particular way. Serving in a community where even the most basic of human rights couldn’t be taken for granted caused me to be a fighter for social justice, a preacher of liberation and a pastor of the brokenhearted. God has called me, now and always, to be a voice for the voiceless, and I understand that serving a church that strives to be inclusive in all ways is the core of my calling.
            Eight months ago, my husband received some terrible news. While I was serving at Saint Mark, he had been working as an instructor of preaching at a seminary just outside of Atlanta. We learned in December that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed, and it was a gut-punch of devastation that we hadn’t expected. Our home was there, our children’s schools were there, our projected future was there, and the illusion of stability was erased in one horrible afternoon. So, we talked and prayed. Matt had moved to Atlanta for me, so it was up to him to make the next move. He told me that he’s always wanted to live near his brother. So, I sent an e-mail.
            What happened next underscores my belief in God’s providence. In our fear and uncertainty, we made a radical choic to do something completely new. I contacted John Farley, the district superintendent, and told him we were considering a move to the Laguna Beach area. I told him I was an ordained elder, and sent him a copy of my bio from the Saint Mark website, carefully adding the words, “ministry for and with the LGBTQ community” as one of my specialized areas of ministry. In the most marvelous turn of events, he wrote me back almost immediately. He told me when we spoke that he had a church “in the Laguna Beach area” that may need a pastor. It was an idea. It was a hope. In a remarkable turn of events, we were the mutual answers to one another’s prayers.
            On April 4, I got a call from John Farley letting me know that Bishop Carcaño had officially appointed me as the Senior Minister at Laguna Beach UMC.  Three weeks later, I flew here to meet with the SPRC, and we got a chance to know one another and to celebrate this surprising marriage that we had both been anticipating and longing for.
            On this, our first Sunday together, I want you to know one thing. You are my beloved. Sisters and brothers, I have been praying for you since the first day I learned of this possibility. Over the last few months, I have learned your story, heard of your successes and disappointments. I have listened intently to your dreams for what is next. I have researched this community, the work you are doing to support the homeless, to reach out to your neighbors, to build up the Body of Christ through service and compassion. My heart, as John Wesley said, has been strangely warmed, because I believe that your dreams are my dreams.
            Our text this morning, which is one that is rarely read because it is sensual and passionate and tended to make the Puritans uncomfortable, highlights the absolute joy that two people can share when being united after separation. The voice we hear in this text speaks with unabashed desire as she imagines her beloved saying to her, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth and the time of singing has come.” This emotional place is where I hope we find ourselves, as partners in a relationship blessed by God’s providence. This season, for you and for me, has brought challenges and trials, but now we can watch and see what the rains will produce. The flowers of our prayers and discernment through the winter are, literally, blooming right before our eyes.
            Now, if I were to imply that I leaping over mountains and bounding over hills is how we arrived here this week, I would be wildly misleading you. A cross-country move is hardly elegant or rapid. It was anything but gazelle-like. In fact, we can only see ourselves in this text to the extent that it is a foggy view of our hopes and dreams for our ministry together. We are imperfect creatures, you and me, and we will love imperfectly. But this shall not stop us from trying every day to be better together.
            If you consider that this text is often used in weddings, you can see the beauty of the romantic love that is so evident between the couple in the text. You know as well as I do that the initial passion that fuels a relationship often tempers over time. But this has not impeded the desire for us to proclaim vows to one another before God and these witnesses. Consider the outrageous promises we make during in the marriage vows: to love and to cherish for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Truly, all it took was being the one to hand-wash the dishes one time too many in our first year of marriage before I started reconsidering what I’d done. I love my husband to the ends of the earth and beyond, but I really, really hate washing dishes. And yet, I grew to live into these vows. We learned to adjust our expectations and meet one another in the middle. We supported each other in difficult times and have loved every single joyous moment that we’ve shared. It took time, it took patience. And, it took what every pastor has preached at every wedding under the sun: God’s love for each of us as individuals and as a married couple, as well as the support of our whole community. Ultimately, this text, as well as our ministry together, is not about us. It’s not about the couple, or gazelles, or stags or you or me. It’s not even about Laguna Beach United Methodist Church. This text, and our work together is now and will always be about God. It is about God’s love for us. It is about our response to God’s love. It is our job to embody that love through worship, sharing the sacraments, service, and by welcoming people of every status, gender, orientation, age, nation and ability.
            So, today, I hope that we can have our own exchange of vows as we begin our work together. These are the vows from the wedding liturgy, and even if it seems a little strange to say them in such a setting, I believe they set the tone for what it is we will do together. If you will repeat after me:
In the name of God, I take you to be my partner in ministry,
To join with you and to share all that is to come,
To give and to receive, to speak and to listen,
To inspire and to respond,
And in all our life together
To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,
Your people shall be my people,
            Your God, my God,
As long as our ministry shall last.

I do pray that our Honeymoon lasts a very, very long time. I pray that we can be gracious and forgiving and hopeful and productive. I pray that we enliven our faith and worship with joy. I know that the Holy Spirit is here with us, to guide us on our next steps, and I rejoice that it is Christ who has prepared for us a reception at the heavenly banquet, which we will celebrate here at this table.

            Arise, my love, my fair one and come away. For the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. May all of God’s people say, AMEN.