Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, All Saints Day 2014

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 2, 2014
All Saints Day

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 3: Gifts
“Blessed Are Those Who Mourn”

Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV
            When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
            5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
            6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
            8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
            9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
            10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
            12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here we are on week 3 of our Stewardship Sermon series. Our focus this week is on “Gifts.” On a day like this, when our entire worship service is structured around our invitation to the communion table, as we remember and celebrate the Saints who have gone before us, it is easy to consider the gifts we have received. In this very congregation, we have lifted up to God eight of our own members, who we have loved and cared for in their lives of faith. Edythe Handy, John Slover, Evelin Alleman, Anne Price, Dee Jensen, Don Beaver, Darrin Reed and Pam Conroy were beloved friends. They were parents and grandparents. They were the people who shared with us in our study, who sat by us in worship, who made things happen, who welcomed the newcomers and who poured us drinks without even asking. These eight members are more than we could ever capture in a single moment, because they were, for us, the body of Christ. And today, we give thanks to God for these people who have gone before us, in life and in death. They are saints, they are witnesses, they are beloved children of God, who have been welcomed home.
As we approach our scripture today, we do so as people who are desperate to hear good news. We do not come to the table today without the burden of grief or longing; this is not a normal invitation. Because, like so many other occasions we have had, we are accepting an invitation to a supper that feels as though it is missing a guest. Our grief comes, not just in death, or in the memory of a loss, but in the fading away of dreams and hopes. Perhaps you have lost a career, perhaps a diagnosis has sent your family spinning into chaos, perhaps you long for restoration in a relationship that can never be made whole. It is with all of these losses and griefs that we come to our Gospel reading with the hope that it will provide us with some sort of guide as we cope with the empty feeling we have in the wake of these absences.
            Shortly after Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, he also invites 12 men to come and be his disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus tells them as they are raising their nets, “and I will make you fish for people.”  The news of Jesus’ fame spread throughout the land, as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and healed the sick. Great numbers of people flocked to hear him, and when Jesus saw that the crowds had gathered, he went up on the mountain and begins to preach.
What Jesus preaches to them is the sort of sermon all preachers hope to give. Jesus knows his audience intuitively, and speaks directly to each of their concerns, because he knows that “loss comes in leave-takings, in slowly losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s or cancer. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for those with special needs. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed.” “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to all who can hear. These are his first words to the assembled congregation.  
No one has ever called the broken in spirit “Blessed.” Rather they are typically asked who it was that sinned, their mother or their father. No, this is not the crowd that is blessed. This is the crowd that has no other hope than to listen to an off-beat rabbi teach something altogether new about their scriptures, as he heals demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics. They are not blessed because they are broken-spirited, but they also haven’t given up hope, and hope points to a place in the future where our prayers are answered.
Now, consider the crowd that might be gathered. Nadia Boltz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver, CO, who founded a Lutheran Church called House forAll Sinners and Saints (HFASS, which is a fantastically subversive acronym for a church). She was a woman who came to her faith after living through addiction and illness, but realized that the often sordid company she kept always sought her out as the one to share pastoral care. She answered a call to ministry and now she serves a congregation that is filled with the least of these. It is packed with former and current drug addicts, drag queens, artists, musicians and every faithful person in Denver who’d ever thought there wouldn’t be a true church home for them. Nadia writes that she was very comfortable with this, until she was asked to preach at Red Rocks on Easter Sunday. The next week, the congregation started morphing into a crazy hybrid of her own people and the folks who looked a lot more like their straight-laced parents. She sat back and looked at the congregation and thought, “Who are these people? Why are they here? This is not a church for them.” Until she witnessed the folks who had been long-time members gravitating to the new visitors. They became, in fact, the straight-laced foster parents of the children who had been abandoned by their own families of origin. She watched as the people she never expected to arrive, showed up and started sharing their love.
            This sort of congregation must have been what Jesus was observing as he looked out over the masses. Here, were not the crowds of fisherman or dutiful women. Rather, there were the aged and withering, the cynics and skeptics, the outcasts and the lonely, the tax-collectors to keep an eye on things, the curious and the desperate, the Pharisees and scribes. “You can see them looking back at him. They're not what you'd call a high-class crowd—It doesn't look as if there's a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. … It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”[1] With this bizarre collection of people from all over Galilee, Jesus begins to speak, starting with a message that will fall on the ears who are most desperate to hear it, “Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            If we’re being honest, Jesus could have stopped right there and gone home. There is enough wisdom and hope in the opening lines of this sermon that we don’t need much more than that. But, Jesus is kind. So he continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
            In each of these statements from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers promises that are unconditional. This means that these are not future-looking promises. They are already true. So, when Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” there is no condition under which our mourning isn’t blessed, and no condition under which we shall not be comforted when we grieve. It seems impossible to imagine, in the thick of our grief, that there will ever be a time when the loss before us doesn’t define our lives or ways of living. It seems impossible, even selfish, to move forward in the wake of such grief. It is important to remember that our futures are never determined by the realities of our past. Jesus reminds the hearers in that sermon, just as Jesus reminds us today, that we shall be comforted when we mourn, because when we struggle, we are not being faithless. “Struggle, doubt, feeling overwhelmed, wondering if God is out there – these aren’t signs of failure or lack of faith, but are actually a testament to profound faith as we wrestle with such deep questions and thereby take God seriously. And so when we feel at our most low, and wonder if we have lost our faith, God names us among the most faithful. Blessed are those who struggle[2] because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
            Jesus continues his sermon to include the blessing of the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and for the Jesus’ sake. Again, these are not the citizens that society rewards or blesses. These are the people who are outcast or forgotten, scorned and mocked. Jesus speaks directly to those of us who are struggling, who seek to be the Gospel, to live as people transformed by our faith. But, it is so challenging when the world speaks back to us. Why be generous when we could save our resources and build up our own empires? The world calls us to be self-serving, but the world does not bless us as Christ does. Christ says, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
            In one of the stewardship resources I’ve been reading, author urges us to “move from being a consumer of church to being a contributor.” On a day like this one, when we celebrate and lift up the gifts we have been given, it is a blessing to consider how we can give back to the church (which is never just a building) that has shaped and formed us. Consider the ways in which our Saints were contributors to our life of faith, and to our shared ministry of transforming the world for the sake of the Gospel.
            Yesterday, I was talking with Sloan about what happens when we die; at least to the extent that I know everyone does so. She asked astonishingly pointed questions upon the revelation that we both age and will come to a mortal end. “Will someone bring us all back together again?” Yes, Sloan. It is God who will bring us back together again. “Will someone make us not old? And alive again?” I’ve never before had a grounded understanding of the resurrection that is promised to all of us, but when my beloved daughter asked this question, I had no trouble answering her with an assurance that came from beyond my own understanding, “Yes, Sloan. Jesus will restore us to the people we were, in the company of all who we know and love.” What an incredible gift to be the recipients of this promise of eternal life. Let us celebrate that promise, here at the table, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be filled. Rejoice and be glad, sisters and brothers, for your reward shall be great in heaven.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: PRESENCE - God With Us | We Are With God

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: Presence
God With Us | We Are With God

Matthew 22:34-46

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They said to him, “The son of David.”

43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

            This week we are beginning our second week of our Stewardship Sermon Series, which will focus on “Presence.” This is tricky, because as a membership vow (and a part of our vision statement), “presence” is the intention we have to share ourselves with God and others. Quite simply, it means we will show up. Here we are, ready to hear, learn, sing, pray and worship together. We do this because on Sunday mornings together because worship is the core of our Christian experience as the body of Christ. Certainly we can experience God in a variety of ways, for God is found in many places and in good company or solidarity. But, the church is called to worship God and to support one another as we grow in faith, particularly through the sacraments, which are a unique part of our life together. We can only share in this when we do it together, because we need God, and we need one another.
            The core message of our text today highlights this basic point, as Jesus responds to the last of the scribes and Pharisees pointed questions in this particular chapter. One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Listen to this. The lawyer, the attorney, asks Jesus a question about his specialty. He doesn’t ask it that he might be a better lawyer; he does it to test Jesus. He does it to argue, to stir up conflict. He asks this question with an answer in mind, and so Jesus answers him clearly, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
            This, my friends, should come as no surprise to the Pharisee. As an attorney, an expert in the law, these should be words which he has bound to his forehead and written on his doorposts: Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  This man, this Pharisee, can almost be heard exhaling in exasperation through the millennia. If I read carefully between the red lines of Jesus’ words, I can hear the Pharisee’s eyes rolling. Of COURSE Jesus said this is the greatest commandment. It is the Shema (which means “hear”). It is something the faithful are instructed to recite twice daily. These words were taught to him, and shared with his children. They rest in the מְזוּזָה‫‎ mezuzah, which means "doorpost.” But, does the Pharisee understand how to demonstrate this love, this loyalty to YHWH? When Jesus echoes the Lord’s command in Deuteronomy, he reminds him that he is to love with his heart (the core of human intellect and will), the soul (the vitality of one’s own self), and might (which appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible, in reference to “capacity”). These words are to be both internalized and made external – worn on the body and posted in the home. There should be no secret about the Israelites’ devotion to God; it should be as evident as his family, as public as his name. This love for God should transcend communication because everything, verbal and non-verbal, communicates it.
            To the end that Jesus has to tell the Pharisee that this is the greatest commandment underscores that the Pharisee may have done the external things, the rote activity of binding the scriptures to his arm, but they are not written on his heart.
            The Pharisee is not alone in his failing. Sitting with him is the scribe, whose duty it is to pen the words in indelible ink onto parchment, which is placed inside the mezuzah. Upon the parchment are inscribed specified Hebrew verses from the Torah, namely the ones which Jesus has just quoted to them from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The parchment is prepared by a qualified scribe, who has undergone years of meticulous training. His work, his focus, his training is upon the letters and the script, but not upon the transformation of his heart. The Pharisee and the scribe, Jesus is subtly saying to the disciples, have not become transformed by the words they have studied.
            So, the greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love the Lord your God, with every fiber of your being and every post in your home. This transformative love is beyond our capacity to love in an erotic way. This sort of love is overwhelming and life-changing. This sort of love is something we do not open ourselves up to very often, because the sort of love we share for each other comes with such great risk. God would only ask such a love from us if it was a love worth trusting. We can love the Lord our God because God has first loved us.
            It is the second part of the commandment that is more complicated, because it requires us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quotes directly from Leviticus 19:18. The surrounding text in Leviticus underscores the basics of human relationships, in which God tells Moses that the Israelites not to hate in their hearts anyone of their kin, nor take vengeance upon or bear a grudge against their neighbors. Love, then, is not an “emotion,” or something simply to be felt. Rather, it is command to reach out to and befriend the neighbor. And, what, then, is a neighbor? It would seem as though God was telling Moses that the Israelites were only to care for each other, but in Leviticus 19:34, God says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, they shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This means that God is telling the Israelites that all who come to their land, to live in peace and build up their families, shall be treated as neighbors, with the same rights as citizens and the same dignity as family.
            When Jesus answers this simple question for the Pharisees and scribes, he is not simply summarizing all 613 Hebrew laws in two simple mandates. The Torah cannot be condensed so easily. Rather, Jesus is subverting the entire structure upon which the power of the Pharisees was built. Matthew’s Gospel is highly political, and this is the peak of the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, when he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he is demonstrating both utter orthodoxy and offering a profound threat. The most curious thing is that Jesus declares early in the Gospel of Matthew (5:17) that his purpose is “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law. How, then, is this to happen?
            It happens in how we are taught to love. Love, for Jesus, is not a withering feeling that comes and goes. Agape love is not the love I feel for the first sip of coffee in the morning or the sunset in the evening. Agape love ἀγάπη which describes “the love of God for humanity and of humanity’s for God."
            It’s likely we would all rather see a sermon than hear one, but “Jesus is more theocentric in his preaching. A sermon is a sermon when it’s about God. We learn implications for human behavior only after we learn who God is and what God is up to.”[1] And what God is up to is overthrowing the bounds of our understanding of God’s presence – no longer in burning bushes or in the mouths of prophets. Rather, God breaks the bounds of heaven and earth by becoming one of us – Immanuel, God With Us, is the most radical and distinctive part of our Christian identity. What it means to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all of our might (capacity) has been demonstrated to us by a God who knows no bounds, who loves beyond intention and history. We love a God who loves with all of God’s capacity, so that we might learn how to do so, as well.
            But, typically, “our definition of ‘love’ is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with ‘all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind’ (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Eventually, love gets him killed.”[2]
            The Shema Yisrael is the prayer we bind to our hearts, to our minds, to our might, to our foreheads and arms and to our homes is the prayer that binds us to God and to one another. It is the way in which we demonstrate not only God’s presence in our lives, but our presence with God. So, when we are called to “love God as Jesus commands, we must point to the world around us at the concrete, tangible ways where this vision of love can be expressed. We must show them what the love of God looks like."[3] 

[1] William H. Willimon,
[3] Prince Raney Rivers,

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
            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.
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.

[2] Nancy deClaissé-Walford,