Monday, June 22, 2009


Mark 4:35-41


(Inspired in part by WYNC's Radio Lab)

Stochasticity. Do any of you know what this word means? Could you even spell it? No? Stochasticity is something that we encounter every day of every year of our lives. Still doesn’t ring a bell does it? Well, don’t be too distressed. It is a big fancy science word and my spell check doesn’t even recognize it as a word. It just gives that red, squiggly line underneath it telling me that there’s something wrong with it. However, like I said earlier, it really is a word that describes something that happens to us in our everyday lives. Stochasticity is simply the concept of the ever pervasive presence of randomness in our world. It’s why making exact weather predictions is nearly impossible. It’s why baseball players and basketball players usually make only a certain number of shots in a game. It’s what is behind this sometimes chaotic world as lives and events don’t always go as orderly as we have them planned in our minds. We often like to think that our lives are going to go A, B, C, however that plan gets derailed as X disease ravages one’s body unexpectedly, Y layoffs put retirement plans on hold, or even Z the slippery spot on the road causes the car to spin out of control paralyzing the person from the waist down.

Sometimes life takes unexpected turns and even sometimes it can feel as if it is completely spinning out of control as life seems to get only more and more chaotic as what was supposed to happen is disrupted by random chaotic events. If he had come to the intersection just a second earlier… If she had stayed on her original flight… Basically, if the coin had come up “heads” instead of “tails.” Each moment in our lives has a number of different outcomes and choices and possibilities, and at times it feels like we have no control over how things are going to turn out in our lives. Sometimes it feels like we are caught in a storm at the mercy of the crashing waves and swirling wind crying out “Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

This cry from the disciples comes out of the ancient image of Chaos within the world – the sea and the storms that rage across it. All throughout the Bible this image for chaos gets played out in story after story. In the Exodus story, it get played out as the Red Sea blocking the escape of the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s army. In the book of Joshua it is used to mark the boundary demarcating the end of the 40 year wilderness journey and the beginning of their life in God’s Promised Land. In the book of Jonah, the seas crashed and raged around the boat Jonah was trying to use to get away from God. You see, water is an amazing, powerful image for the people of the Bible. It has the power to give life and the power to take it away. The sea was a place that claimed victims in the storms and winds crash about on them. One was never completely safe and secure and the stochasticity of life, the randomness of life was ever apparent. No wonder the disciples were afraid. Even though they were fisherman, that perhaps made them keenly aware of the seriousness of their situation as water began to swamp the boat they were on. Fear gripped the disciples, and what makes it worse is that there was nothing that they could do about it. In fact, they believed that they were going to die – Jesus! We are perishing!

So where does God fit into all this chaos of fear and death? How does God fit into this world where chaos rages from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth? How does God fit into a world where our lives seem to hinge on the outcome of a coin flip? How do we want God to act in a world where an infinite amount of causal relationships of the decisions we make and decisions thrust upon us are made? For the disciples, it seems as if they almost want Jesus to react as fearful and anxious as they are themselves. Water is swamping the boat! Wind is whipping around tossing the boat back and forth! Come on Jesus! Wake up! How can you be sleeping at a time like this?

We would rather that Jesus exhibit some of the same fear and anxiety that we are feeling. Instead, Jesus displays a calm indifference to our fear when we would rather he rush in and save us from our immediate fears. There are times when we’d rather have our God be a God who comes running like mother after her child wandering out into the street than have who stares calmly into the face of chaos and death. It’s not until the disciples wake him up that Jesus even has any care about what is happening. Upon being woken up, he simply turned to the sea and said “Peace. Be Still.” Jesus’ words calm the storm. Jesus’ words calm the sea. Jesus’ words then create astonishment in the disciples as his words bring order and peace to chaos and randomness within the world. Jesus stands up to the chaos creates calm with his very words. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Who is that order and creates out of the chaos?

Before this, maybe they saw Jesus as a prophet relating the will of God to the people. Maybe they saw Jesus as a healer helping the sick. Maybe they only thought of him as a teacher like how they do on the boat. But, upon seeing Jesus do this, they are simply in awe, yet they still don’t get it. They don’t get that this man who sleeps on a boat in the stormy seas is God, the creator and sustainer of all life, and he has come to bring in the Reign of God where sin and death have no more power over our lives. Trusting in that, in other words, having FAITH means trusting that Jesus has come to put a calm and an order upon our lives that truly allow us to finally live free from our constant fears of whatever might happen to us in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we are unaffected by randomness, by this concept of “stochasticity” in our lives. It means that when go through the storms and chaos in our lives, God is right there with us, never abandoning us, and giving us the strength of God eternal steadfastness throughout all our lives.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

For all the beauty even unseen...

Mark 4:26-34


I did a big part of my growing up in western Kansas where my parents served as co-pastors of upwards of four congregations in a 60 mile radius. Now, one of the things that I still remember fondly was the literal amber waves of grain. We drove by them on the way to school in the school bus. We drove by them on the way to church. We drove by them on the way into the city to do our shopping. One of the things you should realize is that “amber waves of grain” isn’t just an image in a patriotic song. It is literally what happens as the strong southerly winds drive across the open fields of grain causing them to undulate and crest like the waves of the open sea. That take by itself is an absolute beauty and sight to admire.

I’ve often heard from people that the drive along the roads to get through the state of Kansas is one of the most boring things you could ever do. I’ve heard it said, “There’s nothing to see out there! It’s just flat and empty.” I lived out in western Kansas for seven years, and I’ve had multiple occasions to go back to visit and see the area in which I spent a significant portion of my childhood. Let me tell you all here, there is a depth and breadth of beauty that is almost unmatched. Sure there aren’t many trees, and the trees that do grow are stunted and twisted by the whipping winds. Sure there aren’t majestic hills, let alone enormous mountains that loom high in the sky. But, Kansas has a beauty that you wouldn’t expect. The beauty is in the grand scope you can get looking off into the horizon and be amazed at the vastness of God’s creation. The beauty is in those undulating fields that ripple and roil in the wind. The beauty is in the subtleties of the landscape that may not be apparent at the first glance. However, getting people to see that and realize such tremendous beauty often fails, because for some reason mountains are something to look at and the plains and prairies are not.

Let me assure you right now that I’m not bringing this up because I’m being paid on the side by the Kansas State tourism board. I’m not even implying that I don’t like or appreciate the beauty that I’m surrounded by right here right now living in Wisconsin. But I bring this up because, for some reason, we all tend to have trouble seeing the value and the beauty in the small, broken down, dilapidated, poor and seemingly insignificant. We love what is grand, extravagant, well kept, popular and successful. But, what makes the grand and glorious be something that we end up valuing so much? What gives things like mountains, canyons, and city skylines an inherent value and worth? Who decided that the mountain was something to look at while the open prairie is just empty and boring?

Jesus knows that when we think of what is good for us in our lives we think of what is grand and glorious. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Try to imagine what the Kingdom of God will look like. Focus on the images that pop into your mind’s eye. What do you see? Do you see a mustard seed growing into shrub? Do you see a farmer harvesting his or her crops? I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we probably think of the Kingdom of God like we so often imagine heaven in our pictures and descriptions. We first see pearly gates. We see streets paved with gold. We see grand houses in which we will be reunited with all our friends and relatives. But do we see God? Would we even be open to how God makes the Kingdom of God a reality?

Jesus uses these parables so that he can confront what we would expect the Kingdom of God to look like. He uses these parables challenge and confuse what we are expecting from God. He uses these parables to tell us that God’s reign is an event, not a place, where people have trust in God’s love and care for them and where people then respond in showing that love to one another.

This first parable that we heard today is a parable telling us that the kingdom of God is going to grow and happen whether we are vigilant watching it grow or even know all the processes that need to take place for a seed to grow. The farmer doesn’t know and doesn’t need to know the second by second progress of the seeds life. The farmer simply plants the seed and gathers the fruit that the seed bears. In this, the Kingdom of God is simply being open and trusting that the seed will bear fruit in its due season. The process is ultimately out of the farmer’s hands.

The second parable we heard today is a parable telling us that the Kingdom of God is like the unlikeliest of seeds and plants. The mustard seed is small. In fact, if someone dropped it on the ground outside, we just might not be able to find it. Compared to the other things in life back then like having a labor animal or a heard of sheep, just one mustard seed would seem very insignificant. Yet God’s Kingdom comes even in the seemingly insignificant and proceeds to bear the fruit and love that provides shelter, food, and a nesting place for the birds of the air. God’s kingdom comes unexpectedly and directly challenges our normal ways of thinking and shows that that grace has come for the whole of creation and even the seemingly small and insignificant has the power to share God’s grace. God’s kingdom is a place where grace, forgiveness, and simple care for the other person happens as a response to what God has done for us. It doesn’t happen because we know and are making sure it happens. It happens because God has willed it to happen, and happen it does in many surprising and unexpected ways. Even the “flat and empty prairie” is a place where the beauty of God’s work can be seen, if you only have the patience to open your eyes and see its beauty.