We jump back into the scriptures in a weird place this morning. We have had Trinity Sunday last week and we begin the time of Pentecost this week but the two seemingly have little to do with one another, as if they were not thinking of this week when they picked the scriptures for last week, as if they were not carrying on an idea from last week, when they selected the scriptures for this week.
They even jump in this morning in the middle of a sentence, seemingly in the middle of a thought, it just seems so haphazard. It is what happens when you juxtapose a festival of the church, one of those days that has a special name like Pentecost or Trinity or Ascension and you just drop them into the mix of the scriptures, the story being told with the broader vision, weeks-long, covering the season we are in now, the season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, which is the time when Jesus walks and talks and we are invited along to see and to hear.
Those special days break up the rhythm, they mess with our heads a little, throwing us off of the slow and steady march of the stories, the tales of ministry that are the scriptures and their flow over the course of the year.
They are like rocks in a stream, making the water eddy here and jump and tumble instead of flowing smoothly to the sea. Now smoothly is the efficient way but if you have ever rafted a river, a smooth one is very picturesque but not very exciting, and an exciting one can be very exciting but if all you are aiming to do is to get to the sea, if your only goal is to get to the end of the story, then the rocks just get in your way, they make things messy, they interrupt the story.
That is, if the story were simply that of getting from the mountains down to the sea. If that were the only thing that water had to do then the faster the better, the easier the better. Of course, California would dry up and blow away, but if the only part of the story that matters is the end, then, well, that’s what you get.
For us, in this state especially, there has to be more. Water has to be constantly interrupted along the route or humanity will perish because there are simply too many of us to cluster ourselves alongside the waterways, we have expanded our civilization into dry areas and now must interrupt the water on our own, slowing its journey to the sea even more so that we can live.
The drought that we face in our current times is not the kind of thing that has a solution within our control. It truly is a supply problem for us with the way we have our society currently configured. If the supply goes away, then the consumption must go away as well. Unless we are willing to radically disrupt the way we organize our societies, and I do not think that we are, we are going to be subject to the vicissitudes of the weather for the foreseeable future.
So the interruptions matter. Where and when we stop the water here and let it flow freely there, how we use it and how we view it. We have grown so used to it being there, reliably, day after day, that we have come to take it for granted, overlook the fact that it is possible, we are beginning to get a glimpse of that now, that it may just one day stop.
Ask the residents of Porterville. They turn the tap on and nothing comes out. Well after well has dried up and there is no solution presenting itself.
We have gotten too good at interrupting it seems. We have stoppered up the water in too many places, interrupting its flow to the sea so much that in some places it simply does not make it there any more, the stones in the river have drunk too deeply and the river has died.
So the festival days break up the smooth flow of our scriptures, the flow of our faith lives and we drink deeply, or not, of their uniqueness, of their special character, and then glide a bit farther downstream, carried on the blessed flow of the scriptures, carefully selected and ordered by scholars over the ages.
They tell us who we are. They tell our story and we listen to them and are shaped by them as we drift along in the flow of the church year. This is the time after Pentecost, called Ordinary Time, not because it is ordinary, by the way, if ordinary means not special, but because the Sundays are numbered, the first, second, et cetera and those are ordinal numbers, ordinal in this case meaning “relating to a thing’s position in a series,” get it, first, second, third etc.?
And this is the Lectionary year of Mark, so we are going to be dropped into the flow of scriptures a bit more than in other years, what with Mark’s love of the word “immediately” with which he introduces a new story, a change in venue, a shifting on the focus of his narrative. It is going to be a bumpy ride, so hang on.
I think that might be why I like Mark so much. He’s a pretty bad storyteller, not nearly the skill or flair of Luke, for example, nor the complete command of the history like Matthew, but as bad as he is what Mark has to say is always important, always directly on point to our salvation in Christ and how it is wrought.
The bumps in the road are like the stones in the river, they do not make the story more efficient, but they allow us to drink deeply from the scriptures, taking in their power and their words of grace, and Mark, as I said, is a bumpy ride.
This week we are dropped right into the story of Jesus return to Jerusalem, His homecoming, so to speak. He has been spreading the word in Capernaum and has drawn such crowds that he has been driven into the mountains for some relief and now he comes back down to Jerusalem and they welcome Him with open arms.
Or accuse Him of having a demon, one or the other.
Even for Jesus, the road ahead is no placid drift downstream, there are rocks and interruptions along the route, swells and troughs that threaten and tempt, promise and deny.
Year after year we hear these stories. We weep alongside Jesus in His sorrows and we trust that Jesus weeps alongside us in our sorrows. We rejoice at the wedding at Cana and we call upon the name of Jesus in our own weddings, and if we are wise, in our marriages as well. We listen to Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God and we sigh with relief that ours is a place in that Kingdom, ours is a place in God’s heart, in Jesus love and so we are saved and all is placid and calm along the waters of our faith life as we drift peacefully to the sea, er, I mean toward heaven, our eternal home.
I heard an old joke I hadn’t heard in a while at the Synod Assembly. I’ve told it a few times since then and it never stops making me chuckle. “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Lutheran? You get someone who knocks on your door on Sunday afternoon and then doesn’t say anything.”
The unfortunate thing is, it’s a pretty good description. We Lutherans tend to embrace fully our salvation, devote ourselves to going to church and to being good Christians, and then we tend to lay back, look up at the heavens, our someday home, and relax, ease into the life of faith, drift easily and slowly down the stream of scriptures, feeling them wash over us, assuring us of the promises of God, reveling in the peace they bring us.
What we tend not to do is to turn our heads from side to side, so entranced are we with our salvation, to see the people along the banks, outside of the stream of grace, not knowing the blessings of faith. Lutherans have a tendency to accept fully the grace of God but then, for whatever reason, fall asleep in the deep drift of the river, as if the only thing that grace was for, was for getting us to the sea, er, heaven, as efficiently as possible.
I’ve been having lunch with members lately, an extension of my visitation of those who cannot make it to church regularly, and recently one asked me what we can do about our little church up here on the hill, about how charming and lovely it is, about how much they treasure their time here. They then went on to talk about a relative who invites them, again and again, to come to church with them, to attend the large, even-more-suburban church then this one, with the band and the screens; all of that being said with a mixture of appreciation and distaste, about how they went from time to time, but found our fellowship more satisfying.
I thought of that conversation when I read this morning’s reading from 2 Corinthians. “We believe and so we speak” and I wondered how it is that we do not see the answer that is right before our face.
Many of us were born into the church, not this church, but the broader church and so we might not understand as well as the rest of us, myself included, who knew a time before we went here, or to any church for that matter.
Then someone spoke. Someone told us a story of a people, a community that they were a part of. They didn’t make any promises, at least Debbie never promised me anything, they just told the stories, telling us what they loved, what they found, why they went.
They were the heralds of the Kingdom of God though they never would have thought of themselves as being so, at least not out loud.
They just believed and so they spoke.
I asked the member I was lunching with if they had ever asked their relative to come worship with them, knowing the answer before I asked. You see, other fellowships are less reticent about cherry picking members from other churches, in fact, there are books written about it, but we, and we are right about this, we don’t think that this is very effective in growing the Body of Christ. It may make your personal church bigger, but I thought the job description was bringing light into dark spaces, not into other well-lit spaces.
I don’t know when it was that we lost the habit of telling our story to other people. Maybe when people started coming into churches as soon as you built them, without you having to ask too many questions or tell too many stories.
That still happens, but we are not building a new church in this space, we do not have the benefit of newness to make us appear shinier, that is the province of other fellowships. We need to remember that “we believe and so we speak” are not just pretty words from a pretty severe guy long dead now. It is the prescription that Paul is giving us so that we might be healthy in our faith.
I have heard the stories of how this place came to be hundreds of times and I am not tired of hearing them yet but you also have to remember, I am here every week already. I do not need converting, I am pre-converted.
Out there, not so much.
The conversion rate of door-to-door missionary work is, apocryphally, one in a thousand. For every thousand doors you knock on, one person comes to church. The rate of conversion for personal relationships, for people you actually know and believe would find salvation in your fellowship is closer to one in ten.
Mormons and Witnesses do not send people into the streets in order to win converts. They do it so that their people can become so comfortable telling their stories in difficult circumstances that when they get into easier circumstances they won’t even hesitate.
We reached out into the neighborhood last year in order to get people here for a Block Party. We are doing so again this year.
We are not going door to door in order to win converts. There are not enough people in this neighborhood for the odds to ever work out in our favor. We are going out to forge genuine relationships with our neighbors. Telling them our tales, hearing their tales. Maybe our stories will be convincing, maybe not. But the relationships we make shorten the odds considerably. Maybe their stories someday will include the nice people across the street.
Getting to the sea, er, heaven, in the most efficient way possible is what we’ve already been doing. It might be time to grab onto a rock, make a few ripples and see who is standing on the banks of the stream of God’s grace. We can reach them, if we stretch out our hands and tell our stories. If we believe, and then we speak.