Archive for October, 2007

Sometimes it takes guts to go to church; it also takes guts to be the church

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Two of the most painful places to be excluded are the family and the religious community. So many people live with a cloud of rejection that overshadows their personal lives. It may be the impact of an absentee parent or spouse, denial of a mental illness, rejection of a child’s sexual orientation, or so many other things. Judgment cuts to the core of who we are, especially when found in the places where we most expect welcome and unconditional love.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector goes deep, truly striking at the marrow of our souls. It can speak to us both when we feel unworthy of God’s love and when we feel overly confident of our own goodness. It can speak to anyone who has been labeled, stereotyped, or dismissed. It can convict us when we label, stereotype, or dismiss. This text addresses what we do when we come to worship, why we are here, and what we think about the other people with whom we share this sacred space. I would wager a guess that preaching on this parable, and updating its characters to those that most hit home in any particular era, has lost many a daring preacher his job.

Who is Jesus trying to reach, by telling this parable? The writer of the Gospel ‘spills the beans’, so to speak, in suggesting that Jesus is responding to those harsh critics who condemn the social circles in which he travels. In other words, Jesus is addressing the good Synagogue folk who are accustomed to doing the right thing and socializing with their own kind. Their religion discourages them from making friends with those questionable outsiders, lest they be rendered unclean by such contact.

Illustrations, particularly drawn in caricature form, have a way of getting their point across. Obviously, not all Pharisees nor all tax collectors resemble the actors on this stage. The enduring power of this story comes as Jesus places both characters together in the one place his critics least expect–the Temple. Not only that, but both characters go to the Temple for the same reason–to pray.

I love this imagery, because the last thing religious people expect of someone they have been told to despise is for “those people” to be praying people, too. By definition, the despised are supposed to be unredeemable, headed straight for hell. All sorts of defamation is heaped on them in the name of God. “What would you do if a gay couple visited your church?” a parishioner asked someone from his home church during the censuring process of this congregation by the North Central Baptist Association for this church’s welcoming and affirming stance. “I’d kick ‘em out!” said the person without a second thought. Hardly the tactics or mindset of Jesus.

A friend of mine is serving a small ethnic church with an all-male leadership board. How in the world did that church ever call her as a pastor? Initially resistant even to the idea of calling a woman, they grew to know and love her as an interim. They saw her faith and her prayer life. They witnessed her calling in action, and it changed them.

The transforming possibility of the parable is the same transforming possibility the Apostle Peter faced when he met Cornelius, a Gentile, and learned that Cornelius was a praying man. Peter never entertained the possibility that a Gentile could be clean, could praying and love God the same way he did! The faith of Cornelius challenged Peter’s long-held religious prejudices. Peter, like many before and after him, could have walked away, refusing to rethink his attitudes after observing the testimony of this man. Instead, he opened himself up to a whole new realm of the Spirit’s work in the world.

Let’s return to our parable. It contrasts two primary characters–the Pharisee, a pillar of religious faith and respectability–and the tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Empire. The Pharisee meticulously follows the Law of God. In fact, he even goes farther than the Law requires by fasting twice a week, not just at expected times and seasons, and tithing all that he has, not just that which is required. In contrast, the tax collector is not considered religious at all; he is seen as both traitor and cheat, both sinner and unclean.

One is welcome in the Temple; the other is not. One is self-congratulating; the other is self-effacing. Both stand alone—one to be seen, the other to remain anonymous. Both pray–one sizes up the outsider in the assembly; the other sizes up the state of his own soul before God. One gives thanks–that he is not like all those “sinners out there” or especially that tax collector in the corner; the other laments–throwing himself on the mercy of a Holy and Benevolent God.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner!” the tax collector cries. William Herzog, in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, suggests that the tax collector is most likely a toll collector, a low level employee who collects interest, tolls, and various other fees that are neither part of the primary taxation system of the Roman Empire nor associated with the Temple tithes. The toll collectors don’t generally get rich; most of the excess they receive goes to their wealthy employer. Further, they can never repay all they have defrauded people, because they work with the general public on behalf of the rich. Still, they are despised, seen as collaborators and cheats. They participate in the larger system that oppresses the poor–a system that oppresses them as well.

How does the toll collector know that he needs God’s mercy? What has changed him? This question fascinates me. What do you think? [Congregational reflection].

I recently spoke with a student who has become deeply burdened by the sins that he participates in simply by being a citizen of the United States. Even if we seek to live more sustainably, we still belong to a society that disproportionately uses up the world’s resources. Even if we protest war, we are still part of a nation that bombs innocent civilians in distant lands, contaminating the earth with depleted uranium that will remain for generations to come. While we labor to speak out and work to change unjust systems, we also cry out like the toll collector, “Have mercy on us!”

The prayer for mercy is a prayer of awareness and conscience. The toll collector’s confession is not about self-hatred, the “Oh, what a worm am I!” approach to God. It is about humility, about grabbing hold of grace, because it takes grace to cover all our sins. To know we need mercy is to see our inner darkness and the darkness around us against the Brightness of the Light of God. In the burning of that light, we can find illumination, redemption, and release.

In biblical language, mercy is synonymous with love and compassion. By nature, mercy is non-linear. It flows in a circle, emanating from the compassion of God to compassion for the world God has created and back again.. In another setting, Jesus teaches his followers, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7). Mercy places itself in solidarity with the most vulnerable of the earth: the poor and the outcast, the orphan and the widow. Mercy sees beyond the neighbor’s sins to the person God cherishes–the very thing that the Pharisee seems unable to do because he tragically cannot see his own need for mercy.

Jesus finishes his illustration by shocking his critics once again. Which of these men leaves the Temple justified before God? In the long sweep of church history, justification has been quantified into a theological tenet, but in Jesus’ day, it was a legal term used in a court of law. Wouldn’t the meticulous Pharisee be justified? No—what??? It’s the repentant toll collector who can never repay all his debts! The humble are exalted and the proud brought low? In that case, the doors to the Kingdom of God are flung wide open!

This story is told again and again, because it is truly universal in its import. Wherever the church condemns the company its own disciples keep, this story should be told. Whenever the church becomes assured of its own goodness in contrast to “those evildoers out there,” this story should be told. Whenever the church forgets that God is more interested in one simple honest prayer than a thousand acts of self-congratulatory religion, this story should be told. Whenever the church forgets the saving power of grace and seeks to work its way into God’s good pleasure, this story should be told. Let us keep telling it. Amen.

“Wow. I think I’m a creationist.”

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

What kind of faith will the Son of Humanity find when he appears? Hopefully, according to the story Jesus told, something like that of the widow woman who wouldn’t stop bugging the unjust judge until she got what was right and fair.

It’s not an insignificant thing that the woman in the story is a widow. Widows were extremely vulnerable in first century Israel. There wasn’t anything like social security, pension plans, or opportunities for women to have their own careers and 401k’s. And when a woman’s husband died his estate went to the man’s oldest son, not his wife. If he didn’t have any sons, the next closest male relative got the inheritance. Widows were completely at the mercy of sons, brothers-in-law or whoever ended up with the money for their continued survival. They needed people like judges to make sure they were not totally abandoned.

In this story, the judge doesn’t really care what happens to the widow. But she won’t leave him alone. So he finally gives in, not because it’s the just and right thing to do, but because he’s tired of all her demands for justice.

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the judge is not the God figure. God is not someone we have to bug until we get what we want. But what God does like is a persistence for justice, even if we have to persist with God. That has something to do about the kind of faith the Son of Humanity is looking for when he comes.

This story really gets its start earlier in Luke 17 when the disciples ask Jesus to give them more faith. He tells them that if they have enough faith they can tell a tree to go plant itself in the bottom of the sea. Mary talked about that a couple of weeks ago. Then he tells that story of the Samaritan leper who is healed that we talked about last week. Now Jesus tells this parable about a widow, another outsider, who is an example of faith. The kind of faith these outsiders show is the kind of faith the Son of Humanity is looking for when he returns.

Most of you know that our first grandchild Sofia has been spending the initial days of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Anne’s Hospital in Westerville. Her care is not as intense as some of the other babies in that unit. At her four pounds and twelves ounces, as tiny as she is, she is twice the size of her most recent companion who entered the NICU.

The technology in such places is amazing. The care and the skill of the staff is excellent. They know what they are doing and they have the equipment to get babies even smaller than two pounds and six ounces thriving and home with their parents.

We have been praying and praying for Sofia even though we have good reason to trust the care she is receiving. But as I have prayed for Sofia I have realized there are so many babies in this world who don’t have the facilities, care, and technology that is available for her. So I can’t pray for Sofia without praying for them. And I can’t pray for them without realizing I will have to persist on their behalf, not only before God, but before the unjust judges of this world who don’t care about what happens to the babies.

I think that has something to do about the faith the Son of Humanity is expecting when he returns. Can we have enough faith to believe that our persistence on behalf of the little ones, on behalf of the widows, is something that is going to make a difference in this world? Are we going to believe in what God can bring about? Or will we surrender to the system of the unjust judges and slink away to our spiritual oases where we don’t let the troubles of creation interrupt our religious devotion?

The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray pleads for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s why this widow persisted against the judge. She wants God’s will do be done right here on earth, and won’t give up until it is. As Springsteen would say it, no retreat, no surrender until God’s will is done right here, right now. We can’t pray for our daily bread and not care whether others get their’s too.

After Tuesday night’s Bible Study, and spending time with this passage, I realized I’m a creationist, though a different kind of creationist than the ones getting all the press. If you read the first couple of chapters of Genesis you have to wrestle with that call for human beings to have dominion over the creation. So far that hasn’t worked out very well. We have taken that idea of dominion and abused the creation beyond description by turning it into domination. But the abuse isn’t, obviously, limited to the environment. The story of the persistent widow and unjust judge reminds us that the abuse of one another is also an affront to God purposes of creation.

But Vern Ratzlaff, our resource for these studies suggests that dominion is not domination in the sense of what can we get out of nature for us. Rather the call is to dominate the forces of creation, including human forces, for the good of all people. I can go along with that. In The Message translation the idea of responsibility for the creation seems to be closer to what I think the intent is.

The bible begins with the idea that the creation was in chaos and God spoke order to it. When God created human beings, making men and women in God’s own image, we were given the task of maintaining that order, helping creation work for the good of all creation, including humanity.

I can make a good argument that the stories of Genesis 1 and 2 speak of God’s creation as something where people are not separate from the rest of nature, but a part of its web. It’s not that God created the natural world and then created human beings, but created the world which includes what we call the natural world and humanity.

A gift that humans can bring to creation is helping all of creation, its human and natural elements, channel its forces for the good of all of creation, all its people and all of the natural world.

I think a good example of of what the Genesis stories are getting to is the rain forests of this world. Creation can’t survive, including humans, without rain forests. So humans have to decide are we going to help the rain forests thrive so all of creation thrives, or are we going to cut them all down so nothing survives, including us?

We need houses, economic systems, farmlands created out of the forests, and so much more to survive as human beings. But it all has to work for everyone and all of creation. And when it doesn’t that’s injustice, that’s not God’s intention for creation.

So we persist. We believe in the God Jesus believed in. We believe the creation, the world God made, was made for the good of all people and all things. But Genesis 1 and 2 quickly give way to Genesis 3, where the sin and death and injustice enter the world. From Genesis 4 on, the rest of the story is about the possibility of redemption, of the creation becoming again what God intended. That’s what the widow in the story wants or.

Will the Son of Humanity find faith when he returns? Will there be creationists who have persisted, who have bugged the unjust judges, for the justice God wants for the world, all its people and all of nature? Will there be people who believe in the God who has not given up on creation but will redeem all things?

Can we live with redemptive vision? Can we maintain or discover a faith that continues to bug the unjust judges of this world and keep them awake at night demanding bread not bombs, economic equality not trickle down economics, fair treatment not fair trade, partnership between genders, races, nations, and cultures?

They don’t have to give in because we have converted them, as nice as that would be. If they only do what God wants for this world because they are tired of us, that’s okay with me.

It takes faith, though. We have to believe God is on our side. It will take prayer, lots of it. But you notice the story about the widow didn’t have her sitting at home praying. She was banging on doors because she believed God is a god who wants justice and fairness, even for widows.

Here’s one of the things prayer does. When you pray for yourself, you start realizing there are others who are in need, too. So you start praying for them, but then it’s no longer simply about praying. You start noticing some of the things you are praying for are a result of injustice in this world, a result of denying God’s intention for creation. Now you are called to join God in working on behalf of justice, no longer simply for your sake, not even for the sake of others but, literally, for God’s sake. Then you start bugging unjust judges. That’s why God put humans here, to help creation fulfill its purposes.

It’s a lot. We have really messed up creation, including our relationships with God and each other. And those relationships are a vital part of the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. But Jesus is convinced that God wants something so much different for this world than that unjust judge did. And he also believed that faith in who God is is what brings about a new world.

When we got back from Peace Camp this summer, I mentioned what Rita Nakashima Brock said about the understanding early Christians had of their calling. She was looking at the earliest of Christian art and realized that it’s primary theme was about paradise. They understood that following Jesus sent them on a search for God’s original intent in creating the world. Paradise was something to be discovered, or regained as the poet Milton put it. But more than being discovered or regained, paradise is our mission.

Will the Son of Humanity find faith when he returns? Will there be cage rattlers, chain yankers, people persisting and being obnoxious, bugging God and unjust judges on the behalf of the justice of creation. Will the Son of Humanity find any creationists out there, people who believe God created this world for the good of all things and all people?

What’s with this Samaritan fixation that Jesus has?

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

There were ten of them who formed this coalition of the outcasts. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t have seen a Samaritan in the company of nine Jews. But they all had leprosy. That disease trumped the strict regulations that prohibited Jews from cavorting with the Samaritan half-breeds whose ancestors had deserted the faith and polluted the racial purity of the Jews with their taking of foreign wives.

These ten, though, kept together and kept to the law as best they could, even following the commands from the scriptures that demanded they keep a safe distance between themselves and the non lepers. So that’s why they hollered at Jesus from across the way, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

And he did. There wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare to it. He didn’t offer a prayer for healing. No looking up to heaven and thanking God for the power that was about to be revealed. He didn’t call everyone’s attention to what he was doing. In fact, all he said was ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests,’ which was another part of the law from Leviticus. You weren’t considered cured from leprosy, allowed to reenter the community, take part in the religious rituals, until a priest pronounced you leprosy free.

There’s a problem, though. The lepers knew it. Everyone watching what’s been going on knew it. One of them was a Samaritan. How is that guy going to go to the priests with the other nine? I don’t care how many leprosy free days he had. No priest was going to let him come near, much less pronounce him clean because he was still a Samaritan, leprosy free but still an unclean Samaritan. That was his core uncleanness that no amount of healing was going to fix. And there was nothing Jesus could do about that. Or was there?

For the longest time, I thought this was a fable about gratitude. After all, the Samaritan, or this outsider as Jesus calls him, comes back. He prostrates himself before Jesus and offers his praise to the God who has done this healing work through Jesus.

It seems to me, though, that gratitude is a part of this story, but not what this story is primarily about. And it doesn’t seem like it’s just another healing story. What I see is another Samaritan story.

And I’m not the first one to notice that. Lots of commentators I read say, “Hum. This sounds kind of like that story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus told. It’s the leprous Samaritan who has the response the listener would have expected from the Jews. Gratitude. While the Jews go off without expressing any gratitude at all. But isn’t that the way Samaritans are, not Jews?”

It sure looks to me like Luke is continuing to show us that Jesus is tearing down the walls that divide us. It’s the grateful Samaritan who acknowledges that God is at work in Jesus in a mighty way. But the other nine don’t. Interesting. It’s the outsiders who see what those who imagine themselves on the inside don’t.

In this story Jesus is also getting into the priests’ faces. The priests keep saying that Jesus is a danger, that he is subverting the faith as it has been passed on. They dismiss him as a liberal at best, a heretic at worst, while they claim to protect all that is holy and sacred from the likes of him. But who is healing people? Not them. Where is the power of the Kingdom of God being seen? In their guardianship of the Biblical faith or in the mission of Jesus?

And if that’s not enough what are they going to do about a healed Samaritan? How can they deny the power of God at work in his life while acknowledging it in the other nine? I think Jesus got them good.

He gets us good, too. He’s not going to let us stay in our bunkers or inside the safety of our walls. He gets us out there with the lepers and the Samaritans and says you know what, “God loves us all, so drop the nonsense about who belongs and who doesn’t.”

You know, there’s another Samaritan story. Do you remember it, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4? And she turns out to be a pretty good Samaritan herself. She becomes a follower of Jesus and an evangelist. And maybe that healed leper did, too.

Check out Acts 8 sometime. Phillip, one of the Apostles goes to Samaria to preach the gospel and all kinds of Samaritans become believers. It kind of surprised the Jewish followers of Jesus, but it shouldn’t have. Jesus healed that Samaritan leper. He sat and talked for a long time with that Samaritan woman, as scandalous as it was. And it changed her life.

Now, what do you suppose the disciples thought was worse, that Jesus was talking with a Samaritan or that he was talking with a woman? But this woman knew that no matter how many strikes she had against her, and she also had a bit of a problem of settling down with one lover, that she had seen something of God in that man Jesus. And it was pretty radical stuff.

The Samaritan woman, the healed leper knew that Jesus was willing to cross the lines, to stir things up for the sake of other human beings. And the Apostle Paul, the most Jewish guy that Christianity ever knew also figured that out. But he puts it in a theological framework, because that’s what he knew best. He called it grace.

Paul looked at Jesus and saw in him this gulf between us and God had been crossed. It didn’t have anything to do with our religious heritage, ethnic purity, gender, race or anything other than God’s love. Paul had come a long way to get to that place. He says he was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He kept the faith as well as anybody. He didn’t cross any of the lines until Jesus dragged him across, kicking and screaming. But he saw a whole new world on the other side of that line.

He writes about it in lots of places. In Ephesians 2 he talks about the wall of separation between Jew and non-Jew has been torn down by Jesus. Suddenly he is looking grace in the eyes and there are no longer insiders and outsiders but all are one in Christ.

At the end of the 15th chapter of Romans Paul sums up some scriptures that are coming true with Jews and Gentiles now one in Christ. “Outsiders and insiders rejoice together!” “People of all nations, celebrate God! All colors and races, give hearty praise.” “There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse breaking through all the earth and growing tall, tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope!”

It’s kind of hard to think about Paul as a flaming radical but, at times, he was. Here is a guy who, like most of his Jewish counterparts, thought the only good gentile was a dead gentile, and gentiles thought the same about Jews. But Paul was glad to acknowledge the people who he had formerly regarded at the lowest of the low life as his brothers and sisters in Christ. That was the effect of ‘the grace that is in our Lord Jesus Christ,’ as he put it. How could he maintain divisions between himself and others when God refused to maintain any divisions.

That was radical stuff. It’s still pretty radical for today. Here’s this guy who always thought of himself as the consummate insider regarding himself as that Samaritan who had been healed. And all he could do was praise and thank God for what had happened in his life through Jesus Christ. He was thankful that the walls had been torn down and Jesus was calling his followers to build a new world in his name.

How far were those first followers of Jesus going to go, though? And how far are we going to go? At first, they went pretty far. One of the things that helped was this belief that Jesus would return quickly. So what did they have to lose? Sure, they could disrupt the social order, maybe even get themselves killed, but what did it matter? They could push grace as far as they could because Jesus was going to quickly make all things right.

So they did crazy things like say that God loved everyone and open the church to all comers. They even had women–some Samaritan women, no doubt– leading their churches, serving as pastors, deacons, evangelists, prophets, apostles, and co-workers with the likes of Paul. The Samaritan stories made sense to them.

But Jesus didn’t come back soon. And they started to back off on things, especially when it came to women. That whole business was pretty hard to explain in their time and culture. So women’s leadership in the church became frowned upon. They stopped telling the stories about the women heroes of the church. All of the sudden there were Samaritans again and before too long nobody understood why Jesus had talked so long with that woman at the well any better than the disciples did.

It’s always hard tearing down the walls. The fact that we can so quickly draw distinctions amongst ourselves, even when we know something of the grace of God in our lives shows how much sin has hold of us. Don’t you wonder what happened with the ten lepers when they were all healed? Did they revert to the old Jews vs. Samaritans conflict and stop hanging out with each other?

The story says they were healed along the way. It didn’t happen in an instant. Maybe that’s the key, moving forward, toward God’s kingdom, toward that grace, showing those skeptical priests what Jesus is doing. That grace may make a community as unexpected as that band of lepers.

And maybe we can get to where we want to go by taking time to stop to say thanks and offer our praise for what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Offering our thanks for the healing that comes along the way, to Samaritans and everybody else, when we follow him.

Have you uprooted any mulberry trees lately?

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

When Steve and I have traveled out West, one of the many amazing sights to behold is that of a little tree, tucked in the crevice between two enormous boulders, with nothing but sheer rock anywhere else as far as the eye can see. By some feat of nature’s determination and mystery, that little tree thrives, a testimony of life in what otherwise seems to be a rather punishing environment for green-growing things. Faith looks a little like that stubborn tree at times, doesn’t it?

The parables of Jesus are provocative by nature and meant to be interacted with rather than simply heard. They are often shocking to their audience or difficult to understand if simply taken at face value. We know this because of the sheer number of times the disciples scratch their heads and decide to ask Jesus later what he means, or quietly mumble among themselves, “Do you think Jesus is saying this?”
The parables often speak to a particular question or situation. A rich man approaches Jesus and asks how to be inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). The Pharisees and teachers of the law grumble about the company Jesus keeps (Luke 15:2-3). The disciples argue about which one of them is the greatest (Luke 22:24). Jesus responds by launching into a story, approaching the question or situation ‘from the back door,’ so to speak.

In our text today from Luke’s Gospel, the disciples make a small request, or so they believe. “Increase our faith, Jesus.”

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Jesus responds to their request with a story. His props are everyday items from the natural world familiar to those in the ancient Mideast–the mustard seed and the mulberry tree. How many of us have ever seen one, or both?

In Jesus’ day, black mustard was considered a weed. It was pervasive and persistent. Birds could not fully digest the seeds so they dropped them anywhere and everywhere; farmers had a tough time controlling the mustard bushes that popped up in the darndest places.

A mustard seed is not a big seed, as seeds go. Why doesn’t Jesus pick out some big seed for his illustration, something the size of a watermelon seed, for instance? His imagery seems to be a play on size and a reversal of the disciples’ expectation that faith has to be “big” to be “big enough.” A little mustard seed serves as a reminder that faith is truly about how we see and what we see. If a mustard seed is big enough, then a faith that is small is still a faith that is sufficient. Further, a faith that is persistent like the little mustard seed and pervasive like the full-grown mustard weed is much more significant than the “big faith” the disciples seek.

This brings us to mulberry trees. While they are not huge, they do have deep root systems. They are extremely messy, as animals love to feed on the berries. The ground beneath a mulberry tree in season is covered with berry goo, animal footprints, and bird droppings. Imagine uprooting a mulberry tree and planting it in the watery, sandy seabed! The sheer ridiculousness and impossibility of this act surely strikes the disciples of Jesus’ day as forcefully as it strikes us (unless they are scratching their heads and planning to ask Jesus what he means later!).

In the Gospels, do we ever see Jesus traveling from town to town, demonstrating his faith in God by ordering trees into the sea of Galilee or the Jordan River? Of course not! Writer and pastor, Bruce Prewer, suggests that we look at this parable as if it is a cartoon or a comic strip. Jesus not only uses a lot of hyperbole, or exaggeration, to get a point across, but he also uses humor. Even a tiny mustard seed of faith is plenty big in God’s eyes. Faith can be pervasive and tough like the mustard weed. More astounding yet, faith can tackle sheer impossibilities in the world’s eyes, planting mulberry trees in the Ocean, traveling where only fools for Christ dare to trod (I Cor. 4:10).

On my morning walks I run into many people over the course of a week, and John Randall is one of these people. A former high school English teacher and devout Christian, John never bargained for spending his retirement years battling small cell lung cancer, one of the most virulent and deadly types of lung cancer. Long ago in “cancer time” (which, believe me, has its own calendar!), John beat the odds for survival. He has been on and off chemotherapy, on and off hospice. I have seen John’s faith in action. It is the kind of faith that declares, “Though everything around me is not what I had planned, it is well with my soul. God is in control of my life; I am God’s, and God is mine.”

Last Sunday here at church we talked about Jeremiah, known as “the weeping prophet.” A sensitive and caring soul, Jeremiah was called to warn Jerusalem of impending disaster and live through that destruction and deportation himself. As the great city was on the verge of being destroyed, what did Jeremiah do? He bought a field (see Jeremiah 32), a crazy act in the eyes of the world. This purchase was a sign of God’s promise that what we see with our human eyes isn’t the full story, nor is it the end of the story.

And what did John Randall do last year, in the midst of battling every day to breathe? He got married in a small ceremony in Tappan Square. Later he said to me, “Every month we have together shall be like a year’s anniversary.” Each day of his life, with faith the size of a mustard seed, John is uprooting mulberry trees and planting them in the ocean.

As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, my heart is full of others doing the same. I am flooded with images of the Scattered Church—of people like Beth Peachey in Guatemala, Karla Yoder in Zambia, Susan Frances in Iraq, Liz Hamilton in Turkmenistan, or David Reese at Chicago Theological Seminary. My heart is full of images of the Gathered Church—people in nursing homes or at home battling serious health problems; people that float in and out of the church as well as those who plant themselves firmly in this soil.

My heart is full of missionaries like Dan Buttry, teaching strategies of nonviolent resistance to people living in war-torn lands. I’m remembering Debbie Kelsey, helping women trapped in the international sex slave industry to find dignity and a new life. I’m remembering those who seek to make Christianity credible in places where the Christian faith has lost any moral authority due to vagrant abuse in the name of the Christian God.

My heart is full of Buddhist monks who have been courageously leading massive protests against decades of brutal government repression in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Many have disappeared into detention this past week. My heart is full of devout Muslims like Moazzam Begg, humiliated and tortured at Guantanamo Bay, one day released without charges or apologies, sent back to England to reconstruct a life with his family (see Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar by Moazzam Begg). To withstand such evil and yet tenaciously believe, that in itself uproots mulberry trees and plants them in the ocean. My heart is full…it is is full…

If you have faith as big as a mustard seed–as big!–you can tell this mulberry tree to plant itself in the ocean, and it will. May we be such fools for Christ, to see that which is small and insignificant with the transforming eyes of faith and go about God’s work of uprooting the most tenacious of mulberry trees. Amen.