Noticing God in Everything

This Sunday and for the following two Sundays, Pastor Doug is going to share some of what he learned and discerned during his sabbatical. He’ll share stories of how he spent his time, what he did, where they went, who they were with, and how God spoke to him during these last few months beginning with “Noticing God in Everything.” It’s Pastor Doug’s hope that some of the lessons he learned will also be helpful and applicable for you in your life.

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Noticing God in Everything

Jill and I are happy to be back with all of you at BBC. I’m grateful for the blessing of having a sabbatical, but we missed being a part of this special community. I want to thank our staff and especially David Pranga and Joe Greemore who covered pastoral responsibilities, which meant more work for them, and impacted their families as well. I appreciate their diligence and faithfulness. Will you join me in thanking them? Bill Harwood who helped guide the Mission Team in addition to his roles with the Deacons and the Bicentennial Team, and David Quinones, Chair of the Leadership Council, also had more to do in our absence and the church is fortunate to have their leadership.

For those of you who may be here for the first time, our church provides our pastors with the opportunity to take a sabbatical after every seven years of service at BBC to step off the treadmill of ministry to have time to rest, to invest in important relationships, to have time with God, and hopefully some travel and new experiences to gain fresh perspective. My sabbatical began after Easter which was April 9.

A lot can happen in just over three months. For example, we weren’t grandparents when the sabbatical began, but on April 13th, our older son Nathan and his wife Zoe welcomed their first child, a son, Caleb (photo from birth). Now Caleb is already three months old and doesn’t look quite the same (3-month-old photo). On sabbatical we were able to see their family once a month which was a great joy.

While on sabbatical I worked with a certified Life and Clergy Leadership Coach through the Center for Career Development and Ministry. I enjoyed my once-a-month conversations with the Rev. Dr. Meg Hess.

During our conversation on June 14th, she asked me if I had any learnings or observations two months into my sabbatical.

I replied fairly quickly that based on my reading, prayer, listening to podcasts, journaling, and all that I was doing there were three things that clearly stood out to me that I felt were important for me to be doing every day. Those three things are what I’m going to share about with you the next three Sundays.

Noticing God in everything, becoming more like Jesus, and being open to the Spirit.

These are three things you and I can strive to do every day, that can transform our life and deepen our relationship with and awareness of God.

Today and for the next two Sundays, I’m going to share some of what I learned and discerned during my sabbatical. I’ll share stories of how I spent my time, what I did, where we went, who we were with, and how God spoke to me during these last few months. It’s my hope that some of the lessons I learned will also be helpful and applicable for you in your life.

I want to begin with a question: how good are you at paying attention to your surroundings?

Have you ever walked into a post or the corner of a table or tripped because you weren’t paying attention or because you were distracted?

Paying attention helps you notice a lot more when you’re out for a walk, run, or bike ride, or sitting on the beach, lying down under the stars, or even waiting patiently in summer traffic.

You know who was really good at noticing things? Jesus was; he could see the kingdom of heaven in a mustard seed, a woman making bread, a man trying to catch fish, and a businessman trying to be successful.

There’s a lot to be gained from having the ability to notice God in the routine seemingly ordinary, small parts of your day.

Listen to Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. He put before them another parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Usually when I preach I lead us through a passage from the Bible and what it meant and what it means for us.

Today, however, I’m not going to focus on exploring all the images Jesus uses in Matthew 13 to describe the kingdom of heaven, that would take a lot more than one sermon.

Instead I want you to notice what we learn from what Jesus is doing in how he’s communicating; what’s behind him saying the kingdom of heaven is like: a mustard seed, yeast mixed with flour, treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid, a merchant in search of fine pearls who found one pearl of great value, and a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.

What might Jesus want his hearers to learn in these images of what the kingdom of heaven is like and how it works in the world?

Why doesn’t Jesus just preach and teach from the Hebrew Bible?

Why does he use parables and images from everyday life?

When he has a crowd or even when he’s with his disciples why doesn’t he preach and teach by going line by line through Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or Psalms?

Some people think that’s the only way Christian pastors should preach. While there is some value in that approach, that’s not what Jesus did.  

Think about how different life was 2,000 years ago.

Today, almost all of us have a cell phone. Some of you are looking at yours right now. Some of us have an app on our phone that has the Bible on it. Many of us have a printed copy of the Bible. We have access to the Bible and can read or listen to it every day, any time we want, wherever we are. That doesn’t mean you do, but you could.

For most of human history, this wasn’t the case. Until the invention of the printing press in the mid fifteenth century, almost all the copies of the scriptures would have been in synagogues, churches, monasteries, or institutions training people for ministry.

When Jesus was walking around teaching about the kingdom of heaven, he couldn’t tell people, “Be sure to read the scriptures every day to learn about who God is and how God wants you to live.” They couldn’t. The New Testament didn’t exist, and the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible were in the local synagogue and most people couldn’t read. So, if you’re Jesus, and you can’t tell people to read the Bible for themselves every day, how do you teach them about the kingdom of heaven?

You do what Jesus does in Matthew 13, you teach people to be noticing God in everything.

In Matthew 13 Jesus helps people notice God in nature in the growth of a seed, in the midst of their daily household tasks, like making bread, in the latest news – hey did you hear about the guy who found a treasure, or in the course of one’s work, whether one is jewel merchant or a fisherman. All these parables of the kingdom of heaven reflect Jesus’ noticing God in everything.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “Pay attention.”

What does it usually mean when you have to pay for something? It means whatever you want, you recognize that it has enough value that you’re willing to pay the cost for it.

Paying attention means you’re not distracted, you’re not multi-tasking, you’re not dissipating your focus or strength by trying to do too much at once.

To pay attention costs you the ability to focus on anything other than the person or task or moment in front of you.

I think most people struggle to do this; I often do. We say we’re listening, for example, but our eyes are diverted to a screen of some kind, and aren’t on the person who is speaking, or where we’re driving, or what we’re seeking to accomplish.

In Matthew 13, Jesus is inviting the crowds listening to him and us, to pay attention and notice how the ordinary seemingly unimportant events of a typical day can be revealing to us the kingdom of heaven and how God is at work.

Part of what helped me in this area was reading at the beginning of my sabbatical Steve Macchia’s book, The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything

And a book of poetry edited by James Crews, titled The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy.

The ability of poets to describe a scene, to evoke emotions, to observe and notice details, is amazing to me.

While none of us is Jesus and few of us are poets, we can all pay more attention and notice what is taking place around us and within us with greater focus.

For example, we have a compost bin in our yard behind a shed. When I go out to the compost bin I walk from our deck across the same part of the yard to the back of the shed.

In this part of our yard is a big ant farm. Ants are small, like mustard seeds, but they have things to teach you, if you’re open to it.

We have very sandy soil in our yard which is terrible for growing grass but great for ant colonies and for mushrooms. Walking the same path, usually a couple times a day, starting months ago in the early spring, I noticed how the ants were always working. There were always ants carrying grains of sand and piling them up. As the weeks went by, they started enlarging their territory. I’m sorry I’m not the Nature Channel or I’d show you time lapse photography of how their footprint expanded by many square feet.

I came to admire and respect the ants and by noticing them they taught me several things.

Ants are small compared to you and me. But they work hard.

Every time I walked past, the ants were carrying sand, bringing in food, they were on task, on purpose, and demonstrating the value of doing something daily and weekly and how the impact of whatever that is compounds over time.

The example of the ants motivated me during my sabbatical to be diligent about exercising, reading, and writing in my journal and how those regular practices compound and build over time.

Often when I took out the compost, I’d stand or squat down and watch the ants for a few minutes. In addition to their diligence and hard work, another thing I noticed about ants is they’re social insects and each has a role, task, or job that they’re contributing to the colony.

You can see them communicating with each other. In the same way, in the church, the Body of Christ, you have value and a role or task to help the church to be healthy and successful for God and the kingdom of heaven.

At this point, I’m guessing some of you were expecting something more dramatic in my first sermon back from sabbatical than what I observed from the ants in my yard while taking out the compost, but I’d be willing to bet that’s how some people in the crowd listening to Jesus felt too. “I heard so much about this great preacher and teacher from Galilee and he’s talking about mustard seeds and leaven and merchants and fishermen, what does this have to do the kingdom of heaven, God, faith, or spirituality?”

Maybe it has to do with learning to see life and the world the way Jesus did.

In Jesus’ parables we learn that God is at work, even though human eyes may fail to perceive what’s happening. God is at work – even when it’s hard to tell.

In late June, our younger son Greg and his wife Marci shared their good news that they’re expecting their first child at the end of January. We covet your prayers for their growing baby and for Marci that all will go well. It’s relatively easy to see God at work or to praise God in the good, joyful, and happy moments of life, like in the birth of a child.

It can be more difficult at other times, like when we’re in physical pain or when our body no longer works the way it used to. When we feel and sense our strength, health, or vitality diminishing. This happens over time, and it can also change suddenly.

In the first couple months of my sabbatical, we got together with family and friends in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. We took a trip to North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee that I’ll tell you more about in the coming weeks, and I spent a week in Puerto Rico at General Board Meetings for our denomination and the ABCUSA Biennial Mission Summit.

On June 27th, the day after I got home from Puerto Rico, my dad flew in from Seattle, Washington and I picked him up at Logan Airport in Boston and we went to our family cottage in Maine. The next morning my dad shared with me that at his final medical appointment before coming east, they had noticed something which led to another test which confirmed that he has pancreatic cancer and that the prognosis for that type of cancer was that he has somewhere from three to 18 months to live. This was sad news for him and for our family. Being with different members of our family as dad shared this news over the coming days was difficult for everyone. I’m grateful that because I’ve been on sabbatical, that I’ve been able to spend more than three weeks with my dad and that he got to meet his first Scalise great grandchild (photo of 4 of us).

Jill and I drove him back to Maine after he preached here last Sunday and then we returned to Brewster on Monday. This past Tuesday afternoon my dad was hospitalized, and it was determined he had a mild stroke which has impacted his left side. Thankfully he was discharged on Thursday afternoon. We’d appreciate your prayers for my dad as he undergoes physical therapy and for our family as we have someone with him over the next few weeks until he’s hopefully able to fly back to Seattle on August 14th.

On Wednesday morning, I met with Andrea Gotti and then Penny Vincent and her daughter Angie as we prepare for services to celebrate the lives of Bob Gotti and Bill Vincent on Thursday and Saturday morning respectively this week at BBC. Throughout all the seasons of our life, from birth, to childhood, young adulthood, becoming parents, or grandparents, even to old age and our final days, Jesus invites us to be noticing God’s presence, God’s power, God’s comfort, God’s peace, God’s guidance, in all the events of our life – in the large and life altering, to the small, seemingly ordinary and routine, in the joyful and happy, to the difficult and the sad, Jesus invites you to a life with him in which every where you look, whatever you’re facing, whatever you’re doing, you may notice God with you if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Throughout our life there are things we need to take up and embrace and do, and there are things we need to give up, relinquish and release.

This is true of hopes and dreams, of abilities, and even the most special people in our life.

I think that’s why Jesus concludes these parables by saying (Matthew 13:52),

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

There are “old” things that are worth retaining and keeping, but not everything or even everyone can be kept or held on to.

There is a letting go which is always a part of life and part of following Jesus.

There is also a need to be welcoming to and open to the “new” that God is doing in your life, in the world, and in the work of the kingdom of heaven. And it takes discernment to know what to keep and what to release. It takes noticing God in everything.

I pray that the Lord will open your eyes and give you discerning vision and open ears to hear the Spirit’s softest whisper. God is all around us in every season and circumstance of life, if you pay attention and notice, you never know what you might see or hear.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Jesus could notice God and the kingdom of heaven in the simple, ordinary, and routine aspects of daily life – a farmer planting a seed, a woman making bread, a man trying to catch fish, or a businessperson seeking to be successful. What can you do to notice God more throughout as you go about your day?
  2. A mustard seed and leaven are examples of how small beginnings can yield amazing results. If you had to suggest an image today that reflects this truth (rather than a mustard seed or yeast), what’s an image or object you might use?
  3. Reflecting on your life, can you think of a time when God was at work – even when it was hard to tell? How does the benefit of looking back help you to see when and how God was present or active?
  4. Why are patience and discernment important and, at times, difficult when you’re seeking to notice how God is active in your life or in the world?
  5. What are some of the characteristics of genuine disciples alluded to in Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 that we want to be cultivating and growing in our lives and relationships?
  6. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses seeds, leaven, salt, and light as images for the kingdom of heaven and his disciples. All of these are silent. How can silence help you to connect with and notice God in a deeper way?
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