What Are We Celebrating, Exactly?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On Palm Sunday (March 25) we talked about parades and protests and pigs – and our texts included the story of Palm Sunday as told in Luke 19:29-40 and the curious story of the suicidal swine as found in Mark 5:1-20.  

To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 

 

Did you go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade last weekend? Not me. I saw some photos of you – at least, the captions claimed that it was you. Most of the bodies I saw were pretty bundled up. I’m telling you, it was cold that morning!

In all probability, it was pleasant and sunny on that spring day in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It usually is at this time of year. Maybe the residents of that city, unlike our own, have a preference for scheduling their parades on days when it’s fun to be outside.

Screen Shot from “Ben-Hur” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures, 2016).

At any rate, on this particular day, there were two separate processions that came into the Holy City. The gates of the western wall are flung open and the population greets the Imperial procession of Pontius Pilate. He lives in Caesarea by the Sea, but today, accompanied by hundreds of his security force, he makes the sixty mile journey to Jerusalem to be present for the beginning of the Jewish Passover. He’s not interested in atonement or hearing the ancient stories. He has come on this holy day to remind the people who is really in charge. The streets are lined with thousands of people, some of whom are throwing garlands and flowers, all of whom are eager to have some brush with real power. It is a massive display of military might, designed to bring awe, respect, and fear to the inhabitants of this occupied town. And it does.

Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Aleksandr Antonym (2008). Used by permission of the artist. For more visit http://iconart.com.ua/en/artists/artist-14/oleksandr-antonyuk

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, there’s a small procession arriving through the back gate. An itinerant Rabbi arrives to the shouting of a few dozen, or maybe even a couple of hundred hardy souls. He’s planned it out to be just about the exact opposite of Pilate’s grand entry, however. He’s sitting on the back of a young donkey, wearing no armor, carrying no weapon. It is an intentional, subversive act that is designed to remind everyone that there is indeed a king, but that the king is neither Pilate nor Caesar. This Rabbi points to incredible power, but proclaims that it comes not from Rome, but from the One who created Rome, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire cosmos.

The local religious leaders see this procession led by Rabbi Jesus, and they try to stop it before it can gather much steam.

Which, when you come to think about it, ought to strike you as odd. The Pharisees worship the Lord. They knew that Caesar’s claims to divinity were invalid; they recognized that the religion of Rome was in direct contrast to faith in YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They and Jesus had memorized the same scriptures, participated in the same festivals, and shared the same history of God having called his people to be a blessing in the world.

Except…

Except that they were afraid…

Of what?

The Romans had an interesting view on religion. Officially, they claimed that the Caesar was the son of the gods. Officially, they pointed to the twelve great gods – beings like Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and Mars – as worthy of worship. And yet when the Roman Empire took over a new territory, it permitted the practice of any ancient religion. If you and your neighbors have a faith, and Rome conquers your nation, you’re free to continue with your tradition, so long as you a) offer a pinch of incense to the emperor once a year, and b) don’t start any new religions.

Which meant that when the Romans occupied Palestine, the Jews were not forced to adopt the Roman religion. In fact, Rome made it easy on the Jewish leaders. According to the Jewish law, priests were not to own any property, but rather to subsist on the provision of God and the hospitality of God’s people.

But Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, built an incredible Temple for the Jews. He gave the priests land on which to build their own houses. Herod provided the upper echelons of the religious leadership with incomes, and respect, and power. And all he asked in return was that when the time came, they simply remember who gave them all that great, shiny stuff. Not God. Him.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, mosaic in the Palace of the Normans in Palermo, Sicily.

These religious leaders weren’t bad people – but they had sold out, and they lived in fear of losing what they’d come to love. And so when Jesus comes into town, quoting the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, telling people that YHWH is the source of all power and authority, pointing out that God alone is to be revered, and reminding them that the Kingdom of God is the only Kingdom that truly stretches from shore to shore… well, you know that’s going to raise some eyebrows.

To make matters worse, he’s bringing with him a ragtag assembly of disciples – a collection of unlettered fishermen and those who are blind, poor, excluded, and marginalized.

It’s no wonder that the religious leaders show up as soon as Jesus enters town yelling, “Hey! Rabbi! Ix-nay on the ingdom-kay alk-tay! What are you trying to do, get us all killed? Ruin this for everyone?”

And Jesus, essentially, replies, “Look, fellas, if you won’t see or recognize when God is on the move in such powerful ways, well, maybe you’re already dead… Maybe the rocks and stones that pave this highway have more life than you do.” And he continues his procession – or counter-procession, if you will.

Processions and gatherings are in the news a lot these days. As we mentioned, last week Pittsburgh hosted what is according to the organizers the second-biggest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Yesterday, millions of people participated in what was called the “March for our Lives” to counter gun violence in schools. Some of you hope for a Stanley Cup parade in June. And the President is talking about putting together a big military parade with tanks and guns and all kinds of power.

Some of those things are called “parades”, while others are deemed to be “protests”. What would you say the difference between those things is? Is there a difference between 22,000 of your neighbors putting on shamrocks and walking through town, and groups of citizens carrying signs about gun legislation, and the US military strolling through the nation’s capitol?

I’d like to suggest that a parade is designed to celebrate one particular aspect of a people’s culture, history, or achievement. A protest, on the other hand, is meant to offer a critique of the status quo – a plea, or a demand, that we do better.

Jerusalem, on that spring day 2000 years ago, had both. Pontius Pilate, barging in the front door, put all of Roman power and wealth on display in what was unmistakably a parade. And Jesus, sliding down the hill and into the back door, led a protest that raised a hope for a different future.

We remember both of those processions as we turn to the next installment in our ongoing study of Mark’s gospel – a reading which, at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with the events described in your reading from Luke. I would suggest, however, that there is a connection with some striking parallels.

When we last saw Jesus and his followers, they were out at sea in the middle of the night. They’d survived the storm (but barely, if you’d ask some of them) and were now headed over to what Mark has euphemistically referred to as “the other side” – the place where those people live – in order to proclaim Jesus’ Gospel message of the nearness of God’s kingdom.

And you might think that that’d be great, but look at what happens next. As soon as they make landfall – which just about has to be in the darkness of the night – they find themselves in the graveyard. And it’s not just any cemetery, but it’s the place where the local madman has taken up residence. He’s incredibly strong, he’s rejected (or been rejected by) society, and roams the tombs as he grapples with his demons day after day, night after night.

When he lays eyes on Jesus, he tries to send him away. Jesus, however, heals the man – however unwilling he may appear to be – and allows the demons to send a herd of 2000 pigs careening off the nearby cliffs. It’s neither the procession of Pilate through the Western gates nor the triumphal entry of Jesus through the Eastern gates, but there’s a parade all the same that night as this herd runs to its death.

The Gerasene Demoniac, Sebastian Bourdon (1653)

And early the next morning, the town council comes out to see what all the fuss is about. You can imagine that perhaps there were those demanding a study about the environmental impact of 2000 dead pigs in prime fishing waters, or a police report concerning the theft of property or services. When all of that is completed, these local leaders issue a firm request that Jesus get out of town as soon as possible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have found this man “clothed and in his right mind”, but it’s surely caused more problems than it’s worth. Mark tells us that they “begged him to leave.”

It would seem that in the country of the Gerasenes, as well as in Jerusalem, Jesus is bad for business. He is at least a challenge, if not a threat, to the status quo.

And here, on “the other side”, he accepts their verdict. He tells his followers to get the boat ready because they’re shoving off… and now it’s someone else’s turn to beg Jesus. The man who has been healed wants more than anything to go with Jesus. And look at what happens: the man who didn’t want to be healed, but was, is now pleading to be allowed become a disciple – and he’s told to stay put.

Spoiler alert: we’ve not seen the last of this guy. You can believe me when I tell you that we’ll talk about him in the weeks to come.

So that’s the story. Two gospel readings – a couple of parades in Jerusalem and another off a cliff to the north. Here we are in Pittsburgh, 2000 years later – and it seems to me that all of this could have happened yesterday.

Presidents and Prime Ministers still insist on barging through the front gates, eager to display their power and to have us satisfy their egos. Nations still routinely kill their own citizens and support the interests of the few at untold cost to the many. Refugee camps are crowded beyond capacity because nobody wants those people anywhere near their homes. Banks and corporations plunder the poor and pillage the environment because, well, there’s money to be made there.

And over here, by the back gate, are the ones who are left out, shot up, shouted down, or beaten up.

Where is Jesus now?

The events of this week that is to come demonstrate that our world, and God’s own people, don’t always treat prophets well. Whether this is your first Palm Sunday or your eighty-first, it should come as no surprise to any of us that the Son of God is hanging on a tree by Friday afternoon.

Oh, we try to do our bit for the cause. Maybe some of you marched yesterday, or contributed to the kids who are away on their famine fund-raiser. Some of you might have set aside some time later this month to do a little work for the less fortunate, and a few of us will even post about it on social media.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sooner or later, we are going to have to make a choice as to whether we are going to raise our voices, risk our bank accounts, and offer ourselves. Are we willing to stand in front of Pilate’s weaponry armed only with hope, love, and the message of a Kingdom of peace?

As we said last week, we are called to become the righteousness of God in a world that doesn’t want that righteousness any more than the Gerasene demoniac wanted to be healed or the people of that region wanted to hear what Jesus had to say for himself. We are called to do the work of Christ in the places we are in the time that we’ve been given.

What will we do? What will we say? I hope to God that I will find the courage to echo once again, “Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place… as long as I’m alive I’ll glorify his holy name.” May we have the courage and grace to look beyond ourselves to the One who claims us, calls us, and sends us in his name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Does He Even Care?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our text was the story about the calming of the sea in  Mark 4:35-41.  We also considered Paul’s letter to his friends in II Corinthians 5:16-6:2.To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 

As we start the message this morning, I’d like to ask each of you to imagine or remember a time when you were in a group of people that was about to go on a trip somewhere. It doesn’t matter where – maybe it was Grandma’s house, or Kennywood, or camping. Think about a time when, in your mind, you knew it was going to be a great time. You knew where you were going, why you wanted to go, and what you hoped to accomplish.

And let’s say that this was a trip you were excited about – but not everyone in your group shared that enthusiasm. Now, if you’ve never been on a trip where you were excited and other people were bored or argumentative, first off – congratulations, and secondly – keep that to yourself and use your imagination here.

You’re on the way to the campground. You’ve got all the stuff packed – sleeping bags and marshmallows and fishing rods… and then it begins to drizzle.

Now, you want to go. You have a vision. And maybe you’ve even checked the long-range forecast and are aware that this is a three-hour rain event. So maybe you start offering a narrative that goes something like this: “Oh, hey! It looks like some of those showers found us after all. Well, that’s all right! Let’s get that stuff out of the way now and we’ll have all week…”

But you know that sooner or later there will be another voice: “Ah, seriously? Rain? This is just perfect. Why are we even doing this? Who wants to go stupid camping, anyway? I can’t believe you made me leave home to do this.”

Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

If you can imagine that situation, you can imagine the scene in Mark 4. Jesus has just finished a very, very long day of teaching. The crowds have been so large, in fact, that he’s had to preach from a boat for the entire time. And now, as evening falls and most people think that it’s time to head for home, he turns to his followers and says, “Hey, guys! Here’s a thought: let’s go that way!” And as he does so, he points to the east – to what Mark calls “the other side”.

As they’ve done innumerable times in the past, the disciples glance at each other. I don’t know if anyone actually says it, but they’re thinking it: “Seriously, Lord? There? You’ve gotta be kidding, Jesus. There’s nobody there… nobody, I mean, except for those people. The Gerasenes. The pagans. The unclean people. They’re not like us over there, Jesus.”

But Jesus is happy as a clam and either doesn’t notice or pretends not to notice and smiles, points to the other side, and slides into the place of honor in the back of the boat where he promptly falls asleep.

Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

As he slumbers, the storm comes up and these seasoned fishermen begin to whine and worry more and more. I can imagine every now and then one of them will jostle him just a little bit in the hopes that he’ll wake up and come to his senses, but that doesn’t happen. Finally, with a note of accusation and rebuke in their voices, they cry out, “Lord, do you even give a darn about the fact that we’re all going to die! Do you care? Wake up!”

This would probably be a really good time for me to interject and remind those of you who are here every week about the fact that our operating premise is that the Gospel of Mark was written first for a group of Christian believers in Rome who were the target of some pretty vicious persecution at the hand of the Emperor Nero. As they watched their loved ones being martyred, as they endured the loss of their homes, as they had to flee for their lives, I think it’s fair to say that they were acquainted with storms, and fear, and even the urge to lob an accusatory question in the direction of their Lord.

The first readers of the Gospel of Mark had to have been wondering – “Does he even know what’s going on here? Does he care? Where is Jesus now, when we need him?

The fellas in the boat found out the answer to that in a hurry. He is roused and he stands up and speaks two words to the tempest, saying essentially, “Stop! Be muzzled!”

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The disciples had to remember when he came across the man with an evil spirit back in chapter one and said very similar things, because they repeated the question that the earlier crowd had asked: “Who is this guy? And how does he do this?

I find Jesus’ choice of words here pretty instructive. “Siopa – ‘Hush’! – pephimoso – ‘be muzzled’!” I think about the animals I’ve been around who were muzzled, and it occurs to me that such an animal can still strike a lot of fear into my heart. There’s snarling, lunging, thrashing…but if that muzzle is on right – there are no teeth to deal with. The power to intimidate is present, but the power to destroy is diminished.

My sense is that the first readers of the Gospel of Mark heard this story and were reminded of the fact that even someone as mighty as Nero had limited power and would be of no eternal consequence.

I would imagine that there are those of us in the room today who long to hear a similar word. Some of us need the assurance that Jesus is still in the business of calming storms. You might remember that one of the ways that the people in scripture experience terror is as a result of the whirlwind, or the chaos, or the storm. Jesus’ disciples here are tossed about by circumstances beyond their control, and they are petrified and angry.

Some of you know how that chaos feels. And I have good news: the one who muzzled the storm on that day is present with us today, and he does care for you. There is a word of deep and powerful assurance for us.

Yet even as we cling to that promise of the presence, we must also hear a word of challenge. The disciples wake Jesus and they say, “Don’t you even care about us?”

And then Jesus does two things. First, as we’ve mentioned, he speaks to their fear. He calms the storm in which they find themselves. He cares for them. We love that part of the story.

But second, he keeps sailing. He keeps the boat filled with wet, hungry men who may or may not have fresh stains in the seats of their togas heading eastward in the middle of the night, sailing toward ‘the other side.’

With these actions, he proves to his disciples that yes, in fact, he does care for them. But equally, he demonstrates his care for the folks in the region to which they are heading. Look at what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t say, “Well, that was quite a shocker, eh boys? Look, we’ve all had a long day. What do you say? Let’s head back to Capernaum and we’ll think about crossing this sea some other time.”

No. He not only continues to move in the direction of the excluded, the marginalized, and the ignored, but he keeps dragging these disciples along with him. And so they sail into the night, toward the uncertain and unloved shores that lie ahead.

The passage from Corinthians demonstrates the fact that the Apostle Paul heard that challenge from Jesus loud and clear. In the reading you’ve just shared, he states emphatically that we are not free to look upon anyone or anything as beyond the care of God.

In Christ, he says, there is a new creation. There is a cosmic “do-over”. The Lord who has done so much in terms of reigning in the power of chaos in our lives is now charging us with the same ministry of reconciliation in the world.

Paul tells his congregation – and ours – that we are not free to merely acknowledge the power of Jesus in our own lives and go about our daily business full of thanksgiving for that relationship. No! We are, of course, called to notice that care, and to celebrate it – but then we are commissioned to be those who actively share it in the world around us.

Did you catch the last sentence of chapter 5? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Look – being in the boat as the storm becomes stilled does more than simply save our bacon – it changes us. We, who claim to be followers of Jesus, are not called to know about the righteousness of God. We are not called to believe in it, or to receive it. We’re not supposed to point to or even share the righteousness of God. What does Paul say? “…in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I believe that Jesus looked at the boys in the boat, and he looked at Paul, and he’s looking at you and at me, and he’s saying, “Look, you’re not just along for the ride, here. You’re not just being dragged along, hoping that I get past this ‘love your neighbor’ phase you are afraid I’m going through. YOU are the way that I am loving my neighbor! You are the ambassadors for reconciliation. You are the righteousness of God in the world today.”

Listen, I’m not discounting the need for us to be glad for those days when Jesus comes in and helps us get through the crisis that seeks to overwhelm us. Not at all.

But if that’s all we do, then we’d be like those who wanted to turn the boat around and head for home after things got scary. I think that in part, Jesus is helping us to recognize his power and authority in every sphere of creation so that we can invite others to notice and grow through those times too.

How do we do that? Here are two ideas to start with. First, I think that becoming the righteousness of God in the world today means that we are willing to engage with those whose experience is different from ours. For instance, the elders of the church are, in addition to the significant task of providing care and oversight to all the ministries of the congregation, dedicating a portion of each meeting to discussing the hope of racial reconciliation in our world today. Because our congregation is predominately white, and because each of our current elders is white, we have chosen to be led by Daniel Hill’s recent book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White. In so doing, we hope to remember that while our experiences are, well, our experiences, those experiences are not necessarily universal. We want to first consider, remember, and reflect upon who we are and how we got here, and then, we pray, be open to thinking about the fact that not everyone’s story is the same as ours.

Listen to this: when we got together earlier this week, I had to ask the elders to stop talking about the book so that they could do their work as elders. Moreover, when I made them stop discussing the book, they asked if they could come early to the next meeting so that we’d have more time to consider the power of Christ to inform and heal the racial divide that is so apparent in our world today.

In the same way, each of us can choose to consciously invest ourselves in seeking to understand something of the stories of the people who are in our lives. We can be attentive to the injustices that we see; we can extend ourselves in gestures that reflect the righteousness of God.

In addition to seeking to be more willing to engage with those whose experiences differ from ours, I want to challenge you, in the name of God, to refuse to dehumanize those whose opinions are at odds with your own.

This happens with alarming frequency on social media, but even those of us who swear we can’t be bothered with Facebook or Twitter or Insta-chat or whatever are more than willing to be sucked into this practice by whatever media and allegiances with which we choose to engage.

Look, I get it. You believe that the other person is wrong when it comes to gun rights or abortion or the Trump administration or freedom of speech or the willingness of the Pittsburgh Pirates to make any meaningful attempt to field a competitive team. You have your opinion. They have theirs. So talk about it. Or don’t.

But for the love of God, people – seriously – for the love of God – do not demean someone for whom Christ died by referring to them in terms that are degrading and dehumanizing. In what ways does calling someone a “wingnut”, a “libtard”, a “deplorable”, a “Trumpster”, or a “POS” help you to become the righteousness of God in the world today?

“Ah, relax, Pastor Dave. I’m just trolling people. I’m just trying to get a rise out of him… It’s nothing.”

So when you use your speech to demean, insult, attack, or ostracize me, it’s nothing… but when you use that same speech to tell me that Jesus loves me and cares for me in the midst of the storm, I should pay attention? That seems confusing to me, and is certainly not helpful to your cause.

Listen: on the night that Jesus took his friends out and they nearly got killed by the storm the boat was full of people who wondered if God really cared about them. I’m here to remind you that every boat, or car, or bus, or office, or schoolroom you walk into this week will be just as full of people asking the same question. You know the truth: Jesus does care. He wants to express that care so deeply that he has sent you to do it.

Remember that. And be care-full. And be grateful. Thanks be to God, who comes to us in the midst of the storms, and sends us through them. Amen.

 

[1] Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

[2] Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

[3] Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The Secret Smallness

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our texts included Mark 4:21-34 as well as Zechariah 4:6-10a. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

This is a photo of one of my favorite trees in the world, the baobab. Baobabs are found in many parts of Africa, as well as in India, Ceylon, and Australia. They are curious and majestic trees for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that they grow slowly and deliberately and can seemingly live forever. It’s estimated that a mature tree such as this could be as many as 5,000 years old. In fact, I once saw a photo of some of the first Scottish missionaries posing under a baobab tree near Lake Malawi in the late 1800’s. Next to that was a picture of their descendants in the same spot that was taken a hundred years later. If a viewer were to compare the photos, that person would discover that the individual branches of the tree are essentially unchanged – even after the passing of a full century. These trees are seemingly impermeable to change. Remember that.

The Calling of Saint John and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Since Advent, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of Mark. We heard in chapter one, verse one, that it contains the good news of Jesus, the Son of God. Thus far, we’ve gotten a little bit of background on Jesus and, more importantly, we’ve gotten to see him at work. After bursting onto the scene announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, He’s healed people, driven out demons, garnered great attention, elicited significant reactions, and gained both followers and foes. In the first section of his Gospel, Mark is crying out to the reader, “Look! Pay attention! Something really big is happening! This guy is worth listening to!”

And, in chapter four, we get to hear what he says. Mark 4 represents the longest stretch of teaching about the Kingdom from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel. We’ve been told that it’s important, and we’ve been told that it’s at hand. Last week, we heard the single longest parable about the Kingdom as we listened to the story about the farmer and the seeds and the various types of soil. In that, we heard that the Kingdom is God’s idea, and that we are called to be receptive to it and to allow that Kingdom to do its work in us, on us, to us, and through us.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues this teaching by apparently piling on the parables of the Kingdom as if they were bullet points – three quick comparisons given in short order.

Just after explaining the parable of the sower to his followers, he says, “You know, as I think about it, this stuff is like a lamp. It’s significant. It’s out there in the open. It’s public!” As soon as he’s finished talking about the necessity for those who would follow him to be receptive to the work of the Kingdom in their lives, he warns them that this is all to be done for all to see; that nothing is secret forever, and that their lives will be visible to the world.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Practicing Resurrection, says much the same thing about those who would live out the Kingdom ethic in our world:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

I think that Peterson is spot-on when he talks about a real community – with named persons engaged in intentional practices. It’s not just an idea – if the Kingdom is visible anywhere, it’s visible in time and space through the lives of people – people like, well, you and me.

Now, understand me: this part is not in the Gospel of Mark, but here’s what I think happens next: I think that Jesus uses the parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God and then he offers these warnings about everything happening out in the open and people paying attention and having ears to hear and that causes at least some of his followers to shift their feet a little and maybe start avoiding eye contact. I think that more than a couple of these fellows get a little nervous and glance at him questioningly as if to say, “Um, you see, Lord, well, the thing is… do you know us? Because, er, we’re not really all that special. We screw up. A lot. And most of us can be pretty unreliable at times. If you’re counting on your named, particular followers to be doing all this stuff in public, well, you might want to rethink a few things. You might have to find some new followers who aren’t as likely to, you know, get it wrong.”

The reason I think that something like that must have happened is because of the tenor that Jesus’ teaching takes next: he goes right back to the language of farmers and seeds.

“Maybe you didn’t get it during that last story,” he says, “so here it is again. The Kingdom is like a seed that is scattered on the ground.” He tells a story about a seed that is self-contained and sufficient. The seed, he says, has everything it needs to produce fruit. As he tells this story about the man who scatters seed and then goes about his daily business, he’s reminding his disciples (then and now) that the Kingdom doesn’t need us to somehow try harder in order for it to work. Somehow, mysteriously, the seed is set into the soil and the seed itself – the Kingdom – does its work. And when the seed is lodged in soil that is receptive, amazing things happen – things that the farmer can’t begin to understand.

“Don’t worry that sometimes you can be such knuckleheads,” Jesus is apparently saying. “This isn’t about you. It’s about what God is doing in and through the Kingdom.”

He then takes a quick breath and dives into another comparison. “Not only is the Kingdom like a seed,” he says, “it’s like a mustard seed.

You probably know something about mustard seeds. If you’ve ever bought pickles, you’ve probably seen some of them swirling around in the jar. They may not be the tiniest seeds, but they’re pretty small. And yet when planted, they become a shrub or bush – sometimes getting to be ten feet tall. In addition to providing these seeds, the greens and even shoots of the mustard plant can be eaten and thus provide nourishment for humans and animals.

So, let’s follow Jesus’ teaching here… the Kingdom is like something that is given or placed amongst us and it grows on its own. It is self-contained and mysterious, but if we allow it to flourish in our midst, it will produce fruit that is useful. Moreover, Jesus says, there will be such abundant growth that this Kingdom blessing will spill over into other spheres. Birds will have perches and shade.

But here’s something that maybe you didn’t know: mustard is an annual plant. That is to say, it has to be planted every year. Unlike the oak tree in your yard and certainly unlike the baobab tree that I love, a mustard shrub lasts for a single season. And while it may be large by garden standards, a ten-foot mustard plant cannot compare with the magnolia out front of this building or the pine tree in my yard. Compared with these, the mustard is a tender, vulnerable plant.

So here’s the good news for today, at least as far as I’m concerned. Do you remember that big baobab I talked about? The large, leafy, majestic tree that seems to last forever? According to Jesus, in this context, that’s a horrible tree with which to compare the Kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that in my mind’s eye, I want the Kingdom to be like that. More specifically, I want the kingdom in my life – or in your life – to look like that. I want it to be tall, strong, unchanging and unbending. I want it to survive centuries of conflict and human error. And, in some other places, Jesus tells us things that lead us to affirm that the Kingdom of God is able to do that.

But here, he seems to be saying that the Kingdom is planted in and designed to take root in lives that are vulnerable. It grows in people who are, in some ways, well, shaky. Sure, a bird can perch in the branches of a mustard bush, but you’re not going to want to live in a house made out of that plant.

If you plant a maple seed or a baobab, you might get something big. But it’s going to take a long time before you even know if anything is happening, and a really, really long time before you wind up with anything useful.

But the Kingdom of God, in this scenario, at least, is not like that. Instead, we are invited to participate in a Kingdom that appears to be small and mysterious; as an annual plant, mustard depends on new growth coming each year, and new seeds being produced, and then sown, and grown, and harvested, and then the whole process starts again next year. What a relief that is to losers like the disciples, and me, and you!

Listen: your life of faith is not meant to resemble some sort of statuesque tree that once upon a time had a single planting and since then has thrived through decades of unbroken growth and stability.

I think that instead, our lives of faith are reflective of the fact that the Kingdom calls us to be changeable, flexible, growing, and giving. That is an encouragement because when I sense that I’m in a period that’s difficult, I don’t have to give up, or think, “Well, this life of faith clearly isn’t for me, or else I’d look like that perfectly formed statue of the ideal Christian…” Rather, I claim the truth that Zechariah espoused: that the Kingdom is rooted in God’s power, and in God’s power, small things can win the day.

I’m afraid that too many of us, too much of the time, see the life of faith as a list of answers to be memorized or a series of principles to be learned or, even worse, a series of behaviors to do in front of my neighbors so that they see how holy I am.

But I think that Jesus calls us to a life that is characterized by a willingness to continue to start at the beginning, to look for ways to grow in insight and then apply this insight to new situations, and thereby to grow fruit in season after season of life.

20th-century philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” I think that in these teachings about the smallness and vulnerability of the Kingdom, Jesus is encouraging his followers to become learners, rather than learned; to be those who know the importance of asking the right questions as opposed to spouting off the right answers; to be those who are willing to engage in the process of the journey and not merely obsess about where we’re going and when are we going to get there.

So here’s the deal, beloved! Give yourselves a break. Let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect. Instead, give yourself ever more to the Kingdom that is growing amongst you. Offer shade where you can. Keep throwing seeds, even when sometimes you wonder if it’s doing any good. And keep asking questions. In doing these things, we are becoming, day by day, more fit disciples of Jesus the Christ, and – by his grace – better able to live in the world that will greet us tomorrow. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

Nothing But Dirt…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 4 we delved into the parable of Jesus which receives the “marquee billing” not only in Mark, but in Luke and Matthew as well: the Parable of the Sower.  Our scriptures included Mark 4:1-20 and I Corinthians 3:5-9.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

In recent months, we have begun an intensive and intentional exploration of the Good News – the euangellion – the Gospel of Mark. In this time, we’ve seen the urgency with which this writer describes the ministry of Jesus. Mark doesn’t spend any time telling us about Jesus’ birth or childhood; most of the ink that has been spilled thus far has told us about what Jesus did and how people reacted to him. Some embraced him with great enthusiasm and even gave up everything to become his followers (disciples) or emissaries (apostles). Some, on the other hand, rejected him outright and thought of him as a threat. And some, not surprisingly, didn’t care much one way or the other.

Mark 4 represents a significant shift on the part of the author because it presents one of the longest sections of Jesus’ actual teaching contained in the gospel. For the first time, we are not reading about what Jesus said or did, but rather, we are given a front-row seat to one of the informal teaching sessions on the beach. If Mark decides that this is the time to stop talking about Jesus and start listening to Jesus, well, it must be significant.

To illustrate my point, I’ll mention that the author of the Gospel of Luke loved the parables of Jesus so much that we can find as many as twenty-seven such stories there. The Gospel of Matthew contains twenty-three parables. Mark, on the other hand, gives us only nine sayings that could be called parables, and only two of those are longer than four verses in our Bibles. Half of the parables in Mark are located in chapter 4, and the Parable of the Sower gets the most elaborate treatment of any such story in this Gospel. Given that the Gospels are emphatic in their assertion that Jesus often taught in parables, it would make sense for us to explore the one that Mark seemed to think was the most important of the bunch.

As we listen to this story, we hear some very familiar words, at least for some of us. Most of us know this tale about the man who scatters seeds and the conditions that threaten to limit his harvest. In that familiarity, we have a problem. The more we know a thing, the more we think we understand it, the more familiar we are with it, the more we think we have it tamed. So when the preacher mentions the sower and the soil and the seed, heads in the sanctuary nod approvingly and lovingly. “Oh, the one about the seeds – that’s my favorite!”, we gush.

But, as I’ve said, there’s a problem there- because the more that we domesticate the words of Jesus, the less able we are to hear them in the midst of our daily journeys. The Jesus of the Gospels is a Jesus who often spoke, thought, and acted in some very controversial ways. He was confusing. He was threatening. He was irritating – and the things that he said often did more to confuse his listeners than they did to clarify things. People came to Jesus looking for a book of rules, a checklist, an easy guide – and he spoke to them about farms and fishnets and fig trees.

And what’s worse, in the parables anyway, things never come out the way that we think they should. As theologian Robert Capon has said,

They set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat out of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Tax collector, the Prodigal, the Unjust steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Son, the Diligent workers); God’s response to a prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (The Friend at midnight), and, in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (The Wedding feast, Lazarus and the Rich Man)[1]

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes we hear a thing so often and we think we’ve got it figured out and it loses its power to really impact us.

The Sower, Van Gogh (1888)

Our reading for today, the Parable of the Sower, is given the Marquee Billing in the collections of Jesus’ parables that Matthew, Mark, and Luke put together. It is the one story to which they give the most attention and the greatest amount of space.

You’ve heard what happens. First, Jesus tells a story. Then, there are questions from the disciples about parables, and about this parable in particular. Then, Jesus interprets the parable for them.

Because we are so familiar with this story, we don’t think of it as surprising or irritating that Jesus should gather a crowd around him and then go on to tell a pretty straightforward story about a farmer, tell the folks that it was really important, and then sit down. But I think if I came up here and read you a paragraph or two from Architectural Digest or The Burpee Seed Catalogue and then sat down, you’d react in pretty much the same way that the disciples did. Why are you doing this? Is that supposed to make sense or something? But that’s what Jesus does. And that’s what the disciples do.

And then Jesus, rather than simply clarifying the whole mess like we’d really prefer him to do, muddles it even further. “Look,” he says, “You don’t understand much of anything about this Kingdom of God movement, do you? But one thing you DO get is the fact that it works in very mysterious ways. And as you go through your journey, the fact that you know it is a mystery will help you understand it. There are some people who can’t accept mysteries at all. Those people, when they journey through life, will find that less and less seems to be making sense to them – even the things that they used to think they understood.” And then Jesus sighs a bit and says, “You know, I think old Isaiah had it right. The more they depend only on their eyes and only on their ears, the less they are able to see and to hear. But you, you have the gift of me. Listen up, and I’ll tell you what I meant with that last story.”

And then Jesus proceeds to talk about the parable. But instead of providing his students with a nice little explanation about a straightforward farming story, his discussion introduces new interpretations that are anything but simple. If we are honest in our approach to this story, we’ll see that rather than providing us with an open-and-shut exposition, Jesus asks us to look at things in a whole new light.

For instance, who is the farmer in the parable? Because it’s church, our first guess is that it has to be Jesus – the one who goes about scattering his seeds. And I’ve also heard some sermons that tell us that now, the church – you and I are the sowers. It is our task, these messages say, to take the seeds of the gospel to new places and plant it on God’s behalf. Well, we have been commissioned to take the gospel, but you don’t find that in here. What you find here is a farmer, planting his seed.

Allow me to suggest that the farmer in this parable represents God the Father – the One who walks throughout his creation planting the seed, which is the Word. And God is not a sparing planter, either. He takes handfuls of the seed and throws it as high and as far as he can. God is a generous, flagrant, lavish sower who tosses the seed everywhere in creation.

And what is the seed? As Jesus said, the seed is the word. The LOGOS. And when the New Testament speaks of the Word, who is it talking about? Jesus, the word become flesh who dwelt among us. Jesus, the word become flesh who was literally buried. Jesus is the seed that is being so generously scattered throughout creation. Jesus is the seed that comes from the hand of God the Father – the seed that is being planted in the hearts of people everywhere.

The Parable of the Sower, Leighton Autrey (c. 2012)

And what’s left? The dirt. That’s us – the creation of God. Jesus goes on to say that there are four kinds of dirt – four types of people – in the world. Some of us have been hardened, for whatever reason, and are not able to let anything break the shell with which we have surrounded ourselves. And so the word that God so desperately longs to speak to us bounces off our thick exterior and is taken away from us.

Some of us are shallow. We want so badly to be receptive, to be able to open up, but sooner or later we pull back. The seed that we thought was going to be such a beautiful plant ends up as something else, or maybe we really can’t afford to give of ourselves, and so the seed dies within us, because there’s not enough space in our lives for it to take root.

And some of us are cluttered. Oh, great, give me some of that seed, we cry out. Plant it in us. Let it take hold. But sooner or later, we see so many other things that we want – that we need. There’s too much happening, and the word of God simply gets crowded out of our lives.

And some of us are fertile soil, says Jesus. Some of us are able to receive the seed, tuck it inside, and wait for it to grow, for it to spread its roots. In some of us the seed – the word of God – is free to do what seeds are supposed to do, and because of that, the seed turns into a plant that bears great fruit.

Now, if that’s true – if the sower is God the Father, the seed is the word of God and the word is Jesus Christ, and we are the dirt – if that is true, then what does it mean? What are the implications?

First, I think we need to recognize that the word of God is at work in the world all the time, everywhere, in everyone. Many of Jesus’ hearers were angry at him, because they wanted to know that Israel was superior in the eyes of God; they wanted to lock those other people out. And here is Jesus, telling a story that seems to include the whole world as candidates for receiving the attention and love of God. One thing that Jesus might be saying in this parable is that there is no need for we Christians to adopt a condescending posture towards the world – the world that must wait for us to bring the seeds to it – because the world has already had the seed scattered in and through it. And, like the seed, the Word of God is complete. It has everything it needs to grow – the Word can grow without someone like me hovering around all the time.

If that’s true, then how does that affect the way that I think about the young people who are a part of our After School program? How do I look into the eyes of the children who crowd into Pre School each morning? I am able to encounter these folks holding on to the truth that Jesus says there is already a seed of the word of God planted there by his Father. And it’s not just these kids, either. How do you approach your ex-wife, or that teacher you really can’t stand, or that boss who mistreats you? How do you pray for those folks? The kingdom of God is at work in them. The seed has been placed in their hearts. The Kingdom of God is active in our world — all over our world.

And that’s another implication of this parable: like a seed, the Kingdom works in a mysterious way. When I plant my beans or peas, I take a seed and I hide it in the earth. It disappears from my sight. It grows in secret. As you and I observe the fields that lie all around us, we have no right to judge where the seed has failed and where it has not — because we are not privy to the mystery of the kingdom. We act in as faithful a way as we know how, and then we realize that the end result is up to God – and we need to be prepared to be surprised by the results. The Kingdom of Heaven grows in secret, and in places we do not know.

And perhaps the most important implication for us this morning is the recognition of what is necessary for the seed that is planted to bear fruit. Please note that the ground that does host the seed that is fruitful does nothing — the only thing that it does is to NOT get in the way!

For centuries, we have been tempted to think of the Christian life as amassing a resume of good deeds. According to this parable, that’s not true. The Christian life is more a matter of letting the seed that has been planted in us grip us, take root in us, and bear fruit in us. It’s about nurturing the gift of God that is within you.

In the course of my ministry, I’ve had a number of really tired folks come into my study. I’m tired of trying, pastor. I’m tired of never matching up to what they expect of me. I’m tired of never feeling good enough for my parents. I’m tired of being poor. I’m tired of being tired. To tell you the truth, pastor, there are some times when I feel as though I’m nothing but dirt.

Imagine our surprise when, after saying something like that, God leaps up and says, “EXACTLY!! You are nothing but dirt. I am the farmer. My Son is the seed. So be good dirt – don’t crowd out the seed, don’t choke it, but let it do what seeds are designed to do. Don’t get in the way! The seed will grow – not you. But as the seed grows and bears fruit, you will be changed – your very essence will be different. You will be full of roots and covered with fruit. But let the seed in, and let it grow. You worry about being good dirt.”

The Apostle Paul catches that theme when he writes to the Corinthians: “You,” he says, “are God’s field. There is something going on in you – and it is God, not you, who is making it happen.”

Lent is a time for remembering that I’m nothing but dirt. Lent is an opportunity for me, and for you, to consciously explore the ways that we are called to receive the person and work of Christ. This week, I hope that you can find some time and space to reflect on the ways that your life is able to be receptive to the mission of Jesus. Let’s look for time in which we can do the work of confession and repentance and sorting out that can open the way for the surprising and miraculous work of God in Christ. Amen.

[1]Capon, Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985), p.10