Lost

Luke 15.1-7

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”

On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.

While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.

After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.

However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.

When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.

I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.

Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.

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Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”

After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.

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We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.

The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.

We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.

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Asphalt Assumptions

Luke 10.25-30a

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…

parables

Today marks part 4 of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

Who-Is-My-Neighbor

I drove into the church parking lot on July 5th, parked the car, and walked into the sanctuary. The light of the sun was streaming through the stained glass windows and everything looked picturesque. It was perfectly quiet so I knelt down on the ground and prayed as I do everything morning. “O Lord, help me to follow your Son in all that I do that I might worthily magnify your name” or something like that.

And then I got up and walked to my office to get working; checked my email, made a few phone calls, and opened up my bible. The phone rang while I was in the middle of reading from the gospel of Luke and I knew it was Ashley calling from the main office. “What?” I answered. “Um…” she said, “Did you see the woman in a bathing suit lying down in one of the parking spaces outside?”

And that’s how it all began.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of her office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closet to the road, was a young woman on her back, wearing a bathing suit, and she looked pretty rough.

“You’re a pastor. Aren’t you supposed to do something?” Ashley said while elbowing me in the ribs.

“Of course I’m supposed to do something,” I said proudly as I started for the door without really knowing what that something was.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

It took awhile to walk across the lawn and the parking lot, and with each step I took I noticed another car driving down the road. Car after car came blazing by while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them so much as slowed down to check on her. I prayed that someone would stop to take care of her, so that I wouldn’t have to, but God wasn’t listening.

She rolled onto her side as I got close and looked at me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house after rush weekend, her bathing suit had small little rips in different places, and she looked utterly bewildered. For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered that I’m a Christian so I said, “Can I help you?”

“I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and twinkle in her eye.

“What happened to you?” I asked before realizing that it sounded remarkably judgmental.

“I’m not sure. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the Fourth of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there,” she said while casually pointing toward the north end of town.

“I tried to walk home,” she continued, “but I lost my phone, and my wallet, and I think I’m still a little messed up, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking lot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

I grabbed her by the hand and helped her up from the ground. As she struggled to steady herself I offered my arm as we walked over to the car.

The great gulf of the lawn and the parking lot from where I found her, to where I parked the car, felt ridiculous. With every two steps we took forward, she began to lean backward and we had to stop and get resettled.

At one point she stopped altogether and looked up in the air. “You should have been there yesterday,” she said dreamily. “The lights and the colors were just like incredible.” Between maintaining her balance and trying to get us to the car, I didn’t have time to notice all the cars that were slowing down to see a bathing suit clad young woman tripping over her own feet in the arms of a young and balding pastor. But I did glance over my shoulder at one point and could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me from afar.

I got her buckled in and asked her to guide me back to her house on the other side of town. It was eerily quiet as we reversed out of the parking lot and I decided to turn on the radio to NPR to fill the void. However, after only listening for a few moments she asked where the voices were coming from so I thought it better to turn it off completely.

As we passed by the post office on Augusta Street she cautioned me against driving too quickly for fear that the government might lock us up forever: “You know they’re always watching and listening to everything!” she said.

While we drove around the corner near the library she acted as if she was on a roller coaster going around a sharp turn. She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “Wooooooooh I love this part of the ride!”

And when we circled around the park she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

“So, are you like a pastor or something?” she asked abruptly during a moment of clarity and while I was trying to focus on the road. I explained that I was and that she was in the parking lot of the church I serve when I found her. “Well you don’t look like no pastor.” I laughed and began explaining how God doesn’t really care about what we wear to work so long as we work for the Lord, but she wasn’t listening to me. Instead she was humming to herself a tune that sounded vaguely familiar until I realized it was the Star Spangled Banner.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets and she either could not read the street signs or refused to open her eyes to read them at all. The Christian adventure and experience I found myself in was leading me to really wonder about this whole following Jesus thing when we finally pulled up in front of her house.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.”

We sat the in the car for a minute or two while she looked out the window at her house with a strange and detached look on her face. Between the smell and the sight of her in the car, I was ready to be rid of her, but was unsure of how to bring our episode to its conclusion. Finally she reached out her hand toward the handle and I blurted out, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”

I asked the question with the smallest scrape of Christian compassion, more out of fear than love, and when she did not immediately respond I started to wonder whether or not I had any money in my wallet to offer, or if I needed to walk her to the door to explain to someone what happened.

But then she said, “Honey, this happens to me all the time. Thanks for the ride.” And with that she fell out of the car, picked her self up, and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door. Only after I saw her struggle to find her keys, which she didn’t have, and saw someone open the door and usher her in, did I feel comfortable leaving and driving back to church.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. After all, I had showed the party-girl mercy and even drove her home. I was the Good Samaritan.

But as the days have passed, and as I have looked out across the front lawn of this church, I’ve thought more and more about my experience. I’ve wondered about the kind of situation she was in that led to her drinking and partying so much that she had no recollection of how she wound up in a stranger’s lawn on the north end of town. What could have driven her to the point of blacking out?

I’ve found myself wondering if she’s doing any better, or if she’s making the same kind of bad decisions. Does she have a family that cares about what she’s doing and where she’s going?

I’ve hoped that she has learned from her mistakes and won’t wind up in the same kind of situation again. How frightening of an experience will it take her to change?

I’ve thought about all the cars that passed her on the morning of July 5th. And I wonder if she was passed out in the parking lot at another church, would I have stopped to help her?

I might’ve been a Samaritan to the woman in the parking lot, but I certainly wasn’t a very good one. I judged her for the kind of behavior that brought her to lie down at this church. I avoided asking personal questions for fear of getting too connected and having to do more than I already did. I didn’t even invite her to come to church one Sunday to experience God’s love at St. John’s.

The Good Samaritan… It’s easier to preach than to practice. So be careful with the whole, “Go and do likewise.” Amen.

Offensive Grace

Luke 15.11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property is dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Prodigal-Widescreen

Today marks the third part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

parables

There was a man in Staunton who had two sons. For years the family enjoyed the small town feel of the community, rejoiced in running into friends at grocery stores and the park, and celebrated the goodness of God in church every Sunday. They were always the family that every other family envied; whenever they were seen in town the sons were so well behaved, the husband and wife were always holding hands, and everything looked perfect.

   But within the safety of their home, far removed from public few, things were not as they seemed.

The father loved his sons, but he could tell that the younger resented him for being raised in a town such as this. The father knew his younger son enough to know that whenever he harshly reacted to a comment at the dinner table, or stormed out of the house, it was out of a desire to depart and start over somewhere else. But he remained patient with his son and always tried to love him the only way he knew how.

One day, while the father was sitting in his study, the younger son walked in with his fists clenched tightly by his side. The father listened as the son listed off his chief complaints and demanded his inheritance early. As the frustrations percolated, and the son kept talking about how suffocated he felt, the father was already pulling out the checkbook and signing his name. He said, “Son, I love you and I’ve known this day was coming for a long time. Just remember that you will always be welcome here.” And with that the son grabbed the check from his father’s fingers and walked out of the house, and out of his father’s life.

For a long time the father heard nothing from or about his younger son. Life continued as usual in Staunton: babies were born, older folks went on to their heavenly reward, time passed, and the father kept living his life. Little by little news would seep into dinnertime conversations from the mother or the older son about the one who was missing. Rumor had it that he had set up in Richmond and was spending money left and right on all sorts of things, including some that could not be mentioned out loud. But the father gave it no thought. The money was his son’s to do with as he pleased.

But as time passed, the rumors became fact, and the father knew his son was in trouble. The money had run out and he was working odd jobs to get by. The mother no longer even had an address to send him letters because he was either moving from house to house or living on the streets.

The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the father eventually heard nothing about his younger son. No letters arrived in the mail, no text messages were sent, and the son even stopped updating his Facebook account. As far as the father knew, his son was gone.

And then it came to pass one afternoon, while sitting in the same study where he had given the son his inheritance, the father glanced out the window and saw a figure walking up the road. From his vantage point the father thought it might be his son, but the person was too frail, and slumped over with what looked like shame. But sure enough, the closer he came to the house, the more it looked like his son. Before he knew it the father was running out the front door and he tackled his son to the ground on the front yard. He simply could not contain himself and he began covering his younger son with kisses and the tears were flowing out his eyes.

Only then did the father hear his son say, “Dad, I’m so sorry, and I am no longer worthy to be called you son.

But the father wasn’t listening. Instead he was yelling up to the house describing preparations for the party he was about to throw. Go to the grocery store. Invite all the neighbors. Get the music ready. We are going to party tonight!

Hours later in the midst of a rather crazy party the father noticed the older son standing in the corner with what looked like an angry expression on his face. The father was filled with such merriment on the return of his one son that he walked over to the other with a smile on his face and asked what was the matter.

The father listened as his older son started listing off the complaints. But it was what he said at the end that hit him the hardest, “Dad, I’m glad that he’s home just as you are. But did you really have to throw this party? I’ve been living with you all this time while he was gone wasting his life away and you never even let me invite my friends over and now look at all this!”

And the father put his arm around the older son and said, “I love you and all that is mine is yours. But we had to party tonight because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!”

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We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is easily the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables, and has been embraced by faithful and secular alike for its powerful message. We like the idea of a reconciled relationship and we sigh in affirmation whenever we hear about the wayward son returning home. But, as the church has so embraced the clichés of the story, we’ve missed out on the offensive grace that it dramatically conveys.

We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, but we should probably call it the Parable of the Loving Father. The father is the main character of the parable and the one that Jesus identifies with. He tells this parable in response to an attack against his character for eating with sinners. He, Jesus, is the one who welcomes everyone to the table in celebration regardless of circumstances. And for as much as we enjoy hearing this story, we should really be offended by it.

The older brother has every right to be angry. I would be if one of my siblings ran off and my father treated them the way the one does in the parable. It’s fine to welcome a wayward child home. Sure, give him some clothes and some food. Let him rest at home until he can get back on his feet. But it is simply bad parenting to throw a party in the wake of so many mistakes. For years we have emphasized the moment where the prodigal son “came to himself” and we have identified with a particular moment in our lives when we turned back. But in so doing we have neglected to confront the utter strangeness and offensiveness of the father’s love.

Reading and imagining the story from the father’s perspective frustrates our understanding of justice, fairness, and grace. We want people to be punished for their mistakes, we want them to grovel when they’ve wronged us, we want payment for our suffering.

We don’t want to welcome the prodigal home. We want to be rid of the people who drive us crazy. We don’t want to waste our time on someone who might disappear again. We want to honor the good people who have been with us. We don’t want parties for sinners. We want celebrations for saints.

And then Jesus tells this story about the Loving Father and everything gets flipped upside down.

The power of this parable is not the good and warm and fuzzy feelings we have when we hear it, but in God’s love being so strong that it can offend us. God’s forgiveness and mercy is so powerful that it is beyond our ability to understand. God truly loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgivable, and welcomes us whenever we stray away.

God’s love is weird. And we would do well to remember that. Not to belittle God’s love into a line on a Hallmark card, but to be offended by how God could love the people we hate. Not to limit God’s love to the people in the pews next to us, but get angry that God even loves the people who sleep in on Sunday mornings. Not to assume that God only loves Christians, but to be offended by the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.

The parable of the Loving Father will forever frustrate and offend our sensibilities precisely because God’s grace is offered to all, and all really means all.

 

 

Responding:

We are going to try something a little weird. I want us to take a moment to think about someone that absolutely drives us crazy. It might be a neighbor who is forever frustrating our understanding of decency. Or maybe it is someone in our family that always takes everything too far. Or maybe it is one of the candidates running for president this year. Just think of someone who you can’t stand. Picture them in your mind. And then I want you to think about them walking into our sanctuary right now and pummeling them with loves and kisses. I want you to imagine grabbing them by the hand and dancing around the sanctuary in the midst of the greatest party you’ve ever attended.

Because in a moment we are going to put on some music, and we are going to dance like we’ve never danced before. We are going to break out of our pews and boogey up and down the church. And it is going to be weird and uncomfortable, it is going to upend our ideas of what church should be like, because sometimes God’s grace should be offensive.

The Kingdom of Chaos

Mark 4.30-32

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

parables

Today marks the second part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

 

The stories that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God are down to earth, literally. The kingdom is not some esoteric arena in the great by-and-by, but as close as a wedding feast, or a fishing net, or even a mustard bush.

A mustard bush is a strange thing. It develops from the smallest of seeds and grows like a weed choking out everything else. It is the kind of plant that farmers fear. The seeds are so tiny that if they get caught up in a group of others being sowed in a field, it can destroy the planned crop and replace it with mustard bushes.

One of the main points of Jesus’ parables is the fact that they are common stories that nearly everyone can appreciate or picture. But are we, today, familiar with a mustard seed or a mustard bush? I went out on Wednesday to a couple local plant nurseries, and I went to a couple hardware stores, and I found nothing. Not one bag of mustard seeds. Not one single mustard plant.

For the first century Jews and Gentiles this parable was as familiar as could be. Jewish law made it illegal to plant a mustard seed in a garden because they knew it would grow and grow and eventually take over the entire space. But for us today, we only know the mustard we buy in grocery stories. So, perhaps we need a new parable. Maybe we need a new comparison to what the kingdom of God is like. One that still holds true to the reality of a mustard seed but also resonates with our understanding of the world.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like one of those computer viruses that we receive in an email attachment from our grandmother. At first it seems harmless “Click here to learn the secret to weight-loss” or “Click here to see a video of a monkey playing a piano” and then before we know what hit us it spreads and spreads through our entire computer corrupting every file before sending the same email out to everyone in our address book.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like the flu, we try to stop it from spreading by receiving flu shots and preventing people from visiting others in the hospital, but once it takes hold it spreads through everything we touch until it reaches the next person and the next person and the next person.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a video posted on the Internet of a black man being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. At first we try to scroll past because we know it is too graphic, too awful, too real, but we can’t help ourselves from watching. The longer we watch the more people we think about that need to see the video, we start to think about how the whole world needs to see this injustice so that justice might rain down like water. So we send it out for everyone to see until something changes.

If Jesus showed up in church today and shared any of those parables with us, how would we respond? I’d tell him that he is crazy, that he has no idea how no idea how the church is supposed to work, and that his vision of the kingdom does not match with mine.

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is one that confuses and creates frustration precisely because our version of the kingdom is different than the kingdom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

ST. PAUL, MN - JULY 07: A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed the previous night by a police officer in Falcon Heights, MN. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The kingdom of God strikes in ways that we almost cannot see, and certainly not in ways that we can expect. Like an idea popping up in the mind, it refuses to be stifled and it begins to spread out through our conversations and our writing. Ideas like “war is wrong” or “homophobia is wrong” or “the indiscriminate killing of black men and women” is wrong. Those ideas spread like wildfire and at some point they cease to be ideas and instead transform into revolutions. The original thought tangles in the mind and heart of the revolution and people become so moved that they are willing to die so long as that original idea will continue to spread.

More often than not, we know what we want the kingdom of God to look like and we know what we want the church to look like. We want clear lines to be drawn so that we know who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is black and what is white.

But then Jesus gives us this two-verse parable with the mustard seed – the tiniest symbol of how God is forever invading our ordinary and orderly sense of things. The mustard seed is there in plain sight but hidden by our ignorance. We overlook it in the fields, in the church, in our lives, and then it sprouts into the greatest of all the shrubs.

Since January of this year at least 123 black Americans have been shot and killed by police. This week saw a black man gunned down outside of a convenience store for selling CDs and a black man gunned down during a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight. The saddest part of these stories is that they have become part of our common vernacular and experience of black culture. For a time we can remember the names of the individuals killed, names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, but now the list has grown so long that the names begin to bleed together.

And how do we feel? Are we outraged? Or are we apathetic? Are we disgusted? Or are we disinterested? Are we on fire for change? Or do we want things to stay the same?

And the death of black men and women is a small fraction, or perhaps the mustard seed, of the larger picture of racial inequality in our country.

People of color make up about 30% of the total population in the U.S. but they account for 60% of those who are imprisoned. 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than white offenders for the same crime.

In preschools across the country black students account for 18% of the total number enrolled but make up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Preschoolers! In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, black students are expelled at 3 times the rate of white students.

And 11am on Sunday morning is still, without a doubt, the most segregated hour in the United States.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is planted it grows into the grandest and largest of all the shrubs and puts forth branches so that all the birds of the air can find rest in its shade.

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of America where people are still persecuted because of the pigmentation of their skin, where immigrants are treated as second-class citizens, where members of the LGBTQ community are murdered because of their identity; where police are attacked in retaliation for events in other parts of the country.

On Thursday evening, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, five law enforcement officers were killed and six others were injured. Snipers were set up in strategic elevated areas and sent the downtown area into chaos as bullets continued to fly back and forth. It is unclear what the exact motives of the attack might be, though it is clear that it is somehow connected with the recent shootings of black men in other parts of the country.

Black men and women are shot and killed by the police. Black communities respond in rage and protest. Police are shot and killed by individuals whose anger manifested itself into violence and destruction.

What are we to do? Turn off the television because of the unending violence? Shrug off the waves of death because at least its not happening in Staunton? Fall to our knees in prayer that we might be transformed into a people of peace?

Today we grieve and mourn all the lives lost at the hands of the destructive power of death. We lift up our fists and rail against the prejudices that result in black persecution and police assassination. We demand answers from the Lord for why things like this continue to happen.

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the power of a parable like the mustard seed; it strikes us as something true whenever we hear it. A detail will emerge that we’ve never thought about and we realize that Jesus is still speaking to us through the story. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus in the midst of our lives today. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

The kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, like a viral video, like a revolution, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and creates something new. Hidden in plain sight, like words of a prayer, the seeds of faith grow in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our invasive and surprising God.

Our lives should transformed by the mustard seed quality of the kingdom of God when it stretches and reaches into every part of our existence and challenges us to be better. Not to pass the buck on to someone else, not to become apathetic to the tragedies of our time, but to be caught up in a revolution of the heart.

The power of the parable of the mustard seed is in the tiniest of seeds leading to a radical change. The mustard seed germinates and stretches out to grab hold of everything in its path. Oh that today the Lord would plant that mustard seed in our hearts, that the kingdom of God might grow and dwell among us, reaching out to everyone in our midst, that we might all believe that black lives matter, that we might believe that violence will only ever beget more violence.

We need that mustard seed. We need it planted deep into the soil of our souls, we need it to be cultivated, and we need it to grow with reckless abandon. We need a revolution of the heart, here and everywhere. Amen.