SERMON Workers For The Harvest

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded like this.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 66:10–14
  • Psalm 66:1–9
  • Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16
  • Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. 16 The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1–20 ESV)

The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but there are few workers to come harvest.

My question is: why?

My grandfather owned a farm and ranch southwest of Spokane, and in the summer — if it has been a good year — the hills of that farm would turn gold as the wheat and the barley ripened underneath a hot, dry, blue sky. And in a good year, that wheat would yield fifty-fold.

The harvest would be plentiful. Hills covered with grain, ready for reaping. Stalks of grain, ready for threshing.

Even though the work was largely done by machines, there was still a need for laborers. And my grandfather always had a few, at least when I was little. Young men, doing the hard work the older men could no longer easily do, bucking bails of hay and driving trucks full of harvested grain.

There were always laborers. Always men, ready, willing, able to work for the harvest.

Does anyone remember a few months ago, when some news agency mistakenly reported that the state of Hawaii was hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree, certified or not, to teach at island schools. The state department of education was inundated with resumes from job seekers from across the world. (Truthfully, I almost sent them my resume!) Now, maybe there would have been equal interest if that state had been, say, North Dakota. Maybe. Hawaii had to make clear the following day that it had lowered standards for its teachers — certification was still required to teach in Hawaii, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.

We see it, from time to time, dozens, hundreds, thousands of applicants seeking work. People lined up around city blocks to submit applications for highly coveted positions — like teaching in Hawaii! All wanting the dignity that comes with steady employment, meaningful or not.

The harvest is, well, not so much. But the laborers are plentiful. We see that with our own eyes.

So … why does Jesus tell us the exact opposite? As he sends his disciples out two-by-two, not long after being shown no hospitality by a community of Samaritans, after calling and being followed by people he meets along the way to Jerusalem? Why is this harvest so plentiful and yet it attracts few laborers?

What is the harvest? And what does it mean to labor in this harvest?

Jesus shows us what it means to labor in his harvest. It means going out without what we consider proper preparations or provisions. Pack nothing, greet no one on the road. Do not let what you are supposed to carry distract you from your calling.

Who of us here have ever traveled anywhere without making proper preparations, without packing for the trip, without taking extra clothes and the money needed to cover basic needs and deal with emergencies? Who here has ever picked up and gone someplace new, amongst strangers, and trusted they would provide hospitality, care, food, protection, ears to listen to the good news the God’s kingdom is coming near?

It’s hard, what Jesus asks. Try it, sometime.

He even builds into this calling the expectation that some people, some places, will not welcome, will not accept you, will not care for you or provide for you. That too, is part of what it means to labor for the harvest. We will be unwelcome.

This too seems to be the kingdom drawing near. That some will refuse to welcome. They will pay the price, Jesus tells us, come the day of judgment. Kick the dust off your feet and move on.

For the harvest is plentiful. The hills are covered in ripening grain.

So, we must trust God. We must trust that somewhere, hands will provide. People will welcome, peace will be spoken, bread will broken, meals will be shared. All the power of Satan to temp and break and confuse and confound mean nothing in this kingdom growing near. We have power — life-restoring, death-defeating, resurrection power. That’s real power.

But it seeks no glory. It seeks no fame. Life everlasting is all it proclaims. So many who labor for the harvest labor alone, unseen, unsung, their names lost to history and their bones long turned to dust, awaiting that day when the trumpet will blast and the dead will rise, alive and remade, to the final judgment of Christ.

We want glory. I want glory. We want fame. I want fame. We want something more than complete reliance on welcoming strangers. I want something more. I want bread earned by the sweat of my brow, honest sweat, from honest labor. And we want something more than to have to kick the dust off our feet when we meet hostility and fear.

Sometimes, I want fire from heaven to devour those who have not welcomed or received me. To show them just who and what they have rejected.

This is thankless work, this calling Christ has given us. We do not know who these 70 (or 72) others are. They have no names, at least not in scripture. They go unremembered. We know they were called, given this commission, and came back rejoicing that even demons bowed down to the name of Jesus! But we don’t know who they are. We don’t know what became of them.

Let me suggest, sisters and brothers, that the reason Jesus tells us the laborers are few is because the work is hard, we have to trust complete strangers will provide for us, we have to heal the sick and cast out demons, and we have to move on when we find no welcome. We receive no pension, no salary, no titles, and likely no recognition.

We don’t even speak for ourselves. We speak only for the one who called us to this miserable, amazing, incredible, thankless work, who sent us out to proclaim his kingdom.

Who’d want that work? Not me.

Not me.

And yet … here I am. He called me. I followed.

I followed.

SERMON Fire and Death from Heaven

I did not preach today, but if I had, it would have been something like this.

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21
  • Psalm 16
  • Galatians 5:1, 13–25
  • Luke 9:51–62

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:51–62 ESV)

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a regular devotional reading through the Old Testament book of Joshua. It’s a tough book to read, because it’s the story of Israel taking its patrimony, conquering the land of promise, a fight God demanded be waged without mercy, without quarter, without negotiations or deals.

So far, we’ve seen Jericho and Ai put to the sword, their streets run red with the blood of all who dwelt in them, burnt to the ground and left as ruins — ruins that, at least in the biblical narrative, stand “to this day” as a silent witness to the war, and to the command of God. To the calling of a people to follow that God.

But it is our story, this conquest. It is who we are. It is what God once demanded of us. It is, too often, what we still demand of ourselves. Because we think it’s what God wants.

Something I want you all to remember — Israel failed in its conquest of Canaan. Oh, Israel takes and settles the land. But long after the powerful united kingdom under David and Solomon is established (and then shattered by civil war), the land of promise is still full of Canaanites. Israel could not keep the commandment of God to show no mercy, make no deals, and reserve for God alone the plundered wealth of the Canaanites. We will see this later this week when my devotional gets to the people of the city of Gibeon — Hivites according to Joshua, and Amorites according to Samuel, but either way, Canaanites all the same — who deceive Israel into making a covenant with them. God has commanded Israel, demanded his people set their face on the expulsion and extermination of the Canaanites.

And Israel cannot. They cannot. We cannot.

So as the disciples wander through Samaria, they are wandering across a long-ago conquered land, a place once inhabited by people who called themselves Hivites and Amorites and Jebusites. They are wandering through conquered villages, through land now solidly Israelite but a millennia before was called by other names in other tongues. Names that likely persisted just as the people, their customs and their gods and their languages, held on even as they were conquered, enslaved, and assimilated into Israel.

And all that before civil war brought idolatry, Assyrian conquerors, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great and his successors, and finally, Romans. While no conquest is ever permanent, every conqueror has left a mark on this land, on this people.

The Samaritans are a remnant, what was left of the people of the idolatrous northern Kingdom of Israel. They have a version of the Torah, but they long ago abandoned worship in Jerusalem, and never really acknowledged the centrality of the temple. They would worship at Schechem (modern Nablus) and Penuel (where Jacob wrestled with God), where the rebel leader-turned-king Jeroboam would place golden calves and tell his new nation:

You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 12:28)

This people have not faced Jerusalem for some time. Not for many centuries.

So it makes sense, when the Jesus show wanders through, they wouldn’t be that supportive of a prophet with his face set toward Jerusalem. Why would they want anything from Jesus? What would Jesus mean to them?

What began centuries before in Samaria as a rebellion against centralized authority — against Solomon’s rapacious successor who taxed and conscripted far too much — has hardened into an unthinking prejudice. Into blind mistrust, fear, and smoldering hated.

So of course they don’t receive Jesus and his followers. Why would they? The people of Samaria renounced their portion of King David long ago. They cast off those promises God made to his people in and through David. “We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse!” they said. And they meant it. So who is Jesus to them? The fulfillment of promises? Long awaited redemption? The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Not hardly.

That the disciples want these people — these enemies who have rejected and shown no hospitality to Jesus — wiped off the face of the earth makes sense. After all, they have said no, and that no should be met with a strong rebuke. Even retribution. No one should say no, not even to forgiveness, healing, and grace!

And they believe they can, these disciples of Jesus, command fire from heaven. They believe they should.

I wish we had the words of Jesus’ rebuke here. I wish we has exactly what Jesus told his disciples. I wish we knew whether it was “No!” or whether it was more than that.

But whatever Jesus said, we know this. Unlike his namesake in the Old Testament whose book we have been reflecting upon — Joshua, ַיְהוֹשֻׁע, “the one who saves,” rendered into Greek as Ἰησοῦς, or Jesus — he did not raise his javelin at this city and command its destruction. He did not order his army to march around it and blow the trumpets, or lie in wait to ambush it. He did not put it to the sword, let its streets run red with blood, and then burn it down. He did not indulge his disciples’ fantasies about vengeance and retribution.

He moved on. He moved on.

He let his enemies be. He let his people’s enemies be. He let dead history stay dead. It would not matter any more. Not the generations and not the centuries.

Because there has been enough conquest here. Enough bloodshed. Enough fire from heaven. Yes, there will be more. It never ends, this fire from heaven, which we call down upon the wicked, upon enemies, upon those who have wronged us or broken the law. We call it down. And it comes. It never seems to stop.

But Jesus moves on. He will have no part in fire from heaven. And in Samaria, among the people who disowned David and his promises, among the descendants of the Hivites and the Amorites and the other Canaanites once fated for conquest and colonization, he finds followers. Some come to him. Some he calls. Others know the importance of following, but wish to tidy up their affairs before the wander off with Jesus.

Among the enemies of God, Jesus finds followers.

We who follow Jesus, whether we find him or whether he finds and calls us, should move on too. Whatever history tells us, or whatever our political and social arrangements say about who our friends and enemies are, we move on. We don’t look back to the past, and we don’t get stuck in the present moment. We don’t wallow or lament the cruelty, the hatred, the anger, or the callous lack of welcome and hospitality. We move on. We set our faces forward, toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross, toward the empty tomb, toward that salvation which takes away the sin of the world.

Regardless of where we are, or who is with us, we proclaim the kingdom of God.

LENT What is the Kingdom of God Like?

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:18–21 ESV)

I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to give my life to God. To serve God. To live amongst people who want to serve God. Praying and worshiping and caring for others, sheltering the wounded, protecting the vulnerable, and finding the lost.

It is all I want. I wanted fame and fortune once, and several time in my life I thought they were in my grasp.

But I want to love my neighbor. And not worry about anything else. I want to live in, and surrender, to the Kingdom of God.

I’d be an urban monk if I could, living simply, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting any of this. Some are clearly called to that kind of life. And maybe I am too.

The kingdom, however, is not so much a place we dwell, surrounded by the artifacts of Christian life, as it is something that dwells within us. It is not the world, and it does not rule the world. It can’t. It dwells within the world, giving us life and breath and sustenance, it is everywhere and in everything, making love possible. Giving love meaning and purpose. It is hidden, brought out only because the bread has risen or because the birds have a place to nest. Because we see what it has done. Is doing.

This kingdom is a verb and not a noun. It is an act, not a place.

This kingdom, it is our sanctuary, but it is not a fortress. It is not an army, and it is not deterrence or fear. It is not that kind of strength. It is the strength to love, this kingdom, knowing that our love is the very leavening and the very branches where sanctuary is possible.

I still want to live a simple life, worshiping God, caring for the wounded, and finding the lost. But I do that not to hide from the world, or not as some alternative to a worldly life. I do that because I am the the kingdom of God when I live that way. When I live as Jesus has called me to live. When I love God and neighbor and enemy … in the world.

SERMON — What Have You Done?

I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Lectionary 34 / Christ the King Sunday (Year B)

  • Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
  • Psalm 93
  • Revelation 1:4b–8
  • John 18:33–37

28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:28–40 ESV)

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to Bethany, an extraordinary young woman who has been through some of the worst that our foster care system — I’m not sure the word care has any meaning in that phrase — has to offer.

I told you how Bethany and her brother Andrew ran away from a horrifically abusive foster home, and how she single-handedly arranged for another home — a safe one. Something no child or teenager should ever have to do.

I wish I could tell you more about her, but I can’t yet. Then you would know just what a staggeringly impressive young person she really is. When I speak of her, and some of the other kids I am involved with, I will be vague about details. Because these kids’ safety and lives may still be at risk. Because they deserve some privacy. And, after a long time of almost unspeakable abuse, they deserve a chance to just be kids.

Which is why I truly admire Eric and Debbie, the couple who took Bethany and Andrew in and decided to adopt them. That took a lot of courage, to basically embrace two kids who literally showed up on their doorstep (Bethany knew who they were) one day and said, “will you take care of us?” Eric and Debbie took a leap of faith, acted on compassion, did a kind and decent thing by giving these orphans, Bethany and Andrew, a home. Something they hadn’t had in a long, long time.

But I suspect there have been moments when Eric and Debbie have looked at each other and thought: what on earth were we thinking?

Because — and I need to be a little blunt here — adopting these two kids has brought a lot of trouble into Eric and Debbie’s lives. More than they could have bargained for, I suspect.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bethany and Andrew more than I can say. They are both very smart, sensitive, and charming. Andrew is amazingly self-possessed and self-aware for a young man of 16, and Bethany is wise far beyond her 15 years. But they are troubled too. By nightmares, by panic attacks, by sadness that sometimes paralyzes them both. Andrew has been plagued by mysterious health problems that have ended up with the entire family in one or another emergency rooms wondering — and not ever knowing — what is wrong.

Trouble has also followed Bethany like a dark cloud. You see, the people who held these kids before, who used and abused and exploited them, are not happy they absconded. And several times, they’ve tried to teach Bethany a lesson — there is no running away, no place safe enough, no sanctuary secure enough, that she can’t be found.

I’m being vague, I know. I want you to imagine the worst. Because you won’t be far wrong.

So, I suspect that Eric and Debbie, the last time Bethany was found and returned home, were both grateful and exceedingly releived. I know I was. But also I suspect that, in the back of their minds, was that question Pontius Pilate asks of Jesus today:

“What have you done?”

Because that, sisters and brothers, is how the kingdom of this world works. Almost no one standing in front of a magistrate, or a judge, or answering the questions of a police officer, or staring at the possibility yet again of horrific violence, gets there without at least partly earning it. Or deserving it. That’s what we think. That’s how we work. If you’ve been charged with a crime, chances are, you are guilty. If you’ve been beaten senseless, cast off, abducted and raped, followed by misfortune and trouble, well, that’s all on you. You’re the wrong kind of person. You have it coming. Maybe all of it.

Because good, decent, innocent, well-behaved people don’t find themselves in front of judges pleading to charges, facing time in prison, or having to field the questions of angry police officers with their weapons drawn. Good girls aren’t kidnapped. People who make wise choices don’t make mistakes, don’t experience misfortune, don’t fail, and certainly don’t sin.

John relates this in his Gospel. I’ve added a bit to the lectionary reading. When Jesus is taken to the governor’s palace, Pilate wants to know exactly what the accusation is. They — it’s not specified here who “they” are, but I’m guessing from context we’re dealing with Annas and Caiaphas and the other high priests — don’t really answer. But their response is a perfect statement of how the world really works:

If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.

That’s the kingdom of this world. The justice of this world. The deeply felt prejudices of this world. If Andrew and Bethany really were good and decent kids, well, they wouldn’t have health problems and face the threat of kidnapping. They wouldn’t have ended up in foster care in the first place. If Jesus really was innocent, he wouldn’t be standing before the Roman governor in the first place.

It’s not an answer. But it is a very deeply held human sensibility. Troublesome people have earned and deserved their troubles. And whatever consequences we dish out to them. Jesus clearly has it coming, merely because we’ve said so. Because we brought him before power and said, “he’s trouble.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What have you done?” He speaks instead of his kingdom, and how it is not of this world.

What is it Jesus has done? If we take John’s gospel as a guide, he’s been proclaimed lamb of God by John the Baptist, he called disciples to follow, was called “King of Israel” by Nathaniel, changed water into wine at the wedding at Cana, tossed the money changers out of the temple, confused everyone by telling them they must be born again, spent time at a well with a woman in Samaria, healed a few people, fed a mess of other people, walked on water, said he was the bread of life, forgave the sins of a woman caught in adultery, claimed to be the light of the world, said he was older than Abraham, that he and the Father were one, raised Lazarus from the dead, proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life, wept over the city, entered Jerusalem, washed his disciples’ feet, told everyone to love each other as he loves them, and said he is the way, the truth and the life. There’s some other stuff Jesus did, but I think you get the picture.

Is this troublesome behavior? The kind of thing you put someone to death for? The Jewish leaders — the high priests and the pharisees — certainly thought so. A dark cloud followed Jesus around, and it was clear to some that Jesus was nothing but trouble. “If we let him go on like this,” the high priests told themselves, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) Jesus is trouble, more than they can handle, the leader of a coming revolt that threatens to destroy everything.

“It is better … that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” says the high priest Caiaphas, not quite knowing just how much truth he’s speaking. (John 11:50)

Jesus never answers Pilate’s question, anymore than his accusers did. They offered as evidence the accusation — we wouldn’t be bringing him to you if he weren’t guilty. Jesus tells Pilate he has a kingdom (though he doesn’t explicitly say he’s a king), but it’s not of or from this world, otherwise his followers would be fighting to save him. Or to free him.

And they aren’t. We aren’t.

And yet … Jesus is our king. To him belongs the glory and the dominion, forever and ever. He is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler over all the kings of the earth. Kingdom is a word John hardly uses in his gospel, but Jesus is clearly a king. He has done the deeds of a king, and more — things no mere monarch or potentate or president or prime minister could ever do.

He has also done troubling things. He raised the dead. He walked on the water. He fed the multitude. He washed his disciples’ feet and then told us if we don’t let him, and then do as he has done, we have no share in him. He said God loves the whole entire world, but added that no one gets to God except through him. He commanded us to love each other as he loves us, and told us people will know we are his because we love as he loved.

Yes, our King and our Lord is trouble. He lived a troublesome life and caused no end of problems, especially for those with power and authority. That he is our king means we are caught up in and commanded to embrace the trouble he causes — this dead-raising, crowd-feeding, sheep-tending, foot-washing, table-tossing trouble. And make it our own. Because this kingdom of risen life and love is troubling to a frightened world that deals death to feel safe and secure, to maintain a good and stable and untroubled order.

I suspect every morning, Eric and Debbie wake up, think of Andrew and Bethany, and sometimes wonder — “what fresh hell will today bring?” Because it’s hard to embrace the trouble when it throws such costly and traumatic chaos into our lives. And no doubt their neighbors and others shake their heads. A disorderly and chaotic life — a troubled life — is surely a sign something is really wrong. What does it say about someone when they so willingly accept that trouble?

Especially when that trouble came to them and pleaded: “Will you love me?”

Brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to lead troubled and troublesome lives. We have been called by Jesus, who reached out to us — some he called softly and tenderly, and some he struck blind in a devastating act of terror — and made our trouble his. And his trouble ours. That’s what his love for us — for the whole world — does.

“Do you love me?” our king asks each and every one us.

I have only one answer. “You know I love you Lord. Trouble and all.

Trouble and all.”

SERMON — On the Outskirts of the Kingdom

I’m not scheduled to preach this Sunday, but if I did, it would be something like this. This Sunday is All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday, and this is not the text for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I’m using it anyway.

Lectionary 31 / Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 6:1-9
  • Psalm 119:1-8
  • Hebrews 9:11-14
  • Mark 12:28-34

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28-34 ESV)

It was the first thing Jesus told the world in the Gospel of Mark:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The kingdom of God — βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ — is at hand. This thing, this place, this state of being, this condition that God is giving to us, this government, this arrangement of the world, is looming or impending or coming or just around the corner.

At hand. It is within reach. You can touch it. Hold. Feel it. Grasp it. This kingdom. This thing overseen by a king.

Jesus is constantly describing this Kingdom to his disciples — and to us. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t teach many parables. In chapter four, Jesus tells the parable of the sower who scatters seed, and some of it falls on bad soil and some of it falls on good soil. He also speaks of another sower who scatters seed and then waits while the seed sprouts — “he knows not how” — and then harvests that which he has not really worked for, plentiful fruit he knows has come but has idea what brought it into being.

And finally, also in chapter four, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed, a tiny seed, which grows into a plant of such size that birds find shelter and home in its branches and under its leaves. The Kingdom of God is like these things. This kingdom isn’t a place or a thing so much as it a verb — a sower scatters seed, a tiny mustard seed sprouts and grows. The kingdom in these few parables is a series of acts that, from beginning to end, show the mysterious work of God scattering and multiplying faith. And eventually harvesting the fruit.

And that’s about it for the parables in Mark. Mostly, in Mark, Jesus is on the move, never stopping, healing and casting out demons and feeding thousands and constantly confronting the pharisees over how — how, and not whether — to adhere to the law.

Because the law, the teaching God gives to Israel through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, is never in question in Mark. If he condemns the religious leaders of Israel for anything, it is a narrow legalism that takes the law literally without taking it seriously.

Jesus … Jesus takes the teaching of God seriously.

In today’s reading, Jesus answer a question from one of the scribes — “Which commandment is the most important of all?” — by quoiting the Torah itself. “Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord your god is one” and all that follows comes from Deuteronomy 6. Past what Jesus quotes is an exhortation to contemplate and talk about and teach this law, to think about night and day, from the moment we rise in the morning until when we go to bed at night.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, and it’s an amazing bit of teaching that I’m going to cite all of here. Because God doesn’t just tell us to love our neighbors — God also gives us some very concrete ways that love will and should manifest itself.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:9-18 ESV)

It’s quite a list here, that ends with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “I am the Lord.” A longer list than the “thou shalt nots” we tend to remember. Because love isn’t just a feeling. God speaks of a love that insists upon actions. Love of neighbor demands consideration for complete strangers here, for the weak and the vulnerable, for clean hearts and a refusal to take vengeance for any wrongs suffered.

When the scribe praises Jesus’ answer, and adds that love of God and love for neighbor are worth so much than “burnt offerings and sacrifice,” Jesus replies:”

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Not far. Close. We don’t know how close — another three hours of travel time, next state over, or basically take a left and go two blocks and there you are. But close.

These things we do, in our relationship with God, to love God and to love neighbor — these get us close to the Kingdom of God.

Now, I’m a little ticked off by how this passage ends. No one asked Jesus any more questions. I mean, really? Because I’ve got a question. In fact, I’ve got several. How close?! What’s missing?! What’s left to do?! And who does it?!

And what is this Kingdom of God, this thing you talk so much about, Jesus, that you have proclaimed is near, so that we should repent and believe in your good news?!

I wish someone had asked. I wish we had an answer from Jesus. A real, concrete answer.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, we like to pride ourselves on discovering — or rediscovering, an Martin Luther and his co-reformers were fond of saying — a gospel of unearned grace. We cannot do the work of redeeming ourselves, and we cannot even begin to try. Christ did everything on the Cross, when he rose from the dead, dealing not just with the original sin that separated us from God and corrupted our own human natures, but also from our own individual sins. We are mere participants in the saving work of God, caught up in Christ’s passion, raised to new life in Christ’s resurrection, justified to … well, do what, exactly?

Because that’s been quite an argument over the years. Among Lutherans, speak of deeds and someone will, at some point, shake their head in stern judgment and utter the term: works righteousness. And suddenly, any notion that might have some kind of obligation to God, or to each other, gets stomped on, and set on fire, and doused with water, the ashes scattered to the four winds.

To such folks, our job is clear — to speak words of warning to sinners, grace to the repentant, and hope as many people as can hear will hear. And depending on their understanding, hearers will decide to believe in Christ, or (if you are a good Lutheran) the Holy Spirit will work upon their hearts and move them to Christ.

Scatter seeds. The rest of the work, well, that’s not really up to us.

But here we have an understanding of law as love — the love of God, and the love of neighbor — grounded not in belief, but in deeds. This is love that is as solid as the ground we walk upon.

And Jesus says that understanding — the one the scribe asks him about, and confesses his agreement to — is not far from the Kingdom of God.

Our deeds of love, respect, kindness for our neighbors, for the poor, for complete strangers in need — those deeds get us some way to this kingdom. To this place led, governed, ruled over, by a king.

We make this kingdom, at least some of it, by being people who love. That’s not a terribly Protestant understanding.

But Jesus is also clear. This love of God and love of neighbor by themselves are not the kingdom of God. We still have a way go, a few more blocks, some more miles, a few turns before we find ourselves there.

What is the kingdom? This is the question we Christians have long struggled with. And long disagreed about its answer. I’m not entirely sure what the kingdom is. I’m not. I wish I was. It is, I think, somehow embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — in what he did, his teaching and his healing, his calling the lost and the sinners to repentance, this is all some part of the kingdom. And yet, all that is also sign of its coming, a foretaste of the feast to come. Even in his life, we only have a taste. We don’t have the kingdom. Not completely. Not yet.

Perhaps its an understanding that when we love God as Deuteronomy teaches, and when we love our neighbor as Leviticus teaches — all things endorsed by Jesus — we are scattering seeds, witnessing the growing of something we cannot understand. And shouldn’t try to. All we know is that sometimes, and not because we really know what we are doing, there will be good fruit. A bountiful harvest. More than we could ever imagine.

I know we have a kingdom — because we have a risen king, who in glory sits at the right hand of the Father. He has judged the nations, and he rules them with a rod of iron. I can’t point to it, and I don’t rightly know quite what the kingdom looks like. But I know we have it. I know it’s here. Jesus said so. And I trust him.

Because of that, I know that when each one of us loves God, when we love our neighbors, we are not just living in anticipation of the kingdom of God, but somewhere on its outskirts. We are not far from the kingdom when we live according to the teaching of God.

For the rest, we trust our Lord. Our king. Who lived with us and died with us and rose so that we might rise to everlasting life. Because he is faithful and true. Because his is the kingdom. And the power. And the glory. Unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Continue reading