Mark 4:26-34 "Who Plants Mustard Seed?"

MustardI have preached on this passage many times over the years and I realized this week that I have often missed the real point.  This is a great passage to run out to the Indian grocer, buy some mustard seed for the children’s sermon, and talk about what a wondrous plant comes from humble beginnings.  Therefore, if the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, we can have hope when we feel our efforts are unremarkable compared to the world’s need, and trust that God is going to do great things from our small plantings, and spread the Kingdom among us.  Don’t be afraid to start small in life, because God always has a bigger plan.  That is not a bad sermon to preach.  I do believe that God can often be found in the small things and lost in large undertakings.  But after a little research, I decided that is not Jesus’s point here in the Gospel.


The first problem I encountered is with the nature of the mustard plant.  Despite the value of mustard seeds for flavor and medicinal purposes, it is not something you want in your garden.  Think mint on steroids.  It does grow into a fairly large bush, maybe four feet tall, and will spread quickly to every horizon.  And what would you do with all that mustard plant?  If you have ever cooked mustard greens, you will know that a little bit goes a long way.  It has a horseradish kick, and you are not going to eat like you would potatoes or tomatoes.  Mustard, in the Middle East, is a weed growing on the hillside, filling in the untamed and agriculturally undesirable spots.  Most of the domesticated mustard grown in the world to make your Golden’s spicy brown mustard is grown in two countries, Nepal and Canada.  My guess is because they have a lot of land areas not really valuable for anything else.  There are no mustard farms in Iowa.  When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, watch out.  It means that things could quickly get out of hand as you are unexpectedly overtaken. 


And what about the birds, who come make their nests in the branches of a mustard plant?  I always thought this was a comforting image of how tiny seeds provide a home for the poor birds who have nowhere to nest.  Actually in ancient agricultural areas, where seeds were sown by hand and scattered across the fields, birds were a nuisance.  Remember the parable of the sower who lost many of the seeds because the birds came and ate them.  You really don’t want to encourage the birds to nest around your fields, hiding in the mustard patch and eating up your crops. 


As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).


This is really not what I expected from the parable.  Note that not everything is beyond our own doing.  The first verse says that we play the role of farmer scattering seeds on the ground.  But after that, seed and soil take over and we have little to do with it until the harvest.  We plant, we take an action, and then so much of the result is out of our hands.


John 3:14-21 "God So Loved the Cosmos"

IurIf there was just one verse in the Bible you wanted everyone to know by heart, which one would it be?   If you grew up as a Bible Belt Baptist like me, John 3:16 was that verse.   I could recite it from 4th grade on, until it could be said in one breath, like it was one word, “Godsolovedtheworldthathegavehisonlybegottensonthat



You may have noticed John 3:16 signs in public places, held up behind the football goalposts so people can see it when the extra point is kicked.  “Its good!  (John 3:16).”  So I guess people are supposed to put down their chicken wing to save their immortal soul. 


This verse became so core that you could call American Evangelicalism “John 3:16 Christianity.”  It was core for Billy Graham revivals and Campus Crusade and so on.   Here is how salvation works in this model.   We are sinners and this upsets God.  We deserve punishment and what is a just God to do?  God can’t just let us off, or some people will just do whatever they want.  It will be chaos.  So Jesus, the God-man is sent to take on our punishment, so our debt is relieved.  This sets the score straight (this is the game winning kick of the ball through the uprights!) and if you believe in Jesus (and this process), and stop sinning, then you will go to heaven.  But if you don’t, well- just read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to find out the eternal punishment that awaits you.


Now this theology troubles me.  How did “God so loved the world” become a theology of judgment, where God slams down the gavel against us, then sends Jesus to serve our sentence, so we can get out the jail, the mortality of this life, so we can get to heaven?   I don’t think this is the real meaning of John 3:16.  This Satisfaction/Substitutionary atonement of fundamentalist Christianity is not the early belief of the church, it is not contained in the Apostles or Nicene Creed, nor is it what Jesus taught in the Gospels. 


The roots of this theology are in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury.  It made sense to them because it mirrored the worldview of the feudal order.  European lords lived in defensive castles surrounded by village folk who paid homage- in words, deeds, money and goods.  In return, the lords we to protect them from roving bands of vandals and hostile neighboring estates.  The Lord of the Manor was the justice system, and if his honor was offended, a debt was incurred.  The serf had to pay a fine or take a punishment.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “I demand satisfaction.”  The word satisfaction meant honor had been offended and a debt had been paid. 


So Anselm saw God as the Soveriegn Lord of the feudal universe.  If we sin, God’s honor is offended and we have broken the order of the universe.  The debt needs to be paid, but we mortals cannot pay it, so either we are stuck in eternal punishment, or someone immortal must come along and take our punishment, so Jesus was seen as taking this role.  IF you were an 11th century serf, you might find some relief from this view.  Your world was the village you lived in, it was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around us in our English village.  This worked for centuries because it fit their world.  When they heard the words, “God so loved the world” the feudal order of things was the world God loved.


But we hear it differently because this is our world.  (Pick up globe.)  Think for moment what “world” mean when we look at this globe.  It does not mean, God loved only Europeans, or only Americans, it does not say that God so loved only Catholics, or Protestants, or even only Christians.  It doesn’t even say God so loved the church, or the true believers.  God so loved the world…(spin the globe.)  In fact, the world God loves does not even have all these convenient national boundaries drawn in for us.  God gets the Apollo view of the world of oceans, deserts and rainforests, and some bright lights at night to show that there are humans here. 


Here is another way to think of world.  The Greek word for world will probably blow your mind.  It is kosmos.  God so loved the Cosmos.  Not simply our tiny, blue planet, but the sun, moon and stars, the giant Horseshoe nebula, all the galaxies hidden out in the Big Dipper, Quasars, Supernovas, black holes and dark matter.  That is God’s world. 


This is what Rob Bell was writing about in the second chapter of “What We Mean When We Talk about God.”  The point is- our view of world is constantly expanding, and the ways that we have defined reality, the theories by which we have sliced and diced how things work, the boundaries we have drawn on the map and the ways we define who is on our side, or who belongs to God and who doesn’t, the certainties we defend, the things we argue and fight about, the stuff we stress and worry over, seem very insignificant when we define world as cosmos.  It has taken us centuries, millions of years, to develop our brains and our civilizations to this point, so we can finally scratch the surface of what cosmos is.  I think our species has finally made it to Jr. High.  We are at the age where God can’t tell us anything anymore, but we are still pretty impulsive, self-centered, and worry too much of what everyone thinks about us. 


Cosmos has a second meaning, it is not just the vast reaches of the universe, it also means “the order of things.”   Greek philosophy loved to contemplate the order of things, from geometry, architecture, statutes of the ideal human form, and the ideal government.  Cosmos refers to way things are ordered at every level, the human body, the family structure, the changing seasons, the political climate, it is all interconnected.  If the Greeks could have discovered the subatomic world, their joy would have been complete.  If Plato would have known that his chair, a solid object upon which he sits, was really billions of fast moving subatomic particles crashing into each other at an astonishing rate, so to appear solid, he would have been in rapture.  And we could probably use a little more awe and wonder in our worldview as well.  The cosmos, from electrons to quasars, is stupendous.  No wonder God loves it and calls us to love it as well.


But John is saying one more things about the world God loves.  The world also has disorder.  People reject how things should be, they fail to love, ignore the interconnections and relatedness of living things, and injustice results.  John sees a world that is alienated from its creator.  He lived in a time of great persecution, as the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians.  John’s Gospel makes a profound statement about this disorder.  God does not simply love the good and reject and judge the bad.  God loves the disordered nature of humanity as well, and seeks to reconcile it with love.  John 3: says Christ came not to judge the world by to save it. 


Save it…salvation…Latin:salve…English: salve…that which heals the wound. 


John’s Gospel is the only one to contain the words of Jesus, as he carries his cross, and he is being jeered and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  That is how God reconciles through Jesus.  This Jesus does not die on a cross to satisfy God’s honor and wrath at sin, but to show God’s reconciling love even as humanity does its worst.  God loves the cosmos, even the angry crowds, the unjust rulers, and the imperfect people we all can be.  God so loved the world…and still does.  That seems about as awesome to me as my body is made up of flying subatomic particles.  Can you believe it?


How Many Times? Matthew 18: 21-35

Mandela 10Sermon for September 14, 2014 @ First Churches

 The story opens with Peter’s question about how many times you should forgive a person.  He is wondering if there is a time when forgiveness becomes absurd because someone keeps on hurting us.  I imagine most of us have someone in our lives that is very difficult to forgive.  They just don’t get it.  They know where all our buttons are and they just keep on pressing them.  We try to be Christian and pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.”  After several times of forgiveness we may feel like we are the doormat where someone else wipes their feet and we pray to God and say, “Lord, I have tried to forgive, but I have reached my limit.”  Peter had reflected on this, and to show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “Should we forgive even up to seven times?”  Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?!  In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality.  Throughout the Bible we find 7 days of creation, seven signs in the book of revelation, and so on.  Surely this would be more than enough.  I have the right answer now Jesus!


Jesus answers with a word play on the number 7 and says that we should forgive 70 times 7.  He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone 490 times, but rather he is saying we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness.  At this time I imagine the disciples responded much like I would, being absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion.  So Jesus then tells a parable to make his point:


To paraphrase a bit, Enron goes bankrupt owing billions of dollars to creditors and its employees, creating economic chaos.  That is how much money the servant owed in Jesus’s parable.  (A talent is about 130 pounds, price of gold is $1286 per ounce, so each talent is about $2.7 million, so 1000 talents is $2.7 billion.) In an unprecedented move, the top executives asked for time, promising to pay everyone back every dollar they owed, even it meant selling several of their Florida condos, so the Federal Judge agreed to extend them mercy.  Then the executives went out and began to shake down every person they could find for money, hiding their assets offshore and filing lawsuits against even the smallest creditor.  So the Judge stepped in and threw them all into a Federal Maximum Security Prison, along with their wives, ex-wives and children. 


That may sound like a story with a happy ending, but that is not the point.  Jesus is saying that all of us have experienced God’s forgiveness for some sin.  None of us are totally righteous and need God’s grace to be free from our mistakes.  If we are to experience God’s forgiveness and then turn around and be unforgiving to those who sin against us, we fall short of the call to discipleship.  Jesus is reminding Peter of the source of forgiveness.  Our own good intentions are not the source, but rather the powerful grace of God towards us and all people is the source.  But still we struggle to live this out in the real world.


A group of people were struggling with the nature of forgiveness at a Bible study class I attended at a Mennonite Church while on sabbatical.  Several of my international colleagues from the Summer Peace Institute also were there, providing a cross-cultural look at the difficulties.  First a man who had interned at a Rape Crisis Center spoke.  He was concerned that the counselors would not let the women speak about forgiveness in their therapy.  It was seen as dis-empowering and unhelpful to taking control of their lives.  He thought the counselors had a false notion of forgiveness, as if it was saying that evil is OK.  In contrast, he felt that forgiveness was really for us, to help us move on after trauma, so it was essential for the healing process.


Next, Lien, my roommate from Viet Nam spoke up.  He had spent five years in a single jail cell for working for democracy in the early 1990s.   Many people had starved to death as the government stood by and did nothing.   Who do you forgive when a whole system killed people?  “I don’t hate the Communists,” he said, “but history must not be forgotten and repeated.”


Joe Campbell, who runs a mediation center in Belfast spoke next.  He told the story of a family who had lost a son in an IRA car bomb attack.  They publicly forgave the IRA at a very tense time of the Troubles.  This created a great deal of psychological turmoil for hundreds of families who had lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict who were still struggling with the process of forgiveness.  His counsel to people was not to forgive and forget, but to remember and change.  Acts of violence are more than individual acts.  Only a few people actually pull the trigger in a war, but society as a whole creates the conditions of hatred and injustice.  So forgiveness is to remember the past and change our behavior and change the societal conditions.


A Mennonite missionary who had returned from El Salvador asked, “What are the implications when so many people have been killed, as in our Civil War?  How far can forgiveness go?  I find that I can bring people together from opposing sides for simple tasks like building a regional water system, but they will not meet in each others homes or share a meal together.  We just try to work at the simple level of trust, then allow grace to deepen and work itself out. 


“But what about our duty as Christians to forgive others?” said Francois, a woman from Congo.  She told the story of being chased out of Congo when a group of rebels attacked her village.  She had to sleep by a roadside for three days in hiding.  When she tried to go back the first person she met was a woman from her church who had supported the rebels.  Francios said she had no choice but to forgive.


A woman from Virginia said that she had been in a car accident a few years before and had been seriously injured.  She had gone through many hardships during her recovery and had been very bitter against the driver who hit her.  Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued her, doubling her misery.  Then one day,” she said, “I realized that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer.  When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.”


I learn two things from these stories.  First, working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art.  There are no simple formulas or prayers that will simply take care of the problem for us.  I can't tell you what forgiveness will look like in your life any more than I could tell Michelangelo how to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel.  The second thing I learn is that we can't walk away from forgiveness.  It is painful work to go through the process of forgiveness, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment.  Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else.  It is a cry to God that says, "Lord, heal my heart."  Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.


Preaching for Sunday, August 17


Gaza woman - Page by Jeffrey Heller - A Palestinian woman runs carrying a girl following what police said was an Israeli air strike on a house in Gaza city July 9, 2014.

I am still debating my choices of scriptures to preach this week-the Gospel lesson about the Canaanite woman, Isaiah and the covenant extending beyond the normal boundries to eunuchs, or Joseph meeting his brothers in Egypt.  They are all painfully relavent this week in a world of broken covenants, elusive truces and alienated people.  Here is a quote from a sermon I preached in 2005 entitled "Overlooked and Underconsidered" to ponder:

Everything seems to be working against this woman-gender, race, religion, class and nationalism-to find help for her daughter.  It must have been quite the spectacle to have her throw herself at the feet of Jesus.  Disciples and spectators alike must have been embarrassed to have her there.  She must have been driven by desperation.  Maybe now we can better understand Christ’s original negative response, when he says, “Let the children be fed first (referring to Jews) for it is not fair to give the children’s bread to the dogs.”  There is no getting around the fact that Jesus has just “dissed” her.  Jews considered dogs to be scavengers and unclean animals.  Every reference to dogs in the Bible is negative (much to the despair of dog lovers like me!).  

For a moment she is turned away by a great spiritual leader, which to many would feel like they were being turned away by God.  That’s why it is so hard when our feelings get hurt in church.  We expect to experience the sacred grace of God when we come to church or approach a minister, and if we are hurt or overlooked for the moment, then it effects our core spirit.  Where else will we find the sacred in our lives?  This is what disturbs us in this Gospel Lesson.  How could Jesus compare anyone to a dog or say a thing like that?  This story hits us in a place of fear that maybe God finds us to be really annoying.  We don’t belong, we don’t deserve the bread, others are more important.

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