Monday, June 18, 2018

The Kingdom of God is a Sneaky Weed

Mark 4:26-34

So today, Ezekiel says:
22Thus says the Lord God
 I myself will take a sprig
  from the lofty top of a cedar;
  I will set it out.
 I will break off a tender one
  from the topmost of its young twigs;
 I myself will plant it
  on a high and lofty mountain.
23On the mountain height of Israel
  I will plant it,
 in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
  and become a noble cedar.
 Under it every kind of bird will live;
  in the shade of its branches will nest

  winged creatures of every kind.
Cedar of Lebanon

Jesus and his audience would have known
this imagery from the book of Ezekiel.
God would take the little twig and from it,
A great nation would grow
like the mighty cedar of Lebanon.
Which are strong and tall and impressive.
SLIDE - Here’s a picture here.

Actually throughout Ezekiel and in other books,
the writers compare the kingdoms  of Judah,
Assyria and Babylon to the great cedars of Lebanon --
strong and everlasting.

The people that Jesus was speaking to
would have known these metaphors well
and so, obviously, would have Jesus.
So when he said,
“To what should we compare the kingdom of God?”
I’m sure they expected something
tall and equally majestic, maybe bigger than a giant tree.
But then Jesus says: “The kingdom of God can be
compared to a a mustard seed”
You could almost hear the crowd going, Ugh.
A mustard seed?
What? They must have thought he was crazy.

Some theologians today want to believe that mustard
trees are tall and sturdy like the cedars of Lebanon,
And that the moral of the parable is
from the tiny seed, the big impressive tree grows.
But that’s not what people would have thought
hearing this parable in Jesus time.

Mustard plants were the invasive plant
of the middle east, the kudzu vine,
the honeysuckle, poison ivy, something you really don’t want
growing in your yard, because it is bound to take over.
It was actually so invasive that there was a Jewish law 
that you couldn’t plant it in your fields
Mustard bush growing around two palm trees.
because it could infest your neighbor’s field.
It also grows so densely that it chokes other plants out.
SLIDE - Here is a mustard bush growing around two palm trees.

So the kingdom of God is not 
like a majestic cedar,
a mighty oak, a towering sequoia.
No, it’s like mustard seed, not a bad plant,
but a plant that just creeps 
and without anyone
even realizing it, it just takes over.
It’s true. The kingdom of God is not 
like other kingdoms.
It’s power is not in its physical strength,
or military, or financial strength.
It’s power is in its ability to sneak in
to change the human heart, to choke out the forces of
evil, apathy, hate, violence, and fear
and replace it with God’s values,
of compassion, mercy, and love.

Now I have to admit, sometimes as I preach
about parables like this, and about Jesus,
how his death and resurrection
has transformed the world, sometimes I wonder.
We’ve been at this for 2000 years.
Where is  Christ’s effect on humanity?
Where has Christ’s effect on history been?
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is here,
where is the kingdom of God?
Where is the mustard plant that is supposed to take over.
Because I think it seems like
things are getting worse, not better.

But remember, the Kingdom of God is sneaky.
It’s not just going to come like a giant tree,
like a dramatic swooping change that we would notice,
it’s a quiet invasion.

There was an article in Forbes magazine
last November, it was called
“Why the world is getting better
and why hardly anyone knows it”
Most people surveyed in any country
Sweden, the UK,  the US, overwhelmingly
said that the world was getting worse.
Like 90-95% of people.
And I think most of us would say the same thing,
the golden years are always behind us.
People are worse off, the injustice is deeper,
the violence is increasing.
It seems like the devil is surely winning this battle.

But, the article said, that our limited viewpoint
was misleading, if you pull back and look at the world
over a longer stretch of time,
on “virtually all of the key dimensions of human material well-being—
poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education—
the world is an extraordinarily better place
than it was just a couple of centuries ago.”

A far lower percentage of people in the world
are living in extreme poverty,
more people than ever are able to read,
in 1800, almost 43% of children died before they were 5.
Now it’s down to 4.2% of children.
In 1800 less than 1% of people in the world lived in a democracy,
a place where they could vote and have a say,
now that is up to 55% of the world.

Even in terms of violence,
Another article in  the Wall Street Journal says
that Violence has been in decline for thousands of years,
and today we may be living in the most peaceable
era in the existence of our species.

It’s slow progress, but that mustard seed is growing,
slowly it’s taking over. And I believe it’s because people
are growing in their compassion and empathy for others.
The devil is losing and Jesus plan of healing the world
is taking time, there is a lot to do, but it’s happening.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like things are getting better,
because we are more sensitive to things than ever before,
even if they don’t affect us personally.
We care about victims of violence,
we care about those in poverty,
we want to see all people are educated,
we care that others are healthy and free, more than ever before.
God’s ways and vision are becoming our ways and visions.
And the younger generations seem outdoing
older generations in the caring department.

And, since we care, because we hold God’s vision
and we’re frustrated that things
aren’t good and just and fair for all people.
Maybe that’s why it seems worse than ever,
because the mustard seed in our heart wants us to see
a world that is just and safe for all people.

Like when we hear about children
of immigrants being taken from their parents.
We may never meet these people,
We may not all be on the same page on
immigration laws and rights and what should be done,
but lots of people all across the board
know that this is wrong and have spoken out.
We can feel the pain of these parents and children,
that we’ll never meet, and our hearts are breaking for them.

And even though things seem terrible,
the outcry in itself is hopeful.
Because we know how the mustard seed is.

We know that heartbreak turns into action.
People are asking now, what can I do?
How can I change this? Where can I volunteer?
Where can I send money? How can we change the policy?
How can I comfort these children, these parents? What can I do?
Christians,  Jews, and Muslims,
atheist and agonistic all moved by their compassion.

As terrible as it may seem now,
we know that once that once that compassion
gets into our hearts, that God’s will is bound to be done.

And that’s how the kingdom of God works.
It’s like a mustard plant, a weed
that invades people’s hearts, that slowly takes over
with compassion and empathy, mercy, and love

Slowly we are caring about things that God cares about,
Slowly, until there are enough of us,
and until we’re motivated to change one thing,
then another and then one day,
God’s will is done, and the kingdom of God is here.

The kingdom of God is in the refugee resettlement groups,
it’s in the volunteers who work at shelters,
it’s in food pantries, it’s in justice work,
it’s in gifts of money, it’s in letters to congress
it’s in our prayers, our voices, our tears and discomfort.

It will take a long time, it won’t all happen in our lifetime,
but that plant is taking over,
God is changing this world from the inside out
starting with the human heart.

The kingdom of God is like this:
Jesus is that one little seed,
The seed gets scattered.
And God’s will grows and grows
and grows in the heart of humanity.
Without our knowledge, without our permission,
just one morning it’s there.
We don’t know how it grows, but one day,
we will reap the harvest that God has created.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Here are My Mother and My Brothers

Mark 3:20-35
June 10, 2018

This is a tough scripture today.
There are three bits that happen in the same conversation,
but almost seem unrelated,
they are often quoted separately to
support a whole variety of different things.

And right in the middle there’s
that  whole concerning piece about  the
on “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.
We believe in God’s forgiveness over everything,
 even Christ’s crucifixion, we have many texts to support that,
but as a pastor, people have come to me worrying
about this one passage.
That they maybe once said something that could
fall into this category or that their
daughter might be unforgivable because
she said that she doesn’t believe in God.

For the record, I think the short answer is “no”
in spite of this one passage, I think that
nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Not blasphemy or any of those other things
that people think are unforgiveable,
and since it’s come up in the news this week,
that includes suicide.
Nothing can separate us, or anyone,
Sermon on the Mount
Jorge Cocco Santangelo
from God’s love and I think that this
passage supports just that, in Jesus own confusing way.
So I’ll explain that now.

This is the third chapter of Mark,
pretty early in the whole story.
Just before this, which we read last week,
Jesus had a public protest when he  healed
someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath,
and the Pharisees decided for the first time
that they wanted to destroy him.

After that, Jesus  appointed his apostles
and he was embarking on a successful preaching tour
he’s getting well known among the people
and one of his stops is his own home town.
Jesus is home for the first time since he’s become someone.

And while he’s here in little old Nazareth,
things are not going too well.
It’s so crowded they can’t even eat.
And they’re attracting all sorts of strange people.
Sothe Nazarenes aren’t receiving Jesus well.
They saw Jesus grow up and now he’s talking
about all kinds of strange things,
they say that he’s gone crazy, insane, out of his mind.

And to top it off, the scribes have followed him
down from Jerusalem and are harassing him,
they agree with the assessment,
saying that he must be Satan himself,
the king of the unclean spirits.

And so Jesus’ family are trying to get him back in the house.
“Jesus, stop attracting attention,
stop  making the neighbors talk,
stop embarrassing us, you’ll  get us all in trouble,
I’ll  make you your favorite meal.
Just come in so no one can or hear you!”

His family can see the pattern already in process,
Jesus is being labeled as crazy,
they are going to make him the scapegoat
he’s going to be called unclean and expelled from the
community and the rest of his family with him.
It had been done many times before,
so they knew what it looked like.
It happened then and it happens now.
That’s what humans do to one another.
When things get stressful,
we try to maintain our purity and our safety
by keeping the dangerous ones out.
The theory is that if we just get the bad eggs
 outside of community the inside will
be clean and safe and pure.

And after it happens, then everything seems good for a while,
until the tension rises again, or something happens,
then we have to pick the next group to
curse and villainize.

The most obvious example of this
are what Nazi Germany did to the Jewish people.
But there are more  local examples,
we did it in WWII ourselves putting Japanese American
families in internment camps.
We do it with mass incarceration, and immigrants,
we do it with people with mental illness and poverty.
Just get them away from us and we’ll be fine.

And religion has done it repeatedly throughout history,
 in most recent years with gay and lesbian people and those
who identify with sexualities that are different from the norm.

The theory for some churches is,
if we could get “those people” out of here
or convert them and force them to change,
then we’d be righteous, more holy, more prosperous.

Which is akin to what happened in Jesus time
because to be separated from the community
was equal to being condemned, separated from God,
you didn’t have access to the methods of
repentance and forgiveness, if you were lost to the
community, you were lost to God.

And this process of labeling and expelling people is Satan at work.
Satan is not found in some place outside ourselves,
in a red suit with horns tempting us to smoke or eat cake.
Satan is found in human relationships gone wrong and destructive .
Satan’s objective is dividing people.
The word Satan in Hebrew means “accuser”.
Satan is at work when we  judge others,
When we make someone into the other and cast them out.
When we believe that we are like God knowing good and evil.
This is Satan’s work.

So the scribes accuse Jesus of being Satan,
saying that since he has the power over demons,
that he must be the chief of demons.
They’re trying to demonize Jesus,
even though in casting out demons,
Jesus is bringing people back into community.

So Jesus calls the scribes over, he tells them to come closer
join the conversation circle, and he asks them,
 “How can Satan cast out Satan”?

Of course the accuser in all of us
tries to cast out Satan all the time.
But Jesus tells them, this method of being a society cannot last.
If a kingdom is divided against itself ,
that kingdom cannot stand. Because:
 1.  in the end its not sustainable,
we will destroy each other if we keep up this way.
Which is just what the accuser wants. And
2. Satan’s kingdom won’t be able to stand because
Jesus is reordering the very social fabric of hate that Satan has created.

Jesus put himself into the position of the condemned,
God’s own son became the outcast the one who was
scapegoated, called unclean and unholy, and hung on a cross beside
two thieves, to show that no one is outside of God’s love.

Jesus compares himself to a thief.
He is breaking into the house of the strongman,
Satan, who he intends to bind,
and he will take the strongman’s property – US
release the strongman’s captives using  the Holy Spirit’s tools:
love, compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

And those who don’t believe in the power of the Holy Spirit,
who don’t believe in the absolute power
of love and forgiveness for everyone --
Those who still insist on accusing others and
believing that some are beyond God’s reach – like those scribes,
those are the ones that stand with Satan’s
world view, those are the ones that
blaspheme, or offend the Holy Spirit.

But watch out! Everyone is caught in this conundrum.
If we accuse those who we think are accusers,
and want to banish them out of our society, then who is the accuser?
 A house divided cannot stand.
As long as we label people bad or unholy, or unforgiveable,
unlovable or beyond the Spirit’s grasp ,
 we are caught in Satan’s own trap.

Satan’s game is a divided humanity.
As long as we keep dividing ourselves from others, Satan wins.

At the end of Jesus discussion with the scribes,
“A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him,
“Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 
They were still trying to get him safely inside.
And Jesus replied, looking at those who sat around him,
Including those religious scribes who he had called over
and he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”

We are all brothers and sisters.
Even those we disagree with most.
Jesus has come and the Strong Man will not have his way .
Satan will not rule this world any more.
God’s love will win.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Jesus Healing on the Sabbath: Non-Violent Civil Protest

Mark 2:23-3:6
June 3, 2018

The third commandment is:
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.
The interpretation of that is what we heard from
Deuteronomy today, that no work should be done
on the Sabbath day, outside of worship and rest.

Now in times like ours after Unions have done their work,
having one day’s rest or even two day’s doesn’t seem too unusual,
but to the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt –
where productivity was paramount over everything–
one mandatory day of rest for everyone, including
your children, and slaves, and animals, it was pretty radical
and a message to all those who were in power.

To be honest, it really put a hit on that bottom line.
Think of all the stuff you could get produced in one day.
Think of what wouldn’t get done on that Sabbath.
It really put things in perspective,
Even slaves and animals needed their rest.
It’s a good commandment and a merciful commandment.
Living things, and their well-being, counted more than the bottom line.

But, of course, time marches on and
in the hands of people, this good, merciful commandment
becomes a laborious chore rather than a gift.
People start getting in trouble for doing any type of work.
It starts to be an excuse to monitor people,
to catch them doing wrong.
Even Jesus and his disciples gets in trouble
for picking some grain to eat on the Sabbath day.
This causes the Pharisees to accuse him of
breaking the law and not being a good man of God.
When they do,
Jesus points out a story of King David which
we can find in 1 Samuel chapter 21.
In this story, David has been anointed by God,
but he’s not king yet, he is being chased by Saul
who is trying to kill him.

David goes to the priest in the town
and asks for some food to feed his soldiers,
but all the priest has is consecrated bread.
The priest decides that it was okay to give it to them.
As long as the men hadn’t “been with” any women.
David assured them that they hadn’t and he
lets him take it for them to eat.

Jesus uses scripture, the highly regarded
King David and a priest of old,
to say that certain demands of the law
were able to be put aside in favor of greater needs.
He reminds them, the Sabbath law and other laws
were made to serve humans.
Humans were not made to serve the Sabbath laws.

Today, religion is not, for the most part,
in charge of society, at least not ours,
but there are still laws and they still have the
same benefits and problems.
Rules are good, of course,
they help maintain a just and safe society.
But in human hands, laws can be used to oppress,
they can be levied arbitrarily and
they are often used to further punish
people who are already in unfortunate circumstances
and to oppress and control certain groups of people.
I was in court once for a traffic ticket,
The ticket was like $40, but the court cost
was almost three times that much.
For me and for other people who had money,
the ticket was a minor inconvenience, no big deal.
But for a lot of the people there,
who didn’t have as much money,
these minor offenses could be crippling.
Since they couldn’t pay the court cost,
they were stuck with old tickets on their record,
that never got paid, their licenses were suspended,
then they couldn’t get to work, to pay their tickets.
It was a revolving door of mounting problems
They can end up serving the law and nothing more.
And that is just one of the least offensive examples.

We have immigration rules that are
often applied arbitrarily depending on
the race or social status of the person.
And mothers are having their children
taken away from them at the border,
and given into foster care.

This week, I heard about two parents
who were arrested for giving their 15
year old son marijuana because it
was the only thing that helped his seizures
which he would have several times a day.
They were facing time in prison,
and their son was taken away from them.

A man who was released from prison
in 2016, who served 20 years on a drug charge,
who was a model prisoner, and became a model citizen,
was told after two years of freedom,
that he was wrongfully released,
and he has to go back into jail to serve another
10 years because of a technicality.

But a college student
who was caught and found guilty
of raping an unconscious woman
only received six months in jail
and was released after only three.

For the oppressed: the poor, people of color,
people of different religions – breaking the rules is a
threat to society, it’s heinous, it’s a crime against humanity --
the law’s hands are tied, we have to satisfy the justice system.

But when those in power, or those who are well off,
or of the dominant race or religion do the same,
there’s mercy in the court, there’s an extenuating circumstances,
the offender just gets their hands slapped
and the court makes exceptions.

For a lot of people, it seems like they are slaves to the law
instead of the laws serving the good of all the people.
And that’s why poor people and people of color are
often identified as law breakers in all societies.
The laws are unevenly working against them.

This is what Jesus and the disciples were confronted with
with the Pharisees. They were just eating some grain,
but the Pharisees thought that they should have
just gone hungry for the day, or they should have
prepared better for the Sabbath and collected it the day before.
But those kind of things are okay for people with leisure time,
but not for everyone.

The Pharisees caught them breaking the law
that was supposed to serve them.
Never mind that the Pharisees were obviously working that
day too trying to catch Jesus breaking the law,
having meetings, conspiring with Herodians.
That didn’t count. There were extenuating circumstances.
When Jesus goes to a synagogue and
a man is asking for healing from him.
The Pharisees watch to see what Jesus would do
would he put a religious law first,
or would he heal the man?

And right in front of the Pharisees he defies the law.
And at that, the Pharisees conspire with the Herodians
to get rid of Jesus, it says, they try to figure out how to destroy him.
Not just to arrest him or get rid of him, but destroy him.
The kind of non-violent civil action by people not in power
which drove the Pharisees to have Jesus killed.
Why does this raise so much 
ire and outrage?
That act by Jesus was a civil, 
non-violent protest,
a demonstration by a group not in power,
against a law that has become unjust.
And that makes people 
in power very anxious.
You can watch it happen all the time today.

Jesus was not just 
breaking the rule about Sabbath.
With his action, 
he was challenging their method
and means of control and oppression.
Their way of keeping the riff-raff and the thugs under control.
Their way of keeping their own privilege and power.

When the Pharisees were waiting there,
in the synagogue to see what he would do,
it says that Jesus looking around with anger
and he was distressed at their hardness of heart.
Nowhere else in the gospels does it say outright
that Jesus was angry, but here.
And we know that Jesus was not angry for himself,
he was angry for all the other people who were caught in the same traps.

And if Jesus is angry, we should be angry too.
As Christians, we aren’t called to be good little girls and boys
and follow and respect all the rules blindly.
We’re called to be good citizens,
looking out for the good of everyone.
We’re supposed to realize that sometimes rules
aren’t good or they’re not enacted justly.
That they don’t serve the people.

Jesus coming to us is a radical reorganizing of the way things are,
in favor of the way things should be. God’s way.
Christ inspires every new generation to confront
these rules and laws that don’t serve the people:
·         The Protestant Reformation confronting the tyranny of the church
·         The American revolution confronting the tyranny of England.
·         Abolitionists confronting the brutality of Slavery
·         The civil rights movement confronting the
horror of Jim Crow Laws in the US.
·         What will Christ inspire this generation to confront?
and the next?

Jesus starts by giving us the belief  that everyone is a child of God.
Everyone is worthy.
And Jesus inspires us to put human lives
before production, and before money, before governments
and institutions, and even before the rules.
Jesus does not want us to be slaves to any of these things.
We should only serve each other, and God.