Food, Grace, Abundance: A Sermon for Bread of Life Sunday #1

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
29 July 2018 + Lectionary 17B (Pentecost 10)
John 6.1-21


Last week, I preached a sermon about rest. In the midst of so much busyness and hurry and important but exhausting work, Jesus bids his disciples to come away and rest… And in the midst of our own lives — all the important but exhausting work we do — we hear echoes of our shepherd Jesus bidding us to come away and rest. Rest. Take care of your spirits and your bodies. The work of the gospel, proclaiming good news to the poor and the oppressed, is important — but so are we, bodies made in God’s own image, bodies God calls very good, bodies that need care.

And so in that sermon just seven days ago, I encouraged us to take time for ourselves, to rest, to recharge, to replenish our bodies. And yet, I must confess: Not five minutes after the final “Go in peace,” I was already out the door, off to work: driving to my office, taking a Lyft to the airport to pick up a rental truck, driving back to the office, loading up boxes upon boxes, and finalizing last-minute details for a conference the following day — work that kept me in the office for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, awake until nearly 1 AM that night, and nonstop on-the-go throughout the majority of the next day. In the midst of work, I took no time for myself, no time to notice the needs of my own body and spirit, no time to rest. Quite literally, I didn’t do a very good job of practicing what I preached.

Then on Tuesday morning, something happened. As I sat in the chapel on our retreat campus for day two of the conference I had been so hurriedly planning, our morning devotion leader invited us to ponder a relationship in our own life that had somehow shaped or transformed us. My mind went immediately to the church home I had found after college — a place that welcomed and embraced me for who I was, exactly as I was, no strings attached. The community that enveloped me in those two years helped me imagine a new way of being church together that was bold in our proclamation of the gospel, radically inclusive in our welcome of all people, and relevant in our Monday-through-Saturday lives. That community is, in many ways, the reason I am standing here today as a child of God called to be a pastor among God’s people.

Tuesday morning devotions invited me into a moment to pause, to reflect, to rest. Our devotion leader also invited us to recognize these relationships as experiences of abundant grace. Together we sang a short call-and-response refrain that became something of a theme for our time together this past week:

All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
All who are hungry, come here and eat.
All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
There’s enough for all.

Today’s gospel reading takes us on a detour from our year of Mark into the beginning of five weeks of John — reflecting on what it means that Jesus comes to us as the Bread of Life, or, to use a favorite word of John’s, abiding in these enigmatic texts for an extended time. But today, before we even get to Jesus’s declaration “I am the bread of life” (that comes later), we have a miracle of abundance. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story common to all four gospels, and I suspect that should tell us something about how significant this story is.

Before we try to figure out what this miracle means, I think what happened is just as important on its own: five thousand hungry people were fed — not in some spiritual sense — but with bread and fish, satisfying physical hunger. Karoline Lewis, a scholar on the gospel of John and a favorite theologian of mine, suggests that being literally fed, as Jesus does for the crowd, is a hallmark of the presence of God. She says, “Where people are fed, literally, is where you can expect to experience grace — see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.”

At the conference this past week, our time together was punctuated by meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day. Every day we ate together, and every day we talked with each other over meals — forming relationships and strengthening community by sharing food. Then on the last night of the conference, we gathered for a banquet, one final celebratory meal together, where we heard the stories of ELCA missionaries who have completed their service in countries around the globe. It was a sacred time to experience stories of what God is up to in the world through the missionaries of our church, a time to experience the abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and a time to eat a meal together.

The intertwining of God’s people, around food, experiencing grace in abundance.

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ELCA Summer Missionary Conference Banquet, Thursday, July 26, 2018 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

The first time I came here to preach, way back in May, which feels like ages ago, the fellowship hall was filled with USPS boxes overflowing with food collected for your food pantry, which I would later learn is one of the largest food pantries in your neighborhood, feeding your hungry neighbors in need. Every week that I’ve been with you since then, you have gathered as a community after the liturgy to share coffee and treats and catch up on one another’s lives. And every Sunday you meet, you gather around this table, to eat and drink and experience God’s grace given for you, shed for you.

Food and grace in abundance are the hallmark of God’s presence and living together in the community of the church.

The poet Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems, writes:

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

For now, this first of five Bread of Life Sundays, we rest, we abide, in the miracle — the abundance of loaves and fishes and grace. We don’t need to understand it, to analyze it, to spiritualize it. It is enough to experience it. Food and grace and abundance — taste and see that God is good.

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A Sermon about Rest

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
22 July 2018 + Lectionary 16B (Pentecost 9)
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56


What gives you rest?

Maybe it’s listening to your favorite radio station or podcast on your way home from work. Or coming home to a home-cooked meal (or having a pizza delivered!) and unwinding after a stressful or busy day. Or going for a run or long walk to take a deep breath of fresh air and gather your thoughts.

What gives you rest?

Whatever it is, we know: Rest is important.

Rest for our bodies is important.
Rest for our spirits is important.
Rest is important.

Jesus recognizes that.

So much has happened these past few weeks in Mark’s gospel. It’s been a turbulent, restless time for the disciples and for Jesus. Jesus’s teaching and healing have become wildly popular. People have been tracking him down and closing in on him from every side — physically. On his way to one place to visit a young girl near the point of death, we heard the story of a woman who approaches Jesus from behind, seemingly out of nowhere, to touch the fringe of his clothes in a desperate attempt to be healed.

From other stories these past few weeks, we also know that not all attention is good attention, either. Jesus’s family has already tried to restrain him, his religious community has accused him of being possessed by a demon, and he was even outright rejected in his hometown. All the while, Jesus commissions his disciples and gives them the authority to teach and heal and cast out demons — but he is also clear that they, too, will be rejected.

And then, last week, in a dramatic unfolding of events, Mark reports the gruesome and sudden death of John the Baptist, whose own message and ministry served as the forerunner to Jesus. Is Jesus next? Are we next? we might imagine the disciples asking.

These have been turbulent, restless times.

Now the apostles are gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all that they have been doing and teaching. Caught up in the excitement and commotion and busyness of everything, I imagine a cacophony of voices around Jesus, each one telling stories to everyone else. And in the midst of that, all of sudden, quiet: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

These are welcome words of rest in the midst of turbulent, restless times.

Rest is important, and Jesus recognizes that. For himself and for his friends.

Their work is important, to be sure — healing and proclaiming liberation and casting out the demons of injustice — but they’re no good to anybody, least of all themselves, if they get burned out and neglect to take care of themselves, physically and spiritually.

These past several weeks, I’ve been working at the ELCA Churchwide offices, coordinating a number of summer events. Just this past week, I emerged from the thick of one of orientation event, even as I was busy preparing for the next conference this coming week. With so many details to remember, materials to prepare, and emails to write, it wasn’t difficult to lose myself in a whirlwind of busyness — forgetting to tend to my own needs to rest and recharge, to eat, to have a cup of coffee, to have a conversation about not work with a colleague or a friend, to attend the Churchwide midweek chapel service, to breathe.

I suspect more than a few of you can relate. There is always so much, too much, to do. Never-ending emails and reports for work. An endless cycle of cleaning and housework when we know full well it’s just going to need to be done all over again soon enough. The anxiety of congregational life and programming, obsessing over every last detail before the events and programs we plan ever actually happen (maybe those of you who planned and helped with VBS this past week can relate?).

It’s in these moments we hear Jesus’s welcome words of promise: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

Get up from your desk and take a walk. The work will still be there when you get back.

Sit down on the couch and have a glass of water. The dusting and dishes can wait a few more minutes.

Take a deep breath and dwell in God’s presence around this table, at this meal, today, right here, right now, in this moment.

Rest is important. Rest for our bodies. Rest for our spirits.

Taking time for rest does not mean that we are ignoring the work that needs to be done, and taking time to care for our bodies and our spirits does not mean that we have failed. Just the opposite: It means we are ensuring the care of ourselves, our very bodies that God has made and called very good, to make sure that we can keep doing the work of the gospel.

Rest for our spirits is important. The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who himself never seemed to stop either, knew this when he included a stipulation for his co-workers in the cause of nonviolent resistance to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”

Rest for our bodies is important. Jesus knew this too when he pulled his disciples aside at a time when they had had no time even to eat a meal.

Rest is important.

Take time for rest. You can start today, even here, at this table. Take, eat, drink, rest.

Love That Won’t Let Go: A Sermon on Amos, Righteous Anger, and Tough Love

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
15 July 2018 + Lectionary 15B (Pentecost 8)
Amos 7.7-15


I have some bad news. I tried so hard to get a fantastic guest preacher for this morning, but Amos just wasn’t available. I know how much we were all looking forward to a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone, sinners-in-the-hands-of-angry-God sermon — so I’ll try my best.

Speaking of bad news, Amos is such a short book — only nine chapters — short enough to read in one sitting (which I would encourage you to do sometime) but not quite short enough to do so right now. So here come the CliffNotes…

First things first: We need to understand the trajectory of the Old Testament, essentially a history of ancient Israel. It’s not exactly the kind of history you would find in a textbook. There’s certainly more poetry, and there are details that biblical scholars have found to be puzzling, if not outright historically inaccurate. The history of ancient Israel in the pages of the Bible is more theological, more about what God is up to in the lives of God’s people, rather than a History Channel documentary.

Way back in Exodus, after God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land, it wasn’t long before Israel got itself in trouble — repeatedly. The pattern was predictable: When Israel would enjoy a time of peace, they got comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, even lazy. They started to ignore the laws God had given them to establish order and justice and promote the wellbeing of their neighbor, and they began to worship the gods of their neighboring nations. Inevitably, this would get them in some sort of mess with those nations, and they would cry out to God for deliverance, who would, inevitably, deliver them. And repeat…

Early in Israel’s history, that deliverance would come through “judges,” leaders that God would raise up specifically to help Israel when they got themselves in trouble. Later, Israel decided they wanted a king, to be like the other nations around them. Not entirely without irony, it’s being like other nations around them to begin with that constantly got Israel in trouble — so you can already start to see the problem here.

Israel’s history of kings was an uneasy one — each king evaluated based on how well they upheld the laws that God had given the people way back at Mt. Sinai, not long after their deliverance from Egypt, laws that were meant to govern how the people lived in relationship with God and, just as importantly, with one another. Laws, in other words, that were about justice and social welfare.

Enter the prophets. These were figures set up in stark contrast to Israel’s kings, whose job it was to challenge the king when he led the nation away from observing these laws of justice and social welfare.

To make a long story short, Israel’s period of monarchy ended even worse than it began: with a divided nation of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Soon, Israel would be conquered by Assyria, and not long after, Babylon would conquer Judah.

It’s in the midst of these turbulent latter days of the monarchy that we encounter Amos, a shepherd unsure of his own status as a prophet, but nevertheless faithful to God’s call. Amos came from the south, from Judah, but his prophetic career took him north to Israel. Amos’s message was clear. In the opening judgment against Israel, Amos declares: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way…” (2.6-7). Economic injustice and social inequality is the chief judgment leveled against Israel, and for this, God threatens to destroy them. (Like I said, good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone!)

The passage we heard read today comes in the latter half of the book, after Israel’s sin of neglecting social justice and promoting prosperity for the few at the expense of the many has been made clear. After all this, God shows Amos five visions of destruction. In the first, God prepares to send a plague of locusts and, in the second, a shower of fire. In both of these, Amos is able to intercede on behalf of Israel, and God backs down.

But in the third, finally, we get the plumb line. It doesn’t really matter if you know what a plumb line is because the vision of a plumb line is not actually a plumb line. The meaning of the word in the original Hebrew is uncertain. “Plumb line” is one translation. A better translation is “tin” — as in, one of the metals that makes bronze, the metal of choice for making weapons in the ancient world. So the vision is, more accurately, a huge pile of tin, a stockpile of materials to make weapons — essentially God declaring war on Israel. And in this vision, unlike the first two, Amos does not intercede. Israel’s sin is too much. Destruction is inevitable.

The final two visions confirm what the third suggests. In the first of these, God shows Amos a basket of “summer fruit.” Well, that sounds pleasant enough (almost like something that would go nicely in sangria!). But in the original text — and this is why you should all learn Hebrew — it’s a pun. The word for “summer fruit” sounds a lot like the word for “end.” Forget melons and mangoes (and sangria). This is a vision, yet again, of the inevitable destruction of Israel — a point made abundantly clear, in case the people haven’t been paying attention, in the final vision, in which God speaks orders of destruction directly. Destruction is inevitable.

So now what?

Immediately after the fifth vision, Amos ends with this: “On that day I will raise up the booth  of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it… I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them…” (9.11, 14). God promises restoration. Restoration presupposes that everything has indeed been destroyed, but it reminds us of the overwhelming message of the prophets, Amos included, indeed the message of the whole of Scripture: God’s final answer to God’s people is always yes, not no. Restoration, not destruction. Life, not death.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take God’s threats earlier in Amos seriously or take for granted that everything will somehow be okay in the end. As if to say, it doesn’t really matter because God will forgive us anyway and fix everything. The promise of restoration and life is inevitable and certain, but it shouldn’t be taken as a license to ignore and even perpetuate social injustice.

Theologian James Cone reminds us that even God’s wrath and anger are part of God’s love. God is not angry in the book of Amos for the sake of being angry. God is angry because God loves God’s people too much to ignore the ways we hurt and inflict pain on each other. Cone writes, “The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to liberation of the oppressed.” In other words, God’s righteous anger in the midst of so much human suffering, oppression, and injustice shows just how much God cares. God’s wrath is God’s love. Indifference to suffering, oppression, and injustice is not love; it’s apathy. God is not apathetic. God is angry because God cares for and loves God’s people too much to let us keep going on in the ways that harm our neighbors. Tough love, we might say.

Tough love — and unrelenting love. This is the promise of Amos, even amidst destruction: God’s love does not give up on us, even when we are guilty of sins that perpetuate systemic injustice at the expense of others’ humanity. This is the promise for us: God’s love does not give up on us, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how badly.

God’s love
does not,
cannot,
will not
let us go.


A Sermon about Rejection and the Persistent Love of God That Breaks Through Anyway (especially when and where we least expect it)

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
8 July 2018 + Lectionary 14B (Pentecost 7)
Mark 6.1-13


Rejection hurts.

No one likes being rejected.
Because rejection means exclusion.
And we’ve all experienced it.
Being rejected goes back as far as we have memory:
Being excluded from the “cool kids” lunch table.
Being chosen last for kickball at recess.
Getting the dreaded “no” when you finally muster up the courage to ask that special someone out.
Feeling alienated from family over differences in political views or religious beliefs.
Getting turned down for a job you were really hoping to get.

Rejection hurts.
It’s never a good thing,
and yet it’s a part of life.

Jesus knows something of what it’s like to be rejected.

We know that Jesus’s message wasn’t a hugely popular one among the authorities and the powers that be. We’re used to hearing that much: Jesus upsetting the status quo, threatening the power that “haves” had over the “have nots” in the ancient world, threatening to topple a brutal imperial regime and its oppressive social structures.

But what we don’t often remember is that Jesus was also rejected by his own family, by his own people, no longer welcome in his hometown.
Think about that for a minute—
Imagine what it’s like to be outright rejected or cut off from everyone you know and trust and grew up with and everything that’s comfortable and familiar and safe. I suspect some might not have to imagine all that much.

Rejection hurts.
And it’s a part of Jesus’s experience.
Jesus is no stranger to rejection, to exclusion, to being kicked out of his hometown, cut off from his own community. There’s a profound solidarity in that on its own.

It doesn’t take much probing to wonder what could have elicited such a strong rejection by Jesus’s own community. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, we heard the story of Jesus’s family coming after him to restrain him, accusing him of having gone out of his mind, even being possessed by a demon. His teaching and preaching and healing were all too much, too quickly. He was drawing too much attention to himself, causing too much of a scene. It’s embarrassing us, Jesus.

Even if his family and closest childhood companions were on board with his message, they knew it wasn’t going to be the most popular, that it wouldn’t end well for him. And truth be told, they were right.

There’s a resistance and a hesitancy to get fully on board with the message of the reign of God, the proclamation of God’s extravagant, boundless love for all of God’s creation. As Karoline Lewis puts it, “When we realize that this is a love over which we have no control, a love that will infiltrate the world like a persistent weed despite our best efforts to curb its spread, a love whereby we do not get to decide its objects, it seems less attractive than it did at first blush.”

Isn’t that most often the case?
Our need for control,
getting to decide who’s in and who’s out,
trying to set limits of the breadth and depth of God’s love?
The church has done it for centuries:
It’s as old as the debates over circumcision and clean and unclean foods among the early Christian church in the book of Acts.
It’s the stuff of ancient church councils that came up with the creeds we still recite today in worship.
It’s even part of the work of committees and synod and churchwide assemblies today.

Not that those things are inherently always bad, but they’re also part of our human need to contain the divine, somehow to box in what cannot be boxed in.

But that’s just the thing:
God’s love can’t be boxed in.
It can’t be controlled,
it can’t be tamed,
it can’t be pruned back…
Remember the mustard plant?
The kingdom of God is like an invasive species…
It pops up where we least expect it,
it takes over,
it threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear and violence and hate,
and replace it with God’s reign of equity and love and justice-seeking peace.

But there’s a certain resistance to that, even among those of us who should know better.
It’s a popular joke that church people don’t like change, but there’s a lot of truth to that, too.

It’s too much, too quickly.
it’s drawing too much attention.
It’s causing too much of a scene.

So we reject it outright.
Not yet, or maybe after another committee meeting, or council vote, or congregational survey…
We reject change.
We resist the stirrings of the Spirit pulling us into new directions, more expansive ways of doing ministry and being the church, ever bolder, if not riskier, ways of proclaiming the boundless, limitless love of God in Christ Jesus.

But the love of God can’t be contained.
The message of Jesus can’t be boxed in.

Even amidst rejection,
even in Jesus’s hometown,
even in our own churches and denominations…

Even there, the gospel writer says, Jesus could do no deeds of power… except (did you catch it?) to lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. Even there, Jesus could no deeds of power, except—he kind of could.

Even amidst rejection,
God’s love cannot be contained.

Even in the face of resistance, the power of God’s life-changing, world-altering, table-turning, status quo-toppling love for the sake of the life and wholeness of all cannot be stopped.

Nevertheless, God’s love persists.

A Sermon about Healing, Subverting Boundaries, and the Promise of Restoration to Community

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Edgebrook Lutheran Church, Chicago
1 July 2018 + Lectionary 13B (Pentecost 6)
Mark 5.21-43


“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” Those are, of course, Judy Garland’s, aka Dorothy Gale’s, famous words from The Wizard of Oz as she takes her first steps in Munchkinland. Those words have also become somewhat of a rallying cry for anyone who finds themselves all of a sudden in a strange and different place.

“I have a feeling we’re not in seminary anymore…” I’d like to imagine I said to myself, as I walked the halls of the Cleveland Clinic during one of my first overnight shifts as an intern hospital chaplain in between my first and second years of seminary. Suddenly, this was real life ministry. Suddenly, this whole being a pastor thing wasn’t some far-off idea I only read and studied and talked about in classes. Suddenly, I was doing it.

During my summer internship as a chaplain, it was not an infrequent occurrence to be on my way to one call to visit a patient when another page to visit someone else would come in. In a way, you might say I could relate a bit to Jesus in our gospel reading today, being on his way to see Jairus’s daughter on her death-bed, already stressful enough, as this other woman comes up to him suddenly, and all of this in the midst of a tremendous crowd that just won’t leave him alone. It’s like the chaplain’s pager just won’t stop beeping.

“Jesus, I have a feeling we’re not in the parables anymore…” Suddenly, this is real life in Jesus’s ministry — not some theoretical parable or abstract teaching, but an actual story with actual people with actual needs for healing — all pressing in on him at the same time. No wonder the disciples respond to him sarcastically: “Who touched you?! You’ve got to be kidding us! Literally everyone! Literally everyone wants in on this healing thing you’ve got going on, that you can’t even get to one person without another coming after you.”

Suddenly, we’re not in the “safe” world of parables and stories anymore — the “safe” world of abstract concepts and textbooks and seminary classroom and bible study discussions. These are real people, coming to Jesus with real problems, real brokenness, real needs for healing.

It’s easy to fall into the dangerous trap, when talking about healing stories in the gospels, of putting our focus on the physical healing. A trap because it’s not really the point, dangerous because it only leads us to question why healings like that don’t seem to happen anymore.

In this pair of healing stories, the emphasis is much more on what the healings mean. Jairus is deeply grieved over the very real possibility of losing his daughter, being separated from his family. The hemorrhaging woman is exasperated, having exhausted every attempt for medical treatment for a condition that has left her as an outcast, cut off from her own community. When Jesus offers healing to them, he restores them to community. That’s what healing in the gospel is all about: restoration to community.

Healing restores people to community.
Healing brings wholeness to a woman plagued with an alienating, debilitating illness.
Healing brings a little girl back to her family.
Healing brings life where life seems to have died.
Healing brings wholeness where there is brokenness.
Healing brings restoration to community.

Where life seems to have died… where there is brokenness… where there is community in need of restoration…

Healing on these terms is desperately needed if we just look around at our world:

An immigration policy that separates children from their parents.
An executive order that claims to stop family separation but only ensures that parents as well as their children can be detained indefinitely. (Oh, but it’s okay, at least they’re together, right?)
A Supreme Court decision that allows for our country to deny entry to people simply because of their religion.

We desperately need this life-giving, wholeness-seeking, community-restoring healing.

This is the healing that Jesus offers in the gospel. And just as important is where this healing happens. Time and again, Jesus stands on the cusp of boundaries. After the stormy sea adventure last week, Jesus crosses over into the land of the Gerasenes to heal a man possessed by demons. In our reading today, Jesus crosses back over to the other side of the lake. And on his way to one family, another woman approaches him in the in-between place from starting point to destination. Crossing over, on the way, in the midst of the journey — Jesus is perpetually found at these boundary places.

Boundaries, or borders, we might say, keep some people out and other people in. There’s a certain security about borders, an alluring sense of protection, but at what cost?

Borders separate.
Borders divide.
Borders exclude.
Borders alienate.

But Jesus chooses to subvert borders and boundaries. He crosses over to one side of the lake and back again. He doesn’t let one healing get in the way of another. Instead of letting borders and boundaries have the final say, Jesus stands in the midst of them and offers healing that unites, that restores community, that promotes inclusion.

One of my favorite religious icons shows Jesus as an immigrant, his hands holding on to a barbed wire fence. It’s a powerful image that promises Jesus’s presence with those who suffer, those who are separated from their loved ones by borders and boundaries of all kinds, those who are in need of community-restoring healing. But the most intriguing part of this image is the unknown: We don’t really know what side of the border Jesus is standing on. And that’s exactly how Jesus subverts boundaries, by dwelling in the midst of them, offering healing and wholeness and restoration to community, revealing the absurdity and insecurity of the ways we divide ourselves from each other.

In the midst of life drained of itself, in the midst of irreparable brokenness, in the midst of isolation and severed community, Jesus stands at the boundaries, and reaches across with healing, with wholeness, with life abundant, with the promise of community.

A Sermon about How the Kingdom of God Is Like an Invasive Species

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
17 June 2018 + Lectionary 11B (Pentecost 4)
Mark 4.26-34


When I was growing up, I remember this giant turquoise planter in my grandma’s backyard, nestled right in the corner of the fence. Every year, it would blossom into the most gorgeous morning glories. They never just grew like normal flowers, though, but  would actually take over the fence, to the point where it was nearly impossible to see the chain-link underneath.

One year, when grandma had had enough — because, let’s be honest, morning glories are beautiful but they’re a pain to weed out of a chain-link fence at the end of the season — she dumped out the planter and scrubbed it clean. Morning glories no more! Or so she thought… until they came back the very next year, taking over her fence all over again.

The kingdom of God is like a planter full of morning glories that takes over the garden. Even when you try to get rid of it, it’s still there.

Jesus, too, uses a lot of strange metaphors to talk about the kingdom of God in the gospels. The kingdom of God is like someone who sows seed… is like yeast… is like a treasure… is like a merchant searching for fine pearls… is like a net thrown into the sea…

Parables, Jesus calls them, a word that literally means to throw alongside — stories that are thrown alongside our own lives, our own reality, to make some spiritual principle Jesus is trying to convey seem easier to grasp… except it almost always needs explaining and might even make the original point more difficult to understand.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Along with the parable of the seed that grows by itself, these are Mark’s only two parables about the kingdom of God. Maybe Mark just wasn’t as creative as the other gospel writers, or maybe he missed a few days of Jesus’s teaching… or maybe, this is all he needed to say about the kingdom of God.

Mustard plants were, basically, like weeds where Jesus lived. They were hardy, they could grow nearly anywhere with minimal human effort to keep them alive, and they were big and difficult to get rid of.

The kingdom of God is like an invasive species. Now, invasive species, as we know, are not typically, if ever, considered a good thing. Whether animals or plants or even their eggs or seeds, invasive species, by definition, are non-native species that actually cause harm to their environment. They grow and reproduce quickly and spread aggressively. I’m no botanist, but it sounds a lot like a mustard plant to me.

And the thing about an invasive species is that it’s almost always perceived as hostile and a threat to its environment.

This past week, I have to say I was a bit surprised and perplexed to hear that separating immigrant families from each other at the border is, at least according to some, “biblical.” It’s “biblical,” they say, to enforce and to obey the laws of the government — laws that would and are ripping away children, most under the age of 13, from their parents and treating them all as criminals.

I don’t know what Bible they’ve been reading, but the one I know tells very a different story: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… (Ex 22.21). The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself… (Lev 19.34). Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice… (Deut 27.19). Do no wrong or violence to the alien… (Jer 22.3).

Clearly, Jesus stands in a long religious tradition of justice and equity for the alien, the foreigner, and all who are perceived as “non-native,” outsiders who are seen as hostile and threatening. This tradition of justice is the message of the kingdom of God.

When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come near, it is itself threatening because it seeks to subvert and dismantle the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of the empire, the kingdom that normalizes injustice, fear, and criminalizing people because of where they come from or who they are. Like an invasive species, the kingdom of God threatens the very viability and survival of the kingdom of the empire.

Not all invasive species are bad. In the natural world, researchers have found that certain invasive species actually benefit their ecosystems: butterflies in California that feed on non-native plants, non-native trees that have helped restore pasturelands in Puerto Rico, even the infamous non-native zebra mussel that helps filter toxins from lakes.

And what happens when the environment the so-called invasive species is in is itself hostile and the real threat? Well, that sort of flips the tables, doesn’t it, and subverts what we mean by invasive and threatening.

In the context of the hostile kingdom of the empire, the kingdom of God is one invasive species to be welcomed.

In a hostile kingdom that separates families, that oppresses the other, that respects “law and order” more than human life and dignity, the kingdom of God invades. It comes perceivably out of nowhere, when and where we least expect it, and it spreads like wildfire, without regard for borders or boundaries. The kingdom of God is an invasive species that threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear.

The status quo might seem insurmountable, but it is surely under threat because the kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God happens whenever God’s justice and God’s love are made known in places that are  innately hostile toward it. And like the seed that sprouts and grows on its own, the kingdom of God happens and is happening — no matter what.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is here — not that it’s coming someday or that it will be here soon. The kingdom of God is here, is now, is in our midst, threatening and dismantling the status quo, even at this very moment.