Biodiversity & The Kingdom

This spring, I spent a couple weeks digging. Whenever I had a free hour, I was to be found in my back yard, digging. By the time I was through, I had dug the sod out of a new bed, about 55 feet long and 4 or 5 feet wide. We got a couple yards of black gold compost mix from Hillerman’s and dug that into the red Missouri clay that largely makes up the soil of our back yard, and then we started planting. We transplanted a sad lilac bush from the front yard, and divided a few irises, and then we went to the native plant sale over at Shaw Nature Reserve and filled the rest of the bed with native perennials. We watered them in and began to wait. This is pretty much in keeping with my tendency – each year that I live somewhere, I dig up and plant a new bed. Last year it was our vegetable garden, which then managed to produce a bunch of tomatoes but little else. This year I had a longing for flowers. So we planted coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and asters. So far, things have sort of grown in fits and starts. It hasn’t helped that there has been so little rain this year. Or that the rabbit crop seems to be outstripping any other crop, and stripping many of our little plant friends of every leaf they produce. But the main thing that we seem to have achieved with all of our planting efforts this year is not the growth of veggies or flowers. So far, we have a couple cucumbers, a pepper or two, and one little purple coneflower. But what we have seen is a huge shift in the animal life in our yard. And not just rabbits, though they are plentiful. We have seen more birds and butterflies and bees in the last month than we saw all of last year. A few native plants seem to be the invitation that the flying critters had been waiting for. A place to land, some familiar smells, and some large branches, so that the birds of the air can make a nest in their shade.

In one of the parables that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading, he compares the Kingdom of God with a mustard seed which grows into a great shrub, which becomes a place where the birds of the air can nest. It’s a lovely image, and we can draw all sorts of lessons from it. You’ve probably heard them before – either that you need to tend your faith, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, so that it can grow into something big that will help even the birds of the air find shelter; or the nicety that good things can come from small beginnings, so don’t be discouraged by…fill in the blank: children, don’t be discouraged by how small you are; poor people, don’t be discouraged by how little you have; Peace Lutheran, don’t be discouraged by the size of our congregation. And those are fine interpretations, and probably even helpful applications, in certain circumstances, of Jesus’ wisdom teachings. But the Kingdom of God? That’s a little more complicated. One scholar I came across said, if you think the parables are painting you a pretty image of the Kingdom, you’re probably reading them wrong.

So let’s take a look at that mustard plant. A mustard plant is useful, medicinal, even desirable in some gardens. But most varieties of the mustard plant were more along the lines of, say, kudzu or ivy or scotch broom or morning glory, depending on where you’re from. It was not a plant that you put in your garden. You didn’t have to. It was going to show up on its own. In the Pacific Northwest, no one in their right mind would plant morning glories or blackberries. You spend most of your gardening time trying to get rid of them, because they will invade and take over any space left untended, and you cannot get rid of them for love or money or Roundup. What is it around here? That invasive honeysuckle? Trumpet vine? Something else? Anyway, that’s the mustard plant that Jesus is talking about. It’s got its uses, it might even be helpful or pretty at times. But mostly, if it chooses to move into your garden, you’ve got trouble.

And the Kingdom of God is like that. huh.

I don’t think I like the sound of that. I’d rather think that the Kingdom of God is something that we plant, and cultivate, and tend, until it grows how we want, and where we want; until it yields the fruit that we want, for the people that we want. I’m afraid that we have a tendency to want to control the Kingdom of God, and dole out salvation for our chosen ones. So that when we come to the Table, when we gather around the body and the blood, we see faces that make us comfortable, that reassure us about our own righteousness – that paint a picture of God’s chosen people, in which the inhabitants of the Kingdom look and sound and act a lot like us. The Kingdom of God is like…a cultivated garden, where everything goes exactly according to the plans of those who tend it. Oh. Wait. How did it go again? The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a sower sowing seed all over the place, and some fell on the path, and the birds ate it, and some fell on rocky ground and came up too quickly, and was scorched by the sun, and some fell among thorns and was choked out, and some fell on good soil and grew. The Kingdom of God is like grain that grows but the farmer doesn’t know how. The Kingdom of God is like mustard seed that grows invasively, choking out the rest of the garden and taking up all the land, so that we can’t grow anything else.

Well, let’s ask David what it’s like. Or Saul, or Moses, or Jonah, for that matter. Because they know what it’s like to be God’s chosen, they know what it’s like when God’s Kingdom, God’s in-breaking reign, places you squarely at the center. And what it is like, is trouble. No wonder Jonah ran. No wonder Moses asked to be let out of the contract. No wonder Saul went a little crazy. No wonder we try to tend it and cultivate it to be what we want, to groom what we choose instead of letting ourselves be chosen. When God chooses, God’s Kingdom, God’s mustard plant, moves into your garden, and it is not the end of your troubles. It is the beginning. And poor little David, poor handsome young David, with his beautiful eyes, he might have been better off if God had left him alone; if he could have stayed there tending the flocks, instead of being God’s anointed. Because from the moment that the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, his life was nothing but trouble – he had giants to slay, he had battles to fight, he had a throne to win, he had a kingdom to rule, not to mention all of his own personal faults and pitfalls that led him into infidelities and betrayals and other troubles, all in the public eye, so that his sins are still remembered 3000 years later. Ask any Jew, being God’s chosen, being under the kingship of God, praying for God’s Kingdom to come, that’s asking for trouble. As Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof said, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

So is it a comforting image? or a troubling one? Knowing that God has chosen you, has planted you in God’s garden, not to tend the garden, not even to be tended, but to grow wild and free, so that in you the Kingdom takes hold in surprising ways. Knowing that in you, the Kingdom is breaking in, even in the midst of your brokenness and pain; that in you, God’s reign is taking hold and breaking new ground. Not because you made the  journey to God, not because you made yourself worthy of God. But because God became one of us, journeyed into our world, bringing God’s Kingdom, God’s reign, and God’s righteousness, right here, right into the midst of this broken world. Because in you, God’s chosen, God decided to plant the Kingdom here. And it seems impossibly small. And it seems impossibly impotent. Because most of the time this world seems to be everything. The harshness of this world seems to encompass all: splintered relationships, wasting bodies, addictions, disease, wars, death, everything that would lead us to believe that God holds no power in this world. All of this seems to choke out this in-breaking Kingdom, and that tiny seed that has been planted looks to be doomed to fail. And we, who have seen where the seed was planted, we think we ought to be able to cultivate it, we ought to be able to do with it what we want – to dig our garden and tend our soil and prepare the beds to look the way we want. And that little seed surprises us all. It grows where it is not wanted, and it grows in ways that we wish it wouldn’t. It takes over in surprising places, and invites in surprising guests. Like the garden in my backyard, the seed of the kingdom rarely looks like we hope it will. But if we wait and watch, we will find that it moves and grows in ways that we had never guessed possible. We find people we never expected to break bread with, sitting next to us in worship, kneeling beside us at the altar. Just think, at the beginning of this chapter, in the parable of the sower, the birds of the air were pests – they were the ones who picked up the seeds that the sower had sown, and kept them from growing where they were intended. And yet here those same birds are, nesting in the shade of the Kingdom. And try as we might to force it to be what we want, to grow where we want, to shade who we want, the Kingdom of God is not ours to control. And that is indeed good news.

Adiaphora, or how the Kingdom is God is like a Reuben sandwich at the Ol Stuga

What makes a sandwich? I mean, I know that you have a favorite sandwich – Susan Woodcock and I shared a really good Reuben in Lindsborg, KS, on Thursday. Anything with bread & butter pickles on it is good to me. But what makes a sandwich a sandwich?  In spite of what the people at Miracle Whip want you to believe, there are only a couple of things required for a sandwich to be a sandwich, and Miracle Whip is not one of them. The only things absolutely required to make a sandwich are bread, and something to go on it. What you put on it, how you dress it up, all the fixins and whatnot, that’s all extra. But what makes a sandwich a sandwich is having two slices of bread. Sometimes my kids have a butter sandwich – two slices of bread with nothing but butter in the middle. Or a peanut butter sandwich – two slices of bread with peanut butter. Sometimes they add jelly, sometimes honey. Sometimes I add banana and potato chips between the bread. But without two slices of bread, it’s just not a sandwich – you might make an open-faced sandwich with one slice of bread, but that’s got a modifier, doesn’t it? It’s not really a sandwich, it’s a specialty, a modified sandwich. Two slices of bread make a sandwich, and you can add to it whatever makes you happy.

So what makes a nation? The people of Israel have hit a crossroads of sorts and they have decided that it’s time to ask that question. How do we know we’re a nation? Ever since Mt. Sinai, they have had a leader, but it’s always been someone who has risen up from among the people and led them for a time a of need. From Moses to Samuel, they have had a series of judges, charismatic leaders who come forward as need arises, who lead them in battle when they need a battle commander, who settle disputes when disputes need settling, who call them back to the ways of God when they stray. And for most of their history, they have been busy struggling for survival, so they haven’t had time to deal with this question – what makes us a nation? What made them a nation was their common cause of survival and their common ancestry as the twelve tribes of the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel.

But now, they have a little bit of a reprieve. Their external enemies are busy with internal problems, so no one is bothering them, no one is threatening to invade or plunder. They have a little breathing room, time to assess, time to think about who they are and what they want. And they’ve decided. They want to be a nation like all the other nations. And what makes a nation? A king. To be a nation, you need a king. So they go to Samuel, who has been their leader, but who is getting on in years, and they say, “You’re old, and we don’t like your kids, so give us a king.” But what they’ve forgotten is that they already have a king – the people of Israel are not like other nations – other nations have earthly kings, they have sworn fealty to earthly sovereigns, owing allegiance, as well as taxes and service, to these kings. But the people of Israel have God, their heavenly sovereign, they have a covenant with God alone. And because of this, they have lived in freedom – they owe allegiance only to God, and to one another, according to the law of the covenant, the law that was given so that they might live together in freedom. And now they have asked for a king – they have asked to turn their freedom over to someone else, they have asked to give up their freedom. And why? because they want to be like everyone else – because all the other nations have kings, and we want a king because we want to be like the other nations.

Through Samuel, God replies: look, if you want a king, that’s fine, but here’s what it’s going to mean: he’s going to take your stuff: your land, your produce, and your sons, all to fuel his thirst for power, and his quest for empire – like kings everywhere else, like nations everywhere, he will make you slaves. And you will cry out because of your king. In other words, God says, If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you? And the people all say, “heck yeah! that’s what we want! we want to be like everyone else!  we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” They trade all their troubles in for a whole new set of troubles, all the while forgetting their true king, forgetting to trust the One who has promised to be their salvation, who has already been their salvation, who has brought them up out of Egypt, who released them from slavery and gave them their freedom, and here they are, ready to throw all of that away, prepared to submit again to slavery, because everyone else is doing it. The people of Israel confused the bread with the rest of the sandwich. They were already a nation, because God had made them into one, God had given them their identity, claimed them as God’s own people, and set them up to care for one another – they had the bread all along. But they thought that what made the sandwich was what went inside – they thought a nation was more about a system of government, wealth, and empire. And so they threw away the bread, just to get at the stuff inside, and nearly lost the whole sandwich in the process.

So what makes a church? What is the bread of our church-y sandwich, and what is the Miracle Whip and the bread & butter pickles and the other extras? Does the building make us the church? Does the name? Is it the candles, or the hymnals, or the paraments? What is it? And what are we willing to give up for our beliefs, dare I say our illusions, about what the church is?

I want to teach you a word – a few of you may have heard it before, but I’m going to teach it to you again. The word is adiaphora. Adiaphora. It means “indifferent things.” This is a word that comes out of our Lutheran Reformation history, a word that Luther used to talk about what makes the church the church. And when it comes down to it, what we usually wind up spending most of our time and most of our energy debating, is adiaphora. Indifferent things. Candles, paraments, the arrangement of the chairs, the songs we sing, whether we sing at all, these are all indifferent things. Because, as it turns out, the bread of our sandwich has been given to us, handed down to us over the centuries, from the time of Christ himself, and it is only two things – the Word and the Sacrament. That’s what makes us the church – the Word is promised to us – wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Christ, the Word of God, has promised to be with us. And the Sacrament – by virtue of your baptism, you are made a minister in the church, by virtue of your baptism, you are a member of the Body of Christ, and each week as we gather around the Table, around the Sacrament, we acknowledge and remember and remind one another that, in the face of everything else, in the midst of all of the grief and pain and suffering and everything else that the world throws at us, we have been set free – free from the demands of the world, free from the expectations – of what it means to be a nation, of what it means to be a church, of what it means to be me. The recipe is ours to make – as Paul writes to the Galatians in my favorite verse in all of Scripture: “For freedom Christ has set you free, stand firm, therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” We are free. In fact, you are free. Free to be who you have been made to be, not to be who the world would make you. Not what you “ought” to be, or what you “should” be; not what is good and proper, or what would make everyone think you were perfect or the best. We have a tendency to listen to the voices of the world, to mistake the expectations of society for the bread of our sandwich – we think that who we are is what we own, what power we wield, what station we hold – and we forget that the bread has been given to us. Your identity is in Christ, won for you by Christ, and bestowed on you through the water and the word, through the bread and wine and the word – through the Word and the Sacrament that draws you into the Body of Christ, where you are born anew in freedom to be what you have been made to be. The bread that you receive at the table today, the bread and the wine of new life, that is what makes the sandwich of you. Everything you add to it, that’s your own, and you are free, because of the bread you have been given by Christ, to do with it whatever you want and need to do.

In the same way, we as Peace Lutheran are free – free to decide what makes the church for us in this time, and in this place. We gather around the Word and the Sacrament, and we share those with one another, and everything else is adiaphora. Everything else is ours to decide. Our freedom has been won for us – why would we throw it away on what someone else tells us is required to be the church?

So what do you want on your sandwich? And perhaps more importantly, what do our neighbors want on their sandwich? What do they need from their sandwich? How might we be the church here and now in a way that this place and these people have never seen before, have never dreamed possible? Because we have the opportunity to provide it for them. We are not required to be the church in any way except the way that meets the needs of our neighbors. What is it? We are free! Free to be the church whenever and wherever and however the church is needed. Is it serving a meal? Is it providing space for a garden? Is it opening our building to our community? Is it different worship styles? Is it taking our worship to the streets? Go ahead! dream! dream big, dream small, dream outside the box, dream crazy if you want! We might look crazy when we start dreaming about church done different. After all, the scribes thought Jesus was possessed by the devil, and his own family thought he was off his rocker. They showed up to drag him home, like an embarrassing drunk uncle at the family wedding, “just sit down and take a nap Uncle Eddie, and everyone will forget about this episode by the next reunion.” So we might look crazy when we start really asking what makes us the church – after all, the gospel tends to look incredibly foolish to the world, just as freedom, true freedom, always does. But what would be truly crazy, what would be truly foolish, would be to throw away the freedom that has been won for us, to submit ourselves to the slavery of what “ought” to be, how we “ought” to behave, how we “ought” to be the church, just because everyone else is doing it that way.

…in Three Movements

Movement 1) The Creator & Paper Airplanes

Just when we think we know what God’s deal is, God reminds us that there is a lot more to God than whatever we think we can pin down. More vast than we can really imagine, so vast that the hem of God’s robe, the tiniest portion of God, fills the Temple, a space itself so huge that it takes up the entire top of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Yet we still tend to think we can nail this God’s robe down, claim that we have cornered the market on God, that ours is the only temple that God’s robe will touch. Like Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who, like all Pharisees, knows exactly what God expects, and how to earn God’s favor. So here he comes, sneaking in to see Jesus by night, claiming he’s got Jesus figured somehow. “Rabbi, we know. we know who you are. we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” And Jesus’ response is basically to say, “oh you think so? well, just what is it you think you know?” And faced with God incarnate, Nicodemus is forced to look at his shoes and mumble, “Um. Well. Nothing.” Nothing Jesus says makes any sense to him, so that finally, almost in frustration, Jesus blurts out, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

So preoccupied with the rules of what can and can’t be, Nicodemus misses what is – God with us – sitting right in front of him is Jesus, the Son of the Father, telling him that God is more interested in creating something new each day; that God is working in the here and now; that God is dropping down out of the heavens, so that each person can be born from above; not because this is what we have to do, in order to earn God’s love, but because this is what God does, this is how a Creator works, the One who loves the world in just this way – that God’s judgement of the world is not condemnation, but creation, new from old, life from death, restoration and renewal from brokenness and need.

Isn’t that always the way with us humans. We pick the part of God that suits us, that meets our own needs, and we run with that. Whether it’s the God of law and judgement, the God of transcendence, the God of power and might, terrifying the socks off of us, so that even the Seraphs in attendance are screaming, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” as in Holy expletive, this God is terrifying! Or whether it’s the God of love and redemption, the God of resurrections, the God who so loved the world, the God of promise and presence, the God who is moving toward us. Somehow, like Nicodemus, we have a way of deciding what God suits us, and making that God the center of all we do. As if we get to decide God’s priorities. As if we could parse God into bite-size pieces that we can stomach.

But what we have is a God that’s bigger than any one image, any one view, any one story. We have a God whose very name is the story of all creation; a God who invites you into that story, who will welcome Sean Patrick Stewart into that creation in a few minutes, through the waters of baptism, to be named as one created, and to become a co-creator with his Father in heaven.

You have a sheet of paper that was given to you. I want to invite you to get creative with it. Make a paper airplane. Whatever paper airplane you know how to make. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it can be. It doesn’t have to be perfect, unless you tend towards perfectionism. Just have fun creating for a minute. While you do that, I’m going to go on to the second movement of this sermon.

Movement 2) The Redeemer & The Classified Ads

In some newspapers, there is a section that lists unclaimed payments, refund checks, and inheritances. I think there’s even a website where you can search to see if you have money sitting out there somewhere, left to you by some long-lost relative that you never even knew you had. And the reading from Romans today, this passage that Paul wrote 2000 years ago, this is that section – this is the section in the Bible that lists the unclaimed inheritance.

Paul sets the stage for this notice by letting us know where we stand at the outset. From the beginning, by virtue of being broken people living in a broken world, we are like slaves in a master’s household. According to the law, that is, if we are going to measure ourselves before God and one another according to our ability to live up to the law, then we are going to fail. We are going to fall short. We are not going to be able to keep the letter of the law, no matter what the Pharisees like Nicodemus may think. It’s just not possible. And in an ancient court, if you’re found irredeemably guilty, as we obviously would be (as we confess weekly), then you can be sold into slavery. So, if we are going to be dealt with by God according to the law, then we are in trouble. If the law is the only standard by which God operates, then we are in fact condemned to slavery, and everything that goes with it. Which, in the ancient world means that you have no legal standing, no legal rights, not even legal parenthood or childhood. You might have biological children, but you do not have legal children. You might have biological parents, but you will never stand to inherit anything other than slavery from them – no money, no name, no rights, nothing. Your only identity is, and can only ever be, that of a slave. According to the law, this is the condemnation that we are entitled to.

But Jesus just told Nicodemus, didn’t he, that the Son of God was sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. So God is not operating under the legal system. God has something else in mind – for you; for me; for the world. And here is the unclaimed inheritances section of this paper – you, though rightfully a slave, you have been chosen for adoption. And not just any adoption, but an adoption that will make you a co-heir to the Kingdom of God; an adoption that gives you all the authority and power of Christ himself. By virtue of your baptism, though you have never lived a sin-free life as Christ did, though you never endured temptations in the desert, though you have never turned yourself over to death on a cross, you have inherited a full share of everything that Christ earned by his own life, temptation, suffering, and death. This is what Sean Patrick will receive in the waters of baptism: a full and equal share with Christ in the Kingdom of God.

Which means that you and Sean are in a rather incredible position. Where you were once nothing more than a slave according to the law, with no hope of ever becoming more than that, you now have the opportunity to claim that inheritance, and all the authority that goes with it. And not only to claim it, but to share it! Because not only is your name there on the list of those who might claim this inheritance, but so is the name of your neighbor, of your friend, of your spouse, of your child. Whether they are a Christian or not, whether they have ever been baptized or not, whoever they are, and whatever they have done, they stand to receive a full and equal share of the Kingdom, with all the rights, privileges, and yes, responsibilities, that go with it. But maybe they’ve forgotten. Maybe they have encountered obstacles on the way to claiming it: pain, grief, shame; maybe they’ve been told they’re not good enough; maybe they have been sent off in a different direction by the twists and turns of life. Maybe they need to be reminded. And that is a part of your inheritance. You, yes, you have been given the keys to the kingdom, so that you can open the door, because you have the authority to declare to each person that they have not inherited the spirit of slavery, but the spirit of adoption.

So I want you to turn to the person next to you and tell them, in case they have forgotten. Tell them the words that are in your bulletin, in the second reading, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery, but a spirit of adoption.” And then, to remind yourself of your own authority, I want you to draw a picture of a key somewhere on your airplane, while I go on to the third and final movement of the sermon.

Movement 3) The Mover & Flight

So we have a God who is at work every day, creating new from old, life from death, restoration and renewal from brokenness and need. We have a God who has adopted each one of us, who is prepared to adopt each one, and give her or him the keys to the Kingdom, not because of anything we have said or done, not because of any merit, not because we have somehow made ourselves sin-free. Still, in the face of the God of love and redemption, there comes a moment when I have to wrestle with the fact that I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips, and I am not worthy even to see the hem of God’s robe as God sits on the throne, and yet, here is God, who has created me, who has come into the world for me, who has adopted me in spite of all the reasons why God ought not to adopt me. And as much as I might try to parse God out and as much as I might try to fit God to my agenda, if I’m honest with myself, there is going to be a Holy expletive moment, because this is all just way too much for me to get my head around, this is all way too much for me to bear. Being forgiven, utterly forgiven, so forgiven that my fear is no longer what rules me, so that I am now standing here holding the keys to the kingdom, that kind of forgiveness is not something to be blasé about; that kind of forgiveness burns like a hot coal touched to your lips; it leaves you changed, and dizzy and confused as if you just saw a bunch of angels and seraphs flying around the throne of God, screaming holy, holy, holy!

It’s hard to wrap your mind around; even harder to wrap your life around. And yet, here we are, gathered around the table, singing the same song that the seraphs sang, holy, holy holy! and glorifying the One who has created us and adopted us; gathered around the bread and the wine, touched to our lips, reminding us once again of what we have already received: forgiveness, cleansing, wholeness. And then, as we turn away from the table, we hear the call: Whom shall I send?

And how do we answer? How can we possibly answer? It is such a daunting task, and there are so many who need to hear the news, so many hurt and damaged people, and how can I possibly be the one that God has in mind when God calls: Whom shall I send? After all, I am a person of unclean lips. When God calls, we reply, “But, but, but…” But this: your lips have been burned clean by the bread and the wine, your spirit of slavery has been replaced by a spirit of adoption, and you are now called. Whom shall I send? It’s you! You are the one sent, and if you don’t think you have the energy or the time or the motivation or the words or the knowledge or the whatever else you don’t think you have, think again, because when we cry, “Abba, Father!”  when we cry, “I can’t do it!” that is the very Spirit of God bearing witness that we are children of God. And it is that very Spirit that pushes us out of the nest, out into the world, toward one another, toward our neighbors, toward even our enemies, if we have any, across every border that divides us, across every boundary that holds us back, past every obstacle that stands in our way. That is the Spirit.

So take your airplane, and send it flying. Let it soar on the breath of God, let the Spirit carry it where it will. You have been created. You have been adopted. And you are being sent. Thanks be to God.