If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hint Half-Guessed: Luke 2:1-20


*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2012 and my last sermon at Zion.
In the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh. And my first sound was a cry like that of all. I was nursed in swaddling clothes. For there is for all humanity, even a king, one entrance into life (I).

The quote I just read sounds like a description from a familiar story. Immediately a scene pops into our heads. If I were to ask you----Who is this baby?----you could easily guess the person who is being described, right? The hints are all there. Mother. Birth. Swaddling clothes. King. A few words and our imaginations see the bright star overhead, smell the cattle, and feel the chill in the air. But, we had better be careful about jumping to such conclusions. Sometimes, we hear what we expect to hear.

It's like the Christmas story. We have heard the story repeated over and over so many times that we have trouble really hearing it. Hearing the story of the birth of the Christ child can be like having the answer to a riddle before it is told or knowing the punch line of a joke. And if you heard the plot of a mystery novel told over and over again, it would tend to lose its mystery. We are all too familiar with the Christmas story---census, Bethlehem, inn, manger, shepherds, star, magi, angels, baby, swaddling clothes. We know where the story is headed and that it is really a king who lies in the hay. And we come to the same conclusions each time we hear the story. Just like we probably concluded that the opening quotation about a king in swaddling clothes was describing the baby Jesus, when in fact the words are from a book known as The Wisdom of Solomon written about 30 BCE and is speaking of king Solomon. Who would have guessed?

In order to hear the Christmas story afresh, our preconceived notions need to be tossed out the window, if only for a moment; even if our conclusions are correct. We must approach the story as if with virgin ears. Only with a new hearing will the baby begin to stir once again from the inked pages of the Book.

Walk with me as we peek into the manger. Listen to the crunch of hay beneath your feet as you come to the manger, a room in the bottom of a home where the animals were kept. Outside the artist moon outlines the hills and cypress trees with a silver pen. Your hand touches the rough wood beams as you enter the manger room. There is a rustling of animals, skin to skin, as they notice you have intruded into their quiet sanctuary. The air inside is warm with animal breath. It smells of hay and cattle. You can hear the breathing of a sheep, whose bell clinks as she turns to look at you. You take another slow step closer.
The shades of light are brushed with the golden glow from an oil lamp, like in a Rembrandt painting. The silhouette of a person lies in the hay near the flickering light. It is a young girl. She couldn't be more than fourteen years old. Her lips are dry and stick together. Her breathing comes in short gasps. She looks exhausted. In her arms is a small bundle wrapped in strips of cloth. Next to her is a man with a peppered beard bending over the mother and child and speaking in a hushed tone. He turns to you and smiles proudly. The mother pulls back the strips of cloth to reveal to you the face of. ... a baby, just a baby, as earthy as the ground beneath your feet.

Who among us, looking into the fresh face of that baby, would have guessed that a king had been born? Who would have guessed that his squalling cry would one day proclaim words of hope to the hopeless? Could anyone ever have looked upon those tiny hands and guessed that they would touch the sick and make them whole? Given the hints, who would have guessed that this child born in the rags of poverty would someday be proclaimed the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, a king who overturns all kingdoms?

Caesar Augustus never would have guessed that the Savior of the world was born. For he was the one proclaimed "Savior of the whole human race." He was the ruler to be honored as a god. Why would Caesar be looking for good news in a Jewish baby, seeing that it was decreed of Augustus in 9 BCE that "the birthday of the god ( Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news." Emperor Augustus would never have guessed that this child in the manger was to become the Prince of Peace, when it was the Caesars who had brought the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, a peace imposed by the might of an empire? It would be ludicrous to think: that a savior, a king who brings good news and peace, would be born under the thumb of Rome.

Caesar was too busy taxing his subjects to death, squeezing tribute from them like blood from a turnip. Tribute must be paid to the king. But, the real tribute will be rendered to another king by strange travelers from the East. Caesar never could have guessed that a poor Jewish child born under his oppressive reign would someday be a ruler mightier than all the Caesars.

How strange are the words spoken of this child: "He came unto his own, but his own received him not." Surely those who longed for the Coming One would have guessed that their hope lay in the hay. They had hints of the Messiah's coming inscribed in their papyrus scrolls. Their eyes squinted for signs of Christ's coming. This blessed hope kept them going as their bodies bent beneath the yoke of Roman oppression. But, no sage in his musings could have contemplated that such Wisdom would spring from a mother's womb. No prophet could have envisioned the reign of peace that was nestled in this child's bosom. No scribe could have deciphered that this baby would become a human scroll upon which God would write the Living Word. No Pharisee could have read in the eyes of this frail one and seen that he would speak to the deadness of the law and cause it to have new life. No zealot could have known that revolutionary words would come forth like swords from the tiny lips of the babe. No Essene, tucked away in their antiseptic, desert community, could have believed that this child would turn dining with sinners into an art. Who would have guessed from the hints given?

The most obvious hints came to some peasant shepherds and not to the power brokers of the day. They got the "inside line" on the babe. The hint was a shout from heaven. An angel brought the hint with these words:

I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

And if that wasn't enough to give it away, a whole platoon of angels came to announce, not the Pax Romana of Caesar, but to proclaim the peace this child would bring as they sang:


Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth to those whom God favors (Luke 2: 14)


This blatant blast from heaven's horn sounds like a hint that no one could miss. But, let's remember that faith shouts what God has whispered. Remember the voice at Jesus' baptism? Some thought it was thunder. The light that struck Paul on the road to Damascus and the voice from heaven went unheard and unseen by those accompanying him. Angels are messengers who shout what God has whispered. They come to us like excited children telling us the end of the story. They trumpet what is only a hint.


Be honest. Who would have guessed that this was the Christ lying in the hay in a common home under an empty sky with a sweaty young girl and a newborn in a  feeding trough ? Where will the shepherds find this ruler of rulers? How will they recognize the promised Messiah? We are privy to the hint, the sign that is given to the shepherds. And the hint is as bare as the baby when he was first born.


You shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in manger (Luke 2: 12).


You who know the story have arrived at the manger even before the shepherds. There you are standing in the manger room squinting at the newborn, looking as if with a third eye. You look for something that might mark this baby as different from any other ordinary infant; maybe a golden halo around his head, like in a Renaissance painting. The sky outside with pinholes for light does not tip you off, even though one star seems a bit brighter than the others. This king has no royal bassinet, no kingly robe, no jeweled crown. You listen for the flutter of angels, but there is no sound of flapping in the air. Only the buzzing of flies around fresh cow dung. No flash from the heavens. No cracking apart of the sky.


All that you have to go on is the sign, a heavenly hint; a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a feeding trough. With only those hints, could you have guessed that the glory of God was resident in that child? With only a whisper of God and a plain ol’ baby wrapped up tight in his humanity?


Finding God hidden within the human hints is the task of the seeker of the Sacred. Here is a most profound truth: there is nowhere else on earth that we will find God, except in what is utterly human. The pulse of God beats beneath the skin of human life. God’s voice speaks through human voices or earthy silence. God shows up on the pages of a Book with the marks of human hands. The timeless has intersected with time. Heaven is clothed with earth. It is there that we must peek for the hints and guesses of the Sacred. The divine is in the human. As it was in the baby in the manger.


Poet T.S. Eliot has movingly spoken of this truth in lines from his poem Four Quartets:

To apprehend the point of the intersection of the timeless with time something given and taken, in a lifetime death in love,

ardor and selflessness and self- surrender

a shaft of sunlight

the wild thyme unseen or the winter lightning
or the waterfall or music heard so deeply
These are only hints and guesses

hints followed by guesses; and the rest is

prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action
The hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood

in Incarnation

Here the impossible union (2)


The Word became flesh ... and dwelt among us. The theological term for this is Incarnation. Heaven wedded to earth in an impossible union. That is the mysterious plot of the incarnation. God in Christ. Christ in the world. The Holy in the mundane. The extraordinary in the ordinary. The Word become flesh. And we have been guessing about God ever since. For the hard lines between the sacred and the secular have been forever blurred. The Mysterious God of the eternity has come to us in this vulnerable Jewish baby within time. The divine has enfolded the human in an eternal embrace. That is why the hints of God's presence among us are stuffed in life, like fortunes in cookies, like leaven in bread, like God in human life; as the hints of God are all wrapped up tight in that child in the manger. Hints and guesses.

The hints of Mystery are all around us wrapped up tight in the swaddling cloths of the human. Even while the Caesars of this world oppress and make war, whispers of God's peace can still be heard by messengers with clipped wings. Even with the TV flooding our living rooms with the sewage of gossip, scandals, and violence, the good news of hope and forgiveness still trickles from human lips. Even though the news of tragedy in Newtown stabs our hearts and we wonder where in the world is God, we catch a glimpse of the sacred in the healers and helpers, the angels of assistance. The hints are there in the pulpits and in the streets, the stained glass and the graffiti on the wall, in the Bible and the newspapers. God is there in the old man rocking alone in the rest home, the laughing child, the homeless man in the park, the black teen mom nursing her baby. God is hope in the presence of hopelessness, light in the pit of night, the glue that holds us together when all seems to have fallen apart. God is there hidden beneath the skin of it all. As hints and guesses. Just as God was hidden beneath the skin of that baby born in the manger. A vulnerable God enters our world in the fragile skin of human life.


Jesus is born. The hint half-guessed. The gift half-understood in Incarnation. And life will never be the same. God will never be the same. God has dwelt among us. God still dwells among us….in the laughter and tears, the hope and despair, the triumphs and tragedies. There are hints of God's presence all around us, if we but listen; to those solitary moments when the silence screams; to the whispers of grace in the warmth of human compassion; to the outraged prophets who cry out for justice; to the simple story at Advent of a baby’s birth. The hints are there, human and vulnerable. As human and vulnerable as the baby in the manger. God is in the human. And who of us will dare to guess. No. More than that. Who of us will dare to believe?

(1) The Wisdom of Solomon 7: 1-6

(2) T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955 ), 136.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Let It Be: Luke 1:26-38


 
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard Oregon on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012
 
The scripture text for today was painted by many artists during the Renaissance. One of those paintings of the annunciation, which was also painted as a fresco, is by the Florentine artist Fra Angelico. The painting contains the figures of the angel Gabriel and Mary. They are under the arches of a building painted like a blue sky spangled with stars. In the background are Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Through these humans come the Fall of humanity, wheras through Mary comes the redemption of humanity in the birth of Christ. A golden beam with the open hands of God send the Holy Spirit as a dove to Mary, while God’s face, as a relief on the building, overlooks the scene. Gabriel and Mary’s heads are framed with a gold halo. The figure of the angel Gabriel with tan feathered wings has arms folded across his chest. On the other half is Mary looking toward Gabriel also with her hands folded across her chest. It is a sign of the cross and symbol of her submission to God's will in giving life, as Christ himself will submit to God’s will unto death.
 
The artist has captured that moment when the angel Gabriel announced earthshaking news to the virgin Mary. She will have a child by the Holy Spirit. His name will be called Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High God and reign on the throne of his ancestor King David. Will Mary accept the calling to be the messiah’s mother? It is not a done deal. The angel awaits her response. In the painting there is naturally no movement. Everything is as still as death. No flutter in the angel’s wings. Not one eye blinks. The soft folds of their garments hold as if starched. The moment is frozen in time. As if the world had stopped on its axis. As if time itself were hinged on the answer of Mary. You can almost feel the question that hangs in the still air: "What will be her response?" In this motionless moment heaven and earth hold their breath.
 
Let's go back to the beginning of the story. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Sounds similar to what happened in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't it? An angel is sent at a turning point in someone's life. A life-saving message needs to be communicated. So God sends an angel. The biblical text talks about angels as if they were as common as houseflies. Gabriel shows up out of nowhere and greets Mary as if he were your typical mailman. The angel's voice probably didn't sound like Charlton Hesston speaking in King's English as if inside a cavern. Although in centuries to come the words, "Hail Mary, full of grace" will be uttered in prayer by millions of the devout, those words roll off the angel's tongue with an earthiness as common as "Hi, Mary, you lucky lady." But Mary is more perplexed by what might be behind such a greeting than she is about an angel showing up on her doorstep.
 
The angel says, "Don't be afraid." Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that whenever an angel says "Do not be afraid" then you can bet you’re in for a big assignment. And what was Mary's assignment? Oh, not much. Just to be the Mother of God's Son! Talk about big assignments! Mary doesn’t break out in a deep belly laugh, like Sarah did at the idea of giving birth to a nation while still in a rest home. Instead, Mary has a question to ask. Just a little question. If you were Mary, you would have at least one question, wouldn't you? "Just how is this going to happen, Mr. Angel, seeing that I’m a virgin, duhhh?" Mary is no na├»ve teenager. She knows the facts of life. What the angel tells her must have sounded just as incredible to Mary as did Sarah's news of giving birth in a geriatric ward. Mary's child would come to be through the Holy Spirit. Mary must have been thinking, "What other impossible things are you going to tell me." Could the angel Gabriel have overheard what the angel of the Lord said to a giggling Sarah near the oak trees long ago? For the final words of these two angels are practically the same: "Nothing will be impossible with God."
 
In the world of the Bible nothing is impossible. Angel's buzz around like common flies. A nation is born from a barren womb. Seas part before God's people. God steps into the world clothed in human flesh. Water turns into wine. A few loaves of bread and a fish feed thousands. A dead man comes to life again. Nothing is impossible with God. With his otherworldly message spoken the angel Gabriel awaits Mary's response to God's message.
 
Let's stop the action between the angel's last word and the first tremble of Mary's lips.Freeze that moment in the text between the words "God" and "Mary", like the moment frozen in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's brush into that small space in the canvas of time a hypothetical question. What if Mary said, "No"? I'm not being facetious. I'm serious. What if she refused to be the mother of God's Messiah? What if she didn't fold her arms across her chest? It was a real possibility. She had the freedom and the will. What if Mary told the angel, "Forget it, Gabe. Go ask some other teeny bopper"? What if when God spoke to Isaiah and said, "Whom shall I send and who will go for me", Isaiah responded, "Lord, you gotta be kidding. That's just too big of a job for me." Or what if Nikos Kazantzaki's novel idea were true, that Jesus could have refused the way of the cross and lived out an everyday life like everyone else. In the movie, based upon the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, at a crucial moment on the cross time stops. An "angel" appears to Jesus and he is presented with the choice of coming down from the cross, getting married, having children, growing old, and dying a natural death. What if Jesus had not chosen the nonviolent way that would eventually led him to the cross? What if Jesus had not folded his arms across his chest to God's will, but defiantly raised his arms with a sword against Rome, like so many Jewish rebels had done?

Now, in that frozen moment between the angel's announcement and Mary's response we ask, "What if Mary had said 'No'"?
 
Maybe we don’t face momentous decisions of such great significance as Mary faced. But maybe at times we do. Maybe our responses to God come in small steps, but added up they change our lives and destinies in indiscernible, yet significant ways. Our messages from God may not come from the lips of angels, but they come to us nonetheless. And we’re called upon to respond, to act upon that word. There are moments when God's message comes to us as clear as a bell on a Sunday morning and we can go one way or another.
 
Let's take some of those moments and freeze frame them. Paint on the canvas of your mind a man, named John, sitting in church on a Sunday morning in Advent. Beside John is his wife, who has a look of contentment on her face. She feels at home. In his childhood John was taken to church sporadically, but always on the holidays. Unlike his wife, church had never become much of a habit for him. Out of a sense of family duty he would show up with his wife on special Sundays to see his children perform or at Easter and Christmas services. John didn't tell his wife, but he thought church was for women and children.
 
Over the years John sat through quite a few sermons out of respect for his wife and children. On this Advent Sunday, though, something happened. During a moment in the service it seemed like time stopped. It was as if the preacher were speaking directly to him. No, it was more than the preacher. It was as if the preacher were merely a messenger conveying a message directly to him. The preacher was talking about people needing to have a faith of their own and not a faith of their parents or family. It seemed as if she were speaking in slow motion as she was inviting people to commit their lives to Christ and to be baptized into the fellowship of the church. John knows it would be a life changing decision. It would mean living a different kind of life, a life for Christ.
 
John’s wife, who sits next to him in the pew, is unaware that her husband is frozen in an eternal moment, which has broken in upon time. John is struggling with this life-altering commitment as if he were wrestling with an angel. An unseen finger is gently tapping him on the shoulder. He thumbs through the hymnal trying to avoid thinking about it. He folds his arms and bows his head. It's one of those moments that you feel you finally have to settle with a "yes" or a "no" answer. John opens his eyes and looks up. He must decide. What will be his response?
 
Fill in the details of this pencil sketch. Joan is very talented. Her skills of leadership are evident to everyone where she works. If she comes across a problem, she will meet it head on and with real creative solutions. There was no problem too big for her to wrestle. Her skills have caused many promotions and raises to come her way. Everyone at the company adores Joan, or maybe I should say, they adore her performance. She has it made. Or so you would think. Yet, when she's done with all the meetings and comes home to her empty, twentieth floor apartment, there is a hole inside her soul. Something's missing from her high-powered lifestyle. She goes to bed, clicks off the light, and stares at the red numbers on her digital clock until she falls asleep.
 
This morning a printed piece of paper sits on her desk waiting for Joan to arrive. She walks into the office and pulls back her desk chair. The plain piece of paper catches her attention, even amidst the piles of flashy, multicolored advertisements. She lifts the paper to her face. Where did this come from? Printed on the paper are the words: "City project for the homeless needs new director." Now, in her world of high rise and high finance, she was not one to think about such issues, except those found on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But there she was with this job opening stuck to her hand like flypaper. She couldn't put it down. Something deep inside her seemed to be pulling. It was as if the plainly printed words on the paper had been inscribed in gold with an angel's pen. If there was ever the right person to creatively tackle such a problem, it was Joan. She looks out her office window at the skyline of the city as if searching for someone to help her make a decision. What will be her response?
 
We could fill a gallery with portraits of people who have been greeted by angels unaware and have been called upon to make crucial decisions. A voice speaks from a conference newsletter calling us to build a relationship with a church in another country. Images of working with people in a community ministry get painted on the ceiling of our brain from a slideshow in a church service. A service opportunity for retired persons somehow lands in our lap. An announcement at church, as common as a housefly, buzzes in our ear, “A teacher is needed for the fifth grade boy’s class.” And you thought someone called your name.
 
God speaks to us in many and diverse ways-----through the words of a sermon, through the reading of the scriptures in a quiet place, in the wind through the trees near the lake, in the comforting words of a friend, in the gravel voice of a gap-toothed man on the street, or as we stare off into the awe-inspiring life of someone named Jesus. God speaks. We can freeze those moments in time, when something, someone bigger than ourselves and our agendas calls us. What will be our response?
 
Let's go back to Mary. Let's unfreeze the moment held fast in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's read a little farther in the gospel story. Mary has heard the Word of God from the angel. What will she say? Put your ear up close to the Bible and listen. We know what she will say, even before she speaks the words. With arms folded she replies, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be... to me according to your word." Let it be. Mary has spoken the words of a true disciple. Let it be. This is Mary’s “Amen” to God’s call. Amen. Let it be. As the Beatles put it, Mary is “speaking words of wisdom...Let it be." It is the wisdom of surrendering ourselves to God’s call. Let it be. It is the wisdom of turning over our broken hearts to the divine healer. Let it be. It is the wisdom of trusting, like a child, that God’s grace will see us through whatever future we face. Let it be. Let it be. Mary speaks words of wisdom to us on this Advent Sunday. Let it be.
 
We who sit here in this church building far away from Nazareth, beyond the shores of Galilee, on the far side of the cross, and the other side of the open tomb, can thank God that Mary said, "Let it be." For in her decision the divine and the human embraced in a earthshaking, history-making moment. In that moment when she said, "Let it be," God was also saying "Let it be." As in the beginning, when the womb of space was an empty void and God said "Let it be" and it was. Now, through the child born of Mary, God says to a world needing to be reborn, "Let it be." The world is born anew through our many responses of “Let it be.” When we say “let it be” to God’s call, the divine and human embrace.
 
The divine and human embrace when someone says “yes” to follow Christ. The divine and human embrace when an enemy is forgiven. The divine and human embrace when a congregation lets go of its disappointments and failures and moves on. The divine and human embrace when someone accepts an assignment to serve others. The divine and human embrace when wounds from harsh parents are healed. The divine and human embrace when we turn our future over to God. The divine and human embrace when new possibilities are born. When we say, “Let it be,” to God’s word and will the divine and human embrace. And we come closer to the birth of a new moment, a new path, a new world.
 
God calls each of us to go where God sends us, to do what God asks us, to be that person God has uniquely created us to be, to share in the birthing of a new world. What will be our response? That crack in time between God's Word to us and our response may be this very moment, when human words become the Word of God. God may be speaking a Word to you, calling upon you to be God's instrument of new life in some small way, wooing you toward a renewed relationship with God, leading us all by the hand to a new future as a congregation…. in this still moment….frozen in time..... while the angels hold their breath…. What will be your response? To God's call the true disciple responds, as did Mary, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be. Let it be."


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Peaceable Kingdom: Isaiah 11:1-10

 
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on the first Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012

I like the PetsMart commercial I once saw during the Christmas season. A bulldog walks through a door into a room and lies down near a blazing fireplace. His natural enemy, a cat, walks in, rubs up against him and lies at his side unharmed. A small white mouse, a cat's hors d'oevre, walks in and stands next to the cat. A child looks into the room and sees this unusual sight. The scene closes with the words "Peace on earth."

The commercial is a modern artistic dramatization of the prophet Isaiah's vision of God's coming peaceable kingdom. Another artist painted a more literal portrayal of Isaiah's vision. The artist was Edward Hicks, a self-taught colonial folk painter and Quaker preacher. His version of Isaiah’s vision is entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom." And it was not just one painting, as you can see in the slides we have been projecting on the screen. Hicks painted between 60 to 100 Peaceable Kingdom paintings with varied compositions. At first his fellow Quakers looked askance at his profession as an artist, which made him return at one point to farming, as well as preaching. He offered these paintings to friends as visual reminders of what our world could be.

In many of these peaceable kingdom paintings the foreground is crowded with animals lying down in the shade of the trees. Predatory animals are resting peacefully in a lush garden next to their enemies in the animal kingdom. A child stands next to a ferociously mild beast, while another is unharmed with their hand petting a docile tiger. In some of the painting a tree is split as if by lightning, a possible symbol of a still divided church which Hick’s experienced among his own Quaker people. The primitive style gives the painting a mood of childlike innocence. It has the feel of an otherworldly fantasy.

These paintings of Hicks could easily be dismissed as sheer fantasy removed from this world, if one overlooked the small figures in the distant background of the painting. It is a painting within a painting. In the background you can see Quaker William Penn making a treaty with Leni-Lanape tribe of Native Americans. Human enemies are sitting at the table of peace. With this scene in the background the painting is no longer mere fantasy, but a socio-political reality. For Edward Hicks Isaiah's idealized vision had concrete meaning in the real world in which he lived.

Isaiah envisioned a peaceable kingdom coming upon the earth. Animals will dwell together in peace, as in the Garden of Eden. It is a vision of paradise restored on earth. The animal kingdom is harmonious. Humanity and nature are at peace. Threat, harm, injury, and violence are no longer, even to the most vulnerable, a child.

The prophet Hosea shared a similar vision in his day. He prophesied:

          In that day I will make a covenant for them
         with the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air
         and the creatures that move along the ground.
         Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land,
         so that they all may lie down in safety.

This may sound like a children's story---Dr. Doolittle meets Noah--- and not an agenda for living in the real world. Our world is not like that and appears to have little hope of getting near those images. Our newspapers drip with the ink of violent stories. Gay bashing. Gang shootings. Domestic violence. Our eyes ache with the sight of Obama-approved drones destroying innocent civilians and villages in Pakistan. Our ears are pummeled with the ratatat of gunfire in Afghanistan. Humans cannot seem to co-exist without devouring one another.

Nowhere is the painting of the peaceable kingdom more ripped apart than in Israel-Palestine. Israel continues to take land and bomb Palestinian communities with the financial and political support of the US, including Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists make the serious error of equating biblical Israel with the modern secular state of Israel. They cross-breed biblical religion with secular politics. This results in an unquestioned support for whatever acts Israel perpetrates on its Palestinian neighbors.

At the same time, Hamas continues to meet Israel’s fire with their own fire. The recent violence against Gaza is portrayed as Israel’s sheepish right to self-defense, while her devouring of Palestinian lands sounds more like the roar of a hungry lion. There is no peaceful co-existence. And the world wonders if there will ever be peace in the land where the Prince of Peace once lived. These contemporary images of violence are far removed from Isaiah's vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb.

A more realistic illustration of our world might be more like a drawing that my adopted son, Andres once drew when he was seven years old. Andres grew up in the harsh world of an abusive family. His drawing was a brightly colored crayon image of a Zebra. But, the Zebra was not a serene picture of one of God’s creatures at peace in a field. The Zebra had a knife in its belly and blood dripping all over the page. For many children this is more like the real world. In the real world it seems more realistic to admit that the only time we will see the lion and the lamb lying down together is when the lamb is in the lion's belly!

And yet, Isaiah was not one who withdrew from the real world. His vision came at a time of great turmoil in Judah's history. King Uzziah left Judah in a position of wealth and power. The people were living high on the hog and their Pentagon officers were snapping their suspenders. The ferocious power of Assyria crouched in the background, waiting to pounce on Judah. Assyria succeeded in devouring northern Israel because of internal pecking and squabbling. Judah escaped the claws of Assyria only to end up a tributary state.

King Ahaz cross-bred religion and politics by paying homage to Assyria's gods for political gain, which resulted in one of the worst periods of apostasy Judah had ever known. Under King Hezekiah Judah craved military support from a former enemy, Egypt. Isaiah cried out against trusting in weapons, instead of the Living God. In Judah, the wealthy landowners choked the life out of the poor farmers. The upper class of Judah lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, blind to the plight of their poor fellow Judeans. The official religion of Judah offered no effective rebuke. You might say that the church and state were of one mind. Their religion was a mirror reflecting the political agenda of the government. The preachers of Judah proclaimed the policies of a particular political persuasion as the policies of Yahweh. People streamed in the house of prayer and bowed to the gods of prosperity, security, military strength, status quo, and compromise. Sound familiar? Yahweh addressed the people through the prophet with these words:

                  When you spread your hands in prayer
                  I will hide my eyes from you;
                  Even if you offer many prayers,
                  I will not listen
                  Your hands are full of blood

The vision of Isaiah came at a time fraught with sociopolitical tension. His vision is not merely the wishful thinking of one caught in the lion's jaws. Isaiah's vision sought to transform how Israel was to view their present reality. His vision was to function like Edward Hick's painting. The vision of God's peaceable kingdom was intended to serve as the framework with Israel's sociopolitical realities painted in the background. Isaiah's vision is a powerful rhetorical worldview that envisions a new social reality created by God. It was a call to live and act in the realm of a different administration, directed by an alternative agenda, under a new Ruler, who rules in justice, righteousness, and peace.

To live with our eyes flooded with the vision of this alternative realm is to see a world very similar to Isaiah's peaceable kingdom. In this realm violence is washed from all hands and weapons of warfare are turned into instruments of peace and productivity.

                    They will beat their swords into plowshares
                    and their spears into pruning hooks
                    Nation shall not take up sword against nation
                    nor will they train for war any more

Nuclear bomb shells beaten into plow discs. Machine guns flattened into hoes. No more Pentagon. No more military training camps. This is not an unreal utopia. It is the lens through which God's people are to look at the world. It is an alternative vision for citizens of God's reign and realm.

When will this heavenly vision ever touch ground? Advent eyes have seen the seeds of this vision planted in a manger stall among the peaceful animals, while angels sing: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace." We see the vision in the face of a real human life---Jesus of Nazareth. Within a sociopolitical situation of Roman dominance, overwhelming poverty, and revolutionary violence he gathered a people to live in the vision and reality of God's reign. He proclaimed that the poor are God's blessed ones and peacemakers are God's children. He taught his followers not to offer eye for eye, violence for violence, but to offer love and compassion. We see his peaceable kingdom as he hangs on the cross, a lamb next to wolves, and forgives the lions who had done him violence. Isaiah's vision has kissed the earth in the coming of Jesus Christ.

But, Isaiah's vision is yet to be fulfilled. It invites us to step into the picture. It calls us to take up our cross and follow the one who has walked into Isaiah's vision with all his body, heart, mind and soul. This vision seeks to tame our beastly natures. It invites us to be at peace with our enemies, and to taste a bit of paradise. To live in the framework of this vision may cause some to do rather radical actions to live in Isaiah’s peaceable vision like the Plowshares 8, who beat with hammers on the heads of some nuclear weapons. The vision may inspire work for the removal of bombies or cluster bombs from the fields of Vietnam dropped during the war, as advocated by my good friend Titus Peachey, Peace Educator at Mennonite Central Committee. These bomblets still kill and maim civilians even these many years after the Vietnam War. Titus has worked extensively with the people in Laos to assist the people in dismantling these bombies.  Around 260 million cluster bombs were dropped back in the 60s. There are probably 80 million of these unexploded bombies still lying around ready to maim or destroy human lives at a rate of 300 Laotians a year. 156 nations have joined in a treaty to ban land mines, which the US has resisted signing. Spoons and cups have been made from melted down bombs to help fund this bombie removal project re-enacting Isaiah’s vision of a day when “swords will be beaten into plowshares.” Our support of Mennonite Central Committee and its peace work helps make Isaiah’s vision become more of a reality.

To live in the picture of Isaiah's vision is to help those children, who have had their lives torn apart by beastly adults, to heal and experience a world where people do live in a home peaceably, like some members of Zion are doing. It is to use the power of our voice and vote to limit the handguns and assault weapons that turn people into ravenous wolves. Catching Isaiah’s vision is to work at border issues and immigration reform, like another one of my good friends, Jack Knox, is doing. Inspired by what he saw on the border learning tours the Peace and Justice Support Network set up, he has moved to the Arizona border to work regularly on border and immigration issues; walking the desert trail where many migrants perish from the heat, supporting BorderLinks, and advocating for more just border policies. To live in the frame of Isaiah's vision is to be peacemakers, God's children, across our borders, in our own neighborhoods, and yes, even in our own congregations. O, that Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom would mend the split tree of the church!

It is the small child, central to Edward Hick’s painting of the Peaceable Kingdom, that symbolizes a world at peace. It is the small child that we anticipate during Advent who creates the real Peaceable Kingdom through his life.

Isaiah's vision beckons us to enter a new vision, to walk into God’s painting of what the world might be. His vision calls us to live by an alternative reality to our violent world and a divided church. Isaiah’s vision touched the earth in the child born in Bethlehem. In his vision is a hint of hope; the hope of God's peaceable reign, where

                    The wolf will live with the lamb
                    the leopard will lie down with the goat
                    the calf and the lion and the yearling together
                    and a little child shall lead them.
 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Wasteful Sower: Mark 4:1-9


*This sermon was preachd at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, on November 25, 2012 as the last in a series on Seeds of the Kingdom.
 

Today's Parable of the Sower brings to mind the musical Godspell, a frolicking, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. A group of us seminary students and church members put on the play at a coffee house Iris and I started in San Francisco back in the '70's.  Dressed up like clowns we acted out, or should I say ad libbed, the parts of the different seeds in the parable of sower. The seed that fell along the pathway was eaten up by a bunch of clucking and arm flapping chickens. The seed that fell on the rocky soil leaped up to life with a smile, but then going limp she withered and dropped to the floor from the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character with a lot of overacting. The seed that fell on good soil bounced up, flexed her muscles, and beamed with joy at the applause of everyone. In this goofy view of the parable the focus was upon the different responses of the seeds.

There are different angles from which to view the parable of the sower. Like a camera scanning the parable, we can zoom in close on the seeds lying scattered on the ground. We can pull back our shot and capture a view of the different types of soil. Or with time-lapsed photography we could watch the different reactions of the seeds. If we were to focus our lens on the different kinds of soil, which is the way Mark's gospel interprets the parable, we might think this parable is about us. As the parable unfolds we begin to ask ourselves: What kind of soil am I? Am I rocky ground? Do I need to smooth out some rough places in my character? What are the weeds in my life? What chokes the life out of me? Am I a shallow person? Do I get all worked up and enthusiastic only to give up when the thrill is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we probably end up either feeling guilty or determined to see how we can beat the three-to-one odds of being poor soil for God's word. By focusing on the soils we may find ourselves trying to shape up our lives, so we can be a fertile field for God.

What if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable was not about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or about birds and rocks and thorns? What if, instead of focusing upon the soil, we zoomed in on the sower. What if, by chance, it is a parable about a sower? It is called the parable of the sower, isn't it? The parable would look a bit different from how we have traditionally viewed it. If the sower is the main character of the parable, what might it say about life and God?

One thing we would immediately notice is the sower flings his seed around rather wastefully. It falls on good and bad soil alike. According to the ancient practice of the peasant farmer, the sower's method is not so unusual. Most often seed was first scattered, then it was plowed under. It seems wasteful of the sower to scatter the seeds willy nilly across the land so it falls along the road, on rocky ground, among the weeds and thorns, as well as on the fertile soil. What might seem wasteful to us was the typical method of sowing for the peasant farmer, who scratched out a living from the dry, rocky Palestinian soil. In order to produce a harvest a lot of seed had to be recklessly, or should I say, graciously wasted. In the parable it appears as if 75% of the seed was wasted in order to produce an adequate harvest. In that case, the odds of failure with that kind of sowing are three-to-one. There should have been a more efficient and productive way of sowing, don't you think?

If I were sowing the seeds, I would want greater odds of success. I would want to make sure the seed landed on fertile soil. This wasteful scattering of seeds hither and thither would have to stop.  With this kind of wasteful sowing the odds of crop failure would be far greater than a fruitful harvest. In my estimation this is bad farming. Don't we all want to be thrifty and productive? We have all been told as children, "Don't be wasteful." Our bosses have encouraged us to be efficient. Those in business try to concentrate their efforts on what is most productive. Don't we all want to decrease the odds of failure in whatever we do? This is not only sound business advice, but good policy for living. Isn't it?

This is the kind of business advice churches are being given from the marketing world. If you want to be a growing, productive church, then being efficient, concentrating on what is productive, and decreasing the odds of failure will keep the church from being wasteful of God's resources. And how does the church increase its growth and productivity? First, by being "market-driven" rather than "product-driven." That is, our focus should be on the needs of the customers, more than upon the product we offer. The soil takes priority over the seed. Second, marketing techniques can help the church be more efficient and productive. Don't spend a lot of time and energy on ministries or activities that do not produce. Increase your odds of success through efficient marketing techniques. One of those marketing techniques is to focus your outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who will be more likely to join your church.

One proponent of such methods of church growth reads the parables as marketing strategies and tactics. He sees the parable of the sower as portraying a marketing process "in which there are hot prospects and not-so-hot prospects." In other words, there are certain kinds of people your church should target for the best results. Plant your seeds only in the most productive soil. Finally, according to the market-driven approach to church growth, success is measured primarily in numerical growth. A hundredfold harvest is better than a thirtyfold harvest. There you have it all. No wastefulness, greater efficiency, concentration on what is productive, and increasing the odds of success. The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church which is conformed to the world and more concerned about growth than faithfulness. Contrary to what Henry Ford once said, what is good for business is not always good for religion. Success may not be the name of the church's game.

Come to think about it, in real life it seems like there are more failures than successes, more waste than growth. Doesn't life reflect the odds of this parable? The odds are against us. Odds are against all those people who grew up in angry, abusive, distant, or neglectful families that they will avoid bringing those issues into their new relationships. Why waste energy and invest time on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts. Haven't you heard we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine? How many people have you seen who really changed their lives in a positive way from something you said or did compared to those who went on producing the same old negative garbage from their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.

There is more unproductive soil than productive and a lot of good seed gets wasted, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal growth. We waste more energy on trivial pursuits than on productive, meaningful activities.  There is a lot of unproductive ground in our lives.  Someone right now is probably thinking, "Yeah, you're right. A lot of my life seems to have been wasted. After all these years, what have I really accomplished?" Another listener could be thinking, "I know what you mean. I've been a Christian for a number of years, but my life is still rocky and full of weeds." What a waste!

Consider our society. It is bad soil which produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, consumerism, xenophobia, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. It's a waste trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. So, why waste good seed on unproductive soil? This seems to be the way life is. More seeds land on rocky, thorny, weed-infested soil than on fertile ground. The odds are against us.  So, why waste good seeds by tossing them to the wind?

Waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. There appears to be a lot of waste. The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but only one we know of which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Take a look through the lens of a microscope at the seeds of human life. There's a lot of waste there. On the Learning Channel I once watched a study on human reproduction. The narrator said, "In the reproductive process millions of human sperm, literally "seeds," die as they touch the acidic walls of the uterus." Each of those seeds bears the potential of becoming an individual human life. Thousands more seeds die along the journey to the female egg. In the end only one sperm out of millions of seeds penetrates the egg to become a unique human being. It takes millions of wasted human seeds for one to finally be productive! Seems like an awful waste of seed. Whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And whoever thought up this hair-brained method of reproduction is definitely wasteful! From where we stand it sure looks like it takes a lot of wasted seed in order to be productive.

If we focus on the seed or the soil things do look pretty grim. Productivity has a slim chance. The odds seem to be against us. But, before things start to look too hopeless, let's turn our lens back on the sower in our parable. The sower pays little attention to the condition of soil, or the pathway with human footprints. He seems to ignore the weeds, the thorns, and the hungry birds. He doesn’t seem to be worrying about the odds of success or failure. The sower tosses the seeds everywhere on good soil and bad soil alike. He appears to be oblivious to the types of soil on which the seeds land. And the sower isn't stingy with the seed. With wild abandon he throws handfuls of seed across the field like stars flung across the sky. To us the sower appears to be recklessly inefficient and extravagantly wasteful.

God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the lifegiving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God sends the rain on the just and unjust alike. God wildly sows the seeds of the kingdom without an eye to the nature of the soil. God is recklessly, extravagantly, graciously wasteful with good news, scattering it upon productive and unproductive soil. And odds are God can turn the odds around. God isn't worried about success or failure. God sows the seeds knowing that even though the patches of good earth may be small the harvest will be plentiful. The sowing will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold!

Once upon a time a certain farmer went out into his field to sow seeds. A servant had previously plowed neat rows in which to plant the seeds. As he tossed the seeds into the furrows, some of the seeds fell outside the lines. This didn't seem to bother the farmer. As a matter of fact, the farmer rather enjoyed throwing the seeds willy nilly across the straight furrows. The farmer got so caught up in the sheer joy of tossing the seeds hither and yon he hadn't noticed that he had walked right off the boundaries of the field. The farmer walked out onto the roadway leading to the city, grabbing handfuls of seeds from his burlap sack, flinging them here and there and everywhere, laughing as he walked along. Some of the seeds landed on the asphalt and were run over by passing cars or were eaten by crows. Other seeds fell among the weeds or onto the chip bags, cans, and other garbage strewn along the roadside. But, the farmer paid no mind to where the seeds landed. He just kept on tossing his seeds across the wide landscape.

Even when the farmer entered the city streets, it didn't stop him from sowing his seeds. Cars late for work would honk at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones would yell out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old farmer!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers on the corner and they tried to smoke them. Others fell on the steps of the church and the minister came out and swept them off. A few seeds fell on a homeless man sleeping on a park bench and he picked them off his worn clothes and ate them for lunch. Still other seeds fell between the thin cracks in the sidewalk and they sprouted into flowers. Others fell in a community garden and sprang up a hundredfold. The farmer sowed his seeds wherever his feet took him until the sun finally set behind the rolling hills. Throughout the season the farmer's bag was never empty of seeds right up until the time of the harvest. Whoever has two ears on their head, listen to this parable.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

God's Reign is for the Birds: Matthew 13:31-35



 
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite CHurch, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, November 18, 2012 as part of a series on Seeds of the Kingdom.

The meaning of the parable of the mustard seed seems apparent.  What begins as the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree large enough to house the birds. The reign of God is like that. Small beginning. Big ending. A handful of disciples become a worldwide church. A few fishermen and women followers grow into a Christian empire. We are the world! Kind of makes your chest swell, doesn't it? Makes you feel important to be at the center of such a glorious, triumphant, ever expanding kingdom. Well, that kind of kingdom may be a world away from what this parable is all about. If we scratch beneath the surface of this parable, we will discover that God's reign is for the birds.
The odd thing about the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus' portrayal of God's reign as a tree. In Matthew Jesus doesn't say the mustard seed grows into a tall bush, but rather into a tree in which the birds make their nests. The mustard bush can reach a height of 8 to 12 feet, but it is still not a tree by any stretch of the imagination. So, why call the mustard bush a tree? In several places in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of kings and empires as being like trees. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a growing tree, whose branches reached the heavens and on which the birds made their nests (Daniel 4). The prophet Daniel interpreted the tree as being the Assyrian king and his empire extending its sovereignty to the ends of the earth. The Assyrian empire grew through brutal violence and domination, forcing Israel into economic and political patronage. Israel was one of the birds nesting under Assyria's tree!

The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of a growing cedar with the birds nesting under its branches as a satire of the empire of Egypt, which falls like a chopped down tree and "upon its ruin dwell all the birds of the air" (Ezekiel 31).  Ezekiel also told a parable of  a twig which grows into a noble cedar and the birds nest in its shade, the same wording found in Mark's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Ezekiel 17). It would appear that Jesus is drawing his images of God's reign from these visions of powerful empires, particularly Ezekiel's parable of Israel as a mighty cedar growing to such a height as to provide a nesting place for the birds. The birds most likely represent the Gentiles, the nations, those outside the house of Israel. What we have in the prophets is an end time vision of Israel growing into a powerful empire which is benefactor to the nations of the earth. What a triumphant vision! And you can understand why Israel hoped to be a mighty cedar overshadowing the nations, when you remember how they had for so long been trampled under the feet of the nations. Imagine the kingdom of Israel dominating all the nations of the earth! What a hopeful vision… at least for Israel.
A mighty tree growing big enough to shade the birds. That would appear to be a more appropriate image of a powerful kingdom. A mighty tree seems to fit Western civilization's vision of a mighty kingdom. Europeans have viewed the expansion of their cultures and empires as being of benefit to other peoples. In our exploits as an American empire we have felt like we have a superior culture and way of life than other peoples and cultures in the world. It’s called “American exceptionalism.” It has been espoused by politicians and flag wavers from the get go of our nation.  Most recently Obama promoted it in his victory speech. On the other hand, other peoples and nations have experienced Western growth and American exceptionalism, as imperialism, colonialism, arrogance, and pride. We want to expand the branches of our imperial tree to overshadow all nations and allow the birds to nest in our branches.

The seed of our nation's beginnings grew into a tree and expanded its branches through violence and oppression of a people who were already native to this land. I once read a book entitled Missionary Conquest written by a Cherokee/Osage seminary professor. It details the exploits of Father Junipero Serra, among other early missionaries to the Americas. People in California know Father Serra as the Franciscan priest who in the 1700's scattered his missions like seeds across the landscape of California. Mission San Buena Ventura is near my home town and Mission Santa Barbara a half hour away.
In order for Christianity to grow into a mighty cedar early mission expansion took the form of forced conversions, physical violence, slave labor conditions, and cultural genocide. Father Serra's mission system was no exception. Native Americans were the birds who nested precariously in the shade of Spain's colonial expansion supported by the roots of the church's missionary work. The sad truth is that we still view Native Americans as the birds who should nest in the shade of our nation's branches, or should I say live on our nation's reservations. The triumphal image of a growing tree which shades the nesting birds is sadly reflected in the scenes of an African-American with lash marks on his back picking cotton on the plantation, an American sailor exploiting a young Pilipino girl near the naval base, and a young missionary trying to expand the kingdom by unconsciously passing off European customs and culture as the gospel truth. This sad parable of our kingdom growing into a mighty cedar is for the birds!

What are we to make of Jesus parable about a mustard seed growing into a big bush for the birds? Jesus' image of God's reign is not of a mighty cedar, but a mustard bush. That's a joke! Get it? Jesus is satirizing Israel's triumphant vision of the kingdom, as Ezekiel did with the kingdom of Egypt. In this parable Jesus compares the reign of God with the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a big bush for the birds. Jesus is transforming our vision of God's reign. Israel’s vision of a growing messianic kingdom based on force, violence, imperialism, and growth through dominating the other nations of the world, led by God’s messiah, is not Christ's empire. It's not how Jesus revealed God's reign.
Jesus revealed God's reign as being like a mustard seed that grew into a big bush for the birds. Mustard seeds and bushes are strange images for God's reign. As we have seen, a mighty cedar would have been a much more appropriate image, or should I say more like what was expected. Then again, speaking of God's reign as being like a woman who puts a small amount of leaven in her dough was just as strange. Leaven was a symbol of evil, something unclean which was purged from one's house. Leaven, like the mustard bush, is an odd image for Jesus to use of God's reign. What Jesus is doing in the parable of the mustard seed is subverting the expected vision of God's reign as a triumphant kingdom with our people on the top in the end. In the same way, Jesus’ own life and mission were subversive of the hope of a coming kingdom of power and domination.

Jesus' life is a paradoxical mustard seed parable. The Messiah, ruler of all nations, comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby in a nesting place for chickens and cows. He gathers around himself a small rag tag group of misfits. His idea of growing a kingdom is by telling quirky little stories. Jesus expands God's reign by eating with Roman collaborators and sinners. The branches of Christ's kingdom are spread by blessing children and lifting up the weak. People look into Jesus' mustard seed face and say, "Is this the Messiah?" Like a baker woman, Jesus mixes into God's dough the leaven of the unclean and those cast out of the house. The destitute, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, outsiders nest in the shadow of Jesus' compassion. These odd birds flock to the branches of Christ's kingdom!
Jesus' mission turns away from the hope of becoming a mighty cedar and grows into a bush for birds. On a desert mountain Jesus refuses the devil's vision of ruling the kingdoms of this world. Through the gates of Jerusalem he rides not on the snorting stead of a conquering king, but the lowly donkey of peace. The disciples look down at Jesus washing their toes and wonder, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?" Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome, but a small band who gathers to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away the sword. Jesus is nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with royal thorns as an enemy of the state. And in the end one dirty bird nailed on a cross next to him pleads, "Remember me, Jesus. Let me nest under the shadow of your tree."  

Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders and outcasts, strangers and sinners, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.
There was once a church nesting on the borders of our imagination. It was a little country church on the edge of town. The steeple stood tall and proud and the bushes were neatly trimmed to proper size. The outside of the church was whitewashed, and you might say the inside was also. In a front pew sits little Jimmy next to his mother, Mrs. Lee. Both are first time visitors. “Little Johnny” is picking his nose and wiping it on his jeans. Mrs. Lee is nervously fiddling with her bulletin. “Little Johnny" is thirty five years old. He got his name from his father, who passed away five years ago. His tongue is thick and his speech childlike. He looks out at the world through almond eyes and a fresh innocence as if seeing life for the first time. There were well-meaning family members and neighbors who said, "Wouldn't it be easier on you if he were in an institution?" They probably said that because they were uncomfortable being around Jimmy, particularly that snorting laugh or saying things that didn't make any sense. It was those attitudes that brought Mrs. Lee and Johnny to this new community.

The church they visited on that first Sunday was uncomfortable also, at first. With broken smiles the members would greet Mrs. Lee and Johnny. After that they didn't know what to say. Some members were annoyed when Jimmy would snort at the preacher's feeble attempt at a joke or when he would say something bizarre to a visitor. But, after a while Johnny seemed to blend in with all the rest of those quirky people----the elderly woman who just had to give you every gory detail about her goiter operation, the well-dressed computer programmer who wanted his name on a plaque for every gift he gave, and all those other members who were handicapped by a fear and an in-group mentality which kept them separate from those who were different.
Soon after visiting the little church Mrs. Lee and Johnny invited to their new church a family they had met at the clinic, who also had a child with Down's syndrome. The church welcomed them with open arms, as they had learned to welcome Mrs. Lee and Johnny. Later a bi-racial family who lived next door to Mrs. Lee and Johnny came to visit after they heard about this odd little church. A family with a tattooed teen and headphones permanently implanted in his ears started attending. The congregation welcomed an undocumented couple from Honduras. This new couple was there on the day they repainted the church and trimmed the hedges. Over the years the small church grew. Oh, it wasn't so much growth in size or money, or prestige in the community, that's for sure. The little church grew from its first awkward attempts at welcoming people different from them until they learned to extend the branches of God's love and compassion to whoever graced their doors from whatever life situation. In the end that small church became a nesting place for the birds.