St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 14, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Sneaky Grace

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I would never have believed you if you had told me that I would become a pastor, even as late as my days of beginning study in seminary. I didn't go to seminary in order to become a pastor. I thought I would simply add a spiritual dimension to what I then believed my calling was–counseling. It was never to be a minister. If I recall the sequence correctly, it was something like fireman, then nuclear physicist, then lawyer, then counselor.

But that's only part of the story. The way faith grew in me is beyond me. My parents took us to worship occasionally, even faithfully during some of the early years. I remember the Sunday School parties and the teachers that became examples of Christian love to me. You've likely heard me mention my first grade Sunday School teacher, Miriam Erk, before. But what's weird is that it isn't the faith that I remember her teaching. It was simply her way of being with us—with the children she so obviously loved. And I remember absolutely nothing from my confirmation classes. And yet, I can't remember a time when I didn't have faith.

Certainly music helped to nurture the seeds of faith in me. And I still wonder what was it was that drew me back to church in those confirmation years when my family had ceased attending. Soon after being confirmed, in eighth grade, I joined the adult choir where I stayed for nine years—all the way through college.

As I look back on this and so much more of my story, I think that faith and grace sneaked up on me. They grabbed me when I wasn't looking. They came to me despite myself and in round about ways.

Today Jesus offers up two parables that bring to mind these reflections on faith. In order to avoid repeating exactly what I just read, here's Eugene Peterson's version in "The Message":

Then Jesus said, "God's kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!

"How can we picture God's kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It's like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it."

With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.

Yes. That's my experience. The seeds of faith came to me as if tossed forgetfully and left to their own devices. The seeds sprouted and grew; I have no idea how. And don't be confused. Those other vocational leanings I had and others have would all have been fine callings just as much as being a pastor. It's the surprise I want to lift up, not the specific experience of it.

Looking back, perhaps I can just make out the contours of a tiny seed or two. But their impact upon my life has been mighty. And yes, I made choices along the way that gave shape to the tree of my faith, pruning here and there with paths not taken and relationships turned aside as well as perhaps a few opportunities followed. But I simply don't think of my life or my faith or my calling as my own doing.

We sleep and rise, and the seed sprouts and grows. We know not how. The Earth produces of itself. The seed grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.

Surely this is a wonder and mystery of faith. It sneaks up on us and grabs us by the scruff of the neck, unbidden by us and often hidden from us.

Is that your experience? Can you tell a story that reflects these words of our Lord in these odd little parables? Do you know something about—yes, as Lutherans, grace for sure—but sneaky grace? Do these parables of mystery and hiddenness and compulsion from outside yourself ring true? I wonder.

Surely the disciples sensed this. Going about their daily chores, they are happened upon by a totally unexpected fellow whose invitation stirs something in their hearts and souls that they hadn't known was there. They take abrupt leave of their father and their fishing nets—four of them. Or they're doing their taxes and rise to the two words "Follow me." That's back in chapter two of Mark by the way, and that last bit is what happens in the call of Levi. I wonder if they felt swept along by a current that seemed irresistible. I suspect strongly that, upon reflection, if they would have said that grace had taken them by surprise, that their lives had taken a turn wholly other than intended or dreamed or sought.

I wonder whether this is a widespread experience of grace and if this is a part of what Jesus is saying with these odd little stories.

Whether or not it's widespread, at least perhaps it is useful. We hold in faith, as we search the scriptures, that God is at work in every life. That's part of the honoring of others our faith calls for. If God is at work in all, then it is incumbent upon us to honor and respect all. We trust that the profligate scattering of seed falls upon all creatures. And the inevitable work of those seeds begins, sprouting in every heart and every thing for the sake of a godly purpose, perhaps only to be known at the time of harvest.

I very much like this idea. God loves us and there is nothing we can do to stop that. The seed of God's word is at work in us, and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Even if we don't perceive it, it is there. Regardless of the reason we come to worship, regardless of what we really think about all of this God stuff, God is there in our hearts and souls, our strength and minds, urging along the growth of grace, of relationships, and of potential for making real contributions to a better future envisioned in the mind of God.

The image of the second parable today provides some insight into that God-envisioned future. The metaphor is in the shape of a tree. Well, at least a shrub or bush or weed.

In all my years of playing with this passage, I had never actually tried to find a picture of the kind of mustard bush referred to here. I invite you to do a computer search as I did this week. You'll be amazed at how huge they can get—at least eight feet high and quite wide as well. It's not much at all like what we see in our fields here. Nor was it likely grown as a crop, but was probably a weed. And invasive at that.

Each of these aspects of the story tells us something important.

The size itself surprises. For me, the pictures were a revelation of just how large. But for those hearing these words, it would likely have been laughable. The mustard was big, but nowhere huge enough to accommodate very many nesting birds. And not anything like the great ancient cedars of which Ezekiel speaks and to which this parable was likely heard to point.

Jesus sneaks up on us here as well. There is unexpectedness and mystery. God's future steals in upon us as a challenge to our images of power and greatness. Not a mighty cedar but a lowly weed. Not power and prestige but hearts and hope. Not a conquering and majestic king but a common man crucified as a criminal.

There is absurdity here, for a reason. There's humor too. It's sneaky. And I like it.

As a weed, this image tells us that there is commonness within this extraordinary vision of God. It's for everyone. It's not exclusive or hard to come by. Coming from a small seed, we're reminded again that there is hope for all. Even in the least and the lowest, God's sneaky grace is extravagantly productive. Small is beautiful, and great things arise even from the tiny. God is concerned with the unseen, the heart, of the person. Bring in the little one, the one left out, the one not considered or included; bring in David, the shepherd, and make him a shepherd-king. Bring in the refugee child of a carpenter born in the backwaters of Palestine to be the King of kings and Lord of lords

That the seed is sown by another is significant too, of course. God is in control, not we ourselves. There is no need to wonder whether we're good enough. There's no need to think that we need to do anything special in order to be loved by God. Love is God's very nature. And once we recognize it, we respond appropriately; that's when the doing kicks in. We want to honor the one who loves us unconditionally. We just do.

This seed is in all of us and in all things. And that may give us pause. Some of us may not be all that certain we want the seeds of faith sown in us. Some might be a bit concerned about what that might do to them. But it's okay! There is no need for fear. It's all about love, not compulsion or duty. Although, yes, it will change us.

That mustard is a wild plant also has significance. We might call it an invasive. It spreads prolifically and defies attempts to reign it in. It invades, intending to take us over. It persists, working to take over our future. It's a very sneaky and shameless little thing!

Don't you begin to love this image?

And there is much more here. It all calls to mind the ancient archetypal image of the tree of life. I have played with that symbol before, so I mention it only in passing. But it too is powerful in its connections to prophecies of the messiah like the one we have in Ezekiel this morning. It implies the universal embrace of God's love, with the metaphorical tree spanning the distance between Earth and heaven, holding up the sky, and sheltering all creatures in its branches. It implies profound truths about the cross, the ultimate tree of life, where all of creation is embraced in God's endless work of reconciliation, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

And here too the absurdity and hiddenness and mystery and sneakiness and humor are revealed. The lowly mustard plant and the horrific tree of crucifixion become emblematic of the cosmic tree of life.

It all points to the power of God and the mystery of love, the most fundamental and powerful and transformative feature of creaturely life.

So, watch out! Grace is sneaking up on you, invading your heart and mind and soul, laying claim upon you, engaging in the work of transforming you. And it is a very good thing. When you least expect it, the Spirit grabs you by the scruff of the neck and calls you to something new, something small. But just give it time and behold what God will do.

As our bishop likes to say in quoting Isaiah 43, God is saying to us in these parables "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Our God is always planting seeds. Something new is springing forth. Do you perceive it? Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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