It was the mute button. I am sure of it. We thought it was unmuted. Alas, there was not recording.
From time to time I have posted the Sunday sermon. Rarely does the spoken word follow verbatim the written word. It is the nature of preaching without notes for most of my life. As time goes by it has been better to get it down on paper both for my memory and to make better use of everyone’s time.
Left-Hand Power – Indiscriminate and Invasive Love
Like a felon about to be sent away, the young man told his uncle, “I want to say goodbye to a few friends first.”
The young fellow, all of 22 years of age, called a few weeks ago and left a message on our answering machine here at the church. “I am told you might be a church that would help with a flat tire.” I returned the call.
It seemed he and his family, that included three children under 4, had rolled through town and discovered a flat. Some local folks helped him push the vehicle off of Cemetery Road, the 3-mile line for you natives or adaptive types.
Over time you learn the need to verify. I took off to investigate. Sure enough, I found the car. To my surprise, there was a tire on a rim sitting just next to the front driver’s side axle. I got out. It was full of air. Had I been able to find the lug nuts, I would have put it on for him.
I took a couple of pictures and made my way back to the office. “Hello, this is Pastor Todd. There is a tire on a rim there.” Shocked the fellow said, “Maybe there is a rim. We cut the tire off last night.” I wanted to say, “Well, in a miracle of Biblical proportions, there is a healthy tire on a rim.”
The story did not start there. It actually began quite a few years ago. Though I don’t know that I recall meeting him, the fellow had come to our food pantry with his mother. She is now gone but he remembered your church as a place that would help.
And Jesus follows up the parable of the Sower and an explanation with the question, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket or under a bed? Not your run of the mill first-century image. After all, under a basket or under a bed might ignite a fire. Of course, the answer to the over the top obvious question is, “Of course not.”
What follows sets the stage for more parables. I realize that some Sundays you think I am speaking in parables. Confused at an illustration or challenged to think differently than you always have, Jesus presents a challenge.
We try to explain why Jesus doesn’t talk in a straight line. Why not just be clear. Mark even inserts an explanation for Jesus’ parables drawn from Isaiah,
So that . . .
they may indeed look,
and yet not perceive;
they may indeed listen,
and yet not understand;
otherwise, they might turn back
and be forgiven.
Whoa! What sort of teacher is it that intentionally misdirects?
Jesus, of course.
Straight line logic is the rhetoric of power. It is just like the fellow who wanted Jesus to heal his servant. When Jesus said he would go to the military leader’s house, the leader said,
Lord, don’t trouble yourself, since I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. That is why I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to this one, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.
How many of you are left-handed? I learned that we might be better if we say, “Left-hand dominant.” I polled my daughters to see about Jason and Craig. The reply came back, “It depends.” Jason wears his watch on his right wrist, though he is right-handed. Craig does nearly everything left-handed except shoot a basketball. My Dad, well, he does everything left-handed.
If you read the Bible carefully, you could easily get a complex if you are left-handed. No one who is right-handed gets called out. But, if you are left-handed, it is of note. There are a couple of exceptions.
How about this description,
Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he raised up Ehud son of Gera, a left-handed Benjaminite, as a deliverer for them.
Not one other time that I could find is someone referenced as being right-handed.
There is this,
I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you by my righteous right hand. -says God to Israel.
Power, real strength, was considered to be in the right hand. It sounds almost like a PT Barnum Greatest Show on Earth sideshow introduction. Maybe you can hear it,
Step right up and see . . .
There were seven hundred fit young men who were left-handed among all these troops; all could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.
Luther considered Jesus’ life and ministry left-handed. It did not fit what Christs do. Parables force us to think different. Their intended use is to turn the normal course of life upside down. “Who puts a lamp under a bushel or a bed?” No. One.
Following on from the question about light, which by the way, could prompt us to think of John, Jesus is the Light of the World. If Jesus is not prominent in what we do, then we have put the Lamp under a bushel or a bed.
Jesus gives his listeners, and we readers, a couple of Kingdom parables back to back. Often we read these as, well, little pithy statements that move the story along but it is not part of the main event, you know, Jesus dying and rising.
Or is it?
A man scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day; the seed sprouts and grows, although he does not know how. The soil produces a crop by itself – first the blade, then the head, and then the full grain on the head. As soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle, because the harvest has come.
Nothing good could happen on earth, just ask the pagans. Their religious power was kept on Olympus. Rarely did the gods come down and then only to either take up with beautiful women or assert themselves for some tribe’s benefit.
Here Jesus says what the Kingdom of God is like, it is different. You who expect direct, right-handed displays of power are going to be disappointed. You who need the gods to flex their proverbial muscles in great shows of strength are going to measure up the Kingdom and find it lacking. You who need straight-line power because it is what you have become accustomed to will miss what God is up to because it is left-handed, weak. It is indiscriminate and invasive.
We have a hangover. That’s right, the vision of the gods on Olympus have been maintained in a blissful, halo-and-wing-like existence where harps abound aplenty.
That is straight-line thinking. But, in the parable the location of the Kingdom is earthy. It is in the this-ness that it is planted. It is not in the otherness. It is not a Kingdom that awaits. It is a Kingdom come near, here, you know, like seed tossed indiscriminately – anywhere and everywhere.
Its growth is not up to us nor is it dependent on us.
The Lamp, the Light of the world, was put on a stand – the Cross.
And, when I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself. – says Jesus.
What? Another parable?
How is it that in the gruesome death, a sure sign of weakness against worldly power, that all people will be drawn to death? Can you tell it to me straight, please!
Here in the this-ness, the earthly the Kingdom of God has come. The seed has been planted.
Put out a shingle. Tell folks there is food for them. Don’t require more than to trust that food will be here when you get here. That is left-handed, weak, seed planting activity. It is not up to us nor is it dependent on us. We have simply taken up the seed and we keep throwing it.
And the phone rings. The voice on the answering machine asks, “Do you help with flat tires.” Oh, yes and more.
You and me we make planting seed so scary. It is working with the earth, the this-ness. It is what we know. It is where we live. And, we have trusted that when God tells us that Jesus is the Light, the Lamp, and that in Jesus God shows his love in the weakest form imaginable it does not require your power or mine – just throw some seed.
So, how is it that as we have encountered Jesus in the this-ness of life that we find it hard to point to trust, simple faith?
Yesterday the young man texted me. He has texted a couple of times to tell me how he is doing. Could I take him to Walmart, his Dad is sending him money? He sends an address. I tell him I should be there in 15-20 minutes.
We talk about his earth-bound, this-ness. His common-law wife went back to her ex. He is homeless again. No car. No job. Staying with friends. We head to Walmart where he would pick up his money.
While driving his uncle calls. He will buy him a bus ticket back home – to Owasso. He puts the conversation on speaker phone. Maybe he wanted to let me know he wasn’t yanking my chain. I don’t know.
What I do know is that his uncle encouraged him to put his anger behind him. “I am calm, cool and collected now,” he tells his uncle. Clearly, there is a history.
His Mom had died of cancer. A series of poor decisions and he finds himself homeless. Right, I know he deserves it just like the children whose parents bring them to this Country only to be stripped from their arms to show who has the power. Let him suffer his consequences.
During our first conversation, I told the young man we would help and that we would help him think about making better decisions. He said, “That is what everyone is telling me.” I said, “Well, I am not intending to join the chorus, but don’t you think different decisions might be better?”
He had not eaten in two days he said. You bought him dinner last night – a wrap from Subway.
We drove back toward where he was staying. I missed the turn. He said, “Oh, I was going to ask you if you would take me to my friend’s house. She is one of the ones I want to tell goodbye.” Sure.
Then, I hesitated. He told me he had spent money on drugs and the casino. I told him that if that $40 he just received was to buy drugs at some house that I would take him back to where I picked him up. “No, I don’t need that anymore.”
There were just a few more miles and then we would be there. I don’t know if I would see him again. So, I decided to throw some more seed.
I told him I did not want to sound all preachy but that I have found that Jesus is the best way. I wanted to connect with his sense of where to go from here, what decisions to make. I had not gotten very far when he asked if I really believed that stuff, you know, in the Bible. I asked, like what stuff?
“I think it’s like a fairy tale, you know some made up story. Like, I believe in evolution and all.”
“So what?,” I replied.
“Well, like what about the dinosaurs?”
I said, “Who cares?” “If I answer your dinosaur question, how will that help you make a better next decision?” Folks, we spend way to much time getting sidetracked in defending things we don’t know that we miss what we do know.
We carried on until we reached the driveway.
I turned toward him and said, “Listen, I could answer your questions and your doubts. You cannot raise a question or doubt I have not had. But, let me tell you what I trust. Jesus offers the best way of life. We trust that God’s loves showed up in Jesus.”
I went on, “If I answer your dinosaur question, how does that connect with the fact that your Dad said you could come home, your uncle will buy you a bus ticket, you have a job waiting, and you met our church and found some help in your time of need? Do you really think that is all just the alignment of the stars? I believe that God’s love is invasive, it is everywhere at work all the time. It shows up in places I could not imagine in ways I could not plan. So, if I could tell you where and what happened to the dinosaurs, would that really help you see that God loves you?”
It told him I would put him in touch with a friend in Owasso. Someone who may be able to provide the same kind of connections here. A place where he might not find folks tempting him to make the sorts of decisions he had been set up for.
And that gets us to the second parable – if the Kingdom of God is like a seed sown indiscriminately, it is like a plant that is invasive. If you look for it, it is everywhere. Just like the mustard plant.
Maybe you don’t get the imagery of the mustard plant. You don’t grow them. How about nut grass? Or, what about an email that contains a virus your Aunt or other relative shared? What about kudzu? Or, the particular species of plant that invades. This summer unless something changes an invasive form of algae will threaten lakes.
The Kingdom of God come is Jesus in the flesh. His love, by the Spirit, cannot be contained in one locality or among one group of people. It is everywhere.