Saturday, July 26, 2014

Parabolic Pyrotechnics

Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
July 27, 2014
Installation of Pr. David Hanssen
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks show.

When we gather, on lawn blankets, to watch the fireworks every Independence Day…the show always starts slowly (have you noticed?)  

We wait and wait, willing the sky to turn dark enough, and then one wimpy little rocket goes off.   Was this it?  Or did one of the firemen or Lions Club members in charge of things just jump the gun?

But then there’s another rocket, yielding a bigger display of light in the sky….and a pause, and another rocket that produces a big, ear-tingling boom….and a pause….and another rocket, this one like a gigantic dandelion in the sky…

…..and so it goes for 15 or 20 minutes until at the very end of the evening, the guys in charge of the pyrotechnics gleefully set off a whole array of fireworks, all at once—colorful ones and cannon boomers all together—an exciting, breath-taking coda displayed against the gorgeous backdrop of a starlit summer sky.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like that grand finale of a July 4th fireworks display.   The last few Sundays we’ve been lounging on our lawn blankets, taking in the earlier portion of the fireworks here in Matthew 13….savoring the Sower and the Seed two weeks ago….and struggling with the shocking parable of the Wheat and the Weeds last Sunday….

Those earlier parables offered us both story and interpretation by Jesus.  We watched the rockets go up and then heard some “color commentary” on what was going on….

But now, this morning….the fireworks display is over, with a rat-a-tat-tat of five quick bursts of parabolic dynamite.   The finale makes the whole show worthwhile….and then it is over.

Except that it’s not over, really, because at this point our little analogy breaks down.   Fireworks displays are always too short—great experiences, but entirely fleeting, over way too soon.

But these parables that come at us here at the end of Matthew 13….these are not flashes-in-the-pan, momentary “eye candy.”   No, these are deep, deep stories that will carry us through our whole lives of faith, hope and love.

And they come to us—appropriately enough--on this long-anticipated Sunday morning, as we welcome Pastor David Hanssen to serve here at Bethel.

Where are you in this gospel reading, Pastor David?  I think you’re named in the last verse where Jesus says:  “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

You, David, are the scribe here….not one of the bad-guy scribes we read about in the gospels (usually in cahoots with the Pharisees and priests), out to “get” Jesus.  

No, here, Jesus speaks of another kind of scribe, who has been trained for the kingdom….not the old kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of old Israel….but the kingdom of heaven.   You are a scribe, one who tends the things of God, for the sake of the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ, the bringer of God’s new creation!

So what sort of stuff have you been called to tend here in this outpost of the kingdom of heaven?   What old and new things is Jesus calling you to bring forth from your treasure chest?   Conveniently enough—this is a Lutheran sermon after all!—there are three treasures God is placing in your hands.

First, you are a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, called to draw attention to the utter giftedness of God’s rescuing, renewing work in Jesus Christ.

As you listen and learn and teach and preach, you’ll find yourself speaking in this vein:  “You lucky stiffs!   Before you knew what hit you, you stumbled across the best gift imaginable, fallen into the largess of your Creator, had showered down upon you –like pennies from heaven—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—all of it, ‘for you!’”

As a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, you will develop the art of pointing that out—to yourself and to others—all the ways in which the buried treasure, the pearl of great price has found you.  In fact the defining fact of your life and everyone else’s life is that “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8) Jesus flat out died for us, though we have done absolutely nothing to deserve him.

I picture the man in the parable stumbling over, maybe stubbing his big toe on the cache of treasure buried in that field.  I picture the pearl merchant, bug-eyed and so weary from shucking oysters, that he was almost dozing off when his eye caught the sparkle of the pearl he’d been looking for all his life!

The encompassing enormity of this treasure we have in Jesus—life, freedom, forgiveness and a future without end!—the enfolding reality of that treasure is seen in the crazy, stupid thing the treasure-finder and the pearl merchant each do.  Instead of getting that field assessed, that pearl appraised, they both simply “sell all” to make the precious thing their own.   That’s what God is after:  all of us—lock, stock and barrel!—and the way God accomplishes that is to give us all of Jesus—crucified, buried, raised again for us and our salvation.

You’re called to point that out, Pastor David, the sheer giftedness of all that we are and have in Jesus Christ.

Second, God wants you to help folks perceive the amazing hiddenness of God’s ways.   Mustard seeds and granules of yeast are virtually invisible, after all.   But these substances aren’t just minuscule—they’re also despised.   Mustard is more like a weed than a stalk of wheat.  The “leaven” in the parable was really a musty lump of stale bread—a source of corruption in a fastidious kitchen—hidden by the baker in an enormous barrel of flour.  Out of sight, out of mind…

But both of them—the mustard seed and the tiny bit of leaven—both of them grow and change and transform in amazing ways.
So, Pastor David, as a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, God calls you not to miss, and to help others not to miss the wondrous ways God works in the tiniest, most despised things.   Ernst K√§semann, the great German scholar of the New Testament, once said that the kingdom of God is “made up of stuff that in and of itself is fundamentally unusable.”   Never forget that.  

Never let these dear sons and daughters of God forget that, either.   We are Minnesotans after all.   As Garrison Keillor points out, we’re all brought up to believe that we shouldn’t ever become too proud of ourselves… we cultivate a militant modesty that is reluctant to believe that God might be at work in our midst.  
But the God we have on our hands is the God who takes mustard seeds and covers the planet with mustard plants, big enough for birds to find nesting places.  The God we know in Jesus takes old moldy bread and leavens fresh dough with it in order to bake loaves that feed a multitude at the Table of Grace.

Finally, Pastor David, you are called to work faithfully in the messiness of the church’s life.   That’s the burden of the parable of the dragnet—like the weeds amid the wheat, the dragnet draws in “fish of every kind” (v. 47).   That’s how it is in the church, how it is here at Bethel.   Our admission standards are pretty low—we’re just looking for sinners who have an inkling that God knows what to do with sin!

That opens the floodgates to “fish of every kind”—some prize walleyes and northerns right alongside sheepshead and carp—all of us in the same barrel, this odd kettle of fish called the church.   

You will notice that, from time to time, the thought will be voiced that we should get more selective, attend more carefully to the holiness of the church by welcoming some in and keeping others out.  But one of the great things about being Lutheran is that we really like (and I would say we really “get”) Jesus’ parables about weeds growing up with wheat, and a dragnet big enough to haul in “fish of every kind”—trusting that God and God alone is qualified to do any sorting that needs to be done--and that only at the End of God’s story.

So, Pastor David, as you serve now here at Bethel, a “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven,” tend the holy things and the holy people of God:  never tiring of sharing the sheer giftedness, the astonishing hiddenness, and the surprising wideness of God’s mercy in this messy place we call the church.

That ought to keep you out of mischief, for what we hope will be a good long time!

In the name of Jesus.

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