Friday, September 3, 2021

The Rooster and the Sunrise

 

The Rooster and the Sunrise

The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning. 

Stephen Jay Gould, American biologist and author, 1981


During the Covid19 pandemic all sorts of misinformation and disinformation have been created and shared.  How and why has this happened?   A news account of remarks made at an anti-vax, anti-mask rally near the Minnesota State Capitol on August 28th offers an answer to that question.

….Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who had been a supporter of [Jan Malcom] the [Minnesota commissioner of health], told the crowd that firing Malcolm is now an option.  “I’m not defending her anymore,” Abeler said. “It seems the only language the governor understands is the removal of another commissioner.”

Abeler, who chairs a key senate human services reform committee, describes Malcolm as a friend and said it saddens him to call for her ouster. But Abeler wants Minnesotans to decide for themselves whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he opposes mandates or any heavy-handed efforts to get people to comply and that he believes Malcolm and the administration have failed to tell people the whole story.

“They had been behind encouraging, cajoling these employer mandates, the college mandates strongly, saying that the vaccines are safe and effective,” Abeler said in an interview. “But there are huge safety issues, which no one is talking about, and people should have the right to know that. That’s my simple request.”  Abeler claimed during his speech that more than 200 Minnesotans have died from the vaccine, but that number is hard to confirm. 

Abeler got the number from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a database of "information on unverified reports of adverse events (illnesses, health problems and/or symptoms) following immunization with U.S.-licensed vaccines." The system is designed to detect problems with vaccines, but it clearly states that just because a death or other health problem is listed, it cannot necessarily be attributed to the vaccine.

In some of the Minnesota cases, the deaths reported were likely from other causes but just happened to have occurred within 60 days of the person being vaccinated.  Meanwhile, the Health Department reports more than 7,800 Minnesotans have died because of COVID-19.[1]

How does this vignette help explain the origin of misinformation?    First, note how Sen. Abeler “frames up” the issue by raising suspicion in his hearers.   He accuses Commissioner Malcom and Governor Walz of having failed to tell people the whole story of the pandemic.  He goes on to declare:  “But there are huge safety issues, which no one is talking about, and people should have the right to know that.   That’s my simple request.”   Abeler  implies that “somebody” or a nefarious group of individuals is covering up allegedly disastrous results produced by the Covid19 vaccinations.  Second, Abeler marshals what he considers to be alarming evidence to back up his claims:   “…more than 200 Minnesotans have died from the vaccine.”

Four days after Sen. Abeler made these comments, Minnesota Public Radio carried the following comments from one of the nation’s foremost epidemiologists, Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota.    Osterholm was unequivocal in refuting Abeler’s claims:

“The senator’s wrong, and he knows it. It’s just not true,” Osterholm said.  According to Osterholm, Abeler’s claim is an “abuse” of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national effort to detect potential safety problems in vaccines.  Any adverse health outcome following vaccination, even if ultimately unrelated, can be reported to VAERS for further investigation. Osterholm said Abeler was mischaracterizing deaths in the system unrelated to vaccines.

“I can say safely at this point in Minnesota, no one has died from receiving the COVID vaccine. No one,” Osterholm said. “These vaccines are safer than aspirin.”[2]   

This situation illustrates well how misinformation about the pandemic is created and spread.   In the context of divided government in Minnesota (the Democrats control the House of Representatives and the Governor’s office, while the Republicans narrowly control the Senate) and, in anticipation of the 2022 elections in which Republicans intend to capture both chambers of the Legislature along with the Governor’s office, the pandemic has emerged as one of the most fought-over “political footballs” in Minnesota.

Senator Abeler and his Republican colleagues in the state Senate have done their best to “weaponize” the pandemic and the numerous measures the Walz administration has taken to keep Minnesotans safe and healthy during a pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen for more than a century.  In this regard, Walz has gone “by the book” in terms of following CDC and other Federal public health guidelines—and he’s been willing to endure the slings and arrows of his GOP critics.   As we approach the 2022 election cycle, Republicans appear to be highly focused on attacking Walz’s alleged heavy-handedness in keeping Covid19 under control.

Another reality that both Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota have to deal with is that the pandemic is still causing sickness and taking lives—despite the high (but not high enough!) rate of Covid vaccinations that Minnesota residents  have received.   Frustrated by Walz’s relative popularity and effectiveness, GOP leaders are tempted to go “out of bounds” as Senator Abeler did last Saturday.

In this regard, we dare not miss the logical fallacy woven into Abeler’s contention that the Covid19 vaccine has killed 200 of the over 3 million Minnesotans who have been vaccinated.  Abeler seems to have ignored the fact that VAERS data indicates a correlation with, but not necessarily the causation of, those 200 deaths.[3] 

From ancient times this has been described in the Latin phrase:  Post hoc ergo propter hoc  (translated: “after this, therefore because of this.”) This fallacy is often illustrated by the old parable of the rooster and the sunrise:   the rooster crows and the sun rises—so the rooster must have caused the sun to rise, right?  Wrong!

At its root, our country’s difficulty with misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic reflects a mindset that has infected too many of our fellow citizens:   a deep-seated skepticism about public health experts and their expertise.  What if, on the other hand, we all developed the more healthy habit of becoming more skeptical of the skeptics?

Sadly, this saga demonstrates how easy it is for false information to be shared in such a way that it develops a life of its own.   Senator Abeler planted a seed of misinformation (“Covid vaccinations killed 200 Minnesotans”) which will likely “grow” every time it is repeated (and sensationalized?) by those who heard him at that State Capitol rally on August 28.

 

 

           



[1]   Minnesota Public Radio:  “Malcolm next? GOP senators threaten another commissioner’s job,” by Tim Pugmire and Tim Nelson, on August 30, 2021 3:29 p.m.

 

[2] Minnesota Public Radio:   “Osterholm on the fourth COVID-19 wave, schools reopening and vaccine safety,” by Cathy Wurzer, Lindsay Guentzel and Alex Cheng on September 1, 2021 6:04 p.m.

[3] As Sen. Abeler failed to mention, the VAERS website makes it clear that:  “While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness. The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable. Most reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases.”

 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Drawn to the Bread of Life


 

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo ND

Pentecost 11/August 8, 2021

John 6:35, 41-51

 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

 

“Home, home on the range,

Where the deer and the antelope play,

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and

The skies are not cloudy all day.”

That old familiar verse pretty much sums up the mood that prevails in the first half of John chapter 6 which we’ve been exploring these last few Sundays.

A crowd numbering 5,000 has been miraculously fed with a very limited menu:  just five barley loaves and two dried fish.    Everyone eats until they’re filled, after which the clean-up crew collects 12—mind you!--12 big baskets of leftovers.  

In the wake of this amazing meal, the mood is buoyant and hopeful, the crowd is eager and curious, and there is even talk about drafting Jesus to become their king.

As those who were fed engage with Jesus, their benefactor, they’re captivated by what he has to say about wanting to give them—not just here today/gone tomorrow bread, but bread that endures for eternal life, “wonder bread” that reminds them of the miraculous manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness,  “bread from above…the bread from heaven”…all of it culminating in Jesus’ stirring claim that he—in his very being—is the Bread of Life…Bread that will assuage all hunger forever.

No wonder the mood here in the first half of John 6 is filled with hope and promise….

until….until we come to today’s portion of  this chapter….where all of a sudden some discouraging words are heard, and there’s some grumbling like the complaining Moses put up with while leading the ancient children of Israel for 40 years through the wilderness….

When we listen closely to this grousing in John 6, we recognize another old familiar tune…a melody of grievance, jealousy, and complaint.

“Who does he think he is—this fellow who fancies himself the Bread of Life???   We know his pedigree and it’s nothing special.  Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

That, my friends, is the unmistakable sound of familiarity breeding contempt.   It’s the sound of doubt creeping in and stealing away the joy and hope Jesus had planted in the hearts of those whom he had fed so lavishly.

It’s the kind of noise that’s made by the spiritually elite—self-appointed guardians of religious purity--whenever someone crosses the line between human and divine.    For Jewish religious leaders in the first century A.D., you could be one or the other—either human or divine, but never ever could you be both at the same time….

Even though Jesus had filled their bellies…even though Jesus had done the kind of thing only God can do….he still looked  and sounded like an average ordinary human being….folks knew where he came from….and they were familiar with his family tree…

So how dare Jesus cast himself as somebody who’s more-than-human?   What gives him the right to say, “I have come down from heaven?”

To talk that way, in that time and place, was to engage in blasphemy—a crime punishable by death.

Knowing how risky this was, you’d think Jesus might have toned down his rhetoric and made his claims more easy-to-swallow—lest he wind up in hot water with these guardians of the Jewish orthodoxy.

But Jesus, instead of backing down, rebukes these members of the religious elite, commanding them to stop their complaining….and then doubling down on them by declaring:  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”

Instead of softening some of his claims, rounding off the rough edges on his rhetoric, Jesus repeats what he has already said and he even ups the ante“I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven.   Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

That last word “flesh” must have stopped those guardians of Jewish doctrine dead in their tracks…by confronting them with their own aloof, hyper-spiritualized understanding of God.

If they just took Jesus him at his word, they’d have no choice but to say that Jesus is God—but God garbed in flesh and blood—God with skin on!   Such a notion was so shocking, so jarring to Jews in the 1st century that they simply could not believe it (at least, not on their own!)….which is why Jesus insists that “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”

Now that word—translated here as “drawn”—piqued my curiosity this past week as I prepared this sermon. 

In the original Greek language of the New Testament, this word can have an earthy flavor.  It’s used toward the end of John’s gospel to describe fisherman dragging or hauling in a net filled-to-overflowing with fresh-caught fish (John 21).

But this same word can also mean—more metaphorically--to draw in or to attract.

That’s how Jesus uses it here in our text:  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

In other words:  coming to faith in Jesus is never about us choosing Jesus.  Rather, it’s about discovering that Jesus is so appealing, so alluring, so attractive that we’re simply drawn to him.

And just what makes Jesus so attractive, so appealing?   It’s the depth and daring of Jesus’ love for us, his fearless determination to suffer and die on a cruel Roman cross for us—and, in so doing, Jesus draws us toward his love--love that will not let us go!

Jesus’ journey to the Cross begins with stories like this one here in John chapter 6, narratives in which the religious leaders of his day take aim at Jesus and push back against his fierce determination to sacrifice himself for those he loves.

This rejection of Jesus begins here in John 6 and it keeps crescendoing over the next thirteen chapters until Jesus’ enemies stir up another crowd who shout:  “crucify him, crucify him!”  (John 19:6)

On the one hand, what a tragedy that those angry voices prevailed!

But, on the other hand, what a triumph that Jesus won in his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave three days later!

My friends, this is the irony of all ironies:   that Jesus’ rejection by the religious leaders of his day led to his astonishing victory over sin, death and the power of the devil.

This is what makes Jesus so profoundly appealing, so amazingly attractive.   It’s what draws us to Jesus, enabling us to believe in him and depend on him for everything we need.

In just a few moments we’re going to experience a dramatic demonstration of how this happens….as we see sweet baby Mara being drawn to Jesus by God’s promise through the saving water of Holy Baptism.

As this happens right before our eyes, may it remind all of us of how we have been drawn, attracted to Jesus and his love…and  how God uses us as his tools for drawing others to the Bread of Life, as well!

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Jesus, Our Bread of Life

 

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo

Pentecost 10/August 1, 2021

John 6:24-35

 


In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I’ll bet that many of us have been watching at least some of the summer Olympic Games being played out in Tokyo, Japan.

It’s really quite the deal:      over 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries, competing in 339 medal events, all of them hoping to take home one of over 1000 medals that will be awarded.

What you might not realize is that the Tokyo Olympics are taking place at the same time as another sort of Olympics—what I’d like to dub the John Chapter 6 Bread of Life Olympics.

Whereas the athletic Olympics roll around every four years, the Bread of Life Olympics take place in late summer every three years….

….Because that’s when our Revised Common Lectionary--the “official” list of scripture texts read during worship services in many churches—our lectionary hands us not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE straight Sunday gospel readings all from the 71 verses that make up John chapter 6….a super-long chapter that starts out with the Fourth Gospel’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000--the only one of Jesus’s miracles that is recorded in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  

Now what makes John’s version of the feeding story unique is the fact that—following the miracle itself (which Pastor John Jorgenson preached about last Sunday)—this miraculous banquet kicks off a long, winding conversation between Jesus and folks he fed—five thousand hungry souls who feasted on just five barley loaves and only two fish, with 12 baskets of leftovers to boot!

This morning’s gospel reading, begins with Jesus, having left the location where the feeding took place, Jesus travels to the other side of the Sea of Galilee—perhaps to have some time alone to rest and reflect and pray!...

…we see, here in our gospel lesson, Jesus being confronted by the crowd who lead off sort of a dumb “doorknob” of a question:   “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

But Jesus sees right through their curiosity about his itinerary, probing instead what’s really on their minds:  “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  

Thus begins an awkward conversation in which Jesus and members of the crowd seem to be talking right past each another, almost as if they were speaking two different languages--operating on two different wavelengths.

Here’s what I mean.

1.     First of all, as the crowd wants to know when Jesus arrived at his current location, Jesus discerns what’s really on their minds:    the fact that they want another free lunch—they hanker for a repeat of the previous day’s bread-and-fish banquet.  

Jesus filled their bellies once—can he?—will he do it again?

But Jesus tells the crowd that he’s not interested in setting up his own Old Country Buffet or 24/7 catering service. 

And Jesus says so rather bluntly--not because the crowd is asking too much of him, but because they’re expecting too little. 

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

2.     Second, as the members of the restless crowd ponder what they’ve just heard, they become fixated on one of the words Jesus used:   the word “work.”  

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” members of the crowd ask.

 But Jesus, rather quickly and nimbly, pivots away from their question to reply that “this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

But just what sort of work is Jesus talking about here---and who exactly is the one who does the working?

It’s as if members of the restless crowd are laboring under the delusion that Jesus has come to offer them a grand D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself!) project, when, in fact, that’s the LAST thing Jesus wants.  

The work that matters, Jesus clarifies, is the work of God….which is about what God (not you or I) are doing—but how God is working in and through us for our life and for the life of the whole world.

The work of God—God’s work--isn’t what people do for God…but it’s about what God does for them…what God accomplishes for us, in us and through us—giving us—graciously, abundantly bestowing on us the gift of faith, hich a trusting faith that lays hold of and believes and counts on God’s work being done for us and our salvation.

3.    Third, the restless crowd here in John 6 picks up on yet another word that Jesus had used here—and that’s the word sign.  

“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?”   

The crowd hankers for a hint or a clue or some proof that will assure them—that will remove all their doubts and questions.   What dramatic evidence can Jesus give them to believe and lay hold on what he’s offering them?

But here’s the kicker:  Jesus declares that he himself is the proof they long for.   Jesus—in his very real presence, right then and there with them—Jesus offers himself as the sign par excellence….the only one who can align their their past, their present and their future…..

….in other words Jesus doesn’t just provide Bread, he actually is the Bread of Life, having come down from heaven for the life of the whole world.

Even though the crowd seems to ask all the wrong questions, Jesus somehow graciously offers them all the right answers…all the faith-nurturing, life-giving, future-opening answers….answers for the original crowd here in John 6…..but also answers for everyone who has come after them, right down through the centuries to you and me,today, as we drink in Jesus’ words, here in Fargo ND!

In doing so—lo and behold!—Jesus feeds us once again—just as richly and generously as he had fed the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes.

Jesus feeds you and me, my friends, with overflowing good news and death-defying hope this morning.

·      Jesus nourishes us with the assurance that he is always ready to give us more than we realize we need.  

When I was a little boy my dear mother often warned me not to get my hopes up too high (especially when Christmas Day or my next birthday were coming around)…my mom wanted me to be realistic in what I was hoping for in terms of gifts and presents I might receive.

But such wise, down-to-earth realism has no place when it comes to us approaching God in Jesus Christ.    That’s because of the sturdy hope we have in Christ, the hope that (as it says in Ephesians chapter 3) God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

·      But there’s more here:  Jesus strengthens us with astonishing promise that you and I are never, ever left “on our own” trying to produce even an ounce of faith—but that Jesus is always at work with us, through us and in us…freely giving us the faith that sustains us…graciously bestowing on us the faith that saves us.

 ·      But that’s not all.   Finally, rather than pointing us toward hints or clues about what he’s up to—“signs” that we might be seeking—Jesus lavishes upon us what we need the most:   to see and believe and stake our lives on Jesus himself…who doesn’t just give us bread, but who in his very being is our Bread, the Staff of  Life that will never let us down, the Provision that will see us through all the days of our lives!

So it is…every time we hear God’s Word…and every time we taste God’s goodness in the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood of our Lord’s Supper.

When that happens, as it is happening to us this morning!—we simply echo the fervent request made by the restless crowd here in John chapter 6:  “Give us this bread always—give us your very self, Lord, Jesus, because we know we can count on you.”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A Liturgy of Lament for a Time of Drought

 

A Liturgy of Lament for a Time of Drought

A resource created for Eagle Lake Lutheran Church, Willmar, MN, in the early 1980s.   Feel free to adapt or edit for local use.    Pastor Larry Wohlrabe.



PRELUDE

WELCOME AND ANNOUNCEMENTS

ADDRESS TO GOD (based on Psalm 63:1)

P:  O God, thou art my God,

C:  I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee;

P:  My flesh faints for thee,

C:  As in a dry and weary land where no water is.

P:  O God, thou art my God,

C:  I seek they, my soul thirsts for thee.

 

HYMN:    “As Pants the Hart”

COMPLAINT (based on the weekly news reports and Psalm 51:10-12)

P:  It has been hot and dry for weeks.

C:  We cry out to you for relief, O God.

P:  Our governor says we could be in a “season-long, statewide drought.”

C:  We cry out to you for mercy, O God.

P:  Some crops are lost, and many that survive will suffer irreparable damage.

C:  We cry out to you for recovery, O God.

P:  Farm families are depressed and town-folks grow anxious.

C:  We cry out to you for hope, O God.

P:  This physical drought is beginning to leave us spiritually dry as well.

C:  We cry out to you for faith, O God.

P:  Our dryness reflects our powerlessness, our God-forsakenness, our sinfulness.

C:  We cry out to you for forgiveness, O God.

P:  Let us make confession to God.

C:  Have mercy on us O God, according to your lovingkindness;

            In your great compassion blot out our offenses:

Create us in us clean hearts O God,

and renew right spirits within us.

Cast us not away from your presence,

And take not your Holy Spirit from us.

Restore to us the joy of your salvation

And uphold us with your free Spirit.

 

CONFESSION OF TRUST (based on Isaiah 41:17-18 and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)

 

P:  When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,

C:  The Lord will answer them, the God of Israel will not forsake them.

P:  God will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys;

C:  God will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

P:  It may seem that God has abandoned us in this time of drought.

C:  But we know that we are not forsaken!

P:  We are bold, therefore, to confess:

C:  We believe that God has created us and all that exists.  God has given us and still preserves our bodies and souls with all their powers.  God provides us with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all that we need from day to day.  God also protects us in time of danger and guards us from every evil.  All this God does out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, though we do not deserve it.  Therefore we surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey God.  This is most certainly true.

 

HYMN:  “He Leadeth Me”

 

WORDS OF ASSURANCE (based on Isaiah 55:10-11)

 

P:  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth,

C:  making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

P:  so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,

C:  but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and prosper in the things for which I sent it.

P:  Hear the word of the Lord:

 

FIRST LESSON:   Job 38:1-11

 

SECOND LESSONS:    II Corinthians 5:14-21

 

SHARING WITH CHILDREN

 

GOSPEL:   Mark 4:35-41

 

SERMON

 

HYMN:    “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”

 

OFFERING

 

VOW OF PRAISE  (based on Psalm 7:17)

 

P:  God does not sleep through our trials and tribulations, our physical drought and our spiritual dryness.

C:  God hears us and provides for our every need.

P:  Let us give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness!

C:  Let us sing praise to the Lord, the Most High!

 

HYMN:    “Listen, You Nations!”   (Canticle 14 in With One Voice)

 

BENEDICTION

 

POSTLUDE

 

 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

No Such Thing as "Too Little"

 

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo, ND

June 13, 2021 (Pentecost 2, Year B)

Mark 4:26-34

 


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 

Two months ago a photographer captured a memorable image that in so many ways reflects what life has been like during the pandemic.  It’s a picture of a very elderly woman, sitting all alone in a church pew, grieving for her late husband, at his funeral.

 

This funeral—like so many others during the pandemic—had just a handful of mourners in attendance, all of them masked and observing strict social distancing protocols.

 

This particular widow, though, was unlike so many other women who lost husbands during 2021.  Her full name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor and she is both the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch in history.

 

When she was born in 1926 Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, ruled over not just the United Kingdom, but the entire British Empire—a realm so vast, wealthy and powerful that it was called "the empire on which the sun never sets.”

 

Since succeeding her father in 1952, Queen Elizabeth has overseen the gradual transformation of that old British Empire into a loose confederation of territories now called the British Commonwealth of Nations—a shadow of its former self, a kingdom in name only.

 

Because nowadays real kingdoms are hard to come by—you and I are especially challenged whenever we hear biblical passages like this morning’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus asks:  With what can we compare the Kingdom of God?”

 

That’s actually a loaded question, because whenever folks like us hear that word “Kingdom,” it conjures up all sorts of assumptions and associations.

 

·      When we hear “Kingdom” we probably picture a vast territory, more acres or square miles than we can count.

 

·      When we see that word “Kingdom” we envision overflowing wealth and riches beyond measure.

 

·      When we read that word “Kingdom” we immediately assume that tremendous power is afoot—that control is being exercised by an invincible ruler who has “command authority” over everything.

 

All those associations and assumptions are conjured up whenever we see, hear or read that word “Kingdom.”

 

My friends, it’s essential that we pay attention to these preconceptions about what earthly kingdoms are usually about….because, when we shift gears to consider the Kingdom of God, all bets are off!   

 

For, you see, God’s reign, God’s kingdom is totally opposite of what we usually think of as a “kingdom.”

                        

God’s Kingdom is a topsy, turvy, reality. Some have even called it an “upside down Kingdom!”

 

With what can we compare the Kingdom of God?” Jesus asks here in St Mark, chapter 4.  And then he answers his own question by declaring:  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds upon the earth.”

 

When, out of the clear blue, we hear the word “Kingdom,” our natural human tendency is to “think BIG.”

 

But Jesus, instead, invites us to “think SMALL.”    Think “magnifying-glass-small”….think teeny, tiny “microscopically small!”

 

Because for God, you see, “small is beautiful!”

 

I think that’s because God knows how size and appearance can easily deceive us.

 

We see that wonderfully played out, not just in our gospel lesson but also in today’s Old Testament lesson, in which the prophet Samuel discovered that God had chosen none of the older, taller sons of Jesse to become the king of Israel…but that God had singled out the smallest and youngest of eight brothers, the runt of the litter, little no-account David, chosen by God to be anointed King of Israel.

 

For God, “small is beautiful”…and I think that’s because large realities in this world almost always start out small.

 

My wife Joy and I grew up on farms in southern Minnesota.  We mainly raised corn and soybeans which meant that every summer we prayed for timely rains, fought off the bugs, and pulled up weeds relentlessly…especially that, if given a chance, could multiply and over-run a soybean field—almost overnight!

 

That’s why, if our fathers spotted a lone thistle, or a single buttonweed or just one yellow mustard plant our dads would wade through growing crops, sometimes for up to half a mile, just to uproot that one super-spreader weed before it could go to seed and take over the whole field.

 

With what can we compare the Kingdom of God ? It is like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of seed…yet when it is sown upon the ground it grows and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…

 

…and all of that—that entire process of germination and growth—seems to happen on its own,  automatically, without any human assistance--God’s creative hand, God’s miraculous green thumb hidden under what appears to be a purely natural process….

 

But this miracle of the mustard seed is so much more than a spectacle that wows us.    This wild, out of control mustard seed growth serves a larger purpose.  It nurtures life and extends God’s wondrous creation.   The teeniest seed—Jesus tells us--produces a mega-shrub with branches big enough and spread out wide enough to provide shelter for the birds of the air.

 

In saying this we describe not only the surprising miraculous growth and vastness of God’s Kingdom, but also the wealth and the power of God’s Reign.  

 

For you see, the wealth of God’s Kingdom has nothing to do with what God creates and keeps stored up for himself. 

 

Rather, God’s wealth is what God lovingly chooses to give away, in order to nurture the world God has created, represented here by birds finding new homes among the branches of this amazing mustard plant…which is why, in our prayer of the day, earlier in our worship, we prayed:  “O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world….”

 

Neither God’s wealth nor God’s power serve any selfish purposes God might have in mind.  

 

Rather, God’s wealth is everything that serves the life of the universe which God has created and handed over to us…and God’s power is to give himself away for the care and nurture of all that He has made.

 

We see that in this parable of the mustard seed that Jesus told….and we behold it even more vividly in the drama of the mustard seed that Jesus enacted in his own life, death and resurrection.

 

Our Lord Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, but he also lived out this story when he gave away his life on the Cross for us and when like a tiny seed he was buried in the earth for us, so that three days later he could “germinate” in the power of the resurrection for us and our salvation.

 

This story of the mustard seed isn’t just a great story Jesus told.  It was also the “script” for the life he lived with us, among us and most of all for us….

 

…And even that isn’t the “end of the story!”

 

Jesus told this story, spun out this parable for all who had ears to hear it….

 

And then Jesus lived this story in his own life, death and resurrection…

 

And then Jesus got us into the act, when through the water and Word of baptism we were joined to, incorporated into Jesus Christ…so that we might live out this story--small though each of us may seem to be.   

 

Thank God, God loves small things like mustard seeds, and like the little baby Jesus,  and like little old you and little old me!

 

Thank God—God fashions a life for us in which our greatest delight is to follow Jesus, dying to sin in order to rise again with Christ, giving ourselves away through our faith, hope and love…and  continually sacrificing all that we have and all that we are, to nurture God’s gift of life that fills the whole creation.

 

And here’s what’s best about our “mustard seed” faith, hope and love:   God takes what we offer and God “super-sizes” it for the sake of our neighbors and the whole creation….so that nothing we might offer up (in gratitude for all that God has given to us!)…nothing will ever be too little for God the Holy Spirit to work with and accomplish wonderful things--all in the surprising, surpassing power of  the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Let us pray:   "O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world.  Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen."

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Preparing for Our Next Pandemic

 

Things We’ll Do Better….During Our NEXT Pandemic



Although we’re still in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic, it’s not too early to start reflecting on what we’ve learned for the sake of being more prepared for the next pandemic.   In this blog-post I’m sharing eight thoughts that have come to my mind.  Please chime in with your own thoughts, hopes and dreams for how we might handle the next pandemic better than we dealt with the current pandemic.

 

Number 1:  We’ll be grateful that—after our LAST pandemic (i.e. the pandemic of 2020-2021)--we invested time, imagination, and resources in preparing for our next pandemic.    Examples:  strengthening our public health infrastructure, maintaining adequate inventories of vital tools (e.g. PPE, facemasks, sanitation supplies), “capturing” our learnings, etc.

 

Number 2:  We’ll recognize the critical differences between public health and individual health and thus share a consensus about the necessity of sacrificing individual freedoms for the sake of society-wide, global  responsibilities.

 

Number 3:  We and our elected leaders will trust science and expertise, and we’ll  all resist any attempts to politicize scientific findings and public health guidelines and recommendations.

 

Number 4:  We’ll willingly embrace short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term gains.

 

Number 5:  We’ll support one another in cultivating patience and managing our anxieties.

 

Number 6:  We’ll understand that a pandemic is, by definition, a global epidemic that requires global solidarity and cooperation.

 

Number 7:  We’ll be mindful of and address the critical needs of our neighbors whose circumstances make them more vulnerable and “at risk” during pandemics.

 

Number  8:  We’ll pray for and generously support local faith communities and agencies that address human needs, in partnership with governments and pertinent non-governmental organizations.