Sunday, June 17, 2018

With What Can We Compare the Kingdom of God?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Mark 4:30-34

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How can the Kingdom of God be like this…? I mean, how on earthcan the Kingdom of God be compared to this little seed? This seed, that, if I dropped it onto the ground, would be buried in the carpet or lost in the grass? It’s not the smallest seed, but it is small, and it could easily be dropped and lost. Surely Jesus has it wrong here and the Kingdom of God should be compared to a seed bigger than this – a seed at least as big as the avocado pits that I used to stick into water until I could see the roots form. 

Today’s Parable of the Mustard Seed comes in the midst of other parables, and in these stories, Jesus is using common images that his listeners can see to describe that which is not seen. Unlike the avocado pit, the roots of which we could see growing in the water, once we put a little mustard seed into the dirt, the growth of the roots is out of sight. We plant this little seed into the soil and trust that something is happening under there – but we don’t really know until the stems and leaves begin to poke their way out of the dirt and into the light.

It’s as if Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is found down in the dirt – in the humility of a seed surrounded by dirt and manure and earthworms and insects. In these humble circumstances is where growth happens, and when that growth emerges from the dirt, it can grow into a shrub big enough to provide shade for the birds. 

A modern day parable: One night this past week, I was catching up on Twitter. I kept seeing this random hashtag – something about a raccoon, and I kept thinking, “What is up with this raccoon?” So, I looked further and found myself enmeshed in the saga of a small raccoon that had spent most of the day scaling a 24-story building in St. Paul, Minnesota. Like so many others, I couldn’t turn away from the raccoon’s hashtag. Like so many others, I needed to go to bed but I kept refreshing Twitter anyway so I could see what happened to the little critter. 

Like so many others, I finally went to bed, uttering prayers for her safety. The next morning, I discovered that in the early morning hours, the raccoon had gotten herself up to the roof where she found cat food and water waiting for her. Twitter was downright jubilant for the first time in quite a while. In a rare show of unity, the world had rallied behind – or maybe underneath – a small mammal ascending the side of a building.

I think that the Kingdom of God is like that, too – found in the tenacity of a raccoon who is scared and tired and hungry – but keeps on going. 

The parables of Jesus and our own modern-day parables help us remember just what the Kingdom of God is about, and what it’s not about. The Kingdom of God is found in the lamp shining to give light to others, or the plant growing to give shade to others. The Kingdom of God is found in the determination and strength of a raccoon scaling the side of a skyscraper. The Kingdom of God isn’t in the blustering of politicians who may quote Scripture – but offer no love for those in need.

Many teachings are attributed to the Apostle Paul, including this wisdom from 2 Corinthians, chapter 5: “…the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And [Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” 

The tenacity of the love of God for us is shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That love doesn’t fall – it keeps going. 

But this is the love that urges us on – not to acts of selfishness and greed, but to acts of love for others. If all we do is sit and revel in God’s love for us, we are like a seed that is planted but does not grow – and what is the good of that? The love of Christ urges us on – it must urge us on – because there are people in need of refuge and children in need of their parents and the needs of the world go on and on. The world needs to know of God’s stubborn and great love – for all of us. 

There are times when it is difficult to see. But the Kingdom of God scales buildings, and it digs holes in the dirt and grows. And then, the Kingdom of God stretches out, like a big, fat shrub, to offer whatever it can. 

May God give us strength to live not for ourselves, but for Christ and for others.
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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Like Trees Planted By Streams of Water

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Text: Psalm 1

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Imagine with me for a moment – an ancient group of priests. They are gathered in a room, surrounded by their sacred writings – in fact, their sacred writings are spread out, everywhere. Most of these writings are quite old, handed down from parents to children and teachers to students over the centuries. And in these writings are words about the Lord – not in English then, of course, but including these words that are so familiar to some:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me, 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

These ancient writings are the psalms, and this ancient group of priests is working on collecting them. Imagine the discussion of which psalm should go first. Perhaps they each have a favorite – like many of us do – and each of them wants their favorite to be the first psalm, the gateway into this collection of ancient poetry and song.

Finally, though, they decide on a psalm of Wisdom, a psalm that upholds Wisdom as one of God’s greatest gifts to us, a psalm that will show the purpose of all the other psalms that will follow it. They decide on a psalm that helps us to remember that we are to delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night.

Here in America, the idea of “law of the Lord” has become intertwined with our own twisted views of law and order. We argue over posting the Ten Commandments in court rooms and on public monuments. We use the law to legitimize our own prejudices and fears. We claim to be a “Judeo-Christian” nation. 

And yet in all of our blustering and shouting others down, we seem to forget that the law of the Lord was given out of the mind and heart of a loving God – a God who wants people to be well, a God who wants us to live with love and to help others in need. A God who wants people so full of the praise and knowledge and love of God that we are like trees planted by streams of water – always growing, always flourishing, always bearing fruit.

After all, a tree that bears fruit doesn’t do so for itself. Have you ever seen a tree hoard its own fruit? Have you ever seen a tree using its own branches to pick its own apples, collecting them for its own use later on? No – a tree that bears fruit does so for the good of others – so that others may come and pick the apples and find nourishment from the fruit. 

I’ll be honest – sometimes, reading this first psalm is difficult - or downright painful - to me. We live in an age when it can seem like the wicked ones are winning almost all the time. It seems like they are the ones who are firmly established – and perhaps they are, since they are rooted deeply in their own power and their own wealth and their own narcissism. Where is the love? many of us ask. Where is the hope?

And then I look, and I see that we still have plenty who are rooted in the truth of God’s love. The apostle Paul puts it this way in Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). 

We have received the very love of God as a gift – this is God’s grace for us – this is God’s mercy shown to us – and so we are rooted in Christ, like a tree, planted by streams of water. 

What is the fruit we are bearing? Is it fruit borne in fear or in faith? Is it fruit that is hoarded or freely given away? Is it fruit borne in bitterness or in love? What is the fruit we are bearing?

Since we have received Christ, if we are living our lives in him, if we are rooted and built up in him, if we are established in faith, if we are abounding in thanksgiving – then where is there room for faithlessness and fear and hatred? Where is there room for these, not only in our faith lives, but in our common life together – in our families, with our friends and co-workers, as residents of this nation, as people who live in this world? 

We who have freely received the love of God, may we allow that same love to compel us in every way – may that be what urges us on. May we bear fruit of love and joy and peace and hope – fruit that will last. 


+SDG + 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

It's Not Always Easy to Slow Down

Kathi Johnson
25 March 2018 – Palm Sunday
Text: Mark 11:1-11
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, TX

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Last week, I had an appointment down I-35 South, so I drove down to my meeting and headed back to Mansfield right around the afternoon rush hour. Now, I was heading into Mansfield on back roads from I-35, so on the windy Highway 917 that connects Burleson on the interstate to the southern part of Mansfield. I wasn’t expecting much traffic.

But, there the traffic was, anyway. The thing about those two-lane country roads is that if you get behind that one…car…

So I was behind that one…car…the one slowing down to 30 mph at every…single…turn in the road. And I was one car in a line that quickly formed behind this driver. I’d had a long day, and I just wanted to get home. There was nothing I could do but slow down, along with everyone else.

And what came into my mind was a sermon that I preached on my first Palm Sunday here. I preached that day about slowing down for school zones, and how “this slower pace is supposed to be able to give us more time to observe our surroundings, to pay attention to what is around us, and to allow us more time to react if something goes wrong…Most of the time I drive through active school zones, nothing happens. But those school zones are still there, slowing me down, forcing me to observe, pay attention, and react if necessary.”

So, there I was, stuck in traffic and using my own words to make myself feel somewhat better and then…we stopped. I whined out loud, “I’m tired of this and I don’t want to stop!” But obviously I did, because I had to.

Sometimes, we don’t want to stop, and we don’t want to slow down, even.

Yet, Holy Week forces us to slow…way…down. We spend this week looking at the events leading up to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his crucifixion and death, his burial, and his resurrection. We travel through these stories very purposefully in this week – and we observe, we pay attention, and we react.

Outside this morning, we read the Palm Sunday narrative from Mark 11 that tells us of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a colt. The crowds of people welcoming Jesus are jubilant – they are spreading out branches and clothes to make a way for Jesus to travel. “Hosanna!” they are crying out – “Please save us!” is what are asking. In this scene, they are calling Jesus “blessed,” and they are hailing him as a king.

I talked a few weeks ago about the high expectations that the disciples and the people have for Jesus. The people are expecting him to act on their behalf, so that they can be rescued from their Roman oppressors. “Hosanna! Please save us!” The people are welcoming their Messiah – the anointed one – the one who will save them.

Their cry to Jesus is: “Hosanna! Please save us!”, and this is our cry, too. It’s been 2,000 years since those crowds shouted out to Jesus, but here we are, still in need. This is still the cry of people who are oppressed. This is the cry of the children who marched around the world yesterday; the children and their parents and grandparents and others. This is the cry of the poor, and the sorrowful, and the overwhelmed.

“Hosanna! Please save us!” is our cry, too. We too need this Messiah – this anointed one – to save us. We are still sinful. We still live in a broken world.

And because there are times that it seems like we are surrounded on every side by brokenness, I don’t really want to slow down for Holy Week this year – I don’t really want to pay attention to the painful words when Jesus tells his disciples that the woman who anoints him is preparing him for his burial.

I don’t want to hear about the Last Supper.

I don’t want to chant the painful words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t want to hear the details of Jesus’ unjust trial, or about his crucifixion, or death.

And yet, I cannot move from the jubilant shouts of today to the triumphant shouts of Easter next weekend. For if there is no death, there can be no resurrection. If there is no resurrection, there is no new life. If there is no new life, there is no hope.

So, for another year, we will slow down together. At times, we might even have to stop. We will remember the stories of the last week of Jesus’ life – we will remember them, and observe the details, and pay attention to the love of his actions, and react to these stories yet again. It is not always easy, and especially not when transitions are cutting deeply into our lives. It is not always easy for us to slow down.

But our hope is found not only in the Easter shouts of resurrection joy, but also in the life and death of Jesus. In his life, he taught us. In his death, he has healed us. In his new life, he has raised us. This is the faith that we believe and proclaim. This is the faith we are called to live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

+ SDG +

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Do We Find in the Wilderness?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
B Lent 1 – 18 February 2018
Text: Mark 1:9-15
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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This past week, someone asked me what gives me joy. My mind immediately went to a moment earlier that same day – Ash Wednesday – which was, for me, a nutty day in the midst of a nutty week. So after her question, my mind went to this moment after the 1pm Ash Wednesday service was over. I was sitting in my office, trying to focus on the next thing of the day, and I found a moment of stillness.

And in that moment of stillness, a bird began to sing. Again and again, it sang its song… Then it changed its tune…The songs of the bird reminded me of my joy – even in the midst of a nutty day and a nutty week. The bird reminded me that there is joy in the activity of leading worship, just as there is joy in moments of stillness.

Out of the four gospel writers, the one I read from just a moment ago – Mark - is the most spare – he gives us the fewest words. True to form, in today’s lesson, he doesn’t give us much about the baptism of Jesus, or of the forty days that Jesus then spends in the wilderness. In today’s story, we do find a few details. The same Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove at his baptism then drives him out into the wilderness. Jesus is driven out to the wilderness, almost in the sense of being pushed.

The wilderness...
Mark gives us very little about Jesus’ time in the wilderness: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” And that’s it.

Time in the wilderness can be very fulfilling. It is in the wilderness where we can find moments of stillness – moments in which we can hear birds sing to remind us of our joy. Time in the wilderness can help us see the beauty around us, and we can find strength within ourselves that we didn’t even know was there.

But time in the wilderness can be draining, as well. Maybe you’ve seen the show “Mythbusters” – two men, Adam and Jamie, spend the show testing out different “myths.” In one show, they are dropped off on a deserted island with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a pallet of duct tape. They have to find food and water, build shelter, and – ultimately – find a way to escape.

They do OK at first, while their energy is fresh. But then the sun starts beating down on them, and they have to make shoes out of duct tape and sticks, so they can walk in the jungle to find water and food. Part of what they learn in their particular wilderness is that every task takes three other tasks that they have to complete first.

I don’t spend much time in actual, physical wilderness or on deserted islands, but I encounter other kinds of wilderness: times in which I feel alone, or when I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a task, or when I feel deeply saddened by another tragic and unnecessary loss of life (as we had this past week in Florida).

Often when someone I know is going through some kind of difficult challenge, I hear this platitude tossed around: “God never gives us more than we can handle” Respectfully, I disagree. I think that there are wilderness times when we do have more than we can handle.

But in those times in my own life, I remember Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Mark says that Jesus spends his wilderness time with the wild beasts and the devil – but also the angels. God’s angels are there, too, ministering to Jesus, showing him God’s care.

What that means for me is that when I have more than I can handle, that is the point where I let God in. The point where I have reached the very end of my own strength – that is the point where God shows up, giving me strength, giving me wisdom, giving me love.

So, Jesus is baptized, and then he spends forty days in the desert. When he comes out from his time in the wilderness, he begins preaching about the Kingdom of God. He begins calling people to repentance and sharing the good news of God’s love for them. He calls his disciples to follow him, and then they get to work, ministering among the people: feeding them, healing them, showing them the fullness of God’s mercy and love.

And that’s how it is with us, too. We are called in the same way – we are also called to do the work of God among the people whom God loves.

Even though we are beloved children of God, there are times of wilderness in our lives. What can we learn in those wilderness times? How can God be our strength? How is God showing his love? And, when we come out from those wilderness times, how can God use me? How can God use you?

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