Luke 1:57-80

Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”  Luke 1:64

You might be wondering why John the Baptist has shown up in June.  We’re used to meeting up with him during Advent, that season leading up to Christmas in which we usually find him shouting about preparing the way for his cousin Jesus.  He comes back to us each January when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where John does the honors in the Jordan River.  We remember John as a colorful figure – dressed in camel’s hair, dining on locusts and wild honey, and yelling at anyone who would listen.

The images of adult John are so dramatic that it’s easy to forget he was once a baby.  And like all babies, there’s a story surrounding his birth.

To get us ready for John’s origin story, I want you think back to a time when you lost your voice – from a cold, from laryngitis, from yelling too loudly for your favorite team.   It’s frustrating not to be able to speak, isn’t it?  I remember a Sunday morning here when I had no voice. I could basically only squeak out the words of institution during Holy Communion and had to delegate the rest. Poor Bill Fallon was the Assisting Minister and had to read my sermon.  (Thank you again, Bill!)  I remember how frustrating it felt not to be able to use my voice. On every other Sunday I had taken my voice for granted.

John’s parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth.  We learn much earlier in the first chapter of Luke that Zechariah was a priest.  Elizabeth also came from a priestly family and was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old, and they had given up any hope of having a child. But one day Zechariah is chosen as the priest who will enter a special part of the temple and offer incense to the Lord.  He does so faithfully, but while he’s there, an angel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will soon have a son, a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will point many people to the Lord.  Zechariah is (understandably) terrified and overwhelmed. He asks some questions about this surprising news, and in return he loses his voice.  He’s told that his voice will return only when the angel’s words have been fulfilled.

So one thing that we learn from the story of John’s birth is that sometimes being forced into silence can help us listen more deeply.  Zechariah had a long time to ponder the predictions of that angel, to wonder what God had in store for the baby boy he still couldn’t quite believe was on its way, to prepare for the role of father – a role he never expected to have.

Sometimes silence makes space for someone else’s story to emerge.  When I think of anything that I’ve truly come to understand in a different way, the times I have changed my mind about something important – those times were always shaped by the stories of people whose lives and experiences were completely different from mine.  I needed to stop talking long enough to hear them.

Fast forward nine months or so, and we find ourselves picking up with today’s gospel.  The baby arrives, much to the delight of his parents and all their friends and relatives.  Eight days later they take him to the temple for his circumcision, fully intending to name the baby after his father.  But Zechariah, still mute, grabs a tablet and writes, “His name is John.”

At that moment Zechariah is suddenly able to speak, which generates both fear and curiosity among the neighbors.  What will this child become? they wonder.

Once Zechariah starts talking, he doesn’t hold back. He speaks of God’s story of salvation, the story of a God who keeps promises, including the promise to send a savior to rescue the people from despair and death.  Listen to the power of his words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah knows his baby boy will grow up to be a part of that story, pointing people toward the promised arrival of the Savior. Maybe all parents imagine that their children will grow up to do amazing things. In this case Zechariah was absolutely right.

Silence has its power, but so does speech.  The force of Zechariah’s words pushes me to consider how often I hold back when something needs to be said.  We’ve all done it.  We hesitate to tell people we’re Christian because we know the assumptions people will make about us.  We see or hear something awful, but we choose not to challenge it because we fear the conflict that might result.  We forget that God gives us both the gift of silence and the gift of words.  Both can be used to bear witness to our faith.

Most of us won’t have the opportunity to deliver a barn-burner of a speech the way Zechariah does.  But there will be many smaller moments that are just as powerful. Maybe your kid asks you a question at bedtime, and you’re not sure how to answer, but you try anyway.  Maybe a friend or family member is trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world.  Listen to their struggles, and share your own – including the challenges of approaching this crazy life as a follower of Jesus.  These ways of using our voices may not seem significant, but they are.  They are the holy ground on which we stand as we continue to grow and to learn.

One of my favorite podcasts has a weekly feature in which listeners call in to share the best thing that happened to them all week.

In this week’s episode, for example, listeners shared the following good news[i]:

  • My husband and I found out that we’re expecting our first child.
  • United Airlines found the Kindle that I left on a plane last month and sent it back to me.
  • I was able to celebrate my father’s 89thbirthday in Cleveland, Ohio with all three of my brothers who are scattered all over the country.
  • I found the first black raspberry of the season.
  • My dad came home from the hospital with a brand new lung after transplant surgery.

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to hear on the podcast the voice of my friend Savitha, who lives in California.  She called in to share this experience[ii]:

The best thing that happened to me this week was taking my 2½ year old on a bus ride. It was so much fun to sit beside him on the bus and have him sit up top and look at all the things below and get excited at everything he saw. Ooh. Mail truck!  Ooh!  Another bus! Ooh!  A dog!…It was just so much fun to spend a few minutes seeing the world through his eyes, and it reminded me that I need to do it more often.

Hearing about Savitha’s time with her little boy made me smile.  And this week it made me wonder why we’re so hesitant to talk about our faith.  We often refer to the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the good news.  But it’s not just the good news.  It’s the best news.  It’s the best thing that’s happened to us this week and every week.  And yet we hold back, we hesitate, we get scared.

Savitha’s little boy pointed her attention toward things she probably wouldn’t have noticed that day.  John grew up and pointed people’s attention toward Jesus, begging them not to overlook this Savior who was right there with them.

Does our salvation depend upon pointing others to Jesus? No.  That salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus.  But we can still introduce people to Jesus.

May we, like Zechariah, find our mouths opened and our tongues freed to share this good news, this best news, this light that comes to those who sit in darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace. Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i]https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622669600/weekly-wrap-game-of-chicken

 

[ii]https://www.npr.org/2018/06/08/618296817/weekly-wrap-look-over-there

 

Mark 4:26-34

[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:31-32

I follow a writer named James Breakwell on Twitter.[i]   He’s got a sharp sense of humor, but what I love the most are his reports from his family, where he and his wife are raising four daughters, ages 7 and under.  He regularly shares snippets of conversations with his kids – like this one in which he asks the five-year-old:

Me: What did you do at school today?

5-year-old: Learned about dragons.

Me: Your class learned about dragons?

5: I learned about dragons. I don’t know what everybody else was doing.

 

Or this one with his four-year-old:

Me: How did you get so dirty?

4-year-old: We played a game.

Me: What game?

4: Play in the dirt.

 

Or this one with his six-year-old:

Me: Can you help me?

6-year-old: I’m busy.

Me: You just said you were bored.

6: I’m busy being bored.

In addition to making his readers laugh, James Breakwell also reminds us about one of the basic challenges of parenting.  You can teach your children.  You can love your children.  You can guide your children.  You can set an example for your children. Those things are important.  But when it all shakes out, there’s a whole lot you can’t control about what your kids will say or do.

Most days we’d prefer a world in which we had more control.  We could say, “God, this is exactly how I would like things to be. Heal this sick person.  Put our family back together.  Stop the horrible things going on in the world.”  We could say it, and it would happen.  Things would make sense.  They would be clear and orderly and line up with what we want.

But that is not the world we live in.  Today we hear Jesus tell these two little parables – small illustrations meant to challenge our expectations.  In this case he paints some word pictures to tell us about the kingdom of God.  As Christians we know that this life gives us only a glimpse of the full reign of God that is to come.  So what exactly are we praying for when we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”?

If we take Jesus seriously, we are praying for something crazy.  Keep in mind that the people to whom he’s speaking would have had more experience with agriculture than most of us do, and what Jesus is saying would sound crazy to them too.  First there’s the picture of someone who scatters seed on the ground and then does absolutely nothing.  This person does not analyze the soil or pull weeds or water the seeds or worry about the amount of sunlight.  He just scatters the seeds and gets a good night’s sleep – night after night after night. He has no idea how the seed grows. The earth produces of itself, we hear.  The Greek word is automate– from which we get the word “automatic.”

So if we’re looking to dictate the way God’s kingdom grows and expands, we can forget it.  Because God’s kingdom grows in mysterious ways, with powers beyond our comprehension or control.  That’s the baffling power of God’s grace. It can bring about growth and change in spite of us.

If that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus then gives his listeners another ridiculous image – the mustard seed.[ii]  His listeners would have been amused at the thought that anyone would actually plant mustard seeds.  Mustard was more like a weed – common, sturdy, able to grow almost anywhere and certain to spread where you least wanted it.  Good luck trying to keep it out of your nicely planned, neatly laid-out garden.  If you were silly enough to plant mustard seeds, you’d soon find yourself with a bunch of bushy weeds taking over everywhere, with no regard for any barriers you’d tried to set up between different kinds of plants in different sections of the garden.  You might as well plant kudzu or dandelions.

When Jesus says the mustard seed grows into “the greatest of all shrubs,” there’s a good chance someone in the crowd laughed out loud.  The greatest of all shrubs?  Really? But what makes it the greatest, according to Jesus?  It’s those branches.  If you Google “mustard bush,” you’ll see a wide variety of pictures, but all of the plants have long, hospitable branches.  Just what you’d enjoy if you were a bird looking to build a home.  And that’s the image that Jesus leaves us with – The small, insignificant mustard seed grows into something so welcoming that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Which brings us to another dilemma.  Do we really want to attract a bunch of birds to the garden?  Don’t they eat fruits and seeds?  Won’t they just create chaos in the cornfields?

So the kingdom of God is like this scruffy, stubborn plant with no regard for the boundaries that we try to establish and with the ultimate purpose of providing shelter to a bunch of birds we’re not sure we want there in the first place.  Well, that’s not a picture that makes us comfortable.

I couldn’t help but think about these images as I reflected on this week’s awful news about children being separated from their parents along the southern border.  As the person who is responsible for guiding how we engage with scripture, it’s important for me to talk about not just what’s happening to these families, but also the misuse of scripture this week by the Attorney General.  I’m not talking about this with political motivations.  I’m doing it because as people of faith, we need to understand how dangerous it is in any situation to pull one verse out of its context and use it to support an entire policy.

Let’s admit up front that our immigration system is broken.  It has been broken for decades.  But broken systems cannot be an excuse for inhumane treatment of children and families.

The Attorney General this week quoted the first verse of Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

First, it’s always crucial to look at a verse in the context of where it appears in scripture.  Keep in mind that Paul, the presumed author of the book of Romans, defied the Roman Empire merely by being a Christian, and he was ultimately put to death for it.  So he wasn’t advocating blind, unthinking allegiance to a government.  He was suggesting that God can be present in and work through all things, including human institutions.

But if we read all of Romans 13, we hear that Paul is ultimately describing how God’s law of love transcends all laws.  Paul writes in that same chapter:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

We have to be especially cautious with verses that have a history of being misused.    Romans 13:1 was often used to justify slavery in this country, including the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners.[iii]  More recently it has been used to support apartheid in South Africa.

Ultimately as people of faith what we must ask ourselves is this: What are the broader narratives of God’s story as told to us in scripture?  In this collection of different books and stories by different writers in different time periods, what common themes can we find?

Here are some of those themes:

Again and again, God calls us to welcome the stranger and the immigrant (often referred to as the foreigner or the resident alien in our midst).

Again and again, God calls us to give shelter to those who are in danger.  Think, for example, of the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus calls the children to come to him and tells us to do the same. (Matthew 19)

Jesus calls us to care for those most in need  – and reminds us that doing so is the same as caring for him.  And likewise, to ignore those in need is to ignore him.  (Matthew 25)

I don’t have all the answers.  I barely understand the questions.  But I keep thinking about that mustard bush – the uncontrollable, stubborn, boundary-defying mustard bush that gives shelter to all of those birds.  The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.  That gives us somewhere to start.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

 

[i]https://www.rearfront.com/dad-tweets-savage-answers/ or you can follow James on Twitter @XplodingUnicorn

[ii]I draw extensively from Matt Skinner’s commentary on Working Preacher (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3676) and Debie Thomas’ commentary for Journey with Jesus (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1809)

[iii]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/15/what-jeff-sessions-got-wrong-when-quoting-the-bible/?utm_term=.1a1479b9a308

 

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