Sermons

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

"Won

Jun 17, 2018

Passage:Mark 4:26-34

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Discipleship, Kingdom of God

Keywords: immigration, kingdom, love, neighbor, mister rogers

Summary:

Jesus spoke in parables "so that the disciples might understand." How are we to understand complicated issues in our modern society--especially if the Bible seems to be used "on both sides" of the issue? Perhaps we look at what Jesus wants for the Kingdom of God...

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I read a lot during the week. I like to read a variety of things. I read the news. I read the Bible and theological commentaries. I usually have a book or two going. And I also read different types of articles that just seem interesting.

This week, in addition to studying the scripture that we heard this morning, there were two things that I read about that have really captured my attention. Both, I think, apply to our Gospel reading. One of these stories has really broken my heart. The other story really gives me hope. I'll tell you about both.

The first story that's been captivating the news this week is all about the separation of children and parents at the US border. Children are being taken away from parents, who have either illegally crossed the border without documentation; or, in some cases, these parents have applied for asylum and are incarcerated awaiting adjudication of their cases. These children are being housed in government-contracted shelters.  About 2,000 children have been forcibly separated from their parents at the border in the last two months alone.[i]

 What really brought this story to the forefront this week was the fact that holy scripture was used to defend this separation of parents and children. The scripture quoted basically says that we are supposed to "obey the laws of the government, because God ordained the government."[ii]

This is hard stuff, y'all.

This is the very essence of what's tearing us apart today.

And it's confusing because the issues are complex. And it appears that there are even parts of the Bible that can be used to support a policy that's allowing families to be separated. For children to be taken away from parents.

I don't think anybody seriously advocates for our country to have unsecured borders. We all want to be safe. We all value and love our country. We all value the principles our country represents. 

And at the same time, we also value the sanctity of families and children. We need to have safe and fair and equitable immigration policies.

This is not a distant, intellectual, issue. This is not even simply a policy issue. This is about recognizing the dignity of every human being.

Let's imagine for a moment our own children... our own grandchildren... or the children we bless here in this parish every Sunday...

What would they feel? If they were taken from us? How would we even comprehend their terror, their sorrow, their loss, their trauma?

What is happening on our border is a tragedy.

So is this a Republican issue? Is this a Democrat issue? Is this a liberal issue? Is this a conservative issue?

Of course it isn't! We all know that! For us today, this is a kingdom issue. What is the Kingdom of God like?

This is where Jesus weighs in.

In today's reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is talking to his closest followers. He has taken them aside after having been surrounded by the crowds at the seashore. Jesus wants them to glimpse what the Kingdom of God is like. But he has to tell them in a way they can hear it.

You can picture the disciples. They are waiting eagerly to hear Jesus tell them all about the Kingdom of God.

But Jesus does not speak plainly. He does not tell them directly.

Instead, Jesus speaks to them in parables. He tells them stories. He compares the Kingdom of God to someone scattering seed on the ground. Then that gardener goes to sleep and then goes about his day and night without having much to do with the seed. In the meantime, the seed is sprouting and growing, and the gardener doesn't know how. Jesus goes on to say that "the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head." But, he concludes, when the grain is ripe, the gardener once again pays attention and "goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

On the one hand, for our modern, go-to-the-grocery-store-for-of-our-loaf-of-bread minds, this story... this metaphor...is hard to makes sense of.

But Mark tells us that Jesus is speaking to those around him in a way that they were able to hear.

In this same reading, Jesus also compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed--the smallest of the seeds known to his audience.  Jesus says that once that seed is sown on the ground, it becomes "the greatest of all shrubs, with great branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

We are like Jesus' disciples. We read this Bible and try to figure out what it is that God wants from us. How does God want us to live? How are we to respond to things going on in our world? How are we supposed to bring about the Kingdom of God?

And reading about seeds in the ground and mustard seeds that become bushes don't necessarily give us the clearest path when we want straight answers, right?

And this is the frustration we might feel about the Holy Scriptures. 

Because there is context, and nuance, and variety behind everything in this Holy Book, we are called to study it deeply. We are expected to breathe in the presence of God's love and grace through this holy text.

And because it's complicated, it can be misused and abused. The Holy text might appear to say one thing, but, when studied, mean something deeper... something clearer... something MORE THAN.

For Jesus, speaking in parables is a way of explaining so the audience can make connections to the in-breaking of God's Kingdom.

I told you I like to read--and that there were two stories this week that really caught my attention. The second story was an article about one of my favorite theologians of the past century. His name was Fred Rogers.

Of course, most of us knew him more simply as "Mister Rogers."

I'm right at the age where his program, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was the first television show I watched as a child (I was two-years-old when it premiered).

The article I read this week talked about the extraordinary care that Mister Rogers took in communicating with children. What we may have seen as a gentle, mild-mannered, and soft-spoken dialogue on his program was actually the result of his intense scrutiny of every... single... word! Mister Rogers wanted to make sure that children's minds were able to hear and understand the things he taught them. Writers on the program came to call Mister Fred Rogers' way of speaking "Freddish."[iii]

Let's think about this connection for a minute: Jesus goes out of his way to help his disciples understand the difficult idea of the Kingdom of God in a way that they can hear it!  Mister Rogers spends his lifetime speaking to children about "being a good neighbor" in the language of "Freddish"--in a way that they can understand it.

This is no coincidence. This is because Fred Rogers was a Christian theologian. He went to seminary. And his most profound understanding of Christ's teaching was to be a Good Neighbor. When he created "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," he had a core theological understanding of what loving your neighbor looks like.

Basically it's this.  He said: "Every [single] person is created in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is valued--appreciated."[iv]

So how do we as Christians respond in a time such as this? What does the Kingdom look like?

Mister Rogers once said that, on the one hand: "Evil would like nothing better than have us feel awful about who we are." And once we feel bad about ourselves, "we look through those eyes at our neighbor, and see only what's awful--in fact, look for what's awful in our neighbor."

But on the other hand, he said, "Jesus ... [wants] us to feel as good as possible about God's creation within us.... [And when we] look through those eyes, ... [we] see what's wonderful about our neighbor."[v]

So in the midst everything that is occurring on our world today, let's remember to see that love of God in all of us. That will build the kingdom. That will make us whole.

AMEN.

__________

[i] The policy was put into place by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on April 6, 2018. See the Memorandum here: https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1049751/download

[ii] Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13:1-2: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." 

[iii] Maxwell King, "Mr. Rogers Had A Simple Set of Rules For Talking to Children:  The TV legend possessed an extraordinary understanding of how kids make sense of language," The Atlantic, June 8 2018, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/mr-rogers-neighborhood-talking-to-kids/562352/

[iv] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World's Most Beloved Neighbor (Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 2005), 76-78.

[v] Hollingsworth, Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, 80.