Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone.

4th Sunday after Pentecost

S. Pentecost 4.18 “While You Were Sleeping…” Mark 4:26-34

The problem of salvation has been vexing throughout the history of the world. Adam and Eve passed the buck on the sin thing to the devil in the Garden as we heard last week. God tells Ezekiel in our Old Testament reading today that a fairly drastic pruning and transplanting operation is going to be required in Israel for the Kingdom to grow—not an operation, by the way, lopping off the high branch of a cedar and transplanting it on a distant, high mountain that any modern gardener would regard as sensible or promising!

In the 16th century, the problem of salvation became acute when most all of Christendom was insistent that we have a major role to play in our own salvation by doing lots of good works, buying indulgences, obeying the pope, etc. One guy, named Luther, came along and pointed out the Bible kaboshes all those ideas and says that salvation is an entirely free gift that is bestowed on us without any works or efforts of our own by the work of Jesus on the cross for us, by which we are saved when we believe the glad tidings (and even this faith is not our own doing, but is the gift of God as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians!). And while it got a lot of hoopla last year, the Reformation didn’t really change much in the public theology and practice of Christendom…

And in our own 21st century, even in the Lutheran Church, I think the problem of salvation is just as vexing as it was in the 16th century. We still insist on finding something that we can do in order to make the Kingdom of God grow and flourish among us and our neighbors. Hence the craze for “missions” in our church body (and others) over the last half century or so. We may have been saved by grace through faith, for Christ’s sake(!), but we were brought into the Kingdom, it is popularly thought, only to make it grow and expand and flourish by our diligent efforts at outreach and missions (even though this is not taught in the New Testament; there, the mission of the church is entirely internal, like a Sinner’s Anonymous meeting. In the Book of Acts, we see the Apostles in-reaching, going after the Church (not the unchurched!) with the Gospel. But we’re told today that unless we get out and win over the unchurched by winsome efforts at pleasing them with our innovative services and programming, people will go to hell because we didn’t do our part in growing the Kingdom. It’s all about growing the Kingdom, these days, in Christendom…

Which is why I love our Gospel for today. Because Jesus answers the 64 dollar question “how does Your Kingdom grow?”. And the answer is “No one knows how it grows! It’s like a man who scatters seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day and “Voila!” The seed sprouts and grows, he himself does not know how! For the earth yields crops by itself!” By itself, without our knowledge, while you and I were sleeping(!) the Kingdom comes, grows, flourishes.

This, I think, is not the answer most of Christendom was wanting. Which is why so many have turned away from the lectionary that leads you through the whole range of Scriptures’ teaching (as the 3 year one in our hymnal does precisely and concisely!) to sermon series on the topics we prefer: stewardship, missional-mindedness, fixing other people’s problems, succeeding in general by clever management principles at home and office. We want to hear and believe that the Kingdom needs us, that we are indispensable—because then it means we aren’t so bad after all, but are good people who can do good things for our good God, and expect rich rewards and large self-esteem—because I’m smart enough, I’m good enough, and by golly, I like myself. I’m reliably informed you can really pack the pews if you take that much-traveled by road.

This message has bewitched Christendom: God needs your help to grow His Kingdom, has left behind a gardening manual called “The Bible” which lays out the step-by-step process for making God’s Kingdom grow impressively around you—it’s a difficult process, requires lots of planning by very smart people often involves drums, guitars, video screens, stewardship talks, buildings that look like sunken airport hangars, and our own good deeds in considerably larger roles than I can recall them playing in the Scriptures—though maybe I missed a few parts: whatever; it’s a message with broad appeal; it has every advantage except one tiny, trifling one (that I can see): it won’t work.

It won’t work for a brutally simple reason: no one knows how the Kingdom grows! How can you help or manage a process you don’t understand, that works for you, not by you? Obviously you can’t and it’s pure hubris to insist otherwise. Jesus says it all happened while you were sleeping.  The Kingdom sprouts and grows all by itself! We don’t know how! It would be a lovely thing to have a large and important role in the growing of God’s Kingdom. To be highly placed executive manager types (with great salaries, benefits, and stock options as befits such valued members of the corporation!) making momentous decisions, choosing between difficult options, casting a vision and charting a course that leads to the massive success of the venture. That would be extremely satisfying, I’m sure. I’d sign on for that management team, in a heartbeat! Even if it involved a lot of work!

I bet most of the mission-minded Christians are well intentioned, if a bit ill informed on the Mystery of the Kingdom—that it grows by itself, without our works. But our Gospel today is pretty clear that the Kingdom doesn’t need us—we need the Kingdom! So our corner office, company jet, and executive perks slip away. I miss them, a little bit, I must admit. I see my own status as a mover and shaker, a “missional-leader” with real vision and great value to the organization slipping away too. My self-esteem is taking a beating, here! Jesus says the best thing I can do for His Kingdom’s growth is, actually: nothing; as we sang in our opening hymn “Your noblest work is to adore”. Or, as I once (regretfully) blurted out to a very pushy wedding coordinator at a wedding rehearsal where she was “helping” by ordering me about: “Do you really want to help? Great! You can sit in the back pew and be quiet”. And I discovered anew, that day, the often unwelcome nature of Truth…

I think I see why Luther did not succeed in rallying much of the church [outwardly at least!] around the pure Gospel of Christ Crucified: because it makes us the bad guys in the Story, the sad cases, the burnt-out ones—the beat-up, left-for-dead-hobos-by-the-roadside characters in The Story, the helpees, not the helpers—and who likes thinking of themselves that way, right? But, if you were lucky enough to have been young, and to have had Jan Bryant as you 8th grade teacher, it stays with you, this Truth of your sinful, sorry state—not exactly how Paris stayed with Hemingway; more like juvie stays with…

The Gospel is when good things happen to bad people. Not exactly how we probably want to see ourselves! The Kingdom is for slackers, for sinners to find refuge. It’s smaller than a mustard seed, and (even full grown!) is just a big shrub, not too impressive, outwardly. But, while you were sleeping in IT’s shade, the miracle happens. You’ll never get how it works, except that it’s nothing you do, no great deed you manage. But, by Word and Sacrament, through faith in Christ alone, the Kingdom becomes you; and the Peace surpassing understanding guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Wednesday, 21  November 2018

Thanksgiving Service – with Communion

7:00 p.m.

25 November – Last Sunday of the Church Year

8:30 Divine Service with Communion

11:00 Matins

9:45 Sunday School – children ages 3 through high school

Adult Bible Class with Pastor Martin


Our Savior Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church in Raleigh, North Carolina, belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

We are located at: 1500 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27608.

For directions, use 742 Nash Street, Raleigh.