The following sermon was preached by Angela Nelson, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, November 3, 2011.
We are preparing to work in the church, where broken, needy people come for healing and for ‘fixing’ things:
I need help paying my rent, I call the local church.
I need somewhere to drop my kids off so I can have some peace and quiet, I leave them at Sunday school.
I need my demons of whatever variety removed, I take them to the local priest and expect a quick exorcism so I can get on with my life, already.
And those of us who work in the church have these sorts of phone calls to answer, these requests to take care of, these needs to tend to, because we work for the church, and that’s what the church does, it’s who we say we are.
And then comes the end of the month and everyone’s paycheck has just about run out, even the church secretary’s, and more people come knocking on the door and another home is foreclosed on...
We who work in the church are also in need.
People on the street stop us to ask for money and we have barely enough to keep food in our own pantry.
Children coming to church are hungry or cold or lonely or bullied, and we can’t always, if ever, improve their home life or fight their battles for them, no matter how much we want to.
When we ourselves need space to grieve, to be angry, to vent, there are too many other people to take care of and we can’t afford to give ourselves space or time for healing. But we’re the church, we’re supposed to be able to make the world better, to fix all the brokenness, to bring on the Kingdom of heaven!
Aren’t we? Isn’t that what we say about ourselves? Isn’t that what we’re preparing for here in seminary, what we’ve mastered on Internship? Once we’ve learned how to deal with being overwhelmed, once the projects and finances and degree audit requirements are taken care of, we can totally head into the great wide world and all this ministry stuff will be so much easier, right? Get that first call and a professional title and it’s all just another day’s work, easy as pie.
Though that depends on which sort of pie we’re talking about, pumpkin or pecan, store bought or homemade, though I can’t make a pie from scratch, I get too easily distracted... My Internship supervisor calls me ‘squirrel’ for this very reason. As someone who is really easily distracted, I can also get myself quickly overwhelmed by all that needs doing. Pulling together the ingredients and tools for making pie, cleaning up after, is just the start. Then I get distracted by all those folks I have gotten to recognize these years in Hyde Park, who stand in front of restaurants and shops asking for money. And there are so many lectures going on I can never make up my mind which ones to go to. Then I get e-mails from ELCA Disaster Response with news about the latest natural disaster that needs our support... Or, maybe it’s when I’m close to overwhelmed that I get so easily distracted, that I lose my focus.
Jesus, however, was not so easily distracted. He was incredibly focused. His ministry was clear, and nothing was going to steer him off track, not hunger, not the chance to test God by free falling off the pinnacle of the temple, not the shiny kingdoms of the world offered to him by the devil, who thought worldly glory was worth spending his life on.
Jesus went throughout the towns proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven and healing their diseases, so much so that the crowds came in droves, looking to be released from captivity, to be healed, to be touched and loved and accepted and restored.
After all, if we are to proclaim the Kingdom of heaven among us, this is what it means.
And if we are to be Jesus’ disciples, we are to do as he does and go heal, cast out demons, restore the world to wholeness, pass ourselves around and have baskets left over to share at the end of the day, right? Well, aren’t we?
We’re not Jesus.
I would love to have that sort of power, to touch someone back into wholeness, to cast out demons of depression and injustice which get in the way of fullness of life, to get rid of cancer once and for all. But, even if I did, I’m still human, I still need rest, I still need Jesus.
So when Jesus sees these crowds, growing bigger and bigger with each witness to his healing power and his message about the Kingdom of heaven, he goes up the mountain to teach, and his disciples come and learn from him. And rather than giving them the miracle snake-oil secret recipe that will do the healing for us, he continues to do what he’s been doing since returning from that temptation in the desert: proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven.
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus proclaims in parables what this Kingdom of heaven is like. A mustard seed. Leaven in some bread dough. A priceless pearl. Stories, parables, illustrations... things.
But here, with the disciples on top of the mountain, is where those parables take on flesh and blood. Here Jesus hits the heart of the matter: the Kingdom of heaven is people. Living, witnessing, struggling people. Grieving, hungry, poor people. Blessed people. Blessed because Jesus says so, and what Jesus says, is.
The ones typically at the bottom of the heap, overlooked, overburdened, overspent, are raised up to Blessed. Because Jesus says so. Not because we say so, not because they have worked their way up to it, not because we have somehow figured out any magic fix for ourselves.
And these things Jesus says, about how blessed the merciful are, even though mud-slingers seem to be ruling the day,
how blessed are those who mourn, even though our systems are set up for a quick-and-over three-day grieving period,
how blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, even though the McRib and new Apple gadgets get more praise and press than Christian Peacemaker Teams or Occupy Wall Street...
These things Jesus says about blessedness are so true. So true they get him killed. The Kingdom of heaven, this messy community of complicated, broken people, is proclaimed blessed by God through Jesus Christ, and it is truth which turns the world on its ear.
And as disciples of Jesus, we are sent into the world to proclaim this truth, this very same Kingdom of heaven.
But we are not sent into the world to save it. Jesus has already done that. Jesus in his coming among us, has spoken the truth to us, that the Kingdom of heaven is already here.
And while we may see the crowds coming for healing and feel overwhelmed at the amount of need in the world, the amount of need within ourselves, we are not sent to ‘fix’ the world, to carry the whole of its hurts on our own shoulders. We are called and sent by the One who has already done that.
And that One, who has already carried the weight of the weary on his shoulders, to the cross, and out of the tomb, speaks here to his disciples of the truth of the Kingdom of heaven among us:
Blessed. Blessed, beautiful, beloved, even when bewildered.
And blessed are we, prophets, disciples, beloved of God. Blessed are we when we engage in the messiness of it all, when our life’s struggles come to bear witness to the love of God in our community, in our families, in the very vulnerabilities we are told we ought to cover and hide. Blessed are we because Jesus, the crucified and risen one, the one who brings the Kingdom, says so.
Blessed, though the world may be looking for particular properly packaged miracles of healing and feeding,
while the Holy Spirit, through ordinary people, brings miracles of deeper healing and feeding, blessed are they,
while God is forming and challenging communities to witness the Kingdom of heaven among us, blessed are we,
As Christ continues to live and work in the hearts of those who come together, and defies the odds to gather those who are like lost sheep, blessed are they
And blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, inspiring vision and planting mustard seeds of faith as the Kingdom of heaven grows up through the cracks of our brokenness into the sorts of miracles which free us to be overwhelmed, not by need, but by grace.