Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43;
Rom. 8:12-25; Isa. 44:6-8
THE CHALLENGE OF LISTENING TO THE GOOD NEWS
“Let anyone with ears listen!” This is the third time Jesus has said this in a short timeframe. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Kind of a strange thing to say, isn’t it? He knows that his audience has working ears. So he’s almost challenging them to use their ears to not only hear but understand what he’s saying to them. Jesus knows that we can’t hear any sounds without our ears. But he also knows that we can’t interpret those sounds without our minds. And even beyond that, our minds can’t interpret the words without being shaped by an entire culture and language. In short, he knows that, even with ears that work, listening and understanding is a fragile enterprise.
Over the next several weeks we are going to unveil a worship survey to use — just eight simple statements for you, the worshiper, to give us a measure of your worship experience. It will ask about basic things like feeling welcomed, length of service, and enjoyment of the music. But I have to admit that the one I will be most interested in is this one: “I heard God’s good news proclaimed in today’s sermon.” It will be genuinely helpful to have a measure of what you are hearing from week-to-week.
It will also be important to keep in mind this theme in today’s Good News — namely, that our ability to hear what God is trying to tell us is a fragile enterprise. Since we’ve talked about using this survey, for example, I’ve undertaken kind of a little thought experiment with myself. I’m a science fiction fan, so I’ve imagined myself time traveling. I think of myself forty years ago. I’ve just graduated from Livonia Stevenson High School, I’m working at Great Scot Supermarket, and I’m getting ready to go off to college. I very much appreciate the faith that’s been nurtured in me at Faith Lutheran Church, Livonia, MI, since I was in Kindergarten. Yet I’m also a fan of rock bands like Jethro Tull whose music sometimes challenges the status quo church. One of the things I’ve appreciated at Faith Lutheran is that they’ve been open to questions and challenges.
But now imagine that forty years ago I suddenly come upon a time machine and I set the dial ahead an even forty years. I’m somewhat surprised to find my future self as a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran in Kalamazoo. It’s a very eerie experience sitting in the pew one Sunday and listening to my forty-year older self preach a sermon. Then, to complicate things even further, at the end of service I’m handed a survey with a number of fairly easy statements to respond to. But the most challenging one to answer is, “I heard God’s good news proclaimed in today’s sermon.”
Brothers and Sisters, I’ve found myself pondering this thought experiment of time-travel in order to ask how much my way of hearing the Gospel has itself changed. And I honestly believe that the person of faith I was forty years ago has undergone such a significant conversion that I’m not sure I would hear what I preach today as Good News. Some of it I would certainly recognize as what I was shaped to hear as Good News at Faith Lutheran in Livonia. But the center of the Good News for me back then has changed so much in the last forty years, that I think my 18 year-old self would listen to me today and hear a Good News that seems off-center, and perhaps even wrong.
What could be so different? In 1974, I had grown up listening to a Good News whose center was not really in history. The cross and resurrection of Jesus were in history, but I was raised to hear the import and center of that message as truly paying off outside of history, when God takes me to heaven after I die. This surely has consequences in history, too, as I anticipate that gracious hope of life after death, won for me by Jesus’ unconditional love. That love inspires me to be more loving in this life. But do you see how the center of that hope is, in essence, outside of history? When history ends, so to speak, and eternity begins?
But that’s precisely what has changed for me. The Good News for me now is centered in an eternity outside of history. It’s centered in the transformation and fulfillment of history itself. The cross and resurrection of Jesus changed the course of history forever and for good, and he invites you and me to be part of the ongoing transformation, bringing God’s way of justice and peace into this world.
Do I still have that hope for life after death? Yes, absolutely. That element hasn’t changed. But it’s no longer the center of my faith. God’s promise to hold me in life after I die is not an end itself. It’s a promise on the way to something more. God will hold me in life after I die so that someday I can join in the Day of Resurrection and enjoy not the end of history for a timeless eternity, but the fulfillment of history, a glorious time in history when, as St. Paul says, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Do you see the difference?
Let me finish with an example. Yesterday twenty of our Prince of Peace disciples returned from a mission trip in Iowa, fifteen youth and five adult leaders. Let’s lift them up by name once more: The youth: [names read]. And the adult leaders: [names read]. [lead applause] I’ve been on these trips and know that they are potentially life-changing, as you experience Jesus in acts of loving service. We held them in our prayers this week, and continue to do so, as they plan to share their experience with us in worship next week.
But here is the difference for me since I’ve undergone a conversion in the way I hear the Good News. When my faith was centered in heaven, outside of history, it was enough to simply learn to serve others in the meantime, learning to love others as Jesus loved me in dying so that I can go to heaven. But since my hearing the Good News as the transformation and fulfillment of history, there is also something beyond the loving service, as important and essential as that is. In fact, learning to serve in love has a whole new motivation. It isn’t just something nice to do to so my thanks for Jesus loving me. No, since I believe that Jesus is right now as we speak changing and transforming history, I’m motivated to undertake loving service as Jesus’ incredibly gracious invitation to take part in that transformation. I’m participating in loving service as part of my call to make a difference in changing the world.
But this is where my conversion also urges me on to something more, in addition to loving service. The cross and resurrection have installed Jesus Christ as Lord of this world to begin transforming it slowly in love toward God’s way of justice and peace — a way that does not the kind of gross inequities between rich and poor that we currently experience, especially when we are bold to undertake loving service with the poor. We are also looking for the ways to transform our unjust ways into God’s just ways. Now, this is exceedingly tricky and difficult, because if there’s one thing we’ve gotten wrong through the long ages of human history is in understanding the radical difference between our ways and God’s ways. We’ve tended to mistake our ways as God’s ways, with the only difference being God’s superhuman power of being able to enact them. God, like Superman, can succeed where we ordinary humans fail. But the cross, in changing history through suffering our violence rather than inflicting it, shows just how radically different God’s ways are from ours.
But here’s the Good News folks: despite all the bad soil out there; despite the evil one having showed seeds of injustice into our way of doing things; despite starting out as small as a mustard seed; God’s Word, God’s way, is producing a yield, a harvest. The sufferings of this present time cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed someday when God’s work of transforming creation is completed and fulfilled. And, in the meantime, you and I have the audacious privilege of being invited to join in on the work. We are painfully aware of the suffering in places like Gaza and our own border to Mexico [news stories of the week]. But in hope, you and I are called to make a difference in helping to bring God’s way of peace and justice to this hurting world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 20, 2014