GATHERING THE SCATTERED CHILDREN OF GOD
Gathering ... scattering. Gathering ... scattering. The apostle Luke used this very important image of gathering and scattering as a way of summing up the whole story of Jesus and of his followers. Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who records Jesus as saying, "Whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Lk 11:23b) Short and sweet and to the point: "Whoever does not gather with me scatters." Gathering ... scattering.
Luke wrote the Book of Acts, too, and, essentially, this is what his story of Pentecost is all about! Scattering ... gathering. Those who are scattered are gathered. We might say that this is the number one effect of Jesus' words of forgiveness from the cross. On Pentecost God works a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel, when people were scattered over the face of the earth with their different languages. With the Spirit of Christ -- a Holy Spirit which his resurrection has let loose on the world -- we see the scattered peoples of the earth gathered back together, with a new common language of understanding, the language of forgiveness.
If you've ever searched for a simple way to describe what the Christian faith is all about, I think this may be it! Jesus died on the cross, offering us forgiveness, so that we could have a new way to gather together and stay together, truly as one. Scattered ... Gathered. Think of it! Think of all the ways we are scattered, all the ways we tear each other apart, all the broken relationships, all the bitterness, all the terrible hurt. Think of the wars and the killing and the terrible racism that scatters us as peoples across the earth, with so much tragic killing and so much unspeakable grief. This is what Jesus came for, to gather us together again in loving forgiveness. Luke's story of Pentecost shows us that just 50 days after Easter, that powerful Holy Spirit began to blow and to gather God's people from the corners of the earth. It brought them together in a new oneness called the Church, which, strife-torn as it has been, has still persisted for almost two thousand years now.
Pastor Mary talked about oneness last week. She challenged us to witness to the oneness that we in the church are called to bear witness to. She encouraged us with that picture of Jesus praying for us to live out that oneness. She invited us to that sacrament of oneness, that Holy Communion. We would do well, I think, to dwell with that theme of oneness this week, too, this time under the banner of gathering and scattering. Jesus came to gather his people in a new way challenging us: "Whoever doesn't gather with me scatters." It's as simple as that: If we aren't about the business gathering folks with the language of God's loving forgiveness, then we should probably keep our mouths shut, because otherwise we're scattering.
I'd like to recall another of Pastor Mary's sermons, this time going all the way back to the Second Sunday in Lent, when Pastor Mary preached on Jesus' words about the hen gathering her chicks under her wing. Do you remember? Well, it comes from Luke 13 -- St. Luke once again! -- so listen in terms of that theme of gathering and scattering. Listen to several verses, because we not only have Jesus the Hen, but first we also have Herod the Fox:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:31-34)What we have here is a contrast using the image of the fox and the hen. Jesus is contrasting our version of trying to gather ourselves together with his version of gathering. Herod the fox and the people of Jerusalem will once again attempt a version of gathering that features killing; Jesus will offer a version more like a mother hen who gathers chicks for protection and comfort. But Jesus is also like the hen in that he will, in fact, become prey for Herod the fox. And that's the key here to beginning to see the difference between attempts at gathering. Jesus offers himself up to fox on behalf of his chicks in order to expose the fox's way of gathering as, in fact, a way of scattering.
Now, you may be wondering how killing can be an attempt at gathering. The image of the fox makes the scattering obvious. And that's the point, to make it obvious. That's what Jesus came to do on the cross, to make it obvious to us. But it is not obvious to us. It wasn't to Herod and the people of Jerusalem, who truly thought they were getting rid of a dangerous person when they executed Jesus. And its not obvious to the fox, for that matter. The fox kills the hen as a matter of survival. He gathers food to survive. And that's the way it's always been for us, too. We kill because we think it is a matter of survival. You see, it has been our central human way of trying to gather ourselves since the beginning of time. It underlies all our cultures. That's why, for example, every early human culture practiced ritual sacrifice. That act of sacrifice was a way of trying to keep everyone gathered together through the powerful catharsis of killing. Killing someone can be a way of gathering the rest of the murderers together.
We have finally moved away from the ritual, religious sacrifice in our time, but other forms of killing have remained central. Wars for one. When a nation is in turmoil, it has seemed like a good war is provides the medicine for coming together as a nation. Or think about the cries for capital punishment during this time of turmoil and high crime in our country. It seems natural to us that killing the criminals is what we need to hold together as a country. It seems necessary to us for gathering together as community.
I don't mean to pick on just capital punishment here, because the matter goes much deeper than that. These are ways in which we literally kill people. But Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and Martin Luther in his explanation of the Fifth Commandment, want us to pay attention to the ways in which we also kill one another in spirit. The myriad of ways in which we wound one another with harsh words, with insults, with slander, with neglect, with gossip. We are constantly comparing ourselves, comparing each other, in ways to give rank, in ways to justify ourselves. Our way of gathering ourselves, our way of holding together, just always seems to naturally fall back into some form of 'over-against-ness'. We pull together as a group, whatever that group may be -- our family, our church -- by posing ourselves over-against someone else. Even as individuals, when things get tough, it seems natural to watch out for number one first, doesn't it? Or to at least watch out for one's own family. But this is a way of gathering, a holding together, that depends on being over against someone else, and so it actually always ends up being a way of scattering. "Whoever doesn't gather with me," says Jesus, "scatters." We scatter. Isn't that what's happening in our world? Isn't that what's been happening since the beginning of time in one form or another? We try to gather ourselves at the expense of scattering someone else?
This is what Jesus came to show us on the cross. This is why it took the cross to show us how wrong we are. It took being murdered, executed, because that has been our way of trying to gather since the beginning. With our over against-ness we murder each other's spirits; we kill each other.
But thank God the cross shows us something else at the same time: the spirit of God's loving forgiveness, a powerful spirit of life that can help us to gather ourselves in a new way. With that word of forgiveness comes a joy, a joy!, of seeing just how wrong we are. Because when we see how wrong we are, we also know we are forgiven, and so we can repent. We can open our lives to a new spirit, a Holy Spirit, the Spirit of our Crucified and Risen Lord's loving forgiveness. And in each way in our lives, both big and small, we can begin to go about the business of gathering with Jesus. For it is only in the Holy Spirit that we can truly and lastingly be gathered together as God's children, as little chicks under God's holy wings. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 30-31, 1998