Saturday, June 30, 2012

Christian Giving: Who Benefits?

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
2nd Corinthians 8:1-15

It is more blessed to give than to receive.  That is, you are blessed when you give; Paul even calls it a grace for you.   

I thank the LORD for our financial health.  I’m glad we don’t face an ongoing budget struggle which might drive me to preach, teach and talk about money all the time.  It happens, including here, in the past, but not during my ministry, not yet at least.  It doesn’t sound fun.  But perhaps these days of abundance really aren’t the best time to talk about giving.  Perhaps a bit of a crisis would sharpen our minds and open our hearts.  Perhaps we’d learn the LORD’s lessons about money and Church better if we were struggling to make budget.  Indeed, Paul mentions the strange combination of an abundance of joy and extreme poverty, overflowing into a wealth of generosity.  Great giving comes from extreme poverty, mixed with joy?  What is this?  More about that later.  Today our circumstances are what they are, our finances good, and this text in front of us.    

You might be surprised I’m not preaching on our famous Old Testament text – great is Thy faithfulness, LORD – or on the double miracle for the woman and the dead little girl in our Gospel – if only I can touch the hem of His garment, I will be made well.  Talitha cum, little girl I say to you, arise.  Great passages, both, but several things struck me as I studied this passage from 2nd Corinthians. 

First, Paul is bluntly asking for money to support the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, who are suffering from a famine, but he doesn’t care how much the Corinthians give.  Fundraising experts will tell you to always be specific with dollar amounts, but the Apostle asks for no particular level of giving.  No tithe, or tenth, is required or even suggested to them, no amount at all.  Paul simply isn’t concerned with how much they give, but rather with why they give, and what giving will do for them. 

For Old Testament Israel, God did give specific percentages, the tithe or tenth offering.  Under Moses, no option was offered; along with various other occasional offerings, you gave a tenth, period, no options, that was the Law.  But Paul is an Apostle to the New Israel, the New Testament Church which is free in Christ, and so no suggested giving levels are to be found in our text.  Give what you want.    

The why of what you might want to give is found in the second thing that struck me in these verses, especially verse 4.  Paul uses some unexpected words to discuss the financial giving he is calling the Corinthians to complete.  Unfortunately, much of the impact is lost in translation.  Our verse 4 goes as follows:  Paul reports how the Macedonians were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”   Now, that is impressive.  Who among us has ever begged for the opportunity to give money to help people far away, whom we do not know?  Willing to give, ready to give, sure, but begging to give?  Impressive.  But wait, there’s more. 
First of all, the Macedonians’ begging was with paraclesis, or exhortation, translated ‘earnestly’ in our reading.  Paraclesis is a word usually associated with the Holy Spirit, indeed Jesus calls the Spirit the Paraclete, the One who does paraclesis.  Paraclesis means to exhort, comfort, encourage, entreat.  The Macedonians begged like the Holy Spirit works.  And what they begged for was the charis, the grace, the gift from God, of giving.  And they begged like the Spirit for the grace of giving, not just to take part in a good cause, but to have koinonia, that is fellowship, or communion, in this giving.  The same word, koinonia, is used for our communion with God and each other in the Holy Supper.  Finally, this act of giving, this relief of the saints, is actually a diakonia, that is a ministry, or service, to the saints. 

Paraclesis – exhortation, the work of the Holy Spirit.  Charis – grace, a free gift from God.  Koinonia – fellowship or communion in the things of Christ.  Diakonia – ministry or service.  Giving a financial contribution entailed all of these holy things, all done for the saints, the holy ones of God.  As Paul describes Christian giving, it sounds like a lot more that a nice thing to do.  It sounds fundamentally entwined with the life of the Church of Christ. 

Indeed, Paul goes on to say the Corinthians excel in all sorts of other Churchly things, like faith, and the word, the ‘logos’, and in knowledge and earnestness, and in love.  Here again, our translation misses a bit, for in our verse 7 the list of things the Corinthians excel in concludes with “and in our love for you,” which, if you think about it, sounds funny.  How do I excel in your love for me?  A more literal translation again will help.  Paul says the Corinthians excel in the “from us to you ‘agape’,” that is, they excel in “the selfless love, ‘agape’, which Paul brought to the Corinthians.”  What selfless ‘agape’ love is Paul referring to?  The love of Christ poured out on the Cross, of course, the love of Christ Paul had delivered to them through the preaching of the Gospel.  They excel in ‘agape’ love by eagerly gathering to receive it, again and again. 

Finally, and most importantly as it relates to the topic of stewardship, as they excel in all these clearly divine things, like faith, word, knowledge, earnestness, and ‘agape’ love, so also Paul wants them to be completed by excelling in the grace of giving.  Why does Paul want this grace of giving to be completed in the Corinthians?  Not out of obedience to any commandment, but to prove, or demonstrate, that the ‘agape’ love amongst them is genuine.  That is to say the completion of their giving will bear witness to the truth that the living Christ dwells among them. 

Which brings me to the third, most striking thing about this passage.  The beneficiary of Christian giving, at least as Paul describes it in this passage, is first and foremost the one who gives.  Doesn’t that seem odd?  I mean, Paul is raising funds to take to Jerusalem to help the Christians there who face a desperate famine.  It is clearly true that the Christians in Judea will benefit from whatever generosity the Corinthians or anyone else offer.  That’s what we still do with our Mission Sundays, isn’t it?  We choose three causes a year to support with a portion of our giving.  Sometimes we can only get some display items and some materials to describe the work being done, for which they need our money.  Far better is when someone from the mission or ministry can come and speak directly to us, as the Saville’s did when they were missionaries in Venezuela.  We hear, we learn, we enjoy fellowship, we give, and the ministry or mission benefits.  Seems kind of obvious, the receiver of a gift is the one who benefits. 

But as we look closely at what Paul says, the need and plight of the saints in Jerusalem are hardly mentioned.  Paul spends much more time describing the joy of the Macedonians, who gave beyond their means, giving first to the LORD, that is, maintaining their support of their local congregation and pastor, and then also to Paul and his special cause.  Paul wants the joy of the Macedonians to also be the joy of the Corinthians.  It’s almost as if Paul knows God will take care of the Christians in Jerusalem, somehow, with or without the Corinthians. Great is His faithfulness, after all.  But the reason he gives for the Corinthians to give is that they have grace and joy and be complete, for these are a sure sign of Christ’s agape love among them.   

Paul’s concern in this passage is all about the benefit of the giver.  It’s not that he’s not concerned for the starving saints in Judea, but in his encouragement of the Corinthians, Paul never describes their desperate plight, no images of smiling but oh-too-skinny-children to tug at their heartstrings, no questions about who will  help them if you don’t, in summary, no guilt whatsoever.  Instead of using guilt, Paul instead talks about the joy of giving, of how the Macedonians combined extreme poverty and joy to produce an overflowing wealth of generosity.  Strange economics here, for overflowing generosity to come out of extreme poverty.  How does that work? 

Well, to put it simply, Paul is talking about Christian giving.  That is, the economics of Paul’s fundraising are fundamentally different because this is giving by and amongst the followers of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  The poverty of God’s Son changes everything, for His poverty was caused by the debt of all humanity’s sin.  Jesus, for the joy set before Him, left all of the richness of glory at His Father’s throne, and took on all your sins.  All your petty meanness, all your laziness, all your selfishness and greed, all your lust and deep, hidden wickedness, all these, Jesus took on Himself, becoming by your debts the ultimate Poor Man, paying once for all on the Cross, so that you might, through Him, become rich.    

The poverty of God’s Son changes everything, because for Christians, that is for sinners who believe their sins are washed away in Jesus’ blood, giving now benefits you, the giver.  Now, in Christ, to give is more blessed than to receive.  Why?  Because to give is to imitate Christ, and in all things, the closer we are to Jesus, the better for us.  The woman with the flow of blood was healed just by touching His garment.  The little girl was raised to life when Jesus went personally into her room and took her by the hand and commanded new life into her.  And so also, when you as a Christian give in a way that reflects the giving nature of Jesus, you are blessed by this imitation of Him.    

To better understand, let’s go back to that list of special words Paul use to describe the blessing the Macedonians found in giving.  Paul says they begged with exhortation for the grace of fellowship or communion in this financial ministry or service to the saints in Judea.  Exhortation is a Holy Spirit word, which fits, as their desire to give was a work of the Holy Spirit in them.  Grace of course is the attitude of favor that God has towards us, and this giving was a concrete example of God’s grace among them.  Fellowship or communion is the close relationship God has re-established with sinners through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, fellowship we enjoy again and again in Word and Sacrament, fellowship which then creates a bond between all Christians, a communion which we rejoice to visibly participate in, both at the altar, and in mutual support. 

Ministry or service is then the act of delivering the good things God has given to another person, be that the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, delivering the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners, or ministry to the needs of the body, joyfully done to support another saint, another sinner who, like you, has been declared to be holy by God, for Jesus’ sake. 

So you see, giving to support fellow Christians is an integral part of being Church.  Our giving does not create the Church, any more than our fellowship with each other creates our fellowship with God.  No, everything starts in God, and most particularly, in the grace of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  Christian giving is a natural outflow of the new richness we have first been given in Christ Jesus.     

So, Christian giving is good for you, the giver.  Paul praises the Corinthians for their beginning, their commitment to take an offering for the saints in Judea.  A good thing, to start.  Even better is when a God-given desire begins to motivate your plan to give.  And best of all is when the desire to give reaches completion, so that you and the Church around you get to see the visible proof of God’s grace and ‘agape’ love among you.  It doesn’t matter how much you give, but rather that you desire to give, from the joy you have, because Christ has given Himself to you. 

In my eight years of ministry to you here, it has been a great joy to see how God has provided for all our needs.  Financially, the LORD has made use of fire and flood and oil wells and many other earthly things, to create the circumstances for our opportunity to rejoice in the grace of giving.  Through it all, of course, the key has been God causing His Word and Sacrament to go forth, bringing forgiveness to sinners like you and me, grace and mercy abounding and giving us hearts that desire to give. 

Perhaps in years to come the LORD will give us tougher times, as He has in the past.  Or perhaps our earthly bounty will continue.  No matter, as long as we are centered on the One who, though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor.  We have everything we need, for ourselves, and for others, in the poverty of Christ crucified, and in the riches of Christ resurrected and ascended, ruling right now at the Father’s right hand.  God grant us ever to find our poverty, our wealth, and our joy, in Jesus, Amen. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Zechariah’s Blessing

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Luke 1:57-80

The silence of the law is finally over.  Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, six months and a day before the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  John’s father, Zechariah, had borne the burden of God’s law through nine months of silence.  Zechariah was a priest and a faithful Israelite, along with his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had also endured another burden of the law, the burden of barrenness.  That is, through many long decades of marriage, they had never received the blessing of a child, yet another consequence of human sinfulness, not the parents’ particular fault, just the sad fact that some marriages are not fruitful, even though God created marriage in order that we might fill the earth with more and more people for God to bless. 

Who knows how many words of mourning, how many cries and tears came from Zechariah and Elizabeth, because they had no child.  But then, near the end of their lives, during the reign of King Herod, while Zechariah was taking his turn in the priestly service rotation, burning the daily incense at the altar of the LORD, the angel Gabriel appears to him with great news: Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son!  And this son would be special, bringing joy to many, being filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, a prophet sent before the Lord to prepare His Way. 

Despite the visit by the angel, and despite the promised blessing, Zechariah doubts the Word which Gabriel declared to him.  Consequently, to prepare Zechariah to receive this promise with gladness, God’s messenger announced a silent law.  Nine months Zechariah would be mute, unable to speak, nine months of daily reminder that he had been given a special message of good news from the LORD, but doubted. 

But now, today, a son is born, and his name will be John.  With this acknowledgement of the Word of God that had been spoken by Gabriel, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed into a tremendous blessing, an expression of purest gospel, a burst of singing given by God to Zechariah, and recorded by Luke for us to hear and sing, the good news of the LORD’s salvation, coming to Israel, right now.  Zechariah had suffered through nine months’ of silence, but now his unique blessing is to sing this song, called the Benedictus, a song of great joy and promise, a song about the coming Christ child, and about John, who would go before the LORD to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  What a blessing.  In fact the name Benedictus means blessed, from the first line of the song: Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, for He has come to His people and redeemed them. 

What a blessing for Zechariah.  Nine long months of tough discipline were a burden, no doubt, but in this song a wonderful privilege, to proclaim such sweet Gospel.  This is also God’s blessing for Zechariah’s son John, to proclaim good news to God’s people, to comfort Israel by telling her that her warfare is ended and her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  And this double back gift is Jesus Christ, the One whose way John came to prepare.  Yes, John’s blessing was in the end just like Zechariah’s, the blessing of being called to tell forth the Good News of Jesus Christ.  John’s blessing was the same, only different.  John too, is given to preach good news, but the Law and the Gospel are more intertwined for the Baptist.  Zechariah suffered through nine months of silent law, but then broke forth in pure good news, the only public proclamation that we can for sure say Zechariah ever made. 

 Not so John.  John preached for years, day after day.  And like any life time preacher, he was not given just one period of law preaching, followed by a long straight shot of only joyful Gospel.  No, John had to keep coming back to the Law, over and over again, in the harshest fashion.  Repent, John cried, repent, again and again, proclaiming the bitter truth of human sin, in order that the Law could prepare sinners to hear and believe the Good News that in Christ Jesus, the Law is fulfilled and our sins are forgiven. 

Preachers don’t get to choose the path of their ministry.  If they could, I think I would choose Zechariah’s path.  Nine months of silence?  I’m sure that would be difficult.  But then, to be given such a sermon to preach, to sing even, a sermon song that the Church would take up and continue to sing, until Christ returns.  That sounds wonderful to me. 

We should be more watchful for opportunities to proclaim pure Gospel, pure Good News about Christ and His salvation.  Pastors and people together should be on the lookout for opportunities to declare the utterly surprising and joy-filled message of God’s love for the world, poured out in Jesus Christ.  Because most people still think the message of the Christian Church is shape yourself up, or you’ll go to hell.  That Christ came to forgive sinners because we can’t shape ourselves up, that He gives the gift of forgiveness totally free, apart from any works on our part, this is good news that by and large most people don’t know or don’t understand.  So we should watch for opportunities to speak of Christ’s forgiveness, watch for and seize them. 

We should seize them when we can, because, more often than not, the proclamation required by any given moment in our lives is more mixed, more like John the Baptist, less like Zechariah.  This is because the Gospel is good news only to those who know their predicament, their sin and the punishment deserved, their impending death and the eternal hell they lives have earned.  Without an understanding of our guilt and God’s wrath, sinners may hear the message of good news, but doubt that they need it.  Very rarely do we come across people in open desperation, eager to hear of the Savior.  No, more often than not, there is a glaring problem that must be addressed, before the hearer is ready for the Gospel. 

All too often, the problem is a callousness, a hardening toward God and His Word, a seared conscience that feels no guilt.  People are dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, and yet want nothing to do with the Way of Christ, because although salvation is by the free gift of forgiveness, Christ does call His people to a life of love toward God and neighbor.  God’s Law does not save us, but it still stands.  Christians are called to reject the passions and desires of sin.  But these are what so many people spend every waking hour trying to fulfill.  Sexual fantasy, psychotic escape through drugs or alcohol, the thrill of material gain, the sadistic pleasure of hurting and dominating others, for the person caught up in such sins, the conscience is very nearly dead, and must be awakened by the condemnation of God’s threatening wrath.  The wages of sin is death, and not some peaceful escape to nothingness, but rather death leading into a real place of real punishment, gnawing pain from a fire that does not go out.  Brood of vipers, cries out John, who warned you to flee the wrath to come? 

Ironically, these famous words from the Baptist were directed at those who appeared the most moral, the most religious.  This should frighten us most of all, that the hardest hearts, the most deeply seared consciences can belong to those who actively portray themselves as good, Godly people.  There is a great irony here, for those most obviously disobeying God’s Law are oftentimes ready to admit their guilt, like the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners who were always clamoring after Jesus.  Meanwhile the outwardly religious close their ears and harden their hearts, pretending that God can’t see how they act when no one from Church is around, how they behave in their own home, what wicked thoughts and desires they cherish in their hearts. 

How do we know these things are true?  Well, we know from our own lives, from our hearts, from our memories, and from our thoughts right now, don’t we?  We all know people who are hardened against God’s Word, people who seek after the thrills and pleasures of the flesh, who beat down and ignore their consciences till almost nothing’s left.  And we all know people who put on a show of religiosity, but who privately are full of pride and bitterness.  We all know such people, for such people are we.  This is a fearsome thing, that even after we have been claimed by and called to follow the One whom John proclaimed, still we don’t live righteously, as the Baptized should. 

So yes, we know from our lives.  But not quite fully.  No, God’s Word declares that our sinfulness is so deep, we cannot even understand it, that while our conscience can become more aware of sin, still there are yet deeper sins of which we do not know.  God’s Word declares that we sinful through and through, even when we are doing our very best not to be sinful. 

And so, in order to give comfort, true, eternal comfort, the true knowledge of salvation, first John and every preacher must proclaim the condemnation of the Law.  So John’s task was often difficult, for the sinner in each of us hates to be condemned.  John’s calling was difficult, and dangerous, eventually costing him his head.  But John did it for joy, from a confident hope, proclaiming the bitter Law because John knew the Gospel was even sweeter.  Because God, finding no one who could fulfill His will for mankind, and even less finding someone who could shoulder the burden of mankind’s debt for sin, came Himself.  Six months after John the Baptist, the LORD God Himself was born into His Creation, the eternal Son sent by the Father, to redeem the world with His own life, death and resurrection.  Look, said John, look you sinners, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Watch Him, and see your salvation, dying and rising again. 

You and I will never get past our need to hear God’s Law, not until the LORD calls us to Himself.  And we don’t just need God’s Law as a guidebook for living, as if we have got this Christianity thing under control.  No, we will always need God’s Law to point out our own sinfulness, that we be reminded daily to flee to Jesus, bringing Him our sins, for this is what He truly wants from us.  And that we never doubt we can run to Jesus, we would do well to remember Zechariah’s song.  We might even memorize this sermon song about the blessed LORD who saves His people, who gives knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.  Yes, even more we need to hear and proclaim God’s Way, of how He forgives the iniquity of His people, by covering all our sin in the blood of Jesus, withdrawing His wrath, turning from His anger and showering us with blessings, declaring our warfare to be ended and our iniquity pardoned. 

The sunrise from on high has risen upon us, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and is with His Church unto the end of the age.  Jesus is God’s gift to you, double back for all your sins.  So preached Zechariah.  So preached John.  So declares God.  Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, and blessed are you, Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Growing the Church

Third Sunday after Pentecost,  June 17th, Year of Our + Lord 2012                 
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Mark 4:26-34

A Conversation - "Grandpa," the boy asked, taking a bite from his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "Where does bread come from?"  Grandpa smiled.  He was eating lunch with his visiting grandson out in the middle of the family farm, their pickup parked overlooking 35 acres of wheat. "Right out there.  Bread comes from wheat, which is what is growing in this field.  "Bread is grass?"  "No, the wheat will grow a head on top, a head full of grain, or seeds.  Those seeds are ground up to make flour, and flour is what bread is made from."  "Oh, … how does the plant make the seeds?"  "Well, as the wheat plant grows, it just forms the seeds, that's what wheat does."  "How does the wheat grow?”  "Well, the wheat grows from just a little shoot, using water and sunlight and nutrients from the soil."  "Where does the shoot come from?"   "It comes from the seed.  Farmers like me plant seeds of wheat down in the soil, and with water and sunshine they sprout and grow until they push a shoot up above the ground."  "So wheat plants grow from wheat seeds, which farmers put into the ground, and wheat seeds come from wheat plants."  "Yes." …  "Grandpa, which came first, the wheat plant or the wheat seed?"  "Uh, I think we'll have to wait until we get to heaven and ask God that one." 

How does the Kingdom of God grow?  As we can describe the growth of  wheat, but cannot fully explain how it grows, so also we can describe the growth of the Church, but even more the precise details of ‘how’ are something of a mystery.  People may pass through our congregation, on their way to somewhere else.  God may touch their hearts through what we say and do here, but the harvest only becomes visible later, somewhere else, that we may never see in this life.  Deathbed conversions, like the thief on the cross, may, Lord willing, be much more common than we know.  Such last minute, hidden-in-a-hospital-room harvesting is hardly noticed on earth, but the angels rejoice.

Sometimes the Church is very deliberate about growth, seeing opportunities, and working to maximize them.  When the former Soviet Union collapsed, an opportunity presented itself.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod sent missionaries, and then professors from the Fort Wayne Seminary, and then we brought men from there to Indiana to study, after which they returned home to preach and teach.  Now there are several growing Lutheran Churches in former Soviet countries. 

Today, similar opportunities for mission are opening up in Africa, and Europe, even in Wittenberg, the home of the Lutheran Reformation, now a city almost completely without the Gospel.  And, much closer to home, our own Montana District of the LCMS resolved at last week’s convention to make pursuing mission and outreach opportunities right here in the Bakken Oil Boom region the next priority of the district mission strategy, right after current efforts to call a missionary at large to the Livingston-Big Timber area. 

So, we are planning, and working, and praying for growth.  But at other times, there doesn't seem to be a particular plan, and yet growth occurs.  It wasn't until something very bad happened, not until the Church was driven from Jerusalem by persecution after the stoning of Steven, that the she really began to grow in Judea and Samaria.  Likewise today, we, as members of the Church, may plan, or not, but we do have a role to play in growing the Kingdom.  But we must remember that we don't control the outcomes, or even fully understand the process.  

There is one key concept that always applies, however.  To continue the farming metaphor, there are lots of methods for farming, but you always have to have seed.  Likewise, there are lots of methods to grow the Church, but you must have the Seed, which is the Word of Christ, who was crucified for sinners. 

The Word of Christ is the minimum and effective requirement for mission.  But we are prone to think we must add something to the Word, to make it work, that if we aren't friendly, or relevant, or dedicated, or something, the Kingdom can't grow.  We think we must keep up with the times.  Or maybe we need to be more traditional.  More relaxed?  More sacred?     If we don’t figure it out, how will the Church grow?

We think these sorts of things because we forget that, like the farmer, we're not in charge of growth.  In fact, the farmer has a lot more influence on his crop than we have on the spiritual harvest.  The spiritual harvest involves us, no doubt, because Jesus ascended into heaven and has sent His Church out into the World to proclaim the Gospel. 

Simply because the Gospel is holy and good, we seek to proclaim it well and faithfully.  We can mess up our part, and all too often we do, confusing the message, or worse, in our sinful weakness, failing to take advantage of opportunities to speak of Christ which God puts right in front of us.  We can and do mess up.  Sometimes, we even do our part pretty well.  But either way, whether we play our part well, or poorly, the harvest always depends on God.  We may do our part poorly, and still see results, or we may do our part as well as we can, and yet never see the harvest we hope for.  It all depends on God.  

In this we see the delivery of the Kingdom to individuals today is like the winning of the Kingdom 2,000 years ago.  Jesus spoke in parables about the coming of the kingdom because the people couldn't handle the unvarnished truth.  Jesus, the Seed of the Woman come to deliver on God's promise to save the sinful children of Adam and Eve  was never quite understood during His three years of earthly ministry, not even by His own disciples, to whom "He explained everything." 

This lack of understanding was because salvation is so contrary to everything we expect, it had to completely depend on God.  You see, Jesus would ‘win the kingdom’ by losing everything.  Jesus' ‘great plan’ was to die.  Jesus' death was to give life.  Such an approach to Kingdom building was too strange for the people to understand.  So Jesus gave them clues, explaining things in parables, so that after the Kingdom was established, after Jesus had died for our sins and risen again for our new life, they, and we, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, can understand and believe in what Jesus said and did.  And then, saved by faith in Christ, we declare that good news to others. 

And so it is today.  The greatest of our efforts may not produce any visible results.  And yet, the smallest of things can be used by God to grow His Church.  The tiny mustard seed grows into a great bush, and the weakest of churches still delivers God’s saving power, if it proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation of sinners.  Like the power of a mustard seed, the power of the Kingdom is not ours, but God's. 

Our calling as Christians is to do all that we can for God's Kingdom, to be faithful in the Church, to serve our neighbors without thought of reward, and to be ready to give the reason for the hope that is in us.  But often we can barely manage to hang on.  Our confession of the faith is weak, our missionary zeal deserts us, our sins embarrass us.  Sometimes all we can do is beg God for mercy, for Jesus' sake. 

But that's enough.  It's enough for you, because each time you beg for God's mercy, His mercy has already enveloped you, God wrapping His arms of mercy around you even before you kneel in confession.  The Father’s mercy says you are forgiven, already, in Jesus, for into His life and death you were baptized, and with His Body and Blood you are fed forgiveness.  Arise and rejoice.  God’s mercy is enough for you, and for me. 

And, amazingly, God will use even our weakness to reach out.  God will use our weakness and hurts to show weak and hurting unbelievers that they too have a place at His table, with all the rest of us weak and hurting sinners. 

The kingdom of God is like  a man (who) scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain-- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come."     The Harvest has come.  You have been gathered into God's barns by Jesus.  And He uses you as He continues harvesting.  Rejoice in the Bread from Heaven, the Lord of the Harvest, Jesus Christ, your Savior.  Amen.