Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This weekend, I went to a gathering of Holden Village friends. Holden Village is a retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Located in the Wenatchee National Forest, its location is remote, reachable only by boat and then an 11-mile bus ride up switchbacks and along a winding road that climbs Railroad Creek Valley. Last summer, Holden Village’s existence was threatened by a wildfire that was ignited by lightning at the end of June. In an exceptionally arid year, the spontaneous fire spread rapidly through the valley. The road to the Village was compromised, and 300 people needed to be evacuated quickly. More lightning strikes lit additional fires, and soon the area surrounding Lake Chelan was in flames. Tens of thousands of acres, eventually more than 100,000 acres were engulfed in fire. Three firefighters lost their lives. Those of us who love the Village checked Facebook multiple times a day to hear the latest word. Firebird sprinklers doused the Village to keep it moist. Backfires were lit to try to defend the Village from approaching flames. When maps outlining the fire’s progress were posted, we would enlarge them and study every curve of the road to see how far the fire had advanced. And when the Village was surrounded by fire on three sides, we collectively held our breath and prayed, “Lord, have mercy.”

Holden is an old copper mine town that was converted to a Lutheran retreat center 55 years ago. It’s a quirky, idyllic, mountain village that retains its physical charm from the 1930’s. It is home to a unique and marvelous community that is constantly changing. Tens of thousands of people have gone to Holden, and none of them have stayed. We all go and live a little bit of our lives there, get refreshed, and then take the bus back down the mountain and go back to our lives. Holden is a place of transformation; it’s a community in a setting that helps us define or redefine who we are and what we do in this world. So when the future of Holden was on the brink and we didn’t know if this beautiful place-set-apart would survive, Holdenites gathered through social media; we sang and prayed and lifted the Village up. We, of course, wanted the Village to survive, but its future was beyond our control. There was a sense of surrender, a prayer that said, “not my will, but yours.”

This weekend, the directors, Chuck and Peg Hoffman, came to town and met with about 150 of us and told stories and showed us photos. “We didn’t post some of these photos on Facebook at the time,” Chuck said, “because we didn’t know yet how things would go. The flames came so close to the Village, and the photos made them look even closer. We just didn’t know what would happen….”

Chuck told about one night when there were only a handful of people in the Village. The day’s work was done, they had done everything they could to fight the fire for that day, and the few people who were there sat outside on Adirondack chairs and looked at the night sky across the valley. It was a clear night, remarkably, and they could see stars above Buckskin and Copper Mountains. Occasionally a spot fire would ignite across the distance, lighting a tree on fire. The separation between heaven and earth seemed to blur as the white lights in the sky met the flickering lights in the trees. Not yet knowing what the future would hold, Chuck described an awe-filled moment, a glimpse of the sacred. A picture of promise maybe, an unexpected image of grace.

“The time is fulfilled;” Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

We are halfway through our sermon series right now called, “All In.” We are reading the Gospel of Mark from January through Easter – the story of Jesus and how God came to us in the incarnation, how God fully invested Godself in a relationship with us and took on human form. And we’re asking, What does it mean for us to be “all in” with God?

As Jesus began his public ministry, he proclaimed one of the shortest sermons ever, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) — The kingdom of God has come near. What in the world does that mean? And how is it good news? Jesus is going to show us.

If we had just two words to describe the work of Jesus so far – two verbs – we would say that Jesus has been teaching and healing. He teaches with authority, and he brings wholeness to those who are not well. In today’s story, Jesus is teaching in parables, and people are confused. That’s not surprising because parables are confusing. A parable is a story or a “word picture” that uses familiar, everyday images, but then tosses in some uncommon element that makes it more than a simple observation. Jesus tells parables to get people’s attention and then challenge what they believe to be true. A favorite teacher of mine, Dr. David Lose, makes a distinction between a fable and a parable. A fable, he says, is a clever story meant to teach or give insight into life. But a parable is intended to be disruptive, to interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually confront you with a surprising and unwanted truth; a truth as surprising and unwanted as a forest fire threatening a remote mountain village.

One of the movies that’s nominated for “best picture” Academy Award this year is, “The Big Short,” which is about the credit and housing bubble collapse that happened in 2008. The movie begins with an onscreen quote attributed to Mark Twain:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The movie then illustrates how certain we were, and yet how wrong we were, that the housing market was the bedrock of the American economy and that banks were too big to fail.

A parable is useful, Dr. Lose says, when the truth we want to share is difficult to hear or difficult to comprehend or believe. In a poem by Emily Dickinson, she prescribes “Telling all the Truth but telling it slant.” Sometimes the truth is too powerful or amazing or blinding that we need to take it in gradually, rather than all at once.

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –

…The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

As I told the story about the Wolverine Fire surrounding Holden Village, I noted that Holden’s Director, Chuck Hoffman, said there were photos they simply couldn’t share with us when the fire was still burning, because the truth was too frightening, the possibility of destruction was too real. The truth could only be shared in bits and pieces; the truth could only be told “slant”. We saw photos of firefighters battling fires close up, we saw maps of where the fire advanced, but we didn’t see photos of flames with familiar buildings in the same frame.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the Village did survive the fire. It’s an oasis of green in the middle of a charred forest, but it has changed, and what that means is yet to be seen. What we do know is that new life can spring from loss, that that is God’s way in the world, and that it does so in unexpected ways.

Jesus speaks in parables today, and he tells two parables about seeds. “A farmer or a gardener went out to plant seeds. As the farmer planted the seeds…

  • some of the seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up;
  • some of the seeds fell among the rocks, and there wasn’t enough soil to develop deep roots, so they were dried by the sun and withered away;
  • some of the seeds fell among the thorns, and there wasn’t enough room for them, so they got crowded out;
  • but some of the seed fell in rich, black soil, and the seeds germinated, and they grew and produced plants with more seeds – 30, 60, 100 times as many.

Jesus’ closest followers were confused, so when they were alone with Jesus, they asked him about the parables. “What do you mean, Jesus?” And he said, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God. To you has been made known God’s way in the world, but to those on the outside, it’s all confusing.” Well that was potentially a problem, because it was confusing to them. “Agh!” Jesus said. “If you don’t understand this parable, how will you understand all the others? The parable is about faith:

  • Sometimes the word goes out, and it falls on deaf ears; people don’t connect. (We know that’s true.)
  • Sometimes the word goes out, and people are excited, but their faith is shallow and never grows.
  • Sometimes the word goes out, but the distractions of the world and the desire for success and material things are just too strong.
  • And sometimes the word goes out and faith takes hold, and people bear fruit.”

Here’s the thing: it’s not really up to us whether faith takes hold. It comes from outside us. It comes from God. And just when we thought we knew who was on the inside and who was on the outside, Jesus shakes it up and turns our expectations on their head. It might be that a hardened colleague turns out to have just the right touch in a medical emergency, or a gruff neighbor cares for a tender soul overlooked by others, or a frustrating relative delivers a needed word of grace.

Jesus tells another parable, this time about the mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest seed on earth. Yet when it is planted and takes root, it grows branches big enough to hold birds of the air, to shelter them from the sun and predators. I don’t know if you have experience with mustard seed, but farm kids used to know, a mustard seed is not your friend. When I was a kid, we used to “walk beans” to pull the weeds out of the field. Modern farming techniques replaced this practice decades ago, but up and down the rows we would walk in the heat of the summer, pulling each and every weed by hand. I remember thinking, this weed can’t be so bad; it’s got a pretty yellow flower. But the mustard plant was an annoyance, hindering the yield of the soybean and leaving an embarrassing sign for all to see. Sometimes it’s the mustard seed that provides the gift of grace.

In the incarnation, God came to us in Jesus. As he went about teaching and healing, he told us parables that we weren’t yet ready to hear, that we couldn’t yet understand. In his life and death, we came to see that life wasn’t about being in control, about clinging to what we have or striving for more, but about loving God and serving our neighbor.

Our two congregations – Minnetonka Lutheran and Bethlehem – are in the midst of an important decision. We have been moving toward consolidation. We don’t know exactly what the future looks like, but we know there will be change. And we know this: It is God who creates faith. It is in losing our life that we find it. And even in the least expected places, God can bring new life.

As we move toward that future, may we have courage to act in faith, and may the Spirit flow in us and through us to bring an image of God’s kingdom come near. Amen.