I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.
We human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.
But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.
For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.
And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.
The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…
It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.
I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)
So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.
And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.
Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.
Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.
But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.
Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.
Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!
It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.
There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.
To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:
- Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
- Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…
And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!
Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.
But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.
As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.