I have two memories that stand out from kindergarten. One is the day they lined us all up for our smallpox shots. The other is acting out the story of the “Billy Goats Gruff” with a little wooden bridge we had in the room. Some of you remember the story, I’m sure….the troll under the bridge, while the billy goats cross over to the sweet grass on the other side…trip, trap, trip, trap…and the troll coming out to eat each one…while the smaller ones beg off that he should wait for the bigger one…until finally the biggest one crosses…but instead of getting eaten, he throws the troll off into the river and he disappears. You can imagine that was great fun for kindergartners to play.
Anyway….I was thinking about trolls this week. We live in an era where “trolling” is a thing. If you are on the internet at all…you know that the internet “trolls” are the ones who are lurking on the internet, just looking for a fight and any opportunity to tear people down. You find them in the comment sections. They’re the ones who make everything ugly. They spread anger and suspicion. They have no interest in genuine conversation. They’re just mean. Sometimes they do it just for fun…but other times they are trying to advance their agenda, whatever that might be.
In our story today…Luke kind of paints a picture where the Pharisees and Scribes look a little bit like trolls. Lurking in the fields, watching Jesus’ disciples…looking for something to get upset about. “How dare they rub that grain between their hands! That’s threshing! Working! On the Sabbath” Then we see them watching Jesus as he meets a disabled man on the Sabbath…a man with a withered right hand. What’s he going to do? “Oh no he didn’t! He healed that man! He wasn’t dying…it wasn’t critical! He could have waited. He’s an abomination! He’s reckless. We need to do something about him!” Yep…they’re almost like our internet trolls — popping up everywhere and filled with righteous fury and indignation about all the things they don’t like about Jesus….all the things he’s doing wrong. And they want to tear him down….find any way to destroy him.
Now, to be fair…the pharisees and scribes portrayed here definitely do not see themselves as evil. In truth, they believe they are defending the people…defending God…defending all that is right and moral against the threats of Jesus’ loose ways. They truly believe that God’s protection and care for the people is based on how well they keep the law…and when the law is violated…it puts the whole community at risk. They do have good intentions. And their efforts have kept their faith communities encouraged and held them together through centuries of foreign occupation. They have helped their people craft an identity that reminds them who they are in contrast to those who do not share their faith, and given them a sense of meaning and purpose. Yet still…they’ve got it wrong. Because God gave the law to preserve life…to help us love one another…to help us enjoy creation….that we might have fullness of life. And they’re using it to hurt people.
They are so afraid of losing their connection to God… afraid of losing their identity as God’s chosen ones…that they drive anyone who isn’t like them…who doesn’t fit in …away. And in order to be God’s chosen ones…they assume somebody else has to NOT be God’s chosen…and so they label others as “unchosen” and “unclean”, undeserving of God’s care. They are so busy making sure that everyone is observing every technicality of the law that they actually miss the whole point…they aren’t loving the people around them and enjoying the creation God gave them. In their desire to be “righteous”, they’ve lost sight of God.
And Jesus wants them to see that they’ve lost their way.
So Jesus doesn’t fuss when his disciples eat the grain and rub the husks off because he knows Sabbath was meant to give people rest…time to enjoy God’s many gifts. It wasn’t meant to punish people. And Jesus heals the man even though he could have waited and done it at another time…because Sabbath is always meant for goodness and joy…not for petty rules. Jesus deliberately provokes the religious leaders…because he wants them to find their way back to God’s heart. The old testament and its laws were meant to establish God’s covenant with God’s people…to shape them as children of God. That was what it was all about. A way to shape people in God’s image…to live together with love and respect and joy. But somewhere along the line, they lost the point of it all,..and it became about all the technicalities…the jots and titles of the law. But Jesus knows that is not what makes you a child of God. You ARE a child of God. All of you. The withered and the hungry and the ones who don’t fit in. The unchosen are chosen…the unclean are clean…because Jesus said so. And Jesus said so because that’s what has always been true. The law never made you a child of God…it was only meant to help you remember it.
But what inevitably happens when Jesus defies the authority of the Pharisees and Scribes…when he doesn’t give a fig about the technicalities of the laws they are so careful about…well..it brings out the ugly in them. The fear. The troll. They do everything they can to discredit him, shut him up, stop people from following him…to throw him off the bridge. But it doesn’t work. Jesus just keeps doing his thing. And then…he chooses a small crew out of his disciples to do his thing along with him. To care about people, instead of technicalities.
Friends…we’re here because Jesus chose those twelve..because he said “I don’t just want you to follow me and learn from me and admire me…I want you to do what I do.” That’s the difference between a disciple and an apostle, actually. The apostle is sent out to do what Jesus did. And that is how this …we…the church…got started. We didn’t get started to just tell people about Jesus. No, we’re here to love people …see people…treat people…serve people…like Jesus did…to do his thing. To be the body of Christ in the world. The church got started because these twelve, who would soon be terrified by Jesus’ death and then reborn at his resurrection..imperfect and utterly human….did what Jesus did. And taught others to do the same. They told two people who told two people who told two people…and so on …and so on. And that’s how we got here today — because of people who were willing to do Jesus’ thing in the world.
Now..let’s be honest…much of the time, the church has stunk at it. We’ve got a record that is sketchy at best. Can anyone say “crusades”? Slavery? Manifest Destiny? White supremacy? All have deep, deep roots in the church. And if you’ve never experienced trolls in the church…you haven’t been paying attention. Trolls hating on people because of their gender or race…their sexuality or stance on abortion..their theiology or manner of worship or whatever technicality of the law has got their dander up. The church has gotten lost, over and over again, thinking that they are chosen and others are not. But…really…that shouldn’t surprise us, should it? It happened among the original twelve. Judas lost his way….became a troll…betraying Jesus. Choosing another way.
But here’s the thing. No matter how many times we lose our way….the truth of Jesus doesn’t change. The truth of God doesn’t change. We’re still children of God. And we’re still here to love people…all people….not just our people…but all people. And we’re still here to enjoy the gifts of God’s creation. And even though we keep mucking it up…God keeps showing up in spite of us….pushing us forward when we want to put on the brakes. Pushing our boundaries out to include all God’s people…not just the ones who look like us and act like us and follow the rules the way we think they should. We muck it up…but Jesus shows up. Again and again.
Jesus shows up…and tosses our trolls into the water. Tosses my troll into the water. And drowns it.
You know…when Luther talked about baptism, he said that in baptism the Old Adam or Eve in us is drowned…daily. I think he means the troll…because, honestly, that troll is in all of us — afraid of not getting it right, suspicious of others and angry and fearful. That troll is in every one of us — pharisees, apostles, church folk, and all the rest — and Jesus tosses our troll in the water of baptism every day. And every day…gives us a freshly washed beginning as God’s beloved child. That’s Jesus’ thing, after all. Loving us even when we don’t get it right. He’s still doing his thing. After all these years. May we…apostles and followers of Jesus..church folk….keep doing it as well. May we be the church…the body of Christ. Amen.