Monday, July 28, 2014

Five Views of the Kingdom

Preached again yesterday at the church where we are now members. It was based on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

One of the fun things about writing a sermon has always been the research- which in my case is usually a fancy word for wasting time looking up semi-relevant information. I had a couple of really good opportunities in this morning's Gospel.

I started with something Father Justin planted in my brain one Sunday last year about the idea of "Kingdom." That is a word that is not an often used- and probably less understood word in our 21st Century world. Since this word is at the center of today's Gospel, I decided to play some word games with it. I dug through my computer Thesaurus and synonym finder and found some interesting replacements. 

Some of the expected words came up- domain, place of rule, country, nation, realm. But they also had their issues based on politics or lack of general usage. Territory came up. That has some potential since a territory is an area that is under the control or jurisdiction of a country, state, etc. But that feels a little too legalistic. I found the word "turf" which the rebellious side of me liked- Sort of like Fonzie as God- this is my turf. Nah. Not the right attitude. Then came the word neighborhood. Hmmm. That has a nice feel to it. I thought of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and the calm, peaceful atmosphere he provided there. We are in the neighborhood of God. A safe place to go where a visitor or stranger could feel right at home. That's good. 

Finally came a down-to-earth kind of phrase: Neck of the woods. The neck of the woods where heaven is made real. Which, for me, picks up the sense that Jesus is using in this passage this morning. 

Jesus gives us five descriptions of God's neighborhood and how people respond to it. It is not about control or even "turf." It is about experience and value. He tells us that the kingdom, the neighborhood is like a mustard seed  or leavening, what we call yeast. It is like a treasure in a field or a pearl of unlimited value. It is an all-encompassing net thrown into the sea pulling all into it. When you are in heaven's neck of the woods, something happens.

Jesus' first two descriptions are surprising. We are not talking about good things here. The mustard plant is an invasive species. The local farmers of Jesus audience would not have thought it something to cultivate. And it doesn't take much. Just a tiny seed does all that- or at least gets all that started. 

The same is true of leavening agents. Here is where, as a bread baker, I took another research detour and was reminded that what Jesus is talking about is not a package of Fleishmann's yeast from Hy-Vee. He is talking about that little lump of yesterday's dough known as a starter. A piece of slightly spoiled dough. Or the other way to get a leavening for bread is the heady foam from beer when it is being fermented. That was learned centuries before Jesus. But like the tiny mustard seed, leavening too doesn't take a lot and is potentially destructive. Let the sourdough starter sit too long and it's ruined. Use too much beer foam and it doesn't rise properly.

Why then would Jesus use an invasive weed or yeast to talk about God's neighborhood? Well, and this is an interesting thought- because they both have a way of spreading beyond anything you could have imagined. They are both powerful in spite of their seeming smallness. The neck of the woods where heaven is made real doesn't take a lot to get started, but wow! when it starts, it can be like that sourdough starter that you can never get rid of- and don't want to- it just keeps providing load after loaf.

Pretty valuable I would say which leads to the next two- the treasure and the pearl. This kingdom- this neighborhood surprises and delights us when we discover, even stumble upon its peace and joy. It is so great we are willing to bet the house on it. You don't want to lose it. You want to pull it in. You want to embrace it. The first church members 2000 years ago obviously felt that way. This teaching resonated with them. 

The first members of Alcoholics Anonymous 80 years ago responded the same way about their new and revolutionary idea for recovery from alcoholism. They put it down in their text- If you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it- then you are ready. No wonder some contemporary theologians see AA as a model of the church- and maybe even God's neck of the woods.

At first glance this all seems like some pie-in-the-sky idealism. Is God's Kingdom worth THAT much? Would I be willing to put all my savings, life, and future on that presence? Would living daily in God's neighborhood be worth that? Many over the years have believed that the answer to that is "yes." It doesn't take much to get it started- that pinch of sourdough or that tiny mustard seed in one's experience and suddenly things have changed. A commentary asked the question: I wonder, not simply would I be able to risk everything for the treasure hidden in the field, but would I even know the treasure worth risking for, if I came upon it?

The writer went on to say: Life is short. If there is anything worse than not reaching your goals, it's setting goals too low and reaching them. We can get life, oh, but adventure, treasure, the life worth living? God help us. We sell out too quickly, we settle for too little, we make nothing more important than money, and thereby we miss the treasure.

Which I think brings me to the fifth  simile Jesus used- the net, cast out into the widest waters possible. The neck of the woods where you can find the peace, joy and hope of God is not a narrowly defined location on a map. Nor is it a narrowly defined set of rituals, activities, theology, or ideologies. You get started and see where it leads. Later it gets sorted out. Not necessarily just at the end of time as in that passage, but also as we allow ourselves to experience more of the eternal life in the here and now, we will grow. The little seeds or the pinch of leavening within our own lives and souls will slowly permeate. It will fill us to overflowing- to life abundant. It will let us know that this is a safe neighborhood. It has a way of spreading beyond anything you have ever imagined.

Which is why I have no doubt that Paul knew that. In the end that is what he is talking about in that wondrous final section of Romans 8:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That's a neck of the woods worth exploring.

Just as a postlude, the following quote was posted by a friend on Facebook. Just thought it was worth passing on:
"Sermons: every week another one hanging around your neck like a penance, supporting the traditional assumption, from the days when the priest was the only person in the village who could read, that you could stand up there in the pulpit having universal truths channelled through you, when all you really had were questions."--Phil Rickman, The Smile of a Ghost: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Macmillan, 2005), 69.

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