Friday, July 25, 2014

“An Unexpected Kingdom” - July 27, 2014

Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 43-53

Jesus is back with more parables.  If you are counting, this is seven parables that we have read over the past three weeks, all from one chapter of Matthew.  There are five in today’s reading alone.

Now, I like a good story; I like a helpful comparison as well as the next guy, but Jesus seems to be getting carried away, like he doesn’t know when to stop.  Is anyone else getting tired of parables?

The problem we have here is not that we need Jesus to be more direct.  We’re OK with getting at truth and thinking about God and the world through images and stories and metaphorical language.  That can be pretty helpful, and when it comes to talking about God we really don’t have much choice.  The problem today is that with so many parables told in a row, piled one on top of the other, we are kind of overwhelmed.  We tend to want to find shared theme or nugget of truth.  We want to connect the dots and find the overarching point they are making about the kingdom of heaven.  But to do that, to make them all fit together, you risk losing the punch that can be packed into the details of each parable.  Making all of these parables to be about the same general idea, looking for the lowest common denominator, can make them bland and domesticated.  So, what do you do?

And while I’m at it - complaining about today’s reading - I may as well go ahead and tell you what bothers me most about it.  It is the certainty that the disciples claim in verse 51.  Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” and the disciples say, “We sure have.”  Seriously?  All of it?  Well, good for them - but considering they had just asked for explanations of the last two parables Jesus told, this is a little hard to believe.  And the disciples don’t generally come off as “getting it.”  I mean, if they really understood it all, it might be the first time.  But if they did, well, good for them – fantastic.  But I will readily admit that I do not understand it all.

I think the question for us this morning is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”  And to that end, I’m going to focus on the first couple of parables in our text, and encourage you to go home and read again and think about the others this week as we consider what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of heaven.

In our world, it seems as though bigger is better.  People like things that are over the top, flashy, spectacular.  We want laser lights and smoke.  We want fireworks.  We want marching bands.  We are attracted to things that are larger than life.  We are told to make a splash, get attention, grab the headlines.  They don’t market the 8 oz. Small Sip, they push the 44 oz. Big Gulp.  They don’t feature small regular hamburgers, but there are TV shows devoted to 1 pound burgers with four slices of cheese, 6 slices of bacon and a fried egg on top.  If you had your choice, would you want a computer with 4 GB of memory or 32GB?  Do you want a slow internet connection or a fast one?  If you somehow won a free car, would you choose the 3 cylinder, 74 horsepower Mitsubishi Mirage or the 520 horsepower Porsche 911 turbo? 

We celebrate what is big and fast and powerful and spectacular.  We pay attention to whatever is new and flashy and trendy and hip.   

So Jesus comes along, telling stories, making comparison about what he kingdom of heaven is like.  And he compares the kingdom of heaven to – a mustard seed.  So small you can hardly see it.  It is very unimpressive.  It is unspectacular and not at all flashy.  And it grows into – what? – a mustard bush.  Even all grown up, it is still not very impressive.  It is the opposite of what we find appealing.

We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into the great tree, that we don’t catch what is going on.  If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something so small and insignificant becomes so great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?

Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel, found in Ezekiel chapter 17:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar… I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.  On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
Israel is depicted as a mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting, planted by the Lord.  This mighty cedar stands proudly on the mountaintop and its great branches provide shelter for any number of birds.  Israel is seen as powerful, a place of blessing and refuge for all the world.  This vision of Ezekiel was a point of pride for the people, something to make every Israelite feel good about themselves and their nation.

Jesus’ parable is similar enough to the Ezekiel reading that people would have understood the connection, but Jesus has turned the story on its head.  He messes with it.  Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed.  Technically, a mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, but compared to a cedar sapling, it’s pretty tiny.  But a mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar, strong and tall and powerful and majestic.  Nobody calls a mustard plant “noble.”  A mustard seed grows into what is at most a shrub, and not only that, it is generally regarded as a weed.  The familiar prophecy from Ezekiel demands a mighty tree, but Jesus twists it and gives us a weedy shrub.

The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  On the contrary, the work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as weak and insignificant alongside the powers and dominions that shape the world and call the shots.  Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded – in fact, it is more often detested. 

We have kind of romanticized the idea of a mustard seed, but for Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?

Mustard can grow to be a large bush – it can reach up to 9 or 10 feet in height, even more given the right conditions – but it’s definitely no tree.  It would seem to be kind of a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads and grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed.  Just a little bit goes a long way, and it can grow and grow into something wonderful.  Well, that is true, and that is part of what he is saying here – the kingdom may be small, but it will grow into something great.  That is often the way we think of this parable, but the overall tone and feel of what Jesus is saying is much more than that.

This is not a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is invasive, shocking, scandalous, and a nuisance – but also unstoppable and abundant.

Jesus sees the kingdom of God, or the empire of God, as being completely unlike the Roman Empire.  There is no status at all to it, it is not powerful, it is not dominant – but it is pervasive.  It takes over.  It can’t be stopped.

This week I thought about Bertha Jane Marshall.  I knew Bertha Jane because of her brother Jasper.  Jasper was the RA leader at our church.  RAs, or Royal Ambassadors, was like Southern Baptist Boy Scouts.  Jasper was a cop and he had to have the patience of Job to put up with all of us rowdy boys.  The thing I remember most about RAs was the campouts we would go on.  We would go to some farm in Kentucky, out in the middle of nowhere.  We would pitch our tents, we would build a fire and cook our food, we would go on hikes, we would play softball, and the big thing is that we would shoot guns.  Really.  Jasper had a big gun collection.  It was all well-supervised, several dads would go along, but 5th and 6th and 7th grade boys would get to shoot carbines and AR-15s and shotguns and a Japanese machine gun, though it wasn’t set for automatic fire.  One year I had the best attendance at RAs, and the prize for best attendance was that I got to throw the hand grenade.  I’m not kidding.  I shudder to think of this now, but that’s what we did.

Anyway, to make along story just slightly shorter, Jasper had a sister named Bertha Jane who was a missionary.  She served in the Gaza strip.  She was a nurse and worked in a hospital, treating patients there and providing a Christian witness.  Every once in a while she would be home on furlough and she would come and speak at our church.

Anyway, I thought about Bertha Jane this week and the work that she and others did, working for Christ in that little strip of land that is torn by war today.  I thought of the Gaza Baptist Church – never a large congregation, but now one of only three Christian churches remaining in Gaza – 3 churches among 1.8 million people.  Its pastor, Hanna Massad, fled with his family to Jordan in 2007.  He returns periodically to check on his flock; some of us heard him speak at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta several years ago.  The church was hit by an Israeli rocket in 2003.  The Christian bookstore closed a few years later after the Baptist layman who ran it was murdered.  There are only a handful of members remaining who struggle amidst all of the violence that surrounds it.

And yet, the church struggles on.  I read a Reuters story this week that said that the Saint Porphyrios Church, the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza built in the 12th century, has taken in about 1,000 refugees in recent weeks.  Archbishop Alexios, who has been organizing the food and shelter for those claiming refuge, refuses—despite all the suffering and fear around him—to focus only on the carnage and destruction.  He is determined to fulfill his mission of Christian charity and remains resolutely upbeat.  The mosque down the street and neighbors of the church have been helping with food and supplies.   Despite the overcrowding and danger, Alexios said there has been joy in the church in the midst of tragedy.

“Yesterday, a woman gave birth to a baby, a new life.  We should be hopeful.  There is death in Gaza, but also there is also life.”

Loving one’s neighbors, loving others as Christ loved us – that is the very core of what it is to follow Jesus, and Christians, a tiny minority in Gaza, are living that out.  They are anything but powerful, they are much more like a weed than a great cedar, yet they are still there.  It certainly isn’t easy, but the work of Bertha Jane and others in years past and the work of Hanna Massad and Archbishop Alexios today is not in vain.

You might think of this parable in relation to Jesus: born in poverty in the small town of Bethlehem.  Raised in Galilee, the backward part of Israel – no one thought a prophet could come from Galilee.  He did not come from a prominent family, was not well-connected, had no money.  He was not supported by the religious leaders of the day; in fact, they worked against him.  His followers were by and large hard–working, common people.  Well, except for some tax collectors and known sinners.

Predictably, it did not end well for Jesus; he was hung on a cross as a criminal, an enemy of the state.  But by God’s power, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Like that invasive weed that you cannot kill, Jesus would not go away. 

His message was hard to swallow, and still is.  Give away what you have.  Love your enemies.  Deny yourself.  Take up your cross.  It’s very much a mustard seed story.

After the mustard seed, Jesus launches right into another parable.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.  OK, that is well and good.  Big deal.  Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.  Yeast was not kosher – at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  It is a kingdom that is scandalous and surprising.  The kingdom is not what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may be scandalous and surprising, it may be hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed. 

Shortly after Zoe was born, she was given a few shares of stock as a gift from her aunt and uncle.  We never did anything with it and really hadn’t given it much thought, but this spring the company was bought out in a “merger,” and she had to mail in the certificate to get stock in the new company.  Which made me think about parables: the kingdom of heaven is like having a few shares of stock in a small company that you forget about, but over time it splits and grows and splits again and then the company is bought out, and you had forgotten you even owned it, but it turns out you have 25,000 shares of Apple computer.  (By the way, this is not what happened to Zoe.)

The kingdom, says Jesus, is surprising.  It is unexpected.  And often it is small and maybe even hidden, but we can be sure that God is at work.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, says

The reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.  
Life can be hard, as some of you well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that like yeast working in dough, like an insignificant weed that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

Friday, July 18, 2014

“What to Do About Weeds” - July 20, 2014

Text: Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

We may disagree about a lot of things, but one thing most Americans can agree on is that we don’t care for weeds.  Weeds are extremely unpopular.  In a recent Gallup poll, weeds ranked below used car salesmen and members of Congress in likeability.

Gardeners don’t want weeds in their tomatoes and peppers and flower beds so we use hoes and tillers and we mulch and we get on our knees and pull weeds.  We might even invest in The Garden Weasel.  (I bought one at a garage sale a few years back - it didn’t work nearly as well as it does in commercials, but it was worth a shot.)  Homeowners want a nice lawn and so we use Weed and Feed or have the Chem-Lawn people come by.  We do what we can to eliminate weeds. 

And in fact, battling weeds is big business, a multi-billion dollar industry.  Over 90% of our country’s corn, soybean, and cotton crops are grown from genetically modified seeds, the vast majority of those being glyphosate tolerant – otherwise known as Roundup Ready.  Weeds can be killed off with an herbicide that doesn’t affect the crop you are growing.  It means not having to till and theoretically using less herbicide.  And it means not hiring a bunch of teenagers to walk beans with a hoe or knife or machete to take out weeds.  Personally, I think that is kind of a loss, and I read just this week that walking beans is making somewhat of a comeback both because of the growth of organic farming.  But the point here is that one way or another, farmers are going to do what they can to eliminate weeds.

Whether it is your yard or your garden or a field, the objective is to get rid of weeds.  But Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who took a completely different approach.  This farmer said, “Let the weeds grow.  Don’t worry about them.  Let’s just let it all grow till harvest and then we can sort it out.”

This is not a common farming strategy.  In fact, it is a terrible plan for farming.  To follow Jesus’ advice, to just let the weeds grow till you’re ready to pick the corn or gather in the beans, is asking for all kinds of trouble.  If you do that, you might not even be able to find your corn or beans.  And your crops will almost certainly be smaller and less healthy because the weeds robbed them of nutrients.

Jesus strategy is a recipe for disaster.  Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad says,
these parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming.  But come to think of it, would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost?  Jesus’ parables that seem so simple and ordinary don’t really make good sense at all.  Not to people who make their living by farming!  Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God?  Or was he simply a bad farmer?
Jesus’ real subject, of course, is not farming.  He is talking about life.  In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad.  There are weeds among the wheat.  The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”

William Willimon was interviewing a man who had spent 20 years counseling pastors.  This man told Willimon that he had found that someone who had been a professional photographer or printer ought never to go into the Christian ministry.

Willimon wondered what on earth that had to do with it.  He explained, “If you are the sort of person who has a great need to get everyone in focus, to have everyone stand still, like in a photograph, you’re going to be miserable in the church because folks just won’t stay in place.  Things are messy.  People are always getting out of focus.  It’s a lousy place for people who like things definite and neat because people are hardly ever neat.”

“People are hardly ever neat.”  You can’t argue with that. Weeds grow alongside the wheat.  Life can be messy.  There are weeds and there is wheat, even in the Church.  Power struggles and jealousy and gossip and hypocrisy and self-righteousness are found even in the Church.  There are weeds in the garden.  But part of our problem is that we can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds.

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  That word, tare, refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact even farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures.  It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic.  It won’t kill you, but it will make you sick.  You don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

But the problem is deeper than simply identifying what the plant is.  Because sometimes, one person’s weed is another person’s flower.

When I was a kid, I can remember we would sometimes go on Sunday afternoon drives.  This was back when gas was 35 or 40 cents a gallon, and maybe 25 cents a gallon when there was a price war.  We would get in the car, with us three kids in the back seat of our 1960 Ford Falcon.  It was a great car because it had lines on the upholstery in the back seat.  We all knew which lines drew the boundary of our area in the back seat and we weren’t supposed to cross those lines.  We would get in our Falcon and go for a drive, just driving kind of aimlessly through the countryside.  Sometimes, my mom would want to stop and cut flowers growing along the road for some kind of arrangement.  We might get some Queen Anne’s lace or cattails or some kind of wildflower to use in a flower arrangement.

Just driving along the highway, these looked like weeds, but cut them and put them in an arrangement and they become decorative flowers.  Just how do you tell a weed from a wildflower anyway?  I hate dandelions, but children love to gather them—to them, they are pretty flowers.  In our neighborhood, when it comes to dandelions, some people spray them and some people dig them and some people curse them, but I also know that some people use dandelions to make wine.

Weeds are simply unwanted plants.  Plants growing where they are not wanted.  And if we take Jesus’ parable to be about people, then maybe he has a point after all, because I don’t want to be the one to determine which ones are the weeds.  We have gotten into a lot of trouble that way.  Through the centuries, the church has tried to purify itself, to remove the weeds, with disastrous results.

There were the Crusades in which Christians from Europe intent on doing God’s work embarked on a giant weeding mission.  In one of the first crusades, Christian knights blew thru an Arab town on their way to the Holy Land and killed everyone in sight.  Not until later, when they turned the bodies over, did they find crosses around most of their victims’ necks.  It never occurred to them that Christians could have brown skin as well as white. 

Later, the Inquisition hunted down suspected heretics and burned them at the stake, like weeds.  Some of our Anabaptist forebears were drowned.  Even in this country, we had the Salem witch trials in which weeds were burned.  And we need to remember our Baptist beginnings as a persecuted minority--we were the ones thought of as the weeds in the garden.  Roger Williams founded Rhode Island essentially as a place where the weeds could grow unhindered – and in that day, the weeds were Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers.

There is still this desire to straighten things out and clean things up and make sure that weeds are driven off.  We want to protect the harvest, and we can’t have weeds growing among the wheat.  But isn’t that exactly what Jesus said that we are to do?  To wait until the harvest and leave it up to God? 

It is painfully obvious that goodness and sinfulness exist side by side in this world.  There is no question about that.  But we can’t always tell which are the weeds.  For years, people tried to kill tomato plants because they were thought to be poisonous weeds.  St. John’s Wort, found to have all kinds of medicinal properties, was nearly killed off completely by ranchers because it gives cows indigestion.  We can’t always determine which are wheat and which are weeds—and thankfully, we don’t have to.  That is not our job but God’s.    

And what’s more, we cannot drive out the weeds by our own efforts anyway.  We cannot drive out sin by our own efforts because we have been so affected by it.  Martin Luther said that the Christian is at the same time saint and sinner.  There is wheat and weeds in all of us.  Good and evil not only exist in the same field, they exist in the same individual human beings.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 
For now, even in the Church, good and bad exist side by side.  Things are messy.  For now, the weeds are allowed to grow.  And for us, that may be just as well. 

Thomas Merton, the Catholic writer, said that the goal of the faithful was to strive to be perfect; but he suggests that true perfection is learning to work with imperfection—accepting ourselves as we are.  Which means accepting that we have weeds in our own garden.  It means knowing that God can use flawed, imperfect vessels such as us.  The field doesn’t have to be weed-free.  What is most amazing is that God looks upon this world, filled with weeds, blemished as it is, imperfect as it is, and God loves us anyway.

We can be thankful that for now, God allows the wheat and weeds to exist together, because so often, to paraphrase Pogo, “we is the weeds.”  This parable speaks of judgment that comes in due time, in God’s time, but it also speaks of God’s grace.  God is patient with this world, and God is patient with us.

This is not to suggest that we are not to be concerned about evil in our midst.  And this is not to suggest that we do not worry about working for a more just and peaceful and righteous society.  But as Christians, we are to align ourselves with God’s purpose, and God’s purpose is to save.  Our premature judgment of others may thwart God’s purposes.  And knowing that we ourselves are not immune to sin may help us as we relate to those who may seem to us to be weeds.  Do you remember the story of the woman caught in adultery?  Jesus did not tell those about to stone her to stop.  He simply reminded them of their own sin, and once reminded, they left her alone.

This weeding business can be tricky.  And it gets trickier still.  It doesn’t happen on farms; it doesn’t happen in gardens; but it happens in life: by the grace of God, tares can become wheat. 

As they hung on either side of Jesus, the two thieves crucified with him probably appeared to be no more than two weeds who deserved exactly what they were getting.  But Jesus said to one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  He looked for all the world like a weed, but Jesus saw things differently.

The power of God’s love can change even the most stubborn weed into a beautiful plant.  There is hope for all of us.  This parable speaks to us of God’s patience.  God does not give up on anyone, and neither should we.

Chris Brundage, a pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic, who was 96.  Vic had no children.  Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life.  At his request, Chris had baptized him.  He knew Vic’s wife Connie had died several years earlier, and that some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.

He also knew that, as a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career.  Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform.  He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life. 

Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral.  But 200 showed up.  The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs.  People came from neighboring states.

Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral?  The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people.  His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol -- who would have guessed then that he was wheat and not a tare? 

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  Rather, it is about the way we think of others, and it is about leaving final judgments to God.

When the New Testament writers list the gifts and fruit of the Spirit, none of them include the gifts of being right or doing things perfectly.  None of them list the spiritual gifts of calling out woeful sinners.  They do not include the spiritual gift of judgment.  But they mention peace and patience, as well as love. 

In the 13th century, the Church responded to the Cathar heresy that was prevalent in areas of Spain and France with a crusade in which tens of thousands of heretics were killed.  At one point, an entire town was besieged by a Christian army.  The town was full of heretics and the army was there to eliminate them.  But there were also innocent people in the city, and no one could tell for sure who was whom.  So the army asked the Bishop, “What shall we do?”  The bishop said, “Kill them all. God will sort out his own.”

Jesus, in effect, says the opposite.  “Let them all live; God will sort out his own.”  Judgment comes, but in God’s time and in God’s way.  God is patient and full of mercy, and God’s purpose is to save. 

For now, there is goodness and evil side by side, but eventually, all evil, all sin, all pain, all hurt will be wiped away, even the evil in our own hearts. And at harvest time, you can count on some surprises.  Amen.