upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sermon - July 24: Boarded Up Houses, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I want to thank Deanna for this image that started me thinking: The Kingdom of God is like a boarded up house. Typically, I don't like to publish sermons; they are relational experiences and they are oral/aural beasts, not written essays, but someone asked for this sermon to be posted.

On Friday a bomb exploded in Oslo, followed by a gunman unleashing on youth at a political camp in Norway. Over 90 people are dead. Immediately talk began to fly about militant and extremist Muslims as the responsible parties. Yet, it appears to be a right wing "Christian" who was angered by European tolerance of difference and liberal policy who may be to blame. In our country on Friday, talks broke down between Republicans and the White House as they tried to reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling and address debt in a comprehensive way. House Speaker John Boehner walked away from the talks and the President took to the bully pulpit for a rare expression of clear and unabated anger. Also this week, the UN finally declared two regions of Southern Somalia to be in a state of famine - a word rarely used in international circles because it is fraught with political ramifications. Need I go on? These are just things that happened this week.

All around us is bad news. Sometimes we feel like hiding in our homes just to escape the crushing weight of the world. All of us know people who have been deeply affected by difficult financial times; perhaps we ourselves have lost a job, declared bankruptcy, or struggled in another way. People we love die. Life can, and often is, difficult, unfair, and unrelenting. In the news and in our lives, the bad stuff can be easily seen and experienced. It’s just right there all the time staring us down.

Jesus lived in times no less difficult than ours. He was from Galilee, the place of poor peasant farmers and fishermen, a place of subsistence living. Throughout this rural region, he walked and traveled, in which he taught, preached, and healed. It was to these people he came proclaiming God’s Kingdom - what it is, what it could be, and how they could live in it even while they resided along the rocky ways of Galilee. They struggled to make it through each season. Would there be enough harvest? Would they have to borrow against future earnings? How much tax would they have to give to the Romans? Would there be enough fish to pay the taxes and feed their families? Illness, war, conscription, debt, drought. These were on the minds of folks then in even more acute ways than they are on our minds today. Farmers today may struggle through a bad season, but a bad season to first century Jews in Galilee could mean life or death. Just as we have a difficult time seeing the hope in the world, of seeing and experiencing God’s kingdom, the people in Galilee were no different. Jesus came to invite them into a kingdom they could neither see nor imagine. He comes to us to do the same thing. Not because bad things don’t happen. But because they do. And, at the core of the Kingdom is a trust that a better life is possible - a better life on this earth, in community with one another. God’s kingdom invites us to live in a reality which we cannot even imagine. And, this requires us to let go of the images given us by the evil one, who tells us to live afraid, scared, in hiding. No, Jesus says. Live into the fullness of life even in the midst of doubt, even in the midst of difficulty.

You always know when Jesus is telling us a story that is about God because he says things that don’t make sense: a shepherd that leaves 99 sheep to find one sheep. No one would do that. Today he uses that same technique. He tells us about God’s Kingdom being like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He also tells us about a woman putting too much yeast into her bread. This pair of images teach us about God’s wild abundance. Mustard is an easy plant to grow; it is more like a weed than a cultivated plant. Even I can grow mustard. It breaks through concrete and grows in the most unlikely places. It can grow into a tree, but usually it is a scrubby brambling plant that gets out of control. This image would have made first century Jews laugh out loud. It would be like me saying, The kingdom of God is like a dandelion. Really?

I’m not baker, but I know that too much yeast results in an explosion. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid my mom accidentally used yeast along with self-rising flour. And, indeed, her cake exploded in the oven. Hyperbolic language is used on purpose to help us understand the largeness of God, the bigness, the boldness, the eruption of God’s kingdom. These are unlikely images to be used; they are unlikely things to happen; peasant people would have known about bread and about mustard plants. They would have known that God’s kingdom wouldn’t be like a scrubby tree that grows like a weed or exploding bread. But, we are to believe it. We are to trust that God is bigger and grander than our imaginings, that God cannot be confined by our human made boundaries, our human designed barriers, our human dreamed limits. We cannot confine God’s kingdom. It will break out. It will erupt among us despite our best efforts to control it, our need to make God fit into our molds.

A few verses later Jesus tells another few parables. The kingdom is like a hidden treasure in a field that someone sells all he has to go search for. And the kingdom is like one pearl that someone sells all that he has in order to have it. This is about the great value of God’s kingdom. It is beyond anything we would hope to have. Who would do this? No one does this. Sell everything you have to search in a field for a treasure which may or may not be there? Give up all of one’s wealth for a pearl? It’s utter folly. But, God’s kingdom is kind of like folly. It isn’t a reasonable thing to believe in God’s kingdom, to try and live there. It goes against all of the common sense of our world, which tells us to hoard what little wealth we have, to store it all up, to be afraid of...well, everything.

Last, we are told that the kingdom is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of very kind. No fisherman brings up every kind of fish. First of all, if you have ever been fishing, you know that fishing is a hit or miss operation, even net fishing. Second, a good fisherman wouldn’t bring in all of those fish. God scoops us all up.

I have been thinking about these texts a lot lately. I think the Kingdom of God is like a boarded up house in a bad part of town. A person sells all she has to move into it and make it a home. I think the Kingdom of God is like a boarded up motel along Aurora Avenue, once used as a place for prostitution and drug dealing into which a community of people move to live in intentional community. Something used for exploitation turned into a community of Resurrection. This is the Kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is not a sensible thing. It doesn’t fit into our middle class values or conform to our middle class ways of doing things. We are told to be nice, conform, work hard, and save much. But, God’s kingdom is wild. It isn't nice. It doesn't conform. It requires effort to see and move into. It is a place for scrappy people. It requires us not to live by the narratives given to us by the news, by political parties, by our country, by any other living being; rather, it requires us to live inside of a story that makes no sense, one that tells us that fear and anger are the pathways to weeping and gnashing of teeth. You see, we can’t live in God’s kingdom of abundant love if we are bound by fear. We can't live in God's kingdom playing things safely - by saving and hoarding and looking after self. We have to risk everything for God's kingdom. We can’t move into the richness of God’s holy presence if we are stuck in our places of safety and comfort, in our places of hiding.

Uncertain times can be as challenging as bad ones. During times of uncertainly, it is understandable to want certainty, to live in a world of black and white. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. It is easy to turn to the Bible to find the demarcations between these things. And, of course, the Bibles deals with them all of the time. Yet, the Bible explodes our understanding of these things, and it tells us in no uncertain terms that we are to leave behind the prejudices of our time and place in order to see the world as God does, as a place brimming with promise and potential, where the kingdom can be found in a seed, in a field, in a bowl of batter, in the stinky smell of fish. Life is not fair. It is not easy. And it may be difficult to see goodness in it - in the people who make it up. God’s kingdom is often hidden in plain sight, found just behind the monsters of our imaginings, in the common places we overlook, in the poor we try not to see, in the people with whom we disagree. We’d like the kingdom to be easily recognizable, like a cathedral or a beautifully tended garden. It’s easy to say: The Kingdom of God is like standing on mountain peak at dawn watching the sun rise and looking down upon the wonders of the earth. The Kingdom of God is like a masterpiece of art - something that makes us marvel. The Kingdom of God is the smell of bread cooking in the oven. The Kingdom of God. When people talk about experiencing heaven on earth or the Kingdom or God’s reign, images of beautiful, grand, intimate, safe, and wonderful are what we talk about. These are all, of course, glimpses into God’s Kingdom. But, God’s Kingdom is not always so apparent, so evident, so what we expect it to be. Sometimes God’s Kingdom is quite the opposite of what we expect, quite different from the normal expectations of our hearts. God’s Kingdom is as challenging and difficult as it is wonderful. This is one of the most difficult lessons for Christians to learn. God’s Kingdom belongs to God and not to us; so we need to let go of our desire to control it, to order it, or to be in charge of it. God’s kingdom is as hidden as the world’s difficulties are on display. God’s kingdom requires us to work for it, to search for it, to give up all that we think we have in order to enter into it. It is not someplace we fall into by virtue of being good, being moral, being right. It is a place we enter when we give up ourselves for the sake of the other - especially the one we revile, we despise, we hate. These things - hate, fear, superiority - they are the things that keep us out of God’s kingdom. They form the doors to God’s kingdom and they will not open as long as all we can see is them. We have to grow new eyes that see as God does. These eyes see the world as a holy and wonderful place. This world. Our world. The one with debt ceiling problems and killers and repulsive people - the world with starvation and the politics of famine. You see, the Kingdom of God is not “like” this world. The kingdom of God is this world and we are called to live in it fully, richly, and wholly. In the midst of our mess is God's Kingdom. Or, more accurately, in the midst of God's wonderful Kingdom, we keep making messes. Let's look up from them and catch on to God's vision of something beyond us and beyond our messes, and move into this new world with the complete trust that our God takes us where we ourselves could never go. Our God takes us beyond the limits of our imagination to a new world altogether. Our God lifts us from this world of despair and shows us a new world known by works of compassion and justice, in which the widow is housed and the orphan is loved. Our God is the God of Resurrection. This is the Gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God.

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