Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kingdom Weeds...

OK, I confess... I posted this yesterday, knowing it wasn't really a completed sermon, but not knowing what to do with it. In the past, I've winged it from the pulpit, and I guess I've done OK.

This time, my friend Dr. Greg Brown came to my rescue. I am blessed to have many smart, spiritually insightful friends, including Dr. Brown, who can take a mess I've made and help me translate it into a sermon.

Kinda like Jesus does here with mustard seeds and yeast, huh?

I am also indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into today's Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, “Yes.” I find that just a little hard to believe, don't you? I mean, we go from last week's reading, where Jesus took the time to explain one parable, in detail, just so everyone knew precisely what he meant by sowing and seeds and ground... and here we are with five short, rapid-fire parables, and everybody understands completely.

I guess I'd have an easier time believing that everyone understood everything Jesus was saying here if it weren't for the pages and pages of scholarly commentary on different aspects of these parables. I try to resist that kind of thing, because if we understand parables as tales told in the moment to a specific group of individuals for the purpose of making a point, then dissecting each word at length misses the point. But I digress.

You may have noticed that our readings from the Lectionary, especially when it comes to the Gospel, sometimes tend to jump around a bit, skipping verses here and there. In this case, I think we miss something ery important in the missing verses. We don't see to whm and where Jesus is saying these things. What I mean is this: Jesus speaks of mustard seeds and yeast to the crowd in general. As far as we know, he's still on that boat just off the lakeshore where he told the Parable of the Sower. He goes into a house with his disciples and speaks of hidden treasures, found pearls, and rejected fish to his them alone. It is Jesus' disciples, not the crowd at large, who Jesus asks, “Do you understand?”

Good thing, too, because what Jesus said to the crowd about yeast and seeds might have taken them a minute to digest.

Yeah, mustard seeds are teensy, but they sure do grow up big; and it doesn't take a lot of yeast to make bread rise... but wait a minute! Why on earth, with so many possible metaphors available to Jesus, would he pick those? I mean, for just one example, Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with the pomegranate. Pomegranate seeds are small, but the trees get big enough for birds to nest.

But no, Jesus specifically chose mustard seeds and yeast. Was he trying to offend the crowd?


Mustard for the first-century Judeans wasn't the wonderful condiment we know today. It was a pungent, pervasive weed. And in proposing that someone intentionally sowed a mustard seed, not only was Jesus suggesting that someone planted a weed in their own field, on purpose, he was in effect advocating an act that was, at the very least, problematic to the faithful Jew. Richard Swanson says, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life.”

Furthermore, yeast, or leaven, was seen as a symbol of things unclean and corrupting. The Old Testament is filled with these kinds of references, and the New Testament repeats this view of leaven as a metaphor for moral corruption – the one rotten apple in the barrel – as well.

It's easy to miss these things in our day and time. I like leavened bread, and I really like mustard, too. So with the popularity of mustard and wonderful, yeasty bread, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and – just perhaps – we miss the power of what Jesus is saying.

Kathryn Matthews Huey observes that “...our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't 'give offense,' would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?”

So, sure, maybe Jesus was either purposely offending people, and maybe he didn't care whether he caused an affront to their delicate sensibilities anyway...

Or maybe... maybe...

During this period of his ministry, Jesus is preaching in the towns of Galilee. He's a long way from the Temple, and probably not terribly close to any Roman garrisons. So it is most likely that Jesus isn't speaking to the powerful Romans, or to the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather, in that boat off the lakeshore, he is speaking to a people oppressed on all sides.

The Roman Empire was a massive juggernaut, bringing its bloody form of “peace” to nearly every corner of the known world. When Rome conquered, the lucky ones were merely subjugated and taxed; more than once the Romans had completely obliterated whole societies, destroying cities and selling those they did not murder outright into slavery. The only people the “pax Romana” benefited were the Romans; to everyone else, the Roman Eagle represented harsh oppression. Talk as they would of the former glory of Israel under King David, it was easy to see one's self as small, insignificant, as utterly worthless as a tiny mustard seed.

Then there were the demands of Judaism – never mind the constant pressure to pay the Temple tax and to come up with the required animals and grain and what-not for the sacrifices, no one – no one – could be expected to live up to the reams of minutiae required to be properly holy. More than eighty percent of Judeans lived a subsistence existence, barely enough food to keep them alive, constantly hungry, and constantly aware that they were not good enough, not holy enough, not pure enough, for God. They were as cast out as the leaven at Passover – reviled, forgotten, worthless.

So perhaps, just perhaps, one of the things Jesus is saying to the crowd is that the Kingdom of God is more like them than it is like the powerful Temple elite or the all-too-holy Scribes and Pharisees. Maybe the Kingdom of God isn't so much about power as it is about pervasiveness – like a weed, growing anywhere and everywhere; like yeast, multiplying and spreading and growing and thriving.

No, a mustard tree doesn't look anything like the cedars used to build the Temple, it doesn't at all resemble the columns of Roman architecture... but birds find a home in its branches, and even those who have been oppressed and forgotten by society can find a home in the Kingdom of God.

That was true when Jesus said it, and it remains true today.

And that is dangerous. And offensive. And being dangerous and offensive isn't something that Western Christianity is used to.

Maybe it's time to change all of that.

In its earliest years, Christianity was known as a religion of women and slaves. In Rome, Christians would sneak out in the night and rescue abandoned babies, left to die on the steps of the Forum. Not all of them, probably, and not every night, but it made a difference to the ones they were able to save, didn't it? Now, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Christians, waving signs and hurling insults at children who surrendered at our southern border to try and escape certain death in Central America.

In its earliest years, Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to bow their knee to Caesar. Now, we require that a politician give lip service to God before they can be elected. The facade of faith trumps competence in far too many elections.

Is this the measure of Christian faith?

Who cares for the homeless, the forgotten? Who tells the person contemplating suicide that there is hope? Who comforts the sick, who visits the imprisoned? Who becomes the family to one who has been kicked out of their home because of their orientation? Whose heart is broken by suffering, and who resolves to use whatever means are available to alleviate that suffering?

I know who it should be.

I know it should be us, the church.

I know this because time and again throughout Scripture, and particularly here, in Jesus' choice to use despised, misunderstood, and rejected things as examples, Jesus is saying this: The Kingdom of God isn't like the empires you're used to. It doesn't look like Rome, nor does it look like the Temple.

The Kingdom of God looks like you. It looks like me. And it looks like every marginalized and forgotten person everywhere, whether in downtown Birmingham or in Gaza or in Mozul or Detroit. These are the people of the Kingdom.

Maybe we look like mustard seeds – worthless weeds, worthy only for the trashbin. Maybe we look like yeast – others see us as sinful merely because we exist.

The kingdom will grow from those who have been made to feel unworthy, the scorned, the abused. Jesus says to these "insignificant" ones, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. You are not worthless and neither are people you may see as "seedier" than you. It is from these – women and slaves, the despised and rejected of that society – I will build a Kingdom for all who dare come, a kingdom so large that there truly will be room for all.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Playground Theologians...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L, Chilton and Stanley Saunders for their insights into today's reading.

This song kinda fits:

MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a story told about a Hindu disciple who asked his master, “How can I find God?” Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river. They stood there awhile, looking out over the gently flowing water. Suddenly, the master grabbed his student and dragged him into the water, shoving his head under and holding him there!

It seemed to last a long time, the master fighting to keep the thrashing student’s head under. Finally, he felt the man beginning to weaken and let him go. The student sprung to the surface, only waist-high in water, and he coughed and sputtered and struggled to catch his breath.
After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared angrily at the master: “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.” The Master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God. Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

The Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians, they appear to everyone to be seriously dedicated to finding God, committed to worshiping their Creator… but appearances are deceiving.

OK, maybe that’s not fair. They were dedicated to finding and worshiping God, or they thought they were, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten off track. What the Scribes and Pharisees and Saduccees and Herodians were all really looking for was a God made in their own image. They were looking for a religious experience that fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they could control and regularize. And when God sent messengers, they didn’t like them: John the Baptist didn’t match their expectations, and Jesus didn’t either.

Jesus compares them to children sitting in a playground and complaining because no one wants to play each other’s game: “We played ‘wedding,’ and you did not dance; we played ‘funeral,’ and you did not mourn.”

And there is a very good reason for that comparison – it was a game. You see, when the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees weren’t plotting together to destroy Jesus, they were at one another’s throats, fighting over who was following the rules the right way. The point was no longer finding God, the point had become being right.

And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We live in a day and age where complex political and moral questions are distilled down to soundbites, and where lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” Whether the subject is politics or religion, the one thing you can count on today is that people will fight – not to understand, not to persuade, not to grow and learn, no. People will fight to prove themselves right.

We even choose our news outlets based on which side we’re on. Conservatives have their news channel, Liberals have theirs, and these news sources specifically craft their news to appeal to their viewer base.

That means that the information we get – the wisdom we gain – when we watch these kinds of news sources, what we get is news that is specifically engineered, not to expand our horizons or challenge our preconceptions, it isn't intended to open our minds to a unique way of thinking or give us access to new information... no, the news we get is the stuff that's intended to make us feel right. Because then, we'll watch more.

And, to get back to the point of the Gospel reading, we can be so busy being right, that we aren’t listening anymore. When Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” he isn’t being anti-intellectual.

Rather, Jesus is referring to that false wisdom that people seek out not to expand their understanding of the world around them, but to reassure themselves that they are correct in their world view.

Back in February, there was a televised debate between a famous Christian and a well-known science educator. Ken Ham is what is called a “Young Earth Creationist,” a Christian who absolutely insists that the universe was created no more than six thousand years ago. In an effort to promote his Creation Museum, he challenged “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” to a debate.

Now, Ken Ham reads the same Bible we do. He believes in the same triune God that we believe in. He believes, as we do, that the triune God created all that is, seen and unseen. But he has decided, somewhere along the way, that anything which does not unswervingly adhere to his own rigid interpretation of the Bible must be – not simply rejected or ignored – but attacked as an enemy.

The most telling question of the night was, What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham, the Creationist, said that nothing would ever change his mind. Bill Nye said, “show me evidence, and the evidence will change my mind.”

During the debate, Bill Nye also said, “It fills me with joy to make discoveries every day of things I’ve never seen before. It fills me with joy to know that we can pursue these answers. It is an astonishing thing that we are — you and I are one of the ways the universe knows itself.”

I want to suggest this morning that one of the most beautiful assets that God gives each of us is an innate curiosity about what Douglas Adams called, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The joy of looking for answers, the thrill of learning a new thing, the pain of expanding our horizons beyond our narrow circle of knowledge, this is what I think Jesus means when he speaks of hiding wisdom from the wise and revealing it to the infant.

We humans try very hard, we always have, to put systems in place that quantify and categorize and explicate God. We desire certainty, security, even in those things which are beyond our limited grasp.

Ken Ham does it with Young Earth Creationism, yes, but there are untold numbers of theologies within Christianity, and they all have two things in common. First, by offering us easy answers to complex questions, they very subtly become a crutch to lean on, a panacea for the nagging doubt that is part and parcel of faith, something tangible that replaces the intangible and eternal.

Second, they break down somewhere, they are flawed, because we are flawed. We are the wild card in every theology, and in every moral and political system, every philosophy and grand design.

What Jesus offers us is a way out of the struggle.

I like the story I started out with, about needing God as badly as we need to breathe, but I worry a bit that it may paint the wrong picture. The point is not that we have to be theologically gasping our last breath, desperately clawing at the ring God tosses us, in order to find God. The point is that, in the same way that nothing is more important to a drowning person than air, nothing should be more important to the follower of Jesus Christ than, well, Jesus Christ. When we let go of being right, and let go of this idea that God is a thing to be found, and open ourselves to God, that is when we will find God, here already.

The Scriptural criteria for being a follower of Jesus Christ is not “being right.” It isn't rigid adherence to a set of doctrinal absolutes. As much as I enjoy theology, in the grand scheme of things, I don't really think God cares if I am Calvinist or Armenian, whether I am transubstantiationalist or consubstantiationalist or ordinalist or virtualist or participate in anabaptism or paedobaptism.

Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That's it. Oh, I mean, there are details, like “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”and so forth, but that is almost commentary on the central truth of love.

The thing about love is that it tends to pull us away from our comfort zone. It is a natural human tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, after all. If I am Republican, I will be most comfortable around other Conservatives, if I am a Democrat, I will be more comfortable around other Liberals. I will have more fun watching a football game with people who are fans of my team.

But a hungry person doesn't care if they get food from a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Methodist or a Mormon or a Muslim or an Atheist. They need food. The yoke of love that Jesus lays upon us, the light burden we are to bear, is to not worry about proving ourselves right to the hungry person, but to feed that hunger.

The Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees couldn't see God, right there in their midst, because God didn't meet their criteria. And that is the big secret: We don't get to decide what God looks like or how God acts!

Sometimes God looks like a kid, or a homeless person. Sometimes God has rainbow hair and tattoos, sometimes God has dark skin. Sometimes God smells bad.

But God always offers us a loving opportunity to expand our horizons, to think and wonder in new ways, to grow in relationship with one another and with God, to not accept this world the way it is but to see it as it should be, and to change it and in the process, change ourselves.