Sunday, August 9, 2020



11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 202


“Love Wins”
Saint Matthew 15:10-28

15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"

15:13 He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."

15:15 But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us."

15:16 Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."

Message

Love Wins


In the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1949 musical, South Pacific, the issue of racial prejudice is sensitively and candidly explored in such songs as “You’ve Got to Be Taught.”

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

In the early 1950’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught" was subject to widespread criticism, judged by some to be too controversial or downright inappropriate for the musical stage.  Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, the song is preceded by a lyric saying racism is "not born in you!  It happens after you’re born..."

Rodgers and Hammerstein risked the entire South Pacific venture in light of legislative challenges to its decency or supposed Communist agenda. While the show was on a tour of the Southern United States, lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."  One legislator said that "a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life."  Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work strongly. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, "The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in."

Jesus was taught by his own tribe that ‘the others’ – Canaanites were dogs.  Although the Torah proclaims love of neighbor and welcoming the stranger – that proclamation got distorted through the filters of prejudice and hate.

Jesus was taught, carefully taught to ‘hate all the people your relatives hate.’  The disciples are explicit in their prejudice:  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”   Jesus also responds with a response conditioned by his culture and upbringing.  His initial response to the pleas of mercy by the Canaanite woman is:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Why such prejudice against the Canaanites? 

The Jewish culture at that time had definite ideas about relationships with Gentiles – non-Jews.  God’s chosen people were set apart through specific laws and customs – circumcision – observance of Sabbath and food laws.  Most importantly – worship only of the Lord, the God of Israel.  God’s people were not to have anything to do with foreign religions.

Canaanites are not just any Gentiles.  They were the native people of the Promised Land.  They worshipped BAAL – fertility god of Palestine.  They were the people pushed out of the land by Israel.  They were despised enemies of God’s people.

Yet, God’s people were called to be a ‘light to all nations.’  Isaiah along with other prophets constantly reminded the people:  “My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples.”  God chose a people to bring about justice and peace and inclusivity – not to create a chosen elite.

Throughout history is there any religion that has not been distorted?  Even Christianity promulgated oppression of women, slavery, and prejudice.

So, Jesus too was on a learning curve.  Jesus, too, had to overcome cultural distortions of his faith.  And thanks to the Canaanite woman, Jesus has a change of heart.

This unnamed woman cries the Greek words:  kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy.  Although a foreigner she speaks the worship language of the faithful.  She cries for mercy – trusting in a merciful God. 

Her cries reflect the tradition of the Psalms where God’s people plead for mercy anticipating God’s gracious response.   Psalm 67 appointed for today:  “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.”

She comes to Jesus with a heart full of trust.  She trusts that God’s mercy will have the last word.

Calling her a ‘dog’ is a real put down – both a racial and gender slur.  Calling someone a dog in this context is not ‘cute.’  Jesus is not referring to her in a kind manner – like she is some sort of cute puppy or lap dog.  So she absorbs the put down.  She takes it in and responds with dramatic irony:

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

Her answer cracks open the prejudice.  Her answer breaks through the distorted faith.  Her answer changes the heart.  And Jesus responds:  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done to you as you wish.”

Previous to this incident Jesus has just talked about the heart.  It is the heart that matters.  Not pious religious talk, not purity codes, and external laws.  Blind obedience to laws and rules can lead to falling into a pit.  No! Jesus proclaims it is what is in one’s heart that matters – for from the heart proceeds good or evil.  Unwashed hands do not defile, but unwashed hearts do!

Don’t let the irony pass you by.  Matthew is making a point here with Jesus and the early church.  Jesus just spoke about the heart and now his heart – defiled by cultural prejudice rejects this woman.  Yet, unlike the religious leaders of his time – Jesus has a change of heart.  He breaks through religious and cultural prejudice to a place of healing and justice.

The tribal boundary is broken and the woman is humanized and touched and the racial barriers broken down.  God’s mercy is intended for all nations.  God’s love is not just for a chosen few.  God’s people are to be a means to God’s inclusive grace.

But notice that the barriers of prejudice are broken with a change of heart.  That is what it takes is a change of heart.  When people know people of other faiths or other races – when relationships begin and we know people as people and not as tagged by race, gender, or sexual orientation then those barriers come down.

Jesus saw beyond the cultural distortions and barriers and recognized a person of faith in this woman. 

Matthew is a Gospel written in the context of the early church – a church that was simply trying to find its identity.  Matthew points the church toward an inclusive mission to the Gentiles. 

The decision of the early church to set aside Jewish practices and include outsiders made it possible for us to be here in worship today. 

God’s people today are called to a change of heart – a change of heart that makes us able to discern the cultural distortions in our practice of the Christian faith today.  Whenever the Christian faith is used as a tool to exclude ‘the other’ – is it not being true to the boundary breaking new heart of Christ.

Isaiah reminds us that God’s house is a house of prayer for all peoples.  St. Paul in the Second Reading reminds the early Christian movement that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”  In other words the new Christian movement does not preclude or exclude sisters and brothers of the Jewish faith.  Read Romans 11 and see how Paul argues for God’s inclusive grace for both Jew and Gentile.

The Biblical witness challenges us not to presume that we know to whom God will show mercy and to whom God will refuse to show mercy.   We need to know our place.  God’s intention is for all to be saved.  God will work out that desire in ways beyond our understanding. 

In his recent book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Pastor Rob Bell tells this story:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church.  I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker.  One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. 

But not everyone.  Someone attached a piece of paper to it.  On the piece of paper was written ‘Reality check.  He’s in hell.  Really?  Gandhi’s in hell?  He is?  We have confirmation of this?  Somebody knows this?   Without a doubt?  And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know? 

Of all the billions of people that ever lived will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever?  Is this acceptable to God? What kind of God is that?

What we discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful…the good news is better than that, better than we can ever imagine.  The Good News is that love wins.

[Excerpts from book and online presentation by Rob Bell.]

That is the good news today for both the Canaanite woman and for us:  Love Wins!  Mercy Wins!  The last word is that God - in spite of all the human distortions and cultural contortions of the Gospel – God will ultimately be merciful.

God’s loving will will be done!  And isn’t that what we pray for and want for ourselves and this world?

Amen

Wednesday, August 5, 2020


Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 9, 2020


Night Passage
Matthew 14:22-33 - NRSV

Jesus Walks on the Water

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Footnotes:
Matthew 14:24 Other ancient authorities read was out on the sea
Matthew 14:30 Other ancient authorities read the wind

Note: Scroll down for Sermon after Poem

A Poem a Sunday
Pentecost 10 - A

Night Passage

Hear the drumbeat of the waves
echoing through the mountain caves
as the mystic poet prays
upon the precipice

near the edge that overlooks
the vast sea winding through the nooks
and crannies of the dark.
A small boat embarks.

Dear motley crew of fishermen
brave the sea at night again.
Haunted, lost seeking a Savior
through fog and mist – divine behavior.

Fear grips the crew as they now spy
a ghostly figure in twilight’s sky.
Unhinged in awe they stare in wonder
through lightning flash and mountain thunder.

Cheerful, they recognize the Master.
Now they can avoid disaster.
Amidst the dark, the threatening waves,
the Rabbi speaks and now will save.

Rear in the skiff below the sail
Peter speaks and will prevail
to walk the waters, dare the deep.
Is this a vision?  Are they asleep?

Near the dear crew a voice is heard:
“Be not afraid.  It is I, the Word.”
Peter steps into the dank sea.
Fear sinks him, a body falling free.

Clear in sight he sees the Master
and is saved from this disaster.
“O little of faith, why do you doubt?”
The divine promise bails him out.

Dear followers the wind will cease.
Embark in faith with God’s peace
for the Spirit leads over rough seas.
Baptized anew we’re free to be.


Copyright 2017 @ A Poem a Sunday
May be used with permission
kennstorck@gmail.com

And here is the Sermon

Mantras for Mission:
“Take Heart, It Is I, Don’t Be Afraid”
St. Matthew 14:27

A mountain, sea, wind, boat, darkness, storm, silence…– elements of a mysterious short story which Matthew tells today.  Notice that Jesus makes the disciples go in a boat and cross the sea ahead of him:

Jesus goes up to the mountain, by himself to pray.  In Scripture and the ancient world – mountains were a mysterious place for divine revelation.   Mt. Sinai where God gave the 10 Commandments was shrouded with a cloud of unknowing. 

Darkness enshrouds the boat – and the wind and waves batter the boat with a resounding slap.  In ancient times the sea was considered a source of chaos and a place to be feared full of monsters and unknown powers.  In the dark one did not know just who are what might be ahead.

Storms on the Sea of Galilee were nothing to play with even a calm wind could be a prelude to a storm.

This is a mystical tale of Jesus who comes down from the Mountain and reveals a message from the living God by hovering over the waters of chaos and inviting the disciples and the church to take courage and enter the unknown seas ahead.

This story can be a source for strengthening our faith and opening us up to walk to Jesus on the water.

I hear three mantra’s that we can use to acknowledge God’s presence in the midst of our own seas of darkness and storms of life:

Take heart

It is I

Do not be afraid

What is a 'mantra' and why would we want to have one?   A mantra is short series of words or sounds repeated to aid concentration in meditation.  Am I suggesting that each one of us become a monk or nun – a contemplative person?  Yes, I am inviting you in the weeks ahead to try out any one of these mantras while silently meditating. 

Let’s explore what Jesus is up to in walking on the water and how it has practical implications for our everyday lives as we follow the Christ.

This story is dripping with metaphors of the spiritual life.  We spoke of the mountain as a place for a revelation or divine epiphany.  We spoke of the sea as just the opposite – a place of darkness, chaos, and death.  The boat has become a symbol of the church and many Scandinavian church building were constructed in the form of a boat.

Matthew is telling us a story of how the church can navigate the waters of life by looking to the Christ who walks on and opens a way for us through the deep waters and darkness.

Mantra’s for mission:

Take heart.  What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Take heart’?

Be of good courage is another way of translating the original Greek.  But ‘take heart’ is much more poetic and speaks to the core of our being.  Jesus, having just come down from the divine place of inspiration greets the disciple in the midst of the dark sea – a place of danger and chaos with the word of encouragement.

Take heart – an example is when we see something good happen and we take heart.  In Australia dozens of people helped rescue a fellow commuter in by pushing against a train car to free the man whose leg slipped between the platform and the train. They had a heart for helping!  Incidents like this which moves our hearts to courage is what it means to take heart.

Use ‘Take heart’ as your mantra this week.  Sit in silence for at least 5 minutes or longer in a comfortable posture and repeat ‘Take heart’ as you breathe in and out.  Than sit in silence resting in God.

Jesus encourages us to take heart because God is ever present – even on the sea – even in the darkest hour – God promises never to forsake us.

“It is I!”  Jesus assures the disciples that he is no ghost or phantom.  He uses an expression known to the early church in its Jewish roots.  “It is I or another translation “I AM!” is a reference to the I AM God. 

‘I AM’ is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush.  “I AM” is the Emmanuel – ‘God with us” that Matthew calls Jesus at the beginning of his gospel. 

“It is I!” is more than a reassurance that it is Jesus.  It is a reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God who created all things good – the God who liberated his people from slavery and brought them through the chaotic waters of the Red Sea.

“It is I!” conjures up all this images and stories of God rescue, compassion, and liberation of God’s people. 

In the weeks and months ahead – sit in contemplation and use the mantra – “It is I!” as the voice of reassurance from God who liberates us and calls us through the waters of our baptisms into a new live in Jesus.

“Do Not Be Afraid.”  Fear can paralyze us.  Fear can force us into our on little safe cocoon where we take no risks and never venture out.  Fear limits our vision and confines us.  Fear would have us stay with the crowd that abandoned Jesus, or with the other disciples who remained in the boat.

Now ‘the church’ the boat is meant to be a sanctuary – a place of safety.  But that is not it only function.  No – the church – God’s people gather to be sent out of the boat doing the dangerous work of compassion by entering the sea and walking with Jesus on the water.

Faith that merely runs for safety to the nearest sanctuary, but never steps out of the boat is indeed an incomplete faith.  Faith that never takes a risk is a faith that has not matured.

Jesus calls us as individuals and as a church to dare to take risks – walk out of the boat – think out of the box – use your gifts God has given and come out and walk on the water of a chaotic world with Jesus.

Love – the compassion of Christ casts out fear.  Then as individuals and as a church we can dare to walk on the water – try new ways of being church – explore ways to renew our faith community.  Change and the waters can be fearful – but God invites the church to leave the boat and serve.  Churches dare not be mere sanctuaries, but mission stations – equipping people for service.

Fear is a major stumbling block for church growth.  Fear of change, fear of uncertainty, fear of stuff being moved around and changed – these and other fears can drag a faith community down.

“Do not be afraid!” is the assurance that in Christ we can take risks.  Peter did and Christ was there as a mutual partner – lifting him up.  We go back to the boat each Sunday to be renewed in our faith – the worship is intended to send us out.  Look at the outline of our the liturgy:  Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending.  The reason for our worship is missional – to be formed into a servant church.

“Do not be afraid” is the third mantra.  Use only one of these three mantra’s in you silent meditation time.  Repeat and sit in silence for at least 5 minutes – if possible 20 minutes.  Repeating these words and entering into meditation.

As we do so, Christ will be in us and we will be in Christ and the mission of the church will go forward over the waters of life.


Amen


Sunday, July 26, 2020



Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2, 2020


The Real Miracle
St. Matthew 14:13-21

Ho, everyone who thirsts, 
come to the waters; 
and you that have no money, 
come, buy and eat!
Come; buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

                                Isaiah 55:1

In the poetry of Isaiah we hear that it is God’s will that the hungry be fed.  This is clear throughout the stories in the Bible that God wants no one to go hungry. 

God provides manna and quail – food in the wilderness to that first generation of God’s liberated people who wandered there for 40 years.

When the prophets speak of the Messianic age they paint a picture of abundance of food for all.  Isaiah cries out:

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  Isaiah 25:6

A universal table is set where God is present.  There is a place at the table for everyone and no one goes hungry.

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the disparity of power and the injustice that comes with lack of food will be remedied in God’s economy.

In today’s gospel reading we have the well-known story of the feeding of the 5,000.   Jesus brings in the reign of God by curing the sick and feeding the multitudes.  This story appears in all four Gospels and twice in Matthew – if you open the New Testament you’d read of the feeding of the 4,000 in chapter 16.

This well-known story is often misread and misinterpreted because folks do not hear it in its context – but rip it out of the Bible as some sort of proof text that shows that Jesus is indeed divine – the very Son of God.

In the first century Jesus was by no means the only one who claims to be the son of God – Caesar made the same claim.  Jesus’s divine origin was not foremost in the minds of the disciples or the writers of the Gospel.  His wondrous acts were not told to convince non-believers that Jesus was divine.

Rather the miracles like the feeding of the 5,000 are signs – a sign that points to the kind of God Jesus is and proclaims.

Food insecurity was rampant in the first century.  The rich and powerful were well fed.  The mass of peasants and common people went hungry often scrounging for daily bread.  Most of the diseases in the first century were caused by malnutrition.  Common people were especially vulnerable to diseases due to an inadequate diet.

Matthew places this first story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the context of the birthday party for Herod.  At the beginning of chapter 14 in the verses just before this story we are told about the abundant feast at Herod’s palace.  Herod’s feast was overflowing with food and drink – so that an inebriated Herod enticed by the dancing of the daughter of Herodias makes an extravagant promise to grant her whatever she might ask.

Now at that time John the Baptist was in prison because he had spoken out against Herod – because Herod was having an affair with Herodias, the wife of his brother – Philip. 

So the daughter of Herodias seeks the advice of her mother as to what to ask Herod.  The eyes of Herodias light up with vengeance as she tells her daughter:  “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The over-fed stupefied Herod grants her request and John is beheaded and his head is presented on a silver platter to Herodias at this birthday extravaganza.

We need to hear and understand the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the context of Herod’s party and the martyrdom of John the Baptist.

Jesus gets out of town – leaves the sight of the urban orgy and withdraws in a boat to a deserted place by himself – probably to reflect on the murder of John the Baptist.  The disciples and crowds follow him to the wilderness.  The boat drifts to the shore. 

The disciples come to him and tell him that in the late hour they have a famished mob of peasants on their hands and no food.  The disciples foolishly suggest that the crowd be sent away to the villages to buy food.

This is a really dumb idea – for the peasants had no means to purchase food - most of them scrounging around for daily bread.

See the contrast:  On the one hand you have the birthday feast with the elite princes and kings in Herod’s palace.  On the other hand you have a crowd of 5,000 gaunt and hunger ridden peasants. The empire elite takes care of its own while the peasants who farm the land of the elite seek their daily bread.

Matthew moves from the lifestyles of the rich and shameless to portraying a poor, sick, and hungry crowd looking for relief - the Empire on the one hand – the kingdom of God on the other hand.  It is like watching a newscast of the Kardashians then moving immediately into a segment on the immigrant children stranded at our border.

The real message of this miracle is not a proof text for a divine Jesus, but rather the real message of this miracle is that where God rules – no one goes hungry.

Matthew contrasts the indifference of the Empire and its gods to the compassion of the Kingdom of God and Jesus.

The gods of the Greeks and Romans were distant and out of touch with humans.  The ancient gods of Rome sided with the rich and powerful and were either indifferent to plight of the peasant or used them a toys – playthings to order their world at the whims of the gods.

The Empire and its gods were not known for siding with common people, or peasants much less taking up the causes of the hungry and oppressed.

The real miracle of this account is that Jesus embodies the compassion of God and God’s will to feed the hungry.  In the midst of food scarcity, among a crowd of people that any of the rulers of that time could care less about – Jesus comes and demonstrates God’s kind of justice.

The real miracle is that in a world of scarcity – God in Christ – provides abundance and points to a compassionate God who will stand in solidarity with those in need.

And note that Matthew tells us “all ate and were filled.”  Very seldom, if ever, would the ordinary people of that day eat and be filled.  The usually ate and remained hungry – ate just enough to get by.  And, yes, there are leftovers - 12 baskets are left – one for each disciple to box up and take home.

Does a Herod-like empire exist today – where the elite eat while others go hungry?  Do you recognize such a contrast in our own day between the ‘haves’ and the’ have-nots’ – a growing gap between the rich and the poor?

The real miracle is that Jesus ushers in the kingdom of God – not by and by in the sky but here and now.  Not in some heaven light years away but here and now.

Donald Kraybill, author, lecturer and educator on the Anabaptist faiths and living, writes:  “Kingdom action does not take place outside of the societal ballpark.  It is a different game played in the middle of the old ballpark.  Kingdom players follow different rules and listen to a different coach.”

[Source:http://www.followingjesus.org/vision/traditional_interpretations.htm]

In God’s kingdom all earthly values – the values of the empire – the values of moneyed politics – our values - are up for grabs and reversed. 

The first shall be last and the last first.  The greatest are not the most powerful or the most influential lobbyists – but those who serve.  God’s kingdom upends the status quo of money politics and power because God’s kingdom comes amidst the poor, the hungry, and the mourning.

The real miracle is that Jesus reveals the core character of God is compassion.  The real miracle comes when followers of Jesus overcome by that compassion lead a radically different kind of life – a life in service to the least, the lost, the lonely. 

Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2020



Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 26, 2020


“Eye Openers”
Saint Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

It was annoying.  Our lawn at our house on Jackson and Vale Streets was a field of dandelion seedlings.  You know the ones that pop up and look like a ‘halo’ until the wind blows the seedlings across the lawn and they multiply.

It was annoying to say the least as I drove off to take one of our children to school.  I said, “Look at all those dandelion seed heads – have to get rid of them before they spread.”  The tone of my voice indicated how annoyed I was and the work and trouble involved in lawn care.

Then a voice from the back seat of the car gently spoke:
“But daddy what will happen to all the wishes?”

Dandelions seedling with ‘halo heads’ are picked by children and with a gentle breath they blow the seedlings into the air sharing their wishes.

My eyes were open to a fresh perspective on dandelions.  What I saw as an annoying weed and something to get rid of – a child saw it as a way to make wishes.  “What will happen to all the wishes?”

Matthew shares with us a string of parables of the Kingdom.  Jesus tells us ‘the kingdom of heaven is like – a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a merchant in search of a pearl, a great catch of fish. 

Jesus uses rather strange contrasts and comparisons to open our eyes to the presence of God’s loving reign that surrounds us.

We need to be clear, very clear:  when Matthew uses the term ‘Kingdom of heaven’ Matthew is not talking about the afterlife.  Jesus is not telling us what heaven will be like in these poetic comparisons.  No, the Kingdom of heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God.

The ministry of Jesus is about the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is God’s loving rule of justice, mercy, and grace.  It is that grace that is present among us now. 

Christ comes to lift the veil and pull open the curtain so that we can see God present now – here!

These images that Jesus shares evoke, provoke, and send us down the road of imagination and wonder.

In first century Palestine the bush that grew from a mustard seed is nothing but a nuisance to the farmer.  It was worse than dandelions.  A mustard seed bush was a negative and nothing but trouble taking up room and moisture from the good plants.

Yet Jesus points out that this scrubby rejected bush will be a nesting place for birds.

Hmm!  Wonder what Jesus is getting at? 

A woman – a minority in first century Palestine – akin to a slave with no rights – a woman baking bread throws in yeast and mixes so much flour that she could feed an army.  Yeast in Jewish circles in the first century was a negative.  Unlike modern bakeries today, in the first century yeast was seen as something evil and unclean.  Bread made with yeast would readily spoil in the heat of Palestine.  A kosher home rids itself of yeast especially during the high and holy festivals such as Passover.

So the image is ‘the Kingdom of God is like impure yeast thrown into an abundance of bread.

Hmm!  Wonder what Jesus it getting at?

The Kingdom of God is like discovering treasure and selling everything to buy the field that has the hidden treasure.  The man doing the digging around in some else’s field is nothing less than a thief.  He does not disclose to the owner the hidden treasure!

The Kingdom of God is like a merchant who gives up everything for the pearl of great value.  Merchants in first century Palestine were held in as much public esteem as used-car salespersons today.

Then Jesus shares the image of the net that catches all the fish but the fishermen leave the sorting of the final catch in God’s hands.  They have no say as to who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’

Hmm!  Wonder what Jesus is getting at?

Such parables – such images are meant to evoke, provoke, expand, open us, set us free and move us beyond our conventional boundaries.

All too often God’s people in the church want to draw clear unalterable boundaries around God’s grace.  In the church we want to define what fits in and what does not.  So we have liturgy, creeds, and formulaic rituals.  We create nice neat rows of carefully crafted doctrine and practice.  We use the terms ‘mainline’ and ‘conventional’ to describe the church.  We prefer a certain comfort zone of space and pew. We don’t want our boat rocked or the apple cart overturned.

But Jesus is anything but mainline and conventional:

A nuisance shrub, unkosher yeast, a thief grabbing a treasure, a shady merchant going for a pearl, and a draft of fish that the fisherman has no control of who is in or who is out…such is the Kingdom of God.

Could it be that God is forever invading our orderly sense of things?

Conventional wisdom tells us that God is up there somewhere – a being that is beyond us that seems to rule by benign neglect.  If only God would intervene then things would be different.  The conventional way of seeing God is that God is outside us and our world.  That God is only a being in the vast beyond to be invoked for help and rescue.

But what if God is in every nook and cranny of daily life?  What if God is in the daily activity of kneading bread and plowing fields?  What if God even works through conniving merchants or with a large inclusive net that we have no control over? 

Have we missed all the wishes by attempting to trust in simply a God of intervention?

The Biblical witness does show us a powerful God who is beyond human touch – a transcendent mystery.  But the Biblical witness does not stop there.  “The Word became flesh.”  “In God we live and move and have our being.” 

The Kingdom of grace, God’s rule, is here and now – right in front of our eyes.  Jesus is giving us ‘eye openers’ today.  He is opening our eyes to the wishes in dandelions.  He is telling us that God acts in common ordinary life. 

Through simple water and words of promise God washes away sin and gives us new life.  God comes to us in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion to set up his loving reign of grace in our hearts.  Unconventional?  You bet!  Provocative?  You bet!  Out of the box?  You bet!

God creates abundance from small things.  The Kingdom of God is about miraculous transformations – from trash bush to tree of life.  Imagine the surprising growth of something small and worthless into a nurturing tree that provides shelter for birds.  That image is meant to open our eyes to see God’s kingdom, God’s loving rule here and now. 

Imagine all the wishes in those dandelions – that is what the Kingdom of God is like!

God is less of a God of intervention, and more of a God in whom we live and move and have our being.  The coming of Jesus – the incarnation of Christ is an eye opener – opening our eyes to God’s presence in with and under all of life.   God is in human DNA, God is in the shards of star dust.  Yet God becomes most visible in Jesus Christ and Christ came to open our eyes to nearness of God’s Kingdom now.

The radical message of the Kingdom is that God is present with grace in the most unexpected places.  Imagine the weakness of a cross bringing hope and new life out of hate and death!  God is present in the most unexpected places.

The call from Christ is a call for openness and trust.  It is a call beyond our staid pews and conventional ways.  It is a call to follow God into the world of scrubby bushes, impure yeast, conniving merchants and treasure hunters.  It is a call for God’s people to cast the net of love wide and deep and to take in all kinds of fish and then leave the sorting to God.

If God is as close as our own breath, if the Spirit of Christ is within us then we can courageously move beyond conventional wisdom and into the new.

How will we be church now and in the future? 

Letting go of the conventional way of being church – not owning our building- might just be an eye opener to a renewed dedication to God’s call to be a servant church.

Imagine a greater emphasis on reaching out and spending our resources on inviting in new members from unchurched families at the school.

Imagine having another intern to help in our efforts to re-build our community of faith.

Imagine having more resources to give to alleviate hunger in our community and in our world. 

Might God be calling us to rearrange our assets to be more in tune with sharing the grace of God’s Kingdom?

God’s call is a call to surrender to the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  It is a call to let go of things that get in the way.  It is like seeing dandelions as a myriad of wishes rather than annoying weeds.

A poem from the hand of Denise Levertov invites us into the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  The title is The Avowal – avowal is a declaration or proclamation of truth.  Here Levertov declares a truth that she has discovered.

The Avowal

As swimmers dare
to lie face up to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

God is present and God’s nearness is often an eye opener. 

Dare we let go into the Creator Spirit’s deep embrace?

Amen