Wednesday, July 27, 2011

God's Kingdom

A sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 24, 2011

Today’s gospel reading is a collection of five parables that describe the Kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” while the other gospels use the term “kingdom of God.” They both refer to God’s kingdom; the realm where God reigns and God’s will is done. Jesus often uses parables to teach his followers what God’s Kingdom is like.

Let’s start with the first two parables – that of the mustard seed and the yeast. On first glance, the meaning of these parables seems to be that out of something tiny something large grows – and that is definitely true about the Kingdom of God. We can see the way this has played out in Christian history – the Jesus movement started with a few followers of Christ, then spread to hundreds, then thousands – and today there are Christians all over the world.

On second glance, these parables have a few other things to teach us as well. The mustard plant grows into a bush, not a tree. If you wanted an image of a grand tree that provides shelter for many birds you would think of a cedar, not a mustard bush. To say that mustard is the greatest of shrubs and grows into a great tree is hyperbole. In fact, mustard was often viewed as more of a weed. Instead of using a noble tree like the cedar to symbolize the Kingdom of God – Jesus uses a pesky weed. What could this mean? This parable teaches us that God’s Kingdom grows where it wants to, that God’s Kingdom might not be what we would have planned for but it becomes great and mighty beyond all expectations.

In Jesus’ day, yeast didn't come in little packets at the supermarket like they do today. Yeast was actually leaven, which is a moldy piece of bread or dough. This leaven was mixed into the next batch of bread to make it rise, and a piece of the new batch would be saved to become the leaven for a later batch. Leaven was often viewed negatively as a sign of corruption, something that mysteriously changes from within. In this parable, Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is something that changes us from within, and it has the power to change us completely.

Both the mustard and leaven parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven becomes present in ways that are unexpected and even scandalous by worldly standards  - we see this also shown by Jesus in his death on the cross. It was unexpected for the Messiah to die such a scandalous and painful death, but it was the means by which God choose to achieve redemption.

The next two parables are related – that of the hidden treasure and that of the fine pearl. In both parables, someone sells everything that they have in order to obtain the desired good. At first glance, these parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven is more valuable than anything else in our lives.

Treasure is an important metaphor in Matthew’s gospel, it refers to one’s ultimate allegiance. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (6.19-21; also 12:35; 19:21) The kingdom of heaven should be like treasure, the place where your heart is fixated.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

At Rest

I'm on a much needed vacation this week.

We ate at a Pan-Asian restaurant tonight, and this was one of the most applicable fortune cookie fortunes that I've ever seen:

You don't have to tell me twice.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

God Bless the World

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A.
The day before Independence Day.

Zechariah 9:9-12
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sometimes you just can’t win.

John the Baptist lived and preached on the edge of society – he wore clothes made of camel hair; he ate wild locusts and honey. And many people thought that he was crazy, or had a demon.

Jesus lived and preached in society – he did travel from place to place but he went to people’s houses, to the synagogue, to a wedding, to a grave and other public places. Jesus ate and drank what normal people ate and drank – and for this some people thought, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You really can’t win with some people, whatever you do will be seen as wrong by someone.

You just can’t win, particularly if you are preaching on the day before a national holiday like Independence Day. Some people will want a patriotic sermon. Some people want to hear about all the things that our country does wrong. And still others prefer I ignore the holiday all together. (I guess it’s already too late to please them.) To be fair I must strive to be an equal opportunity offender, but it’s almost as difficult to please no one and it is to please everyone. So what I will do is explore how today’s readings relate to tomorrow’s holiday.

Our reading from Zechariah is an interesting choice for the day before Independence Day. In this reading we hear a description of a victorious yet humble king:
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” 
This is an interesting image to consider - a King and world domination contrasts with our celebrations of overthrowing the King of England’s rule over the United States. The imagery of a king riding a donkey would sound odd to those who first heard it, but it sounds familiar to us Christians who remember and celebrate the story of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is a traditional Christian belief that someday Jesus will rule over the world and bring peace.

On a weekend in which Americans celebrate independence from one king, Christians long for the rule of another. The word “king” has a lot of negative connotations for us – it brings to mind oppressive rule, where a few lord it over the many, where a few take whatever they want. Jesus isn’t that kind of king. It might be helpful to use another word other than king but every other word for ruler/leader has its own problems. The term “president” would not work. We don’t get to elect Jesus our ruler, we don’t get a choice between Jesus and others. And yet there is more freedom in being Jesus’ disciple than there is in choosing a leader.