Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven Is...

Why did Matthew write this scripture we heard read today and have Jesus tell so many different stories about what the kingdom of heaven is like, like a mustard seed, yeast mixed into 60 pounds of flour by a woman, a buried treasure in a field, a priceless, one-of-a-kind pearl, a fishing net full of everything.
I believe Jesus for sure knew what the kingdom of heaven was like because he’d been there or was there. He did say the kingdom of heaven was near. So why did he use these metaphors to describe the kingdom of heaven?
To begin with a mustard seed is small. It’s easily lost in the soil if you drop it. And that little bit of yeast the woman mixed into 60 pounds of flour can’t be separated from the flour after the woman has kneaded it into the batter. A treasure that’s buried in a field, possibly by someone a long time ago, can’t be seen because it’s buried. Priceless pearls aren’t seen every day. They’re very rare. And a net cast into a lake can’t be seen as it’s dragged through the water.
Similarities between these different examples might be how they accomplish the work they’re intended for without anyone noticing. The seed’s buried in the ground being changed into a plant that will emerge. The yeast is buried in the flour mixture and only after being allowed time to work will it transform the flour mixture into a fluffy loaf of bread. The treasure buried in the field does no one any good until it’s found and dug up. That priceless pearl may be buried in a pile of ordinary, everyday pearls and its value isn’t noticed until it’s brought into the light of day. And that net being dragged through the lake buried by the water is absolutely worthless until it’s trapped all it can hold.
Could it be that the kingdom of heaven is hidden, buried in our souls, in our lives, so well camouflaged we don’t even notice it?
And yet, when we do discover the kingdom of heaven we realize we’ve found a treasure. A treasure of so much value that we willingly give all we have just to have it.
Some folks are out searching for the kingdom of heaven because they know it’s what they desire above anything else in their lives. Again when they find it they willingly give all they have, all they are, to acquire it.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned that God’s love, peace, and grace are for everyone, all people and now we’ve heard how the kingdom of heaven is like a huge net that’s being drug through a lake until it’s overflowing with stuff and then brought in and the stuff of value is separated from the junk. Imagine the kingdom of heaven right here, right now available to everyone and when it’s full God reels it in and sets to work separating the valuable from the trash.
So, what do you think? Have you seen and or experienced the kingdom of heaven? Or has it been so well hidden, you’ve never even noticed it?
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is kind of like the blind men who encountered the elephant and began to each give their own description. Every one of them touched the elephant in a different place and therefore their testimonies weren’t the same. Yet they were all touching the same elephant.
Could it be the kingdom of heaven is different for each of us because we encounter the kingdom in different places, at different times, and, maybe even, in different ways?
That may be the answer to why Jesus used so many different metaphors to describe the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t you wonder if the kingdom of heaven is made of so many layers and dimensions that it would be and is impossible to define? It will probably remain a mystery, a phenomenon, for all of us until the curtain is lifted and Christ comes again in all his glory.
In the meantime maybe we should pay more attention to the things, and people, around us. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a glimpse of this kingdom Jesus described.

Thanks be to God for granting us his grace. Amen.

Monday, July 14, 2014

God Throws His Seeds, His Blessing, His Grace Everywhere

Who here this morning has had a yard so full of weeds that they killed all the weeds and started all over trying to get good grass established? Quite a few I imagine.
So, what was the process like that you used to get your new lawn? Did you try more than one? How long did you work before you were satisfied with the results? Or are you still working on it?
When 'L' and I bought our place the lawn hadn’t been sprayed for weeds for a few years. There were bare patches where nothing grew. Yet, there were places where dandelions and plantain and wild violets…oh, I can’t forget the creeping Charlie. They were all thriving in the environment of our yard.
So, I did what I knew to do, I sprayed and then I sprayed some more and then I sprayed even more. And then we pulled and dug weeds out of the flower beds.
Then I raked and bought bluegrass seed and carrying the bag I’d reach in taking hands full of seed throwing them in a semi-circle as I walked the grid I had laid out in my head. And I waited for rain. The next year I did it again. And the next year I did it again. Finally it began to look like a lawn.
But there was a place where, no matter what I did, no grass seed would or could grow. That was underneath the purple maple tree.
Eventually I gave up trying to grow grass there and planted hosta and bleeding hearts and lilies and such.
You would think that the job would be done at some point but it seems like there’s always a dandelion or violet or creeping Charlie that sneaks in and so I spray.
And every so often I get my bag of seed, I’ve learned that I need grass that grows best in shade, and I throw hands full of seed on the thin places. And some gets in the flower beds where it grows very well. I only wish it would do that in the thin places.
So, today’s gospel lesson has Jesus telling the folks gathered on the beach a story about a farmer going out to sow seed in his field.
Even though Jesus is talking about a farmer sowing seed the people understood that he was really talking about something else.
Let me pause here and ask you why Jesus came to Israel and to whom did he come to preach and teach? He came to save God’s chosen ones, the people of Israel.
So, those listening to him teach, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Levites caught on right away that he was talking about God’s Word, God’s Love, God’s Grace being offered to everyone. Jesus was saying that God wasn’t being exclusive, he was spreading his kingdom, his good news everywhere so everyone had a chance to receive his love.
That didn’t sit well with the religious folks of Jesus’ day. They couldn’t believe that God was offering his grace to the Gentiles, the foreigners and aliens of the land.
So, was this a new tenet Jesus was preaching or not? I don’t think so. Many times in the Old Testament we find God’s grace falling on those who weren’t God’s chosen ones. In Isaiah 55 beginning with verse 10 we find this,…“10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Go clear back to Genesis and read about God creating this universe, this world and everything that we can see and everything we can’t see. How did it come to be? God spoke and his voice boomed throughout the universe and it just was.
God is generous, and extravagant. Think about this for a minute. All the people in the world, what do you believe they were created for and where did they come from…all the people? If we believe that God created everything and everyone then doesn’t it make sense that in God’s kingdom all will be invited?
So, God’s grace, God’s Word, God’s Love is sown everywhere giving everyone a chance to receive it all. God doesn’t care where it lands. Just like the farmer throwing the seeds scattering them on rocks, on poor soil, in the weed patch, and on the good soil so God scatters his grace.
Now, what do you think our friend Paul had to say about this? Go to his second letter to the Corinthians chapter 9 beginning with verse 6. He says, “6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.”
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
There’s that word ‘generosity’ again. And Paul adds the word abundantly. God blesses us with abundance so we can be generous in return scattering our blessings wherever, to whomever God puts out there for you and me to encounter.
So, my good friends, God in his mercy has blessed us with his abundance and his grace. What do you think he’d have us do with it after hearing these scriptures today? Bury it in the ground? I don’t think so. Let those who have ears to hear, listen.
Thanks be to God for his grace. Amen.           

Monday, July 7, 2014

Square Pegs and Round Holes

Jesus and John the Baptist were two very different people. Those who knew both of them couldn’t believe they were cousins. They were almost exact opposites. One lived a very simple, almost austere, life and the other enjoyed being with folks at parties and interacting with people eating and drinking rich food. Jesus seemed to always be with people who weren’t very likely to associate with those Jews who followed the Law to the letter.
     Even though they were so different, even though they both preached about repentance, people had trouble understanding they were both preaching about God’s kingdom. One was the ‘messenger’ and the other the Messiah. One was a square peg and the other was the round hole. Folks couldn’t see how they could get the two together. So, they had questions. They just didn’t get it.
     Both John and Jesus had a message from God for the people. Some got it and quite a few didn’t. They were so used to listening to the leaders of the Temple about keeping the Law down to the last little letter that they couldn’t believe that Jesus’ “yoke” could be any easier.
     If it was easier it couldn’t possibly be right. It has to be hard to a Jew, to be perfect, to be holy. Some folks believe the same thing about being a follower of Jesus. It has to be hard to follow Jesus. It has to be painful to be perfect. We have to jump through a lot of hoops to be holy. It can’t be fun to be a follower of the Way. Not everybody can do it.
     Go back to the beginning of the gospel lesson you heard today. Jesus is talking about children playing their games in the street. They played their songs but some children didn’t come out to dance. They sang funeral songs but no one came to mourn.
     I could say something similar. I preached a message of repentance but no one repented. I preached a message of loving neighbors and still there are neighbors who aren’t loved. I preached a message about peace and yet there’s war, between countries, between neighbors, between brothers and sisters.
     Jesus prayed to the Father and gave him praise because he was glad that the smart, powerful people didn’t get his message but the common, little people did.
     Who gets the message from God today? Is it the wise and learned or is it those we don’t pay attention to as we go about living our lives?  Are we trying to follow all the commandments in the Old Testament, doing it the hard way? Are we asking those others to do it our way or do we trust God to show us the way? Are we expecting everyone to be like us? Are we trying to get square pegs to fit into round holes?
     Is there only one way to know and follow and do God’s work? Maybe we’re the ones who aren’t getting it. Maybe we’re the ones who are wrong. Maybe there’s another way or maybe there’s more than one way to be a true follower of Jesus. Maybe our yoke is heavier than it should be.
     So, what are we going to do? What are you going to do? Are you going to keep trying to get every one to conform to your way of thinking? Are you expecting everyone who comes through these doors to be just like you or me? Are you still teaching the same way you did 25 years ago and expecting those listening today to get it? Are you playing the same song and complaining because no one’s dancing to your music?
     Friends, it’s time to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to God’s Message of repentance and love. It’s time to admit to ourselves and others that we don’t have all the answers, that maybe we’ve been wrong. It’s time to stop talking and listen to ‘others’ concerns and questions.
     If we’re the square pegs and we encounter some round holes it’s about time that we sit down and listen to each other and see how it’s possible to coexist. Maybe it’s time to put some radii on our perfect 90 degree corners.
     Friends, it’s time to take off the old yoke that has become so burdensome, that has been chafing our shoulders and put on this ‘yoke’ Jesus is talking about. It’s time to trust God and let God show us the way.
     It’s time to simplify our lives. It’s time to listen to the others. It’s time to help and love the others, even if we don’t understand their lifestyle. It’s time to quit trying to make them life us.
     In life just like in our world there are many different kinds of people and personalities and shapes. There are some who are triangles. Some who are squares and some who are circles. And then there are those who are really different, they’re trapezoids and ellipses. Where’d they come from?
     All of us have been given gifts from God. This I believe. All of us, I believe, are expected to use our gifts to the benefit of those who live around us.
     So, as I mentioned at the beginning of worship this morning, take some time to pray and listen for God’s prompting this week. Pay attention to how God is working all around you. And at the end of your day reflect on you noticed God helping you with this holy work you’ve been called to.
          My friends, Jesus’ yoke is light and easy, try it on and give God your thanks and praise for the grace he shows you every day. Amen.