A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Do Not Be Afraid

They say growing up is hard to do.  And I think they’re right.  Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine.  I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things.  It happened at the beginning of fifth grade.  I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.

When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold.  I walked into his office with my mind made up.  I had a plan.  I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard.  I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here.  I’m obviously not ready for this.  I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”

Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was.  When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option.  Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.  To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade.  Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing.  He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.”  And then he explained what he meant by that:  my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone.

Growing up is all about facing the future.  We all have to do it: as individuals, as churches, as a society, and we Christians have a choice to make in that regard: we can either face the future with fear or we can face it with faith.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has a lot to say about the future.  As usual, he’s speaking metaphorically; he’s telling stories.  In the first story, he describes the coming future as a bridegroom coming back home after his wedding.  In the second one, he describes the future as a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night.  What this says to me is two-fold: first, the future is full of the potential for great joy; second, the future is full of great potential for danger.  Both of these realities are true in the same place, at the same time.  Neither the joy nor the danger outweighs or cancels out the other.  Both are simply true.  That’s how reality is.

The only thing we have to decide is how we will respond to this dual-reality of joy and danger, which the future presents us with.  Again, ours is a choice between facing the future with fear and facing the future with faith.

We already have a pretty good idea of what it looks like to face the future with fear.  We see people do it every day because fear is the easier of the two choices.  When individuals choose fear over faith, it looks like despair, cynicism, sarcasm, and broken relationships.  People give up on themselves and each other in order to lead lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau said.  People give up on life because they’re scared that things might not turn out like they’d hoped or planned, so they’d rather just shrivel up and get cold and hard inside while life passes them by.

When whole communities like churches, businesses, or countries choose fear over faith, the consequences are far more dire.  The people in these communities turn inward and get defensive, circling their wagons against the onslaught of a hostile environment.  They build walls and weapons to protect themselves from anyone who might look, think, love, or pray differently than them.  In a world governed by fear, rather than faith, the best defense is a good offense.  It’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, so you’d better get it while the getting’s good and do unto others before they do unto you. 

That’s fear.  It gets you nowhere.  Whether we’re talking about people, churches, or countries, living in fear just perpetuates the cycle of violence over and over again for generation after generation until there is nothing left of this world but a smoldering trash heap.

Isn’t that what we see happening on the news every day?  People are scared; they’re hurting each other because they’re scared; they think that will keep them safe, but it won’t.  It’s just going to make the problem worse.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye, and eventually the whole goes blind.”

But Jesus said there is another way.  We don’t have to choose fear.  We can choose faith instead.  Faith in what?  What is the basis for choosing faith over fear?  Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Let’s break that sentence down and take a closer look.  First of all, who is Jesus talking to?  The “little flock.”  Who is that?  Who were the people who liked to hang around Jesus in his day?  The riff-raff, ragamuffins, tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, insignificant people, sick people, and poor people.  In a nutshell: people who don’t matter.  Jesus had a reputation for hanging out with these kinds of folks.  It made all those decent, church-going, uptight upright, law-abiding citizens sick to their stomach to see Jesus eating dinner with that “little flock” because, in that culture, people eating together meant that they accepted each other with no questions asked.  When Jesus did it with the most forgotten and outcast members of his society, he was saying, “I love you and I accept you, just as you are.”

Question: Who occupies that space in our culture today?  Who is the “little flock”?

Let’s keep going.  The next two words I want to look at are “good pleasure.”  What does that mean?  It means, “This is what makes God happy,” and “God gets a kick out of this,” and “This makes God laugh.”  Jesus is saying that God is playing a great big joke on us and here’s the punch line: “…it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

What is the active word there?  Is it God’s good pleasure to sell you the kingdom?  Is it God’s good pleasure that you earn the kingdom by how well you behave or by what you believe?  None of the above.  It is God’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The active word is give.  It’s a gift, a free gift.  Theology-types have a word for this: grace.  Grace is unconditional love and unmerited favor.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward us.  We didn’t earn it, so we can never lose it.  Furthermore, because we didn’t earn it, we don’t get to have any say in whether or not God extends that same grace toward anyone else (which she does).  It’s a free gift, given to all without discrimination.

Finally, what is being given?  The kingdom.  This is a very important idea for Jesus.  In fact, it’s the central idea of his ministry.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God (sometimes called the kingdom of heaven) is not some happy place where people go when they die.  No, for Jesus, the kingdom of God is a vision of this present world, not as it is, but as it should be: turned upside down and transformed from the inside out.

So, let’s put it all together now.  What Jesus is saying is that God, ever since the beginning of the world and continuing until its end, has been playing a joke on us.  While we have been fighting with each other in our rat race to protect what we think is ours, God has been working slowly and quietly beneath the surface and under the radar of the powers that be.  What really makes God laugh are those moments when true peace and justice are established on earth, not by the big shots with their bombs, bucks, and bureaucracies, but through the “little” ones, those forgotten lives who don’t matter to the powerful, working in small, local communities to actualize Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

That’s who God is, according to Jesus.  That’s how God works in the world: slowly, gently, never stopping, and never giving up.  The kingdom belongs to these little forgotten ones because God has freely given it to them.  That truth, according to Jesus, is our basis for choosing faith over fear when we face the future with all its potential for great joy and great danger.  We can choose to have faith in the laughing God who always works slowly and patiently through the little things of this world in order to turn it upside down and inside out.

God is doing this, God has been doing this for all time, and God will keep doing it for all time.  That’s why Jesus can say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Facing tomorrow with this kind of faith has a profound effect on the way we live our lives today.  Because we believe it is God’s “good pleasure to give [us] the kingdom,” we are now ready to hear Jesus say, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Fear seeks only to get things for itself; faith wants to give to others.  True believers are those who are able to trust in the reality of this mystery we call God and then live, in grateful response to that mystery, with open and generous hearts toward their fellow creatures.  That is what it means to be the church; that is what it means to possess Jesus’ kingdom of heaven on earth; that is what it means to face the future with faith, rather than fear; and that is all we need in order to turn the world upside down and transform it from the inside out.

Empowerment

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Ms. Rosa Parks with Rev. Dr. King in the background. Image is in the public domain.

 

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon at fpcboonville.org

When I was in seventh grade, I used to get picked on a lot.  And I mean a lot.  It was a really hard time for me.  In fact, things eventually got so bad that the Vice Principal of my school recommended that I take Karate lessons for self-defense.  So I did just that.  And it went really well.  It was fun, I was active, and I really liked my teacher: Shihan Jessie Bowen.  Shihan Bowen was a 5th degree black belt and the founder of our school.  There was even a picture on the wall of him next to the kung-fu movie star Chuck Norris.

I, on the other hand, was an awkward twelve-year-old who was barely good enough for a beginner-level sparring class.  So, you can imagine how much trepidation I felt that night at the end of class when Shihan Bowen ordered me to stand up and fight him one-on-one in front of the rest of the class.

It was an epic five-point sparring match.  Shihan Bowen and I matched each other blow for blow with everyone watching.  In the end, I managed to land the final blow for my fifth point.  I couldn’t believe it: I had beaten Shihan Bowen, the Grand Master and the founder of the school, by one point.  For the first time in my life, I felt powerful.  That’s an amazing feeling for a lanky seventh grader who was used to getting beat up and pushed around.  I discovered pride and strength within myself.

Now, I can’t say that this one event solved all my problems at school or in my neighborhood, but I do believe that something of that experienced must have stayed with me because it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after the fact that I did the math in my head: Shihan Bowen was a 35-year-old Grand Master; I was a 12-year-old beginner.  It took me that long to realize one obvious fact: he let me win.

By the time I realized it, of course, I was a grown man.  I had long since grown out of my awkward middle school phase, but I’m grateful for what he did that night because he let me taste empowerment for the first time in my life.  For once, I was a victor, not a victim.  Something I did made an impact on the world around me.

This theme of empowerment is an important one, so we’re going to spend some time with it today.  It factors rather highly in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke.

The story begins with Jesus sending a group of his followers out on a mission to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s not the first time he’s done something like this.  In fact, it’s the second.  Just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus sent another group of disciples out with an identical mission: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  The first time he did it, Jesus sent 12 disciples out.  The second time, he sent 70.

Why do you think that is?  Is it just a random number?  Was that just the number of people who happened to be hanging around that day?  Well, no.  It’s not random.  Numbers had great symbolic significance for people in the ancient world.  Whenever two things or events have the same number in the Bible, you can bet that they’re connected somehow.

Let’s take the number 12, for example.  12 is the number of disciples Jesus had.  12 is also the number of tribes in the original nation of Israel.  Are these ideas connected?  You bet they are.  By sending out 12 disciples, Jesus was saying that his mission was not just for himself alone, but for the whole nation of Israel.  All of God’s chosen people had a part to play in what was happening through Jesus.

What about 70?  This one’s a little bit trickier.  It’s not so obvious to us modern American readers, so I’ll help you out by unpacking it a little.  70 is the number of the nations of the world named in the first part of the book of Genesis.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and the beginning of all peoples, cultures, and nations.  And the final number of nations listed in Genesis 10 is 70.  So, when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God, he’s taking his mission even one step further as if to say, “Hey y’all, what you see going on here isn’t just about me, it’s about our whole nation; in fact, it’s not even just about our whole nation, it’s about every nation.  The amazing things you see God doing in me and through me is meant to be shared with the whole world… everybody.”  That’s the symbolic significance of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on a mission.

Now, let’s take a look at what that mission was.  What is it that God is doing in and through Jesus, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the whole world?  Well, we’ve heard about it already: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  This is what Jesus and his followers are all about.  But what does that mean for us?  Should we all become faith healers, exorcists, or televangelists?  Well, probably not.  In fact, I would advise against it.

When modern Christians talk about “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” they usually mean “preaching the gospel,” and it usually sounds something like this:

“You’re a real bad sinner but God loves you anyway.  So, you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, become a Christian, and go to church so that your soul can go to heaven when you die.”

That’s what modern, American Christians usually mean when they talk about preaching the gospel or proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But is that what Jesus was talking about in this passage?  Is there any talk in this passage about becoming a Christian or going to heaven when you die?  No, there isn’t.

Let me say something that might surprise you: Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife.  What is it then?  Well, let’s look at it. 

What is a kingdom on the most basic, fundamental level?  It’s the place where a king or queen has authority and is in charge.  A kingdom is a king’s territory. 

Based on that definition then, what is the kingdom of God?  It’s the place where God is in charge.

What does this mean?  Whenever we allow peace, justice, and love to reign in our hearts, that’s the kingdom of God.  Wherever groups of people organize themselves into communities to care for those who suffer, seek justice for the oppressed, and embody Christ-like compassion in their lives, that’s the kingdom of God.

When Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, he was telling them to plant a flag in the ground.  He was declaring war on the way things are.  He was saying, in effect, “Hey y’all, there’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.”  It’s not a battle we can fight with death-dealing weaponry, but with tools that build life.  That’s why healing the sick and casting out demons were so important to Jesus: he was announcing a reversal of the cosmic powers that kept the children of God under the yoke of oppression.  The forces of sin and evil were doomed to failure.  That’s why he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  I’ll say it again: There’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.

There are all kinds of examples of the kingdom of God breaking through into this world.  I could talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  But the example that stands out most in my mind this week is that of a middle-aged seamstress and a young pastor (age 26) who organized an entire group of people to right a wrong in their community through the power of nonviolent direct action.  The seamstress (Rosa Parks) and the pastor (Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized the Montgomery bus Boycott of 1955.  For entire year, the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama walked to work instead of riding the bus.  Their voices were heard and they paved the way for the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

Their movement was one moment among many that marks the breaking through of the kingdom of God into this world.  Toward the end of the protest, someone asked one elderly woman whether she was tired out from a year of walking at her age.  She famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” 

That, my friends, is the proclamation of the kingdom of God through the empowerment of (all) the people of God.  It is the dethroning of the powers of sin in this world, the casting out of demons, and the healing of our sick society.  It is the eternal revolution of Jesus and we (all of us) are the insurgents.

The end-result of this revolution is not mere political reform but spiritual transformation as the kingdom of God is established “on earth as it is in heaven.”  After describing the revolution to his followers, Jesus told them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Through this empowerment, we the followers of Jesus wake up to who we really are.  All of us are invited recover our dignity as beloved children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Each of us bears the image and likeness of God.  As Jesus said, our names are written in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth I invite you to discover and recover as you go out into the world this week.  You may not be called upon to march in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or tear down the Berlin Wall, but there is still plenty of sin and injustice left in this old world.  Go out with your mind’s eye and the ears of your heart open to where it is that the Spirit of Jesus is calling you and empowering you to plant a flag as an insurgent in heaven’s revolution.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom of God, and rejoice that your name is written in heaven.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Heartroots Revolution

411px-Sacred_Heart_CurrierThe famous author and Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson tells a great story about something that happened to him when he was growing up in Montana.  Eugene used to have to deal with a bully named Garrison Johns.  Garrison used to pick on him and take cheap shots.  All along, the adults in his church kept telling Eugene to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  When Garrison found out that Eugene was a Christian, he started calling him “Jesus-sissy.”  Finally, the day came when Eugene decided that he’d had enough.  He was walking home from school with Garrison beside him, hurling his usual barrage of jeers and jabs.  I’ll let Eugene Peterson tell the rest of the story in his own words:

Something snapped within me. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it – he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again – blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. “Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!” A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them, although nothing compared with what I would, later in life, read in the Psalms. I said to Garrison, “Say Uncle.” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out in me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, “Say, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.

          (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 134-136)

This story is a great example of a Christian doing the right thing in the wrong way.  We Christians are famous for that.  Ironically, it seems like we tend to be at our worst when we try to do something really big and beautiful for God.

Take, for example, the story of the Roman emperor, Constantine I.  Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian.  He legalized Christianity and ended centuries of persecution against the Church.  That was a good thing, as far as Christians were concerned.  However, he also started the process of merging church and state into one institution, a state of affairs that would eventually lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials.  From Constantine’s point of view, he was establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth in the form of a Christian government.  But when that government (and its successors) started to operate, it started to look less like the kingdom of heaven and more like all the other kingdoms of the world.  In the end, the Roman Empire became just another superpower, but with the name of Jesus tacked on it.

That’s part of the problem with us humans: we assume that our ways are God’s ways, that a good end justifies bad means.  We think that, in order for right and good win to out over evil, we have to use power and violence to force our will (or God’s) on others.  But that isn’t how God works in the world.

We’re talking a lot about authority and kingship today.  First of all, we’re wrapping up our six week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve covered the first five already: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; and the promotion of social righteousness.  This week, we’re looking at the final Great End of the Church, which is the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  We’re going to talk about what it means to “exhibit” “the kingdom of heaven.”

Today also happens to be Ascension Sunday, the holiday when we celebrate Jesus returning to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, as it says in the book of Acts.  The meaning behind this image is the sovereignty of Christ as ruler over all creation.

So the subject of kingship is our central theme today.  You might have picked up on this theme in our first reading from the letter to the Ephesians where the author talks about Christ, who is seated “at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  Obviously, this is an image of supreme authority.

Based on what people tend to experience from the corrupt powers and authorities of this world, one might imagine a person with supreme authority to wield it like an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus.  His idea of kingly authority is very different from most others’.  In our gospel reading, Jesus described his idea of what God’s kingdom, God’s ideal society might look like as it becomes established in the world.

It doesn’t look like an invading dictatorship or a hostile takeover by a competing corporation.  There’s no violence and coercion in this kind of kingdom.  Jesus said the coming of God’s kingdom 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.”  A little later, he said, “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.”

According to Jesus’ model, the kingdom of God is a growing thing.  It works slowly and subversively beneath the surface of society.  I especially love the image he uses about the kingdom being like yeast that leavens a loaf of bread.  For those who might not know about bread making, yeast is alive.  It’s a little microscopic organism that causes bread to rise once the yeast has infected the entire batch.

Did you get that?  God’s kingdom is like a microbe: the smallest kind of life-form.  It’s the exact opposite of dominating power and overwhelming violence.  The various authorities of this world depend on violence and power to preserve order and get things done, but Jesus’ kingdom of God seems to work on the exact opposite principle: smallness and weakness.  The greatest way to exercise power, according to Jesus, is by exercising service and mercy.

Jesus seems to have had some very upside-down ideas about kings and kingdoms.  I would daresay that Jesus also seemed to have some very upside-down ideas about life itself.  When Jesus first shared these radical ideas, he wasn’t just talking about a new system of government; he was talking about a new way to be human.

Jesus’ vision for the transformation of the world was a grassroots vision.  In fact, the term grassroots isn’t even sufficient to describe it because it doesn’t go deep enough.  We might have to make up a new word for this: how about heartroots?  Jesus’ vision for establishing the authority of the kingdom of heaven on earth is a heartroots vision.  It’s not imposed from the outside or above, like a bureaucratic dictatorship or an invading army: it changes the world from the inside out.  Like a mustard seed or yeast.

Few of Jesus’ followers, even among Christians today, have ever accepted his teaching about nonviolence, service, and mercy in the Heartroots Revolution.  By most accounts, these crazy, impractical should have been dismissed long ago, but they weren’t.  For some reason, they continue to chase, disturb, and haunt us to this day, slowly transforming our hearts from the inside out… just like yeast slowly leavening a batch of bread dough.

I believe that we are called to be like that yeast in Jesus’ parable.  In contrast to the violent and coercive way that power is exercised in the governments and corporations of the world, the citizens of the kingdom of God use the gentle skills of presence and persuasion.  We work our Heartroots Revolution from the inside out.

We’re kind of like mothers in that way.  They say a mother’s work is never done.  I’ve certainly been reminded of that truth this week as my own mother has been staying at my house and helping me take care of my kids while my wife is out of town at a conference.  Her help has been most appreciated.

But the real work of motherhood happens as her unconditional love and deeply held values shape the persons and perspectives of her children.  That’s how God works in the world as well.  That’s what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Unlike the young Eugene Peterson, God will not pin us to the ground and punch us until we agree to follow Jesus.  God doesn’t work through violence and coercion.  Neither should we do so as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We will not establish God’s kingdom by forcing our will on others through direct violence, or the threat of violence, or behind-the-scenes manipulation.  The arrival of the kingdom of heaven on earth is not to be equated with the success of our country, our political party, our business, or our church.  God’s vision is bigger and deeper than those things.  God, like a mother who will neither forget nor forsake her children, works the Heartroots Revolution from the inside out, moving slowly and patiently across time.  We Christians show ourselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom when we work in the same way: when we show up to work or school each day, consciously carrying the Holy Spirit in our hearts and letting our words and deeds act like yeast, leavening the loaf of our community with faith, hope, and love.  That’s what God’s Heartroots Revolution looks like.

I want to send you out this week with that image in your mind.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, think of the Holy Spirit living in your heart, leading you to act like an undercover agent, infiltrating the dark systems of this world with the light of love.  Let Jesus be your model for how to do this.  To the best of your ability, say and do things the way you imagine him saying and doing things.  If you’re not sure what he would do, try picking up a Bible and reading from one of the gospels.  Maybe one of those stories about his life will spark your imagination.

May your life, like Jesus’, exhibit the kingdom of God to the world.  May others look at you and hear through your words and deeds the message that brings us together and carries us into the world each week: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  Be blessed and be a blessing.

Repent! Think Different.

This morning’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Mark 1:9-15.

Three brothers grow up together in Dublin, Ireland.  When they come of age and go off to make their way in the world, they make a pact: whenever they drink, they’ll always order three pints of Guinness, one for each brother.  One of the brothers settles in New York, where he finds an Irish pub and becomes a regular.  He explains the pact to the barkeep, who always knows to bring him three pints.  Then, one fine day, the man comes in and asks for only two pints.  The barkeep realizes that one of his brothers must have died.

“Condolences,” he says as he brings the pints over, “these are on the house, on account of your loss.”

“What are you talking about?”  He says, “There’s no loss.  I just gave up drinking for Lent!”

I think this guy has the right idea about Lent.  He’s creative!  He’s thinking outside of the box.

Traditionally, this is the season of the church year where they really turn on the guilt.  A lot of people talk about “giving something up for Lent.”  This tradition got started way back in the olden days when new church members (called “catechumens”) would spend several weeks spiritually preparing themselves for baptism on Easter Sunday.  They would pray and fast for extended periods of time, sometimes intentionally going without food for days on end.

Eventually, this practice was extended to all Christians and has been watered down to the point where people symbolically try to break a bad habit or deny themselves some minor luxury, like chocolate, during the 40 days before Easter (as if going without M&Ms for a few weeks was really supposed to be spiritually empowering).  Our scripture readings in church during this time tend to be a little more somber in tone.  For example, Jesus starts his sermon in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel with a call for people to “repent.”

I don’t know about you, but that word (repent) stirs up some very specific mental images for me.  Maybe it’s just because I grew up down south in the Bible Belt, but I have several memories of fiery preachers on street corners with signs that said things like, “Repent, sinner!”

These guys (they were usually male), had a knack for going into great detail about the pains of hell that awaited those sinners who would face the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment.  The only way out, they said, was to repent.  And by repent, they mean: convert to (our version of) Christianity and feel really, really sorry for all your sins.  Do that, and maybe (just maybe) God won’t burn you in hell for eternity.

So, that’s their story.  I think I want to tell a different one.  I think we need to take a good, hard look at that word, repent, and see what it actually means, rather than let some fire-breathing preacher do the job for us.  The word repent in Greek is metanoia, which literally means “to change the way you think.”

Do you remember that series of advertisements for Apple Computers that came out about ten years ago?  They had pictures of all kinds of original geniuses like Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jane Goodall.  And next to each person’s photo was the phrase: “Think Different.”  To me, that’s what the word repent means: “Think Different.”  Think outside the box.  Get creative.  Imagine new possibilities.  “Explore strange, new worlds.  Seek out new life and new civilizations.  Boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So the, what is it that we’re supposed to “think different” about?  Well, the full text of Jesus’ sermon from today’s gospel reading goes like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We’ve already talked about what “repent” means.  What about the rest of it?  As many of you already know, one of my favorite phrases in the entire Bible is, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  A lot of folks like to think of “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven”) as a happy place that exists way up on some cloud or in an alternate dimension where people go when they die, but that’s not how Jesus uses the phrase.  Listen to what he says again, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Another way to translate “has come near” is “is at hand.”  Let’s try something.  If you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you’ve probably done this with me before, but we’ll do it again, just so the message sinks in.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Jesus says, “the kingdom of God (heaven) is at hand.”  How far away is heaven?  As close as your own hand.

For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  It has to do with this world.  The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision of what this world would be like if God were allowed to be in charge instead of the powers that be.  In a world where “might makes right,” Jesus has the audacity to stand up and say, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” and “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”  Remember the Berlin Wall?  It stood for decades as a symbol of the barrier between democracy and communism.  The powers that be on both sides of that wall had their guns and missiles pointed at each other around the clock.  Do you remember how it came down in a single night in 1989?  It didn’t happen because we Americans scared those Russians away with our big, bad nuclear weapons.  It happened because one East German official mistakenly announced on TV that their borders were now open.  Later that night, as people started lining up at the border, Harald Jaeger, a low-ranking border-guard, made the first decision to open his gate.  People flooded through to the other side.  Within days, the wall was torn down.  Within a year, Germany was reunited.  Two years after that, the great Soviet Union itself was gone.  An entire generation of Americans and Russians was raised to believe that the Cold War would end with a mushroom cloud and the fulfillment of Mutually Assured Destruction.  But it ended with dancing instead of marching, singing instead of marching, and the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked instead of the sound of gunfire.  Who could have imagined such a peaceful resolution?  “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Now, that’s a big-picture example.  I think the kingdom of God comes near to us every day.  Whenever we’re at the pharmacy, café, or supermarket and we look the server in the eye, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever some jerk cuts you off in traffic and you don’t give him the finger or blow your horn out of spite, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever two people in conflict sit down together and try their best to work it out, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your kid comes home and says, “Mom & Dad, I’m gay,” and the first words out of your mouth are, “I love you,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your spouse is in the hospital and you’re standing by the bed, holding his/her hand and saying, “We’ll get through this,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Whenever aging parents agree to let their children hire in-home assistance for them, even though they don’t think they need it, but know that it will put their children’s minds at ease, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

The kingdom of God is a present reality.  It’s Jesus’ vision of what this world could be like.  He calls it “good news” and invites people to “believe in” it.  Have you ever “believed in” something or someone?  Maybe there’s some high school kid who is nervous before that big performance or big game and the coach or teacher says, “I believe in you.”  It’s empowering, isn’t it?  A statement like that can really make a difference in a kid’s life.  And I don’t care how old you are, whether you’re age 9 or 90, we all still need to hear that from time to time: “I believe in you.”  In the same way, you might donate your time and energy to cause you believe in: feeding the hungry, taking care of young kids, or helping underprivileged families have a Christmas.  When you believe in it, you give yourself to it, and that makes a difference.  Jesus called it “good news.”  He invites all of us to believe in that good news: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

And that leads us back to that word, repent.  It’s has nothing to do with guilt or fear.  It has everything to do with thinking outside of the box.  The great scientist Albert Einstein once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if [hu]mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  Jesus is inviting you today to embrace the mystery of imagination and participate in the miracle of creativity.  Think different in order to make a difference.  That’s the “good news” Jesus is inviting you to “believe in” and be part of: the kingdom of God come near, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

We pray for it every Sunday:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”