Parables on the Kingdom of God

This is the second sermon preached for my Foundations in Biblical Preaching course this past spring at Luther Seminary.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, leaven, treasure in a field, a merchant searching for fine pearls and a dragnet.  I don’t know about you, but my understanding of what a Kingdom is involves knights on horses, princesses in towers, armies massed upon field of battle and sometimes, even King Arthur and Camelot.  Often in the west we have problems understanding these Kingdom metaphors.  The kingdom spoken against in the Gospel of Matthew was Rome.  Rome had spread itself out, as all previous kingdoms had, like an anti-God infection upon the Earth.
We, in the west, have moved past this form of governance, and have achieved the modern dream of Democracy and freedom for all.  And by golly, those nations that disagree with these freedoms are obviously backward and we should help them in any and all ways possible to become better countries.  That is, to become more like us.
The Kingdom of God is not under the auspice of the Kingdom of Rome or the Democracy of the United States.  It is in the mustard seed that amazingly grows into a tree.  It is in the leaven hidden in the flour.  It is a treasure in a field where a laborer toils.  It is in the merchant searching for fine pearls.  And it is in the dragnet.
As much as we would like, we will never be able to identify any kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of Heaven is not found within the expansion of temporal authority, expanding its territory with armies, treaties or massive land purchases. 
The Kingdom of God is not even within the church.  We do great work around the world such as the effort to rid the world of malaria or homelessness.  These are a part of the Kingdom vision, but our work toward these ends does not bring the kingdom.
What then are we to do?  Just sit back and await the Kingdom of God?  Alas, no.  Quietism is not an option.  These parables and others within the gospels show what life in the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  They illustrate how a righteous person acts, so that when the final judgment comes we are saved, or we are cast into the furnace.  We have been given the grace of Christ and thus are saved.  But with this gift of Grace comes great responsibility to be righteous within the world.  That is, we, here and now, living in the temporal kingdom must also live into the Kingdom of God.
Thus our church bodies work to end homelessness in Minnesota by working with the state legislature, we work to end malaria related deaths in Africa with simple, effective, and cheap mosquito nets.  We have the chance on a regular basis to donate our funds to these causes and others.  And this truly is a response to the grace of Christ.   However the government works on these causes too.  So to think that these activities bring the Kingdom is folly. 
We as followers of Christ are always called to do more.  We can never do enough though to bring the Kingdom but we are called to do something.  So we must be a living witness to others.  Let our lives show how the Grace of Christ affects us.  I am not advocating for taking these parables literally.  Do not start up a mustard plantation, do not go about the land searching for treasure, et cetera to live the Kingdom life.  Instead live into the Kingdom.  Imagine that the work you do is a response to the Grace given you in Christ Jesus.  This lifestyle then becomes an example to others as to what it is to live a Kingdom life.  You must search your hearts and discern amongst yourselves how God is calling you to live into the Kingdom.
Where then is the Kingdom?  The kingdom is like Leaven in bread.  It is everywhere, and as it is mixed in, hidden within the dough we cannot point to a place here or there where the Kingdom of God is or is not.  It is hidden, but is everywhere and in plain sight.  The treasure of the Kingdom is discerned from life with others and relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.  We spy this treasure in our lives and will do anything to keep it.  We are willing to give up everything we have so as to pursue it. 
Lest we think that just the proper actions get us into heaven, the final parable in this section states that the Kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet.  Everything in the sea is gathered up within this net.  And the clean, that is righteous, are saved and the unclean are tossed aside.  These fish are clean because God said so back in book of Leviticus.  And the unclean are thus for the same reason.  The clean fish live the life God intended of them.  For countless generations they have been living this life.  Like the people God has chosen for the sake of the world.
God intended for us to live life in a righteous manner.  We are to live life in relationship with God and others.  We have many examples of how to live this life.  People here today are such examples.  There are people here who have given up everything to follow Jesus.  There are those who have yet to give up everything.  They are still holding onto idols of Empire and the world. 
It is important to note that we can learn something of the kingdom life from each and everyone here.  We learn of the Kingdom when we are in conversation with one another like the disciples were with Jesus.  And we learn what the Kingdom is like when we are in conversation with God.  When we engage each other and God in conversation we learn and perform what life in the Kingdom looks like.
Every time then that you speak with one another, there is the Kingdom of Heaven.  When you are in prayer, there is the Kingdom of Heaven.  When you are at work, there is the Kingdom of Heaven.  When you share a meal, there is the Kingdom of Heaven.  When you come together in fellowship with others, there is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Every time someone is killed, there is the kingdom of men.  Every time you refuse to speak out against injustice, there is the kingdom of men.  Every time you place a worldly want above relationship with God, there is the kingdom of man.  Every time you rely upon only yourself, there is the Kingdom of man.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, leaven, treasure in a field, a merchant seeking fine pearls and a dragnet.  There are no human kings or queens in the Kingdom of God.  There is just a small seed that grows, quite unexpectedly, into a great tree instead of a shrub.  There is a woman who hides leaven within enough flour to feed 100-150 people.  There is a worker in the field who gives up everything to purchase the treasure found within.  There is a merchant who has found the finest pearl and gives everything up so as to gain that one pearl.  And the Kingdom of God is like a net, drug across the sea, picking up everything to be sorted at the final judgment.
The Kingdom of Heaven is all this and more.  And you are a part of it!  Claim your citizenship and live into the Kingdom!

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


Whither Tradition?

When you hear the word Tradition what do you think of? Do you think of Fourth of July celebrations? Summer Barbeques? Christmas Morning? New Years? Church on Sunday Morning? Each of us has various traditions that we remember fondly and desire to reacquaint ourselves with on a regular basis.
Tradition is a wonderful thing. It helps us remember the past. Recall those who are no longer with us. Remember significant events of the past. Tradition is a gift from God that helps us remember where God is active in the world.
Many Families have traditions to celebrate their arrival in the USA. This was most certainly a way to celebrate God’s gift of bringing them to the USA where they could prosper. They were very thankful of God’s work in bringing them here.
Even communities would have these celebrations. Especially around here where we are not that far removed from the time of their arrival. Many small towns have celebrations that recall the ethnic heritage of the founders. Many churches do the same. How many times have we heard of the Lutheran Church in Lake Woebegon hosting a Lutefisk dinner?
We here at Saint Anthony Park UMC also have various traditions around Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, Advent, et cetera. Each of these traditions can be traced to a foundation in the Early Church. The community of Christians that wrote the Gospel of John celebrated these holidays too. Palm Sunday, which we celebrate next week, has been celebrated for nearly 2000 years. Paul, who wrote the Letter to the Philippians, would also have celebrated Palm Sunday and Easter.
The beginning of this tradition, of the lager tradition of The Way, later called Christianity, changed every thing for those who participated in it. The followers of Jesus understood this shift. They could no longer live with the old traditions, steeped in rigidly doing things as their predecessors had. Just as in the Isaiah reading we are to no longer expect God to so what God had done formerly. God was radically present, that is incarnate, in Jesus the Christ. God had anointed Jesus, calling him his own.
Paul sees this too. Paul knows that every claim he had to righteousness in nothing without relationship with God/Christ. For the sake of Christ, Paul has suffered the loss of all these claims. That is, all these things that make Paul a Hebrew of Hebrews had previously kept him separate from relationship with God. Paul had to suffer the loss of this status in order that he could be in relationship with Christ as Lord. Paul could no longer have a nationalistic pride. Paul like many others who were followers of Christ can no longer indentify with the ways of the world.
In fact, Both Mary and Paul know that God is not the same God of old. God has become incarnate, fully present in the world, in Jesus Christ. As we heard earlier from Isaiah, God is about to do new things. We should not look for God to do things the way God did in the past. Instead, we should see where God is moving now.
Today were are not in the same social-political situation that we were in when any of us were younger, much less when this church was founded. It is always a new and different world. Why would we expect God to act today the same way God acted in the past?
This is one of the core themes of the Old Testament. God is constantly interacting with the world in new and unique ways. This interaction did not stop with the recordings in the New Testament. We know that the Holy Spirit is with us still today, interacting with us.
The church though, heck, even humanity in general, gets hung up on tradition. We are afraid of change for fear of becoming more like the world. This is a valid concern, if we view ourselves are the agent of change. However if we allow for God to work within us as a community and to change us, we are bound to change from our old ways and traditions that do not give us life. We turn instead to God and the witness of God in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit and see where they are working in the world and work with them there. We must never allow tradition to be more about sustaining the institution of church than about the freeing love of God.
All three of the scriptures today clarify this. And this radical understanding of the scriptures has been the foundation of every reformation within the church. Especially our own in John and Charles Wesley.
We have been discussing during Lent the Wesley Quadrilateral. That is, Tradition, Experience, Reason and Scripture. The highest of these would be scripture. The other three are used to help us read scripture and understand how God is active in the World today.
Reason, Tradition and Scripture are all malleable, They can change. These changes allow for us to have different understandings of scripture in every age. As we say at Luther Seminary, they allow for the Gospel to contextualize itself wherever and whenever it is in the world.
An example, your ability to reason as an adult is very different than your ability as a child. Likewise our experiences today are different than our parents when they were our age. Many of our parents never had the education that many of us here have. Many of our parents lived through the Second World War. Many people my age and younger have no memory of the Vietnam War, and don’t truly know the significance of the Berlin Wall falling. Wesley did not experience any of these world events, much less Paul or the Gospel writers. But their work and understanding of how God works in the world influences how we see God today.
Experiences such as various historical events inform how we see God active in the world. They inform how we come together to worship God. Our experiences in worshiping God, in honoring God, change from age to age too. Suffice it to say that we no longer worship in cathedrals in England, or with the high liturgy of the Anglican Church.
Truly God is still speaking into our world. We are no longer in the past, but we are here, now. We must ask ourselves how does tradition bring us into relationship with God. What is it that needs to change so that we can better relate to one another and to God?
What traditions do we still need within our congregation, within the church at large? And what traditions are we ready to let go of?


Fasting and Jonah

March 14, 2009.
It is the fourth of six Sundays in Lent. How is that fasting going?
I come here as an outsider to your congregation and I ask you, Why have you been fasting? Because scripture told you fast? Did you reason that you should fast? Does your family traditionally fast? Has your experience of fasting in the past lead you to continue to fast? All of these are valid reasons for fasting. Though there is a bit more to fasting than not eating food.
Traditionally Christians fast during Lent so that we may suffer. Suffer? Really? We live in the United States of America. No one suffers here! Unless of course they are not able to pull themselves up. And that, as Americans, is the point of suffering. Comparatively few in the United States have to suffer or lack for anything. Our understanding of what suffering is massively different from classical suffering in the Bible. Suffering, traditionally, is tied to the passion after Palm Sunday. Though we typically understand only the pain of suffering. In suffering there is also hope. Without hope, suffering is despair. That is unhealthy. Hope in the knowledge that God is with you in your suffering.
Fasting does not bring you closer to God. God is already closer to you than you could ever imagine. This suffering for God instead allows you to experience life without the comforts you are used to. It gives you the chance to reflect, in loss, upon life. When you go without, you can see God in the cracks that open up. This is the purpose of fasting, to see where God is active in your life.
Fasting traditionally is giving something up. That is, something that you like. Such as: meat, sugar, chocolate, coffee, smoking, etc. While fasting during let can allow you to make life changes for a healthier life, this is not traditionally the point of fasting. Fasting brings suffering which allows one to see where hope is and how hope is active in their relationship with God. Thus fasting could be better done I think by giving up a meal a week or going without food for a whole day. Fasting also can mean taking on something else. In this taking on, you are cutting away time that is not productive in your life. In taking on something else one must be mindful that you still need to be with God. Filling your life with things to do is the opposite of fasting.
It is important to remember that spiritual disciplines, which fasting is one of many, are not for you. We do these things for our relationship with God. God calls us to disciplines so that we may know God better. Thus spiritual discipline must include prayer. In prayer we are open to hearing and understanding God. So when fasting, don’t just fast, but when you fast, pray in lieu of what you have given up. Do not work through lunch. Get away from the workspace and spend the time in prayer. Hearing your own suffering, latent to the suffering of others and understand better the suffering of God. If you take something on, do it prayerfully. If you are knitting prayer-shawls, pray as you knit.
Again, this is important, fasting does not bring you closer to God. It allows for you to see God, active, in your life. And in your suffering you see a little of what God suffers when God is not in relationship with you!
God has been in the pattern of sending messengers to the people of God for millennia. First there was Abraham, then Moses, Joshua, Jonah, Daniel, John the Baptizer, Jesus, Paul John Chrysostom, Francis of Assisi, Luther, John Wesley and Mother Theresa.
Typically we call these people prophets, apostles, or re-newers of the church. Through their lives and preaching we are reminded of who God is. This is the Hessed, that is, the Loving Kindness of God. Often we hear of a God who is angry with the people. The people have forgotten God. This is why God sends prophets. To remind us of who it is we are in relationship with.
Imagine if you will that your partner has forgotten about you. He or she does not spend time with you any more. They just go through the rituals, eating, living in the same house, tending the yard, etc. But something else is taking their attention away from the partnership the two of you have. School, work, friends, etc. take unhealthy amounts of time away from the relationship. They become false idols within your relationship. This leads you to become angry with your partner. You begin to resent his or her relationships outside of the one the two of you have.
This is similar to God’s anger with the people and why God sends these prophets. The prophets are sent to the people to remind them of their relationship with God. This is the suffering of God. God is suffering because the people have forgotten their relationship with God. God does not want to be without you.
Suffering then is not something you can control. It comes from outside of you. From loss. You do not choose to suffer. Instead you can choose to give something up. In this suffering we can understand God better. In suffering we repent and make right our relationship with God. In the suffering of the passion Christ reconciled us, you, me, your parents, your children, your neighbors, strangers and yes, your enemies, all of these reconciled to God! We are all in relationship with God; we are still guilty of forgetting this.
Enter fasting. The forty days of Lent are reminiscent of the forty hours between the death of Christ and his resurrection. This is a time when we are without God. Christ is dead. God has died. We suffer this death, this separation from God. God was with us in Immanuel. Now that Christ, Immanuel, is dead, this seems to no longer be the case.
Our fasting reminds us of this time when God was gone. When the God, who suffered for us, for relationship with us, died. Remember, suffering is from loss of relationship God was with us. God showed signs of mercy and healing to us when Jesus walked upon the earth. In Jesus we finally understand who God is. We understand what God does for us. We know the pure love of God. God’s Loving Kindness, Hessed, is made known.
The prophet Jonah knows this God too. God loves the people. Not just Israel, but all the people of the world. God wants to be in relationship with all of them. God does not want to just love them from afar. God loves the people of Nineveh, the enemies and oppressors of God’s chosen people Israel. God is angry with the Ninevites though. What Nineveh has done or not done is not known. We know just that they do not follow the tenants of the LORD God. We can sense though that Nineveh does not know God.
Jonah would like nothing more than for Nineveh to be destroyed. And when he finally gets to Nineveh, after running to the other end of the Mediterranean, he calls out just for this, for Nineveh to be destroyed.
Read pg. 1267 in Message now.
Something happened that surprises Jonah, and surprises us. Nineveh repents! The people proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth. Everyone did, even the king! The king came down from his throne, did you get that? He came down from his throne and sat in the dirt. Then he commanded that the fast should continue and that they should not drink any water either. And in this decree he includes the animals! Everyone must ‘cry for help’ to God, that is everyone must pray to God, hoping that perhaps with their change in life that God will change God’s mind.
God, long in suffering for Nineveh saw how Nineveh was now suffering for God. God saw that the people loved God and that the people knew that they had done wrong. God loving the people of Nineveh repents and does not do what God had planned to do. Yes, God repents! God changed God’s mind because of what the people of Nineveh did.
With the act of fasting Nineveh gains an understanding of suffering. They, as a community, begin to understand their relationship with God. As we fast during Lent, as we go without, we understand better the suffering of God and our relationship with God grows stronger.
The Lenten discipline of fasting is not only for lent. It is also for whole of the year. After all, God does not stop suffering for us after Easter. Why should we suffer for God only during Lent? Why should we in our warm homes, with our full stomachs, fast only during Lent? There are people throughout the world, throughout the country, throughout the state, throughout the city who fast, not because they can, but because they must. Fasting helps us to understand these people, these neighbors of ours. Suffering for God and for others is one of the things we are called to in Christ.
Remember in suffering is hope. Hope that the world will be reconciled to the reign of God. The people of Nineveh were reconciled to God. And the king of Nineveh was reconciled to God when he came down from his throne. Again I ask, how is the fast going?


Emaus and the Fellowship.

This is the first sermon I preached for my Foundations of Biblical Preaching course at Luther Seminary this past year.  It is rough and a little shoddy, but hey, we all start from somewhere eh?
Luke 24:13-35

Two weeks ago Christ rose triumphantly from the dead.  Prior to that Christ entered “triumphantly” into Jerusalem.
We have explored this triumphal entry, journey even, and explored what it is to be Christ-like.  We have seen what it is to journey with Christ.  That is, what it is we are called to, what a life of faith looks like.  We then suffered with Christ during Holy Week, questioning like the disciples what has happened to this one who we thought, we hoped, was the LORD.
Then despair came upon us on Good Friday,   The one we thought to be the messiah was hung upon the cross and died, along with our hopes of the return of the Davidic kingship. 
Then Sunday, Easter, the women had gone to the tomb to prepare the body of Jesus.   When they arrived they found the stone rolled away, the body was gone.  Mary then saw Jesus there in our reading on Easter.  Last week in our reading, Jesus appeared to the disciples.
This text though is different than that.  The sightings we read about the last two weeks were in Matthew, not recorded in Luke.  This reading is still Easter Sunday, and these two disciples are confused.  What has happened to the body?  Why had the tomb been opened and the body taken away? How could the body be prepared properly?
This is where we meet the two disciples today.  These two are not part of the twelve who were sent out earlier in Luke’s gospel.  These two are disciples of Jesus, who would have seen him on a regular basis, perhaps even having journeying with him into Jerusalem.
The prophet they had chosen to follow was dead.  He had been entrapped by their religious leaders and given over to the Roman authorities to be killed.
These two had journeyed to Jerusalem full of hope for the Passover feast.  Things would be different now they thought.  All the hope was gone, and also the body in the grave.  This was not the different they thought it would be.  They are leaving the city dejected, journeying to Emmaus.  Questioning their faith, and the faith of the people, I am sure.
Then they meet this stranger on the road and they need to explain everything to him.  The death of Jesus must have been one heck of an event in Jerusalem for them to assume that this stranger knew of it.  I find it very curious that they were unable to identify Jesus when they saw him.  They were actually prevented from it.
In another story we have a similar situation.  The book “The Fellowship of the Ring” by JRR Tolkien is part of a grand story.  It tells of the joining of many peoples together into a fellowship which is tasked with bringing the One Ring to Mordor, the heart of evil in the world and to destroy this ring there, in the fires of the Crack of Doom where it was forged.   In this group are humans, hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard. 
This fellowship is formed at the council of Elrond in Rivendell.  Our intrepid Hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry have brought the One Ring from their home in the Shire to Rivendell. 
They were to journey to Bree and meet the wizard Gandalf there.  He had been delayed and instead sent the ranger Strider to follow and keep watch over them, keep them safe, and lead them on the journey to Rivendell.
Strider is a special type of person.  He is a ranger from the North.  A mysterious lot who keep to themselves and don’t mix well with others according to the bar keep at the Prancing Pony in Bree where the Hobbits end up.
The Hobbits know to trust Gandalf.  But Strider is an unknown to them.  They think he is a misfit of a human.  And when he steals Frodo away after Frodo puts on the One Ring, the other three Hobbits, typically a shy unassuming lot, charge into Striders room ready to die for their friend Frodo.
Strider tells them that he will lead them to Rivendell to meet Gandalf.  And he does just that.  Along this journey he leads them through swamps, protects them from the vile ring wraiths and prevents Frodo from dying when he was stabbed by the sword of one of the ring wraiths.
Frodo ends up being rushed to Rivendell where elvish medicine is able to heal his wound.  Upon recovery he is reacquainted with Gandalf and his uncle Bilbo whom he has not seen for over three decades.  Rivendell is truly a place of peace upon the earth.  It is a bulwark against the evil that is encroaching upon the world.
Frodo thinks that this is the end of his journey.  He brought the One Ring to Rivendell and had done what Gandalf had asked of him.  This was it; everything was going to be well now.  His friends could go back to the Shire to live out the rest of their lives.  He could do the same or journey with his uncle Bilbo, as both of them had a bit of the Wanderlust.  His final task is to present the One Ring at the council of Elrond.
Elrond the leader of the elves of Rivendell has called a council to decide the fate of the heinous evil, the One Ring.  Humans, Dwarves, Elves are there along with Gandalf the Wizard, Strider, Frodo and Sam.  At this council it is finally revealed who this dirty ranger Strider truly is.  He is the Heir of Elindil, the one who was prophesied to sit again upon the throne at Gondor.  He is the One King.
Strider is the one people have been waiting for.  He is the one who can bring unity to the human people of the West, though some see his appearance as a threat to their way of life.  They benefit from the status quo and do not desire to allow strider to claim his rightful place upon the throne in Gondor.
The Hobbits had no idea who they were journeying with!  The One King, Aragorn, had lead them though swamps, protected them from wraiths, and delivered them mostly safe to Rivendell, to peace on Earth.
Our travelers have Jesus beside them, along the road to Emmaus.  They tell him all of what happened to Jesus, not knowing to whom they spoke.
Jesus tells them of all the prophecies for the messiah.  How he had to suffer to enter into glory.  And he opened the history of the people of Israel and their journey with God to them.   And in all of this the two travelers were kept from seeing that it truly was Jesus whom they journeyed with.
So a final question for you.  How often in your journey do you not allow yourself to see the Redeemer, that is Christ, active?  Are you like Frodo and the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings?  Totally unaware of whom this person is you journey with?  Jesus is there beside you on your journey.  We may not always recognize his presence, and we may be kept from recognizing it.  As you journey through this next week, keep your eyes open for God presence.