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Kingdom of Heaven: Unwanted, Invasive, Contaminated (July 30, 2017)

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 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.” 33 He told them another parable: “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.”

44 “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. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 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.”

You know what I think about the kingdom of heaven? I think it’s incredibly frustrating. And slow. And sometimes discouraging.

But before I can explain why to you, we need to be clear about the definition of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus talks about it. First, it is not a place out in the stars somewhere that your soul goes after you die. At least that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. As Jesus explains it, the kingdom of heaven is something that is present here and now. It’s something that he brings into the world. It is any time and any place God’s will of love, compassion, and grace are being done. It isn’t so much a place as a way of living in the world. It is less about getting ahead in the world and more about giving yourself away for the world. It’s loving with Jesus’ love, forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness, and being compassionate with Jesus’ compassion. That is the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about.

And it can be frustrating to me. Jesus tries over and over to get people to understand it, and has a hard time succeeding. Here in this text, he tells five quick parables to help us get this concept. I don’t find it frustrating because of what I don’t get about it. I find it frustrating because of the parts I do.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. A weed that was unwanted by everyone in that day. It would take over a field and aggressively take all the water so no crops to grow. And the birds that come and make their nests in the full-grown mustard shrub? They aren’t cute little song birds. They come and peck at all the good seeds that the mustard bush has left.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Unwanted? Invasive? It just comes in and takes over?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like leaven in bread dough. This is not a nice little package of yeast that makes freshly baked bread fluffy and tall. No, leaven was an impurity, coming from rotten, moldy, old bread. Why would a woman contaminate her bread like that? Unleavened bread was pure and good. Leavened bread was gross.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Disgusting? Contaminated? Ruining perfectly good bread?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Why do I find that frustrating? Because I tend to agree. I want the kingdom of heaven, i.e., compassion and grace and forgiveness and love to be revealed. But I want it to be revealed on my terms. I don’t want to be compassionate indiscriminately. I don’t want it coming in where I think it has no business being present. I want to live with Jesus’ compassion when I want to, not invading into unwanted places when God wants it done.

I want to dispense compassion to the people I want to dispense it to. Those for whom it will possibly make a difference. Those who will respond to compassion and be open to my compassion changing their lives. Because then I have a better chance of being recognized for my amazing kindness. If it invades where I don’t really want it, happening whenever God wants, my acts of compassion might not be received the way I want. They may think I expect a response from them. They may think that I think they now owe me something. They may be right.

I’ve been known to think, “Wow. After all I did for you, that’s how you repay me? After all my wonderful compassion, you treat me like that?” I performed your wedding and you won’t join my church? I gave you a night’s lodging at a motel, and you tell all your homeless friends I’ll do the same for them?

You see, if I can control when I show compassion, if I control where I reveal the kingdom of God, I can also control how it’s received. I’m not so likely to waste perfectly good compassion on someone who treats my compassion like an invasive contaminate.

So, yes, it’s frustrating that I don’t control the kingdom of God. That with me or without me, compassion and love and grace keep showing up in the world. Sometimes where they have no business showing up.

Part of me longs for the day that this kingdom of compassion takes over everything and everyone like Jesus’ last parable of a net scooping up fish everywhere. But another part of me recognizes that the fullness of that is a long way off, and I have a long way to go before I’m doing my full part in it.

So maybe it’s OK that this kingdom of compassion and grace and forgiveness invades like a weed. Because perhaps it will invade me too. Whether I accept it well or not. Whether I respond well to it or not. And I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in Sermon

 

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The Significance of the Insignificant (October 2, 2016)

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ “

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Worship together with Zion Baptist Church on August 28. Since I had no pastoral role, I took up my usual position standing in the back so I could watch. According to their tradition, a woman came up during altar call and rededicated her life to Jesus. Whole congregation prayed, and joined hands to do so. I watched and was impressed at the sincerity of it.

Suddenly, I felt someone grab my hand with a pretty firm grip. I looked up and it was a man—a member of Zion—who had been outside the tent talking with some elderly ladies on the lawn. He didn’t say a word, didn’t make eye contact. He just didn’t want me, the visiting white person, praying alone. No big deal for him, a very moving moment for me.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

After the death of my mom a month ago, I received many personal condolences, a bunch of sympathy cards and several donations to Alzheimer’s Association. Probably to most of you it wasn’t a big deal, but it mean a lot to me.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

As part of our fall stewardship emphasis, we asked you to write down one “Joyful Experiences” that come from being associated with this congregation. These are wonderful things that we have experienced and about 65 of you have done this so far. Most of them may not seem life-changing, but they mattered enough for people to take the time to write them down. For example:

  • Worshiping with an amazing group of people.
  • The consistent love, support, and prayers given to me over the last 50 years.
  • Teaching VBS with the preschool kids this summer. Learning about the Bible.
  • Attending both worship services. What an awesome congregation we have!
  • Sunday School. I love watching the kids get so excited about the things God has done for us.
  • Going to Sky Ranch because I had an awesome experience doing all the fun activities and making new friends.
  • Watching my kids grow and be loved by so many.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

They are possible because this congregation exists. Individually they may not seem like much, but collectively there is a culture deeply embedded with care, of love, of laughter, of joy, new life.

No one person or household gives enough financially to do all this. Each little gift, each act of generosity, each offering is an act of faith. Collect enough mustard seed acts of faith and we end up with a congregation full of people who experience love and care and inclusion.

And that mustard seed faith grows beyond our walls into the neighborhood around us. Embedded in love, forgiveness, and compassion, we sow those same little seeds as we live, and work, and go to school. Small, tiny acts that come from our life together in Jesus. They may not seem like much, but collectively they change the world. They grow. They matter.

Every year I stand up here and ask you to increase your financial acts of giving. Of course I do. The more money we have, the more ministry we can do. That makes sense.

But there is something more important than the ability to increase the overall LCM budget. That’s each person, each household, giving something. Because then we are all sowing little mustard seeds of faith together. We’re all part of the small things and the big things that become part of our lives, part of our neighborhood, part of the world. We do it together. We sow seeds that grow. We commit small acts of faith. We change lives.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

Fill out an Estimate of Giving card, even if it’s a mustard seed amount. It’s an act of faith on your part. It is participation in casting love and compassion out into the world. It might just change someone’s life. It matters.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Don’t Trust Your Faith (20 Pentecost — Oct 6, 2013 at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Fremont, CA)

Luke 17:5-10

 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

I bring you greetings from the new lakefront property in Colorado; from my own congregation—Lutheran Church of the Master of Lakewood, CO; and from your full communion denominational partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am so pleased to be here with you this morning. Thank you for letting me be part of your life and your ministry this weekend. A bunch of us were here yesterday and had a great time in conversation around this amazing congregation and your ministry in the world. I’m grateful to you for your boldness, your partnership, and your faith.

Which happens to be the point of this gospel text in Luke. For those of you who’ve been here the last several weeks as we’ve journeyed through Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems to be a little bit cranky, demanding, impatient. We’ve lately just taken to calling him “Grumpy Jesus.” In recent weeks he’s told us that if we’re really his disciples we will hate our families, carry a cross, get serious about what it will cost, and we have to give up all our possessions.

I can’t blame the disciples for asking him to increase their faith! Frankly, I’m amazed they’re still hanging with him. But, in grumpy Jesus style, he doesn’t try to soothe their anxiety or assure them, he seems to just twist the knife a little bit more. They are trying, they ask him to increase their faith so they can do the crazy stuff he’s demanding, and his response is to tell them that if they had faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed they could tell a big old mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Thanks, Jesus. Apparently we don’t even have that small amount of faith. Even though we’re asking you for it, you just keep telling us how inadequate we are.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with the disciples here. I know I’m not the greatest disciple. I see homeless people at intersections holding cardboard signs asking for food and ignore them. I have time to volunteer at our local food pantry but don’t do it that often. I sometimes hold grudges longer than I should. I’m not the most ardent pray-er.  When our 15 year old Bassett Hound would have to go out in the middle of the night, I’d accidentally nudge my wife awake while pretending I was still asleep, hoping she’d get up and do it.

But c’mon, Jesus, I’m trying. And if I need a little help, you gotta do better than slamming me for my lack of faith which I already know is less than perfect.

But here’s the thing about faith. Like pretty much everything else, we make it about us. We think of faith as a possession, a commodity, something we can work up and bolster in order to do more spiritual things. I don’t think we trust God, I think we trust our faith in God. That’s different.

A friend told me a story that makes sense of this for me. During a flood, a mother and her little boy were soon to be trapped by the rising river. The mother knew they had to get across the river now if they were to have a chance of surviving. So she said to her son, “Hold on to my hand while we go across.” The little boy answered, “No, mommy. You hold onto my hand.”

That’s the difference. We tend to think of faith as holding onto God’s hand. As long as we have the strength to hold on, we think we’re OK. But I think Jesus is telling us here that faith isn’t proportionate to the difficulties. It’s not like the more faith we have the greater things we can do. No. It seems Jesus is saying the amount of faith doesn’t matter, because it’s not about us. It’s not trusting our ability to hold onto God, it’s about trusting that God is holding onto us. That’s different, right?

If we trust God to hold our hand, we can go across a river that is stronger than our grip. Because it isn’t our strength, it’s God’s. So even a tiny bit of faith is more than enough, because all faith needs to do is recognize we are in God’s hands. God does the rest. God takes us where we need to go, even if it’s in places we wouldn’t trust ourselves to go. You don’t have to hang on to God when you go out of this place, just recognize that God is hanging on to you.

Think of the difference that makes. Yesterday we came up with lots of different ways to live as disciples in a public way–in the world around us. Does that scare you? Sometimes the thought of that simply exhausts me. What if I goof it up? What if I get laughed at? What if I get called a Bible thumper or say something wrong? I simply don’t have enough faith to do that. And Grumpy Jesus says, It’s not about how much faith you have or what you think you can do. It’s about God holding you, never letting you go, always with you. Even if you’re crossing a rising river. Even if you’re going to work, or to school, or to your weekly Bridge Club. Even just the tiniest bit of faith, a willingness to take a risk that God’s got a grip on you, is more than enough.

Don’t worry about whether or not you have enough faith. Instead, watch what God does around you, through you, and in you. God will not let go of St. James’. And God will not let go of you. If you’re willing to even begin testing the possibility that that might be true, you have more than enough faith. Amen.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon

 

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