Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Living the Kingdom 

A Sermon for Pentecost 10
By [Flannel Christian]
(First Published by DesperatePreacher.com, July 2005)

We all know the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp. Remember, when he rubs it a genie comes out and offers to grant him three wishes. Through some creative wording, he manages to get a couple more, but the point is that he can’t just keep on wishing willy-nilly. He has to choose what he would most like given to him.

(To kids first, then some adults:) What would you like to wish for? What do you want most? (Take answers.) It’s funny how our answers change as we get older, or our situations change. Our priorities shift, or our means expand or shrink. Part of the puzzle is, of course, to get the most out of your wish – and so you have to imagine not only what you want most, but what you don’t think that you could get by yourself. There are times when you’d really like a drink of water, but you’re not going to waste a wish on that, because you could just walk to the sink and get yourself one, right? So what do you want most, that you don’t think you’re capable of getting yourself?

Now, of course, out of all these answers, while there’s no wrong answer, some answers are better than others, right? Some answers are selfish, others are generous; some temporary, some lasting; some specific, some general. But what were some of the best answers – and why? (Take answers.)

Today’s scripture reading tells us the story of Solomon – when God appears to him in a dream and asks Solomon to tell Him what He should give Solomon – make a wish, God is saying. Now, Solomon’s situation is a little different from ours – he’s already king, so he’s guaranteed housing and food and a retirement fund. He already has what some people would naturally ask for. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything to wish for.

So God asks Solomon to make a wish, and what does Solomon wish for? (Take answers.)

That’s right! Solomon asked for an understanding mind, the ability to discern between good and evil, so he could govern the way God would want him to govern. Was that a good wish? Yes, that was a very good wish. How do we know? (all kinds of reasons) God even said so.

God said to Solomon, because you have made a good wish, and not asked for something silly like long life or riches, or something selfish and mean like the lives of your enemies, I will grant you your wish.

Oh, wouldn’t it be great if our leaders today could stop asking for more riches, if they could stop demanding the lives of their enemies? Imagine if our politicians stopped to ask for an understanding heart. What would happen to our world? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Now, Solomon was still human, and he made some mistakes, but he started off on the right foot, with humility and a desire to seek more understanding – not coming into office thinking he knew everything already.

If only Solomon lived long enough to meet Jesus, he would have learned quite a lot about what a kingdom inspired by God would look like – and then he could have saved his wish for a new microwave or a fancy car.

You see, Jesus spent a lot of his time talking to people about what the world would be like if everyone lived the way God would want them to live. And people would all the time ask him about what the kingdom of heaven is like. Today’s Gospel reading is a series of parables – metaphors or stories – answering that very question.

In Matthew 13:31, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed – the smallest of seeds that grows into a mighty… shrub. A shrub? You can imagine the crowd wondering at this one. Jesus couldn’t think of anything more mighty, more inspiring than a shrub? What about the towering cedars of Lebanon? The Temple pillars in Jerusalem? What about the unending ocean? Or a huge mountain? This is the best Jesus can think of? A shrub? The kingdom of heaven is like a… shrub.

I think Jesus was being deliberate there – he was indicting our prejudice in favor of things that are big. We “supersize” our meals, buy Hummers and ride in limousines, build bigger stadiums, build bigger churches with towering crosses on the roadside, we pump iron to make ourselves bigger. Bigger is better, our world says. And yet… Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is entirely the opposite. Small, homely, lowly, humble. Bigness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – too big and you push away so much of the world. Don’t try to be like the towering cedars of Lebanon – be like the mustard shrub, make a place for small birds to come and nest in your branches. Be so humble that people might not even notice you – relax and be natural around you.

In the next parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with a lot of bread. Now, this doesn’t seem all that shocking to us – bread-making is a fine activity. But back then, yeast was a symbol of evil influence—throughout Rabbinical writings “leaven” is a metaphor for how evil spreads among people, and you can even see that still present in Jesus’ day when Matthew a few chapters later uses it that way (16:6), Mark (8:15), Luke (12:1) and even Paul (1 Cor. 5:7-8)! It’s like me saying today that the kingdom of heaven is like the Ku Klux Klan – people must have been so startled as to wonder if Jesus was off his rocker! It doesn’t make sense!

And that’s not all – you have to remember that making bread was women’s work – in a time when women were not very highly thought of. (Not too unlike today when we think about why mothers aren’t paid for the work they do at home in raising society’s children – we don’t value their work in the same way we value “commercial” work. But that’s another sermon altogether.)

I think Jesus was being very creative by using the image of a woman working yeast into bread. First of all, Jesus is saying not everything you think is evil actually is. But more than that, the thing about yeast is it dissolves, disappears, and yet still manages to work. It works in secret, slowly, spreading itself throughout the dough and then raising the whole loaf. It sounds to me like Jesus was advocating being sneaky! Good, he seemed to say, can influence the world the same way that evil can, little by little. Also notice that the only thing smaller than a mustard seed is a spec of yeast! Here we go again – the kingdom of heaven isn’t loud or obnoxious, it isn’t big or overstated – there’s no parable of the Christian bumper-sticker, or roadside billboard. The parable is of something so small that it virtually disappears, but still manages to raise the whole.

Then we skip a few verses to the next set of parables about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field – when a man finds it, he sells everything he owns to buy that field. And the next story is of a pearl merchant who finds the one pearl that is worth more than all others, and he sells everything he has in order to buy that one pearl. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is so valuable that when someone finds it, they are ready to give up everything but not count it a sacrifice at all. Think about that! Let’s go back to Solomon for a moment – what would his kingdom have looked like if he’d taken Jesus’ words to heart?

A man who discovers the kingdom of heaven sacrifices everything without feeling like it is a sacrifice at all. What could Solomon have done that would be like this? (take answers: sell his clothing to feed the hungry, hire builders to build homes for the homeless, redistribute the land so that poor people could have farms and playgrounds, etc.) And he wouldn’t feel like that was a sacrifice at all, because he found the one thing of value above all others: the kingdom of heaven.

If only Jesus was around advise Solomon. Wise old Solomon, who for all his wisdom couldn’t have imagined what it would take to build the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Not just kings, or priests, or farmers, or Hebrews, or Christians, or white people, or rich people, or English-speakers, or Americans – everyone can be caught up in the kingdom of heaven. There’s no cult of purity (the way the priests of Jesus’ day would make it seem), no requisite sameness (the way the locals made it seem in villages that Jesus visited), no nationality or body or even religion that is set apart. According to Jesus, there is no “church of the perfect.”

But when all is said and done, when the nets are brought ashore, and we see who works for the lowly, the humble, the starving, the villains, the criminals, the victims, the unclean, the poor – and works to see them all cared for equally – then the fish are sorted into the good and the bad. This is the point of the story. Everyone has the chance to be caught up in the kingdom, but so many don’t, and they continue to live their selfish, individual, nationalistic, wealthy lives. Solomon wished he could know how to govern his kingdom to become the kingdom of God. But in the end, he couldn’t imagine what it would take – it would require his giving up rule, giving up wealth, giving up being separated or above anyone. If only he’d known Jesus.

But we do. We know Jesus. And we know what the kingdom looks like. We are right now caught up in the net, and can feel ourselves being pulled toward the greater good.

Will we have the courage to take that leap? It’s not something we can just wish for – there’s no magic lamp that will grant it to us. We have to truly want it, and act to bring it about. It takes work and sacrifice – but it’s worth it. Will we go down that road someday? I hope so. And I hope we’re not alone. I hope we someday give up bigness, give up riches, give up purity or separatedness, abolish poverty worldwide, and love everyone as if we were all sisters and brothers in the kingdom of heaven. For once we begin living the Kingdom life, we live in the Kingdom. Will you join me? Will our culture and nation answer this call? This is my enduring prayer.


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