What the Kingdom is Like

a sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A/Lectionary 17]

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39

Jesus’ string of parables today reads like one of those children’s riddles, doesn’t it? What do a seed, bread dough, a field, a pearl, and a fish net all have in common? Anybody got a guess?

Each of those things is so different and they don’t seem to be sewn together by any common thread. A seed of a mustard bush, a lump of leaven, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great value,  and a net thrown into the sea that catches all kinds of things. Well, here’s a hint: it is something that starts small but grows to have unimaginable impact—it seems like nothing at first but gives shape and substance to everything around it—its discovery brings about a complete reprioritization of values—it involves an imperative sorting out of what is worthwhile and what is useless? Any clue?? Jesus gives the answer to the puzzle: the kingdom of heaven. Each of these things, and each of the scenarios in these parables are, in some way,  like the kingdom of heaven.

I like to imagine some of Jesus’ lessons went like that. Kind of fun. Kind of off the wall. One thing we are learning that Jesus is teacher. He spends a good bit of time gathering with crowds and offering lessons and illustrating important topics about God’s Word. I think a lot of us have been thinking about teachers lately, especially as we look at a school year that will be very different from ones anybody has ever known. I follow a few teachers on social media and I can tell that they are going to miss being with their students face to face. So much happens in that interaction in the classroom. In the past some of these teachers have blown me away with their creative lessons and interesting ideas that bring a complicated subject down to a level I can understand. I’m sure trying to figure out how to adapt that kind of energy to an online format is going to be a challenge.

Jesus is a gifted teacher, too, even if he does offer confusing and challenging lessons. He is able to use metaphor and simile with ease, helping his disciples, you and me, step into lesson about very complex subjects, life or death subjects. He is gifted and knowledgeable, and that is going to be important because the kingdom of heaven is a tricky concept. He spends so much time offering lessons about it and trying to explain it because it’s kind of his main point. We may remember: announcing the kingdom of heaven’s arrival is now his whole ministry begins and it quickly becomes the main expectation people have when they encounter Jesus.

But here’s what makes it so challenging: when they hear and discuss “kingdom of heaven” they think of something entirely different from what Jesus intends. They bring to these lessons all kinds of preconceptions about what “kingdom of heaven” means and what it will look like.

One of the things I’ve been doing almost every day for about four months is going to this website where I can check the latest statistics about the spread of the coronavirus. You’ve probably visited a site like it.  There are several of them. It lists all of the data by country, and so you can click on “USA” and see the numbers for our country, which are then broken down by state. Although it’s not always peaceful, for the time being it’s pretty convenient that we’re broken down by these geographical regions with defined boundaries and governments, especially at a time like this.

The people Jesus was originally speaking to probably thought of the term kingdom of heaven in that sense. When he came proclaiming repentance for the kingdom of heaven was near, they probably assumed kingdom with boundaries and some kind of government. That’s what King David had had.  And King Solomon, the wise. It was something that clearly made sure certain people were in and others were out. It was defensible, you guard it with an army and weapons. You could stand on it and feel safe or proud.

But, as Jesus keeps speaking more and more about the kingdom of heaven and, more significantly, as he starts doing things that are rooted in that kingdom, like healing people and driving out demons, people start to wonder if he is talking about the same thing. It’s like that famous quote from The Princess Bride, when Inigo Montoya confronts Vizzini about his overuse of the word “inconceivable.” Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Jesus, you keep using that word kingdom of heaven. We do not think it means what you think it means.

So what does Jesus mean? What is this kingdom of God? For Jesus, it is any time and any situation where God’s mercy and peace and freedom rule. It is any place and any scenario where the compassion and the holiness of God make inroads and reign. If a regular worldly kingdom claims us by borders, the kingdom of heaven is wherever and whenever we are claimed by Christ’s love. It is vision God has for all of creation which God intends to make real and lasting. These are, of course, things that Jesus’ people hoped for, but they didn’t realize it was going to be quite as far-reaching. And they probably were expecting a sword to back it up. This vision acts differently from a kingdom or a republic or a sultanate. We experience it differently—with our hearts and souls more than with our feet or passports—and so Jesus will need different illustrations to make it come alive.

Initially we said what all those images have in common is that they are like the kingdom of heaven. But there’s one more thing they have in common: they are all ordinary scenes from first century peasant life. The kingdom embraces first the people at the bottom, the everyday women and men who are not part of the elite, people who work with their hands and don’t have much privilege, people like farmers, fishermen, women who maintain the sourdough starter to feed the family even if they can’t explain the chemistry of how it works.

I’ve long had this theory that if Jesus were speaking today, he’d use Waffle House as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. He’d gather his disciples around a table with some hash browns that are smothered and covered and point out that when he’s in charge all are served equally, out in the open. There are businessmen in suits sitting next to truckers taking a break from the highway sitting next to college kids just finishing a night of partying. There are people just scraping by and people who own their own businesses. Servers and patrons often share stories and joys in an unpretentious way. The place never closes, and in times of natural disaster and suffering it becomes a hub of refuge and nourishment. And no profanity or abusive language is allowed on premises! Do you understand? And all the disciples nod with grits on their chin.

There is an ancient school of thought in church theology, developed by church father named Origen of Alexandria, that says Jesus himself is the kingdom of God. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Where his presence is named and honored, there God is reigning, full of justice and love. In a way, each of these images and scenes from the parables is talking about him.

He is like a mustard seed—he seems small and insignificant, but his life will grow and become refuge for people beyond our imagination.

He is like this lump of leaven—a total mystery, but able to add dimension and flavor and bring true life to everything it soaks into.

He is a treasure in a precious field—pure grace. Never earned. Only given and when discovered, worth drastic measure to keep.

He is pearl of great price—enough on his own, and yet still causing us to re-prioritize everything else in our lives in comparison to its value.

He is a dragnet. He is tossed into the world, tossed from a boat, tossed from a cross to pull in absolutely all kinds. Not just those we would choose, but the whole of the world. He is tossed out into the dark, into the pain to bring everything back, and everything will be sorted in us and among us and around us. It all will be filtered according to his grace and love and that which stands in God’s way will be burned away forever. His is a reign which, like branches, like leaven, like the Waffle House empire, eventually extends to every corner and every tucked away backroads highway exit. It will have no boundaries because not even death will keep it in. Not even death will be a border. Not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God’s reign.

And even when we’re not seeking him, we will stumble upon him, treasure that he is, outside of the tomb we buried him in. He will be there, tallest of trees, ready for us to make our home within him. He will be there, with bread, asking us to sit down. Maybe for breakfast over waffles and eggs and letting us know and see the grace of his kingdom with our own reborn eyes. And at long last we will understand it means everything he thought it meant.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A/Lectionary 16]

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Psalm 86:11-17 and Romans 8:12-25

Two years ago I got sick of trying to deal with a vegetable garden in the backyard and decided to switch to a flower bed. I just wasn’t getting any veggies. The first few years we planted them we enjoyed the cucumbers and the tomatoes and the green beans and the strawberries—and I know strawberries aren’t a vegetable, but the point is that animals and insects and soil fungus discovered them and it quickly became a fruitless task. And a vegetable-less task.

So we switched to flowers and we’ve really grown to enjoy them, but every year, right at the height of the summer, right when things are really starting to bloom, we tend to go away for a few weeks, and when I come back there are weeds everywhere. It is amazing how fast weeds can grow. And it’s disheartening how quickly they ruin the look of a flower bed.

I don’t know if Jesus ever had a flower bed or a vegetable garden, but he sure knew how to talk about them. He sure knew how frustrating it was to find weeds in them. In explaining what the kingdom of God is like, he uses the story one time of a field and a farmer where the weeds go wild right at the time when the wheat is heading out. The farmer in the parable, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem all that concerned about them. But his slaves are really confused by it. At first they wonder if he, the master, might have accidentally or purposefully planted the weeds. When he points out they came from an enemy, they want to know how they should handle them. Pull them up? Get out the Round-Up? Nope, says the farmer. Just let things grow together for a while. At the right time I will tell the harvesters to pick them separately.

I don’t know if this is actually how you run a real garden or a farm. I know that when I come home to a weedy flower bed, I immediately get down and start pulling up the weeds, carefully, of course, one at a time. There is some satisfaction in pulling a weed out and getting all of the roots with it. Maybe the master’s slaves knew about that. Maybe they knew it looked good to have a field of only wheat grains blowing in the wind and that it felt good to rip out what didn’t belong.

This is one of the few parables we have that also includes Jesus’ explanation for it. On one level that makes it a bit easier for us to understand what Jesus was trying to teach with it. This parable, like the one that comes right before it about the sower who flagrantly spreads seeds on different types of ground, is an allegory. That is, all of the characters and objects in the parable stand for something.

Overall the parable illustrates something that we probably don’t need to have illustrated for us. The world is a field where good and evil are mixed in together. In fact, they are so mixed together that it is actually very difficult to uproot one without harming or uprooting the other. It’s almost impossible to separate the complicated mixture of how human lives and decisions good and bad have risen and grown together.

We don’t necessarily need a parable to illustrate this because we have Monument Avenue. Look at the debates and the arguments that arise around the removal of Confederate statues. Some people claim that by doing so we’re erasing history. Look at the protests and movements advocating for justice for people of color. Some only see riots and destruction. Others see only positive change. Look at the complicated and thorny path forward regarding plans for school in the fall. We cast opponents plans in terms of hatred. It’s got to be either all or nothing.

J.E.B. Stuart statue is removed in Richmond, VA

On a more directly church-related level, news broke a few weeks ago that the writer and musician who composed some of our most beloved contemporary hymns has been accused of sexual assault by several women. Immediately there have been calls for justice, and rightly so, but some are going so far as to say we remove that composer’s hymns from our publications and worship repertoire. Should we do that, then, for Martin Luther, who is on record of making horrible, violent comments about Jews and other religious groups? Do we need to rename our whole denomination?

Yes, the master in the parable knows more than his workers. Each of these situations that are ever before us involve aspects of humanity and culture that are clearly evil and in opposition to God—and we know that—but they’re also mixed together with the fruits of good and righteousness. And they’re mixed with potential for good that we haven’t even seen grow yet, potential for people even to change and be reborn. And these situations are all mixed on levels below the surface we aren’t able to comprehend, especially in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t mean we just don’t do anything, for our baptismal vows do call us to strive for justice and peace, but it does suggest we need to be careful and nuanced in our quests for justice. And a more than a bit humble as we go about it.

Perhaps this parable, among other things, serves as a cautionary tale about cancel culture or call-out culture. Cancel culture, which is very prominent these days, involves the outright boycotting of a person or a company that has acted or spoken in questionable ways. I don’t believe removing Confederate memorials qualifies as cancel culture, but there are ways we’ve run into the world today ready to rip up and burn whatever we think is wrong. It is satisfying to do that, right? To rip that weed out by the root and toss it away.

The issue is that if we are so driven to cancel others for things they’ve done or said, if we are so eager to point out where others are on the side of the enemy and how they need to be silenced or omitted from the garden of life, then we also need to be aware of what needs to be canceled within us. None of us is a pure garden. The writer of this morning’s psalm makes that clear, words that we prayed together just a few minutes ago. He says, “give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” Yes, our own hearts are divided between good and evil, and the cries for a field clean of weeds is actually a cry for our own hearts to be cleansed.

And that, as it turns out, is what Jesus, the Master, is here to do. He comes not just to sow seeds of good in a world of bad—a daisy here, a lily there. He comes not just to remind us of how to live with such a mixture of scenarios, like a self-help coach might do. He comes to offer his own life up for the hope of all on the cross. He comes to be God’s harvest, to lay his perfect goodness down before the enemy and let the enemy do his worst. Let the enemy try to eradicate him. And then God the Father will raise him up to say, “Enough of that.” Evil will not conquer. Evil always heads towards a dead end. It will not shine in any way in the vision God has for the world. Even the evil within ourselves will be purged away.

What’s most interesting to me about this parable is that the nature or the origin of the weeds is not really dealt with. There is no big discussion about who this enemy is, what the enemy is like, or even why the enemy exists and plants weeds. The master and Jesus both are more focused on what we do now that we’ve acknowledged the presence of the weeds.

I typically have the confirmation students take a test at the end of each semester to review what we’ve learned about basics of the Lutheran faith. In reality the test is more a chance to let them share their thoughts with me to see how they process matters of faith and belief in a complicated world. Unfortunately, because we could not meet in person at the end of this spring, I had to administer the test through email and they had to mail it back. One of the questions I asked them this year was “Has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your faith in any way? Has your faith in God influenced your understanding of the pandemic?” I wasn’t sure what kinds of responses I’d get, but I do know that for many centuries Christians interpreted events like pandemics to mean that God was bringing judgment on the world or that there was no God at all because this kind of suffering can’t be matched up with the existence of a loving God. But here is some of what they told me:

“I still believe in God and love him. God is providing health care workers.”

“My faith in God has allowed me to understand other people’s situations and allowed to have hope during this hard time.”

“My faith has improved in the way I see the earth changing for the better when people are compassionate. Asymptomatic people are staying at home to protect others.”

Those words and that faith gives me hope. These young people are seeing a world filled with suffering and even evil, but still concentrating on the good of the wheat that is there. These are young people living, as St. Paul says, by the Spirit. They are living by the Spirit and seeing that this whole creation, with its movements of justice and violence, with its desires for a cure from disease and its restless longing for peace, is really just groaning in labor pains. The whole creation is groaning, heaving, working hard as God pushes through a new world where the wheat and the righteous ones shine with the light of Jesus forever. They are young people who sound as if they already know the world has too many people who want to be weeders and not enough who want to be wheat planters. They know that we have enough who say, “Boy do I have something to teach people,” and too few who have “I have something to learn.” They know we have far too many who say, “Those people are the problem. They need to be uprooted” and we could use more who say, “The weeds are also inside me. Make me clean, Lord.”

So, what to do, as the weeds and wheat intermingle? Twentieth-century theologian and author Henri Nouwen once said, “Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world.” There is a song on country radio right now that that essentially says the same. It’s a song by Thomas Rhett, but Reba McIntyre and Keith Urban sing with him. “In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of doubt, just believe. Yeah, there ain’t that much difference between you and me. In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of hate, be light.”

That may sound trite or oversimplified for some. But, then again, parables often are too. And sometimes Jesus even needs to explain them. But when you’re groaning in hope for a new world to be reborn, simply shining you light and sowing seeds of humble goodness will always find good soil somewhere. Guaranteed. And those will bring a harvest that will shine like sun in the kingdom of the Father.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.