Proper 6, Year B, 2012

A shrub?

The Kingdom of God is like a shrub?

Shouldn’t the Kingdom of God be a little more. . .majestic?  Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a cedar tree? Or if not majestic, what about beautiful?  Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a lovely rose.

No, we are stuck with the image of the mustard plant, which is, at least, a very large shrub.

What does Jesus want us to learn about the Kingdom of God in this parable?

The mustard plant might not be the most elegant of plants, but it is powerful in its own way.  When a tiny seed is dropped on the ground, the roots start digging in, and stalks shoot forth and flowers bloom and the plant grows bigger and bigger and bigger.  The mustard plant will crowd out other plants, elbowing its way into every nook and cranny it can find.  And all of this happens whether its gardener is tending to it or not.

The Kingdom of God is like an annoying, invasive weed.  The Kingdom of God is out of our control.  The Kingdom of God will not be held back.  The Kingdom of God sprouts up in the most unexpected places.

In the 1480s, Portugal had a new King, John the Second.  This King wanted to explore newer ways of making money, and thought forming new trade routes to the spices of Asia, might do the trick.  He hired the explorer, Vasco da Gama, who led a great exploration from his native Portugal, all the way around South Africa, finally landing on the Western tip of India.

Now, as we all know, with Western commerce came Western religion and values, and soon enough, priests were dispatched to India to convert the local population.

These priests, however, were quite surprised to find Christianity flourishing in the Keralan coast of India.  How did these Indians become Christians if they had never encountered the Roman Catholic Church?

As you know, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Legend has it that the apostle Thomas (You know, the doubting one) traveled to India twenty years after Jesus’ death and planted the seed of the Gospel. That seed was planted and grew deep and wide roots.  For hundreds of years the church in Kerala grew and grew.  It maintained links to the Middle Eastern church and used the Syrian rite of worship.  Their own traditions emerged—priests in cassocks and hats, long Good Friday services, Easter breakfasts. Instead of exchanging rings, a bridegroom ties a tail around his bride’s neck.  The same mustard seed that led to our traditions, in the context of Kerala, led to an entirely different plant.

Now, wouldn’t you love to see the faces of these Roman Catholic priests, who came upon this flourishing church?  Can you imagine the combination of excitement and confusion that a Christianity so different from theirs was alive and well in Kerala.

The Portugese Catholics, of course, could not leave well enough alone and tried to get these Christians to comply with Roman Catholic liturgies, traditions, and power structures.  Some did, but others maintained their ancient traditions.  The Syrian Christian Church of Kerala survived many other groups of explorers as well, including the British, who attempted to bring our lovely Anglican tradition in the 1800s.  The Keralan church went through divisions, like any church does, but there are still families there that trace their heritage and their worship back to those original families that received the Gospel from St. Thomas.

In fact, I have met two families here at Trinity, Princeton, who trace their heritage back to that mustard seed of a beginning.  That mustard plant stretches all the way across an ocean, across two thousand years, and still flourishes.

How about that shrub?

We live in an anxious time for the Episcopal Church.  We see numbers declining, budgets decreasing and we wonder about the health of our future.   But we are part of the Kingdom of God.  And the Kingdom of God is really hard to destroy.  The Kingdom of God is like a pesky weed that not even Round-Up can kill.

Our origin story isn’t nearly as cool as being founded by Doubting Thomas, but it is such a strange story in its own right, the terrible King Henry the VIII trying to find a way to be able to marry once again, so taking England out of the Roman Catholic Church and then Queen Elizabeth I using the resulting structure to create a church both Protestants and Catholics could love, or at least one over which they could stop warring.  And then no English Bishop would allow the United States to consecrate a bishop of our own, but the ornery Scottish church did it for us anyway!  Out of those strange and controversial seeds has grown a church that has become a vital source of liturgy, music, and thought for the entire Christian Church.  We have grown into being the sort of weedy church where all are welcomed and the Gospel is still preached, even if we are not the establishment church we once were.  The Episcopal Church is moving towards interesting, creative places while staying rooted in our powerful framework of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

And we in the Episcopal Church are just one tiny branch of the amazing plant that is modern Christianity.  The Kingdom of God is coming to fruition in all kinds of ways, with all kinds of traditions, in all parts of the world.  We cannot fully understand the Kingdom of God, just as we cannot fully understand Jesus’ parables.  Parts of the Christian tradition may make us extremely uncomfortable.  Like the Portuguese priests, we may look at another denomination’s traditions and think to ourselves, “What are they doing?”  We may look at our own denomination and ask the same question!

But the Kingdom of God is wilder than we could ever imagine and there is room for everyone in it.  Earlier in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses another parable about seeds and he describes the birds of the air snatching the seed from the ground before the seed can take root.  In that parable, the birds are an enemy, but in our parable today, the birds take shelter in the shade of the mustard plant!  Even those who were once enemies of the Kingdom of God can end up enfolded in its branches.

And those of us on earth can only see a tiny glimpse of this Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is stranger and more mysterious than even our weirdest denomination.  When the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, we will be so surprised at how it looks, and how we spend our time, and who else is invited.  All we have are these little images Jesus gives us—mustard seeds, seeds left unattended, seeds planted in rich soil.  The other Gospels give us other images.  The Kingdom of God is like yeast.  The Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of a pearl.  The Kingdom of God is like a net.  The Kingdom of God is like a child.   These parables can only hint at a world where everything in the Universe and in our hearts is aligned with God.

And there is nothing we can do to hurry up the coming of the Kingdom.  We just live our lives, trying to be faithful to our baptismal promises, trusting in the love and grace of Christ, tending the bit of garden we’ve been given.  The best news about the Kingdom of God is that it is the Kingdom of GOD.  The reason the mustard plant blooms, and the church in Kerala flourishes, and the Episcopal Church endures, is because of God’s grace.

We expect God’s work to look like Cedar trees and rosebushes.  We expect God’s work to look like thriving parishes with growing numbers and successful ministry,.  We expect God’s work to look like gorgeous stained glass windows and sound like a Bach cantatas, but Jesus reminds us that God works with shrubs.  Ordinary, boring shrubs.  Shrubs like us.

Thanks be to God.

Advent 1, Year A, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

(stage whisper)  Guess what?  Jesus is coming!

Aren’t you excited?  There is going to be a little baby and a manger and a star and some shepherds!  It’s going to be so great!

Today we start Advent, so we can stop complaining about all the Christmas decorations at Starbucks and the mall and finally yield to the inevitable.  Yes, you too, will soon be humming Christmas carols and craving eggnog, even if we at Trinity dutifully stay dressed in our Advent blue and hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas.

What readings greet this auspicious beginning of such a joyful season?  Will it be the story of the Holy Spirit coming to Mary and offering her a really strange proposition?  Will it be that amazing scene where Mary and Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant, greet each other in joy?  Whatever our readings are, they are bound to be cheerful and about that adorable holy baby, right?

Oh.  Maybe not.

Instead of sweet tableaus about the Holy Family, we’re speeding past Jesus’ birth this morning, we’re speeding past his childhood, his ministry, his death, even his resurrection!  The creators of the lectionary speed up the film of the story of Christ this first Sunday of Advent, to remind us that we’re not just waiting for a baby.  Rather than, “Guess what, Jesus is coming?”  The tone seems to be more of, “Watch out, Jesus is coming!”

The waiting of Advent is twofold.  We wait for Christmas morning and our chance to remember the birth of Christ.  But during Advent we also wait for the completion of Christ’s kingdom.  We remember that the birth of Christ was just the beginning of an incredible story and that we are still in the midst of that story, eagerly longing to see its conclusion.

Well, we’re supposed to eagerly long for its conclusion.  I’ll be honest with you, this passage from the Gospel of Matthew just makes me really, really nervous.  I’m the daughter of an elementary school principal and perhaps that makes me more prone to feel like I’m always just about to get into really big trouble.    Apocalyptic passages just make me worry that Jesus will come back right when I’m making fun of someone or eating a gluttonous meal, or spending money on myself instead of donating it to the poor.  Apocalyptic passages make me want to hide under a blanket, so I can be sure not be doing anything too rotten should Jesus decide to come back.

Luckily, theologians with more mature and sophisticated understandings of these kinds of writings have spent lots of time thinking about what this return of the Son of Man might mean.

Karl Barth explains what is happening in this passage.

the revelation of [The Kingdom of God’s] hidden reality will come soon and suddenly, like a thief in the night. . . .[the revelation] will come soon because it is the goal of the limited life in time of Jesus of Nazareth and will follow hard on His death and therefore in the foreseeable future.  And it will come suddenly because it is foreordained and foreknown by God alone, and will occur when men are least expecting it, beneficially, if terrifyingly upsetting all their expectations and plans, and thus their anxieties and hopes, as actually happened in the first instance of the resurrection of Jesus. (Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, p. 499)

Barth understands the return of Jesus as an extension of the revelation that God has already begun.  This revelation begins with the birth of Christ—as we realize that the God of the entire universe has chosen to walk around on Earth—to fully live the human experience.  The revelation continues with Christ’s death—a God who is willing to sacrifice himself for us.  The revelation continues with Christ’s resurrection—a God who is more powerful than death.  However, the revelation does not end with the amazing news of the resurrection.

The next part of the revelation is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God all the time in parables.  The Kingdom of God is like a pearl, a mustard seed, a woman who has lost her coins, the metaphors go on and on.  The Kingdom of God is when Christ finally reigns over all of humanity and justice and peace and mercy are the markers of the human community.

We do not need to be afraid of this reign of God, because we already know what God is like!  God is not a scary monster in the sky who wants to zap us.  God loves us so much he became incarnate and ate with us and redeemed us through the life, death and resurrection of his Son.  The ultimate reign of Jesus will be a continuation of that process, which will reveal even more about God’s loving character.

And this reign of Jesus does not begin in some far off future when he comes back in some mystical blaze of glory.  In fact, the Kingdom of God began immediately after the resurrection and continues to grow through the work of the Church.  We function as the Body of Christ, doing our best to bring peace and justice and mercy to our planet.  We don’t sit idly by, anxiously waiting for Christ’s return.  We don’t hide under a blanket!  We do our work.  We love our families.  We volunteer and give away our money.   We hope and we expect, even when hope and expectation seem irrational.

The anthem at our 9:00 and 11:00 services today is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. If I had known earlier in the week this would be our anthem, I would have been tempted not to preach at all and just have the choir sing this to us several times!  Legend has it that Manz wrote this piece in 1953 when his young son was terribly ill and hospitalized.  The anthem perfectly captures the tension between the difficulties of our lives and the hope we still carry for Christ to make himself known in this world.

The text comes from Revelation and ends with the expression, “E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; they need no light nor lamp nor sun, for Christ will be their All!”  And unfortunately for those of you in the 8:00 crowd, the text only begins to express the tension and grief and hope of this piece.  The music perfectly captures the longing of what it means to be human.  We live these everyday lives, peppered with great losses, but still Christ breaks in to give us light and hope.  And that taste of light and hope makes us yearn for even more.  That is the promise of the completion of Christ’s kingdom.  That is why we can eagerly await Christ’s return rather than hiding under a blanket.

That is why we can say with great excitement.  Guess what!  Jesus is coming!

Amen.

Proper 28, Year C, 2007

Before I begin, I must say that the research and many of the images from today’s sermon are the result of the work of the Thursday night bible study group this month.  I’d like to thank Steve Bragaw, Emily Bardeen, Sherry Hauff, and Elizabeth and Bruce Guss for their insightful contributions.

“Ozymandias”

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.                       

In this poem, by Shelley, the reader is invited to picture a looming sculpture, vast in its scale and imposing in its grandeur.  Over time, the sculpture has been worn away and all that is left are two legs and a disembodied head, surrounded by desert sand.  On the pedestal of the sculpture lie the words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty and despair”!  This statue has once represented a great King, a great society and yet now nothing is left but ruin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus overhears some people oohing and ahhing over the temple, which is beautifully decorated with stones and gifts.  The temple was the center of religious life in Jerusalem.  Since the time of David and Solomon, the ark of the covenant, which held the very presence of God, was kept inside a beautifully built temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been destroyed and rebuilt 581 BCE, and the temple remained a sacred place. 

After he overhears these persons admiring the temple, Jesus acts as a prophet, warning his listeners that this very temple they are worshiping will be destroyed, and sure enough in the year 70 CE, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. 

The destruction of the temple was a symbol of the end of an era.  Since the time of David, controlling Jerusalem had been a fundamental part of the Jewish identity.  When the temple was destroyed, an entire way of framing the Jewish faith was destroyed.  So, it is strange that, when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple to his listeners, he does not seem dismayed by the news. 

Jesus does not seem dismayed because he knows that  yes, a new era is coming, an era in which a temple to contain God would be wholly irrelevant.

This incident in the temple happens toward the end of Jesus’ ministry.  He is days away from being betrayed and arrested.   He knows that after his death will come his resurrection and that resurrection will change everything.  His resurrection will transform faith.  No longer will believers need to visit God in a static temple.  Instead God will be found in the hearts of all believers. 

And this message of hope is communicated on another level in our passage today, as well.  Many modern scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written after the year 70 CE.  So, Luke knew about the destruction of the temple when he was writing the Gospel.  He also knew that Christian, during the time he was writing his Gospel, were being arrested, tortured and killed because of their faith by authorities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus words about the destruction of the temple and of an apocalyptic future were relevant to those who received Luke’s gospel.  They were the ones being brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name.  They were hated.  They were terrified. 

In this Gospel, Luke reminds the persecuted Christians that Jesus cares for them and that the Holy Spirit will be with them, even as they are interrogated and threatened.  This passage gives them direct advice:  not to try to create their own defense, but to trust the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will give the persecuted the words they need to speak, when they need them. 

Luke also reminds them, through the prediction about the destruction of the temple, that no earthly authority, whether instituted by religious or civil law, lasts forever.  The power that oppressed them would not oppress them forever.  In fact, the Roman Empire would  not even be a power forever.

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Jewish temple did not stand, and neither did the Roman Empire that destroyed it.  The British Empire dissolved, and our capitalist empire will too, eventually.  The world around us is in constant change, constant flux.  Political power, physical structures, even social norms and behaviors-none of these remain constant forever.

Even our own Greenwood has seen enormous changes over the last hundred years.  In this month’s Crozet Gazette there is an article about Greenwood in the early part of the century.  Greenwood had a train station, shops, a highschool, even a hotel!  When the Langhornes moved into Mirador, Greenwood even had an early form of. . .paparazzi, believe it or not!

And while Greenwood may no longer have the population to start a high school or enough visitors to need a hotel, God’s faithfulness to those who live in Greenwood has never dwindled.  God’s love and affection for his people is not rooted in their structures or political systems or earthly power.  God’s love is the love of the creator for his creation.  God’s love is a parent’s love for his children.  And God continues his relationship with each of us regardless of our external circumstances.

As Christians, we don’t need political or religious structures for our lives to have meaning.  We don’t need to live in the most booming town or go to the most ornate church or be ruled by the biggest empire for God to love us, pursue us, and use us toward his ends.  God’s kingdom is about behavior and belief, not about power and wealth.

God’s kingdom is an active, living, breathing place.  Because it has no temples or structures or giant statues in the desert, it can never decay or be overthrown.  When we participate in God’s kingdom, even our temporal lives become connected to the eternal.  We may not be able to see or feel God’s kingdom, yet it will last longer than any kingdom that has ever been established on this earth.

Thanks be to God!

Proper 12, Year A, 2005

So, what is the Kingdom of God?  If this were an easy question to answer, Jesus probably would not have had to use parables!  The Kingdom of God is a place, but not a place.  It is the present, but won’t be completed until the future.  The Kingdom of God is a way of living, but none of us are equipped to live in a Kingdom way by our own power.  Elusive, isn’t it?  It helps me to think of the Kingdom of God as how things will be after Jesus comes a second time. 

In each of our parables today, we see that the Kingdom of God is incredibly surprising.  The images are almost comically abundant-the woman uses ten gallons of flour, the man finds treasure in an ordinary field, the merchant finds an incredibly valuable pearl, the fishermen pulls in a net full of every kind of fish imaginable-but what makes the Kingdom of God so surprising?  With a little detective Bible study, this is something we can discover.

The lectionary is a wonderful thing, but the lectionary did not fall down from the sky one day with God’s voice booming, “This is how I want you to read the Bible.”  No, actual people-Biblical and Liturgical scholars, priests and lay people got together to decide how the Bible would be divided up for Sunday readings.  Now, a lot of the time I really agree with their choices, but you’ll find out every once in awhile they make a decision that drives me insane. 

Not only does the lectionary leave out dozens of fabulous Old Testament stories, but the lectionary also tends to edit out troubling bits of scripture.  Not always, but every once in awhile you’ll notice an ellipse (dot, dot, dot) in the middle of your Gospel reading.  Look in your bulletin.  Notice that ellipse, about halfway down?  Do you ever wonder what didn’t make the cut?  Today we’re going to find out.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not turning Presbyterian or Baptist, but I would like you to pull your pew Bibles out of their shelves and open them to page ___.  On this page you’ll find Matthew 13.  Our gospel reading today began at verse 33.  You’ll notice that the section missing in today’s lesson is the lesson that was read last week-the explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  You’ll also notice that the lectionary cuts off the final parable a little early.  Verse 49 does not actually end, “So it will be at the end of the age.”  It actually ends, “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.” That has a little bit of a different ring to it, doesn’t it?

Now, I can understand by the creators of the lectionary wanted to edit the darker pieces out from the rest of the parables.  Parables are nice.  These parables about the Kingdom of God are really beautiful images and can certainly stand alone.  However, the author of the Gospel of Matthew intended the Kingdom of God parables to be read alongside the darker weeds and wheat parable, and I think it is important that we read them that way. I believe the Kingdom parables lose some of their power when not matched with the weeds and wheat parable. 

To refesh your memory from last week’s reading, Jesus describes a field in which wheat and weeds have been sown together.  The Greek word for weed here, describes a particular kind of weed that actually looked just like wheat, so there was no way to separate them until harvest time.  The wheat represents the children of God, the weeds the children of the Evil one.  Ultimately, the wheat gets reaped and used for food and the weeds get reaped and used for fuel for a fire.

So, what makes the Kingdom of God so wonderful, what makes the Kingdom of God so surprising-is that there will be no evil in it.  No terrorist bombings, no unjust political structures, no deception, no abuse.  I don’t know about you, but I had a very strange reaction to the London Bombings a few weeks ago.  Instead of being horrified, I thought, “Well, 52 victims isn’t so bad. . .”  I’ve gotten so used to horrible news stories, that I expect to hear horrible news. In this world, stories of death and violence are just par for the course, rather than the shocking events they should be.  What is wonderful is that this world is not the final destination for us. As children of the Kingdom of God, we belong to a place that knows no evil, no violence. 

What makes me nervous about this weeds and wheat parable is this thought:  What if I’M a weed???  I don’t wanna be a weed!  I wanna be wheat! 

While it’s easy to point out a terrorist as an evil person, I can’t help but wonder how an 18, 19 year old British Pakistani kid gets to a point in his life where he is willing to lose his life and kill others for a cause.  Was he born a sociopath?  Or maybe a lifetime of discrimination and mocking due to his ethnicity finally got to him?  Or maybe some smooth talking terrorist cell leader persuaded him violence was the holy road to take.  In any case, those bombers’ stories were probably long and complicated.  I imagine they had mothers and siblings and friends who loved them, just like we do.

And if a regular guy can turn into someone who participates in an evil activity, does that mean we have the potential to somehow participate knowingly or unknowingly in evil?  What if I am going to be held accountable to how my behavior affects the poor or the environment?  What if some of my clothing was made by child laborers?  What if one night I have too much to drink, drive home, and I end up hurting someone? 

I know, I know, I think too much.  My point, though, is that none of us are completely innocent, so this image of purely good people and purely evil people makes me uncomfortable.  It becomes far too easy to develop an “us” and “them” mentality in which we absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

Remember, the weeds look just like the wheat-there is no easy way to distinguish them.  We cannot assume that the weeds are “out there” somewhere, distant and distinct from us. 

As Christians, we are called not only to assume that we are wheat, but to live like we are wheat.  We are called to live like we are God’s children, like we are on this earth on borrowed time, and our call is to spread Christ’s light in every direction.  We have confidence in being saved by grace, and in response we boldly live lives of integrity and goodness. 

When Chuck talks about the Emmanuel Way, this way of life that involves hospitality, kindness, generosity, I think he’s getting at this idea of us being Kingdom people, wheaty people, if you will.  This way of life is not about having it all together, being perfect, or even being nice.  None of us can be all of those things all of the time.  Being Kingdom people is about knowing who we belong to, and acting accordingly. 

We live in a liminal space-We know that at the end of the story, God wins, but in the meantime, we live in the midst of a weedy world.  Our call is to show the world that death and destruction is not the end of the story.  Our call is to wait eagerly for the Kingdom of God and for its wonderful, abundant surprises.  Our call is to look for signs of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Our call is to BE the signs of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Amen.