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Let it be with me

December 21, 2014                                                  Luke 1:26-38

In a mere twelve verses that we heard this morning, in this one interaction, Mary is described as favored, perplexed, thoughtful, and afraid.

She questions, believes, and submits to the words spoken by Gabriel, the angel, or messenger of God.

And throughout the years, down through the ages, her story has inspired countless reflections on what significance this moment means for us today.

They call this story “The Annunciation”, because it tells of The Announcement that Mary hears…that she is to give birth to a son, that she is to name him Jesus, that he will be great, and that he will be called the Son of the Most High, reclaiming the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign forever, she is told, and his kingdom will have no end.

It’s a pretty order, isn’t it?

It’s a lot for Mary to hear.

It seems impossible, to say the least. After all, she is still a virgin..still unmarried.

She was engaged and the truth is, you don’t want to bring that kind of shame…the kind that an unwed pregnancy brings…you don’t want to bring that on someone you love, someone you’re going to Marry, someone you’re going to begin your adult life with.

But that’s not all that’s going on here…the announcement that Gabriel gives her contains some pretty lofty language…her son is going to be a king! Not just any king…but a king like David, Joseph’s ancestor….a King to rule all kings…a king who’s kingdom will not end.

I’d like to think that this news would be welcome for most mothers.

Most mothers, I think, want to see their children do well for themselves, right?

If Mary understood Gabriel correctly, she’d have some reason to celebrate…that is, if she believed the angel.

But if she did believe him, she’d also have some reason to fear and to mourn…because nobody would really understand the truth behind this unexpected turn of events.

Would you?

I can tell you I wouldn’t…I’d make assumptions…and I’d be wrong.

I do that almost every day.

I think we all do.

We all make assumptions, every day, about other people and their business.

But our assumptions say more about us than they do about the people we’re judging, isn’t that right?

I assume the worst of other people, because I’m hoping for, angling for, working for the best for myself.

I want to see myself in the best light…and imagining someone else is motivated by darker motives than my own; it gives me a selfish, mental boost. Because I”m not like “them”.

I’m not like “that”.

“At least we waited until we were married to have sex.”

“At least I have a job and some financial security.”

“At least I dress respectably.”

We have many ways of comparing ourselves to others, so that we come out looking good. But let’s get back to Mary, receiving this news.

I think we all long for what Mary got…a clear word from God, a well-spoken pronouncement of favor, a promise that our children will turn out well…

But for Mary, to accept the promise is also to accept the shame of her Son’s beginning.

And as we know, to accept this promise is also to accept the long, difficult, painful journey of walking with him for 33 years towards his tragic death.

Yes, Jesus’ way to his crown probably wasn’t what Mary had in mind when she heard these words on the lips of an angel.

See, I read this story about Mary and Gabriel, and I consider the beauty and the innocence that a newborn brings into the world, and I read this all in light of another Christmas that’s now just a few days away…and I can’t help but think about the mixed, bittersweet joy that Christian faith invites us all to experience.

Advent sermons are some of the hardest for me to write.

You typically feel like you have less time to say something meaningful about some of the most mind-blowing stories in our Bible…and even though you get the same scriptures to choose from every year…you only really get once chance at them, because they’re so specific to the season.

So anyways, I texted a friend of mine on Friday, I told him what I was working on, and I asked him if he had any thoughts. 🙂

He wrote back and joked that he’d be better represented if I used him as an example of what NOT to do in the quest for a happy, fulfilled life.

And that’s what helped it click for me this week.

See, at Christmas, maybe more than at any other time of year, but certainly at Christmas, most everyone is on the hunt for exactly that…a happy, fulfilled life.

That’s what the advertisements are selling, that’s what our family celebrations are designed around, that’s even the message that’s wrapped up in the Nativity scenes and our worship services as we get closer and closer to December 25th.

But I’d like to suggest that we’re in danger when we start marketing Jesus as simply the key, or a part of the equation for a happy, fulfilled life.

We could call that quest a lot of things…we could call it self-help, as people overcome obstacles to increase their happiness and fulfillment. We could call it therapy. We could call it making positive forward motion, or simply making better choices.

But whatever we call it, let’s not call it Christianity.

Let’s not call it faith.

Sure, those of us who have given our lives to Jesus, who acknowledge God as the creator of our world, who depend on the Holy Spirit to breath life into our inner workings…sure, I would hope we have a degree of fulfillment because of those decisions, and I would think most of us are making faith-based decisions that lead to happiness and we’re at least avoiding a lot of stuff that makes people unhappy (at least most of the time)…

But Christ didn’t die on the cross to make us happy!

He wasn’t born to make us fulfilled.

He came to establish the reign of the almighty God through the ages. He came to establish Salvation with a capital S. He came so that we might know life and life abundantly…with all it’s ups and downs.

He came to show us, to teach us, to proclaim to us that In a world of loneliness and isolation God makes His home with us!

In the midst of a diagnosis…”God with us”!

In the midst of our greed, pride, and lust…”God with us”!

In the midst of our self-centered ways and our addiction to comfort…”God with us”!

“Emmanuel” is more than a Christmas greeting…it’s more like a battlecry against the powers that keep us from each other, “God With Us”.

We are not in this alone. But neither are we promised an easy road, a happy go at

life, or the elusive ‘fulfilled’ sense that comes from watching the perfect christmas dinner or family gathering  unfold on a 30 second TV spot.

This is where Mary’s response has much to teach us.

In accepting the angel’s message, she also accepted the path that was before her.

In order to see her son Reign, she had to witness his crucifixion.

To see him forgive sexual sin, she had to be accused of it herself.

To see him accept liars and gossips, she had to be lied about and gossipped about.

God has made his home among us. That’s the message of Advent. That’s the message of Christmas.

God has, indeed, moved in.

But we can’t just accept his reign or his residence without allowing ourselves to feel the pain of betrayal, or walk the path of costly discipleship.

“Let it be with me according to your word” Mary said.

And I don’t think it was just blind devotion or a mere sense of obligation.

I think she said the only thing she was capable of saying.

She was young, I know…but because of who she was and who she was becoming, her response is powerful. “Let it be, with me”.

In other words, Let this happen…I don’t need any guarantees. I don’t need safety. I don’t need to be comfortable. I don’t need people to think well of me or my family…

But I do need Jesus.

I need him to reign not just in this world or just in the age to come…but I need the salvation he offers…the abundant life; with abundant peaks and valleys.

See, we all want to be happy and fulfilled, but these things come on the journey towards God…they are not ends in themselves, for as soon as we think we’ve arrived, we just that quickly become disenchanted and want or need something different, something more.

God has moved in.

So let it be with me…let it be, with us, that this plan of salvation and abundant life unfolds as we journey together towards the resurrection hope that we have through the Christ who stepped into history to shine his light for us.


Amen

Looking Back to Move Forward

 Mark 1:1-8                                                                December 7, 2014 (Advent 2)

We take the gospel of Mark for granted, don’t we?

It’s the shortest gospel and leaves out many of the rich details that Luke and Matthew offer, so it’s easy to see it as a more crude or primitive.

As you read Mark, it almost seems like something that was written on the run; he doesn’t take a lot of time to explain or embellish; the first verse gives us a sense of how this book will read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

No fancy beginnings, no elaborate birth stories, no wise men visiting from the East, no plot by Herod to kill this child,

No, none of our favorite Christmas stories make an appearance in the gospel according to Mark.

The first time we meet Jesus in this account, he’s old enough to come out from Nazareth and receive his baptism by John in the Jordan.

The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

Mark starts from a different point.

He’s not content to begin with the birth of Jesus.

He goes further back to begin his account.

“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah” he says. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

It’s important for Mark, that his readers understand that there is a backstory to the events he’s interested in relating.

He never intended his gospel to be read independently from the traditions and the history that made this good news possible.

We could learn a few things, not just from Mark’s gospel, but also from the way the author wrote it.

Our lives have back stories.

We are formed by our history.

Our past impacts our present much more than our culture would ever acknowledge.

And we do ourselves no favors when we pretend otherwise.

But back to Mark for a second.

He opens his gospel by looking back; hooking into Isaiah to begin his account of the life and times of Jesus the Christ.

And I’d like to suggest this morning, that that’s where the good news always starts.

It always starts by hooking into a story that’s already been unfolding since the beginning of the heavens and the earth.

In other words, Redemption means nothing unless there’s something to redeem.

It’s not a matter of forgetting the past. It’s a matter of setting a new course.

The way you do that is by taking stock of where you’re at, where the past has taken you.

This is how we prepare for the future…by looking to the past.

Even Christ himself relied on the past in order to chart his course; even his way needed to be prepared.

 

And so it is that today we read about One crying out in the wilderness, the Unworthy One; who calls those with ears to hear, back to God; back to faithfulness.

John the Baptist arrives on the scene early on in Mark, and paves the way for Jesus.

And it’s interesting, that Mark, while he’s so short on most details, he does give us a few about John.

He’s out in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He’s not offering a clean slate. He’s proclaiming repentance, and forgiveness.

He’s not saying your past doesn’t matter…that’s a pretty modern concept.

And if you scratch beneath the surface of it, you’ll find out pretty quickly, that your past actually does matter.

It matters a great deal.

The manner in which you’ve arrived here this morning…it matters!

I’m not talking about what route you took, or which car you brought; I’m talking about all the choices you made in your life that have brought you to this moment.

It matters.

Did I ever tell you about sixth grade?

I can remember pretty clearly, being in sixth grade and having my life pretty much all figured out. 🙂

My plan, in sixth grade, was to stay in school, go to college, become either a scientist or a veterinarian, hopefully get married and have kids, become rich, and then I even decided that I was going to wait until I was almost dead to become a Christian.

I figured that way, I could still have a whole lifetime of enjoying myself, and still get into heaven when I died and enjoy the afterlife as well. 🙂

That tells you something about the messages I received about joining church in my childhood, doesn’t it?

There’s something wrong when you want to wait until your deathbed to make a faith commitment because of the damper you think it’s going to put on the rest of your life.

I thought about that as I was preparing this week.

In my sixth grade mind, I saw baptism as a way of separating myself from my past.

I heard all the language about fresh starts and a new beginning and wiping the slate clean, that I started to get the idea that I could spend my life doing pretty much whatever I wanted to do, then cash in on my ticket to heaven just in time to avoid all of the consequences of my actions.

There are at least a couple of things really wrong with that thinking…for one, the most obvious, none of us is guaranteed a death bed.

(I was reminded of that this week when I was rear-ended and nearly pushed into an oncoming Semi Truck.)

But the second thing is even more fundamental;

That is, that the past matters.

When you become a Christian, you still have a past that you can’t disown.

You can be freed from it’s tyranny over your life; you can be freed from defining yourself on the terms of your past…but you still need to own it.

Now, the great thing about God is that with the help of the Holy Spirit, and through following the way prepared and proclaimed by the prophets and John and Prepared for the rest of us by Jesus…in following this way our past can be redeemed…not forgotten, but redeemed!

And that’s the good news.

See, the theme of the morning is a longing for God to reveal His Peace.

And we worship a God who I believe exists throughout all space and time…after all, we’re told in 2nd Peter “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

We’ve got to make peace with our pasts in order to embrace the future.

God’s work is redemptive.

The Peace offered at Advent time is the Peace of reconciliation…it’s the Peace of forgiveness, it’s the peace that comes from repentance.

John proclaimed the way; he was the voice crying out in the wilderness…but Jesus prepared the way.

And we know the way to the Father by looking at the Son; that all who believe in him, shall inherit this eternal life.

That’s our Advent hope. that repentance is possible; change does come, we are not chained to our past; but we are free to embrace the newness of life that comes from knowing, trusting, and following Christ Jesus, the savior of the world.

So take stock and take charge.

For the Lord our God is with us; He has gone before us, preparing the way.

Amen

The Storeroom

November 16, 2014         “The Storeroom”                                             Matthew 13:51-53

‘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.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Don’t you love the first verse we heard this morning?

The disciples have just heard seven different parables, in two different settings, with a handful of explanations thrown in when they had questions…they’ve just heard some of the most radical teaching Jesus had to offer, they had to ask him twice what these stories meant, and yet when he asks them if they understood all of this, they simply say “Yes.”!!

Don’t you kind of get the impression that they’re just kind of trying to cover up how little they actually did catch?

It’s interesting though, as to why the people who translated the bible chose to put verse 51 with 52 and 53, instead of with the previous parable, where Jesus’ question would seem to make more sense.

You know, the original manuscripts, when scripture was originally written, it didn’t have any chapter or verse numbers, obviously. You don’t write a letter, and think in terms of chapters and verses.

These were later additions that were meant simply to make it easier for us to find what we’re looking for. (The vowels in the Old Testament were added later too, but that’s a different story for a different time).

So in a sense, the chapters and the verses…they’re kind of arbitrary sometimes.

Actually, there’s an old joke that says the people who were originally putting the chapter and verse numbers into the Bible, that they must have been doing it on horseback. 🙂

That’s the best some people can do to explain why some chapters start where they do, or why some verses are numbered the way they are. 🙂

Anyways, in my Bible, verse 51, where Jesus asks his disciples if they understand everything and they reply “yes”, it goes with what follows it rather than what precedes it. And I think it might be because what he goes on to say is dependant upon their answer.

They claim to understand what he’s saying, it’s a claim that’s supported earlier in the chapter, when Jesus makes it clear that they have been given clarity and understanding that not everyone has.

So, just to make sure, Jesus asks them if indeed they do understand all of this…and they say that they do.

“Therefore”, Jesus says.

In other words, “Since you understand what I’m saying to you”, “since you understand my teaching, or at least claim to…” 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 both what is new and what is old.”

Now, if you’re reading the NIV, you might notice that where I read the word “Treasure”, your version says “Storeroom”.

This is because, in contrast to the treasure that I talked about last week, the treasure you might own and bury in your field in order to protect from bandits, thieves, or marauding enemy soldiers, the idea in this verse is more like a storeroom within the house, you know?

A storeroom where you keep the things that are valuable, and necessary for the maintenance and the ongoing operation of your house.

It’s still treasure, but of a different kind than what you’d take out and bury.

You know, I think of a pantry, or a utility room, somewhere that you keep the items you like to have onhand, not necessarily because you use them everyday, but you use them often enough that it’s convenient to have easy access to them.

This is the storeroom that Jesus has in mind, or the “treasure” in this particular parable, that he’s referring to.

It’s where you keep your goods.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret about our house.

We don’t really have a storeroom, exactly.

Instead, we have multiple storage rooms. Our house is old enough that it’s full of little, odd shaped closets and rooms here and there, and we find ourselves using lots of our different closets for storing lots of different kinds of things.

But when we bought our house, there was one room in the basement that hadn’t really been cleaned out before we moved in.

We call it a fruit cellar, it’s got a dirt floor, it’s underground, and it stays pretty cool and dark in this particular room, and there’s a bank of shelving along one wall where it was obvious the previous owners kept some canned goods and other things.

The idea of a fruit cellar is that it stays cool in the summer, and warm enough in the winter, to help prevent spoilage for different kinds of things you might grow in your garden, like potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, apples, that kind of thing.

So it was a beneficial room to have, especially back before refrigeration was as easy to do as it is today.

Well, like I said, when we bought the house, this was the one room that the previous owners really hadn’t cleaned out.

I’ll be honest, it took us a long time before we decided to clean it out. (we didn’t need the space for anything, and to be honest, it’s a little creepy down there).

But one day we finally decided to do it.

We took a Saturday, and we filled up a few big garbage bags with junk.

We brought out big pieces of old carpet, broken pieces of wood, some dried up drywall plaster, a few old, rusty pails of paint…that kind of thing.

We did find a few electric motors that we had no idea if they worked or not, so we found homes for them with people who might be able to test them and use them if they did work, but basically it was just a bunch of junk that the previous owner probably, at some point, stored up, thinking that at some future point he’d get back to use these products, or fix them, or whatever.

Well, that future point had come, and we put most of it in the dump.

We did find some canning jars that, after a good wash and sterilizing, we’re using to can things in, and we found a unique bottle that we wondered if it might be worth something (it wasn’t), but really, for the most part, it was all junk.

Now, it was a lot bigger job than we thought it was going to be…partially because it had been so long since anybody cleaned out that room.

The point is this. We need to clean out our inner storerooms.

I could talk this morning about how ancient scribes, like the ones Jesus critiques so often in the gospels, I could talk about how highly educated they were, how specialized their work was, how their job was to protect the letter of the law.

I could draw comparisons to contemporary lawyers, with the years of schooling they would have committed themselves to, and the stringent rules they had to follow in order to maintain the purity of the sacred texts they were responsible to preserve.

I could talk about the way Jesus, with some shock-value, seems to be bestowing upon his disciples the somewhat coveted title of “Scribe” in this story, and the implications of that title, both for them, and for us today.

I could talk about the way he seems to be short-circuiting the whole religious system of his day, and the downright seditious nature of his statement here, when he not only compares his disciples to the scribes, but goes on to make the distinction between Scribes “trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” (that is, his disciples), and the other Scribes, who aren’t.

I could talk about the work of the Scribe in ancient Israel, and how moving and meaningful it is, then, for Jesus to entrust all who follow him, all disciples, with the same responsibilities as the official scribes of the day….he takes it up a notch, doesn’t he?

Because the scribes, they were the keepers of the storeroom.

They were the ones who made sure it was kept up, organized, clean…they were the ones who made sure nothing new came in.

They were trained, not only in reading and writing, but they were also trained in the old masters, right? They were trained in interpretation, and it was their job to pass the old treasures on from one generation to the next, as faithfully as they could.

This is why they were so highly revered, why they had the seats of honor at banquets and public events…this is why they had so much power.

They had earned it.

They were like the gatekeepers to the storeroom, they were like treasurers for the very Words of God.

Jesus here, gives his disciples a very high honor, compliment, and responsibility.

They are the Scribes, trained for the Kingdom of Heaven.

But there are two ways I want to go with this parable.

For one, the disciples, then as now, we have been entrusted with passing down the teachings of Jesus. It’s a job that’s to be taken just as seriously as the scribes of old would have approached the transmission of scripture.

We are the message. Our lives need to speak of the redemption, the forgiveness, the transformation that happens when we seek the way of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit within our community of faith. The scary part is, that means our lives also speak of the lack of forgiveness, the absence of grace, and the need for redemption that all of us carry.

We are imperfect vessels.

But we are also the scribes, trained for the kingdom, who bring out from the storehouse treasures both old and new, for God has done a new thing in the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Christ. His mercies are indeed new every morning, just as the laws that govern our relationship to Him are as old as the hills around us.

Just as a jar of last spring’s strawberry jam goes so well with a fresh loaf of newly baked bread, so it is that the treasures we find in the Old Testament serve to compliment the New message; that of Christ and Him crucified.

But just like the fruit cellar I described earlier, as disciples of this Christ, as masters of the houses we inhabit, everything must come out to be examined in the light of this new day.

Just like our possessions, the temptation when it comes to the spiritual life is, to keep adding to the mess inside, rather than digging in and cleaning house.

The Christ-event, if we are to make it our own…it requires us to visit that storeroom, that pantry where the box of pancake mix from 1984 still sits in the back collecting dust, it requires us to bring out our treasures, both old and new, and examine them in the light of this new day.

Much of it we will find to be junk when we have the courage to face it.

It needs to be tossed, in order to make room for the new treasure, the grace offered through Christ, the forgiveness both received and extended, the open-handed generosity that replaces our striving for more…

Christ is the new treasure, but nobody has legitimate access to your storeroom, except the master of the house.

Nobody is going to clean it up for you, which makes it easy to put off cleaning it up.

But there is no room there for new treasure until you can bring out the old and recognize it for the junk it is, and at the same time preserve the genuine treasure that’s already there.

Will you pray with me as I close?

Lord Jesus, Son of David, we each have storerooms, treasure chests that are filled with more junk than useful treasure within our souls. You never force your hand, but you invite us to go there with you, to shine the light of your infinite love and understanding into those shadows. Help us, God, to examine ourselves in the light of your glorious new day, to make room for the riches you offer.

Amen.

Finders Keepers

Matthew 13:44-50                                                          November 9, 2014

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.”

Have you ever read those words, and wondered how, or why this treasure might have come to be hidden in a field? Were there pirates back then?

Well, apparently it was fairly common practice, at the time Jesus was teaching, that landowners, if indeed they had any ‘treasure’ to protect, it wasn’t uncommon to take it out into a field that you owned, and bury it. It sounds a little weird, but your field could function kind of like a safe, back in the day.

You would hide your treasure in your field, so that in case burglars or bandits or marauding enemy soldiers would come through and raid your home, they wouldn’t be able to find your really valuable stuff.

Well, who knows…maybe during one guy’s tenure, he buried his treasure out in that field, and maybe he died promptly thereafter, or maybe he forgot where it was hidden because it was there so long.

Maybe a landmark changed, or maybe life intervened and he had to sell his land without reclaiming it first.

We could list maybe’s all day long.

The point is, the scenerio Jesus was describing here, it was a feasible situation. It’s not as far fetched as we might first think.

Someone might bury their treasure in a field, and then the property could possibly get passed down to new owners, maybe a generation or two later, the new landowner might not even know it was ever there in the first place.

They might, in turn, hire some fieldwork done, and one of the hired hands could potentially find this treasure as he’s out there planting wheat.

Can you imagine, being out, working in a field, and you realize that you’re not hitting a stone as you dig a hole?  Or, maybe you stumble on a rock that looks pretty different from the other rocks, or maybe something catches your eye as it glitters in the sun?

Can you imagine the excitement of finding buried treasure without even knowing it was there?

Can you imagine literally striking it rich, and having your lot in life changed in the blink of an eye?

The guy is shrewd though.

He buries it. He hides it again, as if he never found it, and goes and sells everything he owns and buys the field.

See, technically, legally, the treasure belongs to whoever owns the land.

So he sells everything in order to afford it, to become it’s rightful, legal owner.

That’s like the Kingdom.

 

Again, the Kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. On finding one of great value, he goes and sells all that he had and bought it.

This one I really don’t get.

See, in the first story, the guy sells everything, but he gets a field and some treasure in return.

What I mean is, he improved his situation. He was probably just a farm hand, you know? barely getting by just like everyone else.

But he discovers this treasure, and by the end of the story he’s got a means of production and he’s got considerable wealth. His investment pays dividends.

But this pearl merchant…I’m not sure what he’s doing.

He sells his business to acquire one pearl!

All he gets in return for his life’s work…is one pearl!!!

It can’t feed him. It can’t give him money unless he sells it, which wouldn’t make sense because he’s invested so much to simply own it.

I just don’t get it.

There must have been something inherent to the pearl that makes it worth having…something that the merchant sees that’s worth divesting all his other interests in order to have.

He’s like a starstruck lover when he finds this pearl, willing to part with everything in order to own it.

I’m still of the old school I guess, when it comes to Jewelry…I just don’t see the point.

It looks pretty, but it really can’t do anything for you, right?

So what’s the point?

Well, let’s look a little closer.

In both of these stories, these gentlemen had to completely alter their lifestyles to accomodate the priceless treasure they had discovered.

In both stories, they had to invest everything they had in order to claim the treasures that they had found.

Their lives would begin looking totally different as they reorganized around the pearl, and the treasure. For one, he moves up in the world, for the other, it sure seems like he’s moving down, or at least taking a step backwards.

That’s the Kingdom at work.

So many of us though, I think we find this great treasure in the field, and instead of jumping on it to own it fully, we might snitch from it, you know?

We might take a coin or two from the box, put it in our pocket, go about our business as usual, and then return the next day or the next week to snitch another coin or two as we need it, or as we have use for it.

We might try to keep it hidden simply because we fear it being removed, or we fear other people reaping its benefits. Maybe we fear the change and the added responsibilities that truly owning this treasure might bring to our lives. …so we sneak a coin here and there to use as we see fit.

The cost of ownership might simply be too much; more than we’re willing to pay.

We want to benefit from the Reign of God, but we don’t want to change our lives too much.

So instead of actually investing our lives in owning the field…we snitch.

That’s not owning the kingdom of God.

That’s stealing.

The kind of commitment God looks for isn’t snitching.

It’s a whole-hearted, both feet in, risk-taking big-dreaming giving everything you once knew up so that you can gain the whole field kind of investment.

The heavy lifting has been done.

Through Christ crucified, this treasure has been buried and through Christ resurrected, we’re able to own it for ourselves.

Not a piece at a time, on our terms…that’s not the kingdom.

You can’t pick and choose the Kingdom of Heaven. You have no say as to where God reigns.

Rather, you own it, and in a way it owns you, and everything else finds a new place in your life.

This happens when you make room at your thanksgiving table for someone you might not know very well. It happens when you tithe to the church, putting money in it’s proper place. It happens when you give of your time to help those less fortunate, or when you speak up on their behalf.

It happens when you extend forgiveness, or a kind word when a spiteful one would feel so much better.

These are signs of the Reign of God, and your ownership of it.

Don’t settle for a pocketful of change, not when you have the means to own the treasure outright!!

Jesus goes on in this section, we typically call this next one “the pearl of great price”…I think a more apt name would be “the parable of the impulsive pearl merchant”.

It shares a theme with the first, for in both, the main character finds something really valuable; a once in a lifetime find, and in both cases they go to great lengths, considering all other things rubbish, as Paul might say, in order to obtain the goods.

This merchant was probably doing pretty well. He traded in fine jewels, in other words, he traded in wealth.

But when he finds the one pearl that he had been looking for all his life, he trades it all in to get it.

Do you understand that?

He completely sells out.

The merchant considers nothing else in his possession as equal in value to the pearl that he finds after a career of scouring the world.

When I was thinking about asking Christine to marry me, I was told time and time again that “A diamond is forever”.

Diamonds are symbols of love, and commitment, and rare beauty.

I can appreciate that.

And we have to understand, that in the ancient world, Pearls were like diamonds are today.

They were valued more highly than gold.

So we have a guy who probably made a pretty good living, doing the equivalent of a Kay Jeweler’s store today. He was probably widely traveled as he went around the world buying, selling, and trading pearls…But I’m thinking that for him it was more than a job, too.

That’s the only way I can make sense of his actions when he finds “The One”.

He makes the move of a starstruck lover when he finds it, that is, He completely sells out in order to make it his own.

It seems impulsive, doesn’t it?

Nothing else that he owns is equal in worth to this one pearl.

Jesus says that’s like the Kingdom.

It’s like this impulsive merchant.

Did you hear that right?

It’s like the merchant.

You, and I, we are the pearl.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant, Jesus says.

This merchant stops at nothing when he finds one of great value. He considers nothing else within his possession to be equal in value.

Not even life itself!!!

He sells it all; he invests his total being, he puts as much of himself as he can into the acquisition of this pearl.

He doesn’t buy it for what the pearl can do for him. It can’t feed him. It can’t earn him money. It can’t give him shelter.

He pays so dearly simply because it’s that valuable in his eyes!!

The pearl is worth it!

You are worth it!

You and I are worth the suffering experienced by Jesus in the crucifixion, for it’s the price paid by a God who knows exactly what he wants, and how to get it.

You are worth more than life itself in the eyes of God!

 

Finally, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish of every kind.

This story makes me think of an experience we had in Florida the first time we went down back in May.

We went down to meet Aidan’s birth mother, and then we spent a few days in Sarasota.

While we were there, we took a day to go to a state park where we were told we would be able to see some alligators.

So we went, and inquired, and found the place.

We walked back a path through some woods, and out onto a little dock, that kind of stuck out into the swamp, and you could stand there and sure enough, we could see 4 or 5 alligators sunning themselves on a bank or floating in the water. It was cool, and a little bit unnerving because they were so big, and so close! 🙂

Well, on the dock, there was a guy fishing with a net. It was a small net, but the principle was the same as what Jesus was talking about here.

He’d lower his net into the water, he’d wait awhile, and then he’d bring it back up and it would be just chock full of fish. They’d be flopping around on the dock, and he had one of those enormous coolers that he was filling up.

I kind of wondered if he was catching them for a restaurant or something, I never found out.

But it was interesting to watch him.

He’d pull up the net, he’d have all these fish, maybe 10 or 15 at a time.

And then he’d work them out of his net, and he’d sort them.

The ones he wanted would go in the cooler, those were gray…and then there was a different kind of fish.

Let’s call them good fish, and bad fish, that is fish he wanted, fish that served his purpose, and other fish that didn’t serve his purpose.

After he emptied his net, he’d sort them out.

He would take the good fish, and put them in his cooler, and then he’d take the bad fish and fling them back into the swamp, trying to get them to land on a certain dry bank so they’d die.

(I have to admit I was kind of hoping he’d throw one at a gator to see what would happen, then I found out it’s really a bad idea to feed the gators anything.)

After watching him do this a couple of times, I asked him what he was doing…it seemed a little cruel, I didn’t understand why he would try to ensure their death rather than just releasing them.

He explained that the ones he was throwing back were an invasive species of fish, they weren’t native to the area, they had been introduced at some point and they had become a real problem.

They were a nuisance fish.

They apparently weren’t good to eat, that they weren’t good for anything, and all they did was make life more difficult for the fish you actually want to catch.

So, his sorting out the good fish from the bad fish, it was an act of stewardship, or conservation.

He was working to benefit the general health of the whole ecosystem, and he also knew that his livelihood (if this was part of his livelihood) was deeply connected to what was happening underneath the surface of the water in that particular swamp.

The Kingdom is like a fishermen’s net.

It’s efficient, it’s effective, it catches all manner of people within its scope, and yet God as the fisherman loves and cares too much for the health of His kingdom; that divine ecosystem; to allow the invasive nature of sin to deny the good fish their due place, and their opportunity to thrive.

See, God cares about more than just getting his limit.

He also cares about the swamp.

When it’s time for the harvest, the net of the Kingdom will take up the good, and the bad together.

None will escape the net of God, but we can see this as a sign of hope.

For God can be trusted to sort the good from the bad; those who serve the purposes of God, from those who work against those purposes.

There will be a day when time itself is fulfilled, and who we are becoming is who we have become. There will be a day of sorting out, when the net closes and the reality behind reality will be judged for what it has become.

So I urge all of us, turn towards God.

Let us not only make room in our lives for the treasure, but by the grace of God buy the field to own it,  and at the same time rejoice that we have such worth and such value in the eyes of our great God, that he considered even death as a price worth paying to make us his own!

Amen

Mustard, Yeast, and the Foundation of the World

November 2, 2014                                                                    Matthew 13:31-35

One of the things you get well acquainted with as soon as you start preaching from the parables of Jesus, is that everyone who knows anything about scripture, theology, church, Christianity…pretty much anything you read related to one of these parables, they’re all quick to say something like “The word “Parable” is really just another way to say “story””.

I’ve said it myself, probably pretty often, I remember Shirley Showalter made a similar statement last week when she was here…and it’s not an inaccurate statement.

In a sense, a parable is a story.

That’s true.

So when was the last time you told your children a bedtime parable?

Or when was the last time you were out with your friends, having a good time, and suddenly someone burst out “you guys, wait till I tell you this parable about what happened to me today!”

If you were to do that, you’d probably get some strange looks.

All Parables are stories…but not all stories are parables.

That’s why we do have two different words…even though they mean something similar, there is a difference between them.

The difference I see between the two is this:

Stories are meant to entertain us, or to relay some information, or build relationships, or build a sense of identity…there are a hundred reasons we tell stories, and there are a hundred reasons that we all love hearing a good story.

As Shirley talked about last week, the stories we tell connect us to our past, they root us in a tradition, and they can allow us to own memories, such as her father’s passing away, that we weren’t able to experience first hand.

Stories can help us build a sense of identity and purpose.

Stories can help us escape…If you’ve ever sat down and watched a show or a movie you really like at the end of a long day…you’re ‘escaping’ for a time, into a different world, right?

Stories are powerful things.

They’re like nourishment for us.

They’re like food for the mind and the soul.

You could say a story is like applesauce. 🙂 It goes pretty good with just about anything else that’s on your plate. 🙂

Parables, on the other hand, they’re more than stories.

I can remember when I was little, sometimes I would get sick, and sometimes my mom would slip a pill into some applesauce and get me to eat it.

Depending on what the pill was, and depending on my condition, she would either grind it up and put it in to mask the flavor, or she’d just keep it whole, and the applesauce would just make it easier for me to swallow.

(I hated swallowing pills as a kid).

I knew the pill was there, in one form or another…but the applesauce helped me swallow the medicine that I might otherwise spit out.

Once I had it down, the medicine would begin to work on me. The applesauce was the vehicle, not the cure.

These parables are like that applesauce mixture.

They pack more of a punch than traditional stories, and the way they do it, is that the full impact of them won’t be felt until after you swallow the whole dose.

By that point, it’s too late. You can’t unlearn or unhear the point Jesus makes.

So this morning, we’re looking at two parables.

In the first, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed.

Not just any mustard seed.

It’s like a particular kind of mustard seed.

A mustard seed that someone chooses to take, and plant in their field.

This isn’t the case with all mustard seeds, because the nature of the plant, apparently, is to take over.

Once Mustard was planted in the first century, it was pretty hard to get rid of. So for the most part, they would let it grow wild.

I think of dandelions…once they reach a certain point, you can’t really contain them, right? every puff of wind carries the seeds to a new location, and if you try to dig them out at that point, your own movement just plants more dandelion seeds.

I say all that just to say that Mustard had a mixed reputation in the first century.

It was a productive plant…there were a lot of uses for mustard in their culture, from flavoring food to dying fabric…but it wasn’t always welcome.

It was fast growing, and because of the nature of the seeds being as small as they are…they would fall to the ground, and they would start to grow, according to Pliny the Elder, almost as soon as they hit the soil.

So, it grew mostly in the wild.

Not many people would plant it as a crop, because it grew so readily elsewhere.

But, in this particular parable, it’s been intentionally planted by the landowner, not unlike the wheat we heard about last week.

The guy chooses to grow some mustard, just as we must choose the Kingdom in order to enjoy the fullness of it.

The Kingdom of Heaven, just like the field of mustard, will not be chosen by all…some will welcome the Kingdom, others will resent it, but noone will be able to stop its growth.

Likewise, in the next parable Jesus tells, he compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast.

And this is where it gets really interesting. (at least for me).

It gets interesting, because Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, establishing the Messianic Age, which was his mission, and one reason he had such a following…he was talking about this manly mission…this warrior type mentality…and he goes on to compare the kingdom he came to establish, to yeast…which at the time was a kind of impurity.

In another sermon a long time ago, I talked about the method of “catching” the yeast that they would have used…do you remember that?

They wouldn’t have had yeast like we do…yeast you buy in the store and add a tablespoon to make a couple loaves of bread.

The yeast they would have known was pretty much old, leftover, fermenting dough.

And we all know fermentation is basically the process of rotting.

Yeast itself was (and is) an unclean thing.

It’s a bacteria (correction; it’s actually a fungus) 🙂

So comparing the magnificent, pure Kingdom of Heaven with a piece of old, rotting dough…that’s got some shock value in itself.

But he goes on to describe the very womanly work of making bread.

The kingdom is like yeast that a woman takes and mixes into three measures of flour.

What’s that…three measures?

Three cups?

Three pints?

We think we get it…it’s like a woman who wants to feed her family, so she makes yeasted bread, and the yeast grows and does its thing and her family can enjoy a nice home-cooked meal, and that’s what the kingdom is like.

Right?

Three measures…or, if we would take the measurements they used back then and translate them into our own understanding, we’re talking a little over a bushel of flour.

Now, this is something I’m not sure you can fully appreciate unless you’ve ever mixed bread dough by hand.

A bushel of flour is a lot of flour.

The commentary I was using estimated it to be something like 144 cups of flour.

That’s enough flour, according to him, to make over 50 1 and a half pound loaves of bread, which aren’t small loaves.

This woman doesn’t just want to feed her family, if indeed she had a family to feed.

Rather, she wants to feed the village.

And she was going to do this without a Kitchen Aid Mixer.

She’s ambitious, to say the least.

And she wants to provide bread far beyond the scope of her immediate realm of influence.

Just like the birds will enjoy the fertile nesting ground provided by the mustard, so the village will enjoy the fruits of this woman’s labor.

That’s like the Kingdom of Heaven. Its benefits stretch far beyond what’s to be expected, and it’s ushered in in unexpected, sometimes even unwelcome ways.

Who would have thought that the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Heaven would undergo crucifixion as his inauguration?

Who would have planned to wrap the saving power of God within the folds of impoverished infant flesh?

Who works in these hidden, mysterious ways?

Only a God who sees the potential for growth, shelter, and goodness even in a mustard seed. Only a God who honors the hard work and determination of a woman who seeks to feed the village by the sweat of her brow.

Jesus comes to proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. That is, there are no secrets before God Almighty, who takes the long view of history, who sees eternity at once, you know?

With God, the mustard seed is as the mustard plant.

The yeast is as the bread it leavens.

So when it comes to the realm of free will and human choice, our choices and actions today, they have eternal consequences!

The full kernel of what we do, what we say, how we interact…the full plants contained within our choices…they aren’t visible to the human eye because we’re confined to the present moment.

We can hope to plan for the future, but as we all know, there are no guarantees that life will go according to our plans.

God sees the potential wrapped up in the seeds we sow, so to speak.

So what is hidden from us, from the foundation of the world, God sees.

And the Kingdom of Heaven…we see it in part, God sees it in full.

There are no secrets with God.

There is only fullness.

We can hide from each other.

We can even hide from ourselves.

But Jesus isn’t interested in playing hide and seek.

He knows exactly where we are, where we’re heading, and he beckons us to follow him anyways.

The choice is ours…whether we want to plant this invasive seed in our lives or not.

The choice is ours…whether we will roll up our sleeves to help mix some dough, or stand outside and ridicule the woman for attempting such an ambitious dream.

What’s it going to be?

Kingdom building is a daily, tending process.

It requires humility, patience, and plenty of grace.

But the harvest is huge…fruits of the spirit galore.

Would you pray with me as I close?

God who’s kingdom we seek, forgive us for the seeds of malice, arrogance, and pride that we so generously scatter.

Help us to cling to the promise; the fullness of life that you have given all who seek you, know you, and love you. Bear fruit through us, God, you Patient Gardener, you Ambitious Baker.

And then may we be willing to be broken to feed your world the good news of your great love.

Amen.

The “We” in the Weeds

October 19, 2014                                                                Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We went to the greenhouse one Spring a couple of years ago.

Isn’t it funny how, after a long cold Winter, you go to the greenhouse and suddenly you imagine yourself growing all this stuff, as if gardening is fun?

Somehow, for me at least, by Spring I’ve forgotten how much work gardening is, and I think it’s all fun and games! Then by the fall I remember.

Anyways, I may have told you about this already, but last Spring, like every spring, we went to the greenhouse, and as we were walking around, I found the watermelons, and I thought it would be fun to try to grow watermelons again.

We had tried another year, we got one plant and it withered up and died before it could do anything.

So last year I thought I’d try three watermelon vines, as long as one survived I thought we’d be doing good.

I’m sure they were clearly labeled “Watermelon”.

We got those along with our other little starters, a few cucumber vines, some peppers, some tomatoes…well it turned out what was labeled “Watermelon” was in fact, more cucumbers.

I think we ended up with six cucumber vines that year.

And no Watermelons.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like cucumbers well enough…but you know, one cucumber goes a long way with me.

It’s the same with pickles. I like pickles…but a jar of pickles will last us most of a year.

All that to say, six cucumber vines when what I really wanted was just one nice, big, juicy watermelon…it was a little bit disappointing.

There’s nobody to blame for it, and even if there was, I’m not that interested in placing blame for our bumper cucumber crop.

These things happen. Plants get mislabeled..and our garden is more of a hobby than it is a livelihood.

We don’t depend on our garden for our income, or even for the majority of the food we eat.

In fact, I think we’d get by just fine if we plowed it under and put it back into grass.

That wouldn’t have been true of this first century farmer in the parable we’re looking at this morning.

This field was his livelihood.

So it would have been an ‘enemy’ in the truest sense of the word, for someone to sneak in under cover of darkness, and intentionally sow weeds among his wheat, and then slink away into the shadows again.

This was no innocent mistake. It was a malicious, targeted attack.

I did a little bit of research this week, and I learned that the weed in question, was probably a plant called “Darnel” (If I’m saying it right).

The farmers among us probably know a good deal more about this than I do, but apparently Darnel is a plant that looks very, very similar to wheat in the early stages of the plant’s life.

Once the plants are older and more mature, it’s easier to tell the difference, but the critical difference between the two plants is that Wheat, when it is mature and the kernels are ripe, is useful to us.

It’s good, it’s nourishing, we can use it to make flour or a number of other things.

Darnel, on the other hand, is actually poisonous to humans, and to animals. It will make you sick, so it’s not something you’d want getting mixed in with your flour.

This enemy had sown it among the valuable wheat, the ‘good’ seed that the farmer had paid good money for.

Well, as we heard, once the situation was discovered, which would have been after the sprouts had begun to grow, the landowner could have sent out his crews to painstakingly, plant by plant, comb through the field to try to get rid of the darnel and preserve the wheat.

This would have been difficult enough, even for trained eyes who knew exactly the difference between the two plants and knew what they were looking for.

But if you’re relying on general labor, people to do what we might call ‘grunt work’, there would be no way of knowing if they’d be out there making the right decisions.

There’s a good chance you’d end up losing a lot of your crop, plus losing a lot of time as your employees devote themselves to this nit-picky project.

The alternative is to let everything grow until the plants are mature enough to where the difference between them was more obvious.

At that point, you could trust that your labor could safely tell the difference between the weeds, and the wheat…between what is useful, and what isn’t…between that which will nourish life and provide for human need, and that which is poisonous and not fit for man nor beast.

You’d still lose part of your crop…after all, the weeds are going to choke out the wheat here and there.

But you’d probably lose less than trying to sort it all out on the spot.

See, the landowner, he knew what he was doing.

He had patience, and he was able to see the bigger picture.

He knew what was best for the general health of the overall crop, even though the enemy had compromised it like he had.

—We are the good seed.—

At least, that’s what Jesus says when he explains this parable to his disciples later on in the chapter.

“The good seed are the children of the Kingdom”, he says.

He goes on to explain that the weeds are the children of the evil one.

We’re uncomfortable with such language coming from the mouth of Jesus, it sounds so harsh, so judgmental.

After all, isn’t Christianity a whole religion that’s devoted to the idea that people can change, that all are welcome, and that personal transformation is not only possible, but expected?

What is our hope, if not that those children of the evil one can indeed become children of the Kingdom?

According to this parable, people have about as much chance of changing as darnel has of becoming wheat, right?

Jesus continues to offend our modern sensibilities, when he goes on to explain what will happen when the field is finally ripe and ready for the harvest.

He says, starting in verse 41, that “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers and they (that is, the angels) will throw them (that is, the causes of sin and the evildoers) into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Such Judgment!!

Why, we might wonder, can’t all the plants just continue their life in the field together?

Why must we label one whole group as “Weeds”, and why must the farmer exclude them from the harvest?

Why, indeed, must our beloved Jesus insist that the landowner is none other than the Son of Man himself, and that the day will come when the harvest is separated, and each plant dealt with for what it has come to be?

…Well, could I suggest this morning that, as offensive as this story might be to us and our modern ears, it has more to do with the patience, the love, and the wisdom of God than it does the quick and decisive judgment that will be visited upon the unsuspecting field?

See, we tend to approach this story as landowners ourselves, or at least potential landowners.

For the vast majority of us sitting in this room, we either own a house and some land, or we’re in the process of securing ownership, or we perceive ownership as a genuine possibility at some point in the future.

It’s a goal we might have…something we might aspire to.

Ownership of property is an assumption most of us might make from a very early age, that eventually, if we play our cards right, we’ll own a piece of property for ourselves, and we’ll have all the responsibilities that go with it.

From what I know about first century economics, this wasn’t the case for most of the people Jesus was addressing; neither the crowds nor the disciples.

They might dream of owning some land, much the same way we might dream of being millionaires or professional athletes…but their assumptions were much different than our own.

We identify with the landowner who had a decision to make about whether to uproot the weeds or let them grow.

But in the first century, the people would have identified with the hired help.

The slaves. The servants…the grunts.

It wouldn’t have been their job to decide what to do with all these weeds…it was their job to listen to and carry out the will of the landowner, who knew that patience, wisdom, and hard work would pay off in the long haul.

See, God knows better than any of us, that two seeds, when planted side by side, they might look identical for the first several weeks or even months…but eventually each plant will mature.

There will come a time of ripe-ness, and it will be easy enough to see the plant for what it is at that point.

The greater harm, when it comes to Kingdom-growing, is in acting too soon, when the plants are too small, too young, too tender to stand up to the scrutiny required for a proper harvest.

According to Jesus, we’re not the landowner anyway. We’re the seeds.

And what good seed does…is grow, and hopefully produce more seed.

Ten, Twenty, a Hundred times what was sown.

So the question I have for you this morning is, what kind of seeds are you producing?

My watermelon vine a couple years ago, it withered up and died before it had the chance to produce anything.

My watermelons last year produced nothing but cucumbers! Not exactly a weed, but not exactly what I was hoping for, either.

What’s your fruit, as a seedling in God’s kingdom?

It’s easy to think that this faith thing is all just a bunch of words and being nice to people.

But the truth is, time moves along, and we are actively ripening, every single day.

Our growth might be imperceptible sometimes…but that’s how the kingdom comes and grows and matures.

It’s like a field, sown with seed.

Time will tell the harvesters what’s worth saving and what’s destined for the fire.

That’s not our job.

It’s our job to do what seed does…ripen, mature, grow…and produce more seed.

You are more yourself today than you were last week at this time, simply because you’ve had another week of practice at being a child of God, and growing in that direction!

So I’ll ask it again: What kind of seeds, what kind of fruit, are you producing?

You older people, into whom are you investing your time and energy? Who are you mentoring?

Who are the people who will carry on the likeness of the Christ whose image you bear?

You younger people, who are you looking to for guidance as you grow?

Who (not What), Who do you want to be when you grow up? Your life is heading somewhere…don’t let anyone tell you different, don’t let anyone tell you it’s just a matter of chance or simply following your dreams…every day you’re making decisions that are turning you into the person you’re becoming. Surround yourself, therefore, with people you want to be like.

We are Children of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are the good seed, bearing the image and the fullness of Christ as we grow more and more into his likeness.

It’s a patient work, this growing business. But it’s lasting work, as well.

But we do have a landowner who owns the field of this world, and He can be trusted with the outcome of this crop, for he is patient, loving, and wise.

Amen.

In and Out of the Kingdom of God

August 17, 2014 “In and Out of the Kingdom of God” Matthew 15:10-20

I realized after the bulletins were printed this week, that the title of my sermon might be a little bit misleading. It would be easy to read my title “In and Out of the Kingdom of God”, and take it to mean that I’m going to be talking about who’s in, and who’s out, of the Kingdom of God.

That’s not my intention, because I think our time and energy is better spent on other topics.

But it’s an interesting direction to go, isn’t it?

That’s a tack we easily take, I think, right?

It’s pretty natural for us, when we start thinking about or talking about a group of people, such as a kingdom, or a club, or a family, or a church…it’s pretty natural for us to pretty quickly begin to tease apart who’s “in” and who’s “out”.

Our government has pretty clear guidelines…who’s “in”, and who’s “out” as it relates to citizenship or residency.

We might agree or disagree with the guidelines, and we each have to choose how we’re going to respond to the guidelines as they’re stated…but the fact remains that it’s clear to those in power who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

The same goes for clubs, businesses (no shirt, no shoes, no service) social groups, our small groups…churches, denominations, Kingdoms…each one of these circles has some kind of understanding within itself as to who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’… and for the most part, the deciding factors have to do with outward appearances, behaviors, beliefs, and the like.  

And like I said, that’s not what I meant when I gave that title to Beth to print in this week’s bulletin.

So why am I spending so much time talking about what I don’t want to talk about?

It’s because I think this kind of thinking is such a natural part of who we are and how we think, that if I don’t spell it out clearly, I’m afraid you might end up hearing things I’m not saying.

Because what I’m saying is the Kingdom of God is a different kind of Kingdom, with a different kind of structure.

The In and the Out that I’m referring to is the inner life, the transformation that happens there when we encounter Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, and then the outer changes that happen as a result of that inner work that’s being done by God.

This is the “In” and the “Out” of the Kingdom of God.

It’s not about what you eat or don’t eat.

It’s not about what you wear or don’t wear.

It’s not about the rules that you follow, or how you spend your time, or the people you hang out with.

These are not the things that make you clean or unclean, Jesus teaches those with ears to hear.

The condition of your heart is more important than any of those outward expressions, because your heart influences those outward expressions!.

In other words, clean up your heart, and the rest will fall into place, for it’s out of the heart where come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander…these are the things that do not belong in the Kingdom of God.

But see, just like the Pharisees and the Scribes, just like so many other people all throughout history, we get so hung up on the idea that we need to define who’s in and who’s out..that it’s easy to miss the mission we’re to be about.

In this morning’s passage, Jesus teaches the crowd that it’s not what goes into the mouth, but rather what comes out that makes you unclean…he’s re-defining more than some simple notion about cleanliness (even though that was a HUGE debate at the time).

What he’s essentially saying is that to enter his kingdom, that is, to enter the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, (which, by the way, was another way that ancient Jews would sometimes talk about the earthly kingdom that their long-awaited military Messiah would bring)…to enter the Kingdom of God, it matters more what comes out your mouth than what goes in.

Because what comes out of your mouth is a sign of what’s in your heart. Unless Christ rules first of all in your heart, the rest means nothing!

This was a problem for the Pharisees.

They were concerned with the traditions and the requirements of the law, and all this external stuff…they were deeply concerned about all these external signs of faithfulness to God, not because they were just nit-picky old codgers who wanted to throw a wet blanket on anyone who didn’t do things their way…(I think that’s how we often view them, isn’t it?)

No, it was more because they cared deeply about the traditions, and about the outward signs of faithfulness, for many of the same reasons our conservative, or Amish cousins care about how they dress and what kinds of vehicles and what kind of technology they can or can’t use.

It sets them apart!

You know someone is Amish, because they dress a certain way, they drive a horse and buggy, and they probably speak Dutch, right?

Those things are all very important things to the Amish people. They’re traditions they have that set them apart as a people group. It’s pretty clear to most of us, who’s Amish, and who’s not.

It was the same way…maybe even moreso…for the Jewish people living under Roman occupation.

Their identity was wrapped up in these traditions, these rituals, these outside markers that set them apart.

So it seemed, to the religious leaders, that Jesus was being lax in making sure his disciples followed the traditional eating rituals. There was a lot more at stake here than a few people possibly getting sick.

This was a matter of identity.

How religious Jews ate, how they worked and didn’t work, how they dressed, how they did or didn’t cut their hair, what they touched and what they avoided throughout their daily life…every action they took or didn’t take, all of it was full of chances to proclaim that they were squarely within the Jewish circle of acceptability, which was also God’s circle of acceptability.  

There was a system of “Ins” and “Outs” that were very particular and very clear.

Do this, and you’re in…do that, and you’re out.

What I love about Jesus is the way he flips it all around.   

See, his kingdom is not of this world.

It never was, and it never will be.

So for Jesus, our Living Christ, all that external stuff, it’s not the primary aim of his message, his reign, or the salvation that he offers.

All that external stuff matters…but truly changing any of it begins inside, in our hearts, in our souls, down where our motivations live, where greed is first conquered, where malice and envy and lust can become generosity and kindness and humility.

Your heart is where the rubber meets the road on the path of discipleship. For if the kingdom of God were an earthly kingdom, then Jesus would have focused his efforts on the things that earthly kings and presidents and governors care about…that is, influencing behavior, and being clear about who’s in and who’s out and what the requirements are.

But the true battleground lies within the hearts and the minds of the people God loves.

For what’s inside will work itself out on the outside…

and if that doesn’t make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, then you’re not hearing Jesus right.

I’m a firm believer that you can come to church every Sunday for a lifetime, you can burn through your Bibles, you can say and do all the right things at all the right moments with all the right people…

I think you can do all that while still missing out on a fundamental point, that is that God loves you, that he cares about transforming your life from the inside-out, and that there is no way you can earn any of it.

It’s not what goes in that’s fundamentally important.

It’s what comes out that we need to pay attention to.

Last Sunday I had you take up rocks to symbolize your burden. (afterwards I heard some jokes about how much courage it must have taken to give the whole congregation stones at the end of a sermon!)…I invited you to come up and lay your burden at the foot of the cross.

This Sunday I’d like to invite you to turn your attention inward yet again, to consider the state of your own heart in the presence of our Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Reflect upon the past week, and what’s proceeded from your lips.

The language you’ve used…the jokes you’ve made…the messages you’ve shared…

How have you been choosing to use the breath that you’ve been given?

We are meant to manifest God’s Kingdom, Christ’s reign, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

That means we show it, through our actions, how we live, how we relate.

But we cannot show it unless we know it, first of all for ourselves.

The good news is for all people, everywhere…and we are not the judge of who’s in and who’s out. Only God can see the heart, only God can make that call.

But if you find within yourself this morning, that you’re at a point of wanting somehow, to claim a part of this journey for yourself, to take a step into this kingdom, whether it’s a first step or simply ‘another’ step…I invite you to pray with me right now, and then talk to someone after the service, whether it’s a friend, or an elder, or Christine or me.

For the Grace of God is there for the taking and his kingdom truly knows no end.

Let’s pray together…