Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oases of the Kingdom of God . . . Mustard seeds and yeast!

     Before I begin today, let me first apologize to all the strict sermon evaluators among us this morning.  I recognize what I am about to do is neither expository nor faithful to the text, at least in an important sense.  In another, though, I am quite certain I am being quite faithful in addressing a pastoral need that really came to the fore this week, just as we were scheduled by the lectionary editors to encounter these readings.  I suppose this is my long-winded way of saying that I hope I am like Jesus’ master of a household who has truly brings out of God’s treasure what is new and what is old.
     And while I am at it, you all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 8 o’clocker’s.  I have shared how they often interact with us to shape our 10:30am sermons.  As I was preaching earlier today, I had the distinct feeling that this was the worst sermon I had preached at Advent.  Maybe it was?  Thankfully, it is not recorded, so we will never know for sure.  More thankfully, though, people heard what they needed to hear in light of what I preached.  Holly† and I are sometimes brutal to one another.  We agreed this sermon was bad.  Yet, those at 8 o’clock were excited by the sermon, were full of more illustrations I could use, and seemed amazingly comforted by what pained the two of us.  If this ends up speaking to you, empowering you, reminding you of God’s call on your life, thank those that come early when you see them at the picnic.  Let them know you appreciate their work!  With that all said, let’s get started.
     We have spent some significant time in this, the green or growing season of the Church that we call “Ordinary Time” in Jesus’ teachings from Matthew.  Unfortunately for the initial audiences and for us, Jesus delighted in teaching through the use of parables.  I say unfortunately because, more often than not, if we are faithful attenders and faithful responders to His parables, we find ourselves relating to the parables in different ways as we walk through life with God.  A great recent example would be the parable of the wheat and the tares.  All of us love to believe that the other, whoever we think the others are, is the noxious weed and we are the fruit bearing wheat.  If we faithfully engaged Jesus in that teaching though, I think some of us came to the realization that we may, in fact, sometimes be weeds.  It can be a fearful thing to be sitting in your favorite pew, dressed just so, convinced of your own piety and righteousness, only to be provoked by reason of conscience and by the Holy Spirit that, perhaps we are lucky this minute is not the Day of the Lord, that we are lucky He is not sending the angels to harvest this minute.  We might find ourselves rounded up with the weeds.
     Those conversations, of course, allow me to remind us of the simplicity of the Gospel.  There is nothing in us that saves us.  Every one of us, each and every single person we encounter, is only saved through the work and person of Jesus Christ.  It’s humbling news, perhaps, to learn that He was willing to die for our own sins.  It’s humbling in a completely different way, though, to hear that He died for everyone, that He has patience for everyone, that He loves and desires all to come to Him.  Realizing that makes us realize that we are not as unique, not as special as we might like to think, at least in how the world would like us to believe.  But it is also good for us to be reflective about Jesus’ teachings, to remind ourselves how difficult it is to be fruit bearing all the time, how dependent we are upon God’s grace and mercy.
     Often those parables are challenging.  More often than not, the disciples have to ask Jesus about their meanings.  Given the cultural and time distances between us, it is no small wonder that many of us have difficulty had understanding some of them today.  Given the complexity of those parables, it’s no small wonder that we read them differently at different times in our life.  Heck, given our ebbs and flows in relating to God, it’s no wonder we find ourselves comforted at one time and challenged at another by the exact same parable.
     This week’s parables from Matthew are dangerous.  You laugh nervously a bit, and I get that.  But this week’s parables are truly dangerous.  You know you are in trouble when the disciples understand Jesus.  How can they not understand the wheat and the tares but get the good and stinky fish?  How can they struggle with the parable of the sower and get the treasure in a field?  In particular, I felt called to concentrate on the first two parables of our reading from Matthew this morning.  But rather than focus on them in a regular fashion, I wanted to look at how they speak to our lives, individually, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
     The two parables are well known.  In the first parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed.  Most of us know the background of what Jesus intends.  The mustard seed is originally rather small.  There is no indication from the seed that the resulting plant will be the oasis of life described by Jesus.  With proper amounts of good soil, water, fertilizer, and sunlight, that little seed will become a source of food and shelter for any number of living things.  For the planter, the resulting tree shrub will become a source of herbs or mustard seeds.  Meals will be improved.  The seeds can even be sold for money used to buy other necessities.  But that same tree will be a source of shade for those travelling in its vicinity.  For some birds and animals it will become a home and a place for shelter.  For those that prey on such animals, it will become a source for food.  I’m intentionally being quick, but you all have heard lots of stories about the mustard seed turning into a tree.
     The same can be said about the leaven and the flour.  It may be too simple a thing to claim that the Jews were not overly fond of leavened bread.  Certainly, an argument can be made that they should be suspicious of fermentation as signs of implied corruption and disintegration from the days of their Exodus.  But were they?  How often were the Jews like us?  How often did they miss God’s teaching , or ignore it altogether?  And, let’s not forget experience.  How bad does baked bread from leavened dough smell?
     Jesus’ parable points out that bakers had to keep an acidic piece of dough that had been set aside during a prior baking.  That piece of dough could be mixed with flour and water and set aside.  The resulting fermentation would cause the dough to rise.  A good baker would pinch off a piece for the next time, but the rest of the dough was used to bake bread or crusts or whatever recipes call for dough that has been allowed to rise. 
     No doubt we have all heard stories and sermons of how Jesus intends to illustrate the surprising growth of the kingdom of God in our midst.  The reign of God starts off insignificantly.  We might say it starts in a manger in an out of the way city in an out of the way province.  Heck, those hearing or witnessing the beginning of that reign likely thought it ended abruptly, if it was beginning at all, that fateful Good Friday afternoon.  It’s bursting forth, of course, became evident, not just on Easter, but on His Ascension and on Pentecost!  We get the big story.  We understand the big picture.  But do we miss the trees for the forest?  Do we miss how we are mustard seeds, how we are pieces of leaven in Jesus’ parable?
     Looking at your faces, I see some confusion.  Let me explain a bit differently using modern illustrations.  Two Advent group meetings will help us all to understand how these parables are applicable to our lives of faith.  The first was the Bible Project on Wednesday.  For seven of the last eight weeks, driven mostly by the vision and energy of Tina, and the support of Nancy and Holly†, we have engaged in some food, some fellowship, some games, some learning, and some worship.  Different people enjoyed different aspects of those gatherings at different times.  For our last gathering, we looked at the illustrated version of what Carola† taught you was the tension between the already and the not yet.  Good, I see the nods.
     One of the questions with which Christians have struggled is the end times.  It makes sense that we have struggled.  If we can’t get history right, how can we ever expect to get the future correct?  The authors of the Bible Project illustrated what they think is going to happen by the use of two overlapping circles.  One circle is the kingdom of heaven; the other is the kingdom of the world.  The overlap was, in the Old Testament, the Temple.  That was the sacred space where God’s people were supposed to be made righteous and holy and empowered to evidence His mercy in grace in the world around them.  The same is true for us.  Except that Temple is now the Cross and Empty Tomb of Jesus.  It is through His work on the Cross that you and I are made sons and daughters.  It is through His intercession that you and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do those things He has given us to do.
     Looking at those circles, of course, I was drawn to the fact that we do not stay “in the Temple.”  God’s people are always sent back into the world.  In our Episcopal parlance, we are sent into the world to do those things He has given us to do!  We may not be of the world, but He sure has a lot of work for you and I to accomplish in that world for Hs honor and His glory.  Had I illustrated their message, I would have sent lots of little crosses back into the dark circle of the kingdom of earth signifying the ministry to which each one of Christ’s disciples is called.  By virtue of our baptism, each of us has put our fleshy selves to death on that Cross.  Now we work for Him!  To use the illustration of the parables today, you and I are those pieces of dough that ferment all the flour.  You and I are the seeds that give rise to that lively oasis described as a mustard tree this morning.  Does it seem crazy?  Think about ministries of Adventers.
     Naturally, we have already spoken of the impact of Tina, Nancy, and Holly in this Bible Project effort.  Those who came were fed, engaged in conversation, played with, educated a bit, and led in worship.  From three little seeds came an enormous abundance of life, an abundance whose impact we cannot adequately judge right now.  Look at our “biscuit ministry.”  I still don’t know who the mustard seed or leavened piece of bread was.  Somebody, though, planted an idea.  Now, several Adventers help giving away dozens of biscuits every month.  People are being fed here and there and not with leftovers, but with the very best biscuits most of us could buy!  Consider Barbara’s work in the Parenting Adult Children group.  It was her vision, her passion, and her study that helped make that group work.  She provided the yeast, as it were, to cause the rest of the flour rise, giving evidence of the kingdom of God in the midst of the lives of those who attend.  Heck, many individual ministries at Advent reflect beautifully the teaching espoused by Jesus this morning.  Larry and Dale drive Room in the Inn.  Ron and Ellen and Jerry and Janice and a few others drive our work with St. Luke’s.  Frank hosts fellowship events with great care and vision, even in the midst of terrible pain.  Candida has taken up the cause of Human Trafficking and is impacting Rotary and the world around in ways that stun her.  No doubt you, like 8 o’clockers, can think of more!
     Sometimes we clergy need the reminder, too.  Speaking of human trafficking, as most of you know, I have been far too consumed with Advent to do more than dabble in the fight against Human Trafficking.  It drives me nuts sometimes.  I had done next to nothing since January—you may have heard that the Vestry and clergy have been a little swamped with budgetary issues.  But I received a call a couple weeks ago from a staffer of one of our Senators.  He wanted to know if I was willing to support the Senator’s effort to make a Tennessee organization a warehouse for human trafficking information.  Mostly they wanted to make sure that Congress is getting the best bang for their buck.  The Senator wanted Tennessee to retain its leadership role in this fight.  I answered without thinking.  Why wouldn’t I?
     He needed us to do some professional printing for an organization in Knoxville that works on a string budget.  Hmmm.  Who do I know that prints professionally?  Where will I ever find that kind of specific help?  Heck, we were so well-suited to this work that we have a retired lobbyist in our midst who can speak to the expectations of the members of Congress.  I won’t say Ron’s and my conversation was edifying in the traditional sense—it really only served to confirm my suspicions about their forgetfulness that they are supposed to serve us--, but it does allow me to approach that work with some confidence that we will get the best bang for our buck!  And, if we are not careful and God does not come again before then, we are that much closer to that wonderful stadium Eucharist with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope serving as a kickoff for creating a network of shelters around the world!  Talk about leavening the flour!
     The second big parish conversation that helped me bring these parables into focus was the Wrestling with Faith group on Thursday.  I’m not sure who is more disappointed in the lack of growth in that group, Robert and Jim who convene it, or the Advent clergy who recognize its need.  We have our suspicions why it does not really catch support among those Adventers who struggle with their faith, but it is a group that simply intends to consider those aspects of our faith with which both the Church and the outside world have struggled over the centuries.  Sometimes, the participants border on the verge of eloquently espousing heresy . . . again and again.  Sometimes, the participants come to realize that their struggles are reflective of the struggles that have existed in God’s people since the beginning.  All our conversations this week, though, led us back to why the questioning was important.  As smart as Robert and Jim are, they ask no question with which the Church has not struggled before.  There are those in the wider Church who would no doubt condemn them for such questions, but would our Lord?  These struggles are real.  The struggles shape us.  How we live these struggles, more important, testifies to the world the redeeming power of God.  How we live these struggles, individually and collectively, molds and shapes and waters and nourishes us to become those kingdom of God outposts in the world out there!  And that, after all, is where and how the kingdom appears in this world.
     You and I speak often of being ambassadors and sons and daughters of the King.  Should we be at all surprised that our King sends us into the world as seeds that die to self or leaven that can “infect” more flour?  Should we be surprised that our Lord can use such tiny initial faith on our part to accomplish glorious works in our midst?  Given His teachings and parables, I do not think so.  Lord, help my unbelief ought to be ringing in our ears today even as our focus is on the growth of the kingdom of God in the world around us.  Yes, we can never mistake the fact that He provides the growth; He provides all that is really necessary to grow His kingdom.  But for reasons known only to Him, He seems quite content to use you and me and anyone else who comes to Him in faith the salt, the seed, and even the yeast that causes the kingdom to burst forth around us in ways we could never ask or imagine.  And maybe, maybe such stories remind us that no matter our own inconspicuous beginnings, you and are called by our Creator and Redeemer to a glorious fulfillment that none of us, no Adventer, begins to grasp.

In Christ’s Peace,


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