Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sermon: The "Ruulaship" of God Makes Settled Things Strange

I don't preach very often anymore. My role in leading worship is musical now--facilitating the congregation's worship in song by leading the choir and playing the pipe organ.

But today I preached, just to help out my pastor who was coming back from vacation and didn't want to spend his last week of vacation preparing a sermon.

I want to share that sermon with you because it illustrates a basic principle that Bob Webber wrote about in Ancient Future Worship: All of our worship should tell (and, if possible, perform) God's story as we know it from the biblical narrative. Bob's conception of what this means was expanded by a renewed engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures as he was writing this book.

Many sermons fail to range widely enough in the biblical story for the congregation to remember that they are living out part of a bigger narrative. A sermon should help believers see how their stories are expanded by God's story. A sermon should not squeeze God's story into the narrow confines of the believer's life narrative.

And so I offer this sermon as one humble effort to model that. Note the use of the Old Testament as well as the eschatological perspective. The prescribed Gospel reading for the day was the familiar list of what seem like miscellaneous kingdom parables from Matthew 13: The kingdom of heaven is like (a) a mustard seed, (b) yeast, (c) a man who finds buried treasure, (d) a merchant who finds a rare pearl, (e) a net full of fish, both good and bad.

I hope you find this helpful.

The Ruulaship of God Makes Settled Things Strange

A Sermon Preached July 27, 2008
at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Glen Ellyn, Illinois

G. K. Chesterton once said that "the function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange."

And that is true of Jesus' parables as well. The stories he told and the analogies he drew were not designed "to make strange things settled," but "to make settled things strange." That was why most people became puzzled or angry at his teaching. It didn't confirm their prejudices--which is what we expect religious or political leaders to do for us.

Now these parables, these comparisons or analogies--especially the ones we have heard these past three weeks from Matthew 13--are so familiar to us, we have heard them so often, that we may need a little help to see how they "make settled things strange."

So let's take a closer look. Each of these parables begins the same way: The kingdom of heaven is like ...

* The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure.
* The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who finds a very special pearl.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a net full of fish--some kosher, some not kosher.
* The kingdom of heaven is like this: a man sows good seed in his field, but an enemy comes by night and sows noxious weeds. The man's servants want to pull up the weeds, but he counsels them to be patient and wait for the harvest.

It is important to understand that the central point of Jesus' preaching was about "the kingdom of heaven" or "the kingdom of God." The central point of Jesus' teaching was not Love (though he had a lot to say about love) or Inclusiveness (though a lot of welcome will flow from Christ-formed lives) or Social Justice (though Jesus' followers will be responsible for righting a lot of wrongs).

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

That is in chapter 4. When we turn to chapter 5, we hear Jesus begin his most famous sermon with these words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them." The Sermon on the Mount is punctuated with references to the kingdom of heaven. And in chapter 6 he teaches his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come."

The phrase "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God" is overly familiar to Christian ears. So let's use different words: instead of the word "kingdom," let's use the word "rule" or "reign" or "government." We do that, because "kingdom" can sound like we're talking about the territory a king rules over. But Jesus is talking about the act of "ruling." I like the way the West Indies Bible Society's planned Jamaican patois translation renders the Lord's Prayer, "Mek yu ruulaship kom." We can use that word for God's kingdom: Ruulaship.

Let's imagine ourselves living in Palestine a very long time ago, dealing with a series of foreign armies occupying our land and extracting taxes that keep us from eating the fruits of our labors. We are hungry and poor because of the Romans. And before them the Seleucids. And before them the Greeks. And before them the Persians. And before them the Babylonians. And before them the Assyrians. It seems like our entire history has been a history of oppression and occupation.

But our prophets have told of their visions that some day we wouldn't be ruled by foreign tyrants. We would someday be ruled by a king on the order of the great king David. And this king would bring the ruulaship of our God instead of tyranny. He would throw off their yoke of oppression. He would bring freedom, would this king, this anointed one, this Messiah. He would bring in "the reign of God."

This hope sustains us. It sustains us while our priests connive and collaborate with the Roman oppressors. They'll get what's coming to them, we know, when the Messiah comes.

* * *

Unfortunately, some people just can't bide their time. They think they can bring in the rule of God by fomenting a revolution. They believe that God wants them to draw a little blood just to get the revolution started. Once they put their lives on the line, they know God will finish the job. These firebrands are called Zealots. And among Jesus' followers, there are some Zealots.

Into this political tinder box, Jesus comes preaching that the rule of God is very near, that it is right now beginning in our midst. Good news. The time has come! Finally!

But then he starts talking weirdness. We are expecting a revolution, and he tells us that it's not going to be like that. I can just hear the disciples talking among themselves: "What's he been smokin'?"

The rule of God, he says, is like a mustard seed. A very tiny seed that eventually grows into a towering bush, but it does so quietly, unobtrusively. The rule of God, he says, is like yeast. You put it into a lump of dough, and the dough grows. But it works quietly, gently permeating the whole mass of dough. The rule of God, he says, is like a man who finds a treasure buried in a field. He keeps mum about it until he can buy the field and quietly take possession. Talk about it too soon, and the treasure will belong to someone else. The rule of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl--but doesn't let on until he pulls all his assets together and makes the purchase.

All of these analogies emphasize the quiet, unobtrusive, gentle nature of the way the kingdom comes and grows.

God's rule does not come in obvious ways. The treasure is hidden. The perfect pearl is rare. The mustard seed is tiny. The yeast is almost invisible. You have to wait patiently for it to show itself.

You have to be observant, very perceptive to notice the first signs of God's rulership. And you have to be perceptive to even understand Jesus' teaching. Indeed, Jesus says, there is a gift of perception. Right here in this same chapter of Matthew, Jesus' disciples ask him why he is teaching in parables. And he says, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. ... [then, quoting Isaiah, Jesus says,] For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; ... But blessed are your eyes, [Jesus tells his students] for they see, and your ears, for they hear.'

You have to pay close attention. That same message is found in last week's lesson about the man whose wheat field was sabotaged by an enemy who planted weed seeds. The weeds were of a sort that looks just like wheat when it is young. Only after weeds and wheat have grown can you be sure you can tell them apart. So the owner of the field counseled patience. Lesson? Even when we're paying attention, we can't tell who around us is wheat and who is weed. The seemingly fine upstanding citizen may prove to be a rather nasty piece of work in the end. And the ne'er-do-well may turn out to be a rare perfect pearl. So be patient and pay attention, because as God's rulership arrives, things are not always as they seem.

This is really hard for us to hear in 2008 in the United States of America. We are a polarized nation. We feed on vicious rhetoric about our political leaders. Cable news shows mercilessly mock the candidates and perpetuate rumors. We repeat stories, spreading them across cyberspace, because they say what we want to hear rather than what we necessarily know to be true.

This is also hard for us to hear because we inhabit a culture of bigness. We are used to our country being the first, the fastest, the richest, the most resourceful, and the most bountiful. But then we get trapped in a credit crunch or a fossil-fuel crunch, and we are at a complete loss. We don't now how to do with less. We don't know how to see the beauty in the small. We are blind to the small ways God wants to work, his almost invisible, yeast-like manner that he uses to bring in his justice and his rule. The rule of God doesn't arrive in a gas-guzzling Hummer. It may just arrive on a donkey.

Let me quote from my friend Andy Crouch whose book Culture-Making has just been published. In a forthcoming interview in Christianity Today, Andy compares a Tower of Babel model for cultural transformation with an approach based on the Incarnation:

When God chose to intervene in the world, he thought it best to start in a pre-technological, modestly literate backwater town of the Roman Empire. And it’s the best because the revolution God was introducing to the world was designed precisely to undermine Babel’s idea that humans will scale up and, through homogeneity and technology, take over. The Babel story is not about love. Love is always small. So a cultural transformation that is going to eventually reseed the whole world with the fruits of love is going to have to start in a particular place and time with ordinary people.

* * *

But just when we're ready to think that God's work is always done in quiet, gentle ways, over long periods of patient waiting, Jesus takes us once again by surprise. When all is said and done, he says, there'll be hell to pay. In last week's lesson, Jesus tells how the owner of the field counseled patience until harvest time, but then he said that there will be a day when God's angels gather the wheat-people into God's barns, but they will throw the weed-people "into the blazing furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

And when Jesus tells the story of the big net full of fish, he says, "This is how it will be at the end of time. The angels will go out, and they will separate the wicked from the good, and throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

When Father Matt asked me to preach this week, and I teased him: "You just don't want to have to preach about hell," I told him.

Behind my teasing is this fact: Contemporary Americans don't want to hear about judgment and final punishment. We value a gospel of tolerance, and we want God to be just like us. A recent Pew study showed that fewer and fewer people believe in ultimate punishment. Especially when compared to the persistence of belief in heaven. In a general population sample, 74% (nearly three quarters) said they believe in a heavenly reward. While a significantly lower 59% believe that there is a hell. But we don't need to listen to polls. We need to listen carefully to what Jesus says.

God isn't tolerant, Jesus tells us. And he shouldn't be blandly tolerant. We are the ones who have become hardened to the pain and suffering of others--as long as the suffering isn't in our back yard. But God cares passionately about the things that hurt the creation he loves. He is not indifferent to evil. Judgment is not the bad news that puts the good news into sharper focus. It is not merely the logical "other side of the coin." Judgment is itself part of the Good News. God passionately loves his creatures and he will "deliver us from evil."

And so there will be justice, Jesus says. But it is God's justice in God's time and in God's way. Please note that these images do not speak about eternal, conscious torment. Jesus' paints a picture of destruction and disposal, as when the harvesters take the wheat to the threshing floor, and separate the grain from the chaff. They store up the grain and throw the chaff into the fire. That's a picture of disposal, not punishment. Likewise, with Jesus' saying about the dragnet that pulls in a whole host of fish, some of them kosher and edible, others not. He draws a picture of separation and disposal. There will be wailing and grinding of teeth, but that is the weed-people's response to exclusion from God's bright future. Our God does not torture.

Now in the story of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus names two groups who will be thrown into the furnace. First: the people who cause others to stumble. That is, those who draw others into destructive behaviors that ruin relationships and families and health and economic well-being. You could come up with various examples, but a few years ago I heard one that to me seemed an apt illustration. I met a banker in Dubuque who told me how right after the riverboat casinos came to that fair city, the default rate on mortgages simply skyrocketed. Behind that default rate, you can easily imagine, are a lot of ruined families and broke breadwinners suffering from a gambling addiction. Do you want God to turn a blind eye to those who prey on the weakness of others and entice them into trouble?

The second category Jesus mentions are the people who promote a lifestyle of lawlessness. Jesus is not talking about those who, like all of us, stumble from time to time and do things we know we shouldn't. Jesus is describing those who thumb their noses at God's way of life. The word "law" has taken on some very negative connotations in Christian parlance, but Jesus is teaching in a Jewish setting, where the word "law" actually stands for something very positive: God's wisdom about right living that fosters human flourishing. Do we really think God should bless those who obstinately refuse his wisdom for living?

These people, Jesus says, will get what's coming to them, but you, he says, you, my followers, will shine like the sun in your heavenly Father's realm. The time for comeuppance is not now, and you are not the agents of justice. That is for the angels of God at the end of the age--after the mustard seed has grown into a bush and after the yeast has permeated the lump of dough.

And so as Jesus uses these parables "to make settled things strange," he gives us three unsettling gifts:

* First, he gives us eyes to see the unexpected, to see the hidden and surprising ways God works.
* Then he gives us patience, for having seen God at work, we know we can trust him to finish what he starts without our untimely interference. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:6, "The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ."
* And then third, he gives us hope of justice. The meek will indeed inherit the earth, and not just the dirt. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake--that is, because they stood up for justice--will inherit the kingdom of heaven. The poor and those who mourn--they too can have a confident hope of justice.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.

* * *

Information on Andy Crouch's Culture-Making is available here and here and here.

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