Sunday, July 24, 2005

Unseparated, Unexpected

This morning's sermon pieced together from my outline...

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50
Romans 8:26-39

I love a good surprise ending. There are certain movies that fall into this category, that are so well-written, so brilliantly crafted that you don't see the plot twist coming until it happens. And then everything you thought was going to happen needs to be discarded. They keep you interested and engaged with the story. Once a murder mystery establishes that it couldn't have possibly been the most obvious person, one becomes all the more interested in turning the page to see what happens next. You are hanging on the next word, the next scene, to find out how it will resolve.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus says it is like a bit of yeast, mixed in with dough. That doesn't sound strange to us. We're used to having yeast in our bread. But to a Jewish audience in the 1st Century, it would have been really strange. In Jewish custom, yeast is unclean. It is unfavorable. How strange that must have sounded.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. This is one of the more popular and well-known metaphors in scripture. We hear it elsewhere when Jesus refers to 'faith the size of a mustard seed.' It is so small, and then it grows into the greatest of...shrubs. A tree that didn't make it.

The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure that a man found and then hid. Could it really be considered his? Could it be claimed by someone else? Regardless, the man hides the treasure and is shrewd about securing it for himself.

The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl that a man secures for himself after giving up everything else he had. All for one little pearl?

Why use such strange language to promote something so wonderful? This is, after all, a kingdom we're talking about. A kingdom is supposed to be grand and beautiful. It is supposed to evoke images similar to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. We are supposed to look on it with awe and amazement like the children when they first enter Willy Wonka's chocolate room. This is a kingdom, God's kingdom, and it should be proud and regal. It should be filled with pageantry, with silver and gold and show power! Such a kingdom deserves better promotion than yeast and a shrub.

In the parables, there is always a certain element of shock and awe. Traditional concepts get bombarded by alternate usage. The way we expect terms or items to be used or represented are changed by Jesus. He frequently turned convention on its head. For yeast and shrubs to be symbols of the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate alternate reality, rather than silver and gold – someone was bound to notice. And most probably did. After all, this kingdom was supposed to be over and against the kingdom of Rome, THE kingdom of the day. It was a kingdom that proclaimed Caesar as Son of God. It was a kingdom that proclaimed ultimate peace for the world and hardly anyone thought differently. It was a kingdom that wrapped itself in purple velvet and gold trim. It was a kingdom that had either built cities or took them, and proclaimed itself sovereign through absolute military power.

And once again, Jesus presents us with the unexpected in his counter to that kingdom. Yeast? And a shrub? The kingdom of heaven is like that which is unclean, unworthy, and unheard of. And true to form, Jesus hangs out with people considered unclean, unworthy, and unheard of, the likes of lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and even WOMEN, considered second-class (and in most cases that might be generous). Maybe the language wasn’t lost on them. Jesus' life and teaching had enough plot twists to keep people interested, even after his death. His beginnings in a stable and his end on a cross (and the twist afterward) kept people guessing.

But what else is going on? Yeast causes things to expand, to grow, to rise. Once a little gets in, the whole loaf rises. Mustard? It was used as a cure for many different ailments. It could clear your sinuses and clean you out. Buried treasure and a pearl? They were so precious, even priceless, that some would give it all up to secure them. And for the kingdom of heaven, who wouldn’t? It is a kingdom where God’s love is law.

‘For,' Paul asks, 'what can separate us from the love of Christ?’ 'I am convinced,' he says, ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ He is convinced. Nothing separates him or anyone else from the love of God. It truly is a love divine, all loves excelling. And yet there are many attempts by rulers, things present, powers, so many earthly attempts to provide litmus tests: 'You are loved, and you are not.' 'You are worthy and you are not.'

In a predominantly white congregation far away from here, when discussing alternate worship styles and referring to black worship, one person stands and says, 'Those people should just worship elsewhere.'

A disabled woman is unable to come to worship at a particular church because there is no ramp for her wheelchair.

A couple refuses to come one Sunday when they discover that the youth are leading the service. It wouldn't be 'real worship.'

All these earthly attempts to restrain God's love from some.

The kingdom of heaven is something strange; something other. God’s love knows no boundaries, vainly put in place by Rome or by anyone else. Like yeast, it expands on its own without us doing anything or if we tried to stop it. It grows despite human efforts. It is already in the dough, so it will expand. It is already in the ground and has taken root, so it is already growing.

Neither racism, nor stairs, nor age, nor dress codes, nor denominationalism, nor prejudice, nor disability, nor poverty, nor homelessness, nor mental illness, nor lack of church attendence, nor career, nor anything else under the sun in all God's creation will be able to separate anyone from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God's grace is extended even when humanity tries to stop it. That is why some would give it all up. They are fueled by hope, they are engulfed by it. They have discovered the joy that is beyond human constraint. They are affirmed when no one else would affirm them. One is finally told: nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This is God's ultimate plot twist.