Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven is Weird and Wild.

Sunday was our third week in the parables of Matthew 13. The kingdom of heaven is like a seed. It's like leaven. It's like a merchant or treasure. It's like a really big net. They are familiar stories, but sometimes when stories are familiar they lose their bite. Sometimes we peel right through them and forget to notice the weird stuff about Jesus and heaven and God's reign. And that's the whole point. I had two things to say about these parables on Sunday:

1. While we usually associate Jesus' parables with abundance, Jesus chooses imagery here that seems unsustainable and fleeting. Weird.

· A mustard bush grows wiry and strong like a weed, but at the end of the season it withers like every other annual, often turning to tumbleweed and dancing away.

· Hiding leaven in three measures of flour sounds sneaky and uses enough to feed 100 people. With that small bit of leaven, she ruins her whole supply instead of making only what she needed…and unless she’s planning a big dinner party we don’t know about, the rest will go to waste.

· The merchant doesn’t think twice about his kids’ college education, his mortgage, his retirement or how to care for his ailing parents when he sells everything for that silly pearl. What will he tell his financial planner…or his wife?

· And this net scoops up everything, taking the good the bad and the ugly before untangling and sorting its contents. But even good fish go bad. Whether they are sold for market price or rot in the sunshine, their goodness in and of itself is not eternal.

So much of what we believe about the kingdom of God declares longevity far, far away. But Jesus uses images that are signs of life and work in this world to show how God’s kingdom can come among us in a flash – that it takes shape in our priorities, our relationships, our jobs and our dreams. It can be recognizable one moment and then, because our context is always changing, it begins to stink and rot when we try to hoard it or forget to use it generously.

2. So while Jesus is calling us to keep our eyes peeled for the kingdom at work right here, this text is not content with a bunch of disciples merely reacting and waiting around feeling faithful. Jesus chose ordinary people and items for these parables because he wants us to know that our lives are filled with glimpses of the kingdom – our hands and feet and hearts are equipped by the Spirit just like this net, seed and merchant. Wild.

Through baptism we have all been claimed by heaven’s bizarre jubilation – a kingdom that breaks into our lives with little respect for our social constructs and it rarely manifests in responsible, frugal ways. God’s love is careless and wasteful and smelly and must be passed around for all to taste quickly before we have time to keep score or get scared or feel lazy. Because while these stories are two thousand years old, the kingdom can take these ancient truths and make them brand new everyday, shoving them in front of our faces so we, too, are inspired to proclaim their passion, urgency and foolish extravagance.

The kingdom of heaven is like an old man who waters and cuts and manages his lawn with meticulous care. And when it is perfectly lush and the envy of the block, he buys a Slip ‘n’ Slide, turns on the sprinkler and invites all the neighborhood kids over for messy, muddy water games.

The kingdom of heaven is like a small congregation that depends heavily on its foundation to stay afloat. And one day a man comes in asking for help with his rent money and instead the congregation uses their foundation funds to buy him a house.

The kingdom of heaven is like a bunch of Lutherans who make simple cardboard signs, each claiming one thing they believe and holding it for all to see on a street corner. Not because it's comfortable or because it's a synod sponsored event or because it will yield measurable results, but because discipleship sends them out to tell the truth to anyone passing by.

The kingdom of heaven is like a crowd of people who trust God so completely, they eat wafers that taste like Styrofoam and cheap wine from bottles with screw top caps week after week, believing with their whole hearts that Jesus is right there – forgiving and redeeming and untangling their good from their bad.

The kingdom of heaven is like a young man whose neighbor moved to a memory care nursing home, so he goes to visit her every weekend, holds her hand and lets her believe that he is the son she never had.

When Jesus finishes this proclamation of parables, he turns to the disciples and asks if they understand everything he’s just taught them.

And they lie. They boldface lie to Jesus with a word, “Yes”.

Jesus knows that every generation of disciples will be tempted to moralize and simplify these stories, forgetting their true purpose: that they reveal God’s spontaneous and backwards kingdom among us, signs of God’s life right here. And Jesus knows they can’t begin to comprehend how weird and wild the kingdom is – that his claim on all of us complicates our lives and our desire to see things as black and white.

But Jesus also looks at them with love, knowing that they say yes because their desire to understand everything is so great. They are hungry for this abundance that comes among them so quickly, that wastes if it is not shared. They long for a kingdom that breaks all the rules and calls them to break some, too. They say yes because each glimpse of God’s untamed adoration for the whole world stirs them up with nervous excitement…even though they do not understand how or why. And we’re right there with them.

Thanks be to God for sending the kingdom among us – heaven that rushes out through the pearly gates and into our lives with merciful demands and a call to spread weird and wild generosity all over the earth.

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