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“The Kingdom of God is Like…”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.

He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
“To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”

Praise the Lord.

 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

These images of the Kingdom of God are telling and worthy of a deeper dive.

First off, what is the Kingdom of God?  I don’t know that any of us can fully explain, after all none of us have seen it in full.  Some have wanted to explain it away as heaven, but our scriptures talk about the Kingdom of God as being here and now, among us.  It is not something we merely wait and hope for.  It is what Christ began and we are called to continue, in this world, here and now, by the Spirit of the Living God.

And so, when we read these parables, Christ is giving us insights into the work we are to be about.  Christ is giving us glimpses into what is not yet but is already AND is still becoming.  We glimpse what is and what is to come.  And so these parables become touchstones to us along this life of discipleship, along our journeys of faith, along our lives of mission and service.

 

The first parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed a man plants in his field.  Though the smallest of seeds, it says, it yields among the largest of garden plants, becoming a tree, in which the birds of the air build their nest and perch in its branches.

Several things stand out.  First, the Kingdom of God is powerful but modest.  It may appear small.  It may appear wimpy.  It will be underestimated –  the hug, the smile, the kind word, the act of forgiveness, words of compassion and empathy, telling the truth, listening, the small step toward justice – and yet, as it grows, it far exceeds expectation.  Not only that, but it is a blessing to other creatures.  The Kingdom of God grows and grows and grows – it multiplies like the loaves and the fish – and in its shade, creatures find shade and shelter, rest and provision.  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The second parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to yeast a woman mixes into 60lbs of flour, till the yeast pervades the dough.  60 pounds.  Can you imagine?  I did the math:  that’s 12 bags of four.  Some tiny grains of yeast – able to raise 60 pounds of flour?  That’s no small feat.  Again, one would underestimate the yeast.  It is small – especially up against 60lbs of wheat.  They don’t begin to compare, and yet it leavens the whole batch!  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The third parable is different than these first two.  Rather than speaking of how small the Kingdom of God begins and yet how powerful and pervasive it is, this third parable speaks to something else.  It speaks of joy!  It speaks of impact!  It speaks of one’s life, turned upside down,…in blessing!

Here a man finds a treasure in a field.  He is amazed.  What luck!  What blessing!  But it is not his; he does not own the field.  And so he hides it back again, goes home and sells all he has, and returns to buy that field.  Today perhaps we could imagine one doing this, if one found gold or perhaps oil on a track of land.  It is a treasure.  It is provision.  It is more than one could ask or imagine.  And yet there it is.  And so every bit of life needs to be rearranged in order to receive that gift, that blessing.  Everything unnecessary must go.  Everything owned to this point doesn’t even begin to compare.  Nothing will be the same because this man knows that the treasure is worth it all.  He gives up what he has in order to receive the blessing.  He sells all he has that he might acquire it.  He loses his life in order that he might find it.

pearTHIS is what it looks like when one truly finds the Kingdom of God.  It is a treasure of great worth.  Nothing else compares.  Everything else must go to make room for it.

 

And the forth parable is like the third.  This time the man is in active search for a pearl of great worth.  He knows what he wants and won’t stop till he finds it.  And when he does, he lays down everything he has for it.  He sells it all so he can afford the one thing for which he has searched and searched.  And he buys it!  He seeks and he finds, as he seeks with all his heart.  And he would never go back.  THIS is how earnestly sought after the Kingdom of God is.  THIS is how desired, how valuable, how re-orienting the Kingdom of God is on our lives.

 

And so we come to the fifth.  Different still, this parable tells of the end of the age, the end in which the righteous are sorted out from the unrighteous.  The unrighteous meet a fiery end.  And this is jarring, is it not?  This is the kind of story told by many a preacher scaring the Kingdom of God into fearful souls.  But righteousness isn’t remedied by a one time confession or prayer.  Righteousness comes from action.  And our actions just don’t cut it.  But God in mercy has made a way in Christ, that all may be made well, that all may be made whole, that all may be cleaned and covered by the sacrificial love of Christ – taking for us the punishment we deserved and drawing us into the family of God – made righteous not by our own actions but by Christ’s actions on our behalf.  We are made righteous by the saving act Christ.  And our command is simply to receive it, to let that truth seep beneath the surface of things and start that Kingdom of God transformation in us, from the inside out.

Thus, not all will believe.  Not all will receive.  Our God is most loving; we are given the choice to love or to hate, to return or to flee, to receive or reject.  Even God, who alone knows what it truly best for us, allows each of us the freedom of choose, the freedom to love.

Should we not do that for one another also?

THIS is how lovingly and respectfully the Kingdom of God comes to us.  THIS is the responsibility each of us must bear:  to receive or reject, to turn toward or turn away.  Whatever we choose or do not choose, it most critically matters for our very lives.

 

And then Jesus pauses the telling of parables to ask whether or not the disciples understand.  They believe they do, answering, “yes.”

And Jesus concludes saying, “Therefore anyone who has been a teacher of the law and now has become a disciple in the Kingdom of God is like the owner of a house who goes into his storeroom and brings out treasures, both new and old.”

I don’t think I’d ever before noticed this statement by Jesus.  It would appear that Jesus is speaking about teachers of the law – meaning those Jewish religious leaders who were teaching the people the way to go.  He is pointing out that in that line of work and service they receive spiritual blessings, and that in joining now in the Kingdom work of God, their blessings only increase – for a lifetime of treasures, new and old.

 

And so does this not apply to our own lives today?

How about the civil servant, working to do justice, who discovers the grace and love of Christ and joins with God’s Spirit in doing justice by the power of God?

How about the mother who raises her children with love, who comes to know the depth and breadth of God’s love for her and joins with God in nurturing her children in the love of God, calling them to live into the fullness of all God has made them to be?

How about the scientist working on breakthroughs, on cures, who hears God’s call to service, who now joins in the power of God to bring healing to the afflicted, far and wide?

Do they not have treasure wrought, blessings bestowed, both new and old?

 

And is this not Christ’s invitation?

…to seek that pearl of great price, the Kingdom of God?!

…to sell everything one has in order to acquire everything that truly matters, the Kingdom of God?!

…to begin our journeys with God, trusting in the smallest of acts done in obedience to the Spirit of God?

…to plant our tiniest seeds of faith and to watch them grow into rest and provision, shelter and shade for all God’s creatures?

 

Is Jesus not inviting us still?
… into deeper communion?
… to recognize how our lives intersect with God’s purposes?
… to see how God’s heart and life lives within us?
… to greater joy, greater provision, greater meaning, greater harvest than anything we could have done in our own strength, in our own power?

 

The Kingdom of God is what we have yearned for, what we have prayed for.  It is worth far more than anything we could earn or acquire for ourselves.  It is the justice that rolls down like the mighty waters.  It is the mercy that makes way for healing.  It is the equity that frees souls to live into their truest selves, their truest purposes and callings.  It is the kindness and compassion that nurtures our very souls, begetting life where there was once only death.

 

THIS is the Kingdom of God.

 

Christ began it.
The Spirit of God enlivens it.
And WE are called to live it into being, more and more and more.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 

“Faithful Doubt”

By Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:24-31
Jeremiah 29:13

 

John 20:24-31

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jeremiah 29:11

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart


 

To all those tossed about on the stormy seas of depression who are asking, “where is my God, my Rock?”

To all those watching the suffering of another, whose hearts are burning with the question, “Why, God!?  Where is your comfort?”

To all those witnesses of injustice, who are begging, “God show yourself.  Make this right!”

To all you who cannot find an answer to your suffering,

To all you who are waiting for a miracle, praying for a breakthrough,

To all you who live with questions about your faith, questions about the Bible, questions about Christianity…

 

I share with you this hope:  The Story of Thomas.

 
Thomas is a passionate disciple.  When Jesus tells the disciples of his plans to return to Mary & Martha’s home in order to bring their dead brother Lazarus back to life, the disciples all seek to discourage Jesus from going saying, “Rabbi the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?”  Realizing Jesus’ resolve, Thomas rallies the others saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas is a devoted disciple.

When Jesus, risen from the dead, shows himself to the other disciples, Thomas needs to know it is real.  He can’t help but doubt.  His doubt protects him, because when he believes something, he will go all out.  He cannot follow this Risen Jesus whole-heartedly until he is sure it is indeed him.

 

For eight long days, Thomas is adamant in his unbelief:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  …The Jesus I knew and loved was tortured, crucified, and buried.  If he is really Jesus, he will have those marks of torture and death.  Only then can I believe what you’re saying.

It can’t have been easy to disbelieve.  Meanwhile Thomas’ friends, the others are exuberant.  They are joyful.  They are no longer mourning.  They are excited.  They can’t wait to go forward, wherever Jesus will take them.  Thomas is still at the funeral.  He can’t understand their joy.  He can’t get excited about a future.  His entire hope was buried, and his friends are in different place.  Yet, Thomas stays with them.  When Jesus comes to them again, Thomas is there.  He remained in the discomfort of being on a different page than the others.  Without giving into pressure from his friends, he remained honest with himself and his closest friends about his thoughts & feelings.  He doubted actively, begging for a resolution, engaging in search of the truth.

And Jesus answers.  Eight days after He first showed himself to the disciples, Jesus reappears to them, while Thomas is present.  Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe!”

 

Jesus answers.

 

Thomas asked.  He sought out truth, and Jesus, faithful to his word opened the door and came in.  “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Thomas was not lukewarm.  He was not afraid to take a stand.  He doubted out loud in front of his trusted companions.  He did not remain safe and obscure in silent doubt.  He did not trade his search for the truth for an image of piety.  He laid himself out on the line in honesty, in search of the truth.

Thomas finds what he is searching for.

 

Jesus, bearing the marks of death, yet alive, comes to him.  Jesus returns to answer this disciple’s passionate doubt.  Jesus comes that Thomas might passionately believe.  Thomas is blown away.  He worships Jesus:  “My Lord, and my God.”

Thomas is remembered to this day, as “doubting Thomas.”  But his story does not end in doubt.  His story ends in bold worship.  He asked.  God answered.  And he believed.

 

In Christian communities today, it is not popular to doubt.  Many of us tidy up our spiritual lives by packing and sometimes shoving our doubts into closets, where we hope they will remain hidden and forgotten.  Thomas shows us a radically different way to handle our doubts.   Thomas doubted OUT – LOUD.  It takes courage to doubt as Thomas did.

 

 

Today I want to share with you a song by Rich Mullins, a contemporary Christian artist who doubted like Thomas did.

Rich Mullins was a Christian Musical Artist of our time.  He wrote treasured songs such as Awesome God, and Step by Step.  He is known for his beautifully poetic and prophetic lyrics.  His songs were like landscapes:  vast and breathtaking while intimate and detailed.  He loved God dearly, and his music reflected both the complexity and the simplicity of life.  He is respected both for his musical contribution and his life of service to Christ.

Though he produced 9 highly acclaimed Christian music albums, Rich was notorious for never having any money.  Bob Thornton (KTLI Wichita) writes : “Rich used to come into the station quite a bit. He had friends who worked here and all of us knew him, so he would drop in when he was in town. He would just walk in the lobby and call out to any staff that was around, ‘Who wants to go to lunch? I haven’t got any money!’ That was Rich. He never had any money…”  He made a lot, and he gave it all way, literally.   Amy Grant said of Rich that “He was the uneasy conscience of Christian music.”  She explained that Rich had taken a vow of poverty.”

In 1995, after completing a degree in music education, Rich pursued one of his greatest dreams and moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico to teach music to children on Native American Reservations.  Many such reservations could not afford to offer music classes in school.  Rich wanted the children to be blessed from God with music.  He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to the Native American reservation.

Though revered in many Christian circles, Rich strived to be honest with his doubts and struggles.  He did not bow to pressures to appear flawless.  Rather he humbled himself and was honest about the nitty gritty of life.  When he doubted, he doubted OUT LOUD, and when he believed, he believed OUT LOUD!

 

About his last recording, the Jesus record, a friend wrote:

For several years Rich had talked about making an album that would unfold the Jesus that we quickly gloss over on our way to church or Christian concerts. He wanted us to see the raw, rough Jesus who had dirty fingernails and who hung out with all the wrong people and loved them just as they were. It was a record, he said, that was “needed,” because for too many of us, Jesus had become domesticated, ordinary, and predictable. And necessary because those who believed Jesus to be otherwise often felt abandoned and alone in their convictions. Such was the nature of Rich’s work: he sought to at once challenge and heal, stir and to comfort, agitate and settle.

In September 1997, Rich sat down in an old, abandoned church, and, using a borrowed cassette recorder, recorded a demo tape for his new album.  The song, Hard to Get, is first on the recording, and it is one of Rich’s most explicit songs about doubt and faith.  In this song, the singer accuses God of playing hard to get up in heaven, while we all struggle down here on earth.  The song mingles knowledge of God’s love and mercy with the realities of pain and suffering.  It ends with a play on words in which the singer acknowledges God’s presence with him and concludes that rather than “playing hard to get,” God is “just plain hard to get.”

Nine days after this recording, Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident on his way to a benefit concert.  He left this world and went to meet his Love and Lord. Though only 41, when he died, Rich Mullins left a lifetime legacy of compassion and service to others.

 

I encourage you to listen to his song, “Hard to Get,” his demo version.  The words are below:

Hard to Get
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

 

Let us pray.

Jesus, you amaze us as you care to answer our deepest doubts.

It amazes us that you go out of your way to meet us where we are.

May we have the honesty and courage of Rich Mullins.

May we have the faith of doubting Thomas.

May we seek you and find you, as we seek you with all our hearts.

In the middle of our chaos, depression, tragedy, and injustice, show yourself to us.

Let us see that you have been here too.  Let us touch your wounds.  Show us your face.

May we see your merciful eyes and outstretched hand.

May we experience the power of your resurrection in our own lives.

Lord, how we need your resurrection power in our lives.

We seek you, With all our heart.  Come Lord, Jesus, that we may worship you,

our Lord and our God!            Amen