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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!

 

 

 

 

“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“Do You Hear God’s Whisper?”

Reverend Katherine Todd
Matthew 4:12-23
Isaiah 9:1-4

 

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Isaiah 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.


 

 

In our passage today from Isaiah, I recognize this beautiful proclamation that those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, but what I’d never before noticed was the sentence just before:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

 

I have poured over commentaries and Biblical scholarship on this verse, because this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” is unique.  In fact the only other time it occurs in scripture is in Matthew, the other scripture we read today, where the apostle is quoting this very verse from Isaiah.

So what does it mean, “Galilee of the nations.”

 

Some look to the state of that area of Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime.  The Assyrian empire had overrun much of Naphtali & Zebulun, so it is reasoned that Isaiah is foretelling of a time in which this area, overrun & disgraced, will become glorious.

But this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” harkens to other phrases like “city on a hill” and “light of the world.”  Usually we think of Jerusalem specifically or Israel generally as being called to be this light for the nations.  So why here is Galilee being lifted up specifically as “of the nations”?

Is it because Galilee had been so overrun by people of other nations?

It is because Galilee itself will become this light to the nations?

 

Scholars are not in agreement about how to interpret this phrase.

But I find it noteworthy that wherever Jesus goes, there is transformation.

 

This remote area of Israel, not firmly secured, overtaken is worthy of mention because it becomes the land of hope.  It becomes the place from which those who have lived in deep darkness will find a great light.

 

A number of years ago several books came out by Bruce Wilkinson.  In them he walks the reader through more obscure texts of the Bible and opens them in a real and personal way.  You may be familiar with his most famous of these books, “The Prayer of Jabez.”

Well, I found his book, “The Dream Giver,” most encouraging.  In it he describes a character who is given a dream by God and allows us to accompany them on their journey of faith and doubt, support and resistance, hope and fulfillment.  What struck me most was that the character, upon reaching the promised land of his dream, is distressed by the terrible shape in which he finds the place.  While his dream had shown a city shining and bright, he instead finds a city dingy and dirty.

He is discouraged.  This land does not look like the promised land of his dreams.  But the author’s point is that dream, the vision, is of what God is doing THROUGH the character.  In other words, the city looks dingy & dirty now because it has not yet been touched by the gifts and vision of this person.  The place isn’t already brilliant.  Rather, the character will make this place brilliant.

 

And this passage from Isaiah paints much the same picture.  Isaiah is hailing Galilee as a city of the nations, but it isn’t anything great.  In fact it is rather despised.  But because of Christ, that whole land where Jesus spends most of his time ministering will become bright and shining, a land of hope and joy and freedom!

 

Christ has a way of transforming things.

Christ has a way of transforming us.

 

This is so very hopeful, because it means that indeed life and hope and joy and freedom can come into the most devastated. 

What are those places today?

What are those places in this city?

Can you name the neighborhoods in which you hesitate to go?

…to drive through?

…neighborhoods where the need outweighs the means,

…where loss is a daily experience?

 

So what if, a prophet today lifted one of those placed up, as a light to the nations, as a road to hope, as a place of hope and transformation.  Would you be amazed? 

Or if the outback of Australia, ravaged by fires, was lifted up as a verdant land, flowing with milk and honey…, would you be amazed? 

 

What situations has God laid on your heart?

What people has God placed on your heart?

What skill has God given you?

What connections has God provided you?

 

Because Christ lives in us, God is transforming the world still.  Today.  Through you.

That even the most devastated, desperate, fearful places may become rivers of hope and refreshing, places of justice and healing.

 

Can you imagine?

 

Jesus is still healing hearts, even those most devastated.

God is still causing people to dream dreams.

God is still planting vision in the heart of people everywhere.

Jesus is still transforming the world,

even and especially in all the most broken and ravaged places.

 

Do you hear God’s whisper?