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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!

 

 

 

 

“We Are One”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 10:28-31
1 Corinthians 12:12-27

 

Matthew 10:28-31

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.


 

This teaching by Paul is important.  It has been foundational in the development of our theology.  It is among the reasons why we believe in the beauty and sacredness of each person, differences and all.

But the side of this passage that I find harder and harder to ignore, is this part about inferior members of the body of Christ.  Now when Paul mentions these inferior members, it is to say that we give them more honor, so all members feel cared for and a part.  But that still implies that some folks are more important in the body of Christ than others.

 

Now, this passage definitely challenges the way the world designates and measures value and worth.  This passage reminds us that those we often despise are often invaluable; whereas those we lift up and honor are quite often inferior.  I appreciate how Paul challenges the world’s way of thinking about, measuring, and valuing others.  I appreciate how God’s way is quite often the opposite of our ways.

What I find harder to digest is the fact that God still measures.  From Paul’s words, it would appear that God does not put down the measuring stick, but simply that God measures with a different stick altogether.

 

Now, living in our society today, I find this notion that some are more valuable that others a tad repulsive.  It’s like a bad smell in my nose, that I cannot shake.  I don’t like this idea that some are more important than others.

 

In other places of scripture, we learn that God loves and seeks and saves all people.

I am much more comfortable with those passages.

 

But this passage, cloaked in comparison and measurement, is hard for me to accept.  And I must not be the only one, because everywhere, we have pushes to remove comparison and competition.  School field days are no longer competitions among peers.  More and more, they’ve become more like choose-your-own-outdoor-activity-fests.  The competition has been altogether eliminated.  And everyone receives a ribbon.

Part of me is okay-enough with this.  But then I’ve also noticed how young adults who’ve been raised in this new social order have very little self-awareness.  All you have to do is watch the auditions for any singing competition, and you’ll find person after person who cannot match pitch yet has dreamed of being a singer since they were a little girl.  All I can think is, “how did that young lady grow up her whole life without knowing that singing isn’t her gift?!”

It’s in moments like this that I feel the new social order of “everyone wins” is grossly inadequate.  It’s like we’ve traded one extreme – competition at all costs – for another – Everyone is a winner!

 

Whatever your personal taste may be, this idea of ranking one another or being ranked is controversial.  And yet, through-out scripture we hear these words of ranking, value, and measurement.  Now, this measurement, God’s measurement, is radically different and juxtaposed to our own, but it IS measuring, nonetheless.

 

Perhaps a difference is this – Jesus speaks to action, choices, decisions, inactions.  Jesus measures the acts of all people, while treasuring each person.  Not all acts are okay.  Some are good.  Some are bad.  Some actions are right.  Other actions are wrong.  What we do and say and fail to do and say matters.  Some acts are full of faith, while others are full of fear and doubt.  But all the while we are reminded that God sees every sparrow that falls from the sky, and that we are of more worth than a sparrow.  All the while, we are reminded that God knows the number of hairs on our heads.

We are precious, honored, and beloved in God’s sight.

AND, we act in ways that are good and evil, right and wrong, faithful and unfaithful, courageous and cowardly.

Not all actions are equal.

 

But this explanation still does not satisfy OUR passage today, because the passage isn’t so much talking about actions.  It is talking about people, and their differences.

But no one passage is meant to be read in isolation.  They are a chorus.  When we hear them in conversation together, we are best able to discern the truth.  And it is no different with this passage.

While we are assured over and over in scripture that God values all, we also hear that God measures between different acts, good and evil.  In fact, God alone can accurately and wholly determine which is which.  God alone is in a position to judge.  Not all acts are equal.  In God’s eyes, it may be that not all people are equal.

All we know is that God alone is qualified to make that judgement.  We are not. 

 

Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is the phrase in verses 22 and 23:

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor,…

Perhaps Paul’s distinctions between the inferior and honorable members is simply a reflection of what WE think.  Is it possible Paul is merely speaking to the prejudices and judgements we make about one another, in order to challenge them with God’s way of thinking? 

We do not know for sure.

But what IS clear is Paul’s final assertion:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

We affect one another.

Each of us matters to the whole.

One person’s suffering, is all our suffering.

One person’s honor, is all our honor.

 

Now you may be thinking now of all the ways this does not seem true.  But we are part of one body, the body of Christ.  We are part of one human family.  We affect one another, both for good and for bad.  The harm or wellbeing of each individual matters to the whole.  “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” Paul reminds us.

So in a day and time when we are as tempted as ever to label one another, to judge and dismiss one another, to reduce one another to their shortcomings or political persuasions, may WE be a people who reflect God’s heart for the world:

I came not to condemn the world but that all people might be saved.

May WE be a people who believe God that every person’s suffering and every person’s gain is a loss or a gain to us all.

May WE be a people who STOP ranking and sorting one another with the measuring sticks we’ve found in the school of the world.

May WE be a people who begin to perceive our own worth and the worth of others, more and more, with God’s eyes.

 

Each made by the hand of God, we are bound together as one creation, one human family. 

Baptized into the family of God, we are bound together, as one body of Christ. 

 

May WE love and care for all our members and each person, remembering that we are joined.

When one of us weeps, we all weep. 

When one of us is honored, we are all honored.

 

The Word of the Lord.

“Change My Shame Into Praise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you[d] in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


 

When I read these verses from Luke about John’s ministry to the people in the wilderness, I am a tad perplexed when this chapter wraps up with the words, “So,…he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  It feels wrong.

 

All my life I’ve been hearing this story.  All my life, I’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and honestly, this story of John’s words and ministry does not sound to me like good news.  He proclaims a hard word.  He does not mince words.  He is a strait shooter.

To those who have been swindling others for personal gain, he tells them to stop.  He tells them to curb their own insatiable desire for more and to be content with what they have.  To those who have food and clothing, he commands them to share with those who have none.

When folks come overconfident and haughty – reasoning that they don’t need to worry about their souls because they are children of Abraham & thus heirs to the promises of God – John shoots right through their false sense of security.  Yes, God is faithful, but God also prunes away the branches that do not bear fruit.  The ax lies at the foot of the tree.  And God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth.  In other words, God does not need them in order to be faithful.  If they are unfaithful, God is still faithful, and God will do the work God intends through others.  And indeed God has done this – raising up descendants of Abraham from among the Gentiles – raising up all – whomever they are – who believe in him as children of God, members of the family of God.

 

From the beginning of time, we humans can become complacent.  And when we have known the love and belonging of God, we can take that for granted.  We can think that nothing we do really matters anymore.  But God continues to teach us that what we do DOES matter.

It’s not the kind of mattering that keeps us strung out on a thin thread of good grace.  It’s not the kind of mattering where God threatens to stop loving us, in order to get us to behave

No, it is not the kind of mattering that we’re used to – where grace is extended conditionally, where love is shown with strings attached.  It’s the kind of mattering that says our actions and inactions matter.  We have purpose in the world.  Our lives have consequence.

We matter.

 

And so God is continually inviting us to put the blessing of our lives to do good in this world.  And not to do evil.

 

And so here is John stirring the people out of their false sense of security, out of their complacence, and reminding them that their lives matter.  He implores them to do justice.  He implores them to live rightly, to change their crooked ways and return to God.

IF they are truly returning to God, truly repentant, their lives will bear the fruit of repentance, in justice, in goodness, in mercy, in righteousness.

And John is calling each one to take a hard and honest look at their lives.

 

Are their lives bearing the fruit of repentance?  Or not?

 

God is faithful.  God is sending someone more powerful than John, but will the people be a part of it?  Will they see him when he comes?  Will they receive him when he comes?

Or will they continue in their complacent, blinded, self-righteousness?  Will they persist in sin?  Will they harden their hearts and miss God’s voice, breaking through cloud and space, saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Christ is on the way, but the gift of this child will only be received by those who are ready – by the wise men who have watched the night sky and waited and journeyed for this very night – by the shepherds who are staring at the night sky (and not at their phones) and hear the angels of heaven proclaiming the Messiah’s birth – by Anna and Simeon who have waited, trusting God’s word that they would see the Messiah in their lifetimes…

The gift is here for the taking.

But who receives it?

 

We may think that there is nothing to do while we cry out to God to make things right in this world.  We may think that because we are Christians that our eternity is pretty much set & we don’t really need to be concerned with questions of right and wrong.  We may think that God is far more concerned with big ticket sins than with our seemingly small and insignificant lives.

But John is here, reminding us that our lives matter.  Our lives matter.  And that if we are not actively participating in God’s work in the world, we are likely working against it.  God will still be faithful, but we just may miss out.  And he is here, crying out in the wilderness our aimless busyness for us to stop and listen, for us to look ourselves honestly in the mirror.

Do our lives bear the fruit of repentance?

Repentance is a 180 degree turn.  It is a turning away from sin and a turning back toward God.  Repentance is not a way of earning God’s love.  Repentance does not make us holy.  Repentance isn’t our litmus test of holiness.

No, repentance is simply the one thing we can do to be ready for God.  It is the way we open our stubborn selves, again and again, to the Holy One, who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love.

 

Everyone wants John to give them the magic ticket to eternal security.  Folks want to know what they can DO.  And John points them to the only thing they CAN do, repent.

Repentance does not make things right, but it points us back toward the ONE who makes all things right, the ONE who heals all our infirmities, the ONE who came from heaven as a little babe that we might know the GOD SAVES!

 

As we prepare for Christmas, may we hear again this strait-shooting, wilderness call to look ourselves truthfully in the mirror and to return to God.

 

The Lord of Heaven and Earth awaits, ever yearning to gather us in, to welcome us home and rejoice over us with singing.

You are of great worth to God.

Your life truly matters.

 

May you ever return to God,

repenting and returning,

and may you know the sweet joy of our Lord God,

rejoicing over you with singing,

as God renews you in God’s love

and changes your shame into praise.

 

 

The Good News of God!

 

Let us ready ourselves.