(I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 26, 2020. You can see the entire service on the church website – www.ststephenlc.org)
When I took my first preaching class, I remember being told by the professor a few important “rules.” First, don’t worry about trying to knock it out of the park every week. Professional baseball players are considered really good when they bat .333. That means they are only getting to base 33% of the time. And hitting home runs far fewer times than that. If you make a connection through your sermon 33% of the time, you’re doing pretty good.
My professor also said, try to include stories. People remember the stories and can connect with them. Jesus told stories all the time. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for too.
And lastly, focus on one passage of scripture. You don’t have to preach your fully theology in one sermon.
That third one is great advice. And today I’m putting it aside. What I ended up with was three mini-sermons strung together – not quite what I expected. But then again, that’s how God operates.
There isn’t one passage of Scripture that really caught my heart and mind this week from the lectionary. The reality is that they all spoke something to me that I needed to hear. Something different, but connected.
In the first reading we have Solomon and God having a conversation. And God tells Solomon – “Ask what I should give you.” Wow. Take that in for a moment. God is pretty much saying “Hey Solomon, ask for anything you want, and like Amazon, I’ll deliver it to you.”
I don’t know. I’ve got some issues with this passage. I don’t like the idea of God being like Amazon. Sure, that’s an analogy we want to hear, but I don’t think it would make the cut on Jesus’ “The kingdom of heaven is like…” parables.
We aren’t in charge of God. We don’t get to shape God as we see fit. Sure, we can approach God and ask for things. But you know, I’ve seen too many preachers and public officials who brandish the label of being a Christian take this and abuse it. I’ve seen them do all sorts of abusive things to people in the name of God, claiming that they had some kind of special blessing. And I’m tired of that.
That’s not how God operates. God isn’t in the business of abusing people.
God isn’t about being used by someone so they can get their way either. That’s the definition of taking the Lord’s name in vain – using God for one’s own purpose, rather than loving God and serving God and aligning ourselves and our wills to the will of God. I’ve seen and heard of too many dystopian novels and movies where that happens. And worse yet, I have seen and heard actual examples in our world throughout history and even currently to make me sick.
Solomon asks for wisdom. He could ask for anything, but he asks for wisdom. Good choice Solomon! I think I could use some of that wisdom too – got any extra to spare? Wisdom to discern when to speak up and when to shut my mouth and more importantly, on what. Speaking up when I discern injustice and staying quiet when there is a difference of opinion. Speaking up when there is a need for someone to be seen and staying quiet when there is a need for someone to be validated when they speak. Wisdom to discern when to act and when to wait. Wisdom to discern so many things.
The spiritual state of our nation is not well. There are public fights over whether churches are trying to protect people by either worshipping online or having mitigated in person worship, or if it’s some kind of attempt to shut down Christian worship. We have open racial wounds that have never healed. We have a raging virus that somehow has people divided along partisan loyalties that makes no sense whatsoever to me.
Lord, why do so many place their identity and allegiance in something so lacking, so much lesser than you and all you offer? When do I do that same exact thing? What does such an identity and allegiance offer that you Oh Lord lack? What in the world can I possibly say that would have any influence at all on the situation? What do I need to hear? I don’t know. But I would like some wisdom if you are passing it around, Lord. And while you are at it – please share it with others too.
When I hear Paul’s letter to the Romans, I am struck by the last two verses – some of the most powerful words in all of Scripture. Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, not 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.”
Do you hear that? I mean, do you really hear it?
The contrast with what we hear in the world, and in our nation especially right now, could not be a starker contrast with Paul’s words. Paul is expressing a theological point that has serious political and practical implications. The Romans proclaimed that they were civilized and those outside of the empire, those that were slaves, and servants (which made up a large chunk of the population), those who were conquered people (again, a large segment of humanity under Roman rule), were barbarians, uncivilized, or less than human. And Paul was proclaiming a contrasting message that not only declares the value of all people, but that God cares about all people and that nothing can keep God away from God’s people.
Do you hear the messages that are being proclaimed in our nation? Because I do. It’s a message that demands that we have to pick sides – that we only focus on issues. You are either this or you are that. God forbid there be other options in what is presented as an ongoing epic winner take all battle to the death. And if you are pick the wrong side, you aren’t just wrong, you are an enemy, intent on destroying the nation – the unspoken claim is that you are not on the side of God.
Or as Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian, once wrote – “Issues easily imprison; a person can set free. Issues easily divide us; a person can unite. Issues easily exhaust; a person can give rest. Issues easily destroy; a person can offer new life. Despair is caused by orientation towards issues, but hope emerges when we direct ourselves with heart and mind to the person of a saving God. That is prayer.”
When we care more about picking sides on issues, we lose sight of people and are more worried about planting our flag and claiming our argumentative piece of high ground. Pick an issue. If it is taking a stand on wearing a mask or not – it all of a sudden becomes an existential threat as opposed to just caring for one’s neighbor. If it’s taking a stand on Black Lives Matters, then we lose our vision of seeing the image of God in others. If it’s taking a stand on Confederate statues and the Confederate flag, then we lose sight of what it means to be a citizen of heaven. If it’s taking a stand on federal agents moving into metropolitan areas, then it blinds us from seeing Jesus clearly.
Instead of right away taking sides on issues, what if instead we asked this question – can we see Christ in the world? Can we see Jesus right now, right here, in this situation, in these people?
Paul’s words spoke to me though, in spite of the message the world loudly proclaims. Paul is writing in a time of contrast and division, oppression and tyranny for many, opulence and privilege for a smaller few. Paul had to argue with the Roman notion around who has worth and value as well as the Jewish belief around the Jews being special and Gentiles being lesser. And yet, his message hits the mark.
Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Nothing at all. There is no wall high enough. There is no ocean deep enough. There is no ideology convincing enough. There is no loyalty strong enough. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Because God pursues us, endlessly, and won’t back down. Nothing can stop God. Nothing.
And because we are followers of Jesus, this gives us the prime example of how we are live too. Nothing can stop us from proclaiming and living out that love. Nothing can stop us from proclaiming and showing how we love God and our neighbor. Nothing can stop us from proclaiming and showing how we love God by caring for those that God cares about and specifically names in Scripture – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, the oppressed, the exploited, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the widow, the orphan, the imprisoned – the least of these in society.
It’s been there all along – just open up Scripture. Read either the New Testament or the Old. The message is the same – it always has been. Paul is just saying it a different way. And that’s exactly what I need to hear right now.
Not a message of who’s right and who’s wrong on any number of issues. Not who’s saving the nation and who’s destroying it. All that won’t matter one ounce when we stand before God at the Resurrection. God isn’t going to ask you which political party you were a member of, or your arguments on any number of issues we face in life.
God isn’t going to ask you what you thought about Black Lives Matter or Law and Order. God isn’t even going to look up your attendance records at church. Nope.
I imagine God is going to look at each one of us and ask us – how did you love me by loving those around you? How did you love me by loving the least of these among you? I imagine God asking, “Did you actually believe what I’ve been saying and then go and do it, or was something else more important? I especially imagine God saying – Did you see how I kept pursuing you your entire life and never gave up on you?
When I hear that nothing can stop God from getting to me and to you, I am convinced that to be a follower of God means taking that message in wholeheartedly and letting it transform us, shaping us, changing us so that when it comes out of us and is lived out in us, others will know that God’s love cannot be stopped. They will hear it in what we proclaim and what we do.
And finally, the Gospel. Jesus and his parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like…”.
I wonder what Jesus would say the kingdom of heaven is like here and now to us. When I hear these parables, I have to say – the kingdom of heaven doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? A mustard seed becoming a great shrub. A shrub? That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like? A shrub? Not a mighty oak, or a red wood. Nope. A shrub.
The kingdom of heaven is like people who sell everything for something small that has value. But would you sell everything – your house, your car, your electronics, your clothes, give up your bank accounts and credit cards, and buy something small with it? How would that sustain you and your life?
The kingdom of heaven is like…what? Good question. Maybe that’s why Jesus told these parables. To get us to think a bit. To open our eyes. To open our hearts. To see differently. To hear differently. To think differently. To act differently. To be different. To have different relationships with people and things. To see that the kingdom of heaven isn’t like how things are done here on earth. The kingdom of heaven has different values. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t make sense to the world. That should not surprise us.
The world’s proclamation has always been in contrast with the kingdom of heaven. The world believes that the strong survive, that might makes right, that the ends justify the means. The world believes that being right on the issues is more important than people and seeing the image of God in person we disagree with. The world believes in karma and revenge. The world believes that violence solves problems and saves people. But that is not what the kingdom of heaven is like. It never has been like any of that.
So, where do you see the kingdom of heaven? Seriously, where do you see it unfolding? Where do you get a glimpse of the kingdom right now? Or are you having trouble seeing it? Henri Nouwen once wrote, “the strategy of the power of evil is to make us think of life as a huge stack of very complicated issues, too many to respond to, too complex to understand, and too frustrating to deal with. The more entangled we become in issues the harder it is to recognize Jesus as the saving Lord of history.”
Take off the lens that the world gives you – that the kingdom of heaven will be like a mighty army or wealthy nation or a platform with all the answers. That’s not ever what Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven to be like. The Kingdom of heaven is like God – it doesn’t match our ways of thinking. It doesn’t match up with our expectations. It doesn’t match with earthly greatness and strength. It never has and it never will. Yet, why do we keep trying to pursue these things if they aren’t what the kingdom of heaven is like? Why?
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a carrot in a garden, so much of it is buried and unseen, yet there – but we get a glimpse of it on the surface. The kingdom of heaven is like a carrot? Hmm. Not quite what we expect huh?
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a phone call with a family member or friend we haven’t been able to see in person in months and to hear their voice gives us a shot of something we desperately need – love. The kingdom of heaven is like a phone call? Hmm. Not quite all powerful and mighty is it?
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a trip to the park where we encounter God’s creation and for a short time remember that we are a part of that creation too – that nothing separates us. The kingdom of heaven is like a trip to the park? Hmm. So simple, yet, it conveys so much.
And maybe the kingdom of heaven is like ignoring conventional wisdom – sometimes we get to see more of the kingdom when we set aside expectations, we see differently, and we journey with God. The kingdom is already here! It’s unfolding in our midst. God is inviting us to be a part of it. There’s nothing that can stop God. There’s nothing that can contain the kingdom. It doesn’t meet our expectations and the good news is that it doesn’t have to. The kingdom of heaven is what God wants it to be. And God invites us to be a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus brings us into the kingdom. Welcome to the kingdom. Amen.