Tag Archive: Sacrifice


God’s Wild Kingdom

This past Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

 

ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν… The kingdom of heaven is like a pastor who stepped into the pulpit one Sunday speaking foreign words. The listeners were confused and unsettled, wondering how they could interpret what she was saying.

Yes, like foreign words heard early in the morning, the kingdom of God is surprising, baffling and catches us off-guard – making us sit up and pay attention. Oh, and by the way, those words, ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν…,mean “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Now you can rest easy – I promise I won’t use anymore Greek today!

There are basically six different parables in this week’s Gospel – six! It seems as if Jesus is trying every possible way to get the disciples to grasp what he is speaking about. He’s already told them the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds. And now we hear these other parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. At the end, Jesus even asks them “have you understood all this?” They answer “yes,” but I’m wondering if they actually did understand or if they just needed to get past the parables!

These parables may seem disparate, but each one of them offers a glimpse into a different aspect of God’s kingdom – like facets on a diamond. The first speaks of God’s kingdom as one that begins small, spreads like a wild and invasive weed, and becomes a tree – a welcoming place where birds, symbolizing the people of many nations, make their home.

The second parable offers that the kingdom is like a tiny bit of yeast that permeates, lightens and expands our entire world. The next two parables describe the kingdom like a priceless treasure or pearl for which someone sacrifices and gives up everything in order to keep the newfound treasure.

The fifth parable reminds us that there is both good and bad within the kingdom, since it’s like an abundant catch of fish that needs to be sorted onshore. And Jesus’ final parable tells us that the kingdom is like the head of the house who not only brings out new treasures, but refurbishes the old to make it new again.

We speak about the kingdom of God and being a part of it by serving God and others. We even pray that it will come every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But I find that it’s easy to forget what the words “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” really mean. These parables help to present a fuller picture and call us to reexamine our thoughts and beliefs about God’s kingdom. They declare that the kingdom is priceless, powerful and grows in amazing, often unseen ways.

When Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking in the shadow of the Roman Empire. This was an incredibly powerful and unforgiving empire, ruling the lives of not only Roman citizens, but also slaves and conquered peoples, crushing rebellions and dissenters underfoot. Speaking of the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of Rome was radical and dangerous. Remember, part of Jesus’ sentence leading to the crucifixion dealt with him being a king and having a kingdom – something seen as a direct threat to Rome.

But I think we forget that we, too, have kingdoms and empires –we have things that rule over us and our lives. In some places, perhaps it is an oppressive government. But we cannot forget all of the other things that we allow to rule us – money, anger, fear, prejudice, material goods, gossip, anxiety, ourselves… The list could go on and on. And how often are we content to live under these rulers!

It is striking that Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as something that people rush out and sacrifice all they have had previously to obtain. This sounds like a terrible maneuver or investment strategy to our ears, but it means putting our trust solely in God. And the people in these parables don’t grudgingly sacrifice their things or their old way of life to follow God. No, they do it with joy: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” They are excited and brimming with joy because they know the kingdom of heaven is better than anything else. So what sacrifices have you made for God’s kingdom? And where does your allegiance lie – with the kingdoms and mindsets of this world or with the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways?

It is downright scary to ask these questions of ourselves because it means going against much of what society teaches us. Asking about what we can sacrifice for the idealistic and nearly impossible sounding kingdom of heaven flies in the face of what many would call common sense. And yet, that is our call as disciples of Christ – to live as God calls us to live, not as the world does. It makes us confront the prevailing storyline that there’s not enough to go around and that we therefore can never truly help those in need. Or that those who appear different than we are for one reason or another do not have the same hopes, dreams and needs as we do. It makes us confront the ideas that forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking are weak or foolish endeavors. It calls us to be people of radical hospitality and generosity.

The kingdom of heaven is beautiful and glorious, foreign and surprising given what we know of the world. To describe it using events of our own time, “The kingdom of heaven is like a beautiful land where the homeless and refugee feast at the table of God alongside the rich and well-connected. Where Palestinians and Jews see one another as brothers and sisters.   Where the boundaries of ethnicity, economic status, background, sexual orientation, and class melt away so that we finally see one another as fellow children of God.”

The kingdom of God is unexpected, mysterious and not yet fully established. And it can be incredibly difficult to keep faith and hope when there is so much around us that tells us so glaringly that there is pain, injustice and evil in the world.   But Christ is calling us to step out of our comfort zones and embrace God’s wild kingdom. To see glimpses of it breaking in. And it is breaking in.

Can you see it? It’s where Rwandan students like George and Bosco are receiving an education that will help them continue the transformation of their country. It’s in the smiles of children singing VBS songs and learning about God’s love. It’s breaking through when a Muslim professor in Iraq sacrifices his life in order to speak out against the persecution and murder of his Christian neighbors. It’s forgiveness and love instead of revenge and bitterness. It’s where someone generously and humbly offers the gifts they’ve been given to help others. And it is found in bread broken and wine shared among a diverse group of people.

The kingdom of heaven is popping up here and now in little and marvelous ways all over the world.  And maybe we can’t always see it because the bad and horrific news gets so much air time, but maybe we can take a page out of Solomon’s book and pray for an understanding mind – literally a listening heart – that will be able to see both the good and evil and discern God in the midst of it all.

And we can remember that no matter what happens, God is bringing this kingdom about.  Paul talks about this beautifully in his letter to the Romans when he says that nothing, including other kingdoms, empires, rulers, or even angels, can separate us from God’s incredible love.  Hearing that just makes me feel lighter somehow. No matter what hardship there is in our lives or in the world – no matter what horrors we hear about or experience – we are firmly embraced in God’s love. Knowing we are secure in Christ’s love, now and always – that is freedom to live and work for God’s kingdom.

There are so many kingdoms and rulers in our lives – so many things we can choose to serve. So who will we serve? Will we listen to Christ’s call to joyously be a part of God’s wild and growing kingdom, even if it involves hardship and sacrifice? Or will we be content to dwell in the kingdoms of this world?

I’d like to close with the words of a Taizé chant that have been echoing in my heart this week: “The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.” Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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Love One Another

This was the last sermon I preached at my Teaching Parish of Trinity Lutheran in Greencastle, Pennsylvania and was given today (May 2, 2010).

John 13:31-35
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love. The Beatles said it was all we needed. We use this little word to say we really like something, as in “oh my gosh, I love shoes!” or “I really love mocha chocolate chip ice cream!” Both of those are totally true by the way… We even use it when speaking to one another, and amazingly enough, this one word is used to cover a broad range of relationships – relationships between parents and children, those between friends, those between lovers. For a four-letter word, “love” is pretty versatile!

Last November, I had an interview for Clinical Pastoral Education, a program I’ll be participating in over this summer. Basically, I will be a chaplain at Gettysburg Hospital, learning about pastoral care firsthand. After speaking with me about what I hoped to learn over the summer and a bit about my faith journey, the interviewer asked me about what exactly had brought me to faith in God. You see, I wasn’t raised in any religious background so the interviewer was wondering how on earth I had ended up at seminary! A fair question to be sure!

After thinking a bit, I answered that it was God’s overwhelming and amazing love. The love that says no matter how much I mess up, God still wants to forgive me and have a relationship with me. And the fact that someone, a man named Jesus, had been willing to die for me in order to forgive me and bring me into relationship with God. That astounded me – who was this man who would give his life for me? I mean, he would do that for me even though I didn’t even know him?! That blew my mind and continues to leave me speechless. The feeling I had that God was out there, coupled with hearing about Jesus’ selfless act on the cross, told me that there was a God who loved me more than I could even begin to fathom. Once I heard that, I wanted to hear more – I wanted to know more about this God who would go to such incredible lengths for the sake of people who sinned and turned their backs on God and each other.

It was from here that my faith journey took off, slowly, but surely. Along the way, I have encountered many things, both positive and negative in the church, as I am sure you have as well. It’s quite inevitable to avoid any negative experiences within the church, because, ultimately, we are dealing with people who share and struggle with the same sins. In my personal experiences, I have encountered the condemnation of others who did not believe the exact same things being taught as well as people looking down on those of different faiths. I firmly believe that this is contrary to the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus declares: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This statement comes just after Jesus has knelt to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. It also follows Jesus’ statement about the glory he and God the Father have received through Judas’ betrayal and the upcoming crucifixion. Jesus gives this new commandment, but he elaborates on it, saying that the disciples are to love just as he has loved them.

When I don’t slow down to actually think about what Jesus is saying, I think “oh, loving other people – that’s like being “nice” to them, right?” Yes, of course, but Jesus’ two sentences here mean infinitely more. First of all, love is a verb, not a noun. It’s an action, and, in the original language, the verb that is used here translates into “keep on” or “continue loving one another.” Here, Jesus is urging his disciples to continue loving one another, especially given that he knows his trial and crucifixion are going to happen in a few short hours. The community of faith must continue on in the spirit of Christ, even though dark and trying times are around the corner.

Secondly, what exactly does “just as I have loved you” mean? At a quick glance, it’s tempting to think of pictures of Jesus smiling and laughing with children or of the songs “Jesus loves me” or “Jesus loves the little children.” While these are wonderful in their own right, I think Jesus’ statement here is much more powerful. Jesus stands before his disciples as the Word become flesh, the one who was “in the beginning with God,” the one who has done incredible signs and taught powerful things. He stands there as the one who has just taken on the role of a slave, washing the disciples’ feet and who has predicted his impending suffering, death and resurrection. He has done all of these things out of love and now, he tells them to love each other as he has loved them. That is way more than being nice to one another!

There is a Middle English poem in the Commonplace Book of John Grimstone written in 1372, which speaks to this love beautifully:

“Love brought me,
And love created me,
Man, to be your companion.
Love fed me,
And love led me,
And love abandoned me here.

Love slew me,
And love drew me,
And love laid me in a tomb.
Love is my peace,
For love I chose,
Man to dearly buy.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t rhyme or flow as well when it’s translated, but I think it captures the depth of Christ’s love for us.

But what does this all mean for us? Having received this amazing love, how does it affect our lives? Jesus has commanded his disciples and us to love one another with the same selfless love he showed in his life, throughout his ministry and in his death on the cross for our sake. We must get our hands dirty, throwing ourselves into loving others just as Jesus took on human flesh to show the love of God to and for us. Like happy gardeners reveling in the messiness and earthiness of the garden soil, we are to be busy about the work of the kingdom of God, loving with abandon.

Jesus also told his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Like a badge or a tattoo, loving one another like Christ will show the world who his disciples are – who his representatives are on earth.

All I have to say to that is a sheepish, “Oops.” How many times have I shown less than Christ-like love to others? Driving on the road, in my relationships with those around me, the list could go on…I know for sure that I have not always loved as Christ loved me. I also have this sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one here who has had this problem! As I said before, love is an action, not a noun. It is something that we must continue to seek to do, relying on God’s never-ending grace and the Spirit working within us. I have also found that two of my favorite authors have encouragement for all who would seek to follow Christ.

First, C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century apologist and author, wrote, “do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”
In other words, Lewis wants us to stop thinking about and pondering whether or not we are truly loving someone and, like Nike would tell us, “just do it!” If we begin treating people as if we already loved them, with dignity, honoring them with our time and extending generosity and hospitality, I think we will be surprised to find that our attitude toward them shifts.

Second, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian and member of the Resistance movement against the Nazis, wrote extensively in his book Life Together, how Christians can and should live in community with one another. In this book, he urges people to pray for one another, to listen to each another’s stories, to bear one another’s burdens, to forgive each other, to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to one another, and to allow God to interrupt our plans and hectic lives for the sake of others. This list rings true today, even though it’s more than 60 years later.

Remember that we are not just to love one another in the church or in the body of Christ, but also to love one another in the world. The famous Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus from 30 BCE to 10 CE, wrote, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” This applies directly to loving one another as Christ loved us. Yes, it is important for us to speak for ourselves and love one another within the church, but if we are not speaking for and caring for others, for our brothers and sisters outside of the church, then who are we as the body of Christ? Jesus, a Jewish man, went to Samaria and taught there, even though it was taboo for the two religions and cultures to interact. Time and time again, Jesus reached out to the outsiders and the marginalized and loved them.

If we do not stand with indigenous peoples whose homes and livelihoods are being destroyed due to deforestation and pollution, who will? If we do not stand with those who are persecuted due to their race, ethnicity, gender or faith, who will? If we do not do so, just as Jesus did, who are we? And, if we do not do it now, when will we do so? Will we only wake up when it is too late?

Love is a many splendored thing for sure. But love as Jesus talks about it is not static or something that happens to us. Rather it is something we are to actively participate in. As love brought Jesus to take on flesh and love for all of us drove him to the cross, it is a powerful force, not just a four-letter word. We have been commanded to love just as Jesus loved us and we are able to because Christ loved us first. We are to respond to the love of Christ by going and doing likewise. Are we up for the challenge? Maybe The Beatles were right: all you need is love. Perhaps, however, we can expand our view to include that of the band Switchfoot when they sing “Love is the movement. Love is a revolution. Get up, get up. Love is moving you now.” Love, the overwhelming love of Christ, is moving us now. Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Love

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