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Monday, June 18, 2012

It's Kingdom Time!

Proper 6 Year B     Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2012
The Rev. Bob Honeychurch

What was Jesus’ occupation?  That’s right… he was a carpenter.  And it’s a good thing that he was a carpenter, because if today’s gospel lesson is any indication, he would have made a lousy farmer. Let me tell you why…

My grandmother was a homesteader… yup, just like Little House on the Prairie.  Back in 1905, at the ripe old age of 19, this young, single woman headed West, from her hometown in south-central Minnesota, and claimed her 160 acres of prime agricultural real estate in the northwestern part of North Dakota, in McKenzie County, just outside the little town of Arnegard… in an area filled with immigrants and first generation Norwegians much like herself, all in search of their piece of the American dream.

And my grandmother knew that farming was hard work.  According to the Homestead Act of 1862 signed by President Abraham Lincoln, homesteaders were given 160 acres of federal land and five years to prove up the land in order to own it outright. In other words, they needed to make enough improvements on the land (things like a house, and crops, and fencing) that they could prove they could live off the land.  And so my grandmother had to start that very first year, before the North Dakota winter set in, to get a small house built, and to begin to put a blade to the North Dakota prairie so that the first crops could be planted.  She worked the land all of her life, as did her son, and now her grandson – still farming the original homestead in North Dakota.

Now, in addition to being a farmer, my grandmother was also a deeply religious woman. And so, I can imagine her heading off to Wilmington Lutheran Church in town every Sunday morning to sing her favorite hymns, and pray those prayers she knew by heart, and listen to those old familiar stories from the bible, and drink that same Lutheran church coffee she’d been drinking her whole life – all spoken in Norwegian, the language of her people and (as far as she was concerned, I suppose) the language of God. 

Inevitably it would have to come up…this parable we heard this morning, found only in Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus offers a very different slant on what it takes to be a successful farmer.  Now, according to Jesus, the work of a farmer goes something like this:  They go out into the field and throw a bunch of seed on the ground. And then they go home and go to bed. And then they get up the next morning and go about their lives.  And then they go to bed again. And then they get up again.  And they keep repeating this pattern over and over again.  All the while, in the midst of their getting up and going to bed, something mysterious and totally out of the farmer’s control would be happening.  As the scriptures told us, “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  In fact, it seems as though the farmer’s presence is no longer needed, for the text goes on to say, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain on the head.” Only then does the farmer come back into the story… for “when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”  That, my friends – for those of you who have not spent much time out on the farm – is Agriculture 101 according to the bible.

My grandmother would have laughed at that.  And so would lots of people today.  Whether it’s about farming, or whether it’s about building the kingdom of God (which is the point of Jesus’ parable in the first place), we all know better than that.  We all know how much work it really takes. Ask anyone who has ever planted a church (a good agricultural image there) – and I have talked with lots of church planters in my job – and they’ll tell you it isn’t just about scattering a bunch of seeds around and waiting for something wonderful to pop up.  Or ask any pastor (another great agricultural word – as in, to provide pasture, or to feed like a shepherd) and you can be assured that the work is a lot more than tossing out a few pearls of wisdom now and again, and then taking a nice, long afternoon nap while something magical happens.

That’s the amazing thing about Jesus’ parables.  Whenever we want them to comfort us, or to confirm our own personal view of reality, or to justify our own biases or behaviors or beliefs, they end up doing just the opposite.  They confound us, and challenge us, and upset our own self-made little apple carts, and generally frustrate the heck out of us, and make us want to cry out, “But that’s not the way the world works.”

And that is exactly the point of a parable.

This brief story of Jesus drives home the point that, despite our best efforts to think we know better than God, despite our best efforts to do things our own way (if only God and everyone else would just get out of the way) – even sometimes despite our best efforts to screw things up – God’s will will be done, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Because, you see, that’s the point.  In God’s realm, earth and heaven are one.  It’s not as though heaven is “up there” somewhere, and our job is to escape these earthly bonds so that we can finally be at home with God (despite all of the gauzy pictures you might remember from Sunday School, or all of the mournful gospel hymns you may have sung as a child).  God already has made a home.  As the opening verses from the 1st chapter of John’s gospel remind us: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  In a real, and tangible, and visible way – although God had been here all along – through the incarnation of Jesus, God moved into the neighborhood… and heaven and earth became one.

If that’s the case, then there is nothing we can do to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom… because the kingdom is already here.  “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” It describes not just some future hope.  It describes our present reality.  We are living in kingdom time.

If we were to take to heart the words of today’s parable, then we would come to see that the kingdom is the scattering, and the kingdom is the growing, and the kingdom is the harvest. And we find ourselves in the midst of that scattering, and that growing, and that harvesting every day of our lives. 

So where in your life are seeds being scattered… new possibilities emerging… new opportunities just peeking their heads above the horizon?  That’s God’s kingdom at work.  And where are those seeds sprouting into something new, something unexpected, something perhaps totally outside of your control?  That, too, is God’s kingdom at work.  And where is the harvest taking place in your life… some part of your life that is culminating… some chapter that may be drawing to a close… some work that is coming to fruition?  That is God’s kingdom being made manifest in your world today.

So what then is the response of God’s people, what is the way in which God’s church is invited to engage this present reality?  One might say, “Well, there’s nothing that we can be doing anyway, so why worry about it? It’s all in God’s hands.”  Or another might say, “Our job is to wait for the end of the story to be revealed (the so-called harvest time at the end of the age).” I think a more authentic response would be to say that our job as God’s holy people in this present reality is to act like it is really so… is to act as though we actually believe that kingdom time is upon us.

A few months ago we got a letter at our house from a young woman whom I have known for many years.  This young woman is in college now, and she wrote to us asking if we would support her in a short-term mission trip she’s doing this summer.  Along with other members of her evangelical college ministry program, she is spending some time bringing the message of Jesus to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Now, if you’ve ever been to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the summer, you may know that it is probably one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  So I am glad her campus ministry group decided that if they were going to do some serious face-to-face evangelism, they might as well do it while enjoying a little slice of God’s creation at its best. 

But what troubled me most about her letter was the inherent assumption that they would somehow be bringing Jesus to Jackson Hole this summer… as though Jesus hadn’t already gotten to Jackson long before they ever set foot in the place. 

What if they, or we, acted like Jesus was already in Jackson Hole… or already in Altadena, for that matter?  If our job is not to “bring” Jesus to the world, then what exactly are we to do?  I think that maybe Woody Allen had it right when he said that “80% of success is just showing up.”  I think that is what God is inviting us to do… right here and right now… just show up.  Show up with your heart open, and show up with your mind open, and show up with your hands open… and say, “God, I’m here for the party. Show me what you want me to do.”

We are living, my friends, in kingdom time.  May the planting, and the growing, and the harvesting, which is happening within and around us, draw us ever closer to God and to one another. And may it shape us ever more into the people God is calling us to become.  It’s kingdom time.


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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Seeking a king

Pr.5, Yr B
1 Samuel 8:4-20

I love Girl Scout cookies, Thin Mints in particular. If I have a box of them around, they call to me. I can think about how I really ought to save them for a time when I'm truly hungry and as a dessert after a meal. I can read the nutrition information on the side and find out that a serving is just 4 cookies. I can see that along with the delight of those 4 cookies, I'm going to get 160 calories, 8 grams of fat--5 of which are saturated--a lot of sugar, and negligible amounts of fiber or protein. It turns out that Thin Mints are probably worse for you than any other Girl Scout cookie. I can register all that information...and then, without much hesitation, I can open up the box and eat an entire sleeve of them! I know it's not a good idea, but nonetheless, it's what I want; it satisfies some sort of craving.

I admit to this trusting that I'm not the only one who has ever done it. Oh, maybe you aren't brought down by Thin Mints, but there's almost certainly something, most likely more than one something. We do it at an individual level, and we do it communally. We crave what's bad for us. We long for what can't really satisfy us. We choose what threatens to destroy us. And we do it again and again and again.
This timeless human tradition is perfectly expressed in today's Old Testament lesson, demonstrating once again that there really is nothing new under the sun. The Israelites tell the priest Samuel that they really want a king "like all the other nations have..." Samuel tells them and God that he thinks it's a bad idea. A king will take the best of their men as soldiers and farmers and craftsmen; he'll take the best of their women for cooks and perfumers and who knows what else; he'll take the best of their crops for his own court; he'll take the best of their lands for his own enrichment; and then he'll make everyone his slaves. God agrees with Samuel, but the people keep insisting that despite all this, they want a king to be in charge and keep them safe; after all, everyone else is doing it! God tells Samuel to go ahead and give them what they're wishing for, even though they'll regret it, and Saul becomes the first king of Israel.
I get it; I really do. The world is a chaotic, threatening place, and we all long for order, for someone to be in charge and protect us, to assure us everything is going to be okay. However, I tend to want these things the easy way, often ignoring the big picture. I desire good health, but it seems simpler to trust in new drugs and surgeries than the slow and difficult approach of eating well and exercising. Want to feel loved? Sure a lot easier to friend everyone and their neighbor on Facebook than to take time to really talk to the person next to you. We all want safety, but we're more inclined to erect walls, lock doors, and build prisons than address the long term issues of justice, poverty, education, and mental health care. And control...who doesn't want a feeling of control and security? But are bigger bank accounts, longer job titles, or more sophisticated gadgets the way to get it?
The fact is, there are no easy solutions and there never have been. Didn't work for the Israelites a couple thousand years ago, and still doesn't work today. Hard as it may be, we get our best chance when we learn to live with uncertainty, with lack of control, with mystery, because that's what it's like to live with God. We're not supposed to be like everyone else; we're called to be God's chosen and holy people...which is way more difficult.
Yesterday I went to the Education for Ministry graduation at the Cathedral Center to celebrate with our own 4 graduates and a couple dozen from other congregations. Over the years, I've come to believe that one of the most important facets of EfM is learning to live with, and even embrace, the questions, rather than imagining that as Christians we're meant to find static answers. Even beyond that, the wonder of EfM, and of the church, is that we aren't left to do that in isolation. God draws us into communities of seekers, so that although we may be uncertain or mystified or downright confused, we aren't alone. We can explore together, learning from one another, encouraging and supporting and strengthening each other so that we grow mutually in faith, turning to the only One who can fill our longing. We can see from the Israelites what happens when we give up on God and give up on each other; we look for a king--or a book with the answer, or a bank account, or a pill, or a system, or a tool or toy, or a food or drink, or something else human-devised--to take care of us, to make us feel safe. But those just won't cut it for long, even if they look like they're working for everyone else. I'm not saying those things are inherently bad, just that they can't satisfy our deepest needs and longing.
In the Collect for Purity, we pray at the beginning of our worship, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid..." Isn't that what our souls crave? To be fully and completely known, exactly as we are, and still to be loved? But this is our reality. We don't need to go in search of a king; we already have been found, and known, and loved by the Ruler of all Creation, the Sovereign Lord of Life. To this God we give all thanks and praise. Amen.