Saturday, August 16, 2014

Don't Mean a Thing

Sermon July 27, 2014 (I have been on vacation for a couple of weeks)

Texts: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

            “It Don’t Mean a Thing”  Ellington:
            Ella and Ellington:
            “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing – do wah, do wah, do wah, do wah, do wah.”
            What does “the kingdom of God” mean?  Why might we care?  We care because “the whole message of Jesus focuses on the kingdom of God” (Norman Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, 1).  This idea was important to Jesus and as followers of Jesus, we need to pay attention to it.  We want to pay attention to it.  And if you are wondering, Matthew’s use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is just another way of talking about “the kingdom of God.”  The terms are interchangeable.
            So what does the kingdom of God mean?  It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got what? 
            The kingdom of God is not the name of a place, but it is a symbol that wants to point to a reality, a symbol that invites us to think, dream, and imagine a little differently so that we might also live a little differently.  I like to talk about the kingdom of God as “God’s dream for the world.”  In my rendering of the Jesus Prayer, we use the phrase, “may your kingdom come, your dream arrive, your purposes prevail.”
            The kingdom of God is a symbol for God’s dream and purposes becoming a reality.  It might be said to be a horizon symbol, something always out ahead of us, luring us on into the future, asking us to work to build a different future.  It is a future, though, that can break into the present.  The symbol of the kingdom of God is also an inviting symbol.  We are invited by it to think, dream, imagine and live differently.
            That’s where things may get a little more uncomfortable for some.  The kingdom of God is not just God’s doing, but we are invited to participate.  John Dominic Crossan: God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it (The Power of Parable, 127).  Another way to put this is the way South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu did, quoting St. Augustine: St. Augustine says, “God without us will not, as we, without God cannot (in Crossan, 135).  When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s dream to arrive, God’s purposes to prevail we should do this knowing that we will be involved in that happening.
            So we are getting just a little bit of the swing of the kingdom of God - do wah do wah do wah do wah do wah.  But there are more notes to play.  What does it look like, feel like, taste like when indeed, God’s dream arrives right now, when God’s purposes prevail in our historicality?  This is really what these parable of Jesus in Matthew 13 are trying to get at.  What’s it like when God’s dream breaks in and becomes real?  As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his best in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the Thing itself (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking)
            With parables, Jesus is trying to help us experience and anticipate the experience of God’s kingdom, God’s dream touching our lives and the world.  What does it look like, feel like, taste like?  But he uses the language of symbol, metaphor, parable, poetry.  Jesus parable-riddles generate ambiguity at a variety of levels but never fully resolve that ambiguity (Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 81).  We want to know how the kingdom of God swings, what it tastes like, feels like, looks like and what we get is the language of symbol, poetry, metaphor, parable which gives us hints, suggestions, whispers, impressionistic images.  It is a little like grabbing jello, but that is part of the adventure of following Jesus.  This engages us heart, mind and soul.  We participate in dreaming the kingdom as well as in making the dream a reality.  What we know is the overall direction – love, but defining love is also a little like squeezing jello.  It is also like jazz, where what the musicians play depends, in part, on what the other musicians are playing.  It is also like dance where, if you are going to do it well, you need to pay attention to the music and to your partner. 
            One other general comment.  Another reason that symbols, parables, metaphors, poetic language is so appropriate with its ambiguity, hints, suggestions is not only to invite us in, to invite our participation, but also because God’s dream, when it arrives is often shrouded in ambiguity and irony.  I have long appreciated the thoughts of Patrick Henry on this.  I trust God’s grace but I hesitate to identify it in particular cases.  It often blindsides me, regularly catching me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face.  When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward….  Over and over again, grace has come as irony: an off-balance deflating of my pride, sometimes as funny as vaudeville slapstick; a gentle dismantling of my despair (when I’m really hopeless nothing is scarier that hope, so grace has to be indirect, sneaky); clarity when I’m too confused and confusion when I’m too clear. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 2, 6)
            Having said all that, we can still ask what does it look like, feel like, taste like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail? 
            Often there is a touch of the miraculous – like a mustard seed becoming a tree, or alike a woman baking with sixty pounds of flour (three measures) - and I am using that word both intentionally and carefully.  We often use the term miraculous to refer to only those things we cannot otherwise explain.  That’s o.k., but sometimes the miraculous has to do with the element of surprise, of seeing hidden dimensions of experience we had not seen before.  I love Walt Whitman’s meditation on the miraculous (“Miracles,” Leaves of Grass:
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart by sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky…

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with
   the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same

The miraculous need not be big and dramatic, though it may be.  It might be small, inconspicuous, perhaps almost innocuous, until finally it grabs hold of you.  It may start out as small as a mustard seed, or as insignificant as a bit of yeast in a large quantity of flour.
            What does it look like, feel like, taste like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail?  There is inclusion and wise discernment together.  When the mustard seed becomes a tree, which, by the way, they don’t – mustard plants are shrubs – except in God’s wild imagination, when the mustard seed becomes a tree, all kinds of birds flock to it.  There is beauty, welcome, song. 
Yet we are not to let “inclusion” be mistaken for sloppy thinking.  Here’s what I mean.  We believe God loves all, and we mean all you all – everyone.  God loves, God welcomes, God accepts.  That doesn’t mean there are no criteria for self-criticism.  That doesn’t mean there are no expectations as we seek to follow Jesus.  There remain things in my life, caught in the net of my life, that I need to throw away.  There remain things in our life together that we expect of each other and hold each other accountable for.  Years ago, when I served as a District Superintendent in The United Methodist Church, I had to do some difficult work with a few church persons who needed behavioral guidelines for their participation in the church.  They had engaged in some pretty destructive kinds of behavior where the congregation, with my help, needed to say, “enough.”  The kingdom of God can show up there, too.
Over the course of the history of the church, we have erred way too often on that “wisdom” side, until it has become foolishness, than we have on the side of welcoming.  Seeds of love grow amazingly, and there is room for all.
What does it look like, feel like, taste like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail?  Well, we have room for the old and the new.  Talk about the need for a dance.  There are traditions in our faith worth rediscovering, and some older things that have lost their vitality. There is new music which can communicate faith, and there are some new ideas that are little more than a flash in the pan.  Finding life in some of the tried and true and being open to being surprised by the new – that’s what it feels like, looks like, tastes like when God’s dream arrives.
What does it look like, feel like, taste like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail?  There is joy and there is passion.  It is like discovering buried treasure or a valuable pearl.  When God’s presence is real and powerful, well, there is a bit of a party.  “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts” as the poet Wendell Berry encourages.
What does it look like, feel like, taste like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail?  There is the miraculous in the mundane, inclusion and discernment, the old and the new, joy and passion.  And all this is often elusive, sneaky, unpredictable.  Last week I said that one of the paradoxical elements of the Christian life is that there is this deep inner peace in knowing that we are loved by God and this inner restlessness which continually reminds us that God’s redemptive work is not yet finished.  Another paradoxical element of the Christian life is that God is always present in love, always wooing us “to become the image of God we were created to be” (Marjorie Suchocki, in Rethinking Wesley’s Theology Today, 63) yet there is a certain elusiveness in that presence.  If we are too quick to say, that’s where God’s kingdom showed up, we may not be getting it right.  God’s love is always present, and often unpredictable.  Are we open to being blind-sided by God’s grace?
I have been thinking this week about my friend Teri.  Teri is currently the lead pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.  About a year ago she came from Brookings, South Dakota where she had had a wonderfully successful and long-term pastoral ministry.  She will be leaving Hennepin Avenue next month.  She feels a need for a break from pastoral ministry.  I am guessing that for her, she was a bit blindsided by this new whisper of God’s Spirit.  There seems to be a mustard seed planted here, a little leaven, something new is emerging out of something old.  I hope she finds joy and passion in the midst of the unknown ahead.
This week, as well, I stumbled upon an old movie, not all that old, only 2009.  I don’t know about you, but I can get caught up in movies that I have seen and liked.  Well, I was finishing up dinner, and found “The Blind Side.”  I love that movie.  It is based on a true story about a well-off white family in Memphis, the Tuohys, who come to take an interest in an African-American street kind named Michael.  Michael develops into a very good high school football player, gets a scholarship to Mississippi, and ends up being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.  He is a left offensive tackle, whose job it is to protect the quarterback’s blind side – hence the name of the movie.  I have seen the movie a few times, but it was not until this week that it really hit me.  The real blindside in this movie is the way the Tuohy family is blindsided by their caring for Michael and how much it changes their lives.  They are blindsided by goodness.  They are blindsided by grace.  It’s like a mustard seed that gets planted and turned into a tree.  It’s like a little leaven in a whole pile of flour that still does its work.  It’s like not being so blinded by the bad in the Memphis projects that you can’t see the good when you catch it in your net.  New family is created, a more inclusive community, and there is joy.

That’s what it looks like, feels like, tastes like when God’s kingdom comes, God’s dream arrives, God’s purposes prevail.  It’s got that kind of swing.  Let’s keep finding it, and creating it, and living it together.  Amen.

No comments: