Kingdoms & Seeds

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 | Psalm 20 | 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17 | Mark 4:26-34

Last week I spent some time talking about Saul, and this week we hear again the story of David’s anointing. We witness again the obedience of Samuel, and we hear the not-so-common phrase that the LORD was sorry that he had chosen Saul as king. We’re also reminded that God doesn’t see as humans see, that God knows our heart. This and so many other stories in our Old Testament reveal something to us of the nature of God. These stories show us how we as people relate to the Almighty, how we are in relationship with God and how God expects us to be in relationship. It’s interesting to me to read the stories paying attention to such revelation and see how it applies or how it’s changed in our current time.

In the New Testament, particularly in our gospels, it’s likewise interesting to me to learn about what God reveals to us about the kingdom of heaven. We have the person of Jesus–God incarnate–showing us in word, example, and in his very being. In particular, the Word lingers for us in these parables that reveal to us the kingdom of heaven if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Today, the kingdom of heaven has something to do with the seed that’s fallen to the ground and sprouts from the earth–we know not how. It grows and bears fruit, and we are there to harvest it. It’s true: we don’t exactly understand the miracle of life, but we witness it. We know when someone is living into their gift, thriving as the child of God they’re created to be. It’s not without work, germination, discernment, and time, but it’s also the most natural thing in the world.

And the kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed, growing from the smallest of seeds to the greatest of shrubs, bearing branches that give refuge for the birds of the air to make their nests in its shade. This is a beautiful image, one of the most concise parables we get of the kingdom (and the shortest lesson in Godly Play!). The mustard seed is tiny, about ¼ of the size of a poppy seed. While in Jerusalem, walking along the sidewalk, our guide said, “Ah, here’s a mustard tree. Who is it that wanted to see a mustard tree?” “Me!” I shouted, my hand waving in the air. It was flowering with its bright yellow flowers and looked to be relatively young, though it was taller than me, and some of the flowers had died, leaving the dried seed pods behind. I plucked one off and asked my friend to hold out his hand so I could break it open; when I did, I sprinkled the tiny black seeds into his palm.

These tiny seeds grow into the greatest of shrubs, providing a refuge, a sanctuary, for birds of the air. These birds can be looking for a new home, a safer place, better living conditions, protection from other creatures that might do them harm. They seek asylum. They find this in the kingdom of heaven.

We were told recently–in defense of the practice of separating families at the border–that the laws of government should be obeyed because they are ordained by God to fulfill God’s purpose (siting Romans 13:1). Let’s be perfectly clear here: we’re given witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gospels, and the rest of the New Testament canon is showing us how we live into our commission to go forth into the world, proclaiming the Good News, baptizing and making new disciples for Christ, being the Church. Paul gives testimony to how hard this was and continues to be. Our Scripture recognizes laws that govern. Jews lived by Torah law and had to navigate within Roman rule as well. Jesus was pretty clear in rebuking both when they trespassed God’s will, when God ceased to be first and foremost and when the people failed to love their neighbors. As Stephen Colbert was quick to point out, Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The law of the land in the kingdom is what we expect: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Are we extending our branches as sanctuary and refuge? Are we revealing the kingdom of heaven here and now?

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival believes that as a people united across the spectrum, we can find true center and manifest in our communities something that looks more like the kingdom of heaven and less like societies built with walls, clearly marking the haves and have-nots. The kingdom of heaven grows we know not how but has a great Love at the center of its power, and that love knows no bounds. Last week at the campaign, we rallied to the theme that “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live!” Everybody’s got a right to education, affordable housing, living wage jobs, and income. Everybody has a right to a quality of life worth living. In 30 states, folks rallied, and in Arkansas, we gathered at the steps of the capital, having been denied permission inside because of previous guideline violations. After the rally was over, there was a conscious decision made by some to stand at the capital and chant and sing, to take the message into the people’s house. We knew this wouldn’t happen. We knew that after the third warning we would likely be arrested. Ironically, it was after we were arrested that we were actually able to go into the capital and sing a song: “Somebody’s hurtin’ my brother, and it’s gone on far too long . . . and we won’t be silent any more.”

“What good does this do?” people have asked me. What point did you make? Major news media outlets weren’t there. If you aren’t on Facebook or don’t get the online newspaper articles, chances are you didn’t even know about it (unless you read our newsletter on Wednesday). For me, as a person of power and privilege in society, it’s my call out to say that I’m paying attention, to say that I’m willing to put myself out there for the least of these, to disrupt the typical order of things to point out that something isn’t right. “They’re arresting clergy now?” a friend asked me. Since the first week of the campaign; I’m not alone in this.

Still, this isn’t the way for some. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, I got the same response, similar questions, but I also shared this story I read about on Blavity:

This was one woman’s response in a situation that could have gone entirely different. Further in her feed and comments, she said she looked at the security guard who was watching them, and she shook her head as if to say: “Not today. You don’t get them today.” Instead of letting them get caught or turning them in, sending them right on down the pipeline, she spoke to them. She asked them questions. They are 13 and 14 years old. They needed the deodorant for practice but didn’t want to burden their fixed-income grandmother, who is their guardian since their mother died. They hugged Nanasia and cried. She gave them her name and phone number in case they ever needed a Big Sis or Auntie again.

This is an example of a different kind of direct action, an act of kindness made at a very personal, intimate level. You still don’t know what the long-term effects are: maybe one of those kids will grow up to be president or a Big Brother. Maybe when he’s older he’ll see a kid in distress and give him a hand up.

We’re always scattering seeds. We can’t know exactly how they’ll grow. We won’t all be mustard trees, thankfully. Creation shows us great diversity that provides sanctuary in all kinds of ways. But we’re all given gifts, talents, treasures, and choice. How we use them makes all the difference. If you’re struggling to know whether you’re on the right track, set your mind on the kingdom of heaven, and in prayer, ask yourself if it rings true of love of God and love of neighbor.

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Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

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