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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How’s Your Heart?

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35

When someone asks, “How are you doing?” or more likely, “How ya doin’?” What’s the common response? . . . It’s usually “Fine,” right? Maybe we even return the question to make sure everything’s “fine” for them, too. Do we really believe them? Chances are we don’t believe them because we know full well we’re not telling the full truth; we’re just giving them the short, socially acceptable response so we can save the full answer for our next counseling session. And that’s okay and actually preferred because we’re all carrying around our stuff. (I think that’s why we like our pets so much because their lives remind us to remember the basics of what keep us alive.)

If we think about it, we’re simultaneously functioning at many levels: within Creation, as part of humanity, in a nation, as part of community/work/tribe, within our family, and as ourselves, as an individual. So when someone asks us if we’re fine, it might take a while to do a thorough reality check. Maybe when we say “fine,” what we really mean is that we’re coping alright with everything we’re dealing with. Maybe that’s what I mean. 😉

Our gospel reading for today captures these levels pretty well. At least as a reader of Mark’s gospel, we somewhat have an understanding of who Jesus is. He is born in the flesh as human. As a Jew, we know he’s part of the nation of Israel. He’s surrounded by community of his choosing and those who have chosen him, either as friend or foe. He is associated with a particular family, though as a person it gets complicated, being the Son of God and all.

Do you notice that it’s not recorded that anyone ever asks Jesus how he’s doing?

He does get a lot of accusations thrown his way, though, among those that he’s aligned with Satan, using the power of the devil to cast out demons.

Jesus, as part of his response, says that a kingdom, a house divided against itself cannot stand. I know he says more, but let’s take that right there: “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Jesus gives us a good rule here by which to measure ourselves with a sincere reality check. How’s our house doing? On all levels.

Creation: Our stewardship is showing weakness as ecology groans under our constant demand and pressure.

Humanity: All God’s children. We’re not all doing okay. We’re only as strong as the weakest link, so we have work to do. I’m going to the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival on Monday, and the theme is “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” It’s a reminder that education, a living wage job, housing, and income are things everyone needs to live. This is going to look differently around the world, but it’s how we express it here. I think we can all agree that education is power, and empowering people to live whole lives in their environs is transformational.

Nation: I just got back from traveling between nations, touching ground in England (albeit briefly), and traveling between Israel and Palestine. Coming home, I smell the sweet air and enjoy my place of privilege and power in the world. Yet within our nation, we’re wrestling with other nations, with peoples from other nations. As a US citizen, my leaders are identifiable by others. Are we a house united? How strong are we? Who do we consider allies? What motives govern us?

Community/work/tribe: So readily do we identify with people like ourselves, that our sense of community is often defined by where we live, with whom we work and associate. This is pretty selective, so this can be where we feel strongest. North of Nazareth is a place called Nazareth Ilit (i-l-i-t). Any time I had heard it mentioned, I thought they were saying “Nazareth Elite.” In a way, they were. I asked a cab driver what “ilit” meant. He didn’t define it for me, seeming to wrestle with the translation, but he told me it’s where the religious orthodox live, so where the rabbis and more conservative would live. It feels safe to surround hunker down in the security of “our people,” doesn’t it?

Family: God help us. Our families are complicated before we are born, so let’s just trust that dysfunction is the norm, and we all need Jesus in this department . . . and his family calls him the one who’s out of his mind!

Ourselves: Be gentle here. How’s your house, your self doing? Have you even checked in lately because there’s been so much attention at all the other levels? Ultimately, for each of us, all of the levels come to a fine point within us. How’s your heart? How’s your will? How firm is the foundation of your house? How great is your faith?

God bless you if you’re at 100%: I’ll sit down and listen at your feet. But I’m guessing that right now, we’re listening and praying together.

We see Jesus, followed by a crowd because he’s got it all together, and we want what he’s got. He’s showing us the way. At the leadership talk given this past week through the Head & Heart luncheon for the women’s shelter, Alex Cottrell from Milestone Leadership said the only way to break our own pattern of thinking, our perpetuation of our prejudices, is to surround ourselves with people different from ourselves. I don’t think Jesus had to worry about his prejudices much, but I think being surrounded by the imperfect, the disenfranchised–and seeking them out–kept our imperfection, our absolute need for grace ever-present. And we want/ need to keep seeing God’s work manifest before us. Jesus makes the whole unconditional-love-follow-God’s-will look easy. Everyone’s a beloved child of God, without boundary; they just have to believe to experience the love, liberation, and life God promises. All the levels are perfectly contained within the heart of Christ, the heart of God.

More often than not, Saul is more familiar to me. For him, I imagine, the notion of a human family is pretty abstract, as it’s easier to focus on God’s chosen people as the only ones who matter. We’re united as a people in one nation; our tribes are our community, identified in our work and where we live; and our birth families are so entwined with who we are in our place in our tribe that who I am as a person is pretty insignificant, unless I bring shame to my family. If something happens to disrupt the order in which I understand the world to work, it might be too much for me. I might hold onto my ego, my agenda, my worldview, even if God’s will and way are being revealed to me, and I might interpret my consequences as God’s punishment and disfavor. It’s easier to blame God and everyone and everything else than it is honestly to face the error of my ways.

Between Saul and Jesus Christ, we have the words of Paul coming to us: “do not lose heart.”

God gives Saul a new heart after he was anointed king, before he was proclaimed king to the people. On Saul’s way back home, we’re told in Ch. 10 that “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1Sam 10:9). Don’t you know God knew Saul would need all the help he could get. Saul needed the power of God within him. Psalm 51 (v. 11) comes to mind for me: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,/and renew a right spirit within me.” If I’m going to do the work God has given me to do, I need a new, clean heart and a right spirit. I need to check myself to make sure my way forward isn’t obstructed by all the things I want or by all the things I don’t want to do.

What we don’t want to do is just as significant as what we don’t want. When Saul is going to be identified by Samuel to the tribes, he actually hides among the baggage or equipment. He’s tall, so for him not to be seen, he has to be crouching down, literally hiding. We do this, right: hide from that which we know we can do?

And I want to say that after his initial hesitation and rough start that Saul turned out to be a great king, thanks be to God, but that’s not how it goes. Saul never really gets out of his own way, never fully heeds the directions given him by God, and ultimately he loses God’s favor and grows in his jealousy of David. Maybe you know, too, that he takes his own life after being wounded in battle so that he doesn’t die at the hand of the enemy; at least, that’s what the text and commentary says.

In a week when suicides stream across headlines and tv banners, we must be cautioned not to over-simplify reasons why someone takes their own life. What we do know is that we have free will, and we don’t always choose the best path for ourselves. Paul’s words ring true to us, reminding us of the life, the house of grace we have through Christ that is unseen by our temporal sight but is eternal in our spiritual nature. That grace extends to all, “so we do not lose heart.”

If each of us have a heart touched by God and a conscience intent to align our will with God’s, that new world ordered by Love will be revealed, justice will roll down like water, and valleys will be made high and mountains low. That worldview from the heart of Christ will give us the mind of Christ, and we’ll be too busy loving our neighbor, blessing one another, sharing in our abundance, empowering one another to reduce ourselves creating barriers to stop the flow of God’s grace and love.

I can imagine this. I have hope. If I can imagine it, remember, then there’s still reason for hope. If I have love of God and neighbor at the front and center, then I can pretty sure that my will is aligned with God’s, and where there’s a will, God help us, there’s a way. Amen? It’s going to seem complicated at all levels, and it’s going to be disruptive. This is how we know we’re praying well, when the plans we make get caught up in the wind of Spirit and land back to us all disrupted and aligned with God’s will. But grounded in the presence of Christ, nothing feels stronger or more right, and we do not lose heart–it’s been given to us with grace and love.

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