Tuesday, June 19, 2012

SERMON: God Grows the Kingdom

Date: The 2nd Sunday after Trinity (June 17, 2012)

Have you noticed? The zombie movie seems to be making a comeback. Last year, Monique and I watched the first few episodes of The Walking Dead, an AMC show that is based on a long-running comic book of the same name. The creators thought that zombies were interesting because, if you think about it, there is no real end to a zombie story. You can’t get rid of them. You fight and you fight and you fight, and then you die. The entire show is an attempt to bring human meaning out of an ultimately hopeless situation. 


Looking at our Gospel passage today, Mark shows Jesus telling an entirely different set of stories, a string of parables about the Kingdom of God. 

Mark writes, "[Jesus] also said, 'The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, but he does not know how'." 

Jesus spins a story that his audience can hear. The farmers among them know what it is like to scatter seed on the ground, to sleep and rise and sleep and rise again, and then to see the new growth that would mean food for their families for another year. 

But, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, there is a problem. God has been working with the Israelites for a long time, but it still only feels to them like the seed has been planted. There is no promised restoration. The glory of God has not returned to the Temple. They are sleeping and rising, whole generations have risen and fallen to sleep, but where is the sign of the growth? Have they done something wrong? 

Many would say "yes." The Pharisees say that the people have not kept the Law of God well enough, that they have not loved righteousness and walked with God. For that reason, there is no growth. 

The Essenes, that strange sect out in the dessert, say that it is because the high priesthood was stolen from its rightful heirs for the sake of power and greed. For that reason, there is no growth. 

But in the story, when the seed sprouts and grows, Jesus says that the planter "does not know how" it does so. The planter is shut out of the process of growing. He sows and harvests. In the middle, all he can do is wait.


 In 2010, Chuck Klosterman wrote an article in the New York Times entitled, "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead." Klosterman asks why zombie movies have grown in popularity, and he answers that "modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies." The thing about zombies is that they always keep coming. You might dispatch one, but there will always be another right behind. You fight and fight and fight, and then you die. 

Klosterman continues, "Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It's always a numbers game. And it's more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning, or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is you do." 

Whereas the farmer in Jesus' story does not know how the ground gives growth, we do not know why we continue fighting the day in and day out battles of email, paperwork, and other tedious tasks. When it doesn't stop, and we find ourselves lost in the mire of emails and responsibilities, so mired down that we can't find any space to be alone with our close friends and family, much less with ourselves or with God, we have to start wondering: what does my work mean? Why do I get up in the morning? Why keep fighting?


 The farmer who casts his seed into the ground in hope might ask similar questions. But, simply put, he continues to scatter seed in the fields because the ground continues to do its mysterious work turning those seeds into full heads of grain. He trusts the ground to grow the crop. And since this is a parable of the Kingdom of God, God grows the Kingdom. 

The Kingdom of God is like these seeds the farmer casts onto the ground. It starts out small, and its growth is entirely outside of human control. Citizens of the Kingdom see the Kingdom sprout and grow, but they do not know how it does so. All they know is that there comes a time when their wait is over. As Mark says, “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 

God grows the Kingdom not just for its citizens, but for those who will become its citizens. Jesus continues with another parable. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed. Even though it is a very small seed, when planted it can become a shrub 10-15 feet tall. Jesus says God grows the Kingdom like a mustard seed grows, “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” God grows the Kingdom, and he grows the Kingdom to provide a place for the entire world to come and rest. 

And God the Farmer does all of this in the person and work of Jesus himself. Jesus is the growth from Israel’s soil that the nation had long expected. And Jesus’ ministry will soon flower into a ministry that heals the sick and binds demons all over Israel. Jesus will himself be treated like a seed, crushed, put in the ground, and then three days later, he will sprout again, raised into new life by God the Father. God grows the Kingdom, and people from all the nations of the earth will make nests in its shade.


 If God grows the Kingdom, then what does that say for the modern world of work? Is work for a Christian ultimately like a zombie movie in which you fight, fight, fight, and die? No. As God grows the Kingdom, God gives growth to our work as well. 

In the zombie world of work, the imperative is survival. Killing zombies isn’t hard, but you have to kill them or you die. In the Christian world of work, the imperative is thriving. Tilling the ground is hard work, but once the seeds are sown there is space for rest, for sleeping and rising night and day, because we are off the hook for making the seeds grow. That is the mysterious work of the ground; that is God’s work. We sow, and when the time comes, we harvest. God gives growth to our work. 

In this understanding of our day-to-day, we come to expect an abundance, not necessarily a financial abundance, but an abundance of joy as we see the work of our hands become something we could not have imagined – like a mustard seed turning into the greatest of all shrubs. We sow faithfulness when we show up every day (whether at a job or elsewhere) and fulfil our obligations. We sow kindness when we make ourselves helpful to others. We sow our skills and talents and passions, but then, and this is the good news of work for a Christian, we can let go of the results. The God who is growing the Kingdom all around us is the same God who gives growth to our work in an active partnership. We sow. He grows. We reap. Thanks be to God. 

And what does this mean for us? Sow liberally. In the fields in which you are responsible, sow skill. Sow focused attention. Sow kindness. Scatter these seeds far and wide in your fields, and then say a prayer, go home at the end of the day, and rest in joy and hope. God will give the growth. And when the time comes, you will see the harvest of God’s Kingdom, sprouting up to life for you and your families. Be faithful. Stay true. Whether it is the work we do for employers, the Church, or our friends and families, God gives the growth. Sow liberally. Soon enough the harvest will come. 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Photo by hummel_12

Sunday, June 10, 2012

SERMON: Jesus Starts a New Family

Date: The First Sunday After Trinity (June 10, 2012)

The door to Mary’s house shakes as it is pounded from the outside. Mary opens the door to a familiar face: “Jesus has come home, Mary. Come quickly.” Mary snaps into motion, and calling Jesus’ brothers together, they walk out the door, as the Gospel of Mark says, “to restrain him.”

They pass a crowd of people. She overhears, “Who does he think he is? The scribes from Jerusalem will sort him out.” Mary knows the religious teachers can be dangerous. She quickens her pace.

As Mary and the boys approach, she hears her son’s voice inside the house, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Through the door, she sees the faces of the scribes. One is ashen. The other is angry. The angry one grabs the other and pushes him towards the door. One mumbles to the other, “He has gone out of his mind.”

The house itself is full to over-flowing. Jesus is sitting and teaching in the middle of the room, and everyone is sitting in a circle around him. Mary and Jesus’ brothers are outside, on the periphery. But, Mary has come to get her son to the safety of her home, so she passes word through the crowd. Someone leans over and whispers in Jesus’ ear. His eyes open in surprise. He looks through the doorway at his mother and says so that everyone can hear, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those sitting around him, he says, as Mark testifies, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mary looks at her son, shocked and probably offended. Jesus has refused to come home.


Here in the 21st century, we try to bring Jesus home with us all the time, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. When I was in high school, a friend taught me a song. It starts out, and you’ll have to imagine the country and western style, “I don’t care if it rains for freezes, as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car. Comes in colours pink and pleasant, glows in the dark ‘cause it’s iridescent, take it with you when you travel far.” This is probably one example of the bad way of bringing Jesus home with us.

Another of these were the once-ubiquitous “What would Jesus Do?” bracelets. They were there to remind you to be intentional about the way you lived, a laudable goal! But the problem was, looking around, everyone came up with different answers. For the Baptists, Jesus would never drink, smoke, or dance. For the Catholics, Jesus would do all of those things. For the Christian Right, Jesus wouldn’t vote for a liberal. For the Christian Left, Jesus wouldn’t vote for a conservative. For some, Jesus was a man of tolerance and peace, a hippie before his time. For others, Jesus was a stalwart defender of the Truth with a capital T, a fundamentalist before his time.

But, for every follower of Jesus, there is a moment when we walk up to the house like Mary did, and we try to call Jesus back home, when we try to remove him from the centre and turn him into the plastic Jesus we can put in our car. As we stand on the outside, and our message is passed on to Jesus at the centre of the seated learners, Jesus looks straight at us and says, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus refuses to come home with us, too.


Jesus refuses to go home with his mother, because he was starting a new family. Before Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes, he was on a whirlwind tour, healing illnesses and casting out demons. Just before returning home, he chose twelve disciples who would later, minus one, become the apostles we remember and revere. And then he comes home, but the crowd is not far behind him. There are so many that he can’t even eat. But instead of turning them away, he sits down in the house and begins to teach. But, his fame is spreading too quickly. Scribes come down from Jerusalem and make the accusation that Jesus’ power and influence come from an ominous source. As Mark has them say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.”

The seated crowd at Jesus’ feet goes silent. Seconds tick by. Jesus answers, only indirectly, saying that if a Kingdom or a Household were internally divided then they would not stand. Can Satan be divided against himself? No, he says, I am the one raiding Satan’s house, not vice versa. I am the one breaking through, the one breaking in, and my ministry of healing and exorcism is a sign of a new Kingdom, a new House, a new Family. And when you scribes say that the Kingdom of God comes by the agency of evil spirits, you are blaspheming against God himself.

One of the scribes goes ashen. The other mutters angrily. One grabs the other and starts pushing towards the door, past Mary and the boys. After a moment, someone leans over to Jesus and says, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” Jesus looks up in surprise – all this talk of Kingdoms and Houses wasn’t meant to be about his house, the place where his mother and brothers live. But, then, he realizes, no, it really was. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the woman who bore him, his natural family, has come to collect him, to tie him up and bring him to her home. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. It is those who choose to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his teaching, those who do the will of God. THOSE are Jesus’ brother and sister and mother. Jesus came to start a new family that could include, but extended far beyond, his earthly mother and brothers.


St. Bene’t’s has a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her son. Throughout the history of the Church, Mary has been represented with the baby Jesus in her arms. If you look at these pictures, even though Our Lady is often the centre-piece, Jesus is obviously the object. If she looks out of the picture, she is pointing to Jesus. If her eyes are focused elsewhere, they are on Jesus. Whatever else happened that day when Jesus started a new family, the Church remembers that Mary learned a lesson – that her family was not the centre of her world, that Jesus was the centre, and that Jesus needed to stay in the centre always.

Jesus calls us to belong with him. When a parent brings a child to be baptized, they are in effect saying that they want their child to be a part of Jesus’ new family, to live a life with Jesus at the centre. Today, when baby Felix comes out from under the water, he will be reborn into this new family. In effect, his godparents will carry him into the room where Jesus sits teaching the crowd. They will sit and listen and learn with Felix in tow. Over the course of years, Felix will grow up and ask questions, and he will come to a moment in his life where he comes to call Jesus back to his house, to his party, to his understanding of the world. And Jesus will ask him, “Who is my family?” And then, as he has done for all of us, Jesus will look around at the simple, the lame, the weak, the rich and poor, the Baptists and Catholics, the conservatives and liberals, the hippies and fundamentalists, all who have put down their placards to sit at his feet, and he will say “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. Sit. Listen. Learn.”

Where are we, then? Are we standing on the outside, calling to Jesus to come home with us? Or, are we here willing to be made a part of Jesus’ family? Every week we have that choice, as we come again to the Table of our Lord. We have here an opportunity to sit down again at Jesus’ feet, to become part of his family, to learn again how to love God, ourselves, and our neighbours. May we be the people who stop trying to co-opt Jesus and his message for our own purposes. May we be the people who sit down at Jesus’ feet as part of his new family.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Virgin Mary photo by Matic Zupancic
**Dashboard Jesus photo by scasha
**Jesus icon photo by Dimitri Castrique
**Mary and Child icon, copyright TatianaVartanova