July 27, 2014
Is anyone else tired of parables? In our journey through Matthew we have spent the last few weeks listening to Jesus try to explain the kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a sower. And the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with wheat and weeds. And the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…like a pearl of great price…and like a fishing net. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wish Jesus would be a tad clearer about what he means. What is the Kingdom of Heaven and how does it work? Or another way of asking the question: How is God acting in the world and what does it have to do with me? Stop using parables and just tell me!
I much prefer the story of Solomon. Solomon is made king and feels overwhelmed at having been chosen to lead God’s people. I can relate to that. So he goes up to Gibeon to clear his head and pray. One night he has a dream. God asks him, “What do you want from me?” Solomon says, “It would be great if you could give me some wisdom, ‘cuz I have no idea what I’m doing, and my dad left some pretty big shoes to fill.” God says, “Done. Oh, and you will get wealth and popularity as well.” Solomon wakes up confident in his call and full of wisdom for the task ahead.
Wouldn’t it be great if God’s Kingdom…God’s will…how God works in the world…was that clear? Solomon didn’t have to try to understand a list of parables, considering audience, context and motivation. He just asked and God answered.
I don’t know that we really think about it as much as we should, but part of the life of being a disciple is asking the question, “What’s my role in God’s Kingdom?” Which brings me back to Jesus’ parables. “The Kingdom of Heaven” can seem like a really abstract concept. Some movies make it seem like some epic, one-time battle between good and evil. But I like how Pr. Dave explains it: The Kingdom of Heaven is wherever God’s will is being done.
Every week in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Martin Luther explained that the kingdom of God will come whether or not we ask for it. But in this petition we ask that it may come to us also, which I think means that we’re praying that we become aware of it and participate in it now. It’s not some epic battle at the end of time. It’s something that has to do with what God is doing in our lives and in the world here and now. That much is clear from Jesus’ parables…the Kingdom of Heaven is definitely tied up with the here and now.
So then the next question is, “How do I know if what I’m doing is part of God’s will?” or “How do I know if I’m participating in God’s Kingdom?” That’s an easy question to answer if you’re choosing between something that’s clearly w/in God’s will and something that’s clearly not. Does God want me to love people or hate people? Clearly one is more Kingdom-focused than the other. Does God want me to make a decision that hurts those around me but makes me happy, or consider the impact of my choices on more than just myself? Again—one is clearly more Kingdom-focused than the other. Does God want me to walk with those who are suffering or ignore them because it has nothing to do with me? Clearly there is a Kingdom-focused response to that question.
But what about when it’s not so black and white? What does God want me to do when multiple choices seem good…or when multiple choices seem difficult? Where is God’s Kingdom then? That’s when God’s kingdom seems hidden…a bit more like Jesus’ parables and less like Solomon’s dream.
Many of you know that I recently went on a trip to East Africa. Specifically, I went to Juba, South Sudan. I called the trip to Juba a ‘visioning and discernment trip.’ Maybe you could say I was hunting for God’s Kingdom…what was God doing, and what did it have to do with me? For a variety of reasons, I felt like I had lost sight of my role in God’s kingdom. It was getting harder and harder for me to see the connection between God’s action and my action. I hoped that on this trip God would maybe come to me in a dream and say, “What do you want from me?” and I would say, “I need some wisdom. I need to know what you want me to do with my life.” And God would say, “Done….and here’s some wealth and popularity to go along with it.”
On one hand, my friend Kristen is a missionary in Juba and is working on starting a Christian school. She put a call out for preschool teachers. Now, you should know that when I first began exploring being a Deaconess, the ‘ideal job’ picture I painted had to do with working with young children in Africa. So I HAD to wonder if helping Kristen get this school going was my next step in God’s Kingdom. Where God’s will is being done, right? How could it not be God’s will to go teach kids whose parents are missionaries? How could it not be God’s will to go help the lady in Juba who started a children’s center to help kids affected by the war? How could it not be God’s will to go to a country torn apart by violence and tribal hatred and proclaim the power of love, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness?
On the other hand, what if what I’m doing right now is my next step? Isn’t it just as much God’s will to influence the attitude, behavior and culture around children and youth in the local congregation? Isn’t it as much God’s will to invest in children and youth, and help them see where God is in their lives? Isn’t it God’s will to move into an at-risk neighborhood called the Booker T. Washington neighborhood to embody love, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, and to work across church borders to bring people together for service and ministry? What if what I’m doing now is exactly what God wants me to do?
So I went to Juba hoping for some clarity. I wanted to see for myself the context of this new school—Juba Christian Academy. And I was really hoping for a clear sense of my next move: stay at Advent or move to Juba. Enough with the parables and hidden meanings, Jesus—just tell me straight up what I’m supposed to do. Show me clearly what the Kingdom of Heaven is.
And wouldn’t you know it, I did not hear God’s voice in a dream. I did not clearly see one choice being right and one choice being wrong. I have skills and passions that would be very helpful in Juba. I could find a ministry there that was rewarding and enriching. I could live in Africa in a heartbeat, despite the very real challenges of being a missionary and living in a developing nation. You could almost say the Kingdom of Heaven is like someone who leaves the stability of home for the frontier of the unknown.
AND while I was in Juba I could see the richness and potential of ministry here at Advent. The Visioning Retreat for children and youth ministry that we did right before I left generated a mission statement, core values and list of goals that I wanted to come back and be part of…and that engage my passions and skills. I could see, with the time and distance I got in Juba, the richness of the ministry and life I have here. And I could see how coming back to Melbourne, coming back to Advent, coming back to a country that is often blinded by its own wealth, could also be a powerful part of God’s Kingdom. You could almost say the Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed that gets planted in a new territory, grows roots, and over time becomes something that impacts its environment.
So which one is it…the adventure into the unknown or the growing over time and developing roots?
I think that’s a little bit of why Jesus tells parables to explain the Kingdom of Heaven…where God’s will is happening. Because if he gave us a check list or a measuring stick we would get caught up in the “right vs. wrong,” the “good vs. bad,” the “in vs. out.” Should I do this job or that job? Is this statement of doctrine right or wrong? Is that person in or out? But by teaching in parables, Jesus invites us into the wrestling, the struggling, the relationship that is so much a part of being a follower of Jesus. And often, in the wrestle, in the struggle, we get glimpse of a powerful truth about God that includes mystery we will never really understand. And that discovery pulls us deeper in to relationship with Christ.
For now I know that I might have a role in Juba Christian Academy. But I don’t know what that role is, exactly. It might be raising awareness and telling the story. It might be inviting this congregation into a concrete partnership involving sharing resources, relationships and time. It might mean making regular time to go over there and support and encourage the missionaries.
And I know that I still have a role at Advent Lutheran Church. But that role has its own mysteries and unknowns. It has to do with children and youth, but not only children and youth. It has to do with helping us explore how God is calling us beyond our natural boundaries, but not only outreach and mission. It has to do with advocacy and bridge building with the global church, but not only global mission.
So do you see why Jesus uses parables? Because the Kingdom of Heaven…being where God’s will is happening…isn’t always easy to describe. It’s like a mustard seed that seems out of place and insignificant but grows into a mighty shelter for the birds. It’s like yeast that is activated by being added to something else. It’s like a net that is cast wide—embracing fish of all kinds. Explaining who God is to us and what God is doing in our lives isn’t something that has an easy answer. Like a parable, it’s something to come back to, to look at from different angles, and to understand differently each time we try to explain it.
This much we know—The Kingdom of God is here and now. Jesus spent a lot of his ministry teaching people to open their eyes to what God was doing in and around them. They thought they were waiting for some future ultimate revelation of God’s presence in the world, and Jesus kept saying, “God is here…now…in me…in you…in small children…in crying widows…in stories about Samaritans, sowers, and mustard seeds. God is here and God is doing something.” The wonderful thing about the parables is that for all their mystery and multiple interpretations, they each beg the question: who or what am I in that image? If the Kingdom of Heaven is like the sower…who am I? If the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…who am I? If the Kingdom of Heaven is like a precious pearl…who am I? Parables invite us to claim our part in God’s Kingdom. Because as a child of God you are part of God’s Kingdom…and God wants to impact the world through you. The mission trip kids learned a phrase: your radius of influence—that natural network of relationships and experiences that are part of who and where you are. God doesn’t just call some people to impact their radius of influence…God calls ALL of us to impact our radius of influence.
So here’s the invitation to you this week: When we say the Lord’s Prayer, take seriously the petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Ponder that this week. And ask yourself where God’s kingdom is…where is God at work in and around you? Sit down with those in your radius of influence—your family, your friends, your neighbors—and share stories of where you see God at work. We all have a radius of influence…whether we are 3 years old or 93 years old…we have an opportunity to impact God’s Kingdom. It might not be as clear as Solomon’s dream, but we each have an opportunity to make the love and presence of Christ real to those around us. My ongoing journey and relationship with God might take me back to Sudan, or it might take a different form altogether. Right now it’s clear that you guys are stuck with me for at least a little bit longer. Your journey might lead you across the isle of this congregation, across your neighborhood, across the city, or across the world. But the Kingdom of Heaven is here. And you are part of it.
Alright, I guess there may be more to learn from these parables after all…