Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Kingdom of God is Here

Genesis 28:10-16, Luke 13:20

Jesus asked, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like people of different faith traditions gathering without fear, on the same land, in the same sanctuary, on their separate holy days so that they may each worship the divine as they are called. The kingdom of God is like a room filled with people of all ages and abilities who are making one sandwich after another so all can be fed. The kingdom of God is like the time when you no longer can leave your residence but someone comes every month to offer God’s words of love and to play the most beautiful music for you. The kingdom of God is like laughing with the kitchen witches who are baking for Sunday’s fellowship and eating the most amazing chocolate chip cookie ever. The kingdom of God is like being wrapped in a quilt made by loving and caring hands and has been signed on the back with prayers of healing by so many who love you and even those who do not know you. The kingdom of God like receiving Christmas stockings and presents from a community of people simply because they want you to know that just because you are living with HIV that does not mean that you are not worthy of being recognized as a beloved child of God. The kingdom of God is being too sick to go to church but church comes to you in the form of a visit and a care package of jam, bread, soup and a Halloween candy or two. The kingdom of God is like being so broke that you can’t pay bankruptcy fees but a small, anonymous group of people pay the bill. To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like the welcoming person who noticed the stranger in his hour of deepest need, who listened to his story, who wiped his tears and gave him a seat next to him in worship so that he would not feel alone.

God’s kingdom is not about individualism, not about personal gain, not about greed, power or fear. The kingdom of God is a time and a place in which people look out for each other, where the needs of the other are met, where each of us know our neighbour and know them to be as worthy of receiving compassion just as we, ourselves, are worthy. The kingdom of God is that time when know ourselves to be worthy of love just as our neighbour is worthy. It is that time when the hurt of each one of us is understood to be true and the healing from such hurt is essential for the healing of everyone else.

When Jesus speaks about what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God is like, he speaks of situations that involve moments of growth. Moments of healing. Moments of transformation. What ends the story is not what it was at the beginning. The tree began as a mustard seed. The light and fluffy loaf of bread began because of a small bit of yeast. Here, our community began as individuals and grew into a family. These teachings of Jesus begin with something small and unlikely and becomes more. Becomes bigger. Bigger than ever seemed possible. This growth, this transformation, it is not done alone. The yeast needs the dough. The mustard tree becomes the home to the birds of the air. Those in pain need a listening ear, a hug of many prayers. Those who are hungry need food made by loving hands—a sandwich, a cookie. It is this connection between people, it is this gathering together that allows for healing, growth and transformation to happen. It is these things together that make up the purpose of Jesus’ church.

The business of the church is not to sell religion. Religion is a set of doctrines, structures, systems and rules—these things develop because we are human and humans crave order. But that is all just what religion is—defined order containing what is really important—our faith and our beliefs. When churches try to sell religion instead of living into their purpose of growth and transformation, they become like a corporation. And the business of a corporation is to satisfy people, to get them to spend more, to buy more. We all know, Jesus was not about making people feel satisfied. In fact, most of his ministry was about denying so many the satisfaction of acknowledging whatever earthly power they had for Jesus knew, no one on earth had more power than God. Jesus pushed and pulled his followers to seek new ways of being, to seek new paths to peace and a full life which meant they had to buck the system. His followers needed to stand up against the power of the Jewish and Roman leaders.

No, the church of Jesus was not in the business of satisfying the people. Nor should it be today. Following Jesus today may not have the same life or death consequences that it did two thousand years ago, but there are serious outcomes to being Christian in today’s world. Mercy, generosity, compassion, kindness, honesty, love, vulnerability, these are not easy things to live out in our world which promotes distrust, fear, hate and greed. Being fair and just at the expense of profit and gain is looked upon with uneasy glances in a world where the individual is held up over the community. In a world that has forgotten the gains we make today are because we stand on the shoulders of those people who came before us or because of the hand up from those who travel alongside us. The people of the early Church knew they needed each other for encouragement, support, for wisdom and to remind one another that the teaching of Jesus’ ministry was a truth that could not be denied. They knew that the strength of community was needed so the individual could grow. Could heal. Could be transformed and be the change the world so desperately needed. The church of Jesus Christ was then and is now in the business of making space to create relationships with one another. To create a relationship with God. And to create a relationship with ourselves.
Creating relationships that matter, relationships that encourage transformation, relationships that allow for healing is done best when we see God present in the actions of others. When we can glimpse the divine in the eyes of others. Our experience of meeting God in others gives us courage and frees us to recognize the God who is present in ourselves at the very core of our being. Recognizing God’s presence is essential. Jacob’s experience shows us this. Jacob was running. His past was marked. His future uncertain. In a dream, he sees God and God tells him, “I am with you. I will keep you. I will not leave you.” God was with Jacob. God had been there all along. When he was a fugitive. When he was dishonest. When he argued with his brother. When he begged his father for a blessing that was not his to have. When his mother urged him to take that which was his brother’s. God was there even when Jacob was born, the second twin, holding desperately to the heel of this brother, trying to keep Esau back so that he, Jacob, would be the first-born son. And God was there, in Jacob’s flight from his past to his future. After this dream, you might recall, Jacob goes on to a life filled with responsibility, love and family. His most beloved son, Joseph went onto the fame of starring in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and he saved a nation of people from starvation.

The story of Jacob’s dream, with angels ascending and descending from heaven and God appearing beside Jacob is referred to as Jacob’s ladder. There is a theological term for such revelations of God. The visible manifestation of God is called a the/off/any. This appearance to Jacob is one of the rare times that God is revealed to humanity. While the Hebrew people felt that God was quite active in their world, they did not actually see God very often. Jesus realized that, in his time, the people of God had stopped directly connecting with God. The Torah Laws and the use of priests, sacrifices and ritual cleansing inhibited people from seeing how God was moving in their lives. And so Jesus reminded them in his stories. He showed them that in their everyday actions—they did not have to wait for a ritual or wait to be cleansed—in the everyday, God was being revealed. He gave to his followers a way to recognize their the/off/anies, their own visible manifestations of God. For Jesus knew, only in the revelation of God to all people could the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of peace, the kingdom of God become known across all of Creation. And so, we notice God in the mustard tree, in the loaf of bread, in the quilt, in a welcome, in a kitchen full of witches baking the best cookies ever.

To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like when the treasurer of a volunteer run, self-funded, faithful congregation goes to bed at night and wakes rested and energized as she knows the congregation’s bills will be paid because the offertory baskets and the PAR donations—are flowing as if they were the lands filled with milk and honey. There are many reasons to give money away to different organizations. You can get tax receipts for deductions and that’s always a good thing in April. Giving money makes you feel good. You feel like you are helping to find a cure, support an important cause, you aid in feeding or housing someone who is down on their luck, because we all know, or at least suspect, there by the grace of God we go, and it could just as easily be us who’s luck runs out next year, next month, or even next week.

There was a time in our household that we had more time than money. My kids now find it hard to believe but I know many of you here would understand when I say I can remember, quite clearly, of having to take items off the belt at the grocery store checkout because my budget did not allow for things like ice cream that week. Or even that month. In that time of our life, we gave what we could with our time and energy. And when things began to get more comfortable with our budget, when ice cream and going to the movies began to appear in our regular living, we started a concentrated effort to be intentional about not only the time we gave but also the money. Our goal is 10% of gross income. We’ve gotten up to 8%. We give to several hard-working charitable causes—all of which we have a personal connection with—an international orphanage, support for those living with HIV in Africa and another for those here in Calgary, a Canadian micro-lender in South Africa. We also give so that our souls may be fed by art and theatre here in Calgary. But the place that gets more than half of our givings each month is Symons Valley.

There have been times over the years in which we have had a bit extra come in, money that was not anticipated in our household budget. And when those times have come, we have a little ritual in our house. Before anything else is done with the money, I calculate what will be given away and I ask Christopher, where would you like to give it? To Stephen Lewis, to Child Haven, to the theatre? And each time I ask him this, he pauses for a moment and then he says, give it to the church. Each time he says this. I finally asked him—why SVUC and not the others? We know they do good work, why just the church? And this is what he said, “I want to give to the church because I see what good things are happening there. I see what impact our givings make on what the church is doing and what the church wants to do.” For Christopher, this is the living out of our offertory invite: remember that we do not give TO the church but we give THROUGH the church.

I think I would add, the reason why I want to give what we give each month to be used by this church is because I feel that God is in this place. Jacob says when he wakes from his dream, surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Surely God is in this place. The difference I think, for us in this community, is that we know God is in this place. We feel it. We experience it. In this place that we call holy ground, God is revealed each and every day. This community of faith has grown and shifted, it has moved homes and has evolved, this community of faith has a long history of following Jesus, it has been daring and strong, it has been careful and cautious, but always, always, God has been in this place. In this place, we are fed and we are loved so that we may travel the narrow path of Jesus, knowing we have companions in front of us and behind us, encouraging us to be the best we can be, to love the best that we can love, urging us to stand up for what is right and good, and comforting us when we fall down. For we know, the kingdom of God cannot happen without a community surrounding us, holding us, lifting us up and pushing us forward into growth, into healing, into transformations. That is why I give. Why do you?

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