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Tuesday, August 29 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
It’s that time of the year. Especially, for many families. Lives are massively changing. The school year is starting up again. In other parts of the country, some have already been back for a few weeks. But this week and next week many of our college students are beginning classes. For the freshmen, it was only a couple of months ago when the seniors in high school were walking across the stage receiving their diplomas. Not only are some going to college but some also going into the workforce, and others into the military.
All of them are starting the next phase, a new phase, of their lives. Do you remember what it was like the first September after graduating from high school? I know for some of us that was a lifetime ago. I will never forget.
After eighteen years it was the first time I had the opportunity to live somewhere else and explore something beyond my own experiences. I’m someone who wants to immerse myself in new areas, not just to visit, or observe a different city or region.
So, when I arrived at the University of Louisville, or Looavul as I would soon find out, for my freshman year of college, that’s all that was on my mind. I was excited to begin a new life. First, I learned, for some odd reason, everyone else in the country has an accent, while we, who live in Western New York, don’t have one. Second, I realized I could do anything I wanted and I had a chance to be a completely different person. Only God knew what the future had in store for me.
After spending the previous night in a hotel, my parents and I made our way to the campus to move me into my new dorm room. Once we arrived, I checked in at the front desk, got my key, and received some last minute instructions. Then I took off, like I was shot out of a canon, ready to see where I would be living for the next nine months. I flew up three flights of stairs, made my way through the hallway door, and found my room.
When I opened the door I discovered that I would be sharing a room, which was about the size of one of the offices, with a complete stranger. Even though I knew I was going to have a roommate, it didn’t hit me until I noticed him asleep on his side.
Once we unpacked the mini van, I made some last minute touches, and then reality set in – when my parents said good-bye. As we walked down the main lobby I just stood there with them, shaking. I knew I couldn’t go home with them. I tried to milk the last few minutes.
Within a couple of seconds that tough guy act melted away. There I stood, with tears in my eyes scared out of my mind as I told them, “I can’t do this.” I didn’t know what to do next. I felt out of place. I didn’t know my role. Even though it was orientation week and the university did everything to make new students feel welcome, I felt uncomfortable.
Even though I made some friends and enjoyed my time there, I eventually transferred to the University of Miami in Florida, where I received my undergraduate degree. Still, this has been a common theme every time I’ve moved somewhere new. No matter where I go when I first arrive I’ve felt out of place. It’s not that someone has said they didn’t want me. It’s just I’m not familiar and I felt like an outsider.
Not only are our college students feeling like outsiders this week, but many of us have experienced being an outsider in other parts of our lives. Maybe it was at a spouse’s work party. Or at a child's back-to-school night. Or on a blind date. Or the first day on a new job. Usually, we feel like outsiders when we don't know people around us. We feel like outsiders when we don’t know our role. We feel like outsiders when we don’t know our place or our responsibilities.
Hence, we might avoid those situations as much as possible and retreat back to being an insider. Perhaps that’s why I’m looking for a call in another part of the country. I won’t have a choice to retreat. All I can do is face being an outsider head on. Being an outsider is not easy and it’s not fun, especially when we don’t have a choice.
The Canaanite woman didn’t have a choice being an outsider either. When Jesus and the disciples came to the district of Tyre and Sidon this outsider came running to them. Out of desperation she cried out for mercy. Anyone who originally heard this story in Matthew’s community would’ve had a deep prejudice towards the Canaanites.
For centuries the Canaanites were considered pagan worshippers. In the Old Testament it is said that the Jewish community had conquered the Canaanites. This would not make the Canaanites very friendly towards Jews or towards God. As a result, within Matthew’s community there was a clear distinction between the insiders and outsiders. It would’ve been incomprehensible for this outsider Canaanite woman to be helped by Jesus and the disciples.
So, we might expect the disciples to send this outsider away. However, it might be a shock when Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” For many of us sitting here today, this is not the Jesus we know. Or, for others of us, is this the Jesus we know? It really depends on where we’ve come from.
For some of us we would never expect Jesus to act this way. The Jesus we know is someone who’s compassionate, loving, and accepting of all people. We wouldn’t expect Jesus to send someone away because she or he isn’t an “insider.” He wouldn’t be exclusionary on who he helped.
Yet, there are many of us who’ve come here today who can finally say, “There it is!” We’ve been just waiting on the edge of our seats ready to catch Jesus at his worst. We’ve grown up in churches and around people who believe Jesus clearly selects who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. As a result, too often we’ve been called an outsider. This has made it difficult to listen and learn more about the love of God.
Regardless where we’re coming from, all of us are probably asking, “How can we believe in a God who sends people away? Ironically, this was what Jesus was talking about earlier when he said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth.” He was challenging the Jewish laws that separate people between insiders and outsiders.
Jesus wasn’t being a literalist. He was trying to teach everyone that we don’t live by the letter of the law; rather we live by the spirit of the law. He was opening up the love of God to everyone.
So, when he tried to send this outsider Canaanite woman away she challenged him. She actually taught the teacher a lesson. This could make us feel uncomfortable that Jesus learned something from an outsider. But it was out of her desperation that she did exactly what Jesus did earlier. She called him out that he wasn’t walking the talk. If Jesus is going to teach the Israelite community about being more accepting, she put it to the test. As a result, she broke wide open what Jesus meant - which is God loves her, her people, and everyone who are not insiders.
This is what we need to hear today. It’s perfect timing in the midst of what we are experiencing in this world. This outsider Canaanite woman teaches everyone that God has come for all of us, not just those who look like us, act like us, or believe like us. This Canaanite woman pleaded to be heard. Although she wasn’t an expert in the Scriptures, tradition, or in research, she actually knew more than anyone on what it was like to be an outsider. This Canaanite woman is asking to have a place at the table, even if it’s where the dogs sit.
I saw this when I went to New York City last year. This was only the third time in my life I had traveled there. The first time I went there was around the age of ten. I don’t remember much. It was a trip I took with my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. The second time was two years ago.
As I said, the third time was last August. One of the things I wanted to do again, which I had done a couple of decades ago, was to visit Ellis Island. If you don’t know about Ellis Island it was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants. It was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station for over sixty years from 1892 until 1954. Most of the people who went through there weren’t wealthy. They had to go through agonizing immigration examinations. Most of the time what people went through was inhumane. But they went through there with the hope of creating a new life for themselves and their families.
Even though my family and I went there about twenty years ago, I didn’t understand what the people went through until I was there as an adult. As I went up the steps, the same steps immigrants went up, I felt overwhelmed. When I entered the building I could picture what each person endured. I saw the sterile hallways, the examination rooms, and the holding centers.
After traveling across the Atlantic for weeks, on a boat, many people arrived with little money and few connections. They were unsure whether or not they would be allowed in the country. One little thing - a disease, a wrong look, an ill-tempered move, would force them to be sent back. Sometimes people would wait days, weeks, even months to be released from the island.
It would make one wonder why they would go through this. The reason people went through this was they no longer wanted to be outsiders. In the midst of the fear, anxiety, and agony they wanted a place at the table - not just for themselves but for future generations.
This is true because my ancestors, who eventually settled on the West side of Buffalo, had room made for them at the table. It was the table where others showed them compassion by helping them find jobs, adapting to the cultural, and embracing them. So, it’s difficult for me not to have compassion for those who are outsiders when my family were outsiders themselves.
There are so many people who not only feel like outsiders in this world but are made outsiders. Maybe we’ve made people outsiders. There is no shame in admitting it. If Christ, himself, can admit it why can’t we? What people have we’ve disregarded, ignored, or pushed aside? Could it be people who are of a different cultural background? What about of a different gender? Maybe it’s been people of a different religious background?
Any time we question why someone is pleading for mercy it’s because they are looking for a place at the table. We don’t need to read research or contact so called church experts to understand this. All we have to do is listen to people who feel they are outsiders. That’s why we are seeing so many protests nowadays. It’s why there is so much division in our country. People are crying out in desperation to be seen and to be accepted. It’s our role as the church to listen where others don’t want to listen. It’s our role to see those who are invisible. It’s our role is to make more room at the table.
Each of us can do this in our schools, work, families, and communities. We can make room by approaching guests at church. We can make room by providing for refugees. We can make room by breaking our prejudicial attitudes with our children. We can make room at our business by caring about the whole person not just as a customer.
We do this because it is God who has made room for us at his heavenly table. Later on in our service, we will get to experience this when Christ invites us to his table. At Christ’s table, there is no insider or outsider. There is no woman or man. There is no poor or wealthy. This is no citizen or immigrant. Everyone is invited to Christ’s table as a child of God. So, knowing that Christ loves, accepts, and embraces each of us this much, how will we respond? Will we continue to make outsiders, or will we make room at the table?
Tuesday, August 29 2017
I want to share with you a story about a woman who was at work when she received a phone call that her daughter was very sick with a fever. She left her work and stopped by the drug store to get some medication for her daughter.
When she returned to her car, she found that she had locked her keys inside. She was in a hurry to get home to her sick daughter. She didn’t know what to do, so she called home and told the babysitter what had happened, and that she did not know what to do.
The babysitter told the woman that her daughter was getting worse. Then she said, “You might find a coat hanger and use that to open the door.”
As luck would have it, the woman looked around and found a rusty old coat hanger, probably left there by someone else who had used it when they had locked their keys in their car. She looked at the hanger, and said, “I don’t know how to use this.”
It was then that she bowed her head, and began to pray. She asked God to send her some help. Within five minutes, an old rusty car pulled, with a disheveled, unkempt man who was wearing an old biker skull rag on his head. The woman thought, “Dear God – this is who you sent to help me?” But she was desperate.
The man got out of his car, and asked if he could help. She said, “Yes. My daughter is very sick. I stopped by to get her some medicine, and I locked my keys in the car. I have to get home to her. Please. Can you use this hanger to get into my car? The man said, “Sure.”
In less than a minute, the man had the car door opened. The woman hugged the man, and through her tears, she said, “Thank you so much. You are a very nice man.”
“No lady,” the man said. “I’m not a nice man. I just got out of prison today. I was in prison for car theft, and have been out for only about an hour.”
The woman hugged the man again, and with sobbing tears cried out loud, “Thank you God.” She cried out loud, “Thank you God – for sending me – a professional!”
I want to talk to you today about another professional – an expert – that God sends our way. His name is Jesus. And in our reading today from the book of Matthew, we have this wonderful encounter between Jesus and his disciples. Most importantly – the disciple by the name of Simon Peter.
Jesus takes his disciples to a place called Caesarea Philippi. While there, he begins to ask them a few questions. First he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” Now, the disciples’ answers are all over the map, because what people are saying about Jesus is all over the map. “Some say you are John the baptizer come back from the dead. Others say that you are Elijah, or maybe even Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.”
Good answers! You see, the disciples have been listening. Not only to Jesus – but they’re aware of the buzz that’s going around in the towns and villages that they’ve been traveling through. So far, so good after the first question. But the second question. Ah, the second question is just like the first, but this one is a little bit tougher.
That’s when Jesus asks, “Yes – but who do you say that I am?”
I can only imagine that there must have been this moment of eerie silence. Brief – but still noticeable. You know – one of those questions that just kind of hangs in the air. But you know – you know – that someone’s going to answer – and that person is going to be….? Peter. That’s right. Peter. When in doubt, answer Peter and chances are good that you’ll be right.
It’s good old Peter. He answers, “You are the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of the living God!”
And Jesus turns to Peter – and if Jesus had been at all familiar with the musical My Fair Lady, he might just have used the line that Professor Henry Higgins says to Eliza Doolittle, “By George – I think he’s got it!”
So – answer number one. Correct. Answer number 2. Also correct. Peter and the disciples are batting a thousand. How do we know? Well, Jesus does NOT use Professor Henry Higgins’ words, but this is what he says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of John! Flesh and blood and have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
By the way, that question – that second question that Jesus asked – was not just for those twelve disciples to answer. That question is directed at all disciples and every wanna-be disciple – in every time and in every place – to answer.
So – who do YOU say that Jesus is? And does it matter? Well, yeah!
Let’s go back to that story I started out with – the one about the woman who locked her keys in her car. She cried out to God for help in her time of need. It’s a natural thing to do, and I would guess that we’ve all done that. But to see God – to see Jesus Christ – as someone we turn to ONLY in times of need – is so limiting. I have a concern that some people – not everyone – but there are some – who limit their understanding of who Jesus is to someone they turn to to get them out of a jam. Like some sort of super hero who comes to their rescue.
If that’s who you say Jesus is – well, let me tell you. Jesus is so much more than that.
When I look into this book – especially when I read what it says about Jesus in those four books that we call the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – let me tell you,
• I really enjoy the teachings that Jesus taught. But Jesus is more than just a great teacher.
• I really appreciate the philosophy Jesus lays down about how we are to relate to God – and how we are to relate to each other. But Jesus is more than just a philosopher about life and living.
• I love the parables of Jesus. But Jesus is more than just a great story teller.
• I love to read about the miracles that Jesus performed. But Jesus is more than just a miracle worker.
• I could talk about his healing ministry. But Jesus is more than just a great physician.
Yes, Jesus is all of these things. In fact, I would say that Jesus is an expert in all of these things. But most of all – Jesus is an expert who deals with my greatest problem – my greatest shortfall of all.
Jesus is God’s expert when it comes to dealing with me and MY sin! He proved it when he died on the cross. For you! For me! Jesus is God’s expert in forgiving sins. He is an expert in giving us abundant life in the here and now – and eternal life with God in the life to come.
He is the Savior – the One who saves. He is the Lord – the leader of life. Of your life. Of mine.
When Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah – the Son of the Living God – he was declaring that Jesus is THE expert that God promised to send. The expert that God would send to set people free from the power of sin and guilt and shame.
How can one person be an expert in all these things? I’ll tell you how. Because Jesus is also God.
So – who do you say that Jesus is? Today. Right here. Right now. Who do you say that Jesus is?
• Teacher? Philosopher? Miracle Worker? Healer? A great man from the past? Savior? Lord? The list of options can and does go on.
There are some who say that Jesus was just a historical figure from the past. A great man to be sure. But just a man. There are some who make the claim that he was just a legend – that he never existed – but they are few – and most historians – even non-believing historians – will say that the man Jesus was for real. But still, just an interesting character who lived some 2000 years ago.
You know that I love to say that Jesus was not a legend – he is not a liar – he is not a lunatic – but he is exactly who he says he is. He is Lord! The One who has conquered death! He is alive – and he is with us today.
Now – do you remember the movie Titanic? You remember Rose – a young woman who is trapped in a social structure she despises. Engaged to an abusive, power-driven man? She stands on the ledge of that great ocean liner about to jump overboard – when young Jack – a poor artist – talks her back from the edge. She slips and falls. He grabs her hand, and promises, “I won’t let go.”
Throughout the movie that theme reasserts itself. “I won’t let go,” he repeats as Rose’s mother and friends try to keep them apart. As the ship is going down – Oh! I hope I didn’t ruin the movie for anybody – but as the ship is going down, he holds her close, and says, “I won’t let go.” In the frigid water, Rose survives by clinging to floating debris. And Jack, bobbin in the water at her side, dies – still holding her hand.
Someone named Penelope Stokes says in her book, Simple Words of Wisdom, “He was true to his promise. Even in death, he didn’t let go.”
May I suggest that that too is a picture of Jesus? Who he is – and what he does. No matter where we are in life or death – no matter what happens to us – he is someone who never lets go.
So – who do you say that Jesus is? I cannot answer that question for you. Each one of us must answer that question for him or herself. But I can tell you this. He is both Savior and Lord. He is God’s expert at forgiving sins. He is God’s expert at giving us the abundant life now, and eternal life in the life to come. He is the expert we need. Every day of our lives.
So – who do you say that Jesus is? Wouldn’t it be great if today we could answer like Peter? “You are the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of the living God!”
And then to hear Jesus say, “By George – I think you’ve got it!”
Wednesday, August 09 2017
I love the story about a nine-year-old boy named Danny who came bursting out of Sunday school like a wild stallion. His eyes were darting in every direction as he tried to locate either mom or dad. Finally, after a quick search, he grabbed his Daddy by the leg and yelled, “Man, that story of Moses and all those people crossing the Red Sea was great!” His father looked down, smiled, and asked the boy to tell him about it.
“Well, the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. So the Jews ran as fast as they could until they got to the Red Sea. The Egyptian Army was getting’ closer and closer. So Moses got on his walkie-talkie and told the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Egyptians. While that was happening, the Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross over. They made it!”
By now old dad was shocked. “Is THAT the way they taught you the story?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” Danny admitted, “but if I told you the way they told it to us, you'd never believe it, Dad.”
Skeptics over the years have tried to do the same thing to the miracles of Jesus. To try to explain away the supernatural power that Jesus has to perform miracles. This is especially true when it comes to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.
One popular explanation – and you’ve heard me talk about this many times before – but one attempt to explain away this miracle – is to say that people were so moved by the generosity of a little boy who shared his lunch – that everyone in the crowd who had brought food with them brought that food out of their traveling pouches – and lo and behold, everyone had enough to eat. And then the point of the story turns away from who Jesus is – and what he can do – and turns it into a nice Sunday School lesson about sharing. It’s an unfortunate attempt to take the miracle out of the miraculous.
Folks, let me tell you, that if Jesus is indeed the Son of God – if Jesus is exactly who he says he is – and I believe he is – then there is no question but that he performed miracles, and on a regular basis. So when you read or listen to the telling of the miracles of Jesus – please remember that the purpose they serve is to tell us something about who Jesus is – AND then to get some kind of a response from us.
Our Gospel lesson today is that well-known episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples of the feeding of the 5,000. And since it says there were 5,000 men, besides women and children. So it might have been two to three or more times that many. Think Coca Cola Field in downtown Buffalo where the Bisons play, and fill that stadium and you get the idea of just how many people all together might have been there. By the way, Coca Cola Stadium holds just over 18,000. I had to look it up.
Interestingly, as the day begins, we find Jesus in a boat trying to get away for a little down time. But when he gets to shore, and climbs out of the boat, he sees this crowd of people waiting for him. And when he sees the crowds, we’re told the first thing Jesus says is, “Aw, nuts. Not again!”
No, no, no, that’s not quite right. The first thing we’re told is that Jesus has compassion on the crowd. And after a busy day of healing – and perhaps a little preaching on the side – it’s evening. Jesus is so determined to heal as many people as he could, that he kind of loses track of time. These thousands of people are going to – you know – be in need of a restroom – and they’re going to want something to eat.
It would be another almost 2000 years before Wegmans begins to deliver groceries. There’s no Mighty Taco to go to. No pizza delivery. And that’s when the disciples come up with this brilliant solution. “Jesus, you need to send these folks away now so they can get something to eat. Send them away, Jesus.”
But Jesus? Oh yeah, remember the first thing Jesus showed to these people? Compassion. And even after a busy day, he is still showing compassion. He says, “They need not go away. Peter, Andrew, Philip, Matthew, Thomas – you all – you give them something to eat.”
“Lord? Hello-o! You’ve gotta be kidding, right? There’s a Coca Cola Stadium sized crowd of people here. All we’ve got in our hands are five loaves of bread, and two fish.”
And Jesus says, “You bring them here to me. I’ll take what you’ve got – and you sit back – and watch.” And Jesus takes that bread. And he takes that fish. And he looks up to heaven, and he blesses it, and he breaks it, and he gives it to his disciples, and they give it to the crowd, and everyone eats. And is it enough? No! It’s more than enough. Remember? How many baskets full are left over? Twelve. That’s right, twelve. One basket for each disciple to bring back full.
It is a miracle. From five loaves of bread and two small fish – remember, there was no other food – Jesus miraculously provides from THIS bread and from THIS fish enough food for everybody to have enough – in fact it is more than enough.
May I suggest to you that whenever Jesus performs a miracle – that miracle begins with compassion. But then, at least in this case, something else was needed. And that something else was when somebody else placed something – in this case bread and fish – into Jesus’ hands. Somebody else gave Jesus something to work with.
Now Matthew doesn’t tell us this, but when the Gospel writer John shares this story he identifies a young boy as the source of this bread and this fish. His mother had packed him a lunch for the day, and this is what the disciples brought in their hands and placed into Jesus’ hands.
Do you see what’s going on here? God can use whatever it is that we have in our hands and when we then take that and place it into God’s hands. No matter what it is. Some gift. A passion for some ministry. Some person moved by compassion into an act of kindness. God can use those things – God can use us – for God’s glory, for the benefit of others, and for our own good, as I like to say.
Now, feeding hungry people is part of what it means to be church. And we do. We’ll have a special emphasis in October and November where we can support the ELCA World Hunger program. Of course, we can give anytime during the year to World Hunger, as well as canned goods and other non-perishables to the food pantry in the hallway. Each month we take what all of us have contributed and deliver it to Resurrection Lutheran Church in the inner city of Buffalo where the need is truly great. And here’s the thing. The people who are served by the contributions that you and I have made will know that the church – all of us – have joined together to help feed hungry people. They will know that someone cares – and like Jesus – has shown compassion – in the name of Jesus!
Because you see, there are starving people out there who are starving for more than food to fill their stomachs. They may not know it – but they’re starving for the Good News – the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that when we feed hungry people – and they know that the church is the one that’s doing the feeding – they might just then be open to hearing what the church has to say about Jesus.
Let me take you back a few thousand years. In the first centuries of the church – it wasn’t easy being a Christian. There were persecutions. Often it was against the law to be a Christian. But during these early years of the church, the church grew. And there were many reasons for this, but let me talk to you about one in particular.
In those early years, plagues were common. And the Roman government not only didn’t have social services to deal with widespread outbreaks of various plagues, but the ruling classes didn’t care because these plagues most often affected the lower classes of society.
Can you guess who did care? Can you guess who did show compassion? The church. Christians risked their own health and their own lives by feeding and caring for the sick – and in many cases, bringing them back to health. When no one else cared – the church cared. And as a result, the church grew.
Think about it. If someone’s going to take care of you or your loved one – nurse you back to health – when no one else will – without asking for anything in return – aren’t you going to be interested in learning what motivates a group of people to risk their lives so that others might live? Of course you are. And that’s how the church grew way back then.
Well, the same thing is true today. When we – the church – feed hungry people – we’re doing more than filling empty stomachs. We are opening up the possibility that they might just be willing to hear a message that could turn their hearts and lives around – the same way that the Good News message of Jesus Christ has made a difference in our lives!
We can make a difference. And you want to make a difference, I know you do. Feeding hungry people is just one way. Showing kindness to someone who needs a friend. Being the kind of neighbor that you would want your neighbor to be to you. Touching hearts – changing lives – making a difference in the name of Jesus Christ. In whatever way that looks like.
You see, when we hear or read stories like this one, we have a choice. We can either choose to be bystanders – you know – spectators enjoying a good story – or we can enter into the story. We can stay on the sidelines – or we can get into the game.
So if you want real joy in your life – let me tell you – real joy is found in seeing a need – and meeting that need – by giving of what you already hold in your hands. Not always convenient, I know. And it’s certainly not always easy.
But when we realize that we’re all in this together – won’t there be enough? Yes – and more than enough. Amen
Tuesday, August 01 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
There once was a man. When he came to the gates of heaven he was greeted by St. Peter. As he approached, St. Peter stopped him. Before he could go any further St. Peter asked the man to give a brief history of his life, specifically the good deeds he did. Each of these deeds would help him gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven. "You will need 1000 points to be admitted," St. Peter told the man.
With great confidence, the man thought, "This will be a cinch. I’ve been involved in the church from the days of my youth.” Then he began to list his activities. He proceeded to tell about his time in youth group, serving on outreach ministries, and going to church camps. He also mentioned how he was on the Church Council and various other committees. His list was extensive.
"Very impressive," St. Peter smiled at the man. An angel standing with them also smiled and nodded in agreement as he tallied the points. Then the angel whispered in St. Peter’s ear. After listening to the angel, he told the man, "This is quite striking, we seldom see people with your good works. You will be pleased to know that you have earned ten points. Can you think of anything else?”
The man proceeded to explain how he helped people who were homeless, gave money to charities and visited people in hospitals. “Very nice.” St. Peter said. “Five points. What else?”
Now the man was in a panic and broke into a cold sweat. He thought really hard. He reached deep down and tried to remember every single act of kindness and good deed he did throughout his life.
He proceeded to share how he raised a wonderful family, got his tax returns in on time, and followed the rules of the road. In a state of severe distress, he even mentioned the one time he helped a little old lady cross a street.
The angel next to St. Peter looked at his clip board and nodded his head in admiration. Again, St. Peter praised the man. “Two points. You have a total of seventeen points,” as St. Peter looked over at the angel’s clipboard.
Now the man was furious. He was at a loss. He couldn’t figure out what do. He recalled everything he did in his life. Each time he mentioned his good deeds he received fewer and fewer points.
Finally, in a fit of anger, the man sat on the floor and began to sob. ”I don’t know what to do?! There’s no hope for me! What more could’ve I done?!” In a loud angry voice, he looked up and yelled, “No one could possibly have done enough to get into heaven! It’s only by the grace of God I will be able to enter!”
St. Peter quickly looked up from the angel’s clipboard. “You are correct. You receive a thousand points!” Then the gates automatically opened to the kingdom of heaven.
Is this how we picture the kingdom of heaven? Do we picture St. Peter standing there at the pearly gates? Do we ponder what would happen when we arrive? Maybe we do in the morning when we're waking up? Or, in middle of the day when we're at work? Or, at night when we're watching television or reading?
Perhaps we would wonder how we would react. Just like the man, we would first be so joyful because we would have reached the kingdom of heaven. Then we would be puzzled because it upends our expectations. Finally, we might be angry because we wouldn’t be in control.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven does. It brings about the most incredible joy, puzzlement, and anger. We heard this again in our Gospel lesson for this morning (evening). For the third week in a row, we heard Jesus share with us more parables or stories. But this week it wasn’t just one, it’s five. We heard Jesus at the beginning of every parable start with the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like…
When most of us picture the kingdom of heaven we think about a place we will go to after we die. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if Jesus wasn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven in this way? Might that bring some joy, some puzzlement, or some anger? What if Jesus was talking about experiencing the kingdom of heaven right here and right now on earth?
Ironically enough, this is what we pray for every week if not, every day. We pray that God will bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We might wonder, “When do we ask for this from God?” We ask every time we say the Lord’s prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
That’s the kingdom of heaven Jesus was referring to when he compared it to something. Too often we look at these parables as something like a proverb or piece of wisdom. For instance, many of us probably hear these parables, especially the parable of the mustard seeds and yeast, telling us that “great things have small beginnings.”
However, the tricky part about parables is that they aren’t what we assume them to be. Sometimes they are an optical illusion that miss directs us, in order to help us learn. Although we might imagine that our parables about the mustard seed and yeast are telling us that the kingdom of heaven is small and grows into something big; the kingdom of heaven transcends, or goes beyond that understanding and experience. We have to remember that although the kingdom of heaven might start out small and bring us great joy, it also brings us puzzlement and anger.
For instance, I’m sure many of us have seen mustard seeds. But have you ever seen what happens to a mustard seed when it grows? I had a friend from Atlanta who once told me that he wanted to make his own mustard from scratch. First, he really liked the taste of mustard. Second, he enjoyed gardening. So, he wanted to grow his own mustard plants.
Well, one day he headed out to the local nursery to buy some mustard seeds. When he arrived he asked the owner for a couple of packs. Upon hearing the request the owner told him, “No, you really don’t want them.”
Again, my friend was adamant about making his own mustard. “Yeah, I do want them.”
“No, you don’t,” the owner said.
My friend argued, “What are you talking about? I would like to buy a few packs of mustard seeds.”
Again, the owner told him, “No you don’t. You really don’t understand what will happen if you plant mustard seeds in your garden.” Again, “What are you talking about?”
Still a little perturbed, the owner explained, “If you plant mustard seeds in your garden they will get all over the place. They will take over everything and you will no longer have a garden of vegetables. You will only have a garden of mustard bushes. Worst of all, you won’t be able to get rid of them.”
It’s not just that mustard or yeast starts out small and grows into magnificent plants. I’m sure many of us knew that, but what we probably didn’t know is that it doesn’t stop. It invades every part of the garden, especially the parts that we wouldn’t want to have mustard. It would cause so much puzzlement and anger as to how it got out of control.
In Jesus’ days, mustard and yeast were considered pollutants. Mustard was similar to what we view as dandelions, crabgrass, or kudzu. As for yeast, once it got into the flour there was no way to get it out. There’s no way to get rid of mustard or yeast. It’s invasive, takes over, and at times just simply unattractive.
Perhaps that’s why many of us, both in and outside the church, are hesitant to learn more about God. Maybe that’s why we claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ but stop just short of moving into action to show grace to others. Possibly that’s why we are satisfied just doing enough. It could anger us that the kingdom of heaven would take over our lives. It could anger us that the kingdom of heaven could change our will in a way we wouldn’t expect. It could puzzle us how our lives will never be the same. It could puzzle us that the kingdom of heaven will take over us like a mustard seed or a piece of yeast. Then, we won’t be able to stop it.
That might mean we will start to question what we’ve already learned. Or, we revisit what we believed our whole lives. Or, we discover our views might not be accurate. Or, we realize God invites and welcomes all people into the kingdom of heaven. Or, we start doing likewise by accepting all people regardless of race, economics, sexual orientation, status, or education. Or, we might become joyful that God loves us all the same regardless of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or who we are.
So, what would happen if the kingdom of heaven spread or invaded everyone like a mustard seed or yeast? Would we get to experience the great joy in finding a treasure? Would we take joy in our relationship with God and one another? Would we find it so valuable that it becomes not just a priority but the priority in our lives?
The kingdom of heaven isn’t supposed to cause fear and anxiety. Rather experiencing the kingdom of heaven, here and now, makes a greater impact, a positive difference, and better life full of joy, love, grace, and wholeness. The kingdom of heaven is beyond our wildest imaginations. Because the kingdom of heaven is beyond our imaginations we only can catch a glimpse of it from time to time.
I caught a glimpse of it when I watched the news this weekend. In the midst of the heroin epidemic facing this country, Channel 2 had a story about what’s being done here in Western New York. In one of the most unlikely places, we would find the kingdom of heaven has been in a drug court. Unlike other courts, this one specializes in helping people who have the disease of addiction.
The main judge, Judge Cervi explained, ”If we can take care of the ills of the offender, we can cure the criminal activity so to speak.” Cervi continued, "Many people who enter into our program, are seeking help. They’re desperate to help themselves.”
One person who was desperate was Shannon Winsor. She admitted herself she hit rock bottom when she was arrested for shoplifting to support her heroin addiction. She explained how the drug court set her straight.
"My parents can only do so much. Judge Cervi can do anything and can send me to jail. It's a lot scarier," said Winsor.
And he did send her to jail when she didn't obey his rules. She detoxed in jail and was sent to Renaissance Campus for treatment. Now, she's almost one year sober and will soon be graduating from drug court.
"I thought I was going to die an active addict and I don't have to now. So it's amazing to see how far I've come in the past year,”.
“She is a shining example for other addicts and their families that there's help and hope. I always try to tell the participants it's not the fall that defines you, it's how you rise from the fall that makes you the person that you are," said Judge Cervi who was once suffered from addiction himself.
This is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. We catch a glimpse every time someone recovers from an addiction. We catch a glimpse every time systems are fixed. We catch a glimpse every time authority has compassion.
But it doesn’t end there. We also catch a glimpse every time an unemployed person finds a job. We catch a glimpse every time a poor child stayed in school and got an education. We catch a glimpse every time a person who is alone is embraced into a new community. We can catch it anywhere at any time.
We can’t purchase, achieve, or earn entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It’s already there and we can see it all around us. The kingdom of heaven is given to us from God. It grasps us, takes hold of us, it permeates every facet of our lives. It becomes so invasive that God invites all of us to participate in it and share it. Why wouldn’t we want to participate in it? Who would be scared to experience this? Yes, the kingdom of heaven does bring anger and puzzlement. But it brings the greatest, most amazing, abundant joy one could ever experience.