What’s It Like? (7/30/2017)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45 (NRSV)

There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.

In the sweet by and by…

This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue…

I’ve got a mansion just over the hill top
In that fair land where we never grow old.

I have heard of a land
On a far-away strand,
In the Bible the story is told,
Where no cares ever come,
Neither darkness nor gloom,
And nothing shall ever grow old.

There are evergreen trees
That bend low in the breeze,
And their fruitage is brighter than gold;
There are harps for our hands,
In that fairest of lands,
And nothing shall ever grow old.

There’s a home in that land,
At the Father’s right hand;
There are mansions whose joys are untold;
There the ransomed will sing
Round the throne of their King,
And nothing shall ever grow old.

In that beautiful land,
On the faraway strand,
There awaits us a robe and a crown;
In that city, we’re told,
The streets are pure gold,
And the sunlight shall never go down.

Shall I go on, or are these enough old hymns about heaven to make my point? In simple and sophisticated ways, people have been talking about heaven as long as they’ve been talking. Maybe even before. Heaven holds a fascination for many of us, whether we want to admit it or not. What comes next? That question has flavored much discourse about the afterlife. What’s it like – over there?

In contrast, Joel Stein, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writes that “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell” (Quoted in Karoline Lewis, “Inviting a Kingdom Imagination,” July 20, 2014, workingpreacher.org). I imagine that many who feel something like sugar overload when they hear some of those old songs I quoted in the beginning, share Stein’s cynicism. Eternity, plucking a harp, even on your own special cloud, is not very appealing.

Karoline Lewis calls her reflection on this text “Inviting a Kingdom Imagination.” What about you? What if I invite your “kingdom imagination” this morning? What’s it like? When you think about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the Realm, the Dominion, or as I prefer to call it, God’s Beloved Community, what comes to mind? If I gave you a sheet of paper that was headed “God’s Beloved Community is like…”, how would you finish the thought?

The parables that make up today’s Ancient Word all purport to tell us. Many scholars believe that Jesus’ primary responsibility was to proclaim the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, or as Matthew names it, the kingdom of heaven. Some believe that Jesus came modeling, literally living out the meaning of that term. “The kingdom, the Beloved Community, is not just down the road, over the hill, beyond the sunset,” he taught. “It is here and now. It’s breaking through as we speak and minister here on the shores of the lake, as we walk the road to Jerusalem, as we inhabit the ancient holy city itself.”

Can’t you imagine the disciples as they journey with Jesus pestering him with “What’s it like? What can we expect? Tell us more about it, Jesus. What’s the kingdom really like? Is the Beloved Community anything like what I’ve hoped it would be?” I’m guessing then these particular parables were pretty disappointing to his eager followers. “It’s like a mustard seed? Like yeast? But those are nasty, unclean, evil things. And isn’t it risky to be digging around on someone else’s property, plus, even if we had the money, isn’t it a little shady to buy the property without telling the owner about the treasure. You know we don’t have the resources to buy expensive jewels.”

You get the point. As we learned in studying the parables last spring, they never carry a simple or literal meaning. There is always something more to challenge us to new or deeper understanding of Jesus’ witness – in this case, witness to the nature of the Beloved Community. “What’s it like, Jesus?” “Well, it’s not quite like anything you ever imagined and probably not exactly what you were hoping for.”

In the case of the mustard seed and the yeast, Jesus uses a shocking image to get their attention. The mustard bush is a noxious plant that can take over your garden and destroy it. No one would deliberately plant mustard seed. Yeast was a symbol of impurity, something unclean and evil. No one would ruin an exorbitantly large amount of flour by hiding yeast in it. But, you see, these stories are not about mustard seeds or yeast. Remember? They are about the Beloved Community. New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington writes of these parables:

In the case of the mustard seed, “The contrast between small beginnings [the tiny seed] and a huge conclusion [the big bush] is intended to speak to the small beginnings of the Dominion [Beloved Community] in Jesus’ day, but also shares in the eschatological optimism of what God has in store.”

In regard to the yeast, “It seems possible to argue that Jesus is talking about his ‘unclean’ kingdom message, his message that is embraced by the marginalized and unclean, his message that in fact includes the notion that the clean and unclean rules don’t apply in the eschatological Dominion [Beloved Community.] Such barriers are being transcended or left behind”

Concerning the treasure and the pearl, “When one finds the Dominion [Beloved Community], all else seems valueless or at least of much less worth and so expendable if that is what it takes to get the treasure [or the gem]. No sacrifice is too great to obtain it” (Ben Witherington III, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Matthew, pp. 269, 272).

What’s it like?  A Beloved Community that is a big as God’s imagination, a Beloved Community that transcends barriers to embrace the marginalized and those labeled unclean, a Beloved Community of such great value that no sacrifice is too great to obtain it. I don’t know about you, but that’s a community I want to be part of.

Last Sunday, I worshiped with Keawala’i  Congregational Church at Makena on the island of Maui where my old friend, Kealahou Alika has pastored for the past 26 years. The text for the day was another challenging parable from this chapter of Matthew, the one about the wheat and tares or weeds together sown. In his sermon, Kahu Alika told the story of ministering to a young man and his family. The young man was dying of AIDS and, in good Hawaiian style, the family wanted a ritual of blessing. The family’s own pastor refused to see him and so Kahu Alika responded. When he died, Kahu Alika also performed the memorial service at Keawala’I Church. What he said to his congregation last week was this, “From time to time I feel like I am repeating myself when I say the doors of this church are literally open – to all…if I am repeating myself, it is only because Jesus cautions in ‘the parable of the weeds among the wheat’ that we are not responsible for passing judgment over others in determining ‘who is in and who is out.’ The challenge we face is whether or not our hearts are also open.” It is true that all the doors of the church were open to welcome the warm tropical breeze and I sensed many hearts gathered that day also open to the breath of the Spirit

What’s it like? God’s Beloved Community is like a church whose doors are open wide to whoever will come, with a pastor who practices genuine aloha, and whose people live with open hearts. What’s it like? David Lose writes, “…perhaps church is the place where we remind each other of God’s promises and point to places in our lives and the world where we catch glimpses of its presence – the person who overcomes addiction or prejudice in order to cope with and change a challenging reality, the kid who befriends the friendless, the one who finds joy in sacrifice, those who are stunningly generous, the person who sees and stands with the marginalized, those who in the face of illness or fear radiate confidence and offer courage to others, the ones who use their power or popularity to uplift others” (David Lose, “Pentecost 8 A: Parabolic Promises,” July 27, 2017, davidlose.net).

What’s it like, the Beloved Community? We try to minister to our community with open doors and open hearts. We could share our own stories like the ones David Lose lists. I know we don’t always measure up. I know my own Aloha is not as extravagant as my friend’s. I know our resources are not endless. Still, tiny seeds grow large trees, a small amount of yeast leavens lots of flour, and God’s Beloved Community, breaking out in our midst, is worth everything we can give to it. That’s what it’s like, my friends. That’s what it’s like.  Amen.

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