Sunday, February 28, 2010

Living in the Kingdom: Sermon on the Lord's Prayer #2

Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 13:18-21

We live in a modern democracy that enshrines the words:
    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Didn’t the nation’s founders throw off a king in order to gain this independence?   And yet, week after week, we pray that God’s kingdom would be revealed and that God’s will would be done, both in heaven and on earth.  How do we reconcile our prayers with our politics?

    I suppose we reconcile these two very different perspectives, by spiritualizing the kingdom of God.  We live in a democracy here on earth – where we get to run our own lives – and when we get to heaven, well, then God gets to be in charge!  

    Unfortunately, Jesus won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Remember, in the prayer, as Matthew presents it, we commit ourselves to obeying God, both on earth and in heaven.  Jesus also says that the kingdom is already here in our midst.   And, when people asked – where is the kingdom?  Jesus responded:

    “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21 NRSV).

Now, I should point out that many translations replace the word “among” with “within.”  If we go with “within,” then it’s easier to spiritualize the message of the kingdom.  The kingdom of God simply becomes a matter of our personal relationship with God, and therefore doesn’t have any social or political ramifications.  But, if the kingdom of God is all around us, even if it’s invisible to the naked eye, then the message is quite different.
1.  The Kingdom – the Heart of the Prayer   
    So what do we mean, when we pray for God’s kingdom to be revealed?  As we consider this question, it’s important to remember that Jesus focused his ministry on proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Everything he did, whether he was teaching or healing, revealed to the world the nature of God’s reign.  Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that this petition stands at the very heart of this prayer.  Jesus believed and taught that God’s kingdom required that God’s will be done on earth even as it is in heaven, just as the second clause of the petition reminds us.  Everything that we prayed for in this prayer is rooted in the premise that the kingdom of the Holy God is present in our midst.   This includes God’s daily provisions, the request for forgiveness, and the request that God would protect us against the inroads of evil.  All of this is rooted in the assumption that God’s kingdom is truly present in the here and now.    

    Now, when we pray this prayer, we need to be aware that there are other kingdoms that have a claim on our allegiance, just as they did when Jesus taught this prayer to a people living under Roman occupation.  As I pointed out in the last sermon, the Roman emperor considered himself the Great Father, and the people of the Empire were his children.  He promised to provide them with bread and protection, in exchange for their absolute obedience and worship.  So, when Jesus invites us to pray this prayer, we need to remember that God’s kingdom stands in contrast to Caesar’s – whether Caesar is an emperor or a president doesn’t matter.

    Jesus often used parables to describe the nature of God’s kingdom.  Therefore, as we consider what it means to pray this prayer, I’d like us to consider two very brief but powerful parables.  One talks about mustard seeds and the other speaks of yeast.

2.  Small Is Beautiful

    According to the parable of the mustard seed, this seed is among the smallest of all seeds.  It’s so small that it’s difficult to see, and yet the promise of the mature plant is present in the seed.   I expect that when Jesus says that the kingdom is in your midst, his audience was likely looking around, wondering what they should be looking for.  After all, they couldn’t see a throne or an army.  All they could see was a rag tag band of Galileans following a rather young religious teacher. 

    But this is good news, because it reminds us that small is beautiful, and that big things can have small beginnings.  As one commentator suggested, the people expected the kingdom to be like a mighty cedar, like the one promised in Ezekiel, but as Luke reminds us, Jesus’ ministry was similar to that of the mustard seed.  It’s full of promise, but we can’t see the fullness of its presence just yet.  But, when it does arrive in its fulness – it’ll be much like that cedar.  It will grow large enough to host the birds of the air in its branches, just as the prophet suggested (Ezk. 17:22-23).  And that promise of nesting space has been interpreted to mean inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God.     

    When we pray that God’s kingdom would be made known in our midst, we need to change our sense of what this means.  It’s not a matter of spectacles or demonstrations of power.  Instead, it’s about being present in such a way that God’s purpose might be fulfilled on earth. 
    This is good news, because while we might be small and even insignificant by the world’s standards, we have the possibility of making a difference in the community – that is, we can be signs of God’s reign.  Yes, there was a time when we were a large and influential church, but now, as we seek to be a missional presence in our community, our influence will not be determined by our size or our wealth.  Instead, it will be determined by our willingness to allow God to use us for the transformation of the world.

3.  A Little is a Lot  
    The second parable speaks of yeast, though it might be better to speak of leaven.  The image here is that of a small ball  of fermented dough, which when added to fresh dough or flour starts the leavening process.  In this case, a woman hides, a small amount of leaven in three measures of flour.  That may not sound like a lot at first, but consider that these three measures equal 50 pounds.  That’s enough dough to  feed 150 people, which makes it a lot of bread!

    As we think about what this parable means for us, it might be helpful to remember that leaven and yeast were often used as metaphors for uncleanness and corrupting influences.  Paul speaks of a little leaven, corrupting a whole batch of dough (Gal. 5:9).  According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus warns the disciples about  the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21).  In this case, however, the leaven has a positive value.  It works in much the same way, but with a different outcome.  Instead of being a source of evil, it becomes a source of good. 

    The early Christian community might have been small in number, and their influence on society may have been initially quite small, but over time, that little bit of leaven, hidden in the flour, produced a lot of loaves of bread.  The kingdom of God may seem hidden, and yet it can change the dynamics of the world’s existence. 

    If we’re willing to be signs of God’s reign, in our words and in our deeds, in the way we interact with others, and live our lives in the world, then we can be change agents in society.  We can change the tone of the conversation and the focus of our culture’s attention.  That is, after all, what yeast does, it changes things.  Paul writes to the Corinthian church and tells them that God has reconciled them in Christ, making them new creations, and therefore God was entrusting to them the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). 

    We live in a time of fear, mistrust, anxiety, and even great anger.  The air is heavy with its presence.  As Walter Brueggemann speaks of journeying to the common good, he points us back to the Exodus story.  In that story we see a people move out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of Sinai.  He makes a point that I think speaks to our situation.
    Those who are living in anxiety and fear, most especially fear of scarcity, have not time or energy for the common good.  (Walter Brueggemann, The Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, p. 7). 

The message of the kingdom, is this: we no longer need to live in anxiety.  We needn’t fear scarcity, for we live in the midst of God’s abundance.  This is because  the leaven is hidden in the dough.  Indeed, as the next petition reminds us – God is the great provider.  But, too often we miss the signs of God’s kingdom, because we’re too focused on living In Pharaoh’s kingdom or Caesar’s kingdom.  And in that kingdom, there’s never enough.  That’s because no one shares, and no one looks out for the other.  It’s everyone for themselves.  
    In God’s kingdom, things are different.  We can be agents of change, agents of transformation, agents of reconciliation.  Of course, it starts here in this community that we call church.  If we’re not reconciled – if love doesn’t permeate this community or  we spend our time grumbling about little things – then we’ll find it difficult to answer the call to bear witness to God’s presence in the world. 
  As we pray this prayer, that God’s kingdom would be revealed in our midst, let’s remember that this promised reign of God starts small – in a mustard seed and in a ball of fermented dough.  May we hear and respond to God’s will, both here on earth and also in heaven.  Then we’ll be ready to reach out into our neighborhoods and communities, touching lives, so that they too might be transformed and healed.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2010

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