It begins with the tiniest seed, but it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, a tree sheltering all kinds of birds. That’s the parable image of the kingdom of God that we read last Wednesday night in Confirmation. We were talking about the kingdom of God and Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms. So, how do we understand the kingdom of God? Well, it’s already here. But also, it’s not here fully… we glimpse it. It’s coming more fully. God’s work in the world, Luther explained, can be understood in two realms. The kingdom of the left is the civil authorities. Its purpose is to provide law, justice, and peace for all. We need it because people don’t live together in perfect harmony. We need some rules. It’s power is temporary though. Rulers come and go. The kingdom of the right is the church. It is full of grace, love, and mercy for all without condition. When motivated by God’s way, the vision is that people don’t need laws to make them do the right thing because they do it before it’s demanded. It’s eternal… but we can sometimes see glimpses of it now…
This “two kingdoms” theory of God’s activity is not the same as the principle of the separation of church and state. According to Luther, the civil and the church realm are not two mutually exclusive realms. Both coexist at the same time. We participate in both… God is present and interested in both. And unlike how this doctrine was mis-used during the years of the Nazi regime, a time when some Lutherans argued that we must obey civil authority even when it is wrong, our Confirmation booklet was very clear that Luther’s original teaching was that if civil authorities do not fulfill their role of providing justice and peace, that’s when we—people of both kingdoms—must speak and act.
So… then one student raised a really good point. We don’t really get the image of “kingdom.” We decided together that we don’t love this term since our closest way to understand it is England or fairy tales or maybe the Emerald City. So, we came up with some different words to describe the kingdom of God. The way of God, the safe space of God, the embrace of God… if you’ve always wondered about that, too, the Confirmation class and I invite you to try using these different words. Try reading all those parables about the kingdom of God with this wording…
The way of God is like a widow who searches for her coin that is lost. The wide embrace of God is like a father who runs out to greet his long-lost son. The safe space of God is like a tiny seed (so small, you might miss it, you might think it’s not important) until you see how it grows into a tree so expansive it can shelter all kinds of birds.
God’s way means that things that might seem insignificant… grow. And become bigger and bigger.
And so, the little things you do… matter.
Remember, Jesus didn’t live in a democracy. Jesus lived under the Roman Empire. Jesus was born in a time when Herod was king…. someone obsessed with his public image, grasping at absolute power, intolerant of any question or competition. That’s what kind of world Jesus and this big crowd of listeners were living in.
And so as we listen to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount (this is week three), we heard first about identity. “You’re blessed. You’re salt, you’re light.” Now, we hear Jesus’ charge—don’t just follow the bare minimum of the law. Change your life.
If there is some part of you that is causing you to act like the empire, change yourself.
Jesus uses hyperbole to get his point across. You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder, but I tell you… even anger is the way toward murder.” Jesus uses strong images to say that there is not one of us living who hasn’t committed sin. Not one of us has escaped some kind of participation in this empire mentality. This mindset is fueled by murder, yes… but long before that, it’s fueled by anger and a disregard for other people. It’s fueled by adultery, yes… but before that, by looking at someone as an object rather than a person, looking at someone as a prize rather than as a partner. It’s fueled by lying to God and other people, but before that fueled by a puffed-up sense of who we are and what we can do.
There are many, many things we are not in control of in life, including other people. One response to this is to try to control others. Of course, it makes sense that we hope to teach and influence others, through the civic arena or through the way of God, to shape, inspire, challenge, and motivate people to take a course that is different than the one they are taking.
But really, we know that it’s true that the only person we can actually shape and change is ourselves… and even that is a daily struggle, isn’t it? Even changing myself is only by the grace of God, because once I’ve learned a pattern, it’s hard to change it. I heard someone say this week that there’s no one more closed-minded than a person who thinks he’s open-minded.
I heard another person say that within ourselves, we have many different ways of being. There’s the reformer, the socializer, the thinker, the server, the comedian, the adventurer, the victim, the bully, the pleasure seeker… If we look, we’ll notice that we give way more power to some of these characters in us than to others. If that’s not what we want to do, maybe it’s time to give one or two of those voices a “time out” and allow another to have a bigger part.
Matthew loves righteousness—but it’s not just doing the right thing—it’s doing the right thing with mercy and love.
When Jesus lays out his hardest teachings: calling us out on our anger, lust, broken relationships, and broken promises… Jesus is calling us to the impossible. He’s not just saying that the big, bad things (like murder) are killing us… it’s the little things (that are not actually as little as we thought). Jesus seems to be challenging us to recognize that how I deal with this little thing… today… can be my salvation or damnation in my life today. My attitudes, my behavior can lead to broken relationships or whole relationships today.
In this, Jesus sounds a lot like God, way back in Deuteronomy, calling people to choose life. Today… how do we live well, offer healing to one another, and make this life matter each moment? We might find ourselves crying out with the singer of the psalms, “Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statues.” -Psalm 119:5
But even if we don’t quite know the way, we gather here in difficult times to hear scriptures stand out in a new way, pray together prayers that send us in new directions, and share a meal that replaces fear with love. We gather around a vision of the beloved community that God is creating here. It’s like this:
Ben has been reading a book about Norwegian wood stacking. Here’s an interesting detail he’s learned and shared with me. When a tree is cut down, you can plant 1-3 small tree seedlings in the stump and they’ll grow so much quicker, drawing from the root system that is already there.
We are not the first ones who have gathered here. The church, the way of God, has been going on long before we were ever born, and it will continue when we have returned to the soil… but for now, we get to grow here… nurtured from an already deep root system.
And we go out into every situation that we’ll encounter beyond here this week… knowing that there is no place that Jesus hasn’t been, is now, or won’t be with you. Whatever you are experiencing, whatever you have suffered, you’re never past the reaches of God’s love and grace.
Here, we’re invited to tell our stories of being in the abyss, of caving in to empire, of failing each other and failing God… we’re also invited to watch for miracles. When we can suddenly see the safe space of God all around us… when there is a moment of making peace, of releasing the anger that’s killing us, when there’s a relationship restored.
Something amazing has already happened this morning… can you think of what it was?
Where have you been light for the world? Or where have you seen another being light for the world?
Where have you glimpsed the way of God… already?
This is what we come together to share. The milestones of what God is doing in our lives. How God transforms us and from the smallest “yes” or “no,” brings life and growth.