Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23
A day or so after worship last week, one of you said,
“Michael, it’s funny: you preached on marriage last week. But you made me think about my divorce. …That my Christian faith calls me to be loving to my ex-wife.”
Exactly! I was aiming for something like that, hoping I might push folks ask about how far Jesus really means us to go!
I said something to the effect: “all our relationships are to be built on love.
As Christians, ours is a life-long study in how to live lovingly.
Love is the central purpose and aim of truly living our lives.
…In a great big family or a crowded and crowding community.
Or solitary and alone.
As children of our parents and parents of our children.
And spouses or friends.
But also to our neighbors….
And if we are listening to Jesus, all the way to our enemies.”
How do we love all these different people and in these different situations?
Maybe your struggle is figuring how to love your ex.
Or dealing with someone who has hurt you.
Or how to relate lovingly to someone you never chose to be in your life?
The insight of the one who heard a further, deeper challenge causes me to add something else to what I said last week: Love is expected– both to be found and to be shared — not only where life is good and easy and perfect. It is there too.
But if it’s really the love Christ came to live among us for, and to teach, and died for, then it’s a love that can be discovered and lived out in less than ideal circumstances, where life is confusing and messy, difficult and hard, in our ordinary every days and on extraordinarily awful days too.
Love isn’t just something for sermons and Sunday mornings and happy occasions.
It’s also for long, tiring days at work.
And tough community meetings.
And people and families that are more broken than whole.
Boringly regular days and red letter days.
And even for crucifixions.
But I’m not saying this just because a friend has figured out that love is still required,
even if he has ended a marriage.
I am saying this because Jesus showed us and taught us it’s so…
In our Gospel lesson today, after some significant wrestling with the everyday kinds of evil humans often face–
laws that are inhumane and ones that leave people hungry,
and our unrelenting jealousy and division,
our self-deluding hypocrisy,
our disbelief and testing God,
how even our successes can come back to haunt us
and our loved ones can tear us down…
…after dealing with all that raw and real human stuff,
that same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
But as is often the case, such great crowds gathered around him to hear what he had to say,
that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.
And he told them many things in parables …
Most of the gospel readings this month come from a collection of parables,
sometimes called the sermon on the sea,
which forms the structural and thematic heart of Matthew.
Parables are not concrete examples to help simple or uneducated people
or spiritually dense people either
who might not otherwise understand lofty religious matters.
Quite the opposite is true.
Parables are concrete because they mean to take us to and teach us with the real situations in our lives. No head in the clouds. No pie in the sky after we die.
They mean to help us keep our feet firmly on the earth.
Where Jesus came to live and die among us.
The parables don’t lift us above real life, elevate our thinking or living, make us into some spiritual elite or religious aristocracy walking some higher road, above others. Instead, they mean to bring heaven right down to our doorstep, among us, here on earth.
Through parables, Jesus asserts that the raw stuff,
right down to the mud caked on your feet and the muck you are stuck in,
even that divorce!
— the real stuff of the daily lives of regular people, even the poorest among us
— debt bondage, subsistence farming, day labor, taxes, crop contamination, food preparation — is …it’s the real stuff of our daily lives– our daily bread you might say, that’s vital to understanding the reign of God, or as it says in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven.”
We hear the phrase “kingdom of heaven” seven times in this month’s gospel readings.
In Matthew, the words are used where identical passages in the other gospels say the “ kingdom of God.”
But the author of Matthew is not talking about anything different; isn’t describing a different reality, but honoring the Jewish prohibition on uttering or writing the name of God.
So ironically, Matthew’s Kingdom of Heaven is to be found right here on earth.
The kingdom described is the same “this-worldly” reality, hence the title of my sermon—
“If Not in Your REAL Life, Then No Where”
What’s to be found in our real lives?
Both the problems that cause suffering and God’s alternative way of responding to them.
Jesus has come to really help us,
to exhort us to be different in a world that doesn’t often easily change or improve —
Jesus is talking about the very real and painful human realities we know too well:
of economic injustice,
of broken community and disappointing relationships,
scarcity of life’s necessities — or more often unequal and unfair distribution of vital goods…
and all the violence and rejection such distribution entail and engenders.
And what does Jesus prescribe in the face of such harsh realities?
That we be just nonetheless.
That we heal and mend brokenness,
that we redeem relationships,
that we distribute what is needed to those who need it,
that we make peace,
and that we include and affirm, uplift those who would be cast out.
The stuff that’s hard for us, that’s what Jesus is after.
Matthew’s kingdom of heaven is not, as I’ve said, pie in the sky when you die. It’s, rather, finding and following Jesus right here and now,
no matter what the terrain of your life looks like or how unpromising the fields appear.
With two millennia of practice or even less than a lifetime,
we Christians have nearly perfected the art of explaining away both those Gospel demands and promises.
Excuse-making, alongside of thinking too highly of ourselves, is, after all, one of our human strong suits… and why give up, or at least it’s not easy to stop doing what you’re really good at!?!?!?!
A modern variant of the “that’s right, but it doesn’t apply to me” excuse
stresses how different our lives are.
Jesus was dealing with first century peasants:
farmers, shepherds, and fishermen
whereas, we are modern, urban, educated, mostly working behind desks, worldly sophisticates, even.
So we reduce Jesus’ lessons — like the subjects he used to teach them —
to abstractions invisibly at work on some other plain, sort of outside of the empiricism of our personal experience.
— sweet stories from an earlier day about distant workers in a food chain we can’t quite remember as we shop the grocery store aisle.
We fool ourselves, that we know or have even mastered all these lessons already: we know better than to throw precious seeds along a rocky path,
or to leave almost all of the stock loose and unwatched in order to search for a stray,
or to toss nets over the oarlocks and hope for the best — without benefit of engines, fishfinder, or radio.
In contrasting our busy, sophisticated, technological lives to these sentimentalized myths of agrarian simplicity, we create and give ourselves all the distance we need to miss Jesus’ point… – and missing the point is, after all, the unacknowledged goal of much religious life.
We “happy” moderns control the planet and our lives.
We can sit at our laptops in Philly and talk to friends in Beijing or Johannesburg. Or be there tomorrow.
We can generously contribute emergency relief to a disaster zone on the other side of the world without leaving the air-conditioned comfort of our homes.
We watch the news of Hellfire missiles from a Predator drone flying over Afghanistan,
then drive half an hour to watch our kids in a baseball tournament in the park.
Our lives are so different. And we can do so much.
But can we love our ex and those whom we didn’t choose to have in our lives?
Can we forgive people their debts and trespasses and sins?
Do we cross the street to help someone in need.
Will we break our silence and speak up for someone else’s cause? Or come to the table with our enemy?
Try to bring peace where we will most likely be misunderstood, even hated?
Our modern lives, for all their technological power and control, church, don’t seem to save us from the thicket of troubles and thorns of being human that our forebears faced. Jesus’ teaching isn’t so interested in all that we humans have accomplished and can do. Rather, it’s often about what we still struggle with and fail at.
The simple things may still be the hardest. And the most important.
And Jesus offers a way if we are humble enough to follow… Amen.