Sermon: Center Everywhere, Circumference Nowhere
Texts: Luke 13:18-21; Thomas 2-3
Date: June 11, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
What is the kingdom of God like? To what should we compare it?
Those are the questions we are going to be chewing on during this summer of 2017. I got this idea from a preacher somewhere along the line who said that they had been engaging their congregation in not just learning about Jesus’ teachings about the realm of God but creating and telling their own kingdom of God sayings and stories and experiences. I thought immediately, “What a great idea! I want to do that!” And this seems like an opportune time.
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as being among the people, inside them and outside them. It’s pervasive, this Kingdom. However, at one point in the gospel of Luke he says, the Kingdom is not coming with “signs to be observed;” no one will be able to say “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” [Luke 17:20-21] I read that while I was laying the groundwork for this summer worship series titled “The Kingdom of God Is Like…” and thought, well heck, I want people to spend the whole summer thinking and speaking about where they are observing the Kingdom of God! Am I sunk before we even start? But one of my textbooks says that what Jesus meant was that you couldn’t tie the Kingdom of God to one observable historical phenomenon or to the climax of a series of observable historical phenomena. The prophet Daniel made that error in his day, drawing straight lines from the empires and kings of his day to what God was planning to do in response to their actions. He thought the conquests of Alexander the Great and the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes would lead to the appearance of the archangel Michael and the end of history as we know it.
Jesus, by contrast, refused to give such specific signs. Yet he was clear that the Kingdom of God was near, was here, was arriving, arriving, arriving in the midst of humanity. It wasn’t about the big events that are covered in the history books but about the experience of ordinary mortals. “To say that the Kingdom of God is among you is to say that it is a matter of human experience, or a mediated experience of existential reality. The history with which this saying is concerned is not the history of kings, wars, and persecutions; it is the history of the individual and their experience of reality.” While we couldn’t say that a particular person or party rising to power is a sign that the Kingdom of God is fulfilled or the Apocalypse is hand, we can point to signs we see of the kingdom drawing near in our experience. We taste the kingdom in a moment of joy, we glimpse God’s rule in an instance when justice prevails, we hear it in a voice bidding welcome or speaking love. It’s like what several philosophers have said about God, an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The kingdom of God is an infinite event whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere—an unfolding with no boundaries and borders in time and space.
What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall we compare it? I dropped by to see Marian and Keith Thackray the other day, and in the course of conversing about this and that, Marian opened up the old green book she has been reading. Lately she has been revisiting her bookshelves to reacquaint herself with her old book friends, and she was re-reading a book she inherited from her mother that tells various stories about the history of their home state of North Dakota. Marian ran across a story about a homesick immigrant from Germany (?) who missed—of all things—the dandelions of his homeland. Apparently they weren’t growing there in the North Dakota prairies years ago. So this farmer wrote to a friend back home, sent him some money, and asked him to ship some dandelion seeds. When he received them, he planted a whole field of dandelions, which bloomed vigorously and made him feel less homesick. I assume that from there the dandelions did what dandelions do, and that dandelions are no longer a rare sight in North Dakota.
Marian shared that story because she was, I suppose, simultaneously amused and appalled. The very idea of importing dandelions from across the ocean and planting them in your good, rich farmland….well, if Jesus had known that story he probably would have made it into a Kingdom of God parable. The Kingdom of God is like a homesick farmer who spends hard-earned money having dandelion seeds shipped overseas; they thrive on his acreage and spread like prairie wildfire, so the farmer sees them blooming wherever he roams, and he rejoices.
What do you think? Does that qualify as a Kingdom of God parable? When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven (interchangeable), he often combined everyday elements with something strange or vivid that would give the story or saying a little twist. Amuse and appall the listener simultaneously. Or as the saying from the gospel of Thomas says, when those who seek find, they will be disturbed, and then they will marvel. Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God had a way of throwing the listener a little off balance, even offending them. I unearthed some of my old notes from a preaching conference and found this: “The Gospel is not an invitation, it is an incursion, an invasion by a Power from somewhere else. The gospel offends everybody and is the Power that saves everybody.”
Were the Kingdom one-liner parables we heard from Luke strange, or disturbing, or offensive? Maybe not to our ears, but biblical scholar Bernard Brandon Scott spells out what would have thrown first century listeners off balance enough to get their attention. Let’s take the mustard seed parable first. It’s a weed, essentially, even though it has some useful purposes. Gardeners would probably not have planted it in their gardens any more than the gardeners among us are planting dandelions in amongst our peonies and dahlias. What’s more, it’s pretty puny. The people whom Jesus was teaching probably would have expected or preferred God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small and insignificant. The mighty cedar of Lebanon, or the tree at the center of the world described in Daniel whose crown reaches to heaven and whose branches cover the earth—not some weed! Scott says that when Jesus says the mustard seed becomes a tree, he is layering the image of a tree, which in Hebrew scripture was a typical image of a great empire, onto the image of the mustard plant. It’s weird and pretty much impossible—the mustard plant is not going to become a tree no matter what. Yet it is a symbol of God’s empire, God’s kingdom.
The point is, “for Jesus, God’s domain was a modest affair, not a new world empire. It was pervasive but unrecognized, rather than noisy and arresting.” The thing about the mustard plant is not that it towers at the center of the world, apparent to every eye, but that it springs up in dirt patches all over the place, under the radar of various mighty empires. It begins with the smallest of seeds, a seed so small it virtually disappears the instant it is dropped in the dirt. And then it spreads all over the world, out of control, and provides shelter for all the nations of the world just as the empire trees claimed to do. And it’s not just planted one at a time; these shrubs are popping up everywhere, if you have eyes to see.
As for the parable of the yeast, there are a couple of strange things about it we might not catch immediately. The amount of flour was enormous; enough to make bread for 100 people. The small amount of leaven hidden in this enormous batch of dough is another symbol, like the minuscule mustard seed, of the potential for something small to change a large environment.
What would have really thrown off the first listeners, according to Bernard Brandon Scott, was that leaven was frequently used as a metaphor for impurity or corruption. “Just as a decomposing corpse swells up, so does a leavened loaf…The corpse swells up for the same reason that bread swells up—fermentation.” The Jewish feast of unleavened bread started with cleansing all the leaven from the household and making pure unleavened bread in remembrance of the exodus. Several New Testament texts caution about the corrupting leaven of this false teacher or that, suggesting one corrupt person can damage a whole community. The first century listeners would have thought of this small amount of leaven corrupting a batch of dough the way Americans speak of one rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel. So you can see why they would be disturbed or offended by this metaphor of leaven as a symbol of the Kingdom of God. Is the Kingdom of God a kind of corruption? Really?
The first century listeners may have been disturbed by metaphors of weeds and yeast, but hopefully they were then led to marvel at how the incursion or invasion of God, though lacking drama or glitter, could spread right under the noses of the Emperors. The Kingdom of God was growing by means most ordinary, through ordinary people, spreading, re-seeding, fizzing and bubbling until it was changing everything. That was the essence of what Jesus was teaching.
Those who were doing well under Caesar’s empire might, in fact, have seen the Kingdom Jesus spoke of as a kind of corruption—remember that Christians were thought of as “atheists” by those who worshiped the Roman gods and emperors. The values Jesus espoused undermined—corrupted–both the Pax Romana and the purity oriented, hierarchical religious practices of the Temple leadership collaborating with the Roman Empire. Whether the kingdom of God as Jesus preached it was good news or bad news depended on one’s point of view.
It’s curious, isn’t it, how much one’s point of view affects one’s experience of this thing called “reality?” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in his June 2 column about competing visions of reality that make a difference in how people behave. He quoted an article in the Wall Street Journal in which a couple of advisers in the White House said, “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” This implies a worldview that assumes selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs; life is a competitive struggle for gain. “It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”
Brooks went on to remind readers that there is an alternative view that understands humanity differently. Sure, people can be selfish, “but they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful. People are wired to cooperate…People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples…People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good…People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness.”
Brooks noted the work of N.Y.U. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has studied the surges of elevation we feel when we see somebody performing a selfless action. Haidt describes the time a guy spontaneously leapt out of a car to help an old lady shovel snow from her driveway. One of his friends, who witnessed this small act, later wrote: “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. Just being active. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.”
Reading that column, I thought the friend who felt so buoyed up by this act of altruism was having a Kingdom of God sighting. He found himself at the radiant everywhere-center of the inbreaking realm of God. We don’t know if he would frame it that way, but as gospel people, we can point in that direction and say, “There it is!” The kingdom of God is like a passerby who leaps out of his car to help an old lady shovel snow and sets off a chain reaction of joy.
Sometimes in this mean old dog-eat-dog world we can get to feeling homesick for the kingdom of God, just like the farmer who was homesick for the cheerful sight of the dandelions of the Fatherland. We’re heartened by signs of the goodness and generosity hidden inside people that pops up like weeds and fizzes through communities like leaven in the loaf. On occasion we’re the ones using our resources—time, energy, money—to plant the seeds of the Kingdom in the patch of dirt where we dwell. I went with a couple of colleagues on Friday to offer businesses in the neighborhood of Seattle City Hall signs reading “We Stand With Our Muslim Neighbors” in advance of yesterday’s anti-Muslim rally. We were met with many gracious responses as we offered seeds of welcome that offered an alternative to xenophobia. [The Kingdom of Heaven is like a free bacon maple bar that the shop owner gives those who offer free signs of welcome…?]
I believe one of the central missions of Jesus was to call attention to the inbreaking kingdom of God, and to train the disciples to see and hear the signs. So how about it? How has the realm of God busting in on us or springing up among us or fizzing through us changed how we see and experience the world? What signs do we see of the Kingdom of God invading our day to day lives? What stories do we have to tell of being flashed by an insight about Kingdom values being revealed like a streaker sprinting through our dull consciousness? When have you found yourself at the center of the everywhere incursion of the realm of God? That’s what I am hoping we will think about and talk about during these summer months. Won’t you join me in answering these questions: “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall we compare it?”
 Brooks, David https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/opinion/donald-trump-poisons-the-world.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=3&pgtype=collection&_r=0