Sermon from July 24, 2011

July 27, 2011

The Thing That Changes Everything
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46

31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

It was a dark and stormy night, and I was doing Calculus homework in the library of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I didn’t get it. I was angry and frustrated with my homework and life in general, and I decided to get up and walk home in the rain. I got all suited up in my new gortex rain-jacket and I headed out the door. As soon as I stepped outside a huge bolt of lightening struck somewhere behind the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority House which was right across the street. I jumped back against the Wesley Foundation building and I heard a voice come from overhead. “Thompson, this is your God.”

I’m not making this up. It was an actual voice that I heard – it wasn’t a voice generated in my head. It was in fact the actual voice of my Greek friend, Costas, who had been watching the storm from his upstairs bedroom window in the house that was right beside the Wesley Foundation. He had seen me jump when the lightening struck, and he was quick witted enough to take advantage of the situation. I guess for a moment I may have thought the voice had come from God, but Costas started giggling soon after he delivered his line, and I realized what was going on.

I think I may have told this story before, but it’s just one of those stories you have to tell over and over. It wasn’t as funny to me at the time as it was to him then or it is to me now. In fact, at the time, the turn of events actually heightened my anger and frustration. I remember walking home in that thunderstorm daring God to go ahead and hit me with the next bolt.

Which is not something I recommend doing. Obviously God didn’t take me out with a bolt of lightening. God enabled me to get home safely, but then God sent me to seminary – which is a tough thing to do to a person.

I don’t totally attribute this particular experience with my decision to go into ministry, but it is largely symbolic of how it all came about. My immersion into Christianity is deeply rooted in my sense of crisis and despair. My passion to know more about Jesus didn’t grow out of my sense that things were going well with me or this world. My embrace of Jesus was fueled by my desperate need for a source of hope.

Now it’s not like I had never heard of Jesus before I was a sophomore in college. I was well steeped in church from childhood, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to differentiate Jesus from the church. Now it’s not that I had been terrorized as a child by the church – as some people are. I know that some people get a message from preachers and Sunday School teachers and other misguided Christian leaders that is truly terrifying, but that wasn’t my experience. My experience was that I couldn’t really see a difference between what I experienced in church and what I experienced in society.

Now there were good people in 1st UMC in Wynne – people I cherish to this day, and there was a lot of support to be found within the church. I must say that I felt very nurtured by my childhood church community, but what I learned in church didn’t prepare me for life as I came to know it as a young adult. The world wasn’t making sense to me, but the message I seemed to get from church was that I just needed to get with the program. You do the right things and you get good stuff. You follow the rules and you’ll be ok.

Honestly this message wasn’t so clearly presented to me in church, but what I wasn’t hearing in church was any resistance to what I sensed to be a machine that was out of control. I think I assumed Jesus was a part of the machine that maintained the problems I was seeing within our society at the time, and I was full of despair about it all.

You put calculus homework on top of a person who is already pretty miserable, and that is a person in need of relief.

And I found it at the Wesley Foundation in Fayetteville. I found it in the way I was reintroduced to Jesus through my friend Lewis who was the director of the Wesley Foundation. I don’t think I had ever thought of Jesus as someone who had lived at odds with the world until I started listening to the way Lewis portrayed Jesus in his preaching. I had never thought of a Christian community as anything other than a highly respectable gathering of people who wore nice clothes. Now I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with behaving properly and dressing well, but contrary to the message that generally emerges from mainline American Christian communities, Jesus generated a lot of trouble for the proper people of his day.

It’s not that Jesus had a problem with propriety, but Jesus did have a problem with people who wanted to maintain order at the expense of injustice, and this was a seed that took root in my discontented heart. I could resonate to a savior who was at odds with people who were satisfied with the way the world was going. It’s hard for me to describe the way in which this message grew within me, but I would describe the Christianity I grew up with as being much like unleavened flour. It wasn’t active in a way that spoke to me.

Flour that has yeast added to it is going to do something when you add water, and Jesus used this image of leavened flour to describe the Kingdom of God. You might say I was like unleavened flour that got infected with yeast at the Wesley Foundation. If you’re leavened flour and you go walking in a thunderstorm things are going to start happening.

I didn’t go to seminary because I wanted a career in ministry. I didn’t have confidence that the world was going to last long enough for me to have a career. Had I known we were going to slowly bake ourselves to death instead of going out in a nuclear bang I might have gone into some other line of work, but I honestly went to seminary with the enthusiasm of a person who had found a treasure in a field and the urgency of someone who didn’t think there was much time left.

I just wanted to know more about Jesus. I had come to believe he was the one who had a grip on ultimate reality, I wanted to know more about him, and I was not disappointed with what I learned. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to explore this treasure we call Jesus. Of course I primarily came to discover that I don’t really have a clue as to the nature of this One who embodied the grace of God and who sought to reveal the Kingdom of God, but my love for Jesus grew in seminary. I’m not saying I know him well, but I love what I think I know about Jesus.

The funny thing for me now is that I’ve come to function as a mid-level manager in this organization that I once believed to be a great source of distortion about Jesus. Now I try to portray Jesus as I understand him to be, but I’m sure I clean him up in some ways that I fear good Christian people might find to be offensive. I know that to some extent I serve to keep the religion machine operating at the expense of the truly radical nature of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God. I don’t try to hide Jesus, but I’m guessing I probably contribute to the vast volumes of misinformation about him. But I also know that Jesus just can’t be contained.

The truth may be that those of us in the Christianity business manage to package the message of Christ in the form of a seed that can hardly be detected, but it’s a seed that won’t go away. As the scribes, Pharisees, and Roman emperors discovered, you can’t do him in. The good news of the Kingdom of God will take root in people in ways that would never be expected. The flour of humanity has been infected with the germ of Christ – and it will not be contained.

In my opinion, this church is evidence of the way in which Christ continues to infect the church. This is not a place that has been co-opted by propriety. This is not a place that’s overly invested in maintaining the way things are. This church is more of a sanctuary for refugees than a seat of power, and I’m grateful to be here.

I’m not always in touch with my gratitude. Sometimes I get too caught up in the business of trying to maintain proper order in our community. Sometimes I get distracted by the endless challenges of our facility. And I’m always worrying about problems that might develop. Often these things prevent me from seeing what a pearl of place this is, and how near we are to the Kingdom of God.

I think this is probably an ongoing problem for all of us. We experience the liberating message of Christ that enables us see how well we are loved in spite of our failures, we see that this world is in the hands of God regardless of who seems to be in control, we feel empowered to be the people we know that God has created us to be, but we fall back in to fear of not living up to the demands of the machine. We aspire for greatness at the expense of faithfulness. We feel the pressure of society to be more properly quiet than rightfully outraged.

We go after this pearl with all that we have, and then we trade it in for plastic. I may just be speaking for myself, but sometimes I need to be reminded that following Christ is not just a matter of making small adjustments to business as usual. The message of Christ changes everything. It doesn’t mean that we have to depart from our ordinary lives, but it does mean that we are not owned by anyone other than God. This pearl of divine knowledge may not evaporate so easily from your way of thinking, but sometimes I forget what I’m doing and who I’m seeking to serve.

It’s a pearl that we’ve been given, and it’s a foolish thing to misplace it. The message of Christ has come to us as a gift. I thank God for it, and I’m grateful to have been reminded of it. Because of Christ I’m here to declare that it’s a bright and beautiful day – regardless of the weather or anything else.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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