Monday, June 15, 2015

You Can't Look Up the Kingdom

June 14, 2015 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
A few months ago, my mother and her two siblings—a brother and a sister—got together for a visit. Although the two daughters live in the same town, the son and his family live several hours away by car, and reunions like this don’t happen very often. When they do, I like to sit in the background and just listen. I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t have more than four channels on the television or if it’s because they were simply more adventurous than most kids or, more likely, if it’s just because they’re my family and, thus, more entertaining to me, but I think their stories are amazing. As children and teenagers, it seems that the three of them collected enough life-lessons for at least five people.

At this last get-together, they spent some time remembering all of the sayings that their father used when they were growing up—things like “don’t burn your bridges” and “a job worth doing is worth doing right.” They weren’t unique to him, of course, but they stand out as touchstones of their childhood. After a few minutes of recalling and sharing and erupting in laughter, my uncle brought up a phrase that I remember well from my own childhood but hadn’t ever used with my own children. In that moment, I realized that, if I didn’t pick it up and start using it in our household, it might be lost forever. Look it up. It’s a simple three-word saying that reminds me of hours spent flipping through the dictionary or the encyclopedia. “How do you spell ‘auspicious?’” Look it up. “What is photosynthesis?” Look it up. “What’s another word for angry?” Look it up.

In the twenty-first century, when most of us carry access to multiple dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauri, and more in our pockets everywhere we go, the art of looking something up is dying. As an experiment, I began asking my daughter to “look it up” in the dictionary when she needed to know how to spell a word. But handing a seven-year-old Webster’s finest after giving her the first three letters of a word and waiting for her to find the right entry is exhausting. That takes forever! I don’t have time for that. It’s far easier and faster for me to pull out my cell phone and show her the answer. Plus, when will she ever need a dictionary? When will anyone in her generation not have an answer right at her fingertips? Many times every single day I use my phone to learn something new—the history of sausage, how to fix a leaky faucet, the difference between black and white rhinos, and how nuclear power works.

We are in a whole new age of knowledge. A vast deposit of information greater than any of us can fathom is available to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smart phone. Everything from the secrets of modern science to the wisdom of the ancient world is only a click away. Sure, you can drive a car without knowing how an internal combustion engine works. Yes, you can play golf without appreciating how your swingplane combines with the angle on the face of the club to produce a shot of a desired trajectory. And, of course, you can love your spouse or your children or your friends without knowing what neurochemical processes are behind the emotions you feel. But why would you want to?

Well, maybe because Jesus told you to.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a glimpse into God’s kingdom that flies in the face of the twenty-first century. Instead of explaining how the kingdom works, he does the exact opposite. He tells a story about the kingdom that seems to depend on us not knowing: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Doesn’t Jesus know about putting a bean in a plastic cup and watching it sprout? Doesn’t he know that this parable is merely first-grade science? What does he mean that the farmer doesn’t know how the seed sprouts and grows? Anyone knows that. And, if he doesn’t, he can just look it up!

While it’s true that several of Jesus’ parables contain bad agricultural advice (e.g., letting wheat and weeds grow together), the point of this parable isn’t to show how not to be a farmer. Sure, you should probably stand more than an arm’s length away from a farmer when you ask him if there’s anything more to it than scattering some seed and sleeping night and day until harvest time, but don’t mistake the simplicity of this parable for unsophistication. Jesus isn’t swapping a steak dinner for Vienna Sausages. There is something to be said for approaching the kingdom of God without searching for an answer. There is real value in not knowing how it all works and, more importantly, in not needing to know. Sometimes in life, it’s best just to put down your cell phone (or text book), and let the power of the unknown overwhelm you.

Jesus isn’t trying to give his hearers a realistic picture of farming. Parables are never just a restatement of the obvious. He’s using a startling story about a sower to teach us something about the kingdom. And what stands out in this little portrayal? Despite not doing much—just sowing and sleeping—and not knowing much—indeed befuddled by the growth of his own crops—the farmer is ready in an instant to go in with his sickle and harvest the grain as soon as it is ripe. Undeterred by his unknowingness, the sower heads into the field at once when the time is right. If nothing else, this parable is about unreserved, unrestrained, unqualified action for the sake of the kingdom.

Sometimes you can’t afford to wait until you understand something fully before seizing it with both hands. In our church, we talk a lot about knowing and understanding. We offer several bible studies, and stress that tough questions lead to a deeper faith. But there’s a danger in believing that the kingdom of God is something only to be understood and not to be embraced. Our faith is not about sitting on the sideline and making insightful observations about the nature of God and his will for our lives. Being a Christian is about living in the kingdom. It’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about picking up the sickle and heading into the field when the grain is ripe even though you don’t really know how the grain got there. If you refuse to enter the kingdom of God until you understand exactly how God is working in your life and in the world around you, the kingdom might just pass you by.

We live in an age of look before you leap—of know before you commit. We inhabit a world in which almost any knowledge we desire is only as far away as our pocket. But the kingdom of God isn’t waiting for us to figure it out. It’s waiting for us to get up and do something about it. Jesus is telling us that the time is now. Don’t wait. Don’t think. Just do.

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