The smell of Bread | Sermon from July 30, 2017

Based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the House of Commons, Winston Churchill was presiding as Prime Minister one day. In the course of raucous debate, the kind the Commons is famous for having, Winston Churchill exclaimed:

“Democracy is the worst form of government!”

And then he paused dramatically as the House settled down for a moment, hearing their prime minister deride their own form of government. When Churchill was satisfied he commanded the room, he continued:

“Except for all the others that have been tried from time to time!”

The Commons roared with laughter, settling the debate, for the moment at least.

We, too, can relate to such a sentiment. Watching our federal government operate can often leave us feeling like democracy is, indeed the worst form of government, until we consider the alternatives. Would we rather live with an oligarchy, where a few ruling families control the country? Doubtful. Would we rather live under a despot? Probably not. We know for sure we wouldn’t want to live under a totalitarian regime. No, all we have to do is look at countries whose governments are not democracies to see that, while democracy may be frustrating, it’s certainly better than the alternatives.

Problem is, as Christians, we don’t, in fact, live in a democracy. No, we live in a Kingdom.

[Pause]

In Egypt, in what is purportedly a republic, Coptic Christians are second class citizens. One of the oldest forms of Christianity in the world, the Coptic church has existed for almost eighteen hundred years, making it older than the Roman Catholic Church. At one time, Egypt was the center of Christianity for the entire world. Some of our best thought and doctrine on things like the Trinity, the nature of Christ, came from Egyptian thinkers who lived in Alexandria. And much of what I know about what it means to be a contemplative comes from the Ancient Desert Fathers; monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt fifteen hundred years ago.

In recent years, in times when the government was unstable, bombings of mosques and churches have grown common by radical militant groups who have a myriad of motivations. As the bombings escalated, Coptic churches took action. The began to form human chains around mosques as Muslims met for Friday prayers, protecting them from would-be bombers. Even though Coptics are second class citizens, even though they are often unfairly blamed by the Muslim majority for problems in the country, they still took action to protect their fellow countrymen.

And in response, Muslims have often formed such human chains around Coptic churches on Sunday mornings, returning the favor of the protection the Coptics had shown them.

Such is an example of the Kingdom in which we Christians live.

[Pause]

If you were a person living in the first-century Roman Empire, chances are you would have found a garbage dump if you walked to the outskirts of your city. In the garbage dump, chances are, you would have found scraps of food, hungry dogs eating the food, pottery shards, broken pieces of furniture; all sorts of trash that would look very familiar to us. But, among the common trash lay a horror. Romans who had babies they did not want left them at the garbage dumps. Very often, slave traders would come to the dumps, pick up the abandoned babies, and raise them as slaves to then sell them at a profit.

But followers of the risen Christ would also go to those same garbage dumps, and they would retrieve girls and boys and raise them as their own. They would adopt them and lead them to adulthood until these discarded babies could make a life for themselves. This was such common practice that some Romans began to deliver their unwanted babies straight to the doors of folks they knew to be Christians, rather than leaving them at garbage dumps.

Such is not the only act of extreme love and generosity by the earliest Christians. When hungry people in the first centuries knocked on the doors of Christians, they would always receive food. And if this Roman Christian didn’t have enough food to feed the stranger and themselves, they would give the food to the stranger and choose to fast. In the year A.D. 250, it is estimated that 10,000 Christians fasted, on average, 100 days a year, providing one million meals to the poor and hungry around the Roman empire.

Such is an example of the Kingdom in which we Christians live.

[Pause]

A few years ago, an unarmed black man, well-known in the Macon community, was sitting in his usual spot at a Kroger. A police officer, on rounds, pulled up in front of the store and got out of his car. Some sort of altercation occurred between the unarmed black man and the police officer that quickly escalated. At some point, the police officer pulled his gun and shot the unarmed black man, killing him. The officer alleged that the man had pulled a weapon, although none was found.

Word spread like wildfire across the community. Everyone knew this homeless man, for he was something of a local celebrity. But even still, within hours, battle lines began to form between races, with the white community siding with the officer and the black community siding with the homeless man.

But unlike Ferguson, MO and others after it, Macon did not erupt in rioting. Macon did not experience an uptick in violence. No, the police department investigated the case and reviewed the officer and folks waited for their verdict with peace.

How did this happen? In such a racially charged city, where distrust is a defining characteristic of relationships between races, why didn’t Macon erupt into violence? The peace was maintained because churches asked people to keep the calm. Because black churches asked their folks to trust the government and trust the leadership to do its job, regardless of whether officials were white or black. And because white churches asked their folks to have empathy for the plight of those in poverty, many of whom are black, who struggle against oppression that cannot be satisfactorily explained as only their own fault.

Black churches asked for peace. White churches asked for empathy. And by and large, they got it, and peace was maintained, even in such a racially-charged city.

Such is an example of the Kingdom in which we Christians live.

[Pause]

We Christians do not live in a democracy; at least, not in the sacred realm. In the secular world, we do indeed live in a democracy, the American democracy, one of which we are proud and rightfully so.

But in the sacred realm, in God’s world, where we live and move and have our being, we live in a Kingdom. We live in a Kingdom marked by radical actions like those of the Coptics, the ancient Roman Christians, and the churches in Macon. We live in the Kingdom of God, also known as the Kingdom of heaven, the one of which Jesus speaks in these parables.

Jesus always speaks metaphorically about the kingdom of God, as this quick succession of parables indicates. I used to have trouble relating to them, but not after this week, for on Tuesday, I got an unexpected treasure. It came in a nice sealed envelope.

When we sold our house in Cartersville, I knew that the closing attorney was overpaying my mortgage company, for I had calculated the amount we owed based on the daily interest charge. At closing, I pointed out this error, but the closing attorney insisted on paying their amount anyway, telling me the mortgage company would refund me the balance. I gave in, thinking that we were only overpaying by a couple hundred dollars.

Tuesday, a check came in the mail. I was excited, for I knew it was either that balance or the refund of my escrow account. Turns out, it was the balance, and the amount owed to me was far larger than I had expected!

Now, what do you think I did with that check?

I went and buried the check in a vacant lot on the edge of town. I then went to a real estate agent and purchased the property, selling my coin collection, my furniture, my electronics, my TVs, my dishes; everything thing I own, all my personal property in order to purchase the field with the buried check.

I now own a field, on the edge of town, containing a buried check for hundreds of dollars.

See, I can indeed relate to the parables here, for I have done just as one of the parables indicates. For such is also an example of the Kingdom of God in which we Christians live.

[Pause]

Now of course, I didn’t do that. I whipped out my phone and deposited the check! It’s now in my savings account. But if I’d acted like Jesus’s parable here, treating the check like the Kingdom of Heaven, I would have bought just such a field with a buried check.

That parable doesn’t make much sense. Someone finds a treasure and, rather than utilizing the treasure, rather than securing the treasure, rather than doing anything normal with the treasure, he buries it and then goes and purchases the land where the treasure is buried, selling all he owned in order to purchase the property. Why would anyone do that?

It makes no sense to me. Maybe not to you, too. Which means the disciples are smarter than us. Jesus asks them “have you understood all this?” They say, “yes.” My answer, no!

The Kingdom of Heaven, also known as the Kingdom of God, is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a field with hidden treasure, like a fine pearl, like a fishing net? This is strange.

[Pause]

Throughout the gospels, Jesus gives these kinds of cryptic answers to questions about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom seems to defy definition, for Jesus usually speaks of it in parables, usually refers to it in some sort of cryptic, nonsensical, way. It’s always a fleeting concept, leaving the hearers scratching their heads.

And yet, the Kingdom of God is one of the most crucial concepts in Christianity; it’s central to understanding who God is and what God’s about, and it’s a driving force of ministry for me. I have experienced the Kingdom of God, I see the reality and promise it holds. And I pursue it relentlessly.

For the Kingdom of God is Coptic Christians protecting Muslims, it’s ancient Christians rescuing abandoned babies, it’s churches keeping the peace amidst racial tensions, it’s what the Taize community sings, saying,

“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom.”

[Pause]

Late in the twentieth century, at that very Taize community, a monastery in a remote village in France, Brother Roger, the founder of the community sat in his usual seat during worship. The community worshipped together, as they did three times a day and as they had done for the past fifty years since Brother Roger had founded the monastery. They worshipped in a peaceful manner of chanted and silent prayers, a beautiful version of a contemplative worship service.

In the middle of one particular service, a woman walked in the back, down the center aisle, and straight up to Brother Roger, stabbing him repeatedly. She then ran out of the sanctuary, leaving the monks and gathered worshippers in a state of frenzy, destroying the peace as she destroyed the life of this gentle and kind monk.

The next day, the monks who formed the leadership of the monastery left the village of Taize and traveled to the home of the murderer. There, they found her parents who received them into their home. Before the parents could say much of anything, the monks declared to the murderer’s parents that they forgave her, they empathized with the pain the parents must be experiencing, and they wanted to form a relationship with them so that, together, they could heal.

And that’s just what they did. Together, the parents of the murderer and the monks of this world-famous monastery formed a bond, a bond not easily broken, because of the monks offer of forgiveness.

That’s justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. That’s life in the Kingdom of God.

[Pause]

We live in a Kingdom: the Kingdom of God. It’s has no formal seat of government, for it’s rule is dispersed across churches around the world. It has no laws, save the law of love that allows us to pursue a relationship with God, free of rules. It has no elected officials, but rather members of churches, called to act in the best interests of the Kingdom. It has no physical boundaries, no standing army, no borders; none of the things we might think of that form a nation.

And yet, we are members of that kingdom, called to work for justice and peace in the joy of the Holy Spirit. We are called to do so, so that more and more folks who do not know the Kingdom may find their way into it through us. Indeed, Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom.

But how do we do that? How do we introduce people to the Kingdom and invite them to come in?

[Pause]

Have you noticed there’s a smell of bread baking?

Throughout the sermon; indeed, for a while now, the smell of freshly baked bread has permeated the air. We know it’s there, because we can smell it. We can sense it.

But can you see the bread? No. Can you touch the bread? No. Do you know that somewhere, in this church, is bread? Yes.

That’s the Kingdom of God. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, but we know that it’s here because we can sense it.

We sense it in ancient Roman Christians who rescued babies, in modern foreign Christians who protect vulnerable mosques, in churches who promote racial harmony and keep the peace, and in the forgiveness of monks.

We sense it when we see what Jars of Clay calls “small rebellions: senseless brutal acts of Kindness from us all;” little ways that we act against the evil that pervades the world and stand up to the sin that surrounds us, following the examples we’ve heard this morning.

For evil and sin are sometimes a personal problem, but so often they’re also a world-wide problem. We sense those small rebellions against evil when we’re sick and someone goes out of their way to bring food and medicine to us. We sense it when we receive a phone call from an old friend in the midst of our suffering. We sense it when we are welcomed with uncommon hospitality. We sense it when we see others who give up their time, their energy, their finances to help people they do not know.

I sensed it this week at Administrative Council. Church members told me they felt like community leadership and evangelism are their job and that my role is to enable us to engage in that work. I cannot tell you how uncommon that is in churches, for the norm in mainline churches is for folks to have a country club with a weekly prayer meeting, expecting the pastor to do all the work of reaching out to the community after the pastor has made the folks in the church as comfortable as possible. Wanting me to enable this church to engage in that work, rather than seek to do it largely on my own, is a small rebellion against the way evil has infected the church across this country.

That’s the Kingdom of God: living out God’s justice and peace into the world, and doing so with joy, in such a way that folks who know us can sense it, just as we can sense the smell of freshly baking bread.

The bread we can smell but cannot see is like the Kingdom of God, like the bread made by the woman in our scripture this morning. You know it’s here, somewhere, you can sense it. Just as we know the Kingdom of God is in our midst; we can sense it, because we see it in the small rebellions of love made by Christians around us and around the world.

The kingdom defies definition, for it is larger than any of us. That’s what makes it hard to understand and it’s why Jesus spoke of it in parables and I have told many stories. It’s something that’s best sensed, rather than analyzed.

And because it is best sense, our duty is to let others sense it’s presence in us by committing those small rebellions against evil: acting in uncommonly kind ways, giving selflessly, acting first in the best interests of others; living a life marked by justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Such that we become instruments of God’s peace, as we prayed earlier with the ancient words of St. Francis of Assisi, who described committing acts of justice and peace this way:

Where there is hatred let us sow love

Where there is injury, pardon

Where there is doubt, faith

Where there is despair, hope

Where there is darkness, light

And where there is sadness, joy

May we not so much seek to be consoled as to console

to be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love

For it is in giving that we receive

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned

And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life

When we follow St. Francis’s prayer, when we commit these acts of justice and peace, we open the gates of the Kingdom of God. We allow others to sense its presence among us, like the smell of freshly baking bread, inviting our neighbors to know the justice and peace and joy of the Holy Spirit that is the Kingdom of God.

So take to others the bread of life, Jesus Christ, whose Kingdom is here and now, among us; whose kingdom we can sense like freshly baked bread. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom.

Amen.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome message! Plus, the social hall smelled wonderful from the baking bread. Such a peaceful feeling in the air.

    Like

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