Sermon 20 July 2014: “Chapels, Churches, & the Kingdom of Heaven”

Here we go…another parable from Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven.  And there’s two things that come to mind initially….one, the picture of the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t the “sun always shining, people lounging on clouds, angels playing harps, and St. Peter letting the good people in and weeding out the bad ones” utopia we usually fantasize about.

Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven is a field….with grain-producing wheat and weeds, good and bad seed – all mixed up together.  The Kingdom of Heaven….looks and sounds a lot like….well, life here on earth.  Like our life.  And maybe that’s the point – the Kingdom of Heaven does exist in the here and now, in our present life.  But it doesn’t work the way the world works – and that’s where it gets confusing for us.

And that brings me to the second thing that comes to mind – all the farming imagery.  And while maybe it’s just an excuse to tell you another one of my childhood stories of growing up on the farm, it does remind me of, in fact, a story:

I remember my sister and I – 5, 6 years old – were asked to head out to our garden one summer day to pick the weeds out of the rows of onions.  My dad had tilled the majority of the weeds in between the rows with the tiller, but there still were weeds IN the rows of onions that had to be picked by hand.

So that’s what we were asked to do….but to a 5, 6-year-old, tall weeds look a lot like the green stalks of onion plants that stick out of the ground.  Now my dad told us if we pulled an onion or two by mistake – not a big deal – just be careful what you’re picking.  We pulled and pulled…..out came a weed, and then another.  And out came an onion, and then another.…and another.

After a couple of hours my sister and I finished weeding, and we looked back and admired our work – the weeds were all gone….but we noticed there weren’t a whole lot of onions left in the rows either!  Our dad came in later from the fields that day, checked on our work, and I remember him saying, “Well, it looks like we’re not gonna be eating a lot of onions this year.”

The parable today is really a different spin of last week’s parable.  The seeds of the Kingdom, God’s seeds of grace and love that God sows….they’re still sown freely, without ceasing….regardless of the quality of the soil – or the person.

But in today’s parable the issue isn’t the quality of the soil, it’s that some bad seed gets thrown in when no one’s looking.  And that bad seed, it grows to be weeds…and that’s a problem, because it threatens the good seed.  It threatens its growth and maturity into wheat that produces plentiful and valuable grain.

And when asked if they should pick those weeds, the master replies, “Nope, you might end up pulling out the good with the bad…and then you have nothing.”  Sure, you won’t have any weeds….but there won’t be much of a harvest either.

Yet today, I wonder if we don’t get caught up with pulling all those weeds anyway.

Good and evil all seem to exist together, and we think it’s our job to go out there pick out those weeds, the bad seeds.  Think about it: we try to weed out those bad habits or things we hate about ourselves.  We try to help others weed out what’s bad about their lives.  We try to eliminate those weeds that we know are a threat to our communities, neighborhoods…and even our churches.  The goal of all this is the same: so we can make those things “good seed” that matures and grows into useful and righteous people.

But, like I said last week, God doesn’t need farmers who will weed out the bad.

As the master says in this parable, the seeds of the Kingdom are just fine on their own, even in the presence of the bad seed.  Even mixed in with the weeds, the good seed will grow and mature into something life-giving on its own.  The harvest will be plentiful, the master assures.

The point is this: perhaps in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, both good and bad exist, and it’s so often confusing which one’s which, or you simply cannot separate it without destroying the good along with it.  But the Kingdom of Heaven works differently, its seeds of love and grace will change people, working in them, creating and nurturing faith in a God who promises something the world simply cannot offer; that all the farming in the world cannot bring about the sense of relationship, belonging, and life that we – and all people – so desperately long for.

Perhaps the point of the parable is this: God doesn’t need farmers.  God just needs a field – a space for those seeds of the Kingdom to work.

As some of you know, I have a blog….and one of the articles I wrote was about what I learned at Navy Chaplain Training.  I wrote about the difference between a chapel and a church – some of you have read it already.

By definition, Navy chapels are not churches.  They are government-owned buildings that can be used for religious observance….but ultimately it is up to the Base Commanding Officer how the building gets used.  A chapel is simply a tool – a space where that helps chaplains carry out the ministry the Navy calls them to do – lead the practice of the religious tradition they represent, accommodate the free practice of religion regardless of the faith tradition, and care for all people.

Our instructor during Training told us a story…while he was in Iraq, he had a “chapel” – it was really a tent where they held services.  That chapel had a large screen and projector in it – for worship.  Well, one day the Marines in his unit came up to him….they asked him, “Chaps, you think it would be ok if we used the chapel for….a video game tournament?  You got that big screen in there and well, it’d just be cool.”  The video game, by the way, was one of those first-person shooter games – HALO, Call of Duty….a bit “unholy” perhaps.

Our instructor told them yes…..a seemingly unholy activity happening in a “sacred space.”  But something interesting happened out of that small gesture.

About a week later, that Marine who asked about the video game tournament showed up for chapel services.  And then a week later, he showed up again, with about 4 of his buddies.  The number grew steadily….it wasn’t the whole unit, but a pretty sizable group.

Rather than worrying about keeping the chapel sacred; rather than worry about the desecration of that “sacred” space – about weeding out what was bad to preserve the good, he simply provided a space – a field – for those seeds of the Kingdom to grow.

I can’t help but think, all that was there was really just a tent in the middle of the desert, where a bunch of Marines had a space to play their “unholy” video game…but something to take their minds off the stress and realities of the war they were fighting….maybe in that moment –  their presence made that space “sacred.”  And in that space…the seeds of the Kingdom took root and began to grow.

How do we think of our church?  The sanctuary, the rooms, the grounds…even what we do in them and when we do it – take worship for example.  Do we think of our church as these “sacred” spaces and things that need farmers to keep them that way – weeding out anyone and anything that might “desecrate” it?

Or is the church simply a field, a space where both good and bad seed gather together alike, but that’s nothing to fear….because we know and trust that those seeds of the Kingdom will take root in people’s hearts and minds, and God alone will nurture faith and call them home….just like God has done for us who call ourselves people of faith.

That once again leaves us with two things…two last things:  One, lets give thanks for what God does for us and all people through those seeds of the Kingdom – God’s love and grace made known in Jesus Christ, given and shed for you.

And two, let us think of this church – the building, our spaces, our ministry – in a way where those seeds of the Kingdom might grow and flourish as we gather with all people – good and bad seeds alike.  And as the church – the community of faith where people experience safety and belonging in God’s grace…..let us enter into that sacred space with others in the way we care for others.  Amen.

 

 

 

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