God’s Kin-dom on Earth – Julie Yarborough (7/30/17)

Matthew 6:9-16 Rev. Julie Yarborough
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 Christ Church, Summit
July 30, 2017

“God’s Kin-dom on Earth”

Jesus often used common ordinary objects to illustrate his teachings. Stories known as parables, which are short and simple on the surface, but complex when examined closely, are sprinkled throughout his lessons. Often just a few lines, Jesus’ parables use simple, everyday items that would have been known to his audience. Much like Zen Koans or riddles, these parables contain wisdom beyond what is initially understood, pointing to a greater truth.

In the parables that we’re examining today, the objects Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven are hidden, mysterious, confusing and disruptive. It’s amazing that the disciples understand what Jesus is trying to say, isn’t it? At least they claim to understand. These parables are complex and multi-layered, and aren’t what they seem to be at first hearing.

One scholar refers to these parables as “parables of subversion.” In each case, the expected outcome is turned upside-down.

Throughout the Gospels, the kingdom that Jesus describes is unlike any earthly kingdom – there are no kings, or rulers of any sort, and the descriptions he gives are antithetical to the Roman Empire of the time, or to any empire of any time, including our own! This kingdom is more like a kin-dom, to use a term made popular by Ada-Maria Isazi Diaz, former professor at Drew Theological School, in which there is no hierarchy or patriarchy, and all are welcome. The outsiders are in and the insiders are out. The last are first and the first are last.

In her book En La Lucha, Isasi-Díaz describes la comunidad de fe as la familia de Dios, the community of faith as the family of God, where we are all kin, part of God’s “kin-dom.” “For us Latinas,” Isasi-Díaz explains, “salvation refers to having a relationship with God, a relationship that does not exist if we do not love our neighbor.” So the kin-dom of heaven is a place where all are welcome, a table with extra chairs and an abundance of food, a kitchen where no one is turned away. It is through welcoming others that we welcome God.

The kin-dom of heaven is not simply a mustard seed, but the smallest seed sown in the ground that produces a tree with room for birds to nest in its branches; it’s not simply leaven, but leaven kneaded into flour – and not just into a few cups, but into enough flour to feed hundreds of people. These everyday, commonplace objects used in such a way become agents of disruption and change, and symbols of welcome inclusion and abundance.

Jesus’ examples of mustard seed and leaven must’ve confounded his audience. Mustard seed? The seed that grows into an invasive weed-bush, and was commonly torn out of the garden? What is valuable to God is what others tear out and throw away. And leaven? This is not the same as yeast used in modern kitchens. In biblical times, this leaven was almost universally understood as unclean. It was associated with the decay of dead bodies. Used in baking, it was a piece of leftover dough kept out to spoil in order to create leaven for future baking, much like a sourdough starter today. Yet, allowed to spoil too long it led to food poisoning.

Even now, in this day and age, yeast and the way it interacts with flour is still a mysterious process. A recent story on NPR told of Microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe, who is studying the microbiomes of sourdough starters – the yeast and bacteria that give sourdough its distinctive taste and ability to rise. Wolfe’s study is seeking sourdough starters from people all over the world. “As the microbes [in the starters] munch on the sugars in the flour, they produce carbon dioxide, ethanol, acids and a smorgasbord of other compounds that give sourdough its bouquet of flavors and aromas.” The researchers are trying to determine how starters differ with age and geographic location and how they interact with different types of flours. "We have these things right on our dinner plates," Wolfe says. "Yet there are all these mysteries of the microbiome that's right there that we haven't figured out."

The kin-dom of heaven is all around us, yet it is mysterious and elusive. In Matthew, Jesus declares that the kin-dom of heaven has come near, yet he also says that, “God has hidden these things from the wise, and revealed them to babies.” There’s a theological phrase “already but not yet” that ascribes to the idea that those who faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus are living in the kin-dom of God – it’s already here - but that God’s kin-dom hasn’t been fully realized yet on earth. Already here, but not yet realized - it’s a paradoxical way of thinking, but thinking in this non-dualistic way helps us to make sense of this mystery.

Jesus says that the kin-dom of heaven is also like a treasure hidden from view and an elusive pearl. Both are out of sight – unknown except to those who seek. It reminds me of the last section of T S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, which reads in part:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

This hidden, mysterious thing that we seek is among us – hidden in plain sight. It has always been there, hidden but not absent. From the beginning of time, God’s Kin-dom has been very much a part of creation. Those who seek it will find it, but it is not free. It costs “not less than everything.”

Our last parable today describes the kin-dom of heaven as a net large enough to catch fish of every kind. It is only at the end of the age that the good will be separated from the bad – those distinctions are not ours to make. Jesus’ parables offer a choice – we can choose to be kin-dom people or not. At first glance it seems like an easy decision, but the kingdom of heaven is not made of silver and gold – it’s made of wild bushes and bread. This treasure is not what the world deems valuable – this pearl is cast among swine, who don’t see its true worth.

Like the merchant in our parable who recognizes value when he sees it, we must give up all that we have and all that we are in order to possess this treasure. This sacrifice of ego is necessary if we are to gain union with God. We must die to self in order to live in God. And part of the way we do that is to get outside of ourselves, by caring for others.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25: “Come, you that are blessed… inherit the kin-dom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

We pray thy kin-dom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven, yet for this to be realized, we must be agents of subversion and change, rising up to help create God’s kin-dom on earth – a place where people of all races and genders and sexual orientations are welcome and treated with justice and equity, where everyone has food to eat and no one dies because of lack of access to healthcare. A place of shared abundance, where everyone has enough and no one wants for anything. That is a kin-dom worth giving all that we have to possess.

Amen

As you go from this place:
May God’s extravagant love consume you,
Christ’s life and passion inspire you,
And the Spirit compel you to do ordinary things
with extraordinary love.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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