Sunday, January 22, 2017

Pie In the Now

Matthew 4:12-23
January 22, 2017 Upper Rogue United Methodist Church

Many years ago a letter to Dear Abby told of a nursing home resident who had lost her dentures. With a pillow case in hand, she roamed the halls, entering the rooms of sleeping patients and taking any dentures she found. Returning to her room, she tried them all on until she found one that fit her. She then retraced her tracks, returning dentures to each bedside...but without any regards to which dentures belonged to which resident! As you can imagine, the next morning there were lots of overbites, under slung jaws, and lots of bitter complaints about dentures that didn't fit.

Can you imagine what it was like for those poor people trying to adjust to someone else's teeth? In some ways it is a parable of the way many folks live today...disgruntled, out of sorts, snarly, and unhappy, not because their teeth don't fit, but because their theology doesn't fit. Some of them are even Pastors!
Somehow they've never grown past the simple Sunday School faith of their childhood. Their understanding of God is simply inadequate for life in the adult world. There are those who will argue that they aren't interested in the “pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by” religion they perceive Christianity to be.

How do you respond to that kind of statement? What do you say to someone whose undeveloped theology is like that of the little boy who, when he pastor asked, “What do I have to do the get into heaven?” responded: “Well duh! You have to die.” What do you say to someone who doesn't think Christianity is about life in the here and now?

Well, you might begin by asking if they've ever read the teachings of Jesus. It's a pretty safe question. Most people haven't read, the Bible. They've heard little bits of it read in church; they've heard the pastor talk about it; but to have actually sat down and read it for themselves? Not likely. Most Americans are
almost completely Biblicaly illiterate. In one of his famous man-on-the-street interviews, Jay Leno asked a young man who, in the Bible, was swallowed by a whale: “Pinocchio” was the reply. When asked to name one of the Ten Commandments, a young college woman answered: “Freedom of Speech?”

If you are among those who have read the synoptic gospels; Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you are aware that Jesus spoke almost entirely of living in the here and now.
In today's reading from Matthew Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are used interchangeably by the gospel writers.) The kingdom of God is not some as yet unrealized prophecy. It is here. It is now. In Matthew 12 Jesus says:(Mat 12:28) “But when I force out demons by the power of God's Spirit, it proves that God's kingdom has already come to you.” In Luke he says: (Luk 17:21) There is no use saying, 'Look! Here it is' or 'Look! There it is.' God's kingdom is here with you." God's kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is being created here and now.
Like a mustard seed, it starts out small and grows to an enormous size. “The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a woman mixes a little yeast into three big batches of flour. Finally, all the dough rises.” The kingdom is at the heart and soul of life here and in the world to come. If the only reason you come to church is to avoid the flaming pits of Hell, you have missed the entire point of Jesus' teachings.

Jesus invites you to live in and enjoy the kingdom now: today. He came not so much get us into heaven, as to get heaven into us. What would that take? Well, first Jesus says we need to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent. For many of us, repenting means we quit doing something naughty. And while I hope that if you are being naughty, you will quit, repentance is much more. To repent is to change, to turn around, to re-orient you life and thinking.
More than remorse, it mans to change your life. Have you been living for yourself? The kingdom is about living for God? Have you been concerned with satisfying your short term needs and wants? The kingdom is about concern for others; concern for creation; concern for your spiritual needs. Turn around. You've been wasting your life. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Turn around. Turn your back on the past and face the wonder of life in the kingdom! Like our grandmothers in the days before wall to wall carpeting, we have all swept dirt under the carpet. We try to hide it, but it's there, eating away at our lives. Come into the Kingdom. The first word is repent.

Repentance invites us into new relationships. New relationships with God, new relationships with our neighbors. And that's our second word for today. Are you living in the kingdom? As yourself: “Am I able to love not just God, but other people? All people? Loving our fellow church members is easy, most of them are a lot like us: they look like us, they eat what we eat, they speak like we speak, they bathe regularly, they wear well kept clothes, and, basically live like we do. But what about that gay couple down the street? What about the homeless guy who wanders from spot to spot with his overladen shopping cart? What about the Muslim refugees who want to move to Shady Cove? What about that radical right wing conspiracy theorist who haunts your Facebook page? What about the youth walking through the mall with pants around their knees, not taking their eyes, or fingers, off their cell-phones? Can you love them? Can you love the African-American athlete who refuses to stand for, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Can you love the single mom in front of you in the checkout paying with food stamps? What about Hassan Rouhani President of Iran? Or Kim
Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea? Do you love them? Or even President Donald Trump? How about Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? Paul Ryan? How about ISIS? I think you get the picture. We are called to love them all, as much as we love ourselves. You don't have have to approve of them, you don't have to agree with them. You have to love them. I will never forget Fr. Evenson telling us in Confirmation class: “You don't have to like them; just love them.” That's what being a Christian means. That's what living in the kingdom means.

For his book Hard Living People and Mainstream Christians, Tex Sample interviewed people who are alienated from the middle class, and the church. He also interviewed pastors. Pastor Don Bakely told of working hard to bring together the white members of his inner-city church (Most of whom drove to church from the suburbs, with the hardscrabble African-American folks who lived nearby. He was just starting to earn the trust of some local teens, members of a gang. They began hanging out around the church because they were beginning to feel accepted. They were a rough group led by a kid called Big Mart, and not all members of the congregation appreciated what Pastor Bakely was doing. One day the matriarch of the church, Ella, had a run in with Big Mart who called her a
name she had probably never heard before. She was irate and demanded Pastor Bakely, to kick Big Mart and his friends out of the church.

Pastor Bakely asked her to listen to a story; then, after thinking about the story she could decide how to deal with Big Mart and company.

When Big Mart was just a child, his father came home drunk and angry one night. He lined up Mart and his siblings and forced them to watch while he murdered and dismembered their mother. Can you even imagine having to watch such thing? Was it any wonder Big Mart was rough around the edges. Was it any wonder he called nice little church ladies vulgar names?

Ella listened in silence to the story of Big Mart. In silence she left the office. What would she do? Pastor Bakely's entire ministry to the neighborhood rested
on her decision. After a while Ella returned to the Pastor's office: “You know,” she said, “I guess I'm just going to have to learn how to get cussed out.”

Ella was beginning to see what it truly means to live in the kingdom: it means loving those who cuss you out; loving those who would harm you; turning the other cheek. Jesus said Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Repent and Relate.

Lest we think the kingdom is all about doing, I would remind you that the Kingdom is also about receiving. The Kingdom isn't something we can think, work, give, or earn our way into. The Kingdom is a gift. Indeed, I probably should have put this part at the beginning of my sermon, because all the repenting, relating, and loving of others comes as a response to being a citizen of the Kingdom: to receiving God's grace. God's grace is waiting for each of us. It is freely given, without any precondition. It is ours for the asking, ours for the receiving.

George Wilson was a career criminal who, in the 1830s, was indicted on six counts of obstructing and robbing the U.S. Mail, including threatening a carrier with bodily harm, and violent assault (wounding a carrier). The violent assault carried a penalty of death. Rising public petition against the death penalty prompted then president, Andrew Jackson, to issue a pardon for the assault conviction.

Amazingly, Wilson declined the pardon. “And now, to-wit, this 21 October, 1830, the defendant, George Wilson, being in person before the court, was asked by the court … whether he wished in any manner to avail himself of the pardon referred to, and the said defendant answered in person that … he did not wish in any manner to avail himself, in order to avoid sentence in this particular case, of the pardon referred to.”

The district court was not sure how to handle the complexities of the case, and eventually the matter was referred to the U.S. Supreme Court which later ruled that, “A pardon is an act of GRACE, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. … A pardon is a deed to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him. It may be supposed that no being condemned to death would reject a pardon, but the rule must be the same in capital cases and in misdemeanors.”

Further, Chief Justice John Marshall purportedly pronounced that the value of a pardon “must be determined by the receiver … It has no value apart from that which the receiver gives it . . . therefore, George Wilson must die." He was subsequently executed for his crime.

George Wilson threw away his invitation to life. Don't you do the same. Jesus offers salvation, forgiveness, and a life where your dentures fit. Jesus offers a grown up theology that fits real life in the real world. Jesus invites you to live in and enjoy the kingdom now: today. Receive, Repent, Relate. The Kingdom of God is at hand. AMEN.

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