Friday, July 4, 2014

Sermon: Just Trying to Be a Blessing—Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

For First Congregational Church of Greenwich

July 27, 2014

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Click here for audio.

John Collins preached a sermon several months ago about changing our perspective.
But I want to disagree with something he said… somewhat vehemently…
On April 27th, his main illustration was on the beauty of dandelions. 
Well, after hearing John talk about eating dandelion greens, I decided to try it for myself. After all, patches of dandelions are really just farms, he said. 
They taste really wonderful, he said.
“Stunningly beautiful, but also lunch,” he said.
So I mustered all the courage I could / and chewed on the yellow buds, sucking the juice out of the stem. 
And I have to tell you: dandelions… don’t taste very good.
Of course, I didn’t really eat dandelions because of John’s delightful sermon. But I did try it as a kid. And it stuck with me.
So I was chuckling when John was preaching his sermon. Not because of the ideas he developed but because I remembered that revolting taste. Probably not the message John had in mind.
So, I submit, sometimes weeds are just weeds. Sorry, John.
Let us pray.

Holy God, who sent his Son to talk to us in parables, may we know your presence in this hour.
As we ponder the nature of the Kingdom of God, may we be blessed by your inspiration. Holy Spirit, penetrate our hearts with your truth, and bring us to a new understanding of what it means to live the life of Christ. Amen.

Speaking of weeds, my late mother loved gardening. One of my favorite pictures depicts her standing next to a tall bloom with a big smile on her face. It’s as if she were telling the camera, “Look at what I did!”
My mother was from the Philippines and was endlessly fascinated by the different kinds of flowers that bloomed in Indiana, where I grew up.
Sometimes, she would stop along the side of the road when she saw beautiful flowering plants, and she would pick them to plant in her own flower garden.
o Yellow was her favorite color, so she was particularly fond of one plant that bloomed yellow.
o So she stopped along the side of the road and picked this flowering plant for her garden.
She said, “I’m going to plant this in the center of my garden, it’s so beautiful.” So she did.
And it bloomed for weeks and weeks, and, to her delight, it spread to every corner of her flower garden.
Meanwhile, I suffer from seasonal allergies. This particular summer was extremely difficult for me, for some reason.
I had to start seeing an immunologist to get tested for all sorts of allergies. So I got tested, and as it turned out, I was allergic to several things: mold, trees, grass, dust… and this flowering plant with yellow blooms called… ragweed.
I had to find out what ragweed looked like, so I went to the library (this was before the Internet became a juggernaut)… and that flower my mother was so fond of—that she stopped along the side of the road to place into her flower garden—was actually a weed. Ragweed.
I told my mom, and she laughed with me.
Then I was like, “So what are you going to do about it?”
And she responded, willfully, “It’s pretty.”
So she kept her pretty weed, and that’s when I started taking Benadryl. (Gotta keep the peace.)

// // Despite my affliction with seasonal allergies, I do love camping. 
When I was in college, I was part of a ministry team that would go to youth summer camps and do faith-based singing and acting. The group was called “Parable.” (I’m not joking, as I tell you this parable…)
Anyway, we would see all sorts of youth come through the camps. 
The popular kids, 
the jocks, 
the rule-followers, 
the nerds, 
the dorks, 
the Bible quizzers, 
and then there were the loners.
I also observed the talents of really skillful and heartfelt youth group advisers and camp counselors. 
There was this one camp counselor that I really admired. He was young and hip and really knew how to relate to the campers. A lot like Mark Montgomery. But the greatest quality I noticed about him was how he became a friend to all the loners at the camp.
There’s a girl sitting alone in the cafeteria; he’d pull her over to his table. 
There’s a kid out on the softball field who’s not doing too well; he goes out and makes a fool out of himself just to make the kid look good.
So, as impressed as I was with this guy, I ask him what he’s up to.
He said: “Hey, just trying to be a blessing!”
That kinda became a motto for Parable, our ministry team.
Whenever anyone did something for someone else, the member of Parable would say, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”
And as the members of Parable started to say it, the campers started to catch on. Soon, this quality of love washed over the campgrounds. It caught on like wildfire. You might even say it spread like my mother’s ragweed. 
Campers started doing nice things for others. 
I admit, sometimes it was for show, but in large part it was because their consciousness was raised to the point that they were aware of the feelings and needs of others. 
And let me tell you, it is so gratifying to see a 14 year old kid do something sacrificial for another person and say, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”

It’s not just a novel idea: being a blessing to others. Believe it or not, we are called to love whomever we see. In fact, we are commanded to do it.
We are called to have Christ fill our hearts and overflow with love for the world—especially when it is difficult. Because that is how Jesus Christ lived.
This is not just a first century thing. 
We are to be the very image of God’s Son, here on this earth—2014. 
Not for our own glory but that God might be glorified, and it is God who glorifies us.
Consider that passage of Romans:

29For those whom he foreknew (get this) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
You are called to live like Christ lived on earth, yes, // and you are not alone. You will be the firstborn of a very large family.

Meaning, once you start being a blessing to others, it might even catch on.
Asking Jesus into our hearts and transforming our lives is not a fleeting moment – BOOM, and then it’s done.
Salvation happens daily. It happens minute by minute.
“Living like Christ lived” is a commitment. (Like working out, or saving money, or flossing our teeth.) It might even be a drag at times.
Like, boy, that person really hurt me. I want to hurt them back.
Or, that driver just cut me off. I want to teach him a lesson.
Or, wow, HR totally flubbed up my employment agreement. I want to send an angry memo.
Or, gosh, my wife really embarrassed me in public. I should return the favor.
We all want to right our own wrongs. It’s called being human. But, by God’s grace, we are called to rise above these circumstances… because you know what, YOU WIN. 
Every time you invite Jesus into the middle of these situations, you don’t have to get revenge, because you win! 
That’s what being justified means: 
o Your sin is forgiven, and you are empowered by the Holy Spirit to exude the grace of God.
And that’s not all. You are not only justified, but you are also glorified.
Who cares if some driver cut you off?!? You are glorified! Others will see the light of God in you.
Who cares if you just got burned by your coworker? You are glorified. You walk away from that situation, and others will want to know how you remained so calm, and you come across smelling like roses. Or better yet, ragweed.
No, I mean that.
Jesus shining through you is contagious. It spreads like a weed. 
People see God’s grace and mercy shining through you, and they stop in their tracks along the highway. They say, “what a beautiful bloom,” and they plant it in their own gardens, and it spreads like a weed. 
But let me tell you something: hate, and sin, and contempt also spreads quickly. And it is lethal. We have a choice.
You are planting the seed of salvation when you turn over your hardships to Jesus and give grace and mercy rather than retribution. You become the firstborn of a large family. The family of God.

So why all this talk about seeds and weeds?
Well, let’s look at the gospel for this morning:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.”

This is one of those “lost in translation” issues—not so much because of the Greek translation, but more because of the difference in time and geography.
The modern reader comes away from this and says, “Well, yes, yes… it becomes big, and the mustard seed is so tiny. I get that.”
But the “first century, Middle Eastern reader” would have understood it differently.
You see, you don’t want to plant mustard seeds on your property if you don’t have much space. Why? Well, it would be like John Collins planting dandelions in his herb garden.
It’s a mess. It’ll spread all over the place.
And that—Jesus is saying…—That is what the Kingdom of God is like!
It spreads all over the place, and when it is planted in our hearts, and we sow seeds during trying circumstances—the HR nightmare, the aggressive driver, the inconsiderate coworker, our spouse—its pollen gets all over everything. We can’t contain it. God’s love becomes an invasive species that takes over. No other plant is safe. That is the nature of the Kingdom of God.
// I’ll be bold and say this: God cares less about whether you go to church and shake hands with people and smile… if you don’t love your enemy outside the walls of the church (or inside, for that matter). 
Remember who Jesus was:
He was a learned rabbi who broke all the rules in order to love people.
He touched lepers.
He broke custom to speak to women in broad daylight.
He dined with people who had no clout. 
But, sure enough, he sowed those seeds of love. 
He was an invasive species. 
He went where he was not supposed to. 
Jesus was a weed (He was THE weed.) who didn’t care about Leviticus if it separated him from people who needed compassion. 
And we are called to be the same. That is the essence of this morning’s portion from the Letter to the Romans.

“OK, Dan, I can love people—even people that don’t treat me well. I can show God’s love, all right. I’ll try it out.”
Good. That’s a start.
“Uh oh, he’s going to say that’s not good enough, isn’t he?”
You’re a smart congregation!

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. Actually, that’s not true. At first we did, then we didn’t. We used to take vacations all the time, then we didn’t.
See, my father’s company was bought-out, so he got laid-off from his management position.
We went through a very lean decade.
Yet, somehow, my parents always had enough money to send me to choir, orchestra, debate, Model United Nations, piano lessons… They sacrificed in order to give me every advantage as a child.
Then, one day, my parents sacrificed it all.
They started a business together.
They literally risked it ALL on this “one, last-ditch effort.”
Long story short, the business was a success. My parents were even able to help me with college tuition. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!)

The gospel also says this, adding another dimension of complexity to the Kingdom of God:

44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
The kingdom of heaven requires that we risk it all—everything we have—in order to bring “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Like my parents / risking what little they had left… in order to take a chance on something that promised a better tomorrow. 
It means we drop everything // and love everyone we see, even in trying circumstances… especially in trying circumstances: 
the HR nightmare, 
the aggressive driver, 
the inconsiderate coworker, 
our spouse. 
The Ukraine
Those whom the church has rejected.
Sometimes, love feels impossible.
Sometimes, love looks like forgiveness. 
Sometimes it requires that we give more than we would normally be expected to give. 

That is what it means to be Christ-like, or Christian. 
Can we grasp these two images of God’s Kingdom?
Can we be that “all-or-nothing-type lover of humanity” that Jesus alludes to? 
Can we be that invasive species that loves… even when it doesn’t make sense to love?
That is what we are called to.
That is what we are commanded to do.

I want to thank Craig for selecting one of my favorite hymns, found as an insert in your bulletin.
It’s got kind of a lighthearted “um-pa-pa feel” to it, but the words are powerful.

I want to close by reading one of the verses:
2 Tell the sweet story of Christ // and His love,
Tell of His pow'r // to forgive; 
Others will trust Him // if only you prove True, 
every moment you live.

Let this be our challenge this week and every time we call ourselves a Christian.
And when people ask you why you have such love in your heart, against all rationality, you might respond with that entrancing phrase, “Hey, just trying to be a blessing.”