Undercover Kingdom

Sermon – Sunday, July 27, 2014
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church – Heidlersburg, PA
Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52 & Romans 8:26-39


Have any of you scene the show Undercover Boss? It’s a show where owners of a big business go undercover to see if the company is doing what it should do. He disguises himself as someone in need of a job and training so he can see if the people working there are doing their jobs correctly and to get them to talk to him about problem that need to be fixed. In one recent episode, a man who worked in hotel maintenance told this undercover boss every little thing he was upset about – how people were being mistreated, how the managers were cutting corners, and how he wouldn’t want to stay at that hotel. It’s amazing what the owner usually discovers. One housecleaning staff told this boss how she and her husband work two jobs just to make ends meet and how her daughter needs surgery, but they can’t afford it yet. Are you really supposed to go into detail about your personal life on the job? The people’s reactions are nothing short of shocked when he eventually reveals who he is. Talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth. Can you imagine if you told your someone all the problems with the company you work at only to find out it was your boss undercover? Or what if you told a new friend all the problems with another friend of yours only to find they were that friend disguised? Weeping and gnashing of teeth would soon follow once the truth was revealed.

Things that are hidden can cause a lot of problems. Think about a tiny splinter in your finger. It may not be visible to the surface, but it causes a lot of pain and under the skin may eventually become infected if not taken out. Blackflies are tiny insects that are barely bigger than the tip of a pin, but if they bite you they can leave a hard welt the size of a golf ball. Little white lies, seem like rather harmless words ,but in reality they can cause deep pain and anguish for another person. They can kill. They spread and cause damage just like a small virus that grows out of control. Hidden things can cause a lot of problems.

So most of the time we don’t like things that are hidden. We know the dangers that can lurk beneath the surface. It’s the focal point in any horror movie – it’s what we don’t know that bothers us. It irritates us. We want to know the answers. We don’t want to wait, because waiting just makes our imaginations run wild with all possible scenarios of what could possibly be going on. Like waiting for medical test results to come back – will it be something serious? Or waiting for the grade to come back from an important test to get into college – did I pass? Most of us like things laid out pretty straightforward. Surprises are okay as long as they are good ones, like a birthday surprise, or a nice gift. But life doesn’t always guarantee that the surprises will be good and we don’t always get straightforward answers. Even Jesus told parables, stories that really make a person think and more often than not come away with more questions than answers. The meanings are hidden.

Today’s parable is all about the hidden things. The tiny mustard seed is amazing in that it can grow into a leafy bush six or seven feet tall. In fact Jesus’ story exaggerates and says it can grow into not only a bush, but a tree! But everyone in Jesus’ time knew that a mustard seed growing out of control was not a good thing. It was a weed. No one wanted that in their field! It would spread and get out of control and there would be no way to stop it. All those mustard seeds sown into a field to cause damage. Small hidden things can cause big problems!

We hear about a woman who took yeast and hid it in three measures of flour. Yeast comes to us today in a small neat package that when added to flour and water activates the mixture to rise and form bread. But for the people hearing this story in Jesus’ time, yeast was very different. Yeast – or leaven as it was called back then – was a small portion of bread set aside to spoil. Then a small piece of this was added to the batter to make it rise. If the leaven was not spoiled enough it would not cause the batter to rise and if it was too spoiled it would not only ruin the bread but it could turn poisonous and be fatal. It was considered “unclean” and leaven would be cleaned from the house during Passover where only unleavened bread was eaten. So only a small piece of leaven or yeast was needed to produce nourishing bread – a tiny portion, just like the mustard seed. Yet hiding this yeast in three measures of flour (about 10 gallons) would have produced enough bread to feed 100 – 150 people! The action of this little bit of yeast was out of control! Hidden things can cause a lot of problems!

And what about the pearl in today’s story? Pearls themselves are caused by a tiny grain of sand trapped inside the oyster that gets more and more irritated, forms a blister, continues to get irritated and eventually is transformed into …..a pearl – something of great value, something a person wants more than anything else. A little grain of hidden sand….and look what happened!

All these things are supposed to represent the kingdom of God, but if you listen carefully they are hidden things that are causing big problems. Is Jesus trying to say that the kingdom of God causes big problems? Is he trying to say that the kingdom of God – God’s reign, the Word of God, is as invasive as the mustard weed? As out of control as a little bit of hidden leaven amidst the flour? As irritating as a grain of sand in an oyster, yet as transformative as the pearl it produces? I think this is exactly what Jesus is trying to tell us! The kingdom of God is like nothing we have ever experienced before and it cannot be stopped. It is hidden amidst the smallest things and it is out of our control.

Humans want to control things. We want to call all the shots. It’s the reason we tend to worry so much. It’s the reason we are afraid. When we’re young we worry about growing up. How do I look? Will I find a girlfriend or a boyfriend? Will I fit in? Will my friends like me? Will I get into a good school? As we get older we worry more about our health (not that some young people don’t have health concerns) Will I get cancer? Will I have enough money to retire? What if I can’t take care of myself any longer? The worries may change, but they’re still there. And these hidden worries can really eat away at us. Sometimes we don’t want people to know the really hidden things about us because deep down we are afraid someone might find out something about us – like the Undercover Boss – and discover we aren’t perfect and therefore aren’t worthy enough to be loved. Hidden things can cause a lot of problems.

We don’t like the mention of weeping and gnashing of teeth in this text because we don’t want to be thrown into some fiery furnace because of our evil deeds. But the truth is the kingdom of God is already here and so is the weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it is not God’s doing; it is our own sinfulness that has brought it on. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in the midst of the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine . There is weeping and gnashing of teeth as thousands of innocent lives are being killed. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth as thousands of innocent children are crossing our borders to escape the violence in their own countries and they have nowhere to go and no answers to their homelessness. When will the weeping and gnashing of teeth end?

The causes of these problems are hidden in the materialism of our societies. It is hidden in the greed to make more money at the cost of people’s lives. It is hidden in the very products we buy in our grocery stores and the private deals that supply money to the very companies that make weapons that destroy. It is hidden in the lack of compassion for those who are not part of a particular group. Sin is hidden in the very fabric of our societies and it causes big problems that are spiraling out of control.

But be not afraid, for the good news is that the kingdom of God is here as well and it too cannot be stopped. It is hidden, but we have glimpses of this kingdom. It may seem small and hidden, but it is as pervasive and out of control as a mustard weed and a little bit of yeast. It is growing and it will not be stopped! Nothing can stop the coming of the kingdom of God. It is this promise and this hope that gives us light in our darkest days. Psalm 119 says, “the unfolding of your words gives light.” The Word of God gives light in the darkest of times and this light can never be extinguished. It is unstoppable.

We who through the sacrament of baptism are made workers in the kingdom of God are to allow this light to be seen through us. Eventually what is hidden comes to light. It does not matter how old or young we are; we are instruments through which the Holy Spirit enables others see the kingdom of God. It is seen through the actions of people from age 5 – 105 who take the time to write to their congressman and representatives to make policy changes that will affect the lives of people in their communities and around the globe. It is seen through the actions of people who take the time to start community gardens that feed those around them. It is seen in the actions of people who though hidden from public news do random acts of kindness that make a huge difference in the life of one person. It is seen through the actions of people who stand up against injustice because all people have value in the eyes of God.

The kingdom of God is hidden in a million small unpublicized acts of compassion, but these seeds of love will spread out of control. Mother Theresa said, “ we can do no great things, but only small things with great love.” These small hidden things are great things. And we have been given strength to carry out these small things with great love through the Holy Spirit, who constantly prays on our behalf with hidden “sighs too deep for words.” We are given strength when we receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion, which through a great hidden mystery that we cannot fully understand are the living body and blood of Christ hidden in these simple ordinary elements. The kingdom of God is hidden in the ordinary and often small, but hidden things can cause great transformations!

In the final revelation in the series, Undercover Boss, the owner reveals who he is, speaks to the staff, and makes the changes necessary to make the company thrive again. Sometimes he lets people go, but usually he simply takes the information he’s learned and shows the people how to do it differently. And he always bestows on several people who work hard and are really suffering financially thousands of dollars to ease their burdens.

God may not bestow on us thousands of dollars to ease our burdens, but God has given us something even more priceless. We who have been joined with Christ have the promise of sharing in the kingdom of God. We have something that can never be taken away – eternal life – we can never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him who loved us.” We are loved by God.  You are loved by God. I am loved by God. Let those words take root deep within you. They are the truth. We are more than conquerors! Amen.


The Freedom of a Christian

Sermon – Sunday, July 6, 2014
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church – Heidlersburg, PA
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Freedom. It’s a word that’s on everyone’s mind this Fourth of July weekend. Fireworks, picnics, and music fill the air with images and sounds of what it means to be free. But does everyone experience freedom? What does freedom truly mean? It comes with a high cost and it certainly isn’t easy. So what does Jesus mean when He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”? He says His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light”? This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense does it? After all, burdens are neither  easy nor light. Reading this initially could make one wonder if Jesus is out of touch with reality.

Who among us has not experienced heavy burdens? In this beautiful, yet sinful world we are all burdened and weighed down, some more than others. Illness, disease, financial stresses, emotional worries, and even death plague most of us on a regular basis. And some people experience poverty, rejection, and persecution. There are burdens that are visible that are obvious to everyone and burdens that we keep tightly hidden so no one can see. Even in our churches we tend to hide those burdens from each other for fear that people will see we aren’t perfect. There’s a fear we won’t be accepted for who we are. But the truth is we aren’t perfect. We are all sinners. Scripture tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And yet we try and hold ourselves up to impossible standards. And in the process we hold others up to those same unreachable expectations. It creates oppression. It builds walls between people – like the wall separating Israel and Palestine. Families are torn apart because the walls divide the very fabric of their lives. People on one side can’t even go to a hospital on the other side. Being right is more important than being kind. Being right is more important than people’s lives.

All over the world this kind of oppression is happening. Abuse of innocent people seems to be getting worse. Violence and war are not ceasing. Hopelessness is on the rise and a sense of apathy pervades the air. Freedom is not a word that is on the lips of thousands of people around the globe. And despite the songs we sing on this holiday weekend, people in America are not truly free either. While it is true we have many freedoms in this country, you only have to look around, listen to the news, or read the papers and see that there are thousands even in our own country who are not free. If this sounds a bit depressing, it is. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the truth.

Jesus did not turn away from the truth. He hit it head on. He spoke about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in His time. He pointed out the lack of care to the poor and oppressed. Jesus called out in our reading today the behavior of “this generation” that didn’t listen to John the Baptist or even Jesus. They spoke the truth, but people didn’t want to hear it. They wanted to listen to their own music, their own image of what they felt the world was like. They wanted to ignore the problems of the poor and focus only on themselves. “This generation” that Jesus spoke about means our generation as well. The verses left out of our reading today were harsh words spoken by Jesus about how the people did not repent and how they will have to answer that on the day of judgment. There’s a reason these readings were left out today. No one wants to hear these words of judgment or if we do we often think they apply to someone other than ourselves. This isn’t an easy reading today. Unless of course, you focus only on the part where Jesus says, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. But that phrase by Jesus doesn’t make any sense unless we take a real good look at the hard statements that came before.

Yes, there are burdens, and problems. There is violence and oppression. There is greed and self-centeredness in each one of us, but the good news in our gospel today is that there is a way beyond these burdens. There is hope. There is a way to lighten these burdens and there is a way to real freedom and salvation. The answer is Jesus. Jesus came and suffered and died to make our burdens lighter. He came to show us what real relationship is all about. We were not created to live alone. We were created to live in community with one another and for one another. We were created to be workers with Jesus to bring about the kingdom of God – to bring about real freedom, but real freedom can only happen where there is real justice. Peace can only exist where there is real justice.

Jesus is telling us today that these burdens that we carry and that we worry about are not meant to be carried alone. Jesus’ yoke is easy because He gives us a real purpose for living.
He summons us to be our best and work toward bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth. In order to do that we have help. And we have help in Jesus. Like the wooden harnesses fastened around the necks of two animals and then to a plow or cart to work the fields in farming – Jesus wants us to be yoked with Him so we can work the fields of spreading the seeds of the gospel. On our own it is an impossible task, but with God all things are possible. Jesus invites us to be yoked or connected with Him so we can bring about justice, and peace and freedom in this world.

Jesus said, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We do not have to worry how we will solve the problems of this world because on our own we cannot, but through the power of the Holy Spirit that lives in us we can hand our worries over to Christ and let Him take control. Losing control does not mean we lose our freedom. It is in handing over our control to God that we gain true freedom.

Martin Luther, in his treatise on The Freedom of a Christian, said it well, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” What Luther is expressing is what Jesus came to tell us. As Christians we have a real freedom. We are free to be servants of and for one another. We are servants of God to care for one another and to bring about justice and peace. The freedom we have as Christians is true freedom. Through our baptism, where we are yoked or connected with Jesus, we are freed to be servants for the sake of the gospel. This is a freedom that cannot be taken away. This is a freedom that is worth fighting and dying for. Amen.