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Rebekah Hutto
(Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52)

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and well-known Christian author, has been teaching a class on World Religions at a small college in northeast Georgia for about the last twenty years now. Her most recent book, Holy Envy, recounts her own spiritual transformation as she has shared the religions of the world with her students. The holy envy she describes comes from how the religions of the world open her eyes to truths about God’s world she never knew.

Taylor says that at the beginning of each semester she brings a globe into the classroom. It’s a beautiful large globe on a wooden stand, taller than she is when she places it on top of her desk. She shows it to the students with the North Pole pointing up and the South Pole pointing down. When the students are all settled in their chairs, she explains to them that they are going to talk about the difference between Eastern and Western worldviews this semester. Then, she writes, “I spin the globe laterally while I am talking so that it looks just like the Universal Studios logo they see at the movies. Then I tip it upside down.  ‘Are you okay with that?’ I ask them, once Australia is on top and Canada is at the bottom.” [1]With this image of reversal, Taylor shifts her students’ perspective, opening their eyes to what awaits them in her class.  

Jesus may not hold an upside down globe in his hands when he teaches the disciples and the crowds, but through his parables, Jesus takes what seems familiar and changes our perspective. In his ministry, Jesus hardly answers a question directly, instead he replies with “There was a man with two sons” or “there was a rich man who” or “once in a vineyard.” With these stories, Jesus opens his listeners’ eyes to what God has in store for them in God’s kingdom. In the parables, Jesus tells dynamic stories to expand our imagination of just what God is doing among us.

Some of you participated with me this spring in a study by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. In another of her books, a study of Jesus’ parables, she talks through this form of Jewish instruction. Storytelling was a common form of Jewish teaching, meant to help understand the Torah, but here Jesus uses it to make sense of the kingdom of God. Among the farmers, bakers, merchants, fishermen, and textile workers of Galilee, Jesus tells parables about the dynamic, ever present, in-breaking of God into our world. Jesus is talking about things that are already familiar to his listeners, but at the same time, “the parables are designed to surprise, challenge, shake up, or indict.” Levine argues that it is better to think less of what the parables mean and more about what Jesus is doing when he tells them…because parables remind, provoke, refine, confront, and disturb.[2]

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small and insignificant, yet one that can grow and flourish, creating a home for the birds of the air. Jesus says that the kingdom is like yeast hidden in flour, unseen and yet constantly active, causing the bread to rise. Then Jesus says the kingdom is like a treasure, sought after and found with great celebration. And then the kingdom of God is like a merchant who’s in search of fine pearls and when once the one pearl is found, he sells everything else in order to buy it. Jesus says that he teaches in parables in order to reveal the mystery of God’s kingdom at hand; a kingdom, dynamic and powerful, and right here among us.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus is trying to open our eyes to just how active God is right here and now…always trying to increase our imagination for what God can do among us.  In the parables, Jesus takes things that are right in front of his listeners—a mustard seed, a vineyard, a man with two sons, some yeast, some flour—and he expands their imagination to see what God is doing. The kingdom is here and Jesus calls us to open our eyes for how God is working in our midst.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, with emergency personnel working night and day to recover the bodies, a group of Jewish mourners began sitting Shiva as the emergency personnel continued to dig through the rubble. For weeks and months, these mourners stayed at the site showing reverence for each recovered body…almost all of them certainly strangers.[3] These Jewish mourners prayed and sang the Psalms in order to bear witness to God’s compassion even in these dark hours. Friends, the kingdom of God is like those who sit shiva after tragic loss of life, mourning the beloveds of God.

Several years ago, a teacher from Kenya was awarded a million dollar international award for his dedication and compassion to his students. Peter Tabichi’s students face many daily challenges, including food scarcity, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy. The majority of them are poor, and many are orphaned. But Peter, a Franciscan brother, gives the majority of his salary to his students, constantly working to improve their lives. Friends, the kingdom of God is like a teacher from rural Kenya, who gives away practically all of what he earns in order to help his students.[4]

Several years ago in Jerusalem a nurse came in for her night shift. “A deadly car crash [had] killed a Palestinian man and sent his wife to a hospital in Jerusalem with a critical head injury. The couple’s baby had only minor injuries, but with his mother unable to feed him, he had no source of food.”[5] The baby’s aunts “arrived at the hospital and tried to feed the 9-month-old with a bottle, but he would not take it, and they were forced to sit and watch for seven hours as he cried in hunger.” But then a Jewish nurse, a woman who had an 18-month-old baby at home whom she was nursing,arrived for work that night.  She saw the child and thought to herself, “I must help this baby,” and so she did, and so his life was saved. Friends, the kingdom of God is like a Jewish mother, who finding a Palestinian child on the brink of death, nurses the baby back to life.

In the midst of the wave of Black Lives Matters protests across the country and the world, many of us have noticed the political unrest and the tensions between state and federal authorities in Portland, Oregon. Peaceful protesters have been tear-gassed and some have even been detained and driven away by unidentified federal troops. Recently, in response to this violence, a group of mothers have been seen standing, linked arm in arm, to protect the peaceful protestors who are demanding justice.  Many of the mothers say they were summoned when George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, cried out for his mother with his last breath. “When you’re a mom you have this primal urge to protect kids, and not just your kids, all kids,” said one Wall of Moms organizer. “To see a grown man reaching out and calling for his mother — I think that was a transformational moment for so many of us.” The fledgling organization, formed less than a week ago, has dubbed itself the Wall of Moms — and new chapters have already formed in cities around the country.[6]  Friends, the kingdom of God is like a middle aged mother willing to put herself in harm’s way to protect innocent lives demanding justice.

When we moved to Charlotte almost a year ago, both B.J. and I were uncertain what the future would deliver. In the span of 5 short weeks our lives in New York City had been upended, and everything tied down came loose. But when we arrived here, Charlotte wrapped its arms around us. My sister in law found us an apartment, and my niece and nephews, along with the youth group from Providence Baptist Church, showed up to unpack our moving truck. Friends at Myers Park Baptist Church opened up a preschool spot for Elijah. Steve invited us over for dinner to meet other Charlotte clergy, and numerous clergy in the area reached out to have coffee. Hannah Ruth started a new school year at Elizabeth Lane Elementary School, and she met an angel of a teacher who helped her feel at home in her new life. In a very short time, we started our lives over here in Charlotte, but we were never alone. Friends, the kingdom of God is a community that shows up to welcome a stranger in need when they need a safe place to land.

When Steve called me last December and talked to me about a ministry opportunity here at Trinity, I felt a knot in my stomach. After how things ended in NYC, I was pretty certain that my call to ministry was no longer in the church, and I had only begun to refresh my resume. But the Holy Spirit started to move in that conversation, and in a further meeting with Nancy and Phil, I felt the call and said yes. And then I met all of you that first Sunday. I began to be fed by Bible study conversations in the Well Sunday School class. I watched you serve meals and make beds in Room in the Inn. I found my rhythm in Trinity’s worship and made the intimidating walk back into the pulpit to preach. I learned about Charlotte’s history with the Mission and Outreach Committee, and together we learned about the struggle for affordable housing. I began to make friends and ministry partners with all of you. Then the pandemic hit…

But our ministry at Trinity continued. You made phone calls, wrote letters, and checked on everyone stuck at home. You tuned in to virtual worship and sang along with us. You made sandwiches and delivered donations to Urban Ministries. You attended Bible study over Zoom. You grieved with those who lost loved ones, those going through treatment or surgery and reached out with compassion. You even wrote my Mom letters!  You kept up your stewardship, took care of your staff, and prayed in earnest for your church and one another. In the midst of the racial tensions of our nation, you began reading, studying, and doing the work to educate yourselves on racism. Trinity, you have been church at a time when we weren’t sure what we were doing, when we said the goal was to be faithful, not perfect. And in doing so, your ministry opened my imagination to God’s kingdom among us. Friends, the kingdom of God is a church, in the midst of a global pandemic, who remains open to all the creative and wonderful ways God can work through them in ministry.   

Sisters and brothers, God’s kingdom is upon us. And thanks to our shared ministry my family and I feel strengthened for the journey ahead. We give thanks for you and for your witness, and especially for the fact that God brought us together when we both needed it. Jesus wants to open our eyes to the kingdom of God that is around us. Jesus wants to expand our imagination so we can see just how God is at work in this world.  God will surprise us with how the work of God’s kingdom is among us, no matter how long this new normal lasts. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is…

…use your imagination, open your eyes, and let God show you.

In the name of our God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Amen.   

[1] Holy Envy, (Harper One, 2019), page 49-50.
[2] Levine, AJ. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne; Reprint edition (September 15, 2015), Page 4.
[3] One of the references: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/06/nyregion/a-nation-challenged-vigil-stretching-a-jewish-vigil-for-the-sept-11-dead.html
[4] https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/24/world/science-teacher-varkey-prize-trnd/index.html.
[5] https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/an-israeli-nurse-breastfed-the-baby-of-an-injured/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_content=global&utm_campaign=general-content&linkId=65747469&fbclid=IwAR0KTTgkeX8HOJMPkL0IIbB9DHCnWmPR9hhB0LDwFljunaqUoc21sj3egvs
[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/22/portland-moms-protests/.