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Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Kingdom Is Like …

Matthew 13: 31-34; 44-51

Charles J. Tomlin, February 28, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Kingdom of God Series, 9 of 14


He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

 33 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with1 three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

 34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.


 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.

 45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

 47 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."    

(Matt. 13:31-51 NRS).


Sometimes it’s hard to see how things really are.  

It’s easy, as human beings, who live such short lives, with such a limited perspective on things, to see what everything we need to see.


There's a charming story that Thomas Wheeler, one time CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (a.k.a. MassMutual), tells on himself: He and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas.


Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil, then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.


As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, "It was great talking to you."


As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year.


"Boy, were you lucky that I came along," bragged Wheeler.


"If you had married him, you'd be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer."


"My dear," replied his wife, "if I had married him, he'd be the chief executive officer and you'd be the gas station attendant."


Jesus understood this propensity for us humans to get it wrong, especially when it comes to things spiritual.   That’s why Jesus taught in parables.  Also, Jesus never explained exactly what God’s kingdom was, since we might get it wrong.   He only told us what it was ‘like’.  


Well then, what is the kingdom like?  



One of the possible answers to the mystery or secret of God’s kingdom might be seen in Jesus most famous description of the kingdom being ‘like a mustard seed’.   He is implying that the kingdom is like a small, tiny seed can grow into something even bigger or greater than other larger seeds.  That’s certainly part of it, but perhaps Jesus implied even more than this.


From what I know about gardening, and I bet you do too, is that a seed is something that hasn’t even been planted yet; it hasn’t even germinated nor spouted, right?  You know what it might be, or what it should become, but what it actually will become hasn’t happened just yet.  


And although you have all kinds of faith or hope in what is programed in this tiny little seed, there are, of course no real, hard, or firm guarantees that this tiny little seed will germinate, grow and bear fruit.  Hopes, yes.  Faith, yes.  Probability. Yes, that too.  But guarantees.  No!  It should grow and produce, but that’s hasn’t happened yet, and the outcome still has all kinds of other variables too.  


So, when Jesus says the kingdom is like a ‘sower going out to sow’ in one story, then tells us it’s like a small, tiny little mustard seed, he may be pointing out not only how small things can become big, but he might also be saying that whole reality of the kingdom hasn’t even begun to grow enough to see exactly what God has planned or envisioned.   It might even mean that God has left exact design of the coming kingdom open, so human can make their own contribution to this kingdom ‘project’.


So, if it is true that ‘it does not yet appear what it or what we will be’ because this kingdom is now just like a ‘tiny seed’ but is also like ‘yeast’ rising in uncooked bread,  what in the world can it mean that this same ‘not-yet-germinated’ and ‘uncooked’ kingdom (which may rise, or may not) can also be a ‘treasure in a field, a pearl of great value, or is like ‘net’ that catches all kinds of fish?   How do you put all these images together and make some kind of logical sense to it?  


And since no one fully knows how this kingdom will grow (or if, at least in our generation), nor what this kingdom will eventually look like, who in the world would dare invest to buy into something we have firm idea of what it will finally be, or if it will be?   Who would buy into that?  


Well, my only answer is that people do it every day when they buy into the stock market, don’t they?   Think about it?  Who really knows what is going to happen to your money?  You hope that what you invest will grow.  The odds are that it will, but those are odds which still sounds a lot more like Las Vegas than a God’s coming kingdom.  


Recently, I got a scary letter from my retirement fund advisor and the very first line said something nobody ever wants to read about everything you’ve ever saved up for retirement.   THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES YOUR INVESTMENT WILL KEEP ITS VALUE.   


A line like that sure makes God’s kingdom look a lot more promising than a retirement fund or stock market, doesn’t it? 


So, just how promising is this kingdom Jesus says is like the ‘smallest of seeds, a hidden treasure, or is like a net that will catch, who knows what?   Is this something worth investing our lives in, especially today, when it looks like the church and the Christian Faith too is shrinking, rather than growing, maybe even disappearing off the face of the earth?  


Several years ago,  during when the Southern Baptist political and theological controversy was in full swing,  the President of Mercer University, a noted Baptist School in Georgia,  wrote a book that a lot of people who were in the political takeover did not appreciate.  It was entitled, “When We Talk About God, Let’s Be Honest”.   What made some folks upset is that it implied that there might be some ‘dishonesty’ going on within Baptist circles at the time.   It implied that some Baptist preachers might be more focused on manipulating people with what people wanted to believe than telling the kind of truth that’s often hard for people to swallow, and is never popular, but is nevertheless, true. 


Kirby Godsey wasn’t really original with the idea of ‘honesty’ in religion, because about 30 years before his book, an Anglican Bishop in England had written his own book with the title, “Honest To God”.   In that book too, the Bishop was trying to move people forward in the way they interpreted the truth of the Bible, the truth about God, and the truth in the Christian Faith, which may be sometimes difficult to hear.


There’s something of that kind of truth-telling going on with Jesus’ parables.   Jesus is trying to tell his disciples, and anyone who might be interested in knowing the truth about some of the mysteries, secrets, and hidden realities about God’s coming kingdom, which people may not want to hear, nor be fully ready to hear.  So, Jesus ‘hides’ these truths or secrets in stories, that you they can remain hidden, if his hearers aren’t ready to make the effort, or mental investment it may take to open their minds and to consider it.


And the very first, unexpected, difficult, and challenging truth about God’s kingdom, is that it’s small.  No, it’s tiny.  Well, let’s just admit it, it’s like the ‘smallest of all seeds’.  It looks like it will never amount to anything.  


Jesus certainly isn’t like that Vacuum Cleaner Salesman, who used to throw all that dirt on you carpet, and then show you how his product would suck be instantly greater than anything else you’ve ever seen.   Jesus isn’t trying to impress you with how the instantly big or better, the kingdom is, but Jesus is trying to show us that the kingdom must grow and develop, in some very ordinary ways.  


The honesty of Jesus that is clear, whether we want to hear it or not, is that God’s is never going start out by being a ‘big’, impressive, human or divine enterprise.  The true kingdom will always start out in small, unnoticed, mostly unobservable things.  True faith, true kingdom work, which results in making a real, lasting, impact, is always about doing small things that may not have immediate results.


When I visited an American church in Germany, upon the installation of a new English Speaking pastor,  the pastor preached that day, throwing out a challenge to his little 20 or 30 member church, saying we are going to ‘win this whole city to Christ’.   I thought that was a little too big of a challenge for small little group of English speaking Baptists, who were living in a city of 10 million German speaking citizens.   That pastor was starting out ‘big’, which I thought was too big.  It was like he was planting trees and hoping they would make up an automatic forest, when he should have been challenging his people to plant little seeds of faithful witness everywhere, and then trusting to see what God might do with them.


So, what’s wrong with planting little seeds?   Well, it’s hard work, isn’t it?   And it also takes time, too.   There are no instant results.   Thinking about planting seeds, most of you recall the story of Johnny Appleseed, don’t you?   Appleseed was a young man who, in early pioneer America, left the comfort of the colonies, and western frontier areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, not so much planting seeds for apple trees, but even more wisely,  establishing apple orchards and tree nurseries.  He never married.  He lived frugally.  He dressed modestly.  He worked from sunup until dust every day.  


A story about his conversion says that preacher was preaching about people indulging in all kinds of luxuries like drinking tea and fine clothing, when he challenged his hearers, “Show me a primitive Christian who will go barefoot into heaven in common clothes!”  It is said that young Johnny walked the isle and said, “I am that primitive Christian!”


What I think is most impressive about the story of Johnny Appleseed is that everything he did, he did on a most personal, one-on-one level, whether it was meeting and befriending people, including Indians, which he made his friends, who called him, the great Spirit’, to traveling on foot, often barefoot, doing the simple, hard work of establishing tree nurseries, that would all start out small, but would eventually produce food, long after he was gone.  


I think that’s the exactly the simple, honest, kind of image, Jesus had in mind, when he said ‘the kingdom is like it is the smallest of all the seeds, ...which only later becomes a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matt. 13:32 NRS).   The planting of the seed, like the work of the kingdom, goes practically unnoticed and is unremarkable in most every way.   It’s not until much later that the work of sowing, planting and after years of natural growth, that that seed becomes a shelter for the birds. 


Thus the kingdom is about doing these small, faithful, hopeful things.   The results will come, but they not always been immediately seen or noticed by us.   Right now, the results can only be believed and lived by faith.



Another thing Jesus honestly says about the kingdom is that it’s like hidden treasure; it’s like a valuable pearl.  


There was a news story a few years ago about an U.S. Air Force veteran who bought a Rolex watch in 1974 through the Air Force base exchange while stationed in Thailand. He bought the watch, a Rolex Oyster Cosmograph after hearing it was good for scuba diving.


When he received the Rolex, he decided it was too nice to wear in saltwater and decided to lock it away in a safe deposit box. There it remained for nearly five decades.  At the time he bought it, the watch cost $345.97, which was a lot of money to pay for a watch in 1974, especially for a military man whose salary was between $300 and $400 a month. But it turned out to be quite a good investment.


While appearing on an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" filmed in Fargo, N.D., this veteran learned his watch, which was unworn and came with its original box, certification and a guarantee could fetch between $500,000 and $700,000 at auction. Upon learning the value of the rare, pristine watch, this battle-tested veteran collapsed to the ground.

We all like to think about uncovering some hidden, buried treasure.  But hidden treasure can be difficult to find, and even if you find it, it can be difficult to cash for what it’s really worth.  It’s the same way with finding a ‘pearl’ of great value.   Did you notice that only one ‘pearl’ is found, and in order to buy it, the person has to sell everything he has?  How do you live your life when you sell everything you have and all you now own is a pearl to look at? 

The point Jesus was making isn’t just that the kingdom is like a treasure, which it obviously is, but it’s also a treasure that is still hidden to most people, and is somewhat inaccessible to us, at least right now.  That’s why the kingdom is always ‘coming’ but isn’t realized in the world, except by those who believe and give their whole selves to it.   In this way, the kingdom isn’t something we have, but the kingdom has us.  While God’s coming kingdom is invisible to most people, the reality and value of this kingdom is only seen in how we live our lives toward this kingdom which is now only firmly established in our hearts.


When John Lewis, the black congressman from Alabama died summer, he left quite a legacy of believing in and hoping for a very different world than the one he grew up in 1950 and 60’s segregated Alabama of the Deep South.  Lewis was part of the Freedom writers who challenged the injustice of that world, hoping that it would invite or force change.  In March of 1965, Lewis participated in a peaceful protest for justice walking across the Edward Pettus bridge in Selma, where he was severely beaten by police and arrested.   The truth Lewis stood for was hidden deeply in his heart at that time, but was still invisible to most of the world outside the black community.


In a final letter which Lewis wrote to those young people who are still marching for justice, explaining how Martin Luther King Jr. had inspired him to believe a new way of life in America that doesn’t have to remain hidden, saying:

 “Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.  Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.


Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.


Then finally, he concluded his letter to the young: 

Let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.


Those are powerful words from a man who was as much of a Christian, as any congressman has ever been, staying true to the heart of Jesus’ message of a kingdom that can still ‘come’ on earth, as it is in heaven, if we will follow, preach, teach, and continue to live the way of Jesus in the world.



Finally, Jesus says that the kingdom not only begins small, hidden away in the hearts of those who believe that the kingdom can come, but Jesus ends with an image that ties everything together, with the casting of a net that catches all kinds of fish.


That’s the problem and the fun of fishing, especially when you are using a net.  You never know what you might catch.   

Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net, not the Internet, although there are some similarities, but it’s like a dragnet, that you let down in the water capable of dragging anything in its way to shore.

Someone once lamented, “I've got to stop doing business with anybody I meet at church. I get burned every time."

It’s true, you know,  people who try to do good in this world, whether it’s in the church, in politics, or in some other form of human work or relationships, can get hurt, especially when you have a good heart and you are trying to do good things.   Whether working for good in the church, or in the world, you’ll find all kinds of different people caught up in the ‘net’ of what still needs to be done in this world.  

That’s the point Jesus is trying to make too.   The Kingdom of God is mixed,  and sometime it gets ‘mixed up’ and tangled up in other things.  When you are trying to do good work, and especially when you are trying to do good work, strange things will get hooked in the net.   But it’s not up to us, the fish, to do the sorting out.   As Jesus told in the story about the weeds, he now reminds us that only the angels will straighten things up and sort things out on the final day.

A preacher told how he was preaching in Kansas several years ago in a shiny little Methodist church in a quaint little town. The custodian opened the doors just before time for service and quickly locked them as people left. “We like to keep things nice around here," explained the pastor. “WE like to find a few fine new members to offset the losses and keep things stable around here.”   The preacher commented, ‘Well, I guess the evangelism message of that church was like the Marine Corp motto: “We could use a few good men."

But the church isn’t supposed to be selective about members. It’s supposed to be ‘whosoever will may come.’ Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, and the let dragnet bring in whatever it may, there is plenty of time for sorting at the close of the day.

This is what the kingdom is: It starts small like a mustard seed.  It’s like a hidden treasure of hope buried deep in our hearts, but then, its finally about opening our hearts to let down a net of faith, hope, love to catch, whoever will come and dare to dream God’s dream of a whole new world.  Will you open your heart to God’s new possibilities?    Amen.   

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Kingdom…Compared

Matthew 13: 24-30

Charles J. Tomlin, February 21, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Kingdom of God Series, 8 of 14


He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'

 28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'

 29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" (Matt. 13:24-30 NRS)


Have you been ‘canceled’ yet?   

Last year, a movement began to cancel all the wrongs of the past.  It even has had a name: it’s called, “cancel culture.”

In times past, movements like this were called “book burnings”.  To cancel a person with public ideas had to be done by ‘burning their books’.  But today, since we have more digital footprints than literary footprints, ‘canceling’ is the new way to publicly reject, ignore, and rid those who may have offended us.

The only way to avoid being canceled, is either to completely buy in to what is being promoted as being right at the the moment, or to keep quiet altogether.  But since “silence” is being considered ‘violence’, that really isn’t an option either.  So, your only options are to agree to what most everybody thinks or be canceled by the dominating culture.  That’s why it’s called ‘cancel culture.’



This whole idea of ‘cancel culture’ represents a kind of social or political purity test.   As cultures change, and they’re always are changing, these kinds of ‘tests’  define who or what is in; or who or what is out. 

This political ‘testing’ can be put to any group: a whole society, part of a society, a local community, a neighborhood, or a church.  It’s always been true that most every group has boundaries that you must not offend without the risk of being put out or left out.   In many ways, this deliberate and intentional social defining isn’t something new. 

Thinking particularly of about religious groups or churches, most churches have been formed by saying that you must believe this teaching or you’re out, or we can’t believe that teaching or we’re out.  That’s what church covenants are.  In a way, they say who we are, by also say what we do believe or practice over against what our neighbors believe and practice.   

Today, most Christians pay more attention to trends or styles, than to covenants or doctrinal substance, so the ‘unwritten’ covenants of a certain worship or music style, a certain kind of Bible, or a particular political persuasion, carries much more clout for defining who we are or who we’re not.    

So, whether we want to admit it or not, the idea of defining ourselves by cancel out other cultural ways has always been with us, in one form or another, whether we used the term or not.  However, what is different about today, in this current spirit of this ‘cancel culture’, is that the test isn’t just about who you are now, but’s it’s also a test about anything and everything in the past that doesn’t fit what a group people are feeling, thinking or seeing things today.  So, not only do you cancel out what others are doing, you need to cancel out everything that group of people have ever done that is now considered to be “politically incorrect”.   

If anyone says or thinks something less than where the culture is going, or has already arrived, then you might get thrown off of social media, lose your job, or you could be publicly humiliated or disgraced.  It’s no longer enough to be told you are missing something, making a mistake, to be negotiated with, or to be left alone, but now you have to be immediately X’ed out completely, or even hated, for being less than what the current culture has come to believe or say should be.  It’s this ‘all-or-nothing’ spirit of todays’s canceling out, that seems different, sounding more like social ‘vengeance’, rather than social progress.

Did you know that last year, Jesus himself was on the verge of being canceled?   In July an Alaskan airline passenger caused a plane to make an emergency landing in Seattle because he insisted that everyone agree that Jesus was black.  

According to the Sun Times, the young white man shouted: “I will kill everybody! I will kill everybody on this plane unless you accept that Jesus was a Black man.” “Accept it! Or “Die in the name of Jesus!” the man shouted.  Two passengers, one a traveling policeman, worked together to subdue him. 

Now, I need to say that young man was probably mentally ill, so it’s hard to take his demand seriously, but with everything that has been happening in the culture, it’s no wonder he became obsessed.   But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it, will the ‘white’ images of Jesus be cancelled and removed too, since most images of are white and with brown hair?   What we know, however, is that Jesus was an ethnic Hebrew, so he wasn’t black, nor was he white thank goodness.  He was something in between.   

I’ve said all this about the new rise of ‘cancel culture’ because our Kingdom text today is about something very similar, and something very human too.  It’s about the kind of conflict we can expect, when you have people working toward different ideas, different values, or living toward two ways of life.  Different groups are basically competing for the same space, but living, as we say, in two vastly different worlds, or world views.   

This is what Jesus was pointing to in this parable.   He was referring to those who are those who live for God’s coming kingdom and those don’t care about it at all.  These different groups live in opposing or competing kingdoms and ways of life.   And, just like ‘weeds’ threaten wheat, the weeds can slow or oppose, and even seek to destroy the way of God.




So  how do we respond to these opposing ways of life that work against what God wants to do in the world?    When, how and where you draw line, or separate yourself from these differing or opposing ways isn’t always that clear.

If you draw them too tightly and you’re a Pharisee.  But if you draw the line too loosely, and you are a ‘liberal’ or even worst.   

And it can get even more complicated.   

Think about how or why our spiritual forefathers ‘split’ away from the Catholic Church.   Or, think about how our political forefathers started a revolution to separate themselves from England.   We can think of many other kinds of ‘separations’ too.  In our own community we could think about how the Amish separate themselves from the rest of us, or we can think about why we are Baptists, and not Methodists, nor are Quakers.  We may say it doesn’t matter, but it did matter, at least to someone and you are here and not there, and they are there, and not here, right?

And thinking about what grounds we should go by to separate ourselves from people we don’t agree with, for whatever reason, what standard should we use to do this?   While the Bible does tell is to be ‘come from among them and be separate’ and also to stand out as a  peculiar’ people, it doesn’t tell us exactly how do we do this?  Do we stop going to a Grocery Chain that sells Alcohol, if we disagree with that?  Well, that didn’t work, did it?   Do we not go with our grand kids to Disney World when the support Gay Rights?  Well, that didn’t work either.   Do we refuse to have TV’s, Internet, or Cell Phones?  

It’s very hard to shut out everything that may not fit into our understand of God’s coming kingdom, isn’t it?    And even if we do think it is right for us, not to support this, or that, or to separate ourselves from this or that, how do this in a way that is Christian that maintains our missionary calling to Salt and Light in the world?

So, even though there are times that we must go another way, or even ‘go’ our own way, in this parable, in which Jesus says that the ‘wheat’ and ‘weeds’ are to be allowed to grow together, seems to suggest that we it isn’t always best to rid from our midst everyone who does not meet our own views or standards.  Rather that separate ourselves completely, Jesus suggests that the believers and the unbelievers should grow together in this world.   And instead of trying to fix everything right now, by ourselves, we should let God sort it out in the end.

When I did a study of the History of my Home Church, which isn’t quite as old as either of our churches, there were several interesting minutes about how the church used to practice ‘churching people’; which meant that if you did not follow the church covenant, then the church would force you to face the church publicly, and if you didn’t repent, then you were ‘churched’, which meant, excommunicated.  

This practice went on for several years, but finally came to an end, because it was doing more harm than good.   When the covenant-breaker was brought the church and was publicly humiliated, after that person was released from church membership, the whole family normally went with them.  Since most churches were ‘family churches’, you could easily wreck a whole church my confronting one single member.   This practice proved not to be worth the pain it caused, and the practice eventually ended, especially as churches become more and more dependent on the support of its members.    

It’s not an easy situation to confront all the ‘weeds’ in the world, and in the church, is it?    Now, this does not mean that justice does not need to be served, nor does it mean that we never break fellowship with people who threaten to harm us.   

In Matthew 18, Jesus says that the sinner who will not repent, even after being confronted, is to be treated like a sinner and tax collector.  That means we are to treat them as being outside of God’s will and way.   It doesn’t necessarily  mean we are to ‘shun’ sinners, like the Amish do, but it could mean that we treat them just like we would any ‘outsider’; as someone who needs our love and prayers, not necessarily ousting or banning then from any relationship or contact.

However, in even stronger language, Paul told one church not to associate with someone who was practicing incest—that is living with his Mother-In-Law; something that was even looked down upon by the world (1 Cor. 5:1ff).   The point was not that the person should not be loved, but that the moral witness of the church must not be allowed to be hurt because this was even unacceptable to the world.    Paul recommended breaking fellowship or pursuing justice against that person, only because they were threatening to bring hurt or harm to the witness and work of the church.



Since this issue of ‘separation’ can become complicated, although it may indeed be necessary in certain situations, the question really is how do we take this parable, as helpful guidance, rather than becoming something is disruptive that creates unnecessary negativity for the church? 


It is most helpful to understand that Jesus is primarily talking to his disciples and how they are to relate to each other.  It’s not trying to be descriptive of the how the church deals with the world, as much as, it’s about how things to be carried out in the Church---among people who may have differing views.  This is about situations when it’s much less obvious who the wheat is, or who is a weed. 


I remember years ago, when I was a religion major in college, that an older couple in my home church wanted me to travel to Charlotte to visit PTL—the Jim Baker Organization.   My Father didn’t think much of Jim Baker, and he proved to be right on target.   I didn’t think much of Jim Baker style either, but this lady thought PTL had great potential and she wanted my opinion about it.   Since I was a religion major, I thought it would be make a good Field Trip and experience.  I might even write a paper on it.  


So, I went to PTL, and it was indeed very interesting.  It was the very first time I’d ever been in a Television studio before.   And I have to admit, the music and the Talk Show wasn’t all that bad.  I had decided to give PTL the ‘benefit of a doubt’, which meant that I would support the dear couple, and keep my mouth shut; unless I heard something that sounded very dangerous or outrageous.   


The major issue I did bring up to them on the way home was how much money was going into building that Christian ‘theme park’ which was only to serve Christians, rather than serve the needs of hurting people in the world.   There was much more I could have said, but for the most part, I decided to let the ‘weeds’ and the ‘wheat’ grow together, until my suspicions either proved right, or proved wrong.   As we all know all to well, the truth about Jim Baker and PTL, did finally come out.

We may be indeed be surprised both in heaven, and sometimes on earth too, about who was right and who was wrong about opinions or ideas about faith.  Matters of faith can be a very ‘fluid’ and personal, so that they are hard to ‘pin down’.   They say much more about what’s going on deep in a person’s heart, rather than about where the kingdom will eventually end up.   As I’ve said before, faith and religion is flexible and fluid for a reason; so that it can fit in many different types of ‘cups’; which we are all very different.  

And since it’s not always obvious who is right about the way of God’s Kingdom, we do not try to separate or accentuate over every difference.  I mean some very good people have been considered weeds, but turned out to to be wheat too.  I can think of several can’t you?  Martin Luther King was considered a trouble maker, as was John Lewis, who died last year.   He was known for getting into ‘good trouble’.    

Throughout human history, there were a lot of people who were perceived as ‘trouble makers’, who were thought to be ‘weeds’, but later proved to be ‘wheat’.   The few that immediately come to mind are Galileo, when he said the earth went around the sun, when it looked to be obvious that the sun circled the earth.   The Church of that world excommunicated him, but the Catholic church was bad wrong.    

Beyond religion, in the ancient world Socrates and his philosophical ideas were attacked and he was forced to drink poison, but later Socrates ideas were accepted as brilliant.   Of course, we all know what happened to Jesus, who was also hated, but was later accepted by that same world, who once rejected him.  The list could go own.  It’s much easier to demoralize or demonize someone than it is to stay or bear with them, until either the truth comes out, or an even greater truth comes that surprises everyone.

Before Jesus was ‘canceled out’ by his own  culture, he warned his own disciples against becoming a negative ‘cancel culture’ among themselves.   In fact, when they were planning to use their arguing over who right, wrong, best or less, so they could ‘lord over each other’ rather than to humbly serve each other,  Jesus scolded them saying, ‘It shall not be so among you’ (Mk 10:42ff).   In other words, things are supposed to work very differently among you than they work out there in the world.


So, finally, what can this parable mean for us, in the church?   While churches and Christians need standards, boundaries, and  limits of what is acceptable for our fellowship together, and what isn’t.    Have a particular set of values and guiding principles are necessary for any group---if that group wants to have a certain identity or mission.   But this parable should remind us, that even when we make these necessary standards or boundaries, we still need ‘patience’ in how we carry them out, because the ultimate truth and the final truth, isn’t always obvious.

I once told you how much I respected the Deacon Leadership of a church that was having to deal with an issue that had the potential to bring a lot of hurt to a congregation.   This church was in many ways, theologically very conservative, and the behavior of a certain young person was not in line with the church’s beliefs and practices.   But instead of outright opposing the young man, or publicly coming out against him, they understood how much he was loved in the church, and also that his behavior had not actually brought harm to anyone.  While they informed the young man that they did accept what he was saying or doing, they did allow him to continue to be a part of the congregation, as long as, he continued to respect the agreed upon beliefs of the church and if he understood that they loved him, even when they didn’t approve of his behavior.   

When church’s face situations where believers differ, even in their behaviors or their interpretations of Scripture, the only way people can stay together, worked together or worship together in such situations, is when they have the patience to wait and trust that God will one day reveal the truth to them both.   

But to do this, requires deep trust in God, and it also requires genuine love for the person we may not agree with.   Trust in God is always needed to be a Christian, and so is love for others, but sometimes this becomes more obvious and even more critical.     The fast-changing world today, when churches and communities are facing so much social, political change, the trust we have in God and in each other is being tested more than ever before.  

When we come together to worship with people who may see things very differently that we do, we have to trust that God, or His angels, not you or me, will ultimately be the sifters to separate the wheat from the weeds.  This is the only way we can continue to live together, serve together, and work for the greater good in life, that is a good, that is indeed greater than our own.   We must tolerate many of our differences in beliefs and opinions, until that day when God makes all things crystal clear, or as my Hebrew professor used to say, until everything ‘come out  clean on wash day’.    

Jesus’ parable, as I see it, argues for compassion and tolerance as the best kind of Christianity among us.  It is most Christians thing we can do when we are being kind, patient and being tolerant of our differences with each other.  When we allow God to be the final judge, and when we trust God’s wisdom more than our own, this becomes a way of protecting both our neighbor and ourselves,from unnecessary emotional hurt and spiritual damage.

Might we see a renewal of Christian Faith, and among churches too, even in the confusing times of challenge and change, if we could be a witness to the world, of how we learn to appreciate an accept one another, even our differences.   I mean, our many differing denominations and doctrinal disputes hasn’t really done anything to help our witness to the world.  One of the early Church leaders, Tertullian, once argued to the pagans that living  life together in the church was morally superior to life in the world.   He challenged pagans to just ‘look in the church and see how they love one another.’

Could it be that that this kind of tolerance and patience is the greatest proof of the benefit of following Christ, and letting God be God who is the only true and final judge.?    Amen.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Secrets of the Kingdom

Charles J. Tomlin, February 14, 2021, 
Kingdom of God Series, 7 of 14
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

In the 1950’s and 60’s, one of the top television games shows, was the nationally syndicated show: “I’ve Got a Secret.”   Celebrities would compete against each other with a contestant who would have a secret to figure out.   Sometimes these contestants had done something notable.  Other times they were just regular people doing regular things, but the celebrities had to ask questions and try to learn their unique ‘secrets’. 

As a child, I loved to watch “I’ve Got a Secret” because I needed to learn almost everything.  The whole world was one ‘big secret’.  

Life can certainly be like that for any of us.   It can be a big, mysterious, and hidden secret.  When we are children, it can seem like adults are keeping all kinds of secrets from us.  

Of course it’s one thing for humans to have secrets, but in our text, Jesus speaks of the ‘secrets (or mysteries) of the kingdom’.   He is telling God’s truth in ‘parables’; mysteries, or stories.   Why in the world would God be keeping secrets from us?   Why didn’t Jesus just, as people used to say in the 70’s, just ‘let it all hang out!’ 

We’ve been talking about the Kingdom of God.  Today, we must understand that Jesus didn’t give direct descriptions of God’s kingdom.  He most always spoke about the kingdom indirectly, in stories, or riddles, which are called parables. 

Parables are like verbal windows that help us see out of what’s happening in our lives now, so we can look into a larger, and sometimes very different kind of reality.   Don’t you like to look out the window?   During the Virus Outbreak, some of you have had to look through a window to see your loved ones in Nursing Homes.  They had to look through windows to see you, and to know that you hadn’t forgotten them.   It’s difficult not to be able to touch them, huge them.  But windows can be ‘good’, and important for us to have.

 Parables serve as ‘windows’ to see into a reality that is true, but it’s also not yet, but it’s coming.  Remember, Jesus said, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done.  It’s not yet, but we pray it ‘will be done’.   

The kingdom of God is also a form of reality that is alternative to our own.  It may be and idea already known by a few people, but it’s still largely hidden.  As Jesus said in our text:  "To you it has been given to know the secrets1 of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given(Matt. 13:11).” 

Finally, the kingdom may be reality just beginning to be realized in the world.  It may just be starting out and very small, but it’s a true possibility and already starting to take shape and grow.  This is the heart of what Jesus is saying to us in the parable about the sower we are going to consider today.

In each parable, Jesus opens a windows for us to look into the mystery or secret of the reign and rule of God, which was being revealed through him and to his disciples, and any who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the truth of his life and his teachings

Near the end of our text, which is in the middle of this whole account, Jesus was asked by his disciples ‘why’.  Why do you speak to them in parables? (Matt. 13:10).  Notice, Jesus speaks about God’s kingdom in parables to the crowds and outsiders, not the disciples.  Have you ever wondered why?  Why Jesus didn’t just come out and talk straight to everyone?

In the Mini-Series from HBO, entitled Chernobyl, a historical, dramatic retelling of one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history, which took place in April of 1986, in the Ukraine.   At that time, the Ukraine was still under complete control by the Soviet Union, and at first, Soviet authorities attempted a coverup.  But it didn’t work, because the ‘fallout’ was already being detected in air over Europe and the United States could also see how bad it was, from spy satellites.

In the early moments of the story, a Belarusian Nuclear Physicist knows how bad this event is, and she is attempting to talk to some of her colleagues about it.  They are talking on the telephone, but the physicist is using ‘code’ to talk about her thoughts, because she knows that her phone lines are being tapped and she is being listened too.

It’s hard for us to imagine a world that is listening to us, and waiting for a chance to see whether or not they can ‘pin’ something on us—find some way that we are not being loyal to their way of seeing things.   When I lived in Eastern Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I heard stories from many Germans about how afraid they were to say anything political on the phone or even to their friends.  Sometimes even so-called friends would turn in their friends in order to get a better job from the government who ran everything.  

We can’t imagine a world like that, but desperate people can be that way, and it’s one of the major reasons Jesus spoke in parables.   If you look into the chapter just before this one, in Matthew 12,  while He is speaking, Jesus’ own family come to ‘take him home’.   Even Jesus’ own family and his own home town didn’t agree with many of the things he was saying (12: 46-50).  Not only did religious leaders think he was ‘full of the devil’, some of his one family were very close to that too. Once, the people in his hometown wanted to throw him off a cliff. 

Maybe this helps begin to understand better, why Jesus most often spoke in parables.  They which were a kind of ‘code’ language that allowed him to tell stories that would allow about things many people didn’t want to hear, at least not yet. 

Parables were ways that Jesus could share truths about God and his kingdom, that could be very challenging to the ‘status quo’---to what was commonly believed and practiced, but which was quite contrary to what God wanted to do in the world.   Jesus could share these truths to those who were ready to hear them, but those who didn’t want to hear them, would be slower to understand, because they didn’t want to understand.   This is what Jesus meant when, right after our text, he quoted Isaiah who said: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive (Matt. 13:14 NRS).

But at the same time, while some were ‘blocked out’ of understanding by these parables, others were able to understand exactly what they needed and wanted to hear.  This is Jesus meant by the ‘blessing’ he adds to these in Matthew 16: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”  It’s such a beautiful blessing, isn’t it?   This reminds us that while some where unable to look through the ‘window’ of God’s truth, because of the ‘dirt’ in their lives, others were able to see and remember God’s truth, even better because of these parables.   The understanding of a parable was mostly based upon the individual ‘desire’ of the person who wanted or didn’t want to understand.

So, now, with this introduction to Jesus’ first parable about the Kingdom of God, let’s take a closer look through the ‘window’ of this first ‘secret’ of how God’s Kingdom comes on earth, as it is in heaven.   Jesus says it is sown like and like a seed and grows.

But this is a very different, even funny way to sow a seed, isn’t it?   Who would every sow a seed and expect a harvest from doing something as crazy and strange as this?   Well, no one would, unless this story is a kingdom story about a God who sows his seeds most extravagantly, often excessively, and very liberally, broadcasting the seeds of his grace into the world.  

And this is exactly what Jesus later explains this parable to be about, to his disciples, but not to everyone else.   This parable of the ‘sower’ is about how God sows his ‘word’ into the world.  He throws the seeds of grace and truth everywhere, in hope that the conditions will be right, for the seed to spout, take root, and to grow and produce a harvest.   

But, of course, success is always hoped for, but success and growth of the seed is never a sure thing in a harsh world like ours.  The problem, however isn’t the seed, but it’s always the soil.  The kind of soil is always the major challenge for grower of God’s kingdom truth.  If the soil isn’t right, or there are or problems in the environment, the harvest will be limited.   The growth of the kingdom, not only depends on the sower, but the growth of the kingdom also depends upon the soil.  And the soil is us. 

The ‘soil’ is at the heart of what Jesus is saying about God’s kingdom in this parable.  Jesus wants his disciples to know, that the ‘gospel’ they are preaching is good seed, wonderful seed, and productive seed too.   They are becoming ‘sowers’ of a wonderful potential harvest, but sadly, sometimes there won’t be any harvest.   But the problem isn’t the seed, nor is it the sowers, but the growth of the seed is mostly dependent upon the type of soil that receives the seed.   The type of soil can be the greatest challenge to the growth of God’s kingdom in the world.
During the Coronavirus Outbreak last year, I received several Town Hall phone calls from NC Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who included me in those meetings.   When I wasn’t too busy, I’d turn on the speaker phone and listen to the conversation as the Senator reported to his constituents and took questions and attempted to give needed answers and advise.  

In one of the calls, a woman asked whether this whole ‘Virus thing’ was a hoax.  After the Senator assured went to great pains to assure her that it wasn’t, she answered honestly, “I’m glad you set me straight on that.  I just thought somebody made the whole thing up. “

One of the things I heard on call after call, was the Senator trying to help people see the truth of how things were, and advising them to wear masks in order to slow the spread of the virus and, as he said, to help the economy get back on track.  I thought it interesting, that this time, the Senator had to appeal to the economy to get his point across, more than he appealed to saving lives, as he had done in previous calls.  

Whether that person received this ‘true message’ depended upon the kind of ‘soil’ they were.  It had little to do with whether his message was considered true, but whether they really wanted to listen to his advice or not.  Fortunately, after polling those who participated, 86 percent were today actually wearing masks when they went out in public, in contrast to about 23 percent in the first phone call when the Virus first started. 

This is what Jesus meant when he said some seeds fell on the path, others on rocky ground, some fell among thorns, and some on good soil.  It’s the kind of soil that makes all the difference, not the quality of the seeds.  The seed will grow, if conditions are right; if the soil is receptive.  This is how the kingdom grows too, Jesus implies; if we are the kind of people who want the seeds of the kingdom to take root in our lives.

The ‘seed will succeed’. This was Jesus major point.  There is nothing wrong with God’s kingdom or God’s truth; but there can be problems with us, and whether we allow the  ‘seeds’ to take root and grow in us. 

This is the great question about the kingdom.  Whether the kingdom comes or not; whether the kingdom grows or not, or whether the kingdom succeeds or not---has most to do with us and whether we are receptive to allow God’s kingdom into our own hearts and lives. 

The seed of God’s kingdom will grow in the world, if we allow the kingdom to grow in us.  This is the first, and perhaps the most important foundational truth about the kingdom.  The kingdom belongs to God and is about God and about God’s rule in the world, but the great secret and mystery is, that the growth of the kingdom still depends upon us.  For when the soil is right and the conditions are right, the seed will always out do itself.  But for this to happen, we must partner with the sower and with the success that is programed into the DNA of seed to ensure that a bountiful harvest takes place in the world in which we live.  And this partnership begins in our ‘hearts’.  Our hearts is where the seed takes root and grows.  If our hearts are prepared to accept and cultivate the seed of God’s kingdom, it’s success will be limited in us.

Last year when George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota,  a great outpouring of justified Protest broke out, not just in Minnesota, but it went around the world.  There is a lot of hurt and pain in the world, and a lot of injustice too, and this clear human rights violation and murder incited feelings that were deep within the hearts of many.  

The question that still remains, is what will come out of all this.  Good, I hope.  Understanding, I hope.  Change, too.   But what does it take for real, lasting change to happen, so that those people who need to change, those systems and laws that need to change, really do change?   What will it take for this ‘new’ reality to break into the old reality of our world?

Interestingly, when you look back at the early church, and the preaching of the kingdom, you have a great picture of what it took for the preaching, mission, and ministry of the church to bring change.   Within 300 years, the Church that was being persecuted and put down, became accepted and appreciated as ‘the religion’ of Rome, which has once attempted to wipe it out.  What changed?  How did this change come?

Clearly, the church didn’t openly protest, or ‘force’ this change.   Now, I’m not saying that today there isn’t any place for protest.  Of course there is.  We live in a free society, and ‘protest’ and ‘civil disobedience’, is part of our democratic process.   But what made the change in Roman society so amazing is that the church had no real power at all; except to influence the human heart; and that’s exactly what happened.  By winning the hearts of people over to the truth, change came that impacted the whole world.
I think this is an important lesson to be remembered still today.  If we want a new reality to come into the world, we have to win hearts and minds, not just change laws and tear down the old ways.  Those old ways have to be changed, not only outwardly, but inwardly too.   If that doesn’t happen, the new ways won’t stick, or they might cause hate to rise up in a way that was never intended.

My point is that if, we want God’s kingdom to come, we must first plant the seeds deep in our own hearts; then we must win the hearts and minds of others to this kingdom.  That’s how the early church impacted the world the first time, and it’s still how God’s kingdom come.   It starts in us, and after having a great harvest within our own hearts, it overflows, often ‘unintentionally’ into the hearts of others, and accomplishes the purpose God has had in mind all along.

What about you?   How in the kingdom way of God growing in you?  You can’t expect it to grow in others, until it is growing within you, impacting your own life in every way.   

This is why the kingdom is a ‘secret’.  It’s not a secret because God keeps is from us, but it’s a secret because, for the kingdom to grow, it must start growing first in the deep, secret corners of our hearts.  For only when grow there, will it succeed elsewhere.    AMEN.