The kingdom of what?


I find the world news deeply disturbing. I have a running list. I grieve for the 219 girls that were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. After three months they have not been found.  Meanwhile, the kidnapping of more girls in that region continues, just on a smaller scale that does not make the world news.

I am disturbed that a civilian aircraft was shot down by a missile over eastern Ukraine. I abhor the violence and ignorance that fostered the attack, for the lack of truth, order and proper investigation at the crash site.

I feel helpless when a preponderance of Gazan women and children, even hospital patients, are being killed in the military action between Israel and Hamas.

I continue to write my senators in Congress over the children coming to our border, many of whom are legitimately seeking asylum in the U.S. because of violence and life-threats in Central America. (Responses were nil or an unsatisfactory attempt at blaming.) I won’t go into the details here of the kinds of violence that have sent many children searching for safety. But as if those wrenching stories weren’t enough, this week I heard reliable reports from three different sources that the unaccompanied children presenting themselves at the border have been physically and verbally abused by some of our border guards who first detain them. Now I really am appalled!

Last weekend Christians had to flee from the Iraqi city of Mosul now controlled by an extremist and fundamentalist Islamic group. Christians have lived in Mosul since the beginnings of Christianity, but were given a choice: convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Even their moderate Muslim friends couldn’t protect them.  A handful converted; the remaining 1500 families were kicked out of their homes; their property and possessions were confiscated, leaving them with only the clothes they were wearing. If they had managed to conceal money or jewelry, it was stolen at checkpoints before they could reach safety. Some went to a town about 12 miles away where there is a Syrian catholic church.

As I said, I find the news deeply disturbing.

Most mornings I try to read a Psalm, and this week I read Psalm 12, a lament about human deceit, lies, and violence. Verse 5  jumped out at me:

Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
I will now rise up, says the Lord; I will place them in the safety for which they long.

I wondered why my translation would choose to use a word like “despoil,” a word that we rarely say in ordinary conversation. So I googled it. It means to plunder, to pillage, rob, ravage, steal, raid, ransack, rape, loot, severely damage, ruin, forcefully take. Ok, that seems an appropriate word for the news I have heard. And in the situations I just described there were people looking for safety.  “I will rise up,” says the Lord. But how is God doing that? Is God really rising up at all? Where?

To answer that, I turn to this Sunday’s gospel reading, Matthew 13:31-33, 44. Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven means God’s rule of mercy, justice and saving love on earth. This is what we are praying for in the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” So how does Jesus explain this kingdom of heaven to the crowds—this kingdom of justice, mercy and saving love–this good news kingdom?

It’s a tiny mustard seed, a growing weed seed for that matter, that ends up providing shelter for birds. It’s a bit of yeast that slowly transforms flour into a loaf of bread. It’s a treasure found by a man who in a heartbeat sells everything to buy the field it lies in.

These little stories of Jesus could carry warning labels. Warning: this minuscule weed seed can provide a large amount of shelter for God’s creatures. Warning: a small amount of this active yeast gets into a mixture of ordinary flour, sugar and vegetable oil, then when baked it will draw people like flies to your kitchen to ask for a warm piece of bread. Warning: if you discover the treasure Jesus talks about, you will value it so much you would be willing to give everything you have to be a part of it.

If I listen carefully to Jesus, God is indeed rising up, just like the psalmist says, but God does it through people.  “God’s work, our hands” is the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)  byline.  God rises up in what Jesus calls the “kingdom of heaven.”  God’s work can start small but can still manage to provide the kind of shelter we imagine a mighty tree can provide. The kingdom of heaven, God’s work, is hidden at times, moving in ways we cannot see and which isn’t  always reported in the media. It’s work that can seem like a barren field to some, but can inspire others to give up resources, security, time, even lives in order to participate in the work. That’s what the kingdom of heaven looks like according to Jesus.

I would turn the news off completely, but then I would be part of a complicit silence. Something compels me to try to listen, to try to imagine what I can do. I have been investigating to see what other Christians (or any persons of compassion) are doing.

Like the priest of Tahira Syriac Catholic church in the northern village of Qaraqosh, 12 miles from Mosul.  This tiny town has provided safety and a measure of shelter to some of the displaced Christians. For those who find their way there, the priest writes letters of recommendation, some 200 per week for Christians (or anyone) needing permanent asylum in other countries. Yes, the kingdom is like a tiny seed that grows one letter of petition at a time.

Or it is like the foster family that works with Lutheran Social Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Since they signed up in April, this one family has welcomed more than 80 children as guests in their home as the children await more permanent placements. This family knows that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure for which they will open their home and everything they have.

Nearby to us in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania,  the United Methodist Children’s Home will begin providing temporary shelter in August to unaccompanied children while explorations are being made for those childrens’ future. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that keeps growing throughout the whole batch of dough, in this case the yeast reaches over a thousand miles to do its work.

Then there is the Lutheran Church in Nigeria. There Christian women are working in their communities with Muslim women to train people to eradicate malaria. One statistic said that Nigeria accounts for 30% of malaria deaths worldwide. Some of the money our congregation contributed to the ELCA Malaria Campaign has gone to Nigeria. No, painfuly it isn’t bringing the kidnapped girls home, but it is saving the lives of their siblings and cousins.

Bishop Munib Younan, the Lutheran Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land has repeatedly called for a cease fire in his area that covers two warring peoples and three religions. Our ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote an open letter to him and in it encouraged all ELCA congregations to “participate in a minute of silence as we in our worship together pray for peace in the Holy Land.” And so this Sunday we at St. Paul Lutheran ( New Cumberland, PA) will stop and together silently pray for peace in the Holy Land. In our prayers the kingdom of heaven is moving across miles like the silent yeast in bread.

And rising. God is rising up through God’s people around the world. God is rising up through the congregation where I serve.  Some have seen it in the prayer shawl ministry. Some have seen it in helping at Christ Lutheran on Allison Hill in an impoverished neighborhood.  Some have glimpsed it in the children being nurtured in the after school program. Some have seen it in lives changed at confirmation camp. The list keeps going and is long.

I invite you to do something. Look carefully, even do a bit of investigation: where do you see the kingdom of heaven quietly at work?  Can you find somewhere that God’s work of justice, mercy and Christ’s love is at work, maybe unseen, maybe moving silently, maybe working slowly or starting small?  Where do you see God and God’s people making a difference?

Rather than staying in my lament, I can give thanks for the work of God that is powerful and in the end will triumph over all.  But here’s a warning: while you and I look for the kingdom of heaven, watch out!  We may find ourselves dropping everything in order to get involved God’s kingdom work, because God will not stop rising up through God’s people.