by Daniel Harrell
Well, Tuesday is almost here. Election Day. Judgment Day. The outcome feels scary whichever candidate we choose or personally don’t choose. I remember a philosophy class in college where the professor acknowledged no presidential election in American history had ever, or likely could ever, be decided by a single popular vote. Therefore, why bother, he asked. (He also said he’d give an automatic A to anyone who could answer.) There right answer was that we vote to participate in the democratic process, to indicate our assent to be governed by the laws of the land. Because no vote we cast makes a difference on its own, to vote is an act of faith in democracy. The classmate who got the answer right got her A then and there. We never saw her in class after that.
Our faith in democracy has been surely been shaken this season. Eight out of ten voters polled say they are disgusted by the grim state of American politics. Most harbor serious doubts that either major-party nominee can unite our country after this historically ugly, foolish and at times obscene presidential campaign. What would Jesus do? “Pull up the bad weeds and you may uproot the good wheat,” he warned here in Matthew 13, a few verses back. “Let both of them grow together until harvest time,” by which Jesus meant the real Judgment Day. The Lord could be back sooner than we think. The Cubs did win the World Series. As my devout and dearly departed grandmother used to say with a finger pointed skyward, “perhaps today.” We can always hope.
We’re taught that our erstwhile Congregational forbears were responsible for birthing American democracy. Like all reformation-minded Protestants, the Puritans and Pilgrims held to the priesthood of all believers, each one is a necessary part of the whole. Way back in colonial days, Meetinghouses like this served as centers of civic life as well as church life. The distinction between the two was not always obvious. Decisions as to the will of the Lord would not be made by majority rule, but by corporate submission. When Congregationalists gather, we trust the Holy Spirit among us in ways she’s not present when we’re by ourselves. God’s spirit dwells in us, most evidently as congregations rather than individuals. It’s why we’re called the body rather than bodies of Christ. No one is a Christian by themselves. God’s spirit infuses our collective souls with collective wisdom, spiritual common sense and concern for each other, as well as with courage and mutual support to do the right thing. Christianity is not a democracy where everybody gets a vote, but a monarchy where Jesus is king. We submit ourselves to the will of the Lord rather than the will of the people.
Jesus’ response to the insufferable perversion of human politics is the same as it’s been from the start. “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he preached, using a word that can be translated as at hand, or even right here. For Jesus’ audience in Matthew, chosen people chafing under oppressive Roman rule, to hear God’s reign had arrived could not have been understood as anything other than a radical denouncement of the empire. For Rome, kingdom power meant military might and control by brute force. Historians describe Pax Romana as an era of world peace, but Rome made its peace by way of war, extortion and economic dominance. Roman apologists naturally called such imperial supremacy good news, which it was as long as you weren’t an enemy of the state, a slave, an immigrant, a woman, poor or Jewish. Caesar regarded himself as Lord and demanded due worship—a move categorized by the Bible as both idolatry and delusional. Every human attempt at kingdom power ultimately collapses. Governments are not God. Governments lie. Governments cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted. The kingdom of heaven is near.
And God’s kingdom would not rule through military might or brute force. It’s power would prove ironic. A tiny seed planted in the ground. A grain of yeast permeating a whole batch of dough. It would work from the margins to love enemies and welcome outcasts and strangers. It cares for the poor, shuns privilege and the pursuit of wealth. It humbly goes the second mile, doing its good in secret and not for applause.
Nowhere would its ironic power prove itself more than with the cross. Rome used crucifixion to viciously squelch insurrection. Crosses demonstrated the futility of political resistance by executing the death sentence on rebels. But Jesus used the same cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and religious complicity with it, while executing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. In God’s kingdom, peace was not made through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own blood.
The hometown crowds here in Matthew, while amazed by Jesus’ words and deeds, had their doubts about his being king. Scroll to the end of Matthew 13 and there his friends and neighbors wonder where he got the notion. “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers men we know? His sisters too? Where then did this man get all this?” Matthew says “they took offense at him.” How ridiculous for a nondescript nobody from backwater Galilee to crown himself the royal Son of David. It’s as ridiculous as an arrogant billionaire playboy, serial philanderer and Reality TV star presuming to think he can be President. His champions, Bible-reading Christians included, insist that anybody’s better than a woman whose career is nothing but hackery, unapologetic secrecy and defensiveness, entitlement, greed and self-righteousness. We’ll know on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, we’ll pray for whoever wins. Christians are instructed to pray for their rulers, no matter their character or competency, even for those who directly threaten our welfare. Daniel prayed for the self-deluded Nebuchadnezzar who held him captive in Babylon. Paul prayed for his jailers who bound him in chains. Jesus prayed forgiveness on the very executioners who nailed him hand and feet to die. ““Let the weeds grow together with the wheat until the harvest,” Jesus said, speaking the word he’d pray for his enemies from the cross. “Father, let them be, they don’t know what they are doing.”
Seeing Jesus hang, the crowds who’d witnessed his wonders wondered why he didn’t save himself. Call down the angel armies and blow up the whole mess. That was Satan’s solution—and it was tempting. But God’s kingdom would not rule through military might or brute force. Jesus would do his best work underground. A mustard seed so small you can hardly see it. Bury it in the ground and you can’t see it at all. It’s how seeds work. “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit,” Jesus said, referring to his own death, by which he participated in the most democratic process of all. No matter what we attain or accomplish in this life, every last one of us dies. This was the parable of the sower and the soils— at our best we are still only good as dirt. We come from dust and to dust we shall return.
But not the seed. Bury it deep and it rises to life. Seeds work underground and unseen, manifesting their power only by flower and fruit. The same with leaven. Indistinguishable from the dough it suffuses, yeast causes the whole world to rise. “The kingdom of heaven is near,” Jesus said. It’s just hard to see sometimes. Global economic forces decimate blue-collar workers. Healthcare costs and insurance rise out of reach. Black lives don’t matter. Student debt cripples. Decent jobs disappear. Opioid addiction ruins families. Technology isolates. The earth warms. Ancient civilizations burn. Politicians promise that if we’ll just vote for them they’ll fix everything. You won’t have to be afraid anymore.
But fear is not always a bad thing. Like faith, it all depends where it’s aimed. The Proverbs declare fear of the Lord to be the foundation of wisdom. Wisdom is the capacity to know righteousness and do justice. Wisdom enables us to discern good from evil. By wisdom we embrace the necessity of humility and the reliability of mercy. With wisdom we find solace in the enormity of grace and do not fear death because God’s love defies death. Because Daniel feared the Lord, he could stand fast against King Nebuchadnezzar’s vile threats. “Knowing the fear of the Lord,” Paul wrote, he faced down his accusers and jailers and critics. The early church in Acts withstood persecution and “became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;” Jesus said, “rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Fear is built-in for human survival. It gets our attention and focuses our energy, it opens our heart, keeps us awake and spurs us to act. Fear feels like love sometimes: thrilling, dangerous and vital. To love we must trust and to trust we must somehow surrender—that’s what’s so scary.
But the fear of Lord is not the same as fearing suffering or poverty or sickness or harm. That would be dread and does not make for wisdom, only anxiety. We read in 1 John how “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.” And that, “Perfect love means we may have boldness on the day of judgment because we live like Jesus here in this world. Perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.” But then fear also has to do with uncertainty. We fear the Lord like we fear love: we want it but aren’t sure we can risk it. We’re not sure it will be worth it.
My dumpy 2001 Honda Civic finally bit the dust, though more accurately I should say it succumbed to the rust. Being one who hates the whole buy-a-car dance (obviously), I researched profusely before making a purchase. I scoured the online inventory, read all the reviews, tallied Car Fax reports and compared models, did the math with financing, Blue Book values and depreciation, all so to steel myself for my own little Judgment Day with the shady used-car salesman who would try to make me pay more than the car I wanted was worth. I ended up on a recommendation at Poquet Auto in Golden Valley, where the salespeople don’t do anything to earn their commissions. I boldly approached with Car Fax in hand and told him the vehicle I wanted, a modest 2016 Ford Fusion Energi Plug-In Hybrid. 100 miles to the gallon and good for the environment. The salesman gave us the keys and said go take a ride, take it home overnight if you want. This is the price, buy it or not, and have a good day. The car was just as I’d imagined and hoped, given all the research I’d done. All that was left was to climb in and drive.
Arriving at last at this morning’s pair of parables, we have a man who knows what he’s looking for. He does his research and looks far and wide. Once he finally finds what he wants, nobody has to sell it to him. He joyfully cashes in everything he has to buy it. The kingdom of heaven may not be like buying a Ford, but Jesus did say seek and ye shall find. While small like a mustard seed and like yeast, no one disputes a pearl’s worth. You just have to climb in and drive.
But what if you can’t find it? Then it will find you. In the first parable of the pair, a person unexpectedly stumbles upon buried treasure, apparently hidden for so long the landowner didn’t know it was there. Once again, the kingdom does his best work underground. The finder cannot keep the treasure because the law stipulated that anything found on another’s property by right belongs to the landowner. So the finder digs up the treasure and buries it somewhere else, and then happily sells all he has to buy the whole farm. In both parables each purchase involves neither renunciation nor risk: the pearl and the treasure were both a sure thing. I was reminded of the famous words of martyred missionary Jim Elliot: “You are no fool to give what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose.”
Amidst the turmoil and temerity leading to this Tuesday, our best choice remains a sure thing. This past Wednesday night, our high school kids mounted a “Jesus for President” campaign. They came up with catchy slogans. “Vote for Jesus. Live forever.” While worthy of our fear, our worship, Jesus doesn’t operate by scaring or shaming or blowing everything up, or by pressuring us to buy something we’d never spend a dime to purchase. “The kingdom of heaven is like a little mustard seed that quietly grows and eventually invades the whole countryside. Like a little yeast hidden in time infects the whole, massive batch of dough and makes great pizza. You can’t even see it, but it’s everywhere, at hand and hidden in everything, its power and grace breaking through here and there, bending all things, in time, to God’s will and purpose, taking time, requiring patience and trust, as yeast always does, until it finally and fully makes enough bread for everybody to eat. The body of Christ broken for us breaks our own pride and self-delusion, our own self-righteous greed and idolatry, our own sense of entitlement and thirst for control. At our best we are still only good as dirt. We democratically come from dust and to dust we shall return and will rise again with Christ to enjoy all we could ever hope for and enjoy even now in this world if only we’ll recognize it for the buried treasure it is.