Occupy the Kingdom of God

October 24th, 2011
Occupy Auburn, NY | Image © druc14 | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Matthew 20:1-16.

I spent a week last summer on the ranch of my wife’s cousin near Bastrop, Texas. Having grown up in Texas, I’m used to hot weather in the summer time. But I’ve never experienced heat in Texas like this summer. The air was hot even after the sun went down. We tried to stay inside most of the day, but one morning my boys wanted to learn how to ride a horse so we walked with them back and forth on a trail that had some shade. There’s something uniquely sad about the large trees we saw on that trail whose branches are starting to collapse because they were dying of thirst.

It’s different in places like Nevada where you only expect to see sand or even Arizona where you see cactuses and shrubs that belong in desert. But Central Texas is where the movie “Tree of Life” was filmed because it’s filled with big oak trees that got to be their size in a better time. Now they’re dying. And an environment like that with big dry trees can turn into a blazing wildfire so quickly, like it did this September.

There’s a way in which this is like what’s going on in our country right now. At least in my thirty-four years, I have never experienced a time that felt more like a valley of dry bones than today. Many are facing very concrete desperate situations where they’re getting laid off or facing foreclosure. Kids go off to college and come back home when they can’t afford to live on their own. People getting divorced can’t afford to live in separate houses so they have to stay under the same roof.

It’s a dry bone kind of world even for those of us who have our head above water. And there have been some major wildfires. Some are mad about Wall Street; some are mad about the government; others are just mad that everybody else is mad. I’m not going to weigh in on any of that except to say that our problems are deeper than any slogan that can fit onto a sign. And whatever else is true, our calling as the people of God is to occupy the kingdom of God.

Here’s what I mean by that: Jesus has already done everything that needs to be done to create a kingdom of mercy where we can live together in perfect human community. The problem is that very few of us even among His followers actually occupy the kingdom that has been created for us to live in. It’s like one of those brand-new subdivisions built somewhere out in the distant suburbs before the housing crash that sits out there beautiful and unoccupied because God’s people haven’t moved in. We might do all the rituals that we think we’re supposed to do. We might believe all the things we think Christians are supposed to believe. But we don’t live in the reality that Jesus died on the cross and came back from the grave to establish. We could be experiencing the joy that God wants to share with us, but the pressures and anxieties that we have allowed to define us have made us into a pile of dry bones.

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20 explains the basic human attitude that keeps us in the valley of dry bones and holds us back from living in God’s kingdom. A man goes out to hire workers for his vineyard at 9, at noon, then 3, and then again at 5. When it comes time to pay them, he gives them all the same amount. There are several things to be offended by in this parable. First of all, what kind of boss has so little idea about how much work he needs to get done that he doesn’t hire the right number of workers from the beginning? If he found that he had miscalculated and needed to get an extra dozen at noon, that would be understandable, but to go out again in the afternoon and then again right before dark seems like a complete HR failure.

Of course the more egregious problem has to do with the wages. It’s important to remember that this is farm work we’re talking about, which is brutal. Once when I visited some migrant farm workers in Ohio, I tried to pick a row of cucumbers with them and lasted about twenty minutes, after which my back was sore for a good week. I would be angry if I’d been out in a farm field working through the heat of the day, and somebody came along when the work was almost done and got paid the same amount.

But what if the reason God hires us to work in His vineyard has less to do with needing our help and more to do with getting as many people involved in His kingdom as possible? Our church did a mission project this fall called “Share the Harvest.” We deliberately organized our work to maximize the number of participants even though it meant that we were less efficient and cost-effective. A machine could have done the work a whole lot more quickly. But the goal was for everyone to have a part to play in God’s kingdom.

Now you might say, “Well, that’s just a mission project,” but what if God wants for all of our life together to look that way? God wants everybody to be involved. That’s why He goes out one hour before dark to see if there are any workers left in the marketplace. He wants them all in His vineyard; He’s not interested in conforming to our HR standards or our idea of what’s fair, because His goal is neither efficiency or fairness – His goal is for each of us to live into the unique purpose in His kingdom for which we were created so that we can share in His joy.

As long as we have the attitude of the jealous workers who want to earn a greater reward by working harder, we’re going to be so exhausted and exasperated in our efforts to earn God’s salvation that our lives will be a valley of dry bones. As long as our greatest preoccupation is making sure that we get what we deserve and everybody else gets what they deserve, we’re going to burn hotter than a bone dry Texas oak tree in a raging wildfire, and we’re sure not going to want anything to do with a kingdom that belongs to the God whose defining characteristic is that He gives people what they don’t deserve.

It’s absolutely not fair to pay us all the same, but our God doesn’t do fair; He does mercy. Jesus died on the cross so that people who have perfect Sunday school attendance every week of their lives could get the same salvation He offers to a murderer on death row. Some people want to bracket God’s mercy and say that it only applies to our eternal salvation, but that’s missing the whole point. God’s mercy is supposed to create a kingdom of people who treat others with mercy in every facet of life.

No political protest or government policy or economic system can do what God’s mercy can do. God’s mercy is the only thing that can change the world because it converts us from self-reliant, self-centered people who clutch tightly to what is mine into brothers and sisters in Christ who share freely what belongs to God. We occupy the kingdom of God when we understand that the denarius coin God holds out for each of us is a gift rather than a reward, when we learn that having a job in God’s vineyard is itself a gift and the discipline and skills that we use in that job are also gifts that God gave us. Nothing that we use to earn anything was not given to us by God. We occupy the kingdom when we stop living in the world of earning rewards and start living in the world of sharing gifts.

What’s really cool about God’s kingdom is that it’s contagious. It will never make the nightly news, but I’ve seen the kingdom on the move in this church as the breath of God blows life into our dry bones. The question is whether we want the kingdom to consume our whole lives. If you’re willing to make this more than just your monthly quota of service hours, if you will give your entire life to the kingdom, it will be richer than you can possibly imagine. Jesus has already changed everything; all that remains is to accept the grace He has shown us and occupy the kingdom.

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