The Kingdom of Heaven is a Verb, A Sermon by the Rev. Bob Wohlfort

This Sermon was preached the Rev. Bob Wohlfort on July 30, 2017, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The readings and Psalm were: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Psalm 119:129-136, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

 

We have in our family a quiet legacy that has its beginning in the summer of 1965. Doris and I were married less than a year and my one year internship at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC was coming to an end. We would return to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis at the end of August for my 4th and final year.

Doris’ brother, Paul, his wife, Melinda and their 2 year old son, Chris, were visiting us for the weekend. Paul, a physician, was recently inducted into the Public Health Service and assigned to US Army. He was stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore to learn the craft of medical intelligence before assignment to Viet Nam.

I was preaching that Sunday morning. I do not recall if all of the lessons of the day were identical to this Sunday. One of the lessons surely was: the words of Paul to his church at Rome: “For I am convinced the neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, or things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,”  [Romans 8:38-29]

These words of Holy Scripture and my sermon were spoken in the context of the imminent departure of my 27 year old brother-in-law to the front lines of a war and the separations of husband and wife and father and son, brother and sister, and son and his parents.

Before returning to Baltimore Paul asked me for a copy of the sermon.

He carried it with him during the war and, thankfully, returned a year later to Melinda, Chris and infant son, Tim, born while Paul was in Viet Nam.

We move forward in time to the summer of 1977. Paul and family live in Durham, NC. He is a faculty member at Duke University’s school of Medicine. During a visit with them, while we are enjoying snacks and gin and tonics, Paul says to Doris and to me, “I have selected your Christmas present. I am returning a gift to you.” He says this with a sly smile.

(The following 3 “moments” relate to a Michael Podesta calligraphy of Romans 8:38 that is in my hands)

363
Image Used by Permission.

 

Christmas morning, 1977. We open Melinda and Paul’s gift and the tears flow. Our children ask Doris and me the meaning of this gift.

Debbie’s confirmation 1980. Debbie chooses this verse for her confirmation verse and we engage Emily (NYC friend) to make a calligraphy.

Debbie’s funeral 1993. Her Uncle Paul reads these words.

The gift begun on a Sunday morning in 1965 continues its giving. Yet, really, this gift of “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” was given long ago in and through the Bethlehem infant and dramatically affirmed on that first Easter Sunday.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us poetic and dramatic images of what Matthew records as “The Kingdom of Heaven.” In other gospels another phrase is used: “The Kingdom of God.” Heaven/God. What is meant by those words and how does this kingdom relate to Paul’s words and the resulting legacy in our family?

For me it is meaningful to engage Kingdom, not as a noun and not as a place. For me (and I believe I am being faithful to Scripture) I regard Kingdom as a verb; as action; as dynamic; as motion; as engagement; as a potent and vibrant and vibrating mystery.

So, it makes sense to return to today’s 1st lesson…to the dialogue between the Lord and the newly minted King Solomon, David’s son. Here we will be informed about the true nature of kingship which informs us about Kingdom. In the dream God asks a simple question, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon takes a while to answer. He first detours into a very sanitized review of his father’s kingship and then says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God is pleased and grants to Solomon a wise and discerning mind.

It is important to know that in Jewish thought the “understanding mind” is understood to be the “listening heart.” The heart is the seat of the intellect; the heart is the organ of perception. Good governance comes from the heart which is both the place of intellect and emotion.

I suggest to you that in our nation’s struggle to govern, it is crucial that our leaders and all of us, strengthen our “listening hearts.” We hear comments about health insurance and health care proposals lacking heart and being heartless. The same for budgets. That is important language.

Not long ago our President commented, “Here, everything, pretty much everything you do in government involves heart, whereas in business most things don’t involve heart. In fact, in business you’re actually better off without it.” Our 71 year old president faces a huge challenge of inner spiritual work.

I pray for him every night and this week the language of the prayer has included his being instilled with a listening heart.

The listening heart seeks relationship. The listening heart works against separation. The listening heart seeks to eliminate any sense of us over against them. The listening heart seeks to construct bridges and works to tear down walls. The listening heart is the heart of Jesus, the Christ who came among us, as one of us, to live boldly in love, in community, with compassion and welcome.

So, the kingdom of God/of heaven is about the amazing growth of a tiny seed and its power to give shelter; of how 50 pounds of flour is turned tasty by a small amount of yeast to yield 100 loaves of bread; of risk and joy regarding treasure and a pearl; of sorting the good from the bad after a successful fishing trip….all actions…all simple stories that are able to stir our imaginations of the aliveness of the kingdom.

And the kingdom of God is about our listening hearts that believe and live boldly in the belief:

  “For I am convinced the neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, or things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  [Romans 8:38-29]

Amen.

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