Sermon: “God's Kingdom on Earth, or On the Road to Sharing Bread”
Minister David Jones
I am always aware that my first instinct when beginning to think about a sermon, or when searching for the right words for a prayer, or really anytime I am invited to express what it is that I believe in or feel called to do in light of my faith--my first instinct is to explore God, sin, and righteousness primarily with regard to human relationships. I recognize this must be alienating, at least some of the time, to those among us whose own instinct--whose own deep waters of faith--carries them beyond the narrowness of only human affairs toward the wider landscapes of God’s diverse Creation. My faith expression sometimes would seem to forget the wider perspective of Creation, from which humans can be seen as only one small fraction of one small part of the universe’s vast expanse. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive spiritual expressions, but an occasion like Earth Sunday represents an opportunity for myself and I’m sure many others who share my tendency, to widen the aperture a little, to offer our thanks and praise for all Creation, and to explore God, sin, and righteousness from its breathtaking vantage.
One way of going about this is to make a distinction between the life of a city and the life of the countryside--whether that is between Boston and Ashfield, or between Jerusalem and Galilee or Emmaus. The distinction is porous. Obviously many people today commute from a small town or countryside home to nearby cities to work; some people live in different places in different seasons. That this distinction between urban and rural is collapsing has hardly ever been more apparent than it is right now, when our lives here in Franklin County are being so drastically impacted by what has been happening, for example, in New York City. But the distinction still manifests itself, for me, in the language of faith. In Toronto, for instance, where I attended seminary, there isn’t as much thought given to where our food comes from. There isn’t as much thought given to the sunrise that, in Toronto, is mostly obscured by skyscrapers. People, especially spiritual people, are working to change this situation--and it is changing--but it’s still generally true, I think, that the city can deceive its residents into thinking nature is altogether apart from their life.
Being here in Ashfield and Shelburne Falls has reminded me much more of my life in the rural town I grew up in. I wasn’t attending church then, but my religious friends who would entertain my questions over lunches in the high school cafeteria tended to be from farming families; their faith was steeped in the rhythms of the seasons. And I have found that same faith language here, one of the things that has made this place feel so quickly like home. Everyone seems to know about the weeds and flowers, the soil and its produce--or they want to know, they have sought these things out, they feel called to live a life more closely in communion with nature and its beauty, and to find God there, within all things.
Through the Gospel, we explore this distinction further. Jesus’ ministry begins in the small towns around the Sea of Galilee, and today in our reading from Luke, the risen Jesus ministers to two villagers heading home to Emmaus. In and around, traveling to and from these smaller villages, Jesus teaches and visits with the faithful. If the God of Israel is a God of the desert, Jesus is a teacher of the village. Like many people today, he likely traveled into more densely populated areas, small cities such as they were in 1st century Palestine, to make a living; he himself was not a farmer but more likely a trades or craftsperson. But so many of his parables live close to the earth; Jesus clearly belonged to these rural communities and had a profound understanding of how they worked, and so it is no wonder that most of his first followers were subsistence fishermen and peasants living off the land.
When Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke is promising a new Kingdom of God (or Heaven, as in Matthew), he means a community like those around the Sea of Galilee, or perhaps like the village of Emmaus, one that has been transformed so that subsistence is not for a hardscrabble, competitive life, but for a mutually supportive, communal one. This life in the new Kingdom does not compulsively rush a narrow list of goods to market in the name of perpetual growth of nearby cities. This life does not require indebtedness to absentee landlords. This life -- because it honors God’s ultimate sovereignty over all Creation, including over what we plant and harvest, including over the land--seeks instead to cooperate and collaborate with one’s neighbors so that we can secure life and dignity for all. There is at least a tinge of that old New England self-reliance in Jesus’ good news of community-reliance.
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is the familiar resurrection story of Jesus appearing to two companions on their road to Emmaus. And immediately it is striking how Jesus approaches these companions so unassumingly. The companions are downcast, deeply sad after the events that have transpired; they have not come to trust in the reports of the women who have found Jesus’ tomb empty. They are disappointed that this Jesus character had not proven to be the long promised Messiah after all. It is at this point that Jesus seems to lose his patience, but he does not simply turn his back on them and move on to visit more faithful or more insightful followers. Instead Jesus slips right back into teaching, into shepherding, expounding on the Hebrew scriptures.
The traveling companions are not yet persuaded that they are speaking to the risen Christ. But, they have been transformed anyway. Jesus has cared for them--both physically and spiritually--by joining them in their journey. So now, rather than judge this man who has happened upon them on their road, rather than let this man pass into and out of their lives as a stranger, they extend him hospitality; they extend to Jesus the same companionship that Jesus offered to them. They invite Jesus into their home, to provide him shelter, and they invite him to sit at their table, to provide him food.
Isn’t this familiar to us all? It’s what I remember growing up--or at least the best part of what I grew up with; it’s what I have experienced since beginning life here last fall. Of course small communities have their problems like any place; there are even some challenges that are more acute in a small town or rural place, and that’s no doubt true of Franklin County. But at their best, rural communities are the place most likely and quickest to turn a stranger into a companion, to turn a stranger into someone you eat bread with. Caity and I know this firsthand. It is in sharing our bread with one another--as God intended--that we are no longer estranged from Creation, but again grown from its soil like once in Eden.
Thinking about our Gospel in this way helps us to recognize the connection between companionship and food; the connection between rural communities and the community of heaven that Jesus begins to cultivate in Galilee and in Emmaus. And it is this connection--this mutuality, this reciprocity, this grace and love--that forms the innermost content of faith, and it is this connection that I found myself celebrating this past Wednesday on Earth Day. What Jesus taught was not particularly grand or complicated. In his earthly parables, he merely re-asserted God’s sovereignty over Creation--over the land, over the seeds, over the food we harvest. In the early community of followers, Jesus merely insisted that, because all of this is God’s--is part of the body of God--it must be shared sustainably and equitably. That is the way of God; that is, of course, the way of unconditional love.
It is my great fortune to have been called to this church, to be a part of this congregation, and to live in these hills more closely to God’s Creation. Because it is the earth and all Creation that is breathing through Christ’s simple, unadorned parables; it is a fully respected and equally enjoyed nature that will realize the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is not sermons or even scripture but rather prayer, music, fellowship, and communion that to this day reconstitutes the radical hospitality of the disciples and earliest followers, that to this day welcomes Jesus into our homes and sets our hearts on fire. And it is the act of sharing bread unconditionally that inaugurates the Kingdom of God on earth.
Alleluia, and amen.