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Sermon: The Kingdom of heaven is like ...

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 29:15-28; Ps. 105:1-11; Rom. 8:26-29; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A boy watched his father, a priest, write a sermon.

"How do you know what to say?" the son asked.

The father replied, "Well, God tells me."

"Oh …then why do you keep crossing things out?”

I went back and forth on what to preach this week. With all the world’s troubles, some continuing far too long, others now coming to the forefront: An airliner shot down, another swept from the sky over Taiwan, another crashing in Mali; warring factions in the Middle East, in Israel and Palestine, and yes, still Syria; outsiders clamoring to become insiders in the U.S. and the hard actions of managing borders or debating immigration reforms with lives hanging in the balance; the prevalence of gun violence in our country; ongoing poverty; homelessness; hunger; pain; grief over troubling illnesses; and the unexpected loss of loved ones. Sadly, my list is not complete; it goes on and on. These are the hardships, distress, persecutions, famine, nakedness, peril and sword of our day that St. Paul wrote about in Romans.

When I think about what is happening in our world and try to link it to today’s Gospel, I really wonder … What is happening to the Kingdom of God??

First, some semantics regarding the synoptic Gospels. Two expressions for this kingdom of which Jesus spoke, the “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven”– represent the same thing. To devout Jews, the word “God” was too sacred to be used casually or regularly. Matthew, writing primarily for Jewish readers, therefore normally speaks about the “kingdom of heaven,” whereas Mark and Luke prefer the alternative “kingdom of God,” as an easier expression for non-Jews to comprehend. If I use them interchangeably, I mean the same thing, just as Jesus did.

There are six parables in Matthew’s gospel today. Six times when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Six times where Jesus tries to give us a glimpse into what the kingdom of heaven will be like and what we might expect. I spent much time with these parables, reading and rereading them. I may have heard them more often than the disciples did! I prayed for guidance on what to share. I called to the Holy Spirit, inviting her to dance with me. I was stymied by the many examples these parables put forth. Each could be a stand-alone sermon. And, truth be told, I was stumped further with each new report on lives lost, countries at war, people abandoned, feeling hopeless. What IS the Kingdom of God like?

That got me thinking—this is sometimes how I work up to a sermon: Why did those who developed the Revised Common Lectionary put these all together? In this section of parables from Matthew’s gospel, why lump them all on one Sunday? But rather than wonder too much why the lectionary has these all together, I began imagining Jesus saying these things, one after another. Because it’s not really the lectionary compilers--why does Matthew’s author splat all of these parables together in one chapter? It is like he was at a lecture and was taking notes! Jesus talks to the crowd, with many people filling the beach that he must seek a pulpit in a boat offshore. And all these parables come spilling out, at least as Matthew’s author records it.

Two weeks ago, we heard the parable of the abundant sower. Last week it was wheat growing with weeds and the care needed during harvest to salvage the good from the bad. Through these parables, Jesus teaches the people, the disciples included, about the kingdom of heaven.

If Jesus walked in right now and we made time for some Q&A with him, what questions would you ask? I expect we would get around to questions about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, what is it like? We really want to know.

So let’s try something. Look around for a partner. Maybe someone you’re sitting beside, or in front or behind you, but find a neighbor to engage in a short conversation. What I want you to discuss a few minutes is this: Imagine you are talking to someone who has been part of a secluded tribe, say, in the Amazon or a remote Pacific island. The only existence they know is that of hunting and gathering. The only home they know is a hut made of grass. The only tools they know are those crafted from the resources of the forest. Now you and your partner are sitting with this person and your task is to explain McDonalds to them. They have no modern day society experience, but your task is to explain this fast food chain in terms they can understand and grasp. Okay? Everyone have a partner? You have two minutes. Go.

So what you did you come up with? Was it hard to do? Why?

It’s hard to talk about things no one else has experienced because their minds cannot grasp those concepts. How do you relate the purpose, usefulness, and convenience of a drive thru when someone hasn’t even seen a car? The idea itself is almost too big to explain because you keep back tracking to explain more.

Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He is giving them examples of what God’s kingdom is like because that is what people really want to know. His best method is similar to the way we describe our tasks, using stories and similes. The simile is a figure of speech directly comparing two different things to one another by employing words “like,” “as,” or “than.” Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to our world. He tells us “the kingdom of heaven is like” … a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure in a field, a rare pearl, good fish, or people’s treasures.

The kingdom of heaven is too big to sum up in one story because we can’t possibly grasp it all. So Jesus provides us peepholes with which to view these parables. Now, if you look through a peephole, what do you see? I hadn’t given much thought to ever using the one in our front door, except following the third of three high-profile, yet unsolved homicides by gun in Alexandria when people opened their doors to danger. Then I thought about using that peephole to identify what might be facing me on the other side of the door.

Like Chrissie and me, you also might wonder where the kingdom of heaven is when violence comes into your neighborhood and near your home. When I look through our peephole, I see some of the front stoop, bushes, the walkway, and houses across the street. But it’s hard to tell what’s out there. Sometimes when people ring the doorbell or knock, you look out and see no one. The reality is that the view is limited.

We cannot possibly know or understand every aspect of the kingdom, but Jesus gives us clues, some views of what it is like through parables. These six parables stand as good examples, allowing us perspective by which we learn more about God’s kingdom.

As God’s Son, Jesus knows of what he speaks. His message was also unique—no one else was saying the Kingdom is here! After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness for forty days. The first thing Jesus said afterward was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

My friends, what he means is: the kingdom of heaven is not far away, off in the distance. It is near. The kingdom is in our midst. It is something we can see, that we can be a part of, that we are part of, here and now. We’re sometimes blinded by thoughts of the next life: There is so much to be gained in the life to come, we forget that there is so much also in the here and now. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us through the parables in the 13thChapter of Matthew’s gospel. Let’s look through the peepholes at these parables:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed ...” Mustard seeds grow into a straggly annual bush, not monumental trees. They are trash plants which people hated to mix up in their seed. The seeds are so small. Farmers can’t really see them to remove them before planting their crop. Eventually, bushes sprout up in their fields. But this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. The image of the mustard shrub growing large enough to all birds to nest in it helps us understand the welcome and hospitality that grows from a life of grace and mercy. The church can be that place that, even though it may be relatively small or insignificant in its own setting, has grace and love large enough to welcome, feed, and house others, both physically and spiritually.

I invite you to think about some seemingly small things that form the core of our parish church. Maybe it’s our welcome to seekers and newcomers—especially through Pumpkins!!, the Word read and proclaimed almost daily, the cleansing waters of Baptism, the food and drink of our Lord’s Body and Blood received at this table and carried to others, the thanksgiving of our Eucharist, healing prayers offered and received for mind, body and spirit, and our service to others: in, out and through this place. All these things, like the mustard seed, can create a place where many may come to rest, and find a home among us.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...” It’s interesting that ‘yeast’ is used in most modern English translations, but the King James Version translates it as ‘leaven,’ which is closer to the Greek word used by Matthew. We know of yeast bought in a store that is added to flour and water to make bread. But in biblical times, for fluffy bread, they had to create leaven which meant setting a piece of bread aside to spoil and there was time crucial to the spoiling. If it didn’t spoil long enough, it wouldn’t make bread rise, and if it spoiled too long it could poisonous and make people sick. You may remember: ritualistic cleansing during the Passover means ridding your house of leaven.

Any other time Jesus talks about leaven he uses it as a negative term. He told people to “Watch out, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Matt 16:6). Maybe that’s the poison that can happen. But here Jesus takes what might be a negative and makes it a positive. It only takes a little leaven, or yeast, to make dough rise. It only takes a small spark of the Holy Spirit to push a transformation in our souls. The yeast/leaven parable emphasizes the power of the gospel of the Kingdom; it can change: people, social orders, economic relations, and primary loyalties. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It only takes a little, a tiny seed or a small bit of yeast, for a huge change.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field… The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.” In both of these parables someone finds something of great value and then joyfully sells everything they have to obtain it. People often found treasure in a field because it could be left there after war or it was used as a Biblical Banking system. Instead of hiding money under one’s mattress they hid it in their field. It was common practice that whatever treasure was found in your field was yours and this is why the man sells everything to get the field. Both these parables sound like horrible business practices. Would you sell everything you had to purchase a piece of property that had treasure on it? To put everything you had worked for into one investment? No, today we are advised to diversify our portfolios. We are told NOT to put all eggs in one basket. Yet in these parables of treasure and the pearl, so valuable is the Kingdom of heaven that, in spite of what we hear today, it is worth giving all we have, mind, body and soul, to gain it.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net…” Junk fish, or just plain junk, that clogs our waterways are always going to be netted, hooked or caught. On the manly men of Immanuel fishing trip earlier this year, the crew of our boat had to work and rework their lines to clear some of the junk that had been hooked. Yes, the kingdom of heaven is like that. The net that catches all kinds of fish, good and bad, which in the end the angels will come to sort out, is a commonplace symbol of the church. This parable is similar to that of the Wheat and Weeds from last week. I might remind us all that we do not determine who is junk or who are weeds. All are welcome into the net of the kingdom.

And lastly--“The kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” God wants to share that goodness with everyone. God wants us to experience all that is glory and awesomeness. God wants to share everything—everything, old and new-- with us if we are open to receive it. It’s like being invited to a dinner party where the host offers the freshest vegetables and fruits just plucked from a garden. They are succulent, rich in flavor, and savory goodness. But wait, there’s more! Then a bottle of fine wine which has been stored for years comes out. Your host has waited for just the right time to share this, and you are among those chosen to partake in it. This sounds so like Immanuel, doesn’t it? God, the most gracious and loving Host of all, wants everything that is good and sumptuous for us, provided we have eyes to see it all.

These six parables have something in common. They are examples of everyday life. That is probably why Matthew grouped them together in the gospel, and why the lectionary folk gave them all to us this on one day. They are ways we tap into God and ways that God can tap into us. Jesus doesn’t explain the Kingdom of God like an episode of Lives of the Rich and Famous. Instead our Lord uses ordinary things, the common, the normal, the stuff that is right around us and within our grasp. “The kingdom of God is near.” It is all around us. It is the peephole we look through from our home. It also is active. It is in our midst right here and right now. We often look for God in the extraordinary that sometimes we forget we see God working in the most ordinary. And that is how we can counter the horrific images we face locally, nationally, internationally in our news. God works here, now. God works in every imaginable way possible and also in ways we cannot understand. Stuff happens. But God is still in it. All of it. The Kingdom of God that Jesus told us about is here, now, then, there, and in the future …Whatever we can see, whatever we can do, whatever we can understand, can be part of the kingdom. As St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus shares everyday images revealing the reign of God and the kingdom of heaven: tiny seeds grow into a sheltering home; yeast or leaven penetrates to expand; a treasured pearl; a net gaining a great catch. Even as we seek the riches of God in the kingdom of heaven, as we struggle to find the simplest example of God’s presence in our lives, you might pay attention to the fact that The. Greatest. Surprize. Of. All is that no matter how hard we try to find the Kingdom of God, when we recognize it, we see that God’s grace found us first!

In name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.