The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 27, 2014
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 13; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Before I launch into a look at today’s gospel, I’d like to reflect on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Over the last few weeks we have seen St. Michael’s at it’s finest. A little over two weeks ago, the day after one of our great parish barbeques, we all reeled at the sudden death of our fellow parishioner Jean, and this community gathered to mourn and to take care of the Chambers family. Then, about a week ago, many members of the St. Michael’s community came to a street corner vigil for Jean, calling on our civic leaders to make the streets safer. And the night after that, a bunch of us went to a Staten Island Yankees game together.
In this short time span, we did what a strong community should do: We fed one another; we cared for one another; we spoke out for a better world; and we played together. We demonstrated that we know what it means to be God’s church, and not only that we know, but that we do it spectacularly.
What a gift we will be to our next rector, who I feel certain will also be a gift to each of us! As we get ready to welcome her or him to lead us into the next chapter of St. Michael’s life, I am confident that there are great things in our future! Thanks be to God for this church community, and for each of you.
Five times in today’s gospel reading Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” When we add to that his statement about the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven we get six short parables crammed into twelve verses, all so clipped as to be almost in code. It’s clear that there are lots of allusions here I know I should get, but somehow they don’t quite connect with my 21st century, urban ears.
Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, took the words right of my mouth. She says,
I worry that with so many parables told in a row, we tend to want to find their consistency, some shared theme, a nugget of truth, [that we want to] connect the dots [to] the primary point that they are all trying to make about the kingdom of heaven. But then to what extent do we end up smoothing out their specificity, ignoring the details that themselves are worth preaching? Or, maybe when there’s parable after parable I tend to lose my bearing. Which one is it, Jesus? I have to admit, I am a little jealous, or maybe suspicious, of the disciples’ certainty [at the end of the passage.] Really, they understand “all of this”? Way to go, disciples! I sure don’t.[i]
Still, even though these parables are tricky, it is clear that working to understand what Jesus means by “the kingdom of heaven” is the task of the day. We could certainly spend several sermon’s worth of time unpacking each one—talking about the cultural and Biblical context, the other references to the same objects (that is, mustard seeds and bushes, yeast, hidden treasures, pearls of great price), as well as sampling various theologian’s interpretations of these particulars. But I find myself drawn to a somewhat different focus. I am more interested in thinking about why it is so important to Jesus, and the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, for us to understand the nature of this kingdom. What are the fruits of the struggle to grasp this concept?
Incidentally, this term, kingdom of heaven, is unique to Matthew. Mark and Luke use the term kingdom of God. A little study of that difference only highlights that it is relatively unimportant. Scholars suggest that Matthew uses heaven instead of God, “because the background of his Jewish audience imposed restrictions on the frequent use of the name of God.”[ii]
And in fact it may confuse us a bit to use the term kingdom of heaven. When I hear heaven, I find myself wanting to jump to end times, to judgment, and to life after death. But I think that Jesus is talking about something different—or, at the least, he is talking about the afterlife AND about our life here on earth.
And this confusion about the kingdom is not ours alone. One scholar points out that, “while the concept of ‘Kingdom of God’ has an intuitive meaning to lay Christians, there is hardly any agreement among scholars about its meaning in the New Testament. Some scholars see it as a Christian lifestyle, some as a method of world evangelization, some as the rediscovery of charismatic gifts, others relate it to no present or future situation, but the world to come.”[iii]
So, what is the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God? These six parables, all focused in different ways on the kingdom, have a few themes: the first four are parables of surprise—about small or hidden things; the fifth is about sorting and final judgment; and the last is about Matthew’s understanding of his own work. To make our task a little more manageable, let’s focus on those first four parables.
Some scholars further divide these first four parables into two subsets: the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast are, “about the surprising presence, even invasiveness, of God’s reality and reign, while the second set [the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price] leans more in the direction of the extreme surprise and delight we experience when we discover, even stumble upon, the peace and joy of the kingdom.”[iv]
So the kingdom of heaven may first be characterized as something unexpected—like a seed, so small that we may not at first even realize it’s there, but that can become something vastly larger; or like leavening that can bloom and make ordinary flour into something altogether different.
Okay, so let’s put “surprising” on the list of the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven. What else can we take from these first two parables?
Well, they are not about regal things—the subjects are quite ordinary. As one commentator said, “the stories Jesus tells of his kingdom and of that heaven are down to earth, literally.”[v] That is, these stories are purposefully not about things out of reach to the ordinary people Jesus is speaking to; they are about the things of their everyday life. Embracing the focus of his life on earth, Jesus reminds use here that our everyday world embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is incarnational—it is something of this world, of our lives. So add incarnational to that list.
The next two parables point to the great value of the kingdom of heaven. Like a treasure found in a field, or the most beautiful pearl imaginable, the kingdom of heaven is priceless. And once we really understand that, we will gladly make it our life’s focus. So let’s add this characteristic to our list.
The adjectives that we have now gathered to describe the kingdom of heaven are surprising; incarnational; and priceless. The other term I’d like to add to the list, inspired by Jesus’ unusual and somewhat confusing presentation of these parables, is mysterious.
What other information can we find to help us understand the kingdom and Christ’s laser-like focus on it?
The Apostle Paul defined the Kingdom of God in the fourteenth chapter of his letter to the church in Rome. He said, “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” [Romans 14:17, NIV] He is referring here to the tension in the early church between those who painstakingly followed religious dietary laws and those who believed that the new covenant of Christ abolished those laws. For the purpose of our search today, I think we can take away from this passage that the kingdom of God is not about laws, about who’s in and who’s out, but rather is about living a life cradled in the grace of God. And that life will inevitably be filled with very real surprising, mysterious, and priceless moments.
We cannot know what life will bring us next. Just as world affairs in this last month have been painful and perplexing, and as tragedies in our church family have left us numb and grieving, we can be sure that there will be more hard times ahead of us. But a focus on the kingdom of heaven—an assurance that God is present with us, and will invade our lives in surprising and unfathomable ways—is our balm for such moments.
And so it is our job to continually seek the kingdom of heaven—to work to create God’s heaven right here in our messy world. We must always seek to incarnate the love of God in the world for the world. We are called to help create the world we long to live in. That means living a life that expects the mystery of God’s love for all of us, even when we don’t deserve it. It means recognizing that everything and everyone that God has created is priceless, and must be cared for as we care for our own selves. And sometimes it means not only being willing to be surprised, but being the surprise itself—being the unexpected spark to create something completely new and important.
How can we do all this? How can we help create the kingdom of heaven right here? Well, first we must believe that each of us is an integral part of that kingdom—that we are precious in God’s eyes and that God longs for us to be co-creators. And I think it also means really believing in the possibility of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. That’s a large part of our job in the church: Helping each other hold on to the vision of God’s kingdom. We do that in worship, particularly in coming over and over again to the table to remember the love of God manifest for each of us in Jesus Christ. And we also do it by modeling for each other both faith and action. By feeding one another; by grieving and rejoicing together; and by expecting each other to work as part of the change God desires.
So let us continue to work together toward the incarnation of God’s kingdom here on earth. And as we do so, let us cling to the words of assurance offered by Paul in today’s Epistle lesson:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor 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 8:37-39] Amen.
[i] Lewis, Karoline. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3291, accessed 7/22/2014.
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingship_and_kingdom_of_God, accessed 7/24/3014.
[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingship_and_kingdom_of_God, accessed 7/24/3014.
[iv] Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2014/07/pentecost-7a-parables-that-do-things/, accessed 7/22/2014.
[v] Arnold, Talitha J. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 284. (I am indebted to Rev. Arnold for most of the explication of these four parables.)