Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A] - July 24, 2011 (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

As I was sitting in a hospital waiting room not too long ago, I picked up a local area magazine and began flipping through it, looking for something to read. The last couple of pages contained some paragraphs that some kids in an area third-grade class had written as a school project. The topic of the mini-essays was “The Most Beautiful Place I Have Been,” and the children’s entries covered locations as diverse as one could imagine in the third grade: you know…Disney World, Canada, Michigan. One kid wrote about home.

What became especially apparent as I read these aloud to Melinda later was that the third grade class had evidently used this writing exercise to practice their use of similes, a comparison—you may remember from grade school—that uses the words “like” or “as.” Almost every sentence contained a comparison, and some of them were a little humorous. One child described his most beautiful place, the beach, by saying that the ocean was a blue as a bluebird. He then followed that by saying that the sun was as yellow as a…yellow bird, and the sunset was as red as a…red bird. In another essay, a boy said that the sun in his favorite spot was as bright as…the sun beaming off the window of a car. The funniest comparison, in my opinion, was one girl’s description that the snow in Canada (the most beautiful place she’d ever been) was as white as…a white crayon.

Overall, I was impressed with their writing. After all, the world of the average third-grader might not provide the widest frame of reference for comparing things. It was clear, however, they had reached deep within their 8 or 9 years of life experience to find ways to describe something they’d seen.

When we hear Jesus’ similes for describing the kingdom of heaven, we may scratch our heads with confusion, yet he is clearly reaching within the experience of the average middle-eastern farmer or homemaker for material. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed…or a lump of yeast that a woman uses to make bread…or buried treasure…or a fishnet. Like a box of crayons for a third-grader, these are images and scenarios that would have meant something to the disciples and other ordinary folks who had gathered to listen to Jesus. As we listen in from the perspective of the twenty-first century, we might get the feeling that something has been lost in translation. After all, how many of us have gone fishing with a net? Or work with yeast and dough on a regular basis? Or breed mustard plants?

Yet, the greater issue with our unfamiliarity with Jesus’ comparisons is not that we don’t understand his similes. It’s that he’s trying to describe something that doesn’t really have a location. The kingdom of heaven is not your average kingdom. It doesn’t really have boundaries, in the proper sense. It doesn’t have regular citizens, or subjects. Unlike other kingdoms, it has no capital city or standing army or coat of arms. In other words, describing the kingdom of heaven is not like describing the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, especially since no one can—in the regular sense—even really see the kingdom of heaven at all. The kingdom of heaven is difficult to describe and even more difficult to locate.

One thing that is clear, however, from this assortment of parables is that Jesus is not attempting to describe the place people go after they die. That’s what most of probably associate with the words “kingdom of heaven.” We are taught in this day and age—sometimes through the church but mostly through unbiblical concepts in television and popular books—that the kingdom of heaven is a place where souls go after they leave this life. In fact, it may surprise us, but Jesus is almost completely silent when it comes to describing what happens after we die. When we look closely at the words and actions of Jesus, we see that Jesus is very concerned with the here and now—with what is happening on earth currently—which might also be one reason why he uses in his teaching such common, earthy examples for the kingdom of heaven. If we insist on holding onto those other perceptions of heaven when we listen to Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven, we are most likely going to be very confused. Instead we must, as Jesus says, sort out our old perceptions and ideas and take up the ones that correspond to better teaching.

Based, then, on the example of the mustard seed, which has an inauspicious beginning but grows surprisingly aggressively to be mighty and strong, we learn that the kingdom of heaven cannot be judged on its size or strength at its outset. It can start out as something insignificant, powerless, but when left to take its course, it has surprising results.

The same type of thing may be said, too, of the yeast. In Jesus’ time, people did not bake bread with packets of active dry yeast. They kept on hand a lump of leaven which contained living yeast in it, along with the food that the yeast needed to live. It was a smelly, sticky, ugly chunk of slime. When time came to make bread, a little portion of this slimeball was added to larger amounts of flour and kneaded together so that the two became inseparable and indistinguishable from each other. Furthermore, it would multiply to make a huge amount of bread, much larger than just the leaven and the flour together. Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ measurements in this parable—three measures of flour mixed with leaven—would have made enough bread to feed more than three hundred people. Again, we see that the kingdom of heaven that Jesus comes to bring is that which adds substance and nourishment to the world. We must remember that that first-century folk would have known nothing about microorganisms and microscopic fungus. Leaven was just something kept on hand to make bread. It may look simple and ugly and inconsequential when it starts out, but it is that which brings life and vitality to creation. It rises mysteriously and forms something marvelous.

We can pray, too, that God’s kingdom will be born in and among us through things that are mysterious and inconsequential, but that it will grow and rise and produce something capable of making a huge difference. In fact, most of Jesus’ comparisons here relate the kingdom of heaven to something small and solitary that has the ability to become something greater. Even the hidden treasure starts rather inconspicuously but by the end—and in the eyes of the right person—has somehow increased the value of a whole piece of land. And in this vein I would like to add a modern simile of my own here: the kingdom of heaven is like Vacation Bible School craft projects. What begins on Monday with a single popsicle-stick creation becomes a whole exhibit of crayon-etched papers and cotton-ball-glued sock puppets that take up every flat surface of the house. God’s kingdom come, indeed…all over my kitchen table!

But whether it is the mustard seed, or the bread leaven or the pearl of great price or the fishnet that gathers everything in its grasp, Jesus’ parables about the kingdom teach us that the kingdom is an occurrence or a happening more than it is a place or location. In fact, the word “kingdom” may actually do us a disservice in understanding what Jesus is talking about here because we’re so prone to think of a kingdom as a place. But in the original Greek, the word we translate as kingdom is actually more related to an action, like the English words “reign” or “dominion.” But even that falls short. From all of this, we may begin to understand that the kingdom of heaven is any occasion when God’s authority is made known and acknowledged. It may happen any time or anywhere, and we pray in the Lord’s Prayer—no matter which version we use—that it come to us every day.

Whenever or wherever this world’s usual cycle of decay and despair and brokenness are interrupted by God’s grace and life, there and then is the kingdom of heaven. Whenever or wherever creation’s current monotony or sorrow and greed give way to occasions of generosity and self-sacrifice, there and then is the kingdom of heaven. Whenever or wherever this earth’s ordinary systems of so-called justice and so-called peace are kneaded together with the leaven of Jesus’ forgiveness and humility, then—voila!—there and then is the kingdom of heaven!

Need a modern-day example of the kingdom of heaven? A parishioner here at Epiphany recently responded on somewhat of a whim to a small and inconspicuous magazine advertisement that sought to know how the church is serving its often neglected senior citizens. Before she knew it, this parishioner was lead into a deeper conversation with a seminary professor about how Epiphany’s Leisure Time program could be an example for other congregations. There is the kingdom of God.

When members of a youth group kindly request that this year’s mission trip to South Carolina entail more time on the job site adding handicap ramps to low-income homes and less free-time on the beach, defying the conventional stereotypes we hear about today’s youth…there and then is the kingdom of God.

This week at Vacation Bible School the children watched how one small act of bringing in a canned food donation can leaven the ministry of an entire non-profit organization, and, subsequently, how a small, non-profit organization like the LAMB’S Basket or our H.H.O.P.E. pantry can leaven a whole community.

Hey you!  Crazed Norway murderer, with your guns and bombs, worried about the rise of Islam.  We're going to hand out quilts and scarves to people of all faiths...and teach our children to love in spite of you...because it's the kingdom that's on the rise!

Jesus’ parables may seem esoteric and confusing, but we don’t really need to think too hard to know what the kingdom of heaven is like. We know it from our own faith experience. A small splash of water makes us reborn. An inconspicuous chunk of bread and a sip of wine swell within our hearts and empower us to forgive and serve others. Love and compassion grow, and we know not how. And in the middle of it all stands that cross, a promise that God’s kingdom can take root anywhere. This kingdom has grabbed us again in its embrace and we are sent out to provide more of it to the world. As if we were a farmer, foolishly selling everything we own to gain treasure hidden in a field, in joy we learn to value Jesus’ reign more than any other kingdom that is out there. We trade selfish desires for our futures and our livelihoods for the one true future and one true livelihood that is eternal: following Jesus and learning to seek his kingdom.

And we look forward to that day when all other kingdoms will finally give in and give way to Christ’s reign. We look forward to the time when we will be reunited with all those who have striven for the kingdom before we have. We lean into the future, praying that this kingdom becomes the only kingdom we know, hoping for that time when these “kingdom happenings” we so savor now will be all that is happening, and we will, at long last, be in the most beautiful place we've ever seen!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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