There has been a lot of talk about borders lately, where they fall, how to patrol them. It goes beyond the growing crisis of undocumented migrants that are being housed at the border of our own country and the discussions about how that border should be policed. Ukraine and Russia are apparently in conflict over their borders, too. It’s not really clear where their dividing line is, but the shooting down of a passenger airliner suggest that even the boundaries of air space are, tragically, a little murky, too. Then there’s Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, an issue involving borders and walls and checkpoints and bombings so complicated and convoluted most people wonder if it will never get straightened out.
The list goes on of those in territorial dispute: Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan…good grief, the issue of boundaries is even pressing down upon this congregation! In a week, we will have a vote concerning the first possible expansion of our congregation’s borders in its history. Council is well aware that this proposal has raised some questions among some of you, which is good. Although they’re ready to present information and allay fears at next week’s meeting, they’re hoping things don’t get quite as contentious as some of the some of these other current events!
When you think about it seems that almost all of the world’s present-day hotspots are in some way a dispute over boundaries and borders, conflict over where one kingdom’s or domain’s authority ends and another’s begins. We like boundaries and borders, even if they often end up being the root of so much bloodshed and friction. Borders are reliable; they give clarity. They let us know who is in and who is out, in which places whose authority can be exercised and counted on.
Jesus may not be able to offer much wisdom about any of our boundary disputes, be they in Ukraine and Russia even our own backyard. He may not be able to give any direct advice regarding of the countries and empires and kingdoms of the world. But Jesus can talk an awful lot about the kingdom of heaven, and based on the vivid but confusing images and analogies that arise out of his teachings today, one thing seems certain: that kingdom of heaven—whatever it is—doesn’t appear to have any boundaries. And if it does have clear boundaries—lines that determine who is in and who is out—they are certainly hard to pin down and they sound like they’re ever-expanding. Yeast in a loaf of bread does that. A mustard seed grows and spreads its branches. A net expands and pulls in all kinds of things once it hits the water. Incidentally, the same can be said of a Vacation Bible School song. It starts out on Monday, so simple, but it has no boundaries, and by the end of the week it has taken over your brain. No, the kingdom of heaven sounds like anything but a typical worldly kingdom, and the comparisons Jesus uses throughout the New Testament to describe it and illustrate it are hard to get a handle on.
To further complicate matters, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t even sound like something that we pass into after we’ve crossed that final frontier, death. Truthfully, I think this what most of us think of when we hear the words “kingdom of heaven,” but when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he’s clearly not talking about the afterlife. He’s talking about something that happens right now, even in our midst. In fact, the kingdom of heaven is what Jesus first talks about in the gospels. As he walks among the towns of Galilee, he proclaims, over and over again, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He speaks about the kingdom in ways that suggest it is not just something we are waiting for once we die. The kingdom is also now. And because it is now upon us, a response is requested of us. Would we like to live in this kingdom? Would we like to be a part of it?
Anyone, however, who is expecting to be able to locate this kingdom on a map is going to be extremely disappointed (and frustrated), which is why even saying things like “in” God’s kingdom can be problematic. The kingdom of heaven is more like a happening, an occurrence. It is less about place and more about an event. It has less to do with physical geography and more to do with allegiance. The kingdom of heaven has less to do with where my feet are planted and more to do with where my heart is pointed. We come to learn as we watch Jesus and listen to his words that the kingdom of heaven occurs wherever God’s authority in Christ is recognized and acknowledged.
That means right now can be an occurrence of the kingdom of heaven! The Spirit has gathered us as the church on this day of resurrection and we are joining together in praise and worship to God through Christ. In Matthew’s gospel, especially, the church—along with its sacraments—is understood to be that community where the kingdom of heaven continues to break into in the world. Although there are plenty of times when the church falls short of acknowledging God’s love and embodying it for all people, we still understand that it is through the church and its ministry that the word of God is proclaimed for the sake of the world. The kingdom of heaven, then, is wherever the love of Christ is embodied, even if it’s not immediately noticeable. This almost always happens by stealth, often by surprise, and without any real effort on our part. The kingdom is something that happens to us and then invites us to be a part of it as it continues. If it has borders, it enlists us to help expand them.
But see, all that explanation is very sermony, dry and, quite honestly, boring. So as Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he uses metaphors and images to try and say the same thing. When Jesus says the kingdom is like a mustard seed, we understand that that the kingdom may start small in us but grow substantially and provide goodness and grace for many around us. When Jesus says that the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value, we come to understand that the kingdom is something to be treasured above all else.
Yet the comparison goes beyond that: the kingdom is often hidden, its value not immediately aware to the rest of the world. Those who have responded to it, however, by following Jesus and loving him know what meaning it gives to life and believe it is so precious it can’t be traded for anything in this world. Has that ever described your relationship with the Lord?
Let me give you a real-life example of a surprise occurrence of God’s kingdom that happened at my colleague’s congregation in Florida this week. Fourth-grader Antwan was attending the Vacation Bible School day camp run by my friend’s parish. The day camp was open to any kid who wanted to attend, not just members of that congregation. Antwan was one of the kids who came from a nearby Christian Methodist Episcopal church. The camp counselors who helped run the day camp had brought with them their traveling camp store where day-campers could purchase little souvenirs of the week.
Last year, Antwan had seen a cross necklace in that box that he wanted. However, it was $10, and Antwan didn’t have $10. This year, Antwan showed up with a backpack full of pennies in little Ziploc bags. He said he spent all year finding pennies and saving them because he knew he was coming back to camp and wanted that cross. My friend said Antwan waited patiently as the counselors counted out 1000 pennies. He then picked out his cross and proudly put it around his neck, and then dumped all the leftover change he had into the offering bucket for the ELCA Malaria campaign.
Again, Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like Antwan with a backpack full of pennies. God’s authority recognized and treasured, whenever and wherever. I don’t know where or how you will experience the kingdom of heaven this week, but my bet is that it will take you by surprise, or that it will take you by stealth. No matter what, you can know that on the cross, it has taken you for good. That is ultimately where Jesus goes to make sure God’s gracious authority is established, pushing the moving borders of God’s reign right into the darkest valley. So many things will try to separate God’s people from God’s kingdom—hardship, distress, persecution, peril…and death. But they won’t succeed. Even our feelings of being separated cannot separate us, because God’s Son felt separated on the cross, and yet God was still there. The kingdom still broke in.
Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about borders recently, where they fall, how to patrol them. One day, it is hoped, all people will imitate Antwan and acknowledge the surpassing value of that cross. They’ll gather up all the scattered pennies of their lives, realizing that God’s blessed kingdom has come near to them, too.
One day, for certain, all God’s children will come realize, either through their joy or through God’s fire that, because of Jesus, they reside in a kingdom whose borders are constantly pushing outward, sheltering more people….leavening life…pushing ever further…the good and the bad…pushing…Ha-lalalalalaleluya…right into eternity, forevermore.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.