July 26, 2020, Snapshots of the Kingdom, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000208
The parables we read today are a little different from the parables we’ve been reading the last couple of weeks. Instead of stories, they’re more like a series of brief, disconnected snapshots of the Kingdom. On the surface, they seem pretty random. We begin with our familiar theme of planting a seed, but then we have a woman mixing bread dough, and then some buried treasure, and then a merchant who kind of wins the lottery, and last but not least, we have fishermen, putting down their net for a catch.
When he finishes with his mini-parables, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you understand this?” If you remember, after both of the other parables, of the sower, and of the weeds, the disciples took Jesus aside and asked him to explain the parable to them. And each time, he very patiently explained to them the meaning of the parable. So, this time, after this collection of short parables, he turns to them before they ask him for an explanation. And they tell him, yes, they do, but it makes me wonder if they really understood, or whether they were afraid or embarrassed to ask him to explain a third time.
And I might have done exactly the same thing. But even if the disciples had it all figured out, I think we have to look closely at these parables to look for ideas and connections and themes that help us understand what Jesus is teaching us here. Just to begin with, on the most basic level, we need to know what Jesus means when he says “The Kingdom of Heaven”. And what he doesn’t mean. If we want to understand parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, we had better know what the Kingdom of Heaven is. The popular concept of “heaven”, what I think probably most people think of when they hear the word heaven, is that heaven is a spiritual place or realm, completely separate from this solid, natural world we know, where God lives with his angels, and where we hope to go when we die, at least the spirit or soul part of us. If we’re good enough. I think that is a very common way that people imagine heaven, even if we’ve never really thought about it too much.
And that image of Heaven affects us in so many ways. For one thing, if that’s what Heaven actually is, then God is somehow located at a distance from us. If that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is, then our physical everyday life of paychecks and grocery stores and gas stations and televisions and plumbing problems doesn’t really have very much to do with God’s Kingdom of perfection and holiness and all that stuff. Not only that, but if that’s really what Heaven is then when we pray there is an immense gap that our prayers have to bridge; there’s a huge distance between our mouth and God’s ears, as it were. And sometimes we do feel like that, sometimes God can feel very distant. It reminds me of something I remember about my father, whenever he talked to someone on the phone long distance, he always talked very, very loud, as if he had to make that extra effort to get his voice all the way to Idaho or California or wherever. I think sometimes we feel like that when we pray. Sometimes we feel like we have to pray hard enough to get our prayer all the way from our world to that far-away place where God lives.
But that’s not at all what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. As a Jewish teacher, what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, was the power and authority of God, the reign of God – not in some hazy, spiritual, faraway realm, but right here and right now. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is what we are praying for when we pray the prayer Jesus taught us and say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s why, when Jesus was explaining the parable of the wheat and the weeds, he told them, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world.” That’s why, when the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom was going to come, he told them, “The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something you can point to, saying “here it is” or “there it is”. The Kingdom of Heaven is right here, in your midst.” The message Jesus taught was not the good news of going to heaven when we die; it was the good news of heaven breaking into the present reality of this world.
So, Jesus wasn’t talking about “pie in the sky by and by.” He was talking about God taking charge of our neighborhood today. That’s what these little snapshots are showing us. To get the picture, as it were, we can follow the common threads between them. And one thread that runs through all these little stories is work. A gardener has to plant the mustard seed in the garden, before it begins to grow. A housewife has to take her leaven and knead it into her dough before the bread will rise. A man has to dig to find the treasure, and again to hide it away in a safe place. A merchant has to be busy about his business before he comes upon the pearl of surpassing value. And of course the disciples would have known all about the work of fishermen, who have to go out in their boats and cast their nets if they hope to pull in a catch.
One thing we begin to see, then, is that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something that falls into our laps without our lifting a finger. It’s not something that comes crashing down upon us like a conquering army. The reign of God is a present and an increasing reality, but we are invited to bring it into being. And how exciting is that? Instead of being drones, dutifully following rules and fulfilling obligations so we won’t get in trouble, which is so often what people think it means to serve God, we are the King’s co-workers. Our hands are instruments of the Kingdom, sometimes metaphorically, but sometimes quite literally: planting, healing, serving, comforting, repairing, creating, blessing.
Another thread we see running through some of these parables is the idea of growing. The mustard seed, Jesus says, is so very tiny, but it grows up into a tree, so that all the birds of the air can come and rest in its branches. The woman mixes just a little of the leaven into her dough, and then it rises into big loaves of bread. This is literally true. I remember making a really big batch of dough some years ago. I left the dough to rise and when I came back it had overflowed the bowl and almost gone over the edge of the table. Yeast is a powerful force!
The reign of God might start small, maybe just one small act of kindness, maybe just one heart softened, one mind changed, one risk taken. But it grows. Like the tiny mustard seed, like the little bit of leavening, the reign of God reaches out and up. It grows – which is why Paul calls the Church “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” So often when we think of serving God, we feel like our service is not the big stuff. Missionaries who go to Africa, that’s serving God in a big way. Faith healers like Nigel Mumford, that’s serving God in a big way. But these parables tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven grows from small seeds. Nothing we do is too small, if we do it for love of God. Sending someone a card or mowing someone’s lawn or making a phone call – these are great works in the Kingdom of Heaven that grows.
On the other hand, there is nothing that is too big for God, either, if we make even the smallest step towards it. I think we are sometimes overwhelmed by something we know God wants us to do, because it seems too big, too hard, too scary. One of the most monumental tasks of all can be the act of forgiveness. There are times we have been so wounded and we are still hurting so much, that forgiveness is beyond our imagining. We might think we have forgiven and forgotten, only to have it all come flooding back on us again. Then we need to remember that the Kingdom of Heaven grows by the tiniest of seeds. Maybe today all you can do is speak the person’s name in the presence of God, no more than that. That’s the seed. But you can be sure that that act will grow and bear fruit in the fullness of time. That’s how the Kingdom of Heaven works.
There is always more to be learned from the reading than I can possibly talk about in one short sermon, or even a long sermon, but there is one other thread I want to bring out from this little set of snapshots, that is possibly the most important of all, and that is the whole theme of treasure. A man is digging in a field and he finds something so precious and so rare and beautiful that he goes and sells everything he owns just so he can have that field. A merchant who deals in beautiful pearls finds one that is so far beyond every other pearl that he sells everything he owns to possess that one.
The Kingdom of Heaven does begin with the smallest of seeds, and we are invited to be God’s co-workers in advancing his reign in the world. But to belong to the Kingdom of Heaven, no matter how small its beginning, is treasure of infinite worth. In Psalm 73, the psalmist sings, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” And Paul writes, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
There are an awful lot of things out there in the world that claim to be valuable. Just for starters, think of everything you have an insurance policy for – your car, your home, maybe other possessions with a high monetary value. Think of everything you have saved up over the years to cover your needs for a comfortable retirement. Think of anything you keep locked up in a safe or a vault. Think of intangible things, accomplishments you have gained with years of your time and effort and maybe a significant outlay of money: a degree, a title, a reputation. Think of things you treasure that have no real financial value, but great sentimental value: something that belonged to your grandfather, something your mother made for you when you were little.
There are many things in this world of great value. But compared to the power and the loving presence of God among us, every other treasure is nothing but rubbish, as Paul says. And that, I think, is something that needs to grow in us. It is one of the things we sometimes get better at as we grow older. We hopefully begin to place God’s priorities over the priorities of this world as we see how insubstantial and fleeting all the treasures of the world are. But very few of us have come to the point of counting everything else as rubbish compared to the surpassing goodness of our Lord. Most of us, maybe all of us, are still much more like the young man who came to Jesus and went away sad because he wasn’t willing to sell everything he had and follow him. Most of us are not there yet, either. And that’s okay. Because the reign of God starts small and grows. We can begin with a first step, just a tiny seed, just a dollop of leaven, and then we will see the Kingdom of Heaven grow in our lives.