Monday, July 28, 2014

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...," Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Sermon 7/27/14
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Kingdom is Like…

            If I was to ask you what the “Good News” of the Bible was, I might get a variety of responses, but I think a common one, perhaps the most common response, might be this: The good news is that Jesus Christ died for our sins to save us and give us eternal life. There’s certainly scriptural support for that. And our United Methodist heritage echoes that – in our official communion liturgy, for example, the celebrants says, “Hear the good news. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And indeed, that is good news.
            The interesting thing, though, is that Jesus talked about good news himself. And when he talked about good news, he wasn’t talking about the fact he would die for our sins. Of course, that hadn’t happened yet, for one. And also, Jesus usually only talked about his imminent death with the twelve, his closest disciples. But he did talk about “good news” with the crowds. So, what did Jesus mean by good news?
            When Jesus spoke of good news, his good news was that the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, used in the same way in the gospels – the kingdom of God was “at hand.” “At hand” is a phrase that means both “arrived” and “arriving,” both “near” and “just here.” So for Jesus, the good news that he wanted to share was that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, was at hand – both near and here. Our next questions, then, are: what does that mean exactly – that God’s kingdom is near or here? And why is that good news exactly?
            Remember a couple of weeks ago, on my first Sunday, when I told you about my favorite Bible passage? I told you it was John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. I told you that one of the reasons I loved this passage so much was that as a teenager, and still as an adult, but especially when I first noticed it as a teenager, the idea that what Jesus wants for us, what God wants for us is abundant, full, overflowing with joy lives was so appealing to me. Sure, God wants us to follow commandments – but they’re all centered around the joyful act of love – loving God and loving one another. God wants us to experience abundant life! Well, that’s a little bit, for me, of a way to glimpse what Jesus means by the kingdom of God being here, or near already. I think Jesus really, really wanted people to know that to experience the fullness and joyfulness of life and love and wholeness wasn’t something for later, wasn’t something for only a few, the wealthy and powerful, the healthy, the learned, the scholarly, the religious elite. No, God’s promises of joy and love and abundant life were for all and for now! Because the kingdom is here and ready for us to reach and touch and draw in and pour out and share! When Jesus taught and healed and preached, he was speaking to Israelites who lived under foreign occupation. They lived under the control of the Roman Empire. Conditions were harsh. People were oppressed and facing injustice all around. And yet, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven was theirs – already!
            And that’s good news, isn’t it! Because even if we’re looking eagerly forward to however we understand heaven and eternal life someday, hopefully after good long lives here – I think Jesus knew that the promises of something that you can’t actually have any time in the near future could only be so appealing. Think of telling a 13 year old about how much they’ll love driving – in 3 years! That’s an eternity. An older sibling telling a younger sibling that they can come along for the fun event – when they’re older. Telling a hungry person who has no food that they’ll get enough money to feed themselves – in four weeks. Sure – all that stuff coming later is great. But what about now? Eternity someday. But what about now?
            And so the good news that Jesus tells us is this: If we want to be workers following our master Jesus, his students, helping with kingdom-work, then we don’t have to wait. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven – it’s already right here! And in this kingdom things are flipped upside down from the oppressive culture that says might is right, that says money and possessions and status are everything, that says if you’re poor and uneducated you’re nothing, that says if you don’t have the ideal body shape or skin color or lifestyle or birthplace you’re nothing. This kingdom flips that all upside down and inside out and says the last shall be first and the first shall be last and the humbled shall be exalted and the exalted shall be humbled and it is very good news indeed.
            All this finally gets us to our text for the day at last. Like last week, we’ve heard again some parables of Jesus. Several short parables right in a row. I listened to a commentary about this passage, and the speaker aptly said that it is as if either Jesus, or the gospel-writer Matthew, felt like they were running out of time and so frantically started listing kingdom parables as quickly as possible. “The kingdom is like, the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like.”  
These parables though, seem almost unrelated. The imagery is so different, and the point of each parable seems so different. The kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows into a bush large enough for birds to nest in. Of course, that’s not actually true – they don’t grow that large – but as I mentioned last Sunday, Jesus puts details into his parables that make ears perk up. So Jesus is telling them that in the kingdom, what you think is a little faith – when you actually put it into action – can go much, much farther than you’d imagine. The parable of the yeast is the same – a little bit of yeast wouldn’t go quite so far – but the kingdom is pervasive. God’s goodness will fill up every nook and cranny and multiply faster than you can imagine. The kingdom is like someone seeking and seeking and seeking until they find that precious pearl – and they sell everything else to have it. Who does that, really? But the kingdom is so valuable, so worth our lives – Jesus wants our everything. And the kingdom casts a much wider net than you think it does. Everyone is drawn in, invited, included. If there’s sorting to do, it’s God’s task, later. And the kingdom is meant to be shared. We who know it, get it, like the disciples say they do – although their one word “yes” makes me think they think that’s what they’re supposed to say – but we who start to get or at least glimpse the kingdom that’s near and here – we’re meant to share it – bringing our treasure out to be seen, not hidden, locked away, buried. What is the kingdom of heaven like then? Well, not like any one thing. No one definition will suffice. Because the kingdom is God’s life and love and dream for us and hope and faith in us and invitation to us, and home for us, and more, all at once.
And Jesus will keep telling us about it until we realize that. The kingdom is like the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like. Because the most important things in our world don’t usually have just one answer, but many. If you child or spouse or dear one asked why you loved them, you’d probably have not just one answer, one reason, but 1000. Because our love would be too big to be contained by one response. And so it is with God’s realm, God’s kingdom. Too much to be contained by one small definition.
            This week on Facebook, I encouraged people to respond to my fill-in-the-blank sentence. “The kingdom of God/the kingdom of heaven is like ______________.” Here’s some of the responses I got. The kingdom of God/the kingdom of heaven is:
Like being embraced with love.
Like love that cannot be contained, joy that banishes trouble, and peace beyond reasoning
Like Purest love
Like the playground
Like a wish/dream come true
Like perfect peace
Like the Unity of God's People truly celebrating our imperfections and realizing we are an interwoven tapestry of God's perfection.
Like our backyard on a summer day
Like the best of a Volunteers in Mission journey
Like being welcomed into a family on a mission trip, like knowing you are loved and cared for immediately and everyone crying when you have to leave but knowing you will be loved forever.
Like how complicated and complex relationships feel reconciled. Where I can live generously without fear of exploitation. When the search for meaning has culminated. It's laughter where the refugees live.
Healing, beauty, rest, music, poetry, storytelling, feasting, fun, wisdom, and love.
Where Eternity begins. What we do with that is what makes it heaven or hell.
Like the time/space/place where wholeness and holiness are real for all people.
Like a box of chocolates
Like wonderland!
Like love.
Like a series of colorful threads, humming and vibrating as the Source of all being connected together...
Like Gandhi's satyagraha, and MLK's beloved community, full of people who have dared to be vulnerable, facing a perceived enemy with openness and love.
Like a song we can all sing--and a perfect meal with plenty to go around.
            I love the variety of responses, the imagination, the creativity, the ways the images speak to the individuals. And that’s what I want to hear from you too. So I’m giving you a homework assignment this week. I should warn you, I like to give homework. You’ll find an insert in your bulletin with this same fill-in-the-blank prompt. And I’m hoping you – maybe not right this second – but before next Sunday – I’m hoping you’ll think about your vision of the kingdom of God. How do you describe the good news that God’s promises are for us now? How do you put into words that God’s love for us is immeasurable and we don’t have to wait a second longer to experience it in all fullness? How will you let someone know the good news about what the kingdom is like? What would you say? You tell me. What is the kingdom of heaven like?
            The kingdom is like, the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like….


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