This summer at West Concord Union Church, we’ve been exploring the theme, God in Unexpected Places. We’re in an Exodus time, a time away from our church building as it is renovated. I know those of you from TriCon have recently had an exodus experience as well, during the construction of your beautiful new organ, so you know what it’s like. As you may have heard, during our Exodus, we have created a kind of tent of meeting to take with us, to worship under, at Concord Children’s Center and here. And since we are already on the road, away from our spiritual home, it seems like a good time to pay attention to how God surprises us in places, and times, and ways, that we do not expect.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, has been giving his own sermon series about God in unexpected places. He is preaching in parables, in stories, which have to be explored in order to discover kernels of truth about God. Jesus begins with longer parables: the parable of the sower, and the similar parable about a person who sowed good seed in a field that was later planted with weeds. Helpfully, Jesus takes time to explain both of these parables at length to the crowd who is listening to him. However, as he is wrapping up his teaching, Jesus gives us five additional parables about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, in rapid succession, without any further explanation.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us, is like a small mustard seed that grows into a great shrub and provides a home for birds. The kingdom of heaven is like one measure of yeast that causes three measures of flour to change and rise into good bread. The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure, that someone is so overjoyed to find that he sells all he has to possess it. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great value. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish of every kind.
After firing off these comparisons, one after another, Jesus asks the crowd: “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, improbably, “yes.” I would guess they had at least a few questions about all the things Jesus has just said. I certainly do.
Perhaps there is no really precise way to explain the kingdom of heaven. Ask a pastor or a biblical scholar, people who you might argue are qualified to define it, and we stumble around a bit. The kingdom of heaven is something that is to come, and also something that is right now. It refers to something far away, and also something very close at hand. It describes something very holy, and yet also every day. The kingdom of heaven is a contradiction.
Jesus solves the challenge of trying to describe the indescribable by using many comparisons, scattering breadcrumbs along the way to lead us towards what we’re looking for. The comparisons that Jesus uses are all very familiar to his audience. The people he’s talking to had seen a mustard plant, and baked bread with yeast, and used nets to catch fish. Unfortunately, these similes are not as familiar to most of us. So how can we capture for ourselves what the kingdom of heaven might be like? How can we find words or images that will help to make it feel real to us?
I started writing this sermon last week, so that I would be prepared to offer something this morning. I spent most of this week silent retreat. During my retreat time I left my computer at home, and I turned my cell phone off. I didn’t have any contact, really, with the outside world. It was me and some other retreaters and the ocean and a wonderful community of women religious, all in silence. Now, as you may imagine, it is dangerous to write a sermon a week ahead of time, because you have no idea what’s going to happen in your community, or in the world, between the time you write and the time that you preach. When I turned my phone on, on Friday, and called my husband, he said, “Have you read the news?” It turns out I had an awful lot to catch up on.
Luckily, though, Jesus’ teachings bring us good news no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in. It may be that you were like me this week, on retreat, or somewhere else beautiful and remote and unplugged. But perhaps, instead, you have been glued to your computer, or your paper, or your television, trying to digest all the news – all the drama in Congress surrounding health care, and the actions against transgender people, and the vulgar language from the White House Communications director, and the incitement to police brutality from our President – or some other news that I haven’t even gotten to yet. If you have been trying to digest and make sense of all of this, I still think Jesus’ parables have something to offer. The topic of the Kingdom of heaven may be more pertinent, if anything.
Because when drama and discrimination and callousness and vulgarity and selfishness and violence are all around us, we need even more to see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. We become desperately soul-thirsty and heart-hungry for justice and righteousness and compassion. The kingdom of heaven: justice, and righteousness, and compassion. These things may not generally be front-page news, but that does not mean that God is not still at work bringing them forth. God’s kingdom has still, this week, been emerging among us, in ways that are small but mighty; hard to uncover; precious beyond measure; inclusive beyond our imagination.
So let us help one another get a grip this morning, and begin to imagine what the kingdom of heaven might be like when we discover it here, and now. If Jesus could address us this morning, and tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like in our communities, what would he say?
No one comparison needs to get it exactly right, we need lots of metaphors, and similes, and stories. Only with all of these bread crumbs lined up will we be able to recognize the Kingdom of heaven and be grateful for it and help it to prosper.
While witnessing all the misogyny in our culture, I wonder if the kingdom of heaven is like the joy and confidence in my five-year old daughter as she learns how to ride a bike. Following along as a good friend undergoes a liver transplant, I wonder if the kingdom of heaven is like the healthcare that he has; or the generosity of his brother, who donated 60% of his own liver; or like all of the friends around the country folding origami cranes and sending them to him to let him know that we are praying for him: tiny pieces of paper, carrying messages of love. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like the peach tree planted next to WCUC, which failed to bear fruit last year after a big pruning, but right now is full of beautiful peaches, gaining color and juice each day
How do you imagine the kingdom of heaven? Where do you see signs of God’s way emerging: small but mighty, precious beyond measure, inclusive beyond our imagination? What’s something that you’ve noticed that shows forth God’s kingdom of heaven?
In a world where discord and dismay and disaster are all too evident, let us give thanks for the kingdom of heaven. It is God’s perfect way of love, God’s realm of complete justice, existing in and among a world held captive by so many other forces. If we keep searching, we can find it. If we can get our priorities straight, we can recognize that nothing else is more precious. If we work together, we can enlarge it. No matter what else is happening, the Kingdom of heaven is happening too. Thanks be to God.