A reflection for Proper 12, Year A
Prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like…”
Today in this one, short section of the Gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus speak this phrase six different times. Not once; not twice: six. When someone explains something to me six different times in six different ways, I have to assume that what is being talked about is really important. So, before we can even get to a place where we can talk about the comparisons offered in Jesus’ teachings, I think it might be important to pause and ask ourselves: why is it that explaining the kingdom of heaven is so important to Jesus?
Some of you know that in my seminary studies, I’ve been taking a summer intensive in Biblical Greek. I know you know, because you’ve been checking up on me to be sure that I’m learning…and I appreciate your encouragement! So, you can give me a gold star for applying my learning this week. As I pondered this Gospel lesson, one of the things I did was to spend some quality time with my Greek New Testament around this phrase, βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, which yes, is literally, the “kingdom of heaven.” But the words come together in a way that doesn’t speak to a particular place set apart; it’s an expression that compares how things are done as we know them here on earth, and how things are done as God knows them to be. We might paraphrase it today, “the way things get done in the place where God is.” This kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about is the rule of life of the realm of God.
One reason why this teaching may be so important to Jesus is because he is living in two worlds. We understand Jesus to be both fully human, and fully divine. Fully human Jesus is living in and among the culture and people of this world; he sees and experiences every day how the rule of earthly powers plays out. Simultaneously, fully divine Jesus has knowledge to impart to his followers about the lavish, incomprehensible beauty of God’s love in ways that defy our logic. Consider the way we hear this same phrase spoken of earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in my favorite part of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The extravagant love of God is quite unlike anything in this world. But occasionally, we do catch a glimpse of that unconditional, lavish love. When Jesus talks to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, he is speaking of something which is both now…and not yet. This finite, temporal world that Jesus knows is filled with sickness, imperfection, selfishness and death. But God’s presence is not absent in the experience of this world. God was, and is, present. God is with us, even now, even in this context of our own city filled with its poverty of spirit and scarcity of resources. God’s love isn’t just “out there” or “later on.” God’s reign cuts through the heavens and reaches into our earthly lives, helping us to know there is something larger, greater, and more powerful than only what we can see right now in the limited scope of our individual, human existence. We are moving together toward that hope-filled vision that we pray whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer together: that God’s reign may come on earth, as it is in heaven.
So, Jesus…who holds this tension between the now and the not yet in his very person…tells his followers a sequence of parables. He does this using the understanding of the context in which they are living, using the ordinary examples of the lives of people around him who garden, who fish, who cook for their families. One of those parables seems to build on those weeds we talked about last week…the tiniest mustard seed (which is, actually, a weed) growing in its fullness to become a shade-giving bird sanctuary. Another reveals how the tiniest amount of yeast is all that is needed to rise bread for baking. There is a comparison with hidden treasure, with the pearl of great price, and with an abundance of fish. But all of these parables are also counter-cultural. They are also the upside-down kingdom, fundamentally altering our understanding of what is good and right and sensible: weeds become life-giving, unclean leaven feeding the multitudes, hidden treasures of unknown value worth selling all one has. Instead of catching only the best fish, all are gathered up in the net together. This isn’t how things usually happen. But, these are examples of how different things are…and a hint about how things will be…when the rule of life becomes the reign of God.
My favorite part of this lesson, though, is the end. After Jesus shares these thought-provoking examples designed to challenge all the normal assumptions of life, he asks his disciples: “Have you understood all this?” and their answer is “Yes.”
I can imagine Jesus smiling a knowing smile. Even smirking or chuckling, perhaps. I can also imagine saying “Yes” because I thought I understood. Or, perhaps, I understood just enough to know that the answer was supposed to be “Yes.” And I can imagine saying yes, because it’s always hard to be the one to say, “Actually, I’m not sure that I understand…” That would take courage, authenticity, and a belief that I am actually capable of receiving lavish and unconditional love even when I have no clue why things are happening the way that they are.
I think the better and more truthful answer might have been, “not yet.”
The Gospel writer was scribing these stories after-the-fact, probably 80 or 90 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems, then, especially appropriate for us to hear one last parable of Good News from Jesus about the kingdom of heaven: “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
I think that is a parable meant for us.
We sometimes think of the stories of our scriptures as something old, written thousands of years ago. True enough. But what if, like the kingdom of heaven, they are also now…but not yet. We receive glimpses of the reign of God cutting through the unfairness and uncertainty of the world. In the scriptures, we find treasures for our soul which far out-value anything of human wealth. Those treasures emerge now, and continue to emerge until they are fully known to all people. We catch a glimpse in a moment of connection, in a weed, in the breaking of bread, in small glimpses of divine abundance reminding us that there is something more, something greater which is both here, and beyond…now, and not yet.
That tiny grain of God’s truth is perhaps all that we need to grow into our fullness. Where is that truth speaking to you? How are you a scribe for the kingdom of heaven?
I happen to think your stories and God-experiences hold every bit as much truth as these parables. God is still speaking, telling stories of the now and not yet which build our lives of faith. It is a hope-filled tension in which we live, in glimpses of profound beauty our human eyes can see and the hope that fills the eyes of our souls awaiting to see the Kingdom of Heaven.
There are many times in this life when the kingdom of heaven seems very far away. But there are moments at Red Door when I can palpably feel God breaking into our midst, the “now” glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where all that divides us in this world falls away to reveal our connection together with the God who loves us lavishly. Together, we hold those moments of God’s nearness in the now, awaiting with hope and prayer the “now but not yet” of God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.