Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017

            The story goes that he was just the crazy old man of the village. Every day at dawn he would go into the hills with his shovel, and he would not come back until sunset. He never told anyone why he went up there or what he did. He just went day after day, year after year. One day the crazy old man did not wake up. He died in his sleep. After he was buried, the villagers decided to go up to the hills and see if they could find what he had been doing all those years.
            This village that the old man lived in was in a remote location on one side of a steep hill. In order to get to the nearest larger city with a hospital, you had to take the road which wound its way around the hill. It took hours, and someone could die en route. That is what happened to the old man’s wife. She was sick, and he was trying to get her to the hospital for treatment. But the road around the hill was too long. She died before they could reach help.
            What had the crazy old man been doing all those years? He was digging a road through the hill. He was digging a road through the hill. It was wide and smooth and it shortened the journey from the village to the city from hours to one, from many kilometers to four. The crazy old man was not so crazy after all. He did not want anyone else to suffer what his wife had suffered. He did not want anyone else to go through what they had gone through. He took his shovel and dug a road through the hill.
            No one knew what he was doing. They assumed he was just crazy and went off by himself to do crazy things. Apparently no one apparently asked him what he was doing, or if they did he did not answer. But he took a small thing and made it large. He did something in secret that became a visible blessing. The kingdom of heaven just might be like that crazy old man.
            I will confess that I have started and deleted this sermon about five times. The last time was at 8:00 this morning. I realize that verges on the ridiculous. Just write something already and be done with it. But I knew that what I had on paper was not what I was supposed to have. I’m not sure that I’m any closer, but time will tell. So look for these parables as the basis of a sermon series or a Bible study down the road. It’s not that our passage didn’t give me enough to work; it’s that there is so much!
Jesus told these parables in rapid-fire succession. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows from its infinitesimal size to a large and flowering bush that welcomes birds of every kind. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides yeast – that is the literal translation; she is not “mixing in” yeast, she is hiding it – into three measures of flour. That is an enormous amount of flour. It’s estimated to be about fifty pounds?! That would make enough bread to feed an entire community. Then Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that was hidden in a field. When a person finds that treasure, he joyfully goes and sells everything he has to buy that field and obtain that treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great value. A merchant, when he finds that one magnificent pearl, sells off all his other merchandise just to own that pearl. And the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that brings in fish of every kind. When the dragnet was full, it was hauled to shore and the fish were sorted. The good fish were kept and put into baskets. The bad fish were thrown out. That will be what happens at the end of the age. The good will be kept. The bad will be thrown into the fire, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
            When he finished telling these parables, Jesus asked the disciples,
            “Have you understood all this?”
            They answered,
            And I want to shout,
            No, they don’t, and no I don’t either, because these are some crazy sounding parables. I am not saying that lightly either. If these parables are glimpses of the kingdom, then the kingdom of heaven sounds a little bit nuts.
            The kingdom of heaven is an invasive weed. The kingdom of heaven is subversive. The term “subversive” is one used by several scholars in their description of the woman’s actions and the mustard seed. In thinking about that woman, why did she hide the yeast? I know that yeast has negative connotations in scripture – beware the yeast of the Pharisees. It can be seen as a corrupting influence. But for bread to rise, yeast is necessary. Unless that bread was supposed to be matzo, then having yeast hidden in it would have been quite the surprise.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds kind of dubious as well. Of course it is a treasure, but hidden in a field? It makes me uncomfortable to think of the person who found the treasure buying that field from the owner and not telling the owner about the treasure. All I can think of are the indigenous people living on land that had some value to it: coal, diamonds, gold, etc., and the people who bought the land from them for pennies when it worth millions.
            The kingdom of heaven sounds like it caused someone to make a bad business decision. The merchant sold everything he had in order to own that one pearl. That pearl was splendid, but if you sell off all your merchandise, you are no longer a merchant.
            The dragnet is probably the only one of these parables that I would expect, and I still don’t like it because it hearkens back to my childhood days of God being the God of fire and brimstone. Be good or watch out!
            The kingdom of heaven as Jesus described it sounds strange and unlike anything I would ever expect. Where are the angels and the perfect people wandering around in robes with harps and halos? Where are the endless blue skies and the affirmation that I will be able to fly, or at least float, my way through eternity? Isn’t the kingdom of heaven supposed to be about perfection? If so, then what Jesus described seems far from perfect.
            But Jesus was not describing a geographical location that we reach after we die. Nor was he describing a Utopia. The kingdom of heaven was in their midst, right then. That’s what Jesus brought to fulfillment. The kingdom of heaven was already there. And although it might have started small, it would grow and flourish and spread with abandon.
            The kingdom of heaven might seem hidden from view, hidden to the eye, but it was there doing its work, reaching every corner like yeast leavening dough. Although subversion might seem like a radical word; considering the work of the kingdom as subverting the work of the world with the work of God is a comfort. When the world these days seems most particularly opposite to the will and work of God, knowing that the kingdom of heaven is here, even though it’s hidden from my sight gives me great hope.
            The kingdom of heaven is a treasure that we will do anything to have, anything to own. Of course it looks like a bad or dubious business decision. When did following a call or doing something for the gospel or living empowered by the Holy Spirit not look weird or dubious or just plain bad according to the world’s sensibilities?
            And as far as that dragnet goes, well what do we know of God? What do we know of God’s intentions for the world, especially in light of Jesus, his incarnation of Love and Life? If God just wants to save some and damn others than why bother with grace? Why offer us mercy? I’m a good Presbyterian, and I hold to the predestination that we read about in Romans, but I think that God predestines us for good. I think God is always at our shoulder calling us to follow, to go the way of love and life.
            So the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom of heaven is weird and wild and unexpected. I love our denomination, but the kingdom of heaven is definitely not decent and in good order. The kingdom of heaven looks nothing like we think it should. It looks nothing like we would design it to look like. It looks nothing like we would create. It looks nothing like we would build. The kingdom of heaven is like that man who took a shovel to dig a road out of a hill. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. The kingdom of heaven is just a bit nuts. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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