Wednesday, July 27, 2011

God's Kingdom

A sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 24, 2011

Today’s gospel reading is a collection of five parables that describe the Kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” while the other gospels use the term “kingdom of God.” They both refer to God’s kingdom; the realm where God reigns and God’s will is done. Jesus often uses parables to teach his followers what God’s Kingdom is like.

Let’s start with the first two parables – that of the mustard seed and the yeast. On first glance, the meaning of these parables seems to be that out of something tiny something large grows – and that is definitely true about the Kingdom of God. We can see the way this has played out in Christian history – the Jesus movement started with a few followers of Christ, then spread to hundreds, then thousands – and today there are Christians all over the world.

On second glance, these parables have a few other things to teach us as well. The mustard plant grows into a bush, not a tree. If you wanted an image of a grand tree that provides shelter for many birds you would think of a cedar, not a mustard bush. To say that mustard is the greatest of shrubs and grows into a great tree is hyperbole. In fact, mustard was often viewed as more of a weed. Instead of using a noble tree like the cedar to symbolize the Kingdom of God – Jesus uses a pesky weed. What could this mean? This parable teaches us that God’s Kingdom grows where it wants to, that God’s Kingdom might not be what we would have planned for but it becomes great and mighty beyond all expectations.

In Jesus’ day, yeast didn't come in little packets at the supermarket like they do today. Yeast was actually leaven, which is a moldy piece of bread or dough. This leaven was mixed into the next batch of bread to make it rise, and a piece of the new batch would be saved to become the leaven for a later batch. Leaven was often viewed negatively as a sign of corruption, something that mysteriously changes from within. In this parable, Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is something that changes us from within, and it has the power to change us completely.

Both the mustard and leaven parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven becomes present in ways that are unexpected and even scandalous by worldly standards  - we see this also shown by Jesus in his death on the cross. It was unexpected for the Messiah to die such a scandalous and painful death, but it was the means by which God choose to achieve redemption.

The next two parables are related – that of the hidden treasure and that of the fine pearl. In both parables, someone sells everything that they have in order to obtain the desired good. At first glance, these parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven is more valuable than anything else in our lives.

Treasure is an important metaphor in Matthew’s gospel, it refers to one’s ultimate allegiance. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (6.19-21; also 12:35; 19:21) The kingdom of heaven should be like treasure, the place where your heart is fixated.

The treasure in the field and the fine pearl are deemed to be so valuable that the person who finds them sells everything that they have in order to obtain it. The Kingdom of heaven is like this, not only in that it is of great value but in that the cost to obtain it may be great too. Jesus, most of his disciples, and many other Christians throughout the ages paid the ultimate price – their lives. Other Christians, while not martyred, may have suffered persecution, sacrificed status and possessions, lost their jobs, lost their property, or alienated family and friends. Discipleship can be costly, but the kingdom of God is well worth it.

The last parable today is that of a net of fish. Many people look at this parable, and the one last week about the wheat and the weeds and what they get out of it is that there are people who are “in” and people who are “out”. There are good fish and bad fish, wheat and weeds, sheep and goats (in yet another parable). I've never met someone who interprets these parables in this way and yet identifies themselves in the “out” group, they are always “in” and some other group that they dislike is “out.” The point that I get out of these parables is not that me and my friends are in, while x or y group is out – the main point that I see here is that God is in charge and it will be God’s will that is done in the end. There is something very freeing in that acknowledgement, because God’s justice and mercy is far better than anything we humans can come up with.

These five short parables from today’s gospel are packed with a lot of meaning. We have learned through them some aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to be taught about God’s Kingdom because it is not obvious to the casual observer – you can’t locate it on a map (though I haven’t tried Google Maps). Learning about God’s Kingdom changes the way we live as Christians because it changes the way we see the world and our place in it, it changes our priorities and it encourages us to be steadfast in working towards God’s Kingdom.

It may be tempting to write off this world completely and locate God’s Kingdom entirely in another realm like heaven. After all, looking around us and watching the news it is easy to see how this world does not live up to being the Kingdom of God. But I challenge you to look for the beginnings of God’s Kingdom in this world. God created the world and didn’t abandon it and us but sent Jesus Christ to us. Jesus’ teachings, the way he lived his life, and his death and resurrection point to God’s Kingdom breaking into this world.

Jesus has shown us through his life and by his parables that God’s Kingdom grows large and abundant wherever God wills it, out of things that are tiny and/or unplanned by us. The experience of God and God’s Kingdom has the power to change us from within, completely and in amazing ways. The Kingdom of God becomes present in this world in ways that human beings do not expect, and even in some ways that we would deem scandalous or undesirable. God’s Kingdom is more valuable than anything else in our lives and so should be the place on which we focus our hearts and minds. The cost of discipleship varies for each one of us, but we should not hesitate to pay the cost because God’s Kingdom is well worth it. And finally, we can be reassured that God’s Kingdom is exactly that – God’s. God is in charge, not us.

Thanks be to God for God’s Kingdom – the beginning of which we read about in the scriptures, the growth of which we can work towards when we work together as Christians, and the completion of which we will one day see in the life to come! Amen.