from a sermon on Matthew 13, July 24, 2011
“The Kingdom is Like…”
C.H. Dodd’s defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (Dodd, 5).
In today’s reading from Matthew 13 we hear several short parable that fit the description perfectly. Vividly drawn from nature or everyday jobs, they compare the kingdom of God to wildly different things, and then Jesus concludes by asking the disciples, “Do you get it?” “Yes,” the disciples chime.
But what are we suppose to learn. How are we suppose to think about the Kingdom of God (or Heaven as Matthew prefers to put it).
“The Kingdom of God is like…”
Sometimes I suppose folks hear “the kingdom of God” and assume it must be the church in some way that Jesus is talking about. Only twice in the gospels do we find the word “church.” The “called-out-together” group of followers that will grow out of the earthly disciples. But church doesn’t seem to fit the descriptions Jesus gives of God’s kingdom. For one the kingdom is not limited to a gathering of people. It isn’t an organization Jesus is describing.
Not infrequently people perk up at that word “Kingdom” and associate what Jesus is talking about with something political. Pilate was just sure that must be under what he was preaching and kept pressing Jesus about that title “Christ.” Didn’t that mean “King”? And so wasn’t Jesus talking about some competitor to the Empire? Focusing on the Kingdom was his misunderstanding. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of the world. It is not like some kind of Empire. Not a political regime. You can’t equate it with America or Israel or the Holy Roman Empire.
No, it seems that the emphasis is on “God” in “the kingdom of God.” That is, “kingdom” comes with a lot of baggage that we foist onto God. But is should be the other way, God redefines rule.
So some translate “Basilea” as “rule” – (you can remember Basilea because Basil meant king of herbs). Clarence Jordan put it in Cotton Patch version “the God movement.” to de-emphasize organizational image.
But the emphasis is on God. God defines the rule, the movement, the kind of kingdom. And that is where the strangeness of it all comes from. We do not always know what to make of God and the way he operates in the world.
God’s rule ought to go without saying. I mean, God is the creator, after all. Doesn’t God control it all? But God really did make the world as something that has its own reality. Although we and the entire universe could not exist apart from God’s act in creation, God has given the parts of creation a certain amount of freedom. I am not a jazz musician, but I have tried to read some of that kind of music, and what scares me are the pieces that go along and then you come to a section that says, “Improvise for 16 measures.” Well, God has made the world with a plot but only a sketchy script. A lot of times we are on our own to improvise on the theme.
The world is not a puppet show. God’s rule, God’s presiding, does not completely extinguish the capacity God gives each of us to have room to come up with our life story.
Perhaps the first clue to “kingdom of God” is in Jesus prayer. He taught us to pray first of all addressing God as independent of creation,” Our Father who are in Heaven.” God is not to be confused with things that are part of the furniture of the world. “Hallowed by thy name,” thy nature is holy and awesome.
But then we, who are part of the world, are to pray that the high and lifted up God somehow come to bear on this world God made. We pray that God be the one whose will, desire, intentions for creation get fulfilled. And here we have the Kingdom of God explained in the next phrase, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
How does God’s will come to pass in my life and your life? In history? How does God’s Kingdom come?
Pressing up against these parables is this reading from Romans 8, and it gives some clue. Paul all along in Romans has been dealing with the big picture of the gospel. He has been describing the quandary of human existence. How we were created to reflect God’s glory, but we have turned aside, – all of us. And as a result we fall short of the glory of God. We are so caught up in sin that even when we approve of what is right, we turn right around and do wrong anyway.
The good news is that God has declared his decision not to condemn us for what we have been, but it seems that we are still powerless to become what God dreams of. We are like fat hens flapping around the barnyard with our stubby silly wings and do more than coasting for a few feet.
Then comes chapter 8 and Paul says here what we could not do on our own, God does by pouring himself into us by the Holy Spirit. God’s life comes in and lifts up out of the mess. The Spirit never cancels us out. The Spirit doesn’t replace us. The Spirit just underwrites our spiritual advance. We live off of more resources than are in us.
The spirit in us means the same thing as “being in Christ.” And that connection is what will lead us out of our insufficiency, our bondage, our not-enoughness.
Paul mentions prayer in particular. When we pray, “Abba”, “Our Father”, the thing that makes that statement convincingly real is that God happens to be inside of us, encouraging us. The second experience of Spirit in prayer is when Paul says we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for. When he are at a loss, the Spirit in us feels around in our heart and names our need and lifts it to the Father because, being Go,d the Spirit already knows what God’s will for us is. And so our messy notes get turned into poetry by the Divine Ghost writer.
All of this to suggest how God operates in the middle of us so that God’s will can be done on earth, in us, just as it is in heaven.
Jesus describes this kind of action with the picture of a woman making a big batch of bread. She hides a little bit of yeast in this big pile of flour. The yeast works in the flour to transform it. Starches are turned to sugar to alcohol, and the lump of dough gets giddy with inspiration, and grows and grows.
Kingdom of God is like someone hiding the Spirit in us, and soon our life is expanding and we become life-giving bread.
God’s stuff in our stuff. Co-operating with us to make us a nourishment and delight in his good creation.
But Paul writes that it is not just our hearts that get changed. God is at work to transform the world. The kingdom of God is about all of history turning out to suit God.
In all things– and this includes all things, not just church things, not just pious, proper things, but things like holocausts and famines, great recessions and drug epidemics – in the messy things, not just the clean and nice things,
God is at work toward good.
Be careful! The verse did not say that all that is, is good. God doesn’t intend all the messes around us. God created a world so wild that such things were possible. And sometimes we make such a mess that, as we read last week in Genesis 6, “God was sorry that he had made humans and was grieved.” It did not have to be that way.
But when things are at their worse, God will not stop working things toward goodness, truth, and beauty. And God chooses to work in cooperation with those creatures who love him, who are called to share in that grand work.
Reading Bonhoeffer’s biography (by Eric Metaxa, 2011), I am revisiting the scary time in Germany as Hitler rose to power and gradually frightened people into submitting to great and terrible things. By a series of wrong turns the German people found themselves in a terrible mess. But God worked even then for good with people like Bonhoeffer who were called of God to cooperate in bringing a good out of the evil.
God’s Kingdom is like a fisherman that throws the net out and all the fish get brought in – along with boots and trash. God’s kingdom will receive everyone. But like a fisherman, God will not keep the trash.
Only stuff that turns out right will be kept.
I was reading a Muslim mystic the other day who said, “To God there is no difference between a saint and a penitent. A saint who never sinned and a penitent who sinned but now wants to turn away from sin– both he said are people who are now focused on God. It is pleasing God that directs their future, and for that reason God will bless them both. It is not our past that God judges but our true intention. Your past may be pocked with shame, but what matters is that you have a new heart now.
Everything that is not on its way to pleasing God is thrown in the fire.
There is a story.
Catholic priest who is doing his utmost to keep the sinners in his congregation on the straight and narrow. In a very aggressive and domineering way the priest leans forward in his pulpit, leers at the congregation and says, “And as for the causes of sin and all evildoers, they will be cast into the furnace of fire where there will be wailing and the gnashing of teeth. Just when the priest thinks he has got everyone awestruck, an elderly woman up the back with no teeth or false teeth calls out: “What if you ain’t got teeth?” In a split second the unfazed priest replies: “Madame, teeth will be provided!”
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed a farmer planted. Small seed became a great bush and provided shelter and food for birds.
How does God reign come into the world?
With small steps.
We tend to focus on grand gestures and tremendous spectacle. Henry Nouwen described the second temptation of Christ the temptation to be spectacular. We really discount the small gestures.
But if we do we will miss the way God’s kingdom comes. Each time you could be snide and instead you are kind. Each moment you could take the safe way but instead were courageous to speak up. Each time you could have given way to hate your enemy, but instead prayed for them. The kingdom gained some ground.
Bonaro Overstreet attended a meeting dealing with some community problem. As the meeting progressed, she became aware of an individual who denigrated every idea with words such as, “Oh, well, that won’t do any good.” Or “That’s too little, too late.” Bonaro Overstreet said she went home and in a flash of inspiration wrote, “Stubborn Ounces” with the sub-title, “To One who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything if You Can’t Do Everything.” It bears repeating:1
“You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.”
[Bonaro Overstreet, “Hands Laid Upon the Wind,” p.15]
But do you know mustard seeds? “The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder (who died in 79AD while investigating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) writes: Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: But on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”2
Goodness multiplies. The rule of God is contagious.
But it seeds itself in small deeds.
Shane Claiborne quotes British songwriter Martyn Joseph as he writes about the quiet revolution of Jesus:
“What a strange way to start a revolution. . . And what a strange way to end a world tour.” We worship the seed that died. The revolution will not be televised. It will not be brought to you by Fox News with commercial interruptions. It will not be sandwiched between ads to accelerate you life or be all you can be. There will be no re-runs. The revolution will be live. The revolution will be in the streets. The revolution will be cleaning toilets and giving another blanket to Karen. The revolution will not be talking about poverty in hotel banquet rooms. It will be eating beans and rice with Ms. Sunshine and watching Back to the Future with our neighbor Mary. Get ready, friends… God is preparing us for something really, really – small.3
The Kingdom of God is right here, right now. Act to make it yours.
In 1925, at Dayton, Tennessee, William Jennings Bryan was an associate prosecutor in the trial of the school teacher John Thomas Scopes. Scopes had taught the biological theory of evolution to his students in defiance of a state law prohibiting the teaching of doctrine contrary to the Bible. The defense attorney was Clarence Darrow. Bryan won what became known as “The Monkey Trial,” and Scopes was fined $100. But Darrow’s merciless cross-examination humiliated Bryan and dealt a fierce blow to fundamentalism. Some say the trial broke the heart of William Jennings Bryan. Several days after the trial ended, Bryan died. Darrow says of Bryan, “A giant once lived in that body. But the man got lost, lost because he was looking for God too high up and too far away.” 4
God is not far away. Seeking you can find the pearl of great price. Sometimes without intentionally seeking, you find it like a man discovered hidden treasure. It is here close at hand. Make it yours whatever the cost.
The kingdom of God is coming wherever people are discovering the Jesus life is what makes life truly rich. Judy played Jesu, Priceless Treasure and the choir sometimes sings that arrangement of the Spiritual Give Me Jesus – “you can have all the rest– Give me Jesus.” The kingdom comes when people make that commitment to sell out for Jesus.
Only one by one we make the choice and God’s kingdom will cover the earth as water cover the sea, but only because one by one we joined the swell of people who embrace God’s will for us each.
God’s kingdom is present and it is forever. Nothing can defeat it. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Though we go through hell on earth, yet in the end we will be more than conquerors. God will not let even death take us from him. What he begins in us is forever. Glory hallelujah!. Amen
1 Quoted in “Challenged and Inspired”, by the Rev. James E. Grant
2 “Looking for the Kingdom of God Too High Up and Too Far Away,” sermon by Rev. William Dols, Day 1, July 28, 2002.
4“Looking for the Kingdom of God Too High Up and Too Far Away,” sermon by Rev. William Dols, Day 1, July 28, 2002.