Heaven in our midst?

“The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like” Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, July 26, 2020

While outside with our pets recently, getting bitten and swatting at something I could barely see, I remembered how small things matter and how someone once said, “If you think small things don’t matter, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.” Don’t underestimate the small things.

Talking about small things–a mustard seed and yeast–is how Jesus begins his series of parables in our gospel reading for this morning. Both of these small things are typically underestimated but have a big effect. Jesus told the parables to help the people around him understand how powerful–and yet sometimes overlooked–the kingdom of heaven was in their world. He began each of them with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” and features one thing–a seed, some yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, and a net–in each of them. The kingdom was like the seed and the yeast in that they were common, ordinary things no one gave much value to, and yet they were powerfully potent and invasive. The mustard seed was not planted on purpose but just popped up in various places and grew rapidly as a weed. The yeast was much the same, small and even dangerous, yet powerful enough to change the chemistry of whatever it entered. As Dr. Talitha J. Arnold points out in her commentary (Feasting on the Word, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, Talitha J. Arnold, p. 288) on this text, these common things were all around them; that “Jesus transforms human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see heaven close at hand.” The disciples with Jesus needed to hear this; needed to discern the difference between how God worked in the world vs. how empires and powers of the world worked. Matthew’s audience needed to hear that as well as they lived their faith in the context of a powerful political empire. They were to know that the kingdom of heaven was all around them, accessible to them.

It is helpful for us to hear that today too, as the kingdom of heaven is still present among us and, though it may need new metaphors for us to understand in our culture, it is still just as invasive and powerful. If you look at the events in our world today, you’ll be able to see it. Isn’t it possible to see the kingdom of heaven popping up in the streets and protests in our cities as the death of George Floyd led the attention of our nation–and the world–on the reality that Black lives haven’t mattered in our nation’s history, police practices, courtrooms, economies, schools, and laws. And do we not see it in how people are recognizing the inequities in our society between white and Black, poor and rich, male and female, powerful and powerless, privileged and unprivileged, insured and uninsured as we fight a virus that is wreaking havoc in our world and doesn’t discriminate in its attacks. Even in the hell on earth, the kingdom of heaven has a way of showing up and spreading.

The next two items in the parables in our text this morning indicate how we are to respond to the kingdom of heaven that is working in our midst. Jesus tells about someone who finds a treasure hidden in a field and sells all he has in order to buy the field. He then tells of a merchant who finds one pearl of great value and liquidates all of his assets to purchase it. What both of them found was so amazing and valuable that their only response was to give their all in order to possess it. Jesus wanted the disciples to see how they were to respond like that with the kingdom of heaven.

Isn’t that how we are to respond when we discover how amazing and valuable the kingdom of heaven is for us? How are you responding to it when you uncover it in your life these days, as you see it invading and spreading all around us in our world today? What are you willing to do to get involved with it? How is it altering your life? What is it causing you to give up in order to possess it? Interacting with the kingdom usually means we have to make adjustments of some kind, being willing to see things in a new way, understanding the subversive aspects of the gospel have a way of growing in unpredictable places and ways. Finding the kingdom of heaven among us may even mean accepting that there may be some things we need to give up to make room for it in our lives and world.

This is true for us as individual followers of Jesus but also for us as a church. We, like all other churches in the world in this time of the pandemic, are being forced to adjust to the realities of not doing church in the way we have for so long. Just because we can’t meet corporately in person right now doesn’t mean the church can’t be effective. If it does, then I would say we’ve missed the point Jesus had for the church. No, the kingdom isn’t impaired by the virus; it adjusts and pops up wherever it will and we must join it even now. We must look around us in the events and issues of our time and see it and do whatever we can to recognize it, make room for it, and to give everything we have for it.

Garrison Keillor, a great storyteller, once said “Prophecy can explain only so much. Storytelling is required for the rest.” (Garrison Keillor, Leadership, Vol. 12, no. 4.) That’s how Jesus conveyed the truth about the kingdom of heaven. As we venture out into this next week, may we go with the stories we’ve just heard from the greatest storyteller, finding ourselves in them and knowing what the kingdom of heaven is like.

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