Sunday, July 30, 2017

Living Into the Kingdom of God

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12 (Year A)
Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

[N.B. In the parables in Matthew, Jesus says “the Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” In this sermon, I chose to use the term “Kingdom of God” instead of “Kingdom of Heaven.” While the terms are synonymous in the Gospels, I think “Kingdom of God” is more accurate, as it feels more expansive, including not just the Kingdom of Heaven but also the Kingdom of God here and now.]

We humans are a naturally curious breed. We inherently want to know that which is currently unknown, and what the future holds for us. This means that as people of faith, as those who believe in the Triune God, as those who follow the Risen Christ, we naturally set our sights on the promise of the Kingdom of God. We want to know what awaits us in the life to come. Of course, since none of us have experienced that directly, we have a hard time fathoming such an unknowable mystery. But that doesn’t stop our questioning. Thankfully, Jesus provides some insight. But since we do not have a frame of reference, Jesus must use common, everyday imagery to paint a picture of that which has been promised to us.

Today Jesus presents five such images. Five very short parables, each beginning “the Kingdom of God is like . . .” While few in words, each parable is intended to speak volumes about the nature of the Kingdom of God, of what the reign of God is like, and something of God himself.

The first parable is that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. We are told this is the smallest of seeds, but grows into the greatest of shrubs, providing nesting places for birds. There are two key characteristics revealed in this simple image. The first is that something small and humble results in something great. Such is the Kingdom of God. From small and humble roots comes something great and mighty. A small band of men and women who followed Jesus will – or from our perspective, has – become a mighty movement. The Jesus Movement. The largest religion the world has known. The Church, the current manifestation of the Kingdom of God. And this movement continues to grow day by day, growing larger and stronger. And the second characteristic is that this structure that has grown from small and humble beginnings serves as a shelter. Just as the grown mustard plant provides shelter for birds, this ever growing structure that is the Church, that is the Kingdom of God, provides shelter for all who seek it.

The second parable is that the Kingdom of God is like yeast, which when mixed with three measures of flour becomes bread. Again, there are two characteristics. The first is of growth and abundance. A little yeast activated by water, when mixed with flour, causes the resulting mixture to expand into many times its original volume, producing bread. In the parable, Jesus specifically names three measures of flour. That’s about 50 pounds of flour. When mixed with the yeast, and allowed to rise, results in a LOT of bread. It grows into great abundance. So too with the Kingdom of God. Again, from small beginnings comes something great. From its humble beginnings, over time the Kingdom grows into great abundance. The love of God, provided in great abundance. And the second characteristic is that the yeast when mixed with flour results in bread. Something edible that nourishes humankind. And likewise with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is meant to be a source of nourishment for humankind. Of spiritual nourishment. And through the works of the Church, to even provide physical nourishment.

Both of these parables also have implications for the life of Jesus’ followers. For the life of discipleship. The Church, as the current manifestation of the Kingdom, provides encouragement to those who would follow Jesus. Nourishing and providing growth. Just as with mustard seeds and yeast, seemingly small or insignificant, have the potential to bring great results.

The third parable is that the Kingdom of God is like treasure buried in a field, and to acquire it the finder sells all he has. Again, there two characteristics presented in this simple parable. The first is the valuable nature of the treasure. So much so that the finder is willing to give all that he has to acquire it. It is of more value than all else that the man possesses. So too the Kingdom of God. Being part of the Kingdom of God is more valuable than anything we could possibly have or acquire in this life. And second, the fact that the man is willing to give up all that he has indicates a total commitment to his goal. That it is worth risking everything for. As Christians, we believe – I hope we believe – that the Kingdom of God is so valuable to us that we are willing to commit totally to working for its fulfillment. That we are willing to risk all that we have and all that we are for that supreme goal.

The fourth parable is that the Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of a pearl of great price. The parable isn’t specifically about the value of the pearl, although that is important. The primary subject of the parable is really the merchant. This parable therefore says something about those in search of the prize. The merchant is persistent in his searching for the pearl. When applied to the Kingdom of God, Jesus is telling us that we must be persistent in our search for, in our work of bringing about, the Kingdom of God. This goes hand in hand with the commitment of the third parable. We must not only be committed, but also must be ever persistent in our endeavors on behalf of the Kingdom. Commitment is one thing. But commitment without persistence is pointless.

These two parables – of the treasure and the pearl – focus on the infinite value of God’s Kingdom. The common theme here is that individuals should be ready to give up everything – wealth, power, prestige, even their very life – to be part of the Kingdom of God. The search and desire for the Kingdom of God reshapes our priorities and is prized above all else.

And finally, the Kingdom of God is like a net. The net is a common symbol of the Church. Just as the net is cast out and brings in whatever forms of fish may become ensnared, so too does the Church cast a wide net, open to all who might be enticed to enter it. The parable goes on to talk about the good being sorted from the bad. But it also remind us that ours is not to be concerned with sorting. With the righteousness or unrighteousness of those who enter into our midst. Ours is only to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, to demonstrate the love of God. The rest is up to him.

These parables tell us something of the Kingdome of God, of what God provides for us, of how he shows his love to us. The bountiful abundance provided from even humble beginnings. The growth that is possible through him. The priceless value of what he offers – his love and mercy, our salvation. And they tell us something of our part in the continuing work of the Kingdom. Of our potential, of our need for commitment and dedication to the Kingdom above all else, of our need for persistence in our work on behalf of the Kingdom. We are an important piece in all this.

As Episcopal priest and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Why else would [Jesus] talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fisherman sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things, that our treasure is buried not in some exotic far off place that requires a special map but that "X" marks the spot right here, right now, in all the ordinary people and places and activities in our lives.”

This means we need to be able to make the next step of figuring out how to live into that vision of the Kingdom. We tend to think about the Kingdom as being “already but not yet.” We are living the in Kingdom of God even now, although we recognize that the fullness of that Kingdom has not yet been realized. It will not be fully realized until the end of the ages (however that is defined). While this means we are living in the Kingdom of God, it also means that as people of faith, we have our part to play in furthering the Kingdom. As such, we are not just living in the Kingdom of God, we are living into it.

As we move closer to our entry into the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we as faithful Christians seek to more fully live into that Kingdom in this life. But we are limited by our human nature. By the weakness of being flawed beings. Thankfully, God through Christ has provided help here, too. Help that Paul outlines in his letter to the Romans. He tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8.26a). And “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8.26b). We are given the gift of the Spirit as our guide, as our constant companion in the search for the Kingdom of God, in working for the Kingdom of God.

The key is in the image that “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Sighs too deep for words. To sigh is to let out one's breath audibly, generally in sorrow, weariness, or relief. But another meaning of sigh is to yearn or long for, to pine for. Other translations use groan instead of sigh. Last week we talked about the whole creation groaning in labor pains. The labor pains of living into the Kingdom of God. A groan is a deep, inarticulate sound uttered for a number of reasons, one of which is desire.

The Spirit, God’s presence with us and within us, God’s desire for us and to be with us, dwelling deep within. So deep we often aren’t even aware of her presence. Sighing within, in words too deep for our understanding. But present nonetheless. Imparting the desire to be part of the Kingdom of God. Helping us to grow into the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Guiding us into our own unique roles in working for the Kingdom. Both personally and collectively. As one commentator put it, “The groaning of the church, in the midst of the groaning world, is sustained and even inspired by the groaning of the Spirit.”

Bishop N.T. Wright sums it up: “What Paul is saying is that the Spirit, active within the innermost being of the Christian, is doing the very interceding the Christian longs to do, even though the only evidence that can be produces is inarticulate groanings” (N.T. Wright in New Interpreter's Bible). Or in the words of Eugene Peterson in his translation of the Bible, The Message: “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good” (The Message, Rom 8.26-28).

Jesus promise us something good. Jesus promises us the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom that we have a place in. A Kingdom that we have a part in bringing about. With the deep sighs of the Spirit working within us, guiding us, we can be assured that that Kingdom will be, and is even now, being brought to fruition with our help.

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