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The Kingdom of Heaven: Right Now and Yet to Come
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Ann Carter, Youth One Associate
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 27, 2014

 
 

It is so good to be home in the happiest city in America! And to be back in what I would say is the happiest church in America! After spending the past two weeks on mission trips in Helena, Arkansas and Port au Prince Haiti, I am especially glad to be in a familiar place with your wonderful faces looking back at me!

You know, the opportunities our church provides for spiritual formation through missions are endless. We are so fortunate to be a part of a community of faith who values our city, our nation and our world enough to invest time and resources and heart and hope. Because that is what changes the world and that is what changes us! It is what brings the Kingdom of heaven to earth. We talk a lot about the kingdom of heaven here at Richmond's First Baptist Church. This phrase has a rich legacy and has been used for millennia. Israel's sages used the term often to describe the ruling, saving, liberating, redemptive acts of God. Jesus used it to describe what he was trying to do through his life and death. And through our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus calls you and me into this kingdom work as God's saving, liberating, redemptive presence in our world.

When we read Matthew 13, we hear Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables. At this point in Jesus ministry, the opposition to his teaching was growing, so he began teaching cryptically. His message was intended to be a form of counter-wisdom - introducing a way of thinking/living/and interpreting scripture that was in opposition to the norm of the culture. Funny, his teaching is in opposition to the norms of our 21st century culture as well.

Religious leaders of that day were often a legalistic, self-righteous bunch. They were more focused on the strict religious upholding of the law than they were on the heart. These guys had taken the laws of God and turned them into something they weren't supposed to be: a burden. Jesus life and teachings were focused on breaking the chains of religious law and thus turning the religious establishment on its ear.

Through his law breaking parables, Jesus, the master teacher, was giving different examples of the same truth so if his audience didn't connect with one story, they may connect with another. And while Jesus listeners understood the references in the parables, they didn't particularly understand what he meant. And his disciples certainly didn't. In v.36, They had to ask Jesus to explain. And today, Jesus parables raise questions in our own minds. Theologian CH Dodd describes parables as something that teases the mind into active thought. Parables can also stimulate our imaginations into uncovering what God has in store for us/Gods activity in the world. In preparing for today, I have enjoyed learning the "back story" so to speak about the images Jesus paints with these parables. So I am going to share with you what I have learned and together, let's let our minds be teased and our imaginations stimulated with mustard seeds and yeast and buried treasure and priceless pearls and fishing nets.

We will start with the mustard seed. Matthew 13:32-32. In ancient Jewish tradition, farmers are warned against planting mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into a noxious bush that will take over the entire garden. It can reach a height of 10 feet - so large that birds or small animals can nest in it. Jesus throws in a bit of irony here when he talks about birds nesting in a mustard plant. Everyone in the crowd would have recognized the reference to Daniel 4:21 where a tall, stately tree touches the sky and can be seen from the 4 corners of the world, providing food for all and giving shelter to the animals and having nesting places for all the birds. How puzzling to replace a large beautiful tree with a weed! The kingdom of Heaven is like a weed that takes over the garden and provides a home for small creatures? How strange!

So let's move on to yeast. Matthew 13:33 Those of you who know your way around a kitchen and understand the science of cooking better than I know that yeast is a fungus that reproduces and multiplies. It can be used as a fermenting agent in the making of wine and beer and to raise bread. Remember when the Israelites fled Egypt? God instructed them to make unleavened bread on the night of the first Passover because they didn't have time to wait for the bread to rise! Unleavened bread can be prepared in a hurry. So when Passover is celebrated, unleavened bread is used. In early Judiaism, leaven was universally used as a symbol of something unclean. So in this unclean kingdom message, is Jesus saying that the clean and unclean rules don't apply in the kingdom of Heaven? No wonder the opposition to his teaching was growing! The Pharisees would be out of a job if there were no clean/unclean rules!

The next set of parables move from household topics to a buried treasure story. Who doesn't love a good buried treasure story? Matthew 13:44 With the political and economic uncertainties of Jesus day, it was not uncommon for people to bury their treasures in a field. This story tells about someone who finds such a treasure. Rather than sneaking away with the treasure hidden under his tunic, the treasure hunter follows Rabbinic law which states that when you buy a field you also buy the contents of that field. This is a man who recognizes the value of the treasure, for he sells all that he has with great joy so that he can purchase the field. No sacrifice was to great for him to obtain the treasure. And also with the pearl of great price - this man goes on a search and once he finds the pearl, he sells all that he has to possess the pearl. What is of such great value to us that we would sell everything? Apparently this Kingdom of Heaven should be. Would you be willing to give up everything to gain the Kingdom of Heaven? Would I? Do we hesitate to answer because we haven't truly seen it or experienced it? What is it about the Kingdom of Heaven that could make us long for it so much that we would sell everything to gain it? Something to think about as you drift off into your Sunday afternoon nap.

So what do these parables tell us about God's activity in the world? What does it mean to us today, living in 2014? For me, it is a way to look at the world. A way to see God in the world. A way to be the presence of God in my world. The kingdom of heaven is right now and it is growing. Every time a person gives a cup of water God is working in the world the Kingdom of Heaven grows. Every time a person holds a child, God is working in the world and the kingdom grows. Every time a stranger helps an overheated car full of motion sick orphans and missionaries, God is working in the world and the kingdom of Heaven grows. Every time a person chooses to forgive rather than hold onto hurt. God is working in our world and the kingdom grows. The yeast of love or kindness or help or presence is worked into the dough of this world and becomes the catalyst for change. That tiny seed of compassion or friendship or generosity grows and takes over a home and then a neighborhood and then a community until those who need some cool shade can find a place to rest for a while. The Kingdom of Heaven is you and me living life as the hands and feet of a loving and compassionate God. Look and you will see it happening all around you. People loving, caring, helping, serving, teaching.

Unfortunately, these days when we look around us we see so many distressing situations around the world. We live in a day and age when hatred and violence seem to be the order of the day: bombs and rockets flying over Israel and Gaza killing the innocent. Children fleeing poverty and violence, walking hundreds of miles on foot seeking a safe place to live. Geneva convention rules being violated and airplanes being shot out of the sky over Ukraine. Escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Iraq continuing to spiral into chaos and violence. Militias vying for power in Lybia. Crippling poverty in our nation and around the world. Children who go to bed hungry every night. We feel powerless in the face of such large scale problems. How can we bring justice, stop the wars, rid the world of those who value violence as a means of engaging the world?

This brings us to the last parable about the fishing net. Matthew 13:47-50. There were two primary ways of fishing in Jesus day - either with a long net dragged between two boats or with one boat laying out nets and drawing them to shore using long ropes. Neither of these methods were discriminating - all types of fish were caught. Once the catch was hauled to shore, the fishermen would go through the the catch of the day, discarding what was deemed unclean by Jewish standards. This is not so much a kingdom of Heaven parable as it is an "end of the age" story. It is describing what will happen at the end of time - and not before then! Angels of God will separate the wicked from the righteous. It says that the wicked will be thrown into the fire. According to The Smyth and Helwyss commentary, the fire is "a metaphor for an unpleasant fate, rather like going to the dentist's office where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (as the text reads literally). So, as long as there is life this side of Heaven, there will be evil people doing hateful things. There will be people with whom we vehemently disagree over topics we are passionate about. It is not up to us to judge them, to write Facebook rants about them, to leave hate laced diatribes in the comment section. It is not our place to be hateful or violent back at them. It is not our place to exclude them or slam the door in their face. Let's take the awesome burden and responsibility of judging people out of our hands and place it in the hands of the only one who is worthy to judge. And be patient. That may not happen until the end of the age. Until such time, keep being the hands and feet of Christ, bringing Heaven to earth with our own acts of compassion and grace and love and generosity.

Speaking of those with whom we disagree or those who are different from us or who believe differently or vote differently or live differently. Jesus speaks to that in the Parable of the Yeast. Remember how yeast is a fungus and is a symbol for all that is unclean? Well, according to this parable, the catalyst for change in the kingdom is "the unclean" In Jesus day and age, the unclean were anyone who was not of the Jewish tradition, people who didn't follow the religious law, the sick, the lepers and the beggars. Yet these are the ones who were at the heart of Jesus' kingdom work. The ones you and I consider "unclean" may be the very ones God considers central to his kingdom. And sometimes that is a hard pill to swallow.

The good thing about the Kingdom of Heaven is that, like the mustard seed, it continues to grow. In the midst of the groaning of our world, God is still active and working through the lives of people like you and me. I challenge you to notice it! Where do you see God at work around you? Take note of it and write it down, Instagram it! Tweet it! Facebook it. Share it with your networks and your neighbors so that others can be inspired and made hopeful by the good in the world.

Since I am fresh off of back to back mission trips, I am bubbling over with where I have encountered God recently:

Children with liquid brown eyes lifting their arms to be held and their tiny arms squeezing my neck and their warm cheeks pressed against mine. Adults who are empowered to get their GED or go to college simply because they conquered their fear of the water and learned to swim. Members of this church living, working together, and sharing ministry together. Becoming the body of Christ as our strengths and weaknesses balance each other to become a seamless, functioning whole. Marveling in our creative God as we experience the colors, fragrances and languages of another culture.

  • Ice cold Coca Cola in a glass bottle at the end of a day working out in the hot humid Haiti sun.

  • Young Haitian men and women who are giving their lives to love and serve the least of these in Haiti. The House mothers, the young men who not only translate for guests at the orphanage, but who laugh and play and dance with the children.

  • A trickle of cool water and a bar of soap to wash off the dirt and germs and sweat at the end of the day.

I guarantee you, when you look you will see God. And the more you see God, the more you will discover beauty and wonder and mystery and joy and love. And the more you discover, the more you will see the world as God sees it. And the more you will want to join God's work in our world. And the more we join God's work, the more like Heaven our world becomes. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place we go when we die. The Kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is a mustard plant giving shelter in a garden, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. So pay attention; don’t miss it.

 
 
Ann Carter 2014
 
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