Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, 17:20
What is the kingdom of heaven? What's it like? Where is it? How do I get there? These are questions that Jesus was asked...a lot. And, if you're like me you find yourself asking the same questions. Maybe not all the time, because we are busy doing life, but sometimes that question just appears. It's waiting for and looking for an answer. You might be looking at a beautiful sunset, or the ocean, or a mountain, or the stars. You might be at a funeral or a wake and maybe caught up short by the fragility or unpredictability of life and wonder about this question since it's right there in front of you. On the other end of the spectrum you might see a baby or witness a baptism like we did last week and find yourself in awe of this miracle of life. And, on the other hand, you might be thinking about tragedies in life; tragedies like terrorism, famine, climate change, our sometimes senseless inhumanity to each other, and find yourself wondering how a kingdom of heaven is even possible. We all have this wonder from time to time, and these questions, and yes, even these doubts. It was not very different in the first century. Maybe climate change was not much of a factor but there were plenty of atrocities and injustice to go around. And, there were beautiful sunsets, and oceans, and mountains, too; and, obviously deaths and births and all the other things that would elicit the wonder, or the doubt, about the kingdom of God. So, Jesus spent a lot of time explaining the kingdom of God. And, sometimes it’s pretty confusing. Sometimes it seems he’s talking about it in the present tense. The kingdom is right here, right now. Sometimes it’s in the future. It’s apocalyptic. At the end of time we’ll have the kingdom of God. Which is it? And, again, what is it? Where is it? What’s it like? With Jesus there is no straight answer. Instead there are parables; not a pair of bowls as Lou Costello thought but parables. Come to think of it that is the entire purpose of a parable. It’s intention is for us to not listen with simply our ears because so much of the time what we hear is filtered through our experience and what we hear is not necessarily what is said, hence, the pair of bowls. The intention of the parable is to make us listen with multiple receptors: our ears, yes, but also our minds, and especially our hearts. Our Psalm reading today echoes this pretty well. “The unfolding of your words gives light: it imparts understanding to the simple.” We need to hear about the kingdom. We need to digest the knowledge and have it infuse our being. The psalmist says, “Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.” So the parables are an unfolding of words. They are indirect, oblique, and, sure, sometimes obtuse. But they serve to engage us inform us, not just with our ears but with our hearts. Matthew obviously liked them a lot. His gospel is full of them, and Chapter 13 that we heard this morning is pretty much entirely parables. I want to focus on the mustard seed which is the first one, and the last one which we heard this morning from Chapter 17, but let’s look first at the ones in the middle. It makes them kind of a mustard seed sandwich. They are all short and pithy. It helps to put them in historical context. The parable of the yeast is interesting. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ Bread and its making was known by everyone. We all know yeast is a catalyst and has dramatic effect on flour. Did you know that three measures of flour is equivalent to 23 liters? That’s a lot of flour. The yeast is like the kingdom of God in that it takes just a little to mix in with the flour. The flour here would be the world. In other words the kingdom of heaven is an active agent in our present daily lives; right here and right now. The next two are very similar. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.’ Both of these describe the kingdom of heaven as having inestimable value; in other words, “The kingdom of heaven? Priceless!” The next one is interesting. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s kind of a gruesome image, right? This one is pretty much a warning. But, it’s confusing. Here he seems to be saying that the kingdom of heaven is not now but at the end of time. It’s apocalyptic. Be ready! So, which is it? Now or later? My opinion comes later. Then we have verses 51 and 52. ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ So let me ask you, “Have you understood all this?” If your answer is yes then maybe you can help me. For most of us it’s still kind of uncertain. The cool part of this verse though is the end. Jesus says when we finally get it, I mean really get it, then we can be agents of the kingdom of heaven. We can help others to understand as, like the master of a household, we bring out the treasure of both old and new. The old here refers to the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and the new is about Jesus’ teaching. We can be agents of change because we have internalized this holy wisdom.
So, the mustard seed thing. As I noted, it’s used by Jesus twice in this gospel. Obviously there were no microscopes in the first century, so this seed represents one of the smallest life forms known. Not only are they tiny, and you can see them attached to your bulletins, but they transform. It’s amazing that they can grow to a tree as large as thirty feet tall with a thirty foot spread. These seeds pack a punch of power. Inherent in these seeds is magnificence. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ When you get a chance google mustard trees. They are beautiful. The kingdom of heaven has transforming power. That means here, and that means now. That means you and that means me. We are both transformed by the kingdom of heaven and are in fact agents of that transformation; right here and right now. We might feel tiny and insignificant sometimes just like these seeds, but we have within us a divine spark that can blossom into something big, and beautiful, and majestic as we work our transforming miracles in our relationships with others, and our lifting up of the weak, and our standing up for what we know in our hearts to be important. Do we sometimes question or have doubts about this tiny divine spark inside us? Sure, but that is what this last verse is about. ‘For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ Those are very big, and very powerful words. And they speak of this little tiny thing on your bulletin. Jesus says if you have faith the size of just one of these things, you can do anything. Anything’s possible. That is because faith cannot be measured by physical size. Faith is in fact immeasurable. It’s there or it’s not. It is the divine spark in each of us that, by its very nature has no limits. That is because there is no limit for God’s love for us. It cannot be measured. It simply is. It is unconditional and unequivocal. God has shown us that through the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. We have grace, we are forgiven, we are loved. So, what is holding you back from embracing that, and letting your mustard seed of faith blossom in to magnificence? I said before that I would share with you my understanding of the kingdom of heaven. Mind you, it does not need to be your understanding. It’s simply me being me. Is the kingdom of heaven here and now? Is the kingdom of heaven sometime in the future; either when we die or when the world implodes. I say it is both. The kingdom of heaven is all about relationship for me. It is our relationship with God, our relationship with God’s creation, and our relationship with each other. When these three things are aligned through the gift of God’s grace, nothing is impossible. It is here and now, and it transcends physical time. Love is permanent. Love is everlasting. Love never dies. We can channel this love with faith as tiny as one of these seeds, and with that we can move a mountain. Anything’s possible!
Let us pray:
Holy God, sometimes we have doubts and we have questions. Help us to let ourselves be open to you. Help us to recognize our divine spark, and with it become your agents of transformation in this kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven that is to come. Love transcends time and your love for us is forever. We pray that with your guidance our sparks will glow and grow to become a holy fire of love that will empower us to bring warmth and compassion and change to your kingdom. With you at our side anything is possible. Amen.