it’s like this

The text for today is a hodgepodge of parables, five or six of them, depending on how you count.  Almost all of them are trying to answer the question, what is the kingdom of heaven like?  And Jesus says, here, let me show you.  It’s like this…

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My favorite verse in this passage is 51, “‘Have you understood all of this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’”  My friend Rev. Jenny McDevitt, who many of you met at my installation,  says this verse provides proof that people looked Jesus in the eye and lied to his face.

I think the disciples here were like us at a party where a friend goes on and on about something obscure and winds up by asking, “you know what I mean?”  We nod, and as soon as they turn their back… look at our friends and go, “What?!”

The disciples had good reason to be confused, as do we.  Jesus is trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven.  Despite what our modern ears might hear, by kingdom of heaven Jesus does not mean just what happens after we die.  No, Jesus is talking about something even stranger here.

It might include what happens after we die, but it’s mostly about life here and now, and what will happen when time ceases to be.  He’s talking about a kingdom that is at hand, that’s right here if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It’s at hand, but not in hand.*  That is, it’s near enough to point to, but far enough that we can’t fully grasp it.

Confusing?  Abstract?  Inconceivable?  Yep.  The kingdom of heaven, God’s reality, is all three, by definition.  It’s nothing less than a re-ordering of our very world.  So rather than wading deep into metaphysics and philosophy, Jesus said, here–look at this dirt, look at this mold, look at the stuff around you, let me show you what I’m talking about.

We call these images parables.  Parable is a churchy word for the metaphors and similes that Jesus used.  They tended to be drawn from nature or ordinary life.  They catch our attention because they’re vivid or strange.  And they are open-ended or ambiguous enough that we’re left mulling them over.**

Here’s what I love about Jesus’ parables.  One, they use ordinary, every day images.  And two, there are lots and lots of them.  They form something like an impressionist painting.  None of the dots can capture the whole.  In fact, to look at one and try to imagine the full picture is absurd, just like any of these parables taken alone.  But taken together we get a rendering of the reality the artist sees.

Because here’s the truth: the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign and reality, is way, way more than we can ever get a handle on.  It’s deeper and higher than we can even begin to conceive.  It’s better and purer and truer.  It’s a whole new world.  How can we even begin to imagine something like that?

Rather than enter into long philosophical discourse, our God, the God who puts on skin and inhabits our world, says, come here, let me see if I can paint you a picture.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like…

…why, it’s like a seed!  Just a tiny little thing, easily overlooked.  The kind of seed that can get mixed in with other seeds.  You don’t even know it’s there.  When it first sprouts it kinda looks like a weed.  And, lo and behold, when you turn around it’s like an ancient rhododendron bush, taller than you are, and beautiful too.  It’s like vines taking over a tree or moss carpeting a forest.  Or for a non-organic image, it’s like an algorithm that puts infinite information at our fingertips.  A little seed money, a little worship, a little community of believers, and fruit beyond our wildest dreams.  When it doesn’t feel like much to follow Jesus, when the pennies we give, the small comforts we provide, the few children we nurture seem like such tiny seeds, just remember says, Jesus.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like…

…why, it’s like yeast!  Yep, yeast.  Little specks of mold, you can buy at the grocery store, or you can grow in the back of your fridge in a mason jar.  Either way, it’s little and living and most people don’t really think it’s particularly clean.  I mean, it’s mold after all.  Too much in our guts makes us sick.  But when you add just a little to flour and water, look what happens.  Who would have thought that moldy starter in the back of your fridge could make that crackling, crusty, golden loaf of sourdough?  That’s what God’s reality is like.  It’s like using chicken poop to fertilize your lawn.  It’s like people who seem a little suspect, but come bearing truth.  Not only is it small and powerful beyond imagination, like the seed.  There’s more, too.  God’s world is fundamentally different than our world.  And for those of us who are well-adjusted to the clean, sanitary, even sterile everyday reality, God offers a little dirt.  God’s reality is like mold.  It infiltrates, overtakes, and like yeast, transforms everything into an extravagant, abundance.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like…

…why, it’s like treasure hidden in a field.  It’s like renting and you find unimaginable wealth hidden in the walls.  You sell everything you own so you can buy the property.  Wait, is the kingdom like the treasure or the person searching?  Both.  It’s both the seeking and the thing sought.  It’s surprising and joyful.  And it completely rearranges your priorities.  All that stuff you cared so much about before?  It counts as nothing in comparison to God’s reality.  It’s like turning the lights on.  Who needs the nightlight anymore?  It’s like meeting the love of your life and everyone else pales in comparison.  You’re transformed by the love.  Nothing else matters.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like…

…why, it’s like a jeweler searching for the most perfect pearl.  Once she finds it, she sells everything else so that she can have that pearl.  Like the guy who found the treasure, the pearl of the kingdom reorients everything.  She knew what she was looking for, though.  Sometimes we have a map when we search for God.  Sometimes we don’t.  Either way, the brilliance of the diamond, the perfection of the pearl, the surpassing beauty of the kingdom stops us dead in our tracks and changes our lives.  There’s a tension here, isn’t there?  Finding God includes both the joy and surprise and shock of recognition, as well as the complete reordering of life.  It’s both the grace and the demand.  What is God’s reality like?  It’s like having children.  Nothing is ever the same again.  It’s like getting sober, or saying yes to love, or tending to a loved one who is dying–the beauty can barely believed, and though there are costs, the arithmetic has changed.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like…

…why, it’s like fishing with a gill net, scooping up all of the fish in the river, and then plopping down by the bank to sort the good from the bad.  God’s reality casts a wide net, takes all comers–that’s the only way you’re going to be surprised by talent.  As the hymn says, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.  And thank goodness.  How do you know until you see all the fish, whether you’re hungry for tuna or anchovies?  But rest assured, God’s love is wide and broad, but also discerning.  We don’t have to live with piles of rotting fish in God’s reality.  There comes a time when God saves the healthy from the disease, redeeming the goodness in each of us, throwing out the rotting parts that threaten our lives and inviting us up for breakfast on the beach.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

 

And the author of Matthew couldn’t help but add one more.  Those of us who have seen God’s reality and are trying to tell others about it, we are what the author of Matthew calls scribes of the kingdom of heaven.  And what are we like?

…why, we’re like someone who decorates our homes with new treasures and old.  We’re like curators in a museum bringing out ancient works of art and setting them next to contemporary masterpieces.  When we struggle to find words to explain to ourselves and our neighbors why we live the way we do, why we have the hope we have, when we try to paint a picture of the reality we’re finding in Christ, we take a page out of Jesus’ book and pull allusions from everywhere.  We take tales from the Bible, stories from daily life, lyrical snippets from poetry, a snapshot from our last trip, and this painting from the Renaissance.  We take from the old wisdom, but we don’t neglect the vernacular.

Because this reality we meet in Christ is too good not to share.  This kingdom of heaven that we catch glimpses of out of the corner of our eye, that shimmers and glows like the light right before sunset, that is here and as real as love is–that kingdom is too good not to share.  So we bring out all of our names, all of our images, and we get to work painting a picture to share with the world.

What is God’s reality like?  We could spend our lives wading through philosophical treatises and heavy theological works, debating the metaphysics of God.  And there would be value in that, but it is not how God primarily comes to us.

The God we’ve come to know in Christ Jesus and by the power of the Spirit lives and moves and breathes in this world, this flesh and blood, everyday, magnificent, mundane world.  That’s the beauty of the incarnation.  Nothing in our lives, none of this, is too profane for God to use as a tool of revelation.  There is no corner of our world that God cannot take and make sacred.  There is no humdrum moment or quotidian detail that does not hold a secret about the goodness, the beauty, the power of God.

Over and over Jesus said to his disciples: look!  Stay awake!  Pay attention.  Let me show you.  Right here, right now.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  He’s still calling to us, whispering to us, longing to show us the way and the truth and the life that is here for us.

 

What is God’s reality like?  What does the world look like in Christ?  What is the kingdom of heaven like?

…why, it’s like a garden, planted by God.

It’s like clay with the breath of the Lord pulsing within.

It’s like a great big bang and life climbing out of the oceans.

It’s like justice that pours down like a mighty stream.

It’s like fertile fields, and garden roses, and trees as tall as the redwoods.

It’s like yeast mixed in with flour, or fertilizer mixed into soil.

It’s like ordinary water in which we’re claimed as Christ’s own.

It’s like a table where we gather to celebrate and remember.

It’s like a seed, or two pennies, or just five little loaves and a few fish.

It’s in every single nook and cranny of daily life.

It’s like a pearl, or buried treasure.

It’s like a baby born to an unwed mother.

It’s like a carpenter in the backwoods of the Roman empire.

It’s like an innocent man executed.

It’s like a tomb that’s empty.

It’s like a meal with just some bread and some wine.

It’s like a feast set for a king.

What is the kingdom of heaven like?

Why, it’s like that.  May we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

 

 

* Christopher Morse came up with this apt turn of phrase.  His book The Difference Heaven Makes (London: T&T Clark International, 2010) is a compelling exploration of the meaning of Jesus’ heaven in our lives.
** Definition of a parable from C. H. Dodd, taken from Stanley Hauerwas Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), pg. 127.

***

by Sarah Wiles
July 24, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to it’s like this

  1. Keat Wiles says:

    Beautiful, striking, winsome. Thank you.

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