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Jul 26, 2020

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Series: July 2020

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks regularly of the kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God. What is he talking about? Sometimes the parables he tells are not always obvious in their meaning! And, how might we bring about this kingdom right now, here on earth?
Today's Scripture -  Matthew 13:31-33, 45-46

Matthew 13:31-33, 45-46
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it 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.”

He told them another parable: “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.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The Kingdom of God

I want to thank Sharon, Grayson, and Peter for sharing the scripture lesson with us. When I saw that these specific parables were included in the lectionary for today, I knew I wanted you to hear them told as we do in our Sacred Stories program. This program, which is for our Pre-K through 2nd graders, includes stories from throughout the Bible, but I especially like how the parables are told. Each parable is kept in a special gold box. Before the storyteller even begins telling the story, they say something like this -
“I wonder if this is a parable? Hmmm. It might be. Parables are very precious, like gold, and this box is gold.
This looks like a present. Well, parables are like presents. They are given to us. We can’t buy them or take them. They are already ours.
There’s another reason why this might be a parable. It has a lid. And sometimes parables seem to have lids on them. But when you lift the lid of a parable there is something very precious inside.”

This is an interesting thought that parables sometimes seem to have lids on them. It’s true! The parables of Jesus can often be quite confusing! He talks in metaphors – often using images that made sense 2000 years ago, but make much less sense today. And, he often does not explain them. He tells the story, then moves on to something else. Thanks for nothing Jesus … I have no idea what you meant by that story you just told!

But, we are each invited to lift the lids of the parables. In fact our sacred storytellers say specifically, “Let’s take off the lid and see.”

When we take the lids off the parables, we are invited to wonder. We don’t need to get anxious trying to read the mind of Jesus. We don’t need to try to find the exact right answer to the meaning of the parable. Instead, when we lift the lid of a parable, we get to enjoy a beautiful story, and to wonder about what the story means for our lives today.

Just as Jesus rarely explained his parables, our Sacred storytellers do not try to explain the parables to our children. Nor will I attempt to explain these parables to you today. Because I might hear these stories very differently than each of you. And I want you to be able to hear in the stories what is meaningful for you.

Instead of explaining the parables, our sacred storytellers ask wondering questions. I invite you to wonder about the parables we heard this morning.

I wonder how a small mustard seed can grow so large.
I wonder how the birds felt when they found a place to make their nests.
I wonder how the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
I wonder why the woman was making dough.
I wonder if she shared the finished bread with anyone.
I wonder how the kingdom of heaven is like leaven.
I wonder how the merchant felt when he saw the great pearl.
I wonder why that pearl was so valuable to him.
I wonder how the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant.

What else do you wonder about these parables? What else do they tell you about the kingdom of heaven?

Now, I told you I was not going to interpret the parables for you, but I do want to talk briefly about this idea of the kingdom of heaven. It is easy to hear this phrase and think that Jesus is talking about how things will be in heaven … about what eternal life might look like. However, let us remember that when Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, he specifically included the line, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In fact as we listened to Rob’s sermon on Facebook last week, Michael Hatfield reminded us of that exact line in the comments. Jesus does not want us to wait until we die for us to experience God’s kingdom. He wants us to know God’s kingdom here on earth.

If the reference to heaven is confusing, another way to think of this phrase is “kingdom of God.” In fact, it is only in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” Likely, this is because Matthew was writing for a specifically Jewish audience, and the Jewish faith avoids using the specific name of God. In Jewish writing, one frequently sees God written as G*d or YHWH. Matthew is likely using God and heaven interchangeably.

Jesus, therefore, is not describing some heavenly world far removed from our daily lives, but he is daring the people to imagine living in the kingdom of God – right now, in the present moment. This is a kingdom of surprising grace and abundance that is radically different from the oppressive kingdom of the Roman Empire. God’s kingdom is where ordinary people are the stars – a farmer, a baker who is also a woman. God’s kingdom is where God is present with us in the very ordinary activities of daily life – planting, baking, shopping. God’s kingdom is where the seemingly insignificant and perhaps even overlooked are important and cherished – a tiny seed, a bit of leaven, a hidden pearl.

At the very beginning of worship during the prelude, our first slide shared part of a quote by theologian Fredrick Buechner. I want to share the entire quote with you now, because I think he does a beautiful job of describing this kingdom of God.

“If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we hunger for above all other things even when we don't know its name or realize that it's what we're starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
That is from Buechner’s book titled, “The Clown in the Belfry,” which he published in 1992. But his words certainly resonate today. Especially in these last few months I have found myself quite homesick for the kingdom of God. The place where goodness and beauty are as close as breathing. The place where my best dreams come from and my truest prayers. Sure, I have glimpsed it a few times in the last several months, but I will admit that the glimpses have seemed rare. And I don’t think I am alone in this. We are living in hard times. I recently asked a congregant if they were interested in filming one of our check-in videos for worship and they declined, saying that life is just too difficult right now and they didn’t think they could be upbeat enough to greet everyone.
O God, for a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven right now! O God, for a world (to quote our opening hymn), where love is lived, where outcasts belong, where misery is relieved, and equality achieved. O, for that world. O, for us to know God’s kingdom here on earth. Recently, my prayer has been, “God, build your kingdom here, now! Heal us, revive us. Make our love and hope and joy to grow like that mustard seed!”

(Sung)
Build your kingdom here. Let the darkness fear.
Show your mighty hand. Heal our streets and land.
Set your church on fire. Pull us from the mire.
Change the atmosphere. Build your kingdom here, we pray!

This song has been playing regularly in my head lately. I especially find it interesting how the tone of the song changes at the end.

You made us for much more than this; awake the kingdom seed in us.
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ.
We are your church; we are the hope on earth.

The song changes from asking God to build God’s kingdom here on earth to recognizing that we are partners in the creating of God’s kingdom. “Awake the kingdom seed in US. WE are the hope on earth.” In his parables, Jesus shares a beautiful vision of God’s kingdom thriving in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives, but he also reminds us that God’s kingdom doesn’t just happen. Just like the farmer and the baker and the merchant, we have to work for it and to search for it. God doesn’t do it all by God’s self.

Even though these last few months have been so challenging, and I have had more than my share of moments of despair and anxiety, I continue to hold fast to that promise of the mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is here – within us and around us – of that I have no doubt. It may at times seem so very small, but it is mighty. The kingdom of God’s love and hope and grace and justice is here on earth as it is in heaven. May we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it, and may each one of us continue our work as co-creators of God’s kingdom here on earth.