The Gift of the Kingdom of Heaven

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7th Sunday after Pentecost
July 27, 2014
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
Peder Stenslie

I can remember, when I was young teenager, occasionally assessing my chances at getting others to think I was cool.  For example, I remember one time a family friend gave me a pair of hand-me-down jeans.  They were different from anything I’d had before.  There was probably a name for them, but I don’t have any idea what it was.  The pant legs were very wide.  I guess it was like a bell-bottom, except that the flair was the whole leg, not just at the bottom.

At any rate, I was trying to figure out what I thought of these jeans.  Were they just weird?  I mean, they seemed strange to me.  I really had no sophistication at all when it came to taste in clothes, so I didn’t know.  But hey, I thought, maybe these jeans are really cool, and that could be really good for me.  I was trying to remember if I’d seen “cool” kids at school wearing them.  Had I seen them on TV or in magazines or on album covers?  Would I be cool then if I wore them?

To be cool is a very powerful thing, coveted by nearly all young people, at one point or another.  But good grief!  What is cool?  How do you measure it and what benefits do we expect it to bring.  Every kid, I think, expects that being seen as cool will bring them teenage happiness.

But of course, the whole idea of cool is absurd.  And it’s terribly misguided.  What we long for… what we all long for… is love.  We want to be accepted and valued.  But when we’re young, we’re not very sophisticated in understanding this need for love we have and so the need to be cool is born.

We confuse our need to be accepted and valued with the thrilling thought that others might think we’re awesome, more exciting than our peers, and want to be with us, want to be like us… maybe be jealous of us.  How great would that be?!  And so we wear certain clothes, have our hair a certain way, talk and act a certain way, carry a certain attitude, listen to certain music, whatever we think might be our ticket to coolness.

Wanting to be seen as cool was certainly a part of my teenage years.  I’m very grateful, however, that other voices were at work in me as well during that time… voices that told me that the pursuit of cool was nonsense.  These voices told me that I was already and always greatly loved and accepted.  They told me that real love and acceptance doesn’t require that I meet some criteria first.  It is a free gift and it hangs on to me through all things.  It gives me strength to act independently, to grow and change.

These truly wonderful voices came to me through the words and actions of my parents and other special people in my life, and through my church, and the Word of God that I heard every Sunday and carried with me, tucked away in my heart.  For a long time I wasn’t fully aware how these wonderful voices were at work in me.  They were quieter and more hidden in my life, in things that didn’t seem very important or exciting to me.

They were there however, and they were shaping who I was; transforming my anxiety about being cool into the liberating conviction that I was deeply loved and accepted, and that that love gave me strength.  Over time, the quieter voices prevailed and the need to be cool faded into the background.

Today’s Gospel lesson contains 4 parables that all share a very important theme.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like… they all begin… like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure hidden in a field and like a merchant in search of fine pearls.

Let me first clarify what is meant by “Kingdom of Heaven” here.  It’s also called the Kingdom of God in the other Gospels.  The Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God) means the power and way of God that is present and active in the world and in human hearts.  I’ll say it again.  The Kingdom of Heaven refers to God’s power and God’s way that is present and active in the world and in our lives.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”  This means we pray that God’s power and God’s way of love and mercy might prevail in the world and in our hearts.

Today’s first four parables all share the theme of the hiddenness of God’s Kingdom.  That is an incredibly important feature of God’s kingdom mentioned many times by Jesus… its hiddenness.  That means that the Kingdom of God is easily missed.  We don’t see it.  Or we don’t recognize its value.  Though it is in our midst… all around us, really… we aren’t inclined to see it.  And we aren’t inclined to value it.

The mustard seed is an example.  It was the tiniest seed that was sown in the ancient Palestinian world.  Just a tiny speck, really.  Who would look at a mustard seed and think that it could be anything?  Yet from this tiny seed life emerges and grows and gives itself to more life as “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

That’s the nature of Kingdom of Heaven.  Its power and greatness are hidden in unlikely forms… in smallness… in ordinariness.  When we see it we don’t think we’re looking at anything significant.  Yet it contains transforming power and lends itself to life and growth all around.  That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also compared to yeast.  Yeast is an ingredient used in making bread.  Interestingly, it is actually a living organism… a unicellular fungus.  It mixes and interacts with dough causing it to change its molecular structure.  In simple language, it rises and become a delicious and lovely loaf of bread.

Also interesting, yeast was considered to be unclean in the Jewish faith.  Jesus wants us to understand that the Kingdom of Heaven is unassuming, unexpected… maybe even offensive in appearance.  Its nature is to work invisibly, but powerfully, as it spreads throughout and transforms the very substance and form of our being and our world.  That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

The next two parables speak of a man finding something… first a treasure hidden in a field, then a pearl of great value.  In each case the Kingdom of Heaven is again said to be a hidden treasure, something valuable that is not easily seen.  To find it requires some effort.

It’s not that God has made the Kingdom of Heaven a secret and hidden it away from people.  The point is that we just don’t see it.  Though it is in our midst, we don’t have the eyes to see it… because we are distracted by and drawn to other things.  Our selfish nature focuses on things that cause us to turn us inward, and miss the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of Heaven does not catch our attention because it works to pull us out of our selfish selves and connect us to God and neighbor.  That’s just not something our human nature is looking for or interested in.  We’re interested in being cool… being rich… being in control… justifying ourselves… advancing ourselves.

However, the most important message in the 2nd two parables is shown in the reaction of the man.  In joy, he sells all that he has and buys the field… or buys the pearl.  Upon finding the Kingdom of Heaven in his midst, the man, quite correctly, puts it at the center of his life.  And that is where the Kingdom of Heaven… the power and way of God… belongs… at the center of our lives.

Its purpose there, at the center of our lives, is to strengthen us, change us, bring forth life and work through us to lend life to others.

There are few decisions we make in life that will have greater impact on us than what we place at the center of our lives… what we decide we will live for.  In the end, it shapes what we become and it marks forever the lives of others close to us.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus says in another place.  That simple statement of fact should guide us always.

The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s gift of life to us.  It is his love and grace… his power made available to us in the world.  Though it may seem to us uninteresting and unimportant, it has the power to work in us, invisibly, over time… like yeast in bread, changing who we are… making us become what God has meant for us to be.

Though it may seem small and insignificant to us, like the mustard seed, it has the power to bring forth vibrant and healthy life, changing our world, feeding creation all around with nurture and strength.

That is something we want in our lives… not just a little bit here and there… but right at the center… affecting and changing all that we are.

It is a foolish mistake to turn our back on such a gift to pursue things that just don’t matter.  May God grant us the insight to see the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst.  May he grant us the wisdom to take hold of this treasure and place it at the center of our lives where it belongs.

Amen.