Jesus used parables to tell all these things to the crowds. He would not say a thing to them without using parables. (Mt 13:34)
Dear Friends. I don’t know if it’s ok to start this sermon off with a joke that is almost completely gratuitous, if it were not for the fact that it’s got something to do with heaven. There was once an old cat who died, met St. Peter at the pearly gates and told him of how he had grown weary of chasing 3 mice and then sleeping on hard wood floors all his life. And so St. Peter kindly ushered him into heaven and supplied him with a down filled pillow to rest his weary bones.
Soon thereafter, the same 3 little mice appeared and told St. Peter about their extremely worn-out paws, having been chased by this mean old cat all their lives. St. Peter also ushered the mice into heaven and kindly supplied them with 6 pairs roller blades to ease their weary paws from years of running.
The next morning, St. Peter surveyed heaven, greeted the cat and promptly asked about his night, to which the cat replied: “Oh St. Pete, this down-filled pillow gave me the best night’s sleep ever. But unsurpassed were the meals on wheels you sent me for breakfast!”
MF, if you read the 4 Gospels, you quickly notice that Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The words stand out everywhere. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…!” So, in today’s Gospel from Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Field, a Pearl and a Net and in each case the 3 objects are treasures for which a person gives everything—her/his all! That’s how much God’s Kingdom means in terms of commitment and dedication. The Kingdom of Heaven is of foundational importance to what Jesus is teaching us.
So MF, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? Many Christians, particularly literal evangelical ones, believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved,” like the cat and the 3 mice. The big problem with this interpretation is that Jesus specifically contradicts this view many times over, when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. It is at hand,” meaning, it is accessible to us right now, in this very moment. Like the field, pearl and net, the Kingdom of Heaven has everything to do with this life and how we live it. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about the next life and our flight plans to get there from earth.
MF, I consider it tragic that so many Christians have made the Kingdom of Heaven into a reward system for such a precious few in this world. The Kingdom an evacuation plan—my personal reward of salvation because of what I believe. Sadly, too many Christians rely only on principles, instead of an active and living faith in God.
MF, the fact is this: The price for the Kingdom of God is very high. It means that we need to change our loyalties from power, success, money, ego, and control to the imitation of a Vulnerable God where servanthood, surrender and simplicity reign. Of course, most people never imagine God as vulnerable, humble or weak. We want to see God as Almighty, and that vision validates almightiness all the way down the line—meaning, history affirms Christianity’s role in oppression and violence.
MF, when Christians affirm that “Jesus is Lord,” we are actually announcing our commitment to Jesus’ upside-down world of values, where “the last are first and the first are last” and where Jesus is Lord over all power systems. So, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar and Trump are not! If Jesus is Lord, then the economy and the TSX are not! If Jesus is Lord, then my house and possessions, my country and career/job are not! If Jesus is Lord, then neither am I Lord!
This implication was abundantly clear to first-century members of the Roman Empire because the phrase “Caesar is Lord” was the empire’s loyalty test and political bumper sticker. Early Christians changed “parties” when they welcomed Jesus as Lord, instead of the Roman emperor as their savior. A lot of us have still not changed parties. In fact, political parties are for too many, especially Americans, their only frame of reference today, where America is the “greatest country in the world.” This kind of blatant idolatry is nowhere close to the Realm or Kingdom of God.
Now, sociologists have concluded that there are three kinds of cultures in the Western world today, each with its own “bottom line”: political cultures based on the manipulation of power; economic cultures based on the manipulation of money; and religious cultures based on the manipulation of (some theory about) God. These three cultures are built on different forms of violence, although it is usually denied by most participants and hidden from the superficial observer. Evil and lies gain their power from disguise. When Jesus unlocked our masks of disguise, he revealed that our true loyalty was seldom really to God, but to power, money and group belonging.
In fact, religion is the easiest place to hide from God, as well as the easiest place to claim that God’s will is on our side! And in every hidden scenario, truth always takes a back seat.
Consider this week’s news story of Junia Joplin, a Baptist pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, who hid from God and her parish for some 6 years that she was a woman disguised as a man with long hair in a bun. Junia finally “came out” June 14 and revealed the truth of her transgender status in a sermon on the “hidden pearl and treasure” of “the woman God created me to be.” A month later, the parish fired her, claiming in a majority 58-53 vote that it was “not God’s will that she remain.” Pastor Joplin hoped “love [would] cast out fear.” Unfortunately, not enough fear was cast out, perhaps because not enough love was present. But the Truth is now out in the open for all to see. In fact, the truth is the truth is the truth, no matter who says it and no matter who believes it.
MF, Jesus always lived a life which inaugurated a new social order, an alternative to violence, exclusion, and separation. This is no utopia, but a very real, achievable Kingdom which is inside of us and at hand, as Jesus said many times over. This Kingdom is the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address (Lk 4:14-30), his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), and most of his parables, including today. In fact, the Kingdom of God is the guiding image of Jesus’ entire ministry. Most Christians glibly recite “Thy kingdom come,” but this means nothing until and unless we also say “My kingdom go.”
Now, the Greek word for “Kingdom/Empire of God” is basilea, which has to do with the economic order Jesus advanced. Although many Christians think of God’s Kingdom as otherworldly and immaterial, Jesus says God’s Kingdom is real, material and with a moral agenda opposed to Caesar’s empire. Basilea says that in God’s Kingdom, there is no poverty or fear, the needs of the poor and marginalized are met and not despised nor ignored by those in control.
The citizens in God’s Kingdom model a community of mutuality and solidarity with the poor and marginalized, thereby making them God’s agents and leaders in rejecting and dismantling kingdoms built upon oppression and inequality. This is precisely the vision of society the early Christians sought to create on earth, and that we who follow Jesus today are commanded to strive for as well.
Trouble is: What we’ve done, as church, is focus on the messenger—Jesus—rather than the message—the Kingdom, which is to say we know lots about the messenger, having erected an immense and unwieldy system of beliefs about him—but very little about his message. Allow me to quote John Dominic Crossan, a renowned Catholic theologian and his understanding of the Kingdom:
To summarize Jesus’ meaning of the Kingdom, we must not separate religion and politics, or ethics and economics, in that first century world. Kingdom of God means what this world would look like if God, not Caesar, sat on its imperial throne; if God, not Caesar was openly, clearly and completely in charge. It is, at the same time, an absolutely religious and absolutely political concept. It is absolutely moral and absolutely economic at the same time. How would God run the world? How does God want this world run? The Kingdom is not about heaven, but about earth. (Who Is Jesus? pp. 54-55)
To understand the nature of God’s Kingdom better, Crossan imagines that we are Germans at the time of the rise of the Nazi Party. The whole country knows that there is only one Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler. Now, think about going to church in Nazi Germany, where Lutheran and Catholic clergy are teaching their people that they have only one Fuhrer, who is Jesus.
MF, the pastor and priest risked their lives to say this, and so did Jesus, for that matter! That’s because the Kingdom of Heaven is a revolutionary principle, which subverts all claims to absolute power and all attempts to operate with total power, by any person, religion, or nation. Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven is allowing God’s love and justice, his mercy and forgiveness to be practiced by you and me in the here and now.
When Jesus is in court, being tried before the authorities, he tells King Herod: “My Kingdom is not of this world” and by which Jesus is conferring no authority upon the leaders and the institutions of the day, who represented the world and also took their domination of the world for granted. Back then, Caesar was not only the emperor, but he was god and his rule was divinely ordained—so they believed. Trouble is, Caesar’s rule was built to serve the powerful, and it was militarily reinforced to perpetuate that privilege. Of course, Jesus’ heart broke for those who were excluded—the poor and sick, the marginalized and vulnerable, the outcast and exiled.
So, when Jesus said in the beatitudes, “blessed are the destitute,” he was not romanticizing poverty, as we at times do. The source of their blessedness, said Jesus, was that, being forcibly excluded from synagogue and society, meant that they could now live by the rules of God’s Kingdom: not the rule of power, privilege and wealth, but the spiritual principles of love and justice, mercy and forgiveness.
In today’s Matthean Gospel, Jesus utilizes 3 images of the Kingdom of Heaven. First, Jesus says that it’s like a mustard seed—a plant which grew almost entirely in the wild. It multiplied so rapidly that once it got into a cultivated field, it was exceedingly difficult to eliminate. Today we would regard it as a weed, a nuisance, which grows into a small tree, about three feet high in which birds then nested.
Jesus used this plant to highlight how those who live according to God’s rule would also be regarded as nuisances, to spread and infiltrate, and eventually over-take, the fields of the Caesar’s empire. Jesus followers are like the mustard plant, popping up everywhere, not always appreciated in dominant culture and institutions. In short, Jesus means for us to mix in with our culture, like leaven in bread. We don’t proclaim and enact God’s Kingdom by withdrawing and hiving off from society. Jesus wants us to act like yeast, enabling the institutions—including church—communities and individuals with whom we mix, to rise to their greatest potential.
If our careers are in the world of business, we Christians are the ones who have a triple bottom line—meaning, we put people and social and ecological responsibility ahead of business, politics and profits. If we collect garbage, we do so with purpose, understanding that our work is not only our ministry to the community, but a holy work to preserve God’s nature by recycling, reusing and reclaiming. If we’re in accounting, we call our society and its institutions to account for the cost to God’s good green earth of the way in which we do business and make profits.
In short, as disciples, Jesus calls us to a higher, spiritual purpose. We are a hidden, subtle presence, which facilitates others to reach their full potential. Far from hiving ourselves off in some holy huddle Sunday mornings, we need to love this world, as God so loves the world, and dedicate ourselves to help it rise to its full potential.
Jesus then compares the Kingdom to the finest pearl, or to a treasure buried in a field. Those who find this treasure know it to be of incomparable value. So, in order to have it, they are willing to risk everything they have—everything which the world counts as valuable, in order to receive and cherish spiritual gifts no money can buy: love and loving, giving, forgiving and thanksgiving, mercy and justice, equality and integrity, commitment and dedication. It’s something like Rev. Joplin risking her career and self-esteem to finally reveal the treasured truth of who she really was in God’s sight.
That’s why the Kingdom of Heaven is the very presence of God’s Spirit in the world and within us. Tragically, many Christians have lost a sense of God’s sacred presence, having replaced it with the lure of money and material goods, of power and privilege, or in the case of Lorne Park Baptism Church, replaced God’s presence with fear and moral right. Jesus says our task is to find the pearl of great price, located deep in our hearts and finding it, we give it away, so that the Kingdom in our hearts becomes the Kingdom of Heaven in our neighbourhood and our society, in our country and world.
So MF, how do we enter that Kingdom? Great question! Jesus’ answer: To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must become like children! And childhood is a magical time, when pretending is real, and animals talk and kisses turn warts into chocolates, frogs into princess and awaken sleeping beauties. Childhood is a enchanted time, when the world is alive with splendor and sparkle, when anything and everything is possible. You just have to believe!
We didn’t call it God then, but somewhere we intuited that it didn’t get any better than this. Too see the world and our lives through the magical eyes and mystical hearts of childhood once again, to believe and hope again, to love and forgive again—as only children can do so honestly, genuinely and completely. Childhood—where and when everything and anything is possible! This MF is God’s Kingdom.
If we enter the Kingdom of God by becoming like children, it follows that remembering how to play once again, may be the key to our liberation from Caesar’s Empire. The mystics have been telling us this for years, while scientists tell us that play might be the key to our evolutionary success. Play is the medium with which we experiment with radically new ways of being and being creative. Inventors are typically those of us who never stopped playing. After all, the first scientists weren’t Copernicus and Galileo and their telescopes. They are the child within each of us who says: When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.
So MF, I’m giving all of us lots of encouragement to play and have fun. Let’s be kids again. After all, there’s a child within each of us, who still wants to play, and that’s true whether we’re 35, 75 or 105. For the future of our species and our planet, it’s important to play. In fact, most afternoons, Sherry & I play a card or board game. We especially like Rummikub and Qwirkle, Cribbage and Scrabble.
MF, the secret to playing is to allow yourself to be, which is to say that we are human beings are beings first and foremost. We are not called human doings, even though that’s exactly what we have been programmed to be. Our culture has programmed us to be human doings—to only be hard working and industrious. Too many Canadians live to work, instead of work to live. We need to be the humans God created us to be and playing is a way of just being.
We also need to play in church. Worship also needs to feel like fun—to laugh and smile, chuckle and clap. If King David could dance in the Holy of Holies, surely we can worship the God who invented fun and frolic, love and laughter. After all, this God of ours is the God of variety and diversity. I not only subscribe to Snoopy’s motto of Peanut’s fame, “To live is to dance and to dance is to live,” I wear a blue T-shirt with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in a whirly-gig dance.
For our own future and well-being, let’s play. We may just stumble upon the treasure, the hidden pearl, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Why? Because it is only as a child that we can enter that Kingdom. AMEN
Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen