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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 27, 2014

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers about the kingdom of heaven, so that they may come to inhabit it, not just after death, but right now, here on earth. He clues them in on kingdom behavior in the Sermon on the Mount, from loving your enemies to being poor in spirit to being peacemakers. He teaches them how to pray. He heals people and exorcises demons and hangs around with the outcasts, respects women and takes care of the poor (Talitha J. Arnold).

Jesus also speaks in parables about the coming kingdom. In these stories, we are given glimpses of what God’s world is like to experience. Jesus is showing us different facets of the whole because we can only grasp little bits of the kingdom at one time. The last two parables have been long ones, which Jesus later explains to his disciples, but these parables are just tiny one- or two-sentence pictures, left for those with ears to hear to interpret. It is hard to string them together to have a single meaning, but they can be broken down into three parts – descriptions of the kingdom, the response of those who would be disciples and God’s judgment for entry into the kingdom in the last days.

The first thing Jesus says about the kingdom in Matthew is that it has come near. It is incarnate in Jesus; it is incarnate in things of the earth. It is like the everyday ordinary things he talks about – a mustard seed, bread, fish, even the treasure of the earth. Have you ever played the game where someone picks an object and the others try to find it? The only clues you are allowed to give are that people are getting warmer as they get closer to the object and colder if they walk farther away. In this game, Jesus’ answer would always be “You are getting warmer”, because we cannot avoid the kingdom. It is all around us.

This kingdom is currently hidden. Just a small band of people know about it, and are talking about it, but it will be revealed in big ways. A tiny mustard seed grows into a huge bush. A small amount of leaven makes 100 loaves of bread. Why such a modest beginning, we might ask. Why not a spectacular coming so that no one can fail to notice something radically new and different is going on. Perhaps it is because Jesus wants us to seek out the kingdom, following the longings of our hearts. Perhaps the kingdom looks different for everyone, and we need to take time to grow into our understanding. Perhaps a spectacular appearance would override our free will to believe in the kingdom or not.

An article in the Washington Post exemplifies the hidden behavior of the kingdom. Statistics show that babies are healthier among poor women than they used to be. Something extraordinary is happening, the article says. Even though other economic and health differences between poor women and middle and upper class women have widened, this gap is closing. Experts agree that government policy and social trends have had a hand in this improvement, but no one policy and no one trend – just a tiny seed that has grown into a big bush to produce healthier babies for poor women; just enough leaven to raise the dough to a level where these babies will have better opportunities because of their health at birth; just another way the kingdom comes on earth.

But wait. Jesus is using metaphors here, and we have to further understand them to grasp their full meaning. A mustard bush was considered a trash plant, something no one wanted in their crop. The seeds fell out of good seed and mixed in, and mustard plants grew, strong and powerful. I have seen evidence of this reality in my yard this year. The weeds have been particularly hardy. Crabgrass has covered my brick walkway that was pristinely clean in the spring and has spread all over my yard. No one wants crabgrass in their lawns; we put weed killer on it to get rid of it, but the kingdom is like crabgrass? Or even kudzu? A puzzle indeed.

And leaven was considered unclean. It was responsible for bloating dead bodies, and it was the stuff a woman cleared out of her house in preparation for Passover. It was considered a pollutant. In today’s world, it is like mold, a noxious substance that grows in the presence of moisture and makes people ill.

Why did Jesus compare the kingdom to these two negative things? Perhaps he wanted to indicate that kingdom values are transformative, that they will turn the world upside down. Good things become bad things and bad things become good. The mustard bush shelters the birds. The leavened bread feeds people. While I cannot think of a single good thing to say about crabgrass, mold is the basic ingredient for penicillin and other drugs that heal people.

After saying what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus talks about how he wants people to respond to the kingdom, to be transformed by it. The man finding the treasure stumbles over it, just as the Samaritan woman at the well meets Jesus and became a believer. The merchant comes seeking the pearl of great price as those who came seeking healing did. But the response of both men is the same – to sell everything they have and buy the treasure and the pearl. Now they have only one thing but it is the right thing. Jesus wants to let us know that the kingdom of heaven sometimes requires sacrificing everything to enter it.

Glory, Rejoice and Comfort are three schoolgirls who banded together with others to promote girls’ rights to an education in Nigeria. They along with 200 other teenage girls were abducted for their beliefs. They were forced to make a great sacrifice for what was important to them. But the kingdom of heaven is being established. Girls in several countries have been mobilized to act on this issue, says the Washington Post. In the next few months, girls from Pakistan to Malawi will protest child marriage. An anti-child slavery week is scheduled. People are acting to protect the rights of children, surely a kingdom value.

What have we sold for the kingdom of God? Have we sold our whole selves to be fashioned into those that will inherit the kingdom, that will experience the transformation that shapes us more and more in the image of God. I know I have sold pieces of myself for the peace that passes understanding, but I have a lot more pieces to go. How about you? (P)

Jesus’ final parable about the good fish and the bad fish lets us know that what we do in this life matters to our future. The kingdom casts a wide net to draw everyone in, but everyone is not kept, according to Matthew. Only those who have tried to live in the kingdom of heaven will be allowed in.

The kingdom of heaven is very near to us, and so we are confronted with the need to make decisions about whether we will live inside or outside of it every day. We are faced with having to choose between the wisdom of this world, juggling all sorts of values at once, and the wisdom of God’s world, where God is at the center and only one thing is important – to love God and neighbor in the particular ways God calls us to do so. Jesus wants us to believe in and take hold of the kingdom.

Those of us who choose to be shaped and molded by the kingdom become scribes, taking what is old (the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition) and what new (how the Scriptures are interpreted by Jesus) and making them known in the world.

How do we recognize the kingdom that is all around us? We see God’s amazing love for us in the daily, ordinary things of life and in Jesus Christ. When we find these things, all we have becomes of secondary importance in our lives because of the all-encompassing nature of the kingdom. We allow ourselves to be transformed from living in this world to living in God’s world. We will know we are on our way when we begin to experience God’s shalom. Look for the kingdom in whatever you are doing and it will find you. It will turn your world upside down and take you to places you never expected to go. Rejoice in its presence, do its work, and feel God’s love.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Work Cited:
Talitha J. Arnold, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 286