This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
Did you ever feel like you’re banging your head against a wall? Like no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t make a difference?
I think we all feel that way in our faith sometimes. No matter how often we invite that one person to church, she never comes. Or no matter how hard we try to encourage that other person to seek the help he needs, he never listens. No matter how hard we try to get people at church to get along, they don’t. No matter how hard we pray, the answer just doesn’t seem to come.
Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of heaven today, and remember that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about some place we go after we die. He’s talking about here and now, God’s kingdom breaking into our lives here on earth. Jesus promised elsewhere that the kingdom is coming. And Jesus also promised that if we have faith and follow him, then we will be part of that kingdom here on earth, that we will be part of his will being done.
But where is this kingdom? We expect, or at least I often do, that when God’s kingdom comes here on earth, things get simpler, easier, tidier. We expect that following and trusting God makes decisions easier to make. We expect to have courage to make those decisions, and we expect to always at least see some progress. But so often we don’t. Instead, it just feels like we’re banging our head against the wall.
Well, Jesus today suggests that maybe we’re looking in the wrong place for the kingdom. Jesus talks a lot about what the kingdom of heaven looks like today, and it’s not what we might expect. He talks about mustard seeds. Did you know that the mustard bush in Israel was actually a weed? A weed that just grew and grew and took over fields and gardens? Nobody wanted a mustard bush. Certainly nobody ever planted a mustard bush! And Jesus talks about yeast. Did you know that yeast was considered by 1st century Jews to be unclean and contagious? And Jesus talks about people doing very strange things to get treasures and pearls. I think we can hear Jesus’ message in these stories better if I paraphrase them. If Jesus were here today, I think he might have told the stories something like this:
The kingdom of heaven is like a poison ivy seed, that someone took and planted in his garden. It grew and grew until it covered the whole yard, and climbed up every tree.
The kingdom of heaven is like a teaspoon of Dave’s Total Insanity brand hot sauce, that someone mixed in with a batter of chocolate chip cookie dough, until all the cookies were hot and spicy.
The kingdom of heaven is like a purse at a yard sale. A woman opens it, and finds $500 inside it. She closes the purse quickly, and buys it for $1.50.
The kingdom of heaven is like a museum that is filled with beautiful artwork. One day the owner of the museum finds a painting of great value, and goes ahead and sells the entire museum just to get that one.
The stories Jesus told really sounded that weird! The kingdom of heaven is like poison ivy, and hot sauce cookies, and yard sale thieves. The kingdom of heaven is not clean and tidy and simple! The kingdom of heaven is messy and weird.
Now, on first glance, this sounds terrible. It means the kingdom of heaven is just like the world all around us.
But then again, it means the kingdom of heaven is just like the world all around us. It means it’s out there. In precisely the places we never thought we’d see it. Some parts of our world, some parts of our state, are covered in poison ivy. Trust me. I’ve been in those places. Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven is just as widespread, and just as resilient, and just as powerful as poison ivy. And the kingdom of heaven just oozes through everything like hot sauce. And sometimes our world seems so meaningless, like items discarded at a yard sale. Yet the kingdom of heaven is there, and it’s not just that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s that some of that stuff that we think is trash is filled with more than we can imagine. If only we’d see it. The kingdom of heaven is amazing, and surprising, and it’s out there. And I have no idea where I will see it today. Or where you will see it.
The kingdom of heaven turns all our expectations upside-down. In the kingdom of heaven, we find that God’s power is most active in our weakness, as St. Paul often said. In the kingdom of heaven, we find that God’s wisdom is found in things that seem so foolish, things like loving your enemy, like forgiving someone seventy-seven times, things like having hope when there is no hope, like trusting that God will provide everything. In the kingdom of heaven, we find that the God who created the universe, the God who painted the sunrise, who fashioned the eagle, who breathed life into you and me, that God became most glorious on a cross. In the kingdom of heaven, we find that the most precious symbol of our faith is a Roman instrument of torture and death. In the kingdom of heaven, God changes death into life itself.
The kingdom of heaven turns all our expectations upside-down. The kingdom of heaven is not found in a church building, though sometimes it is. And it’s not found on Sunday mornings, though sometimes it is. And it’s not something that you hear about in sermons, though sometimes you do. But the kingdom of heaven will not be contained. It’s all around you. And within you. And among you. It’s in your house, at your workplace, in your car. It’s in arguments and disagreements. It’s in suffering and hardship. It’s everywhere.
You’re not banging your head against a wall. Because the kingdom of heaven is here, all around us. And every time you follow Christ, every time you obey his commands, every time you trust in him, the kingdom of heaven becomes a little bigger. The kingdom is coming. And it’s coming whether we’re part of it or not. But keep up the good work, my friends. Because then, God is bringing the kingdom through you.