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Imagining the Kingdom: Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2023

Today, I thought it might be fun to start with a little bit of show and tell. In your pews, you will find copies of an illustration on a single sheet of paper. Take a few moments and look at it.

What did you see when you FIRST looked at it? What did you immediately recognize it as?

How many people here saw a duck? How many saw a rabbit?

Who here saw something completely else, like a rock formation or alien spaceship?

Now that I have tipped you off, can you SEE a duck in the picture? Can you SEE a rabbit if you change the focus of your line of sight within the image?

So here’s a mind-blowing question: which is it? Is it a duck, or a rabbit? Or is it both at the same time?

This illustration was used by the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who himself borrowed it from the field of psychology. He was trying to demonstrate a fundamental issue about the mind and observation—how two people can objectively view the same thing, but come to wildly different conclusions about what that thing is. It has to do with the way we look at things—that we actually first jump to a recognition of the whole of something before we can see its constitutive parts.

Because here’s another fact: we often only see what we are looking for—we have talked about that previously in sermons this year. Jesus knows this. The world wants us to only see scarcity, and division, and soul-crushing competition to the death. It seeks to keep us anxious, empty, feeling unfulfilled and separated from those around us. If that’s all we look for—and we are programmed to see that way—that is all we will see. Unless--- unless we look for the signs that there is something else out there. Unless we use our imaginations, unless we “open the eyes of our hearts” to see the imprint of God all around us, in each other, in images, in nature, in stories or art or poetry. Or through parables.

That’s an important insight to bring to our life of faith. Unless we know what the point of a Christian life is, and can explain that purpose to others, people will have no idea what we are talking about—they won’t recognize the parts of the Christian life unless they can see the whole.

I walk you through this little experiment today because I want you to understand WHY Jesus is telling us all these parables. He is telling us what the kingdom of heaven is LIKE so that we can learn to look for the parts so that we can see the whole revealed right in front of us. He is telling us what the kingdom of heaven is LIKE because it is too big to just recognize all at once, and it is also too small to recognize all at once.

Our gospel reading hits us with six quick parables in rapid succession, all beginning with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And all of them are meant to explain what the kingdom of heaven, or life under God’s values, would be like.

To be clear, the kingdom of heaven is NOT about what happens when we die. The kingdom of heaven is about what God’s hopes are for how we live our lives. The kingdom of heaven is made up of faithful people who live by-- and love others and all creation by—God’s values. God’s values, as we are reminded by our reading from 1 Kings and our section of Psalm 119, are guided by the wisdom embedded in God’s commandments to us. And in Christianity, we have a model for how to live out those commandments in Jesus. We are called not just to believe in him, but to follow him and act like him—caring for others, seeking to heal and reconcile wherever we go, being lights of love and hope against the darkness of despair. That’s the kingdom of heaven, right here, right now.

Jesus explains to us what the kingdom of heaven is LIKE—back in your days of studying English, you might remember that such comparisons are known as similes. We use this kind of figurative, imaginative language because God is more than whatever our words can say. God is mystery—but mystery that is all around us; mystery that constantly reached out to us in love, seeking our flourishing by living lives of abundance—especially abundant grace, abundant mercy, abundant hope, abundant love.

And here’s the special feature holding all of today’s parables together: Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven starts with small things. Tiny things. Mustard seeds, yeast, and pearls. And those three things, in particular, start with something that is not valued at all. Mustard was a weed. Yeast is considered necessary, but unclean, which is why Jewish households got rid of the leavened bread during Passover.

And pearls? You may think of them as luminescent and expensive. But do you know how pearls actually start out? They start by being a grain of sand that gets into an oyster and irritates it. The oyster can’t expel the sand, so it begins to coat it with its saliva, which eventually hardens, layer after layer, day after day, until suddenly it’s a pearl. Yep. A pearl is basically an irritating piece of dirt covered by fossilized oyster spit. Seems like an odd thing to value and wear as jewelry—but then again, some of us also like silk, and that starts out coming from a worm’s butt.

You might be laughing, because my illustrations are outrageous—but memorable. I mean, you may never look at a pearl or a duck, or a rabbit, the same way again. Jesus was doing exactly the same thing. His listeners laughed at the idea of a mustard plant turning into a tree, or a woman knead what is the equivalent of 60 pounds of flour and turning it into bread, or a person selling everything he owned for a single pearl.

Jesus’s hearers would probably wonder why any sane person would deliberately sow a weed in his field—it will take the place of valuable crops. Yet here this weed is commended for providing a home to all kinds of birds. In the Bible, trees are often the symbol of how God provides shelter, protection, and nourishment to us. But it goes deeper in our stories today-- what one person considers useless, God considers valuable. Thus, the kingdom of heaven turns earthly calculations of value and worth on their heads. Just as in the Parable of the Sower, something small (it took over 700 seeds to weigh a gram) produces something substantial.

And here’s something we may not know: mustard was considered to be a curative in the ancient world. It was thought to aid digestion and fight the common cold. In our brief parable, mustard growing into such a large bush means that there was far more of it than one person could use, because just like every good thing, too much of a good thing is toxic. Instead, this medicine is meant to be shared.

Take a step back from all these scattered parables to see the whole. Jesus was illustrating this truth: from the smallest things, once we recognize them, we can see hints and flashes of something valuable beyond price: the kingdom of heaven. The Way of Love for us to live and truly flourish and have full and abundant life, right now, even among the weeds.

Listen to that foundational principle again: God seeks our flourishing by calling us to live lives of abundance—especially abundant grace, abundant mercy, abundant hope, abundant love. Is that the message of how the world tells us to live? NO. The world always tells us there is never enough and that the only way to win is by attempting to crush each other and only think of ourselves. That’s why, even though the kingdom of heaven is right now, it is also incumbent upon us to work toward it, to contribute to sharing this good news of God’s love for us.

To have faith, friends, is to imagine what can be. To be faithful people calls us to open our imaginations—our hearts and our minds—to the presence of God in a world that denies God. It’s a world after all, that tells you that a duck is a rabbit—and a Japanese horror-movie rabbit, at that.

Our parables today remind us that even a little is enough. In the Kingdom of Heaven a tiny bit of faith is enough. A tiny bit of understanding is enough. As we look at church attendance decreasing in the West, we are also assured that the Church started small, like a mustard seed, and yet eventually became big enough to even grant non-Jews a place to live, which is one interpretation for the “birds of the air.”

The birds find their refuge in the branches of this new tree, sprung up through God’s goodness, just as we find our refuge within the kingdom of heaven ourselves (Levine, 166). We do nothing to earn this—God’s love and care is there for us through no merit of our own, but simply as a result of God’s abundant grace and mercy. From an ecological standpoint, we could also say that we find our home in this beautiful world that, of all the planets and stars in the universe, is uniquely suited to support our life.

Close your eyes for a moment: what does the kingdom of heaven look like for you? Is there an image, or a sense, or a feeling that hints at God’s loving presence in your life? Now open your eyes. How can you share that image in the world? Because that’s how the kingdom of heaven grows.

One thing is sure. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t just fit one description, simile, or definition.

Poet Denise Levertov, who converted to Roman Catholicism late in life, wrote this poem that is called to mind with our gospel. You can find it in the back of your bulletins. It’s called “On the Parables of the Mustard Seed:”

Who ever saw the mustard-plant, wayside weed or tended crop, grow tall as a shrub, let alone a tree, a treeful of shade and nests and songs? Acres of yellow, not a bird of the air in sight. No. He who knew the west wind brings the rain, the south wind thunder, who walked the field-paths running His hand along wheatstems to glean those intimate milky kernels, good to break on the tongue, was talking of miracle, the seed within us, so small we take it for worthless, a mustard-seed, dust, nothing. Glib generations mistake the metaphor, not looking at fields and trees, not noticing paradox. Mountains remain unmoved. Faith is rare, He must have been saying, prodigious, unique – one infinitesimal grain divided like loaves and fishes, as if from a mustard-seed a great shade-tree grew. That rare, that strange: the kingdom a tree. The soul a bird. A great concourse of birds at home there, wings among yellow flowers. The waiting kingdom of faith, the seed waiting to be sown.

The kingdom of heaven is found in the simplest, most commonplace of things: seeds and trees and homebaked bread, in the joy of discovering something you’ve never expected to find. In looking for the good, and the beauty, and the meaning rather than trying to beat down everyone around us.

So what is the kingdom heaven like to you?

Imagine it. Love it. And then tend to that vision to bring it into being, to provide a home for all.

--The Rev. Leslie Barnes Scoopmire, preached July 29-30, 2023.

Readings- Proper 12A:

1 Kings 3:5-12

Psalm 119:129-136

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

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