Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 24, 2011
The Gospel lesson today presents us with five snippets in which Jesus describes the kingdom of God using very ordinary, common images like a mustard seed, yeast, and a fishing net—all things that would have registered with his audience in first century Palestine.
These brief parables are not about some far away, ethereal place, even though Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” rather than Mark and Luke’s preference of “the kingdom of God” or “reign of God. The Kingdom of God is the focal point of the message and mission of Jesus. His stories were descriptions of it and his miracles were signs of its presence. For Jesus, the kingdom was not a place but a relationship—the initiative of God pushing in upon us now, bringing the hope of justice and peace for all. Jesus begins his public teaching by announcing that “the kingdom is at hand.” It is close—within our grasp—something which is in our midst.
Author Patrick McCormick says of parables: “If parables have a job to do, it’s to force us to make room for a God who is not of our making, to tear down every pious preconception we have, and to leave us disturbed and vulnerable in the face of the living God…If commercials tell us,” McCormick continues, “that we don’t have enough, that we need more stuff, then parables tell us that we need to have a financial, emotional and ideological garage sale to clear out the excess baggage we’ve been carrying around.”
The images Jesus used in his parables were all things we find in the practical world. He used things like mustard seeds, a treasure hidden in a field, a marriage banquet, a farmer sowing seed, a waiting father, a lost sheep to excite the imagination and to entice us, shake up our thinking, even to jolt us into entering the kingdom of God—a way of living life here and now, not merely a state or place that we will experience after death. To live in the kingdom is to live a life of faithful commitment, of integrity, of trust in God’s faithfulness and in service to others.
The last of the five parables in today’s Gospel may disturb us with its language about the fiery furnace and the weeping and gnashing of teeth—images with which some of us grew up, images that scare rather than hearten us. If we hear this parable with really open ears we might understand that the metaphor of the fish and the net parable proclaims radical inclusiveness—that the kingdom gathers in everyone. There is not a net for the worthy and a net for the unworthy or one for the elite and another for the lower class.
We should not be concerned about who is worthy or welcome or entitled to be a part of God’s Kingdom. We don’t have to decide which fish in the net are on the “A” list for heaven. Leave that task for the angels if and when God even thinks it is necessary. And even then we may well be surprised at those who get a thumbs up and those who may be discarded. Parables confirm for us that God doesn’t look at things the way we look at things. We measure importance in IQ’s, dollars, market value, and size. God has a very different economy. God’s idea of treasure is very different from the world’s.
A story about a wise woman who was traveling in the mountains illustrates this truth well. Along her journey she came upon a precious stone in a stream. Soon after she met another traveler who was hungry and the wise woman opened her bag and shared her own food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked if he could have it. The woman gave it to him without hesitation.
The man left rejoicing in his good fortune—his hunger had been abated and the stone was worth enough to provide security for him for a lifetime.
But a few days later, he came back and sought out the wise woman to return the precious stone to her. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I want to give it back in the hope that you will give me something more precious.”
“What would that be, sir,” the wise woman asked him. “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
That would be the kingdom of God. So close. So very, very close.