The Kingdom of Heaven
Ordinary Sunday 17, 30th of July, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
After I say my morning prayers, I take my dog for a walk along the beach. Our walk starts at seven o'clock. In summer, it is already light by then but the beach is still quiet and it is a wonderful place to listen for God's voice. At this time of year, it is an altogether more rugged experience; it is still dark, it is very cold and often it is raining and windy. However, God's voice is still there to be heard so my part of the deal is showing up.
One of the delights of this habit has been the intimacy I now have with our local beach as its moods change across the year. I have brought a treasure from the beach to show you. It is a paper nautilus shell. Although I grew up on the Peninsula and I have spent lots of time walking on the beach, I have only ever found three of these shells. On each occasion, it has been at this time of year, just after a violent storm. I have stumbled upon each one, partially buried in sand and seaweed and have lifted it up to find, to my disbelief, its shining, delicate perfection. That something so fragile can withstand the force of the stormy sea is miraculous.
The beauty of a paper nautilus shell and the unanticipated delight of finding one always makes me think of the parables we heard today.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is;
- like a treasure found hidden in a field,
- like a merchant who sells all he has to buy the pearl of great value,
- like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.
And for me, the kingdom of heaven is like a paper nautilus shell; delicate and strong, fragile and resilient. If we want to find one, we must go to the beach in the coldest, darkest time of year. We must go there and walk, even though we may search for a long time and find nothing. A paper nautilus shell is pure gift. Finding one cannot be predicted or controlled but sometimes, in the turmoil that follows a storm, when rubbish of all kinds is strewn across the sand, you will find one, glowing and beautiful perfect and precious.
Any image of the kingdom of heaven is of course, only an image. The three that we heard today are the last three in a series of seven that Jesus tells in this chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus' purpose is to use images to translate the immensity of God's kingdom into something that the people can understand. The fact that, just in this chapter, we have seven different images recorded tells us that not only are there many different facets to God's kingdom but that it matters to Jesus that we grasp something of what it is like to live in such a way that our lives are ordered and ruled by God.
The question of what it means to live under the rule of God is central to Jesus' ministry. Sometimes the focus of this question is related to the end of time. (The parable of the sorting of the fish that we heard today is an example of that.) But Jesus is also deeply concerned with how we live under God's rule in the here and now. We must love God and neighbour now, in this world. In order for us to better understand how to do this, Jesus presents us with different images of the kingdom, each of which shines a light on one aspect of the realm of God.
And what Jesus reveals is disturbing. We see again and again that the people are confronted by Jesus doing and saying things that challenge the way in which they understand and worship God. In the chapter before this one, Jesus is caught up in controversy with the Pharisees because he has been healing on the Sabbath and in so doing has broken the Jewish law. They are appalled. Here is a man whose deeds of power indicate that he is close to God, but he is not following the rules of holiness.
For those of us who have found our value through our ability to follow the rules, it is deeply painful when the things by which we live are shaken and challenged, threatened and disregarded. It feels like existential death. This was the predicament of the Pharisees. I suspect it can be our predicament too. It is a rare person who, with all their most precious and deeply held beliefs turned upside down can find the spiritual and emotional maturity and generosity to see God at work bringing something new out of something old.
The parables that Jesus tells are part of his ongoing overturning and opening up of a new way of understanding life in God's realm. They are not just stories that he makes up to entertain the crowds as they follow him around. They are subversive, dangerous stories that overturn the accepted power structures. They shock and surprise as they give expression to a new way of seeing the relationship between God and people; a new way of understanding how to enter that relationship and what it means for living life. A risk for us is that we have become so used to hearing them that we no longer find them confronting; they no longer make us question our lives.
The three images of the kingdom that we have heard today tell us that the kingdom is;
- precious; worth giving up everything for,
- that it can be found by chance, but also,
- that it can be sought,
- that it is inclusive, and
- that any sorting of who is in and who is out should be left to God.
These are messages that, if we take them seriously, cannot help but challenge and confront us as they invite us ever deeper into the mystery of living under the rule of God's immeasurable, limitless love.
There is one final parable in this chapter of Matthew's Gospel. It is not of an image of the kingdom. It is a message regarding how those who have heard and understood the images of the kingdom are to respond. Jesus tells the disciples that, 'every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old'.
The scribes were teachers of the law. Jesus calls his disciples, including you and me, to share and communicate the treasure of the old truths — the law, and the treasure of the new truths revealed in and through Jesus. We are therefore called to bring into conversation the 'old' treasure of the Bible and our traditions and the 'new' treasure of God's ongoing revelation to us. The parables don't define God's kingdom, they invite us to see it reflected in the things around us. They invite us to discover more of its nature as we treasure both the old and the new. They invite us to go on questioning and being disturbed by God's self-revelation through the old and the new.
In writing this sermon I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what new aspects of the kingdom Jesus might want to reveal to us if he were to tell us some parables today. It was harder than I thought it would be because it first involved the need to see from outside my usual frame of reference; to open myself to God's revelation of an aspect of the kingdom that I have not yet imagined. It is an exercise I will continue to bring to my walks on the beach. You might like to try this yourself.
As a piece of unsettling inspiration, I will leave you with a parable that Thomas Merton adapted from a Zen story.
The kingdom of heaven is like scavenger birds hovering over a body lying in open country.
They desire to feed off it, to assuage their hunger.
But as they start to descend, the body disappears from view.
It is no longer where they thought it to be, and they soon go elsewhere.
But when the birds are gone, the 'no thing', the 'no body' that was there suddenly reappears.
That is the kingdom!
It was there all the time, but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.
May God's Word live in us and bear much fruit to God's glory.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.