July 27, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
Parables. Are you tired of them yet? Don’t worry, I think we’re going to move on to something new soon. We have been steadily working our way through the 13th chapter of Matthew for three weeks now. We watched a farmer indiscriminately sow seed everywhere he walked….some landed on the path and was eaten by the birds, some was scorched in the sun, some was choked by thorns and some landed in good soil and gave amazing yields. We gave thanks for our God's indiscriminate and wasteful love. And we watched a farmer plant his field with good seed only to discover that an enemy came in the night, sowing weeds among the wheat. And we heard that farmer’s calming words, “Let it be. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together and we will sort it out at the end.”
Once again, Jesus speaks to his disciples…and us…in parables. Once again, the subject at hand is the kingdom of heaven. Once again, we start out with a seed being sowed in a field.
Jesus gives us five short parables and they all begin, “The kingdom of heaven…” I want to begin by making a conscious switch to an updated term “the Realm of God.” Jesus lived in a time and place where political and military leaders were almost always men, but we know God to be without gender and we live in a time and place where people of any gender are often leaders.
Matthew alone uses the phrase “kingdom of HEAVEN” instead of “kingdom of GOD” and some surmise he did this because he was writing for a Jewish audience and wanted to avoid using the word God. It is apparent that “kingdom and heaven” and “kingdom of God” are synonymous. Both refer to a vision Jesus carried with him for what the world could become if God’s Spirit were allowed to fully break forth and rule. The Realm of God is at the very core of Jesus’s theology, preaching, and teaching. The Realm of God is not about what happens in the sweet by-and-by….rather it is a radical vision of the here and now where lives and communities are transformed by God’s grace and justice.
In Jesus’s five short parables today we see that the Realm of God is all kinds of things. Too big and too broad to be contained in one or two stories.
The Realm of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a giant invasive tree and provides a place for the birds to rest.
The Realm of God is like some fungus that a baker mixed in with an enormous amount of flour and it turned the flours into a giant squishy mass of dough, ready to be baked and devoured.
The Realm of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Someone found the treasure and hid it and in a spirit of great celebration sold every single thing she had so she could buy the field and possess the treasure.
The Realm of God is like treasure, yes, but is it also like the one who goes out in search of great treasure. The merchant who went seeking the best pearls money could buy and once she found the best pearl she had ever seen, she sold everything she had so she could have that pearl.
The Realm of God is like a seed that becomes a weed that becomes a tree, like a tiny sprinkling of fungus that makes a giant ball of dough, treasure hidden in a field, the merchant who goes out looking for great treasure AND the Realm of God is like a fishing net. It is cast into the world and comes back with every kind of fish in the sea.
The Realm of God cannot be contained by one image, one parable, one story. It’s elusive, tenuous, here one minute – gone the next. Have you ever seen the Realm of God? How do you know?
I've seen the Realm of God. I was 22 years old, living in Dallas, Texas. I had just graduated from college and we moved to Dallas and were looking for a church. We had shopped around for a few months but just weren’t entirely sure where we would land. Several people had told us to check out Northaven United Methodist and we did.
When we visited Northaven, we learned that there were quite a few people there who were gay and lesbian. Saying this now makes me laugh, but it was the first time I had ever seen a same-sex couple sitting in church together, being affectionate in an open way. I had had several gay and lesbian friends, but never at church. At that point in my life, I knew I wasn’t a fundamentalist. I no longer took the Bible literally. But I was still struggling to reconcile my love for my gay and lesbian friends with the narrow way the Bible had been taught to me.
Fortunately, my experience of the Realm of God was about to change all of that.
One of our first Sundays at Northaven was a communion Sunday. There, as here, people came to the front of the Sanctuary to take communion. As we sat in our pew, watching the multitude of people shuffle to the front of the Sanctuary that day, I became aware of an odd physical sensation…something was telling me, “Pay attention! Look around! Do you see it?”
It was the Realm of God, brightly shining and on display in that Sanctuary. People of all ages - yes, that I was used to seeing. People of different races – yes, that I was used to seeing. But at Northaven there was also so many kind of love – couples of opposite genders, couples of same gender, couples of indeterminate genders. Families with no children, families with several children. Families with one parent or two. Children coming forward with grandparents or friends of the family. And people coming forward in wheelchairs, in walkers, being led by a guide because they were blind.
I know that if you’re sitting here, this story I’m telling you sounds like no big deal. After all, you, too, see this vision of the Realm of God every time you walk into our Sanctuary. Families of every type. People with varying abilities. But, for me, on this particular morning in Dallas it was the first time I recognized it as such….the first time I realized just how powerful and pervasive that feeling of GOOD was to be in a place where the full Realm of God was visible and coming together to eat at the table. My eyes filled with tears of joy and I vowed I would never again regularly take communion in a community where people could not openly come to the table with the people they loved. On that day, any lingering questions I had about God’s welcome to GLBTQ people were just blasted away. I had seen the Realm of God and there was no turning back.
What about you? When have you seen the Realm of God? This actually isn’t a rhetorical question.
I think that Jesus’s witness through these five parables invites us to actively reflect on the Realm of God. We are invited to imagine along with him. If Jesus finds five ways to describe it, certainly there are more. From the pages of Matthew, Jesus beckons to us, “Come on. Be alert. Use all your senses…open up your eyes and ears and heart. Do you feel that tingling on the back of your neck? That’s God’s way of telling you to pay attention. The Realm of God is all around us. If we will open ourselves to it, we will see it. And once we do, we cannot keep silent. It’s insidious…seeping into the broken places in our hearts and filling them with possibility, hope, newness, life. The Realm of God is not something far away or only sometimes or after the End Times or after we die. The Realm of God is here and now. Do you see it?”
Do we see it? What does it look like? I invite you to take a few moments and silently reflect on the times you have seen the Realm of God with your own eyes. And if you aren’t aware of a time, think about what you imagine it might feel like to notice God’s Realm. What would it look like? How would you know it when you see it?
Jesus tells us at the end of this passage that those who are trained for the Realm of God will be like householders who bring out treasures new and old from their storage. Those who have their eyes and ears trained for the Realm will see it. They will know it when they see it. And having seen it, they will be ready to offer gracious acts of hospitality to all they encounter.
They will reach into their stores and bring forth the fresh milk that just came from the cow that morning but also the tomatoes that were canned last summer...and they will offer both at the table to the stranger in need.
They will reach into their storage closets and pull out just the right new dress with the tags still on and the old heirloom scarf handed down from grandma….and they will lend them to a friend.
They will reach into themselves and bring forth all the newness and freshness happening in their lives, right along with the old, old parts of themselves that they can never seem to shake…and they will offer them joyfully to those they love.
Those who are trained to see the Realm will be givers. They will give themselves and their possessions and their time away indiscriminately. It will be radical, stupid, wasteful, irrational giving. Remember that weird sower with his seeds? Yeah, like that.
Because once you get a taste of the Realm of God, there’s no going back. Once you see it, you just want to keep seeing it again and again. And before you know it, you are looking through Realm-colored glasses and you start to notice the ways you can bend and shape the world to look more and more like the Realm of God, day-by-day.