Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
My sermon at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mercerville, NJ, Sunday, July 30, 2017.
Regular and real updates to resume shortly. But for now–here’s what I preached:
Mustard seeds to great shrubs. Yeast to leavened bread. Hidden treasure. A pearl of great value. A net cast into the sea and a bounty of fish, with the best of the catch sorted out for our baskets. We’re to understand our treasures in the kingdom of heaven as the best of what is new and old, appreciating what we have in new ways while finding altogether fresh blessings not yet imaginable by us in our mortal time spent here on earth.
Okay. Okay, I get that, there’s also the unspoken and yet implicit portion of today’s gospel: the kingdom of heaven is available for all of us, right in front of us for us to claim, and yet we also must acknowledge its profound value and indeed, its steep price.
What will the kingdom of heaven cost us? What does becoming a disciple of Christ require? Is there a price tag attached to this that we may not be ready to face? What are we prepared to trade for salvation?
I ask myself this a lot lately, as I struggle with even the most basic elements of faith. I can’t decide right now if I’m angry at God, if I’m trusting of him, or if I’m just a disfigured cripple shouting at the rain. Yes, I’m afraid I find myself staring at what’s left of my body these days and sometimes wondering if there even is a God, or if religion is just a complex board game I don’t quite know the rules of, but I’m trying to play along just in case the cool kids notice me.
That’s hard to say, and it’s got to be hard to hear, knowing my current occupation and the path these last few years have set me on. The kingdom of heaven sounds like an incredible prize at the end of this life, complete with an incredible cost. Why then, does it seem some of us pay more than others? Is God like my therapist, charging us on a sliding scale? If this is real, and my faith and deep want of belief trusts in my best moments that it is—what is the high price of heaven, and how do we make its cost count in our time here?
All we know for sure is that this will remain a bit of a mystery until we breathe our last and life eternal reveals itself to us in that next moment. And the nature of worship, of glorifying God, of our quest to be the best disciples of Jesus Christ we can be, is to make sense of this life. What we’re doing while we’re here has to matter. And here’s where I get a little frisky and scary in my assessment:
This life of ours is not a test.
And perhaps what we’re being told in today’s gospel reading is that there is something so inscrutable, so mysterious, so complex and cosmic in the kingdom of heaven that our time is best spent…not contemplating it. But contemplating instead our time here, with one another. And how to best heal one another, to brighten this bleak and bleeding world. The kingdom of heaven is an unsolvable riddle for a reason, a trailer to a movie that we can agree we all want to see, even if we don’t completely agree on the plot. And so, we’re best to consider it as the hereafter, a grace note after this life, but never to give it more importance than the here and now.
This is the only way I can make sense of today’s gospel, really. It’s the only depiction of heaven that I can draw both sense and comfort from; I don’t see any version of life as a series of trials that gives way to heaven that makes sense given the path I’ve walked—pun intended—over the last two years. If I was to envision our time on this planet as a preamble to heaven, complete with messages from god therein, then I suppose I’d take what’s happened to me—the loss of my limb, disfigurement, deformity, disability, a promise of more amputations to come, a constant blanket of pity and loss tossed over me like so much existential napalm—were I to look at this life as a message from god in that sense, I’d think he’d be telling me to die. To leave this place, because there are more worthy of this life and more able to enjoy its bounties.
But that is not why we’re here. And I don’t believe god did these things to me. She is present as we suffer, but he does not cause the suffering. We’re not rent asunder as some sort of lesson in his eyes, to appease her. The New Testament makes short work of those parts of the Old Testament, making it clear that even our god is capable of evolving and softening and becoming kinder and broader and deeper in his understanding of herself and of us.
And I know I’m swapping pronouns of gender, because I’m pretty sure god does that all the time. When you embody everything in creation, why limit yourself to one fixed point of gender identity? That seems so…boring. And God is many things, hurtful, confusing, playful, infuriating, dynamic, quizzical, and awesome…but god is not boring.
There’s a terrible movie that I’ve been mulling over regarding today’s gospel. Pay It Forward came out a decade and a half ago, and it was supposed to be a movie that solidified Haley Joel Osment as a movie star after the Sixth Sense. Yeah, so much for that. Anyway, a young boy in the Las Vegas suburbs devises a system by which he helps three people, and in turn, they help three people, and so on and so on. The catch is that it has to be a method of help that costs something, that requires real effort and thought.
His first two instances of help happen quickly, and then the movie plods on with his mother and his teacher falling in love and a whole bunch of other fluff that feels awfully hallmark movie-sequel. And then, in the third act, he witnesses a classmate being bullied by a larger, brutish kid. He’s terrified. And he takes a deep breath, recognizes his fear, and steps in between his friend and the bully.
He expects to take a beating. Instead, the bully flips open a switchblade and ends his life. And two minutes later, the movie ends. Haley Joel Osment dies and then the movie ends! At the time, I found the film shockingly cynical even as if seemed rote and shallow; what a cruddy way to send us into the lobby!
But I think of today’s gospel. I think of the moments where I’ve changed for the better amidst some of this awesome loss of the last year and a half. And one thing is true, and constant: what comes easy doesn’t stay.
And that, perhaps, is what we’re being teased and taught about the kingdom of heaven here. We’re going to face moments in this life that will terrify us beyond imagining, that will destroy us in ways we can’t even consider. But the trick of this life is to make that hurt count, to find a sort of painful progress in how we love and support one another. The kingdom of heaven awaits us, but we have to be ready to for it to hurt like hell as we gain admission.
And maybe, in helping one another, in taking on each other’s pain and loving and living for one another, we find more and more of that heaven, right here on earth.
At least, I like to think that’s so. God bless all of us as we find our path and love one another in new and transformative ways.