Homily for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
July 27, 2014
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .”
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great Cathedral liturgy in which the person running it doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
Many years ago I attended a service at which a new bishop was presiding, or trying to. At that point he didn’t have much “stage presence.” He was not only struggling with the mantle of leadership – it was obvious that he was physically struggling with the heavy robes and where he was supposed to stand. He had difficulty keeping his mitre on straight and at one point put it on backward, so that the ribbons were hanging down on his face (granted, it’s a crazy hat in the first place, but you may as well wear it properly). He was not sure which hand was supposed to hold the crozier (his staff) and when he went to give the Blessing at the end of the service, as he tried to poke his hands out through the opening in the heavy cope, he looked more like Casey, the puppet from Mister Dress Up, than a bishop. He became a very good bishop, but in the beginning, things looked a little dicey and he was obviously feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.
The moment became a kind of parable for me, and I’m not always sure why.
In today’s first reading Solomon, feeling way too small for the role of king of God’s people Israel, finds himself struggling with the awesome sense of responsibility that has been laid upon him, no doubt imagining the inevitable comparisons with David his father, and worried about the distinct possibility that the kingdom David established will decline during his own reign. Can he measure up?
In his anxiety, Solomon turns to God in prayer, and today’s reading attempts to convey the sense of how that dialogue might have gone.
Somewhat Genie-like, God is portrayed as asking Solomon what he wishes for, and for Solomon, it must have been tempting to go big – to look for worldly success that would safely take him beyond what even the great King David his father had done. He could have asked for an expansion of the kingdom, he could have asked for a billion for his personal treasury. Instead, he asks for the ability to discern good from evil, right from wrong.
The text suggests that this is a watershed moment – that it is hugely significant that Solomon did not pray for worldly success but for discernment to know what he was supposed to be doing – that he wanted to do the right thing, not just the popular or expedient thing. This was the moment when Solomon entered into partnership with God. The proverbial “wisdom of Solomon” begins with this moment of letting go and letting God, and his choice to make the divine kingdom his priority rather than his own.
The great mystic Meister Johannes Eckhart said “many people want to look upon God with the eyes with which they look upon a cow; they want to love God the way they love a cow that you love because it gives you milk and cheese. This is how people behave who want to love God because of external wealth or inner comfort; but they do not love God properly: rather, they love their self interest”
Doing the right thing doesn’t always mean success in worldly terms, and we see this most clearly in the life of Jesus. Christians understand Jesus to be the ultimate human embodiment of partnership with God to the extent that we believe he was one with God, and so it is significant that Jesus, in living out the Christ-life, took the form of a servant, rather than striving to be superior or dominant. It is just as significant to acknowledge that in Jesus, God chose to be embodied as less-than – as vulnerable – rather than omnipotent.
Christ, whom St Paul refers to as “the wisdom of God,” chose to align with the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized. He chose to reject the trappings of power and privilege – the kingdoms of this world. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
St Paul reminds the Christians of the Church at Corinth “not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth . . .” (1 Corinthians 1). It is Paul who articulates this connection between the poverty of the Church and the Wisdom of God, and it is a different kind of wisdom than the prevailing ones of the day, much more similar in spirit to that of Solomon placing himself at God’s disposal and releasing anxiety about riches and reputation.
This was a place the church was familiar with for 300 years – no buildings, no status in society, and much pressure and persecution. The Church was a church of the marginalized, by the marginalized and for the marginalized.
People under pressure, in hopeless situations, faced with threats to their well-being, have often looked to the kingdom of heaven as a hope beyond the confines of this life, often defined more as an escape, a way out, or as a way of gaining personal advantage over others. Jesus defines it more in terms of its power to transform rather than to transcend.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of heaven is central to what Jesus is proclaiming. The kingdom is portrayed in a lot of ways and is no doubt a multitude of things. Numerous times in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . “ which says, for one thing, that the kingdom isn’t something precise or exact – it can only be spoken of by analogy, in approximations, metaphors and similes – and the images Jesus offers are all images which speak of things happening in the here and now, rather than the hereafter. Jesus is, after all, the one who asked his followers to pray “Your Kingdom come … on earth” and who told them that the Kingdom is not only near us but within us.
Most interesting, the images he used for the kingdom did not match up with earthly images of kingship and power. The images are very ordinary, everyday, down to earth examples, suggesting a reality that is right at hand — very accessible. There is nothing exalted about a woman baking bread; there is nothing glorious or grandiose about a tiny seed of mustard. Or is there?
The images Jesus uses to speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew tells the story, of mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, and a single pearl that might easily be overlooked, all speak to a community very much in the minority, on the margins, on the outside looking in.
They are images which speak of hope, which remind the faithful of the potential importance of small things, like seeds and yeast, which impact their surroundings out of all proportion to their size. Jesus uses these images to encourage the faithful and help them realize that they are every bit as important and valuable as kings and queens. This was an astounding proposition, a whole new way of looking at the world – even as late as the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart got into trouble because he suggested that a commoner was of as much value as a lord.
In these examples, the kingdom is not something grandiose and obvious, not something overpowering, but rather something small and obscure, something perceived as insignificant or as something hidden, or even as a nuisance, whose value is often underestimated or missed entirely. It isn’t found everywhere, but it can be anywhere. It isn’t everything, but it could be anything.
We live in a world that believes “bigger is better,” but Jesus, our wisdom, suggests that small is OK, that things can be influential and important and effectual out of all proportion to their size. As the early Church began to establish its identity and purpose, parables and images like this were central to its self-understanding and development, and helped it find being on the margins a meaningful place to be. The early Church was very much a church of the underclass and yet found meaning and purpose and dignity in that identity.
The Church in our time is in a very similar place. It has been abandoned by a society bent on success and consigned to the margins. Many people under 40 in this country don’t even know what a church is, much less what it teaches and practices. Bishops and clergy are very conscious of presiding over something much smaller and less prestigious than was the case even 50 – 75 years ago. Being an Anglican does not carry the same cachet that it once did. There are strong feelings of inadequacy and certain desperate tendencies to grasp for any quick fix that will turn the tide. The church in the early 21st Century finds itself on the margins of our society and ironically much of our effort seems geared at how we might get out of this place and be successful again as opposed to asking what are we supposed to be doing here?
Maybe we’re supposed to be here. Maybe we’re called to be here, among the least, among the anonymous. Maybe our voice is meant to emanate from the bottom of society rather than the top. As St Paul suggests, “we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden” (1 Corinthians 2: 6,7).
Recently we saw a powerful symbol of that emerging new reality, as the great Iona Building of the Vancouver School of Theology, known by many as the “Castle,” which for many years trained future Anglican and United Church clergy, was sold to the UBC Dept. of Economics, and now VST begins to take up residence in much more modest and less impressive surroundings.
The Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Rev Gary Paterson, himself a graduate of VST, spoke about this loss in personal and also spiritual and theological terms. The Vancouver Sun quoted him as saying, “My first response is personal sadness.” He went on to say that said the sale of VST “symbolizes how the United Church of Canada is no longer mainline, along with most churches across North America, including the evangelical ones.”
“The dramatic changes occurring within North American Christianity, are coming with both grief and excitement. Perhaps the church in Canada is returning to its first-century roots, where it was small and on the edge and the gospel was really being lived out. The very location, size and shape of Iona speaks of a different time. Students used to call it “The Castle” — well, I wonder if Christianity, which began with a stable birth and ended on an execution hill, ever really belonged in a castle.”
Now we tend to associate the word “Church” so much with buildings and with a certain kind of prestige, credibility and authority, that we forget that the Church, in its formational and probably most “successful” stage, was not very respectable at all, and was mostly about community (“koinonia”). It was all about forming relationships that were transformational, connecting primarily with the way of Jesus, and the Spirit of the Risen Christ, and also with fellow Christians, at a time when the world was overtly hostile to Christians. Again, it was a church of the marginalized, by the marginalized and for the marginalized.
In Paterson’s words: “Maybe the sale of the Iona building is, minimally, a recognition of the changing times, and, possibly, an exciting opportunity.” We are just waking up to this new reality: of no longer being “mainline,” and I do not think we are yet willing or able to see the positives in that – the possibilities – the freedom – the ability it gives us to see the kingdom of God in a new way.
As we anticipate ongoing change in the role of the Church and its place in society, and its ministry and program and formation within, as we continue to try to discern what is worthwhile of the old and what new things seem valid, some will obsess over what they stand to lose, and how much it is going to cost them personally — in time and energy, in money, in prestige and status. Any time people face transition, those anxieties can surface and as Solomon shows us it’s then that it’s time for a faith response – it’s time to turn toward God in a real way.
Accepting lower place does not mean we adopt a “you in your small corner and I in mine” mentality. In the images of yeast and seed, I see a message about impact on the large world around, as though Jesus is saying that the people of God are not to hive off in separatist cliques, or little sects, preoccupied only with their own salvation, but are meant to impact the world around in a positive way. The images Jesus uses suggest this consciousness of the life of the whole. The mustard seed doesn’t just exist for itself – it grows up out of nothing and it provides home and shelter for birds and shade for people. Yeast enables the larger entity – the Bread – to become something greater.
If we take the teachings of Jesus seriously, we begin to realize that we may have conceived of the Church wrongly in the first place. When we as people of the Way of Christ seek God only in the grandiose, or are unsatisfied unless we hold a dominant position, we can become oblivious to the presence of God right at our finger tips and right under our nose. As we think about the kingdom in terms of mustard seed or yeast, we are challenged to realize that the one who is faithful in the smallest of things will also be faithful in the largest of things. Our purpose in life is not some arbitrary measure of success, but has to do with coming into alignment with the One who created us, and we know our Creator through Jesus, who willingly chose the humble way of a servant.
This is the wisdom of Solomon. This is Christ the wisdom and power of God that St Paul proclaims. This is the wisdom of God, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the kingdom of heaven and it is already in us.
The “role,” the task, the mantle, is always too big for us – it’s always beyond us, which is why we need to connect with the One who brings universes and galaxies into being. With God, in Christ, incredible things are possible, things beyond our capacity to know or even imagine. Solomon had the wisdom to know that, and to turn to God seeking discernment, and Jesus trusted that enough to put his life on the line for it.
God, by your grace, help us to receive the wisdom of Christ, and always to be aware of our own smallness, whether we wear the robes of a king, a bishop, a baker or a gardener.
(The Venerable) Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for the Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
Romans 8:26-39 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 He put before them 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.”