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A Welcoming Church

The Bible might be described as one long, epic attempt to picture to worldly man the nature of the otherworldly. It is an effort made in many different voices to surround the nature of God and convey the kingdom of heaven. Since this is an obvious impossibility, the effort relies on poetry and prophecy and metaphor and miracle.

And the overall message is that the kingdom of God, as we might expect, is in a whole different space from what we are used to. In fact, it is incomprehensible to us. The paradigm is radically transformed; all the polarities are reversed; the world’s rulebook is tossed out.

Ultimate reality is revealed, or as much of it as we can take in. The curtain is pulled back, and we get a glimpse. It turns out that eternal life is not an extension of earthly life – everything is turned on its head and inside out.

Jesus’ favored device for describing God’s kingdom was the parable. When we think of parables, we think of Jesus’ dramatic stories, with compelling characters and plotlines and teachings: the Prodigal Son, and the possibility of redemption; the Good Samaritan, and his love of neighbor; the Laborers in the Vineyard, and the nature of God’s justice.

All these and many more each give us their piece of the truth, their own picture of the love of God. Then there is another category of images that Jesus also calls parables, but without a story. They are snippets of analogy. Not being stories, they are inherently less interesting, but as a body they help to tease out our understanding of the kingdom.

Chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, sixty years after Jesus said them, is the mother lode of the non-story parables. Mark in today’s gospel was referring to these when he says, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” They use the language of leaven and mustard seed; treasure, pearls and fish. So let’s take a brief tour of them.

The first two are a pair with the same theme. The first, echoed this morning in Mark, is about a mustard seed that grows into a tree so big that birds nest in its branches. The second is about a bit of yeast mixed into big batches of flour that leavens all of it. The point is that in God’s kingdom big results come from tiny beginnings.

The next pair are about a hidden treasure so valuable that a man joyfully sells all he has to get it; and about a pearl so fine that a merchant who finds it sells all he has to buy it. In the first case, the man came across his treasure without looking for it, while the merchant found his pearl after a long search. The kingdom of heaven can be found both ways.

The point of these two is the transcendent value the kingdom has that makes us cheerfully give up everything to get it. It reminds us of the verse from hymn 474, “all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood. Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Another description of the kingdom compares it to a net that catches every kind of fish. Once it is hauled ashore, the fishermen sort out the good fish from the bad. Like another parable about wheat and weeds, the point is, there are for this time we are in, all kinds living together. Only at the end of the age will there be a sorting out.

Coming back to today’s gospel, Mark leads with a parable of his own.  Jesus says the kingdom of God is as if someone scatters seed and it sprouts and grows, and he does not know how. The ground just takes over and produces on its own in stages until the grain ripens.

The point of this parable might be that the kingdom of God and its ways are a mystery to us; we do not know its methods. But it works its will inevitably and certainly and dependably, whether or not we know how. Also, it comes on in stages, and the final result cannot be seen until the end.

So, what do we have from all these parables? Jesus says the kingdom of heaven starts small and grows. He tells us that its value is beyond price.  Until the coming of the kingdom, good and bad coexist. The coming of the kingdom is a mystery. It comes in uncertain stages, but it is a certainty. At the end of the age, God will sort it all out and put everything right.

These kingdom comparisons point to both the hiddenness and the truth of God’s reign in our midst. They say that a life of faith can start with just a mustard seed or bit of yeast, and grow, in fits and starts, but grow.

They say the kingdom can even come from something unwanted – the mustard plant was a weed; leaven was unclean; bad fish swim with good.  From such flawed beings, the Holy Spirit coaxes out a radical inversion of worldly values, in favor of the precious love of God.

We might say, okay, enough with all the analogies about what the kingdom is like; but what is it? Maybe it is like the TV drug ads today, in which everyone is impossibly happy. The players may be dancing or boating or picnicking with friends, but whatever their situation, they are all absurdly happy from taking their particular prescription drug. Is that the kingdom?

The kingdom of heaven is that peace that comes from knowing that God loves us. The kingdom of heaven means relief from all hunger and injustice and violence and disease and suffering. All that stuff goes away.

The kingdom of heaven means reconciliation and forgiveness; it means all our demons are cast out. It means inexpressible joy. In the kingdom of heaven, everyone is made whole; everyone matters; everyone belongs; everyone is reunited; everyone is affirmed and celebrated and loved.

That is what makes the kingdom of heaven more precious than any treasure.

God be praised. Love your neighbor. Amen.