Proper 12 / Year A
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
What is heaven like? Pop culture suggests people in heaven have bodies, wear white robes, float around on clouds, have wings and halos, and play the harp. If you do an image search of heaven you will encounter colorful depictions with billowy clouds, rays of sunlight, steps ascending to a gate, and a crystal city – usually with a rainbow arched over it.
Scripture gives us much to ponder. Jesus tells his followers he is going to prepare a mansion were each of them would have a room. Paul mentions a time when he was caught up into the Third Heaven. What this is we don’t know because he writes he is forbidden to talk about it. John receives a revelation of the New Jerusalem; a heavenly city with no sun or moon (because God is its light), a place where there is no pain, no tears, and no death.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches heaven is perfect union with God. “It is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” It also states “heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.” Our Catechism states “By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.”
Beyond what will it be like, I suspect the three most common questions about heaven are these:
· Who gets to be there and who doesn’t? (our Catechism emphasizes eternal death comes from our rejection of God, so it follows eternal life comes from our desire to embrace God and be in God’s company)
· Will we know each other there? Our spouses, grandparents, parents, children, siblings, friends. famous people… Will we recognize them and “be” with them? Can we talk with one another? Embrace? Laugh together?
· Will it be boring? What will we do there beside sing “Holy, holy, holy”?
Our recent lectionary lessons have us reading what are known as “Kingdom Parables” where Jesus teaches us in stories whose introduction is “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” As I did yard work yesterday I thought about this wisdom of assigning so many readings about weeds at this time of the year. While the weeds at my house continue to thrive in this arid time, mercifully the parables about the kingdom are moving on from them… well, almost.
The Gospel of Matthew employs the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ 32 times. The other three gospels never use it, opting rather for the expression ‘Kingdom of God,’ which appears 72 times. For our purposes they mean essentially the same thing… Jesus’ vision of God supreme reign over all creation and the possibility each of us has to invite God to rule in our hearts. Jesus announces the Kingdom of Heaven is already here even though we know God’s will is not completely sovereign in the world or in our lives. Nonetheless, it is here.
I speak of the Kingdom of God as being God’s dream for all people. It is a dream coming into clearer focus as God’s faithful people pursue it.
Those of you who have joined us for the daily offices in recent days have heard what are referred to as “Conquest Stories” – God’s people entering the land of Canaan and slaughtering one city or village after another… at God’s command… and on occasion enslaving prisoners… again at God’s command. Today we would say God’s dream for all people includes neither genocide nor slavery, so it is difficult to look back on these stories and make sense of them. That doesn’t stop some people from trying. I don’t. I simply say we now understand this is not a part of God’s dream for all people.
So what exactly is God’s dream for all people? Defining it is the work of a lifetime. Some point to the prophet Micah who wrote, “What does the Lord require of you, o mortal ones, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). This is as good a place to start as any and one thing is sure… in pursing God’s dream there is no place to stop until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
This morning we hear five short parables, each describing something of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
It is like a mustard seed – one of the smallest of all seeds – which, once planted, becomes a large tree. God’s dream – or at least a specific part of it – can begin as something seemingly inconsequential that eventually takes on a life of its own. Remember I said we weren’t quite out of the weeds yet… well, the mustard plant is a weed almost impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. God’s dream for all people can be like this… unwelcomed, unwanted, and unstoppable. God’s dream can be disruptive to the way things are and to the way we have always thought God wanted them to be. Eventually, the new dream takes hold and takes over.
God’s dream can also be like a woman who adds a pinch of yeast to a lump of dough. The yeast will enliven and energize everything about the dough, making it more full and more satisfying than before. God’s dream works in and through all things.
Jesus compares God’s dream for all people to something incredibly valuable. One person stumbles upon it by accident and does everything within his power to make it his own dream. Another person has been searching for it all his life, and once finding it abandons everything to pursue it. Jesus’ twelve disciples walked one of these two paths. Some were spiritual seekers and followers of John the Baptist, but left him in order to follow Jesus. Others we minding their own business or doing their jobs when Jesus invited them to follow. God’s dream for all people can catch us in either way.
And speaking of catching, God’s dream is like a net thrown into the sea which catches a lot of fish. Some are keepers and some are not. God’s dream is a huge vision and it is for all people, although not all people will want to embrace it.
Notice how each of these brief parables involves a person doing something. A sower planting a seed. A woman baking bread. A person of a journey. A searching merchant. Fishermen. The point is the Kingdom of Heaven – God’s dream for all people – is nothing without people like you and me. We participate in making the dream a reality because we carry it inside us and like the yeast we let it infuse everything about our lives and relationships. Like the sower we believe even our small efforts can make a huge difference. Like the fishermen, we cast our nets far and wide. And like the person who discovered a hidden treasure or like the merchant who finally finds the object of his search, we believe the most valuable, most meaningful, and most satisfying thing we can have in life is God’s dream for all people alive in us.