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.
--Excerpts from Matthew 13
It's been a rough weekend. Watching the devastation that the combination of mental illness and fundamentalism* brought to the people of Norway. Watching what the combination of drug addiction and fame brought to a talented singer, who, like so many who went before her, is now dead at the age of 27. Something they don't tell you when you get clean and sober is that if, by the grace of God, you manage to stay that way -- you get a much better life -- but year after year you also watch people you love die of the same disease. So yesterday when I heard that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her home, it brought me back to nine years ago when my dear friend PJ was also found dead in his home. He was a brilliant stand up comic and an alcoholic, and a series of medications had tugged and pulled at his mental illness, but never seemed to really help it. He sadly died by his own hand and in his own home. It too was senseless and tragic. Yet, strangely, whenever I hear these "the-kingdom-of-heaven-is-like" parables, I always think of the week of PJ's death. Because these parables about the kingdom are so counter-intuitive.
We read Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that, when it has grown, becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Um, the greatest of all shrubs? What kind of off-brand kingdom is this? It's like saying someone is the smartest of all the idiots, or the mightiest of all baby dolls. Yet he says heaven's kingdom is like shrubs, and nets, and yeast -- and the yeast part might be the worst when you realize that yeast is considered impure -- we're not talking little packets of Flieshman's we find at King Soopers -- we're talking big lumps of mold which contaminate, and that in fact Jews were required to rid their entire house of yeast before celebrating some holy days.
We mistakenly may think that the kingdom of God should follow our values system and also be powerful or impressive and shiny. But that's not what Jesus brings. He brings a kingdom ruled by the crucified one -- populated by the unclean, and suffused with mercy rather than power. And it's always found in the unexpected. So when I hear kingdom of heaven parables and how it's found in the small and surprising and even the profane, I think back to two days after PJ was found dead. See, PJ grew up in a nice Catholic family from a small farming town in Iowa. I'm not really sure how they got a darkly sardonic, filthy-minded, comic genius for a son, but that's another story for another time. See, two days after PJ's death a group of my friends -- comics and depressives and recovering alcoholics -- undertook a mission of compassion. They entered the home of our dead friend, and they cleared out all the pornography. Every Playboy and VHS tape. All of it. They wanted to spare these good folks any more pain then they were already dealing with. That to me is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God on earth, that we might clear out the pornography from our dead friends' homes before their nice small town parents come to settle their son's affairs. It's small, it's surprising, and it's a little profane, but it's the real thing.
And I just think that if Jesus talked again and again about the kingdom of heaven and found any image available to tell us how to spot it, that us spotting it might be kind of important. And the reason it's important is that, like in Handel's Messiah, I believe there are two kingdoms. Remember the Alleluia chorus? "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah!" The kingdom of this world? is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever.
There is the kingdom of heaven and there is the kingdom of this world -- not as in the world God created and called good, but the kingdom of this world we created for ourselves. The world according to us is the other kingdom.
I asked people on Facebook yesterday to fill in the blank, "The kingdom of this world is like ... ." One said, "A thick fog. It seems large, scary, and impenetrable. But it is passing away." Another said, "The kingdom of this world is like a rich, good-looking guy whose stock portfolio is as breathtaking as his Italian loafers." And another said, "The kingdom of this world is a seemingly impenetrable system of victim and victimizer, winner and loser, rich and poor."
And everything around us can feel like it's demanding our allegiance to the kingdom of this world -- allegiance to the weight-loss industrial complex; allegiance to late-stage capitalism; allegiance to a worthiness based system of getting ahead in life. The kingdom of this world wages an endless campaign for our loyalty. It's on billboards and magazines and the workplace and the TV and the messages we received about ourselves during our whole lives, luring us in with false promises.
And it all looks so darned shiny and promising and impressive. And at the same time it also looks like 27-year-old singers found dead in their apartments, and it looks like senseless violence in Norway. It feels inescapable. But here's what I'm sure of: The promises of a human engineered kingdom are empty. The kingdom of this world cannot save us.
But Jesus came to bring another kingdom.
See, when God could no longer be contained by heaven, heaven came to Earth. The love God had for the world God created, overflowed the heavens, and became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. And God's Christ brought a message of good news to the poor and release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. And he healed the sick and ate with sinners and scoffed at the powerful, and he said in me the kingdom of God has come near. In the small and the unlikely and the unwanted the kingdom of God comes to us. And it changes everything. "This is the kingdom of heaven," says Revelation 21, "that God had come to dwell with us to make us people of God. To make all things new." For the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,? and of the Lord's Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.
I invite you to discover your own images of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is important to have a field guide; to listen to Jesus when he says what it's like so that we can see it in our own lives and in our own world. And here's why: When we can identify the kingdom of heaven sown around us, it's not just an FYI kind of thing; It's a subversion. It's God peeking through the curtain and letting us know that there is a deeper reality present in the world -- a reality in which God gets God's way. It's the light of God's Christ, which shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it. And seeing where God seems to be insistently, dangerously, gorgeously, and hilariously sewing signs of the kingdom is important because seeing signs of the kingdom of heaven loosens us from the kingdom of this world. It frees us from the false promises of human culture and shows us that which is eternal and true and unstoppable. It shows us that drug over doses, and greedy multi-national, corporations, and divorce, and unemployment, and senseless violence are not the final word. God and God alone will have the final word even if inconveniently God doesn't meet our expectations or work on our timeline.
And the kingdom of heaven is not to be found alone in a monastery; it's found in the ordinary, the daily, the right-in-front-of-your-face-and-never-realized-it. And when you see it, something is made new. Perhaps a part of the world, and perhaps a part of yourself. But something is made new when the empty promises of the world according to us gives way to the whimsy, and the true and the eternal in the world according to God. And it's always a surprise. Tilt your head and look sideways at your life and you might see it in the small or the unexpected or the impure -- for the Prince of Peace has begun his reign. The signs are all around. They are signs of a battle already won. Signs of a world loved so deeply by God that God refuses to leave it alone. So take another look. See if you can spot it. Amen.
[This post is adapted from a post at Sarcastic Lutheran.]
*This word was used based on an early news report and is now known to be inaccurate. Were I to write this sermon today, I would use the word "extremism."
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.