Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
There once was a man. When he came to the gates of heaven he was greeted by St. Peter. As he approached, St. Peter stopped him. Before he could go any further St. Peter asked the man to give a brief history of his life, specifically the good deeds he did. Each of these deeds would help him gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven. "You will need 1000 points to be admitted," St. Peter told the man.
With great confidence, the man thought, "This will be a cinch. I’ve been involved in the church from the days of my youth.” Then he began to list his activities. He proceeded to tell about his time in youth group, serving on outreach ministries, and going to church camps. He also mentioned how he was on the Church Council and various other committees. His list was extensive.
"Very impressive," St. Peter smiled at the man. An angel standing with them also smiled and nodded in agreement as he tallied the points. Then the angel whispered in St. Peter’s ear. After listening to the angel, he told the man, "This is quite striking, we seldom see people with your good works. You will be pleased to know that you have earned ten points. Can you think of anything else?”
The man proceeded to explain how he helped people who were homeless, gave money to charities and visited people in hospitals. “Very nice.” St. Peter said. “Five points. What else?”
Now the man was in a panic and broke into a cold sweat. He thought really hard. He reached deep down and tried to remember every single act of kindness and good deed he did throughout his life.
He proceeded to share how he raised a wonderful family, got his tax returns in on time, and followed the rules of the road. In a state of severe distress, he even mentioned the one time he helped a little old lady cross a street.
The angel next to St. Peter looked at his clip board and nodded his head in admiration. Again, St. Peter praised the man. “Two points. You have a total of seventeen points,” as St. Peter looked over at the angel’s clipboard.
Now the man was furious. He was at a loss. He couldn’t figure out what do. He recalled everything he did in his life. Each time he mentioned his good deeds he received fewer and fewer points.
Finally, in a fit of anger, the man sat on the floor and began to sob. ”I don’t know what to do?! There’s no hope for me! What more could’ve I done?!” In a loud angry voice, he looked up and yelled, “No one could possibly have done enough to get into heaven! It’s only by the grace of God I will be able to enter!”
St. Peter quickly looked up from the angel’s clipboard. “You are correct. You receive a thousand points!” Then the gates automatically opened to the kingdom of heaven.
Is this how we picture the kingdom of heaven? Do we picture St. Peter standing there at the pearly gates? Do we ponder what would happen when we arrive? Maybe we do in the morning when we're waking up? Or, in middle of the day when we're at work? Or, at night when we're watching television or reading?
Perhaps we would wonder how we would react. Just like the man, we would first be so joyful because we would have reached the kingdom of heaven. Then we would be puzzled because it upends our expectations. Finally, we might be angry because we wouldn’t be in control.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven does. It brings about the most incredible joy, puzzlement, and anger. We heard this again in our Gospel lesson for this morning (evening). For the third week in a row, we heard Jesus share with us more parables or stories. But this week it wasn’t just one, it’s five. We heard Jesus at the beginning of every parable start with the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like…
When most of us picture the kingdom of heaven we think about a place we will go to after we die. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if Jesus wasn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven in this way? Might that bring some joy, some puzzlement, or some anger? What if Jesus was talking about experiencing the kingdom of heaven right here and right now on earth?
Ironically enough, this is what we pray for every week if not, every day. We pray that God will bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We might wonder, “When do we ask for this from God?” We ask every time we say the Lord’s prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
That’s the kingdom of heaven Jesus was referring to when he compared it to something. Too often we look at these parables as something like a proverb or piece of wisdom. For instance, many of us probably hear these parables, especially the parable of the mustard seeds and yeast, telling us that “great things have small beginnings.”
However, the tricky part about parables is that they aren’t what we assume them to be. Sometimes they are an optical illusion that miss directs us, in order to help us learn. Although we might imagine that our parables about the mustard seed and yeast are telling us that the kingdom of heaven is small and grows into something big; the kingdom of heaven transcends, or goes beyond that understanding and experience. We have to remember that although the kingdom of heaven might start out small and bring us great joy, it also brings us puzzlement and anger.
For instance, I’m sure many of us have seen mustard seeds. But have you ever seen what happens to a mustard seed when it grows? I had a friend from Atlanta who once told me that he wanted to make his own mustard from scratch. First, he really liked the taste of mustard. Second, he enjoyed gardening. So, he wanted to grow his own mustard plants.
Well, one day he headed out to the local nursery to buy some mustard seeds. When he arrived he asked the owner for a couple of packs. Upon hearing the request the owner told him, “No, you really don’t want them.”
Again, my friend was adamant about making his own mustard. “Yeah, I do want them.”
“No, you don’t,” the owner said.
My friend argued, “What are you talking about? I would like to buy a few packs of mustard seeds.”
Again, the owner told him, “No you don’t. You really don’t understand what will happen if you plant mustard seeds in your garden.” Again, “What are you talking about?”
Still a little perturbed, the owner explained, “If you plant mustard seeds in your garden they will get all over the place. They will take over everything and you will no longer have a garden of vegetables. You will only have a garden of mustard bushes. Worst of all, you won’t be able to get rid of them.”
It’s not just that mustard or yeast starts out small and grows into magnificent plants. I’m sure many of us knew that, but what we probably didn’t know is that it doesn’t stop. It invades every part of the garden, especially the parts that we wouldn’t want to have mustard. It would cause so much puzzlement and anger as to how it got out of control.
In Jesus’ days, mustard and yeast were considered pollutants. Mustard was similar to what we view as dandelions, crabgrass, or kudzu. As for yeast, once it got into the flour there was no way to get it out. There’s no way to get rid of mustard or yeast. It’s invasive, takes over, and at times just simply unattractive.
Perhaps that’s why many of us, both in and outside the church, are hesitant to learn more about God. Maybe that’s why we claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ but stop just short of moving into action to show grace to others. Possibly that’s why we are satisfied just doing enough. It could anger us that the kingdom of heaven would take over our lives. It could anger us that the kingdom of heaven could change our will in a way we wouldn’t expect. It could puzzle us how our lives will never be the same. It could puzzle us that the kingdom of heaven will take over us like a mustard seed or a piece of yeast. Then, we won’t be able to stop it.
That might mean we will start to question what we’ve already learned. Or, we revisit what we believed our whole lives. Or, we discover our views might not be accurate. Or, we realize God invites and welcomes all people into the kingdom of heaven. Or, we start doing likewise by accepting all people regardless of race, economics, sexual orientation, status, or education. Or, we might become joyful that God loves us all the same regardless of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or who we are.
So, what would happen if the kingdom of heaven spread or invaded everyone like a mustard seed or yeast? Would we get to experience the great joy in finding a treasure? Would we take joy in our relationship with God and one another? Would we find it so valuable that it becomes not just a priority but the priority in our lives?
The kingdom of heaven isn’t supposed to cause fear and anxiety. Rather experiencing the kingdom of heaven, here and now, makes a greater impact, a positive difference, and better life full of joy, love, grace, and wholeness. The kingdom of heaven is beyond our wildest imaginations. Because the kingdom of heaven is beyond our imaginations we only can catch a glimpse of it from time to time.
I caught a glimpse of it when I watched the news this weekend. In the midst of the heroin epidemic facing this country, Channel 2 had a story about what’s being done here in Western New York. In one of the most unlikely places, we would find the kingdom of heaven has been in a drug court. Unlike other courts, this one specializes in helping people who have the disease of addiction.
The main judge, Judge Cervi explained, ”If we can take care of the ills of the offender, we can cure the criminal activity so to speak.” Cervi continued, "Many people who enter into our program, are seeking help. They’re desperate to help themselves.”
One person who was desperate was Shannon Winsor. She admitted herself she hit rock bottom when she was arrested for shoplifting to support her heroin addiction. She explained how the drug court set her straight.
"My parents can only do so much. Judge Cervi can do anything and can send me to jail. It's a lot scarier," said Winsor.
And he did send her to jail when she didn't obey his rules. She detoxed in jail and was sent to Renaissance Campus for treatment. Now, she's almost one year sober and will soon be graduating from drug court.
"I thought I was going to die an active addict and I don't have to now. So it's amazing to see how far I've come in the past year,”.
“She is a shining example for other addicts and their families that there's help and hope. I always try to tell the participants it's not the fall that defines you, it's how you rise from the fall that makes you the person that you are," said Judge Cervi who was once suffered from addiction himself.
This is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. We catch a glimpse every time someone recovers from an addiction. We catch a glimpse every time systems are fixed. We catch a glimpse every time authority has compassion.
But it doesn’t end there. We also catch a glimpse every time an unemployed person finds a job. We catch a glimpse every time a poor child stayed in school and got an education. We catch a glimpse every time a person who is alone is embraced into a new community. We can catch it anywhere at any time.
We can’t purchase, achieve, or earn entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It’s already there and we can see it all around us. The kingdom of heaven is given to us from God. It grasps us, takes hold of us, it permeates every facet of our lives. It becomes so invasive that God invites all of us to participate in it and share it. Why wouldn’t we want to participate in it? Who would be scared to experience this? Yes, the kingdom of heaven does bring anger and puzzlement. But it brings the greatest, most amazing, abundant joy one could ever experience.