Welcomes You

Proper 12A

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
Sunday, July 27, 2014

If you were going to describe the kingdom of God, what sort of story would you tell?  Can you see that goal we’re aiming for?  What’s your image of that kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven?

The hints Jesus offers in this morning’s gospel draw in all sorts of creatures and parts of creation, in surprising juxtaposition.  They are animate and inanimate, human and animal, plant and mineral.  He’s left almost nothing out.  It’s like a seed that grows into a bush or tree, with birds nesting in it.  It’s like a woman mixing yeast and flour.  It’s like valuable treasure in a field – can you see the folks out there with their metal detectors?  It’s like an entrepreneur hunting for exquisite pearls.  It’s like fishing with nets and sorting the catch – this is for sushi, that’s for bait, and this is for fertilizer.  What story would you tell?

            Let’s see.  The kingdom of heaven is like a stream of refugees, fleeing war in their homeland, and they are taken in, sheltered, and welcomed by people from another nation.

            The kingdom of heaven is like a prairie, filled with wildflowers and children playing.

            The kingdom of heaven is like a vestry meeting filled with passionate debate.

            The kingdom of heaven is like collecting the garbage – particularly when people begin to see the treasure it contains.

Jesus is prodding and confounding his hearers to see God at work in surprising people and parts of creation.  What makes it a vision of the holy?

That’s what the dialogue with Solomon is about.  Solomon asks for discernment to see God at work, and to better understand his own part as a co-creator of the kingdom of heaven and earth.  He may be new at the job but he’s already got the presence of mind to admit that he doesn’t know it all, and that he’s willing to listen and learn.

Paul writes to a community in Rome who know they’re not living in a heavenly kingdom.  Their experience is a lot more about an oppressive earthly one.  Paul is encouraging the faithful in Rome to buck up – even if they don’t have the strength or words to pray.  He says don’t fret, God’s own spirit is already within us, groaning in prayer when we can’t – trust in that.  When we’re conscious enough, we can remember that we are greatly beloved and we have been made good, and that is what’s most important.  We know that God is at work even when we can’t see beyond the mess of death in the world around us.

The kingdom of heaven is like a little kid who keeps asking for a pony for his birthday.  The day comes, he looks out the window and all he can see is a big manure pile.  “Whoopee!  I know there’s a pony in there somewhere!”

We know that all things work together for good when we’re loving God and loving neighbor.  I trust that little boy is going to let other kids ride the pony, and share the pony’s love with all comers.  One of the women who was ordained here 40 years ago is actually doing just that.  Carter Heyward retired from teaching at the Episcopal Divinity School to start a center for therapeutic horseback riding.[1]  The kingdom of God is like horses helping human beings heal.

Paul goes on to remind his hearers that the love of God surrounds us in ways that are beyond our mortal imagining, and that nothing whatever, including suffering and death, can separate us from that love.

The kingdom of heaven is like a funeral, with grateful thanks for love shared, and hope that life is changed, not ended.

The kingdom of heaven is even like the funeral for a child dead of cancer, or a family killed by violence, when the love of God and neighbor is evident in shared suffering and yearning for healing.

The kingdom of heaven is like that haul of fish, and sorting out the life-giving from the deadly and life-denying.  Treasure what builds up and contributes to abundant life, and put it in a basket to share.  Turn your back on the other sort, let it go, use it to catch fish that are good to eat, or put it on the compost pile to turn into fertilizer.

Jesus says that workers for the kingdom of heaven are like those who treasure what is new and what is old – keep the best of what you’ve known as life-giving, and be willing to be surprised by new possibilities.

That sort of hopeful attitude underlies all sorts of changes and growth toward more abundant life.  The ordinations we’re celebrating this weekend are an example.  I came along 20 years after those brave women and bishops, but when I was first ordained there were a couple of elderly women in the parish who said, “we don’t believe in women’s ordination, but you’re all right.”  That attitude was pretty common, for a long time.  People said similar things about this 35 year old prayer book, and they’ve said it about gay and lesbian people.  They took out of their treasure something old, were willing to re-examine it, and found the life-giving parts of both the old and new treasures.

Maybe more than anything else, the kingdom of heaven is about a willingness to leave the final judgment to the angels, and to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to what God is up to all around us – and within us.

Where is that pony?