Canon Claude Schroeder
Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52, Psalm 119. 129-136, Romans 8. 26-39 1 Kings 3. 5-12
In today’s Gospel lesson from the thirteenth Chapter of St. Matthew, “Jesus put before them, that is his disciples, another parable.” But as it turns out, Jesus set before them not another parable, but another five parables, for a total of seven parables here in the thirteenth Chapter of St. Matthew.
Jesus is clearly on a roll here, rolling out parables in quick succession in the hope of capturing and firing the imagination of His disciples on a theme that dear to His heart and central to His preaching and teaching ministry: the kingdom of heaven, or as it also called in the Gospels, the kingdom of God.
As Beth pointed out in her sermon on the earlier parables last Sunday, the kingdom of heaven is not a place you will find on Google Maps. Neither is the kingdom of heaven somewhere “up there” in a place called “heaven” which you might get into after you die. No. According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is very much down here, as Jesus’ down to earth parables illustrate: it is like a mustard seed that someone took a sowed in a field… it is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into the flour…it is like a treasure hidden in a field, or a priceless pearl you find at garage sale. It’s like a net which fishermen threw into the sea…
Get the picture?
Jesus is not giving us a lecture here, a well-reasoned argument. No. He is by-passing our rational logical mind and reaching deep into the imaginative picture world where we really live.
But what is the kingdom of heaven?
As the phrase suggests, it is the reign and rule of heaven, which has come down to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven which is beyond space and time, has entered into space and time, and creates for us a space and a time that we can enter into now and enjoy God’s provision and protection. The word that we use to describe that space and time is “church.” It is the space and the time where heaven and earth are joined together in a happy marriage, and it is this which the Lord has taught us to pray, “Our Father…May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Well, with all the stress and anxiety caused by COVID, and the tremendous convulsions we are currently experiencing in the body politic, not to mention the latest government scandals, and the terrible suffering of the poor and vulnerable populations around the world, wouldn’t it be nice if God’s kingdom did come, and His will was done, on earth as it is in heaven. Because then, surely, all of our problems, including COVID would go away, and we would find ourselves, well, in heaven, before we died…
The Good News of the Gospel is that God has in fact already answered our prayer. In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, God has established His merciful, loving, sin-forgiving, death-defeating kingdom here on this earth, as a present reality. To be a Christian is to know how it is that God has called you into the life His kingdom, not as an observer sitting on the sidelines, watching as the action unfolds, but rather asan active player and participant on the field.
The first thing that strikes us about the kingdom of heaven as illustrated by Jesus’ parables, is it’s “catholicity”, which is not to say that only Catholics get into heaven, but rather that in the kingdom of heaven we have “the fullness” of salvation, pictured here in terms of shelter, shade and food for all of creation. The mustard seed grew into the greatest of shrubs so the bird of the air came and made nests in its branches. The yeast leavened the entire batch of flour. The treasure hunter sold all that he had and bought the entire field. The merchant similarly sold all that he had in order to buy the pearl. And finally, the net thrown into the sea caught fish of every kind until it was full. Here we see that there is nothing of what is good, and what is evil, that God cannot and does not embrace and literally take on board in the present time in order to separate the good from the evil at the end of time. For those of us who wonder from time to time, “How can God allow this to happen, in the Church even?!” here is your answer.
In the kingdom, Our Father who is in heaven, “gives us each day our daily bread, forgives us our sins, leads us away from temptation, and delivers us from every evil.” But there’s more! “From His fullness” writes St. John, “ we have received grace upon grace” (John 1.16). As Paul writes in today’s reading from Romans, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not with Him gives us everything else?” (Romans 8.31), and so it is that in the kingdom of God there is “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14.7)
In the kingdom of heaven we have the fullness of salvation and it is this that defines the catholicity of the Church.
The other thing that impresses us about the kingdom of heaven in Jesus’ parables is it’s seeming insignificance as well as it’s hiddenness. I don’t know about you but I have never felt more helpless more useless and more insignificant as I have during this pandemic. The problems we face today whether personal, social, economic, political, ecclesial, are so great as to seem insurmountable. What can I possibly do? Where is the kingdom of heaven in all of this? Frankly, I just don’t see it.
But see, says Jesus, the mustard seed which is the smallest of seeds, and the huge impact it had on the ecosystem! The birds of the air came and made nests in its branches. And see the incredible impact of this little lump of yeast. It produced enough bread to feed 100 people at a single sitting. This is the way it is in the kingdom of heaven, and you and I are in on it.
The reason you can’t see the kingdom of heaven is because it’s presence and power is hidden. It’s like yeast that has been mixed in with the flour. It’s like treasure that has buried in a field…It’s like a man dying on a Cross…
While the kingdom of heaven cannot be seen, it is something that can be understood, making it possible for us to live faithfully as citizens of that kingdom. Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they said, “Yes.” Well, it was only really after His death and Resurrection, that the disciples of Jesus truly did understand, and it was from this understanding that Matthew wrote his Gospel for our understanding.
So what does it mean for us to embrace the kingdom of heaven by which God has embraced us?
From the parable of the hidden treasure we discover that it means joy that leads to a total self-giving and self-sacrifice for the sake of the world. When our treasure hunter found the treasure, he was overjoyed and sold all that He had and bought the field. We wonder, “Why didn’t he money he take the money and run?” The answer is, because that’s not the way it is in the kingdom of heaven. In the same way, it makes no sense to us when the merchant sells everything he has in order to possess the pearl of great price. So he has this wonderful pearl, but has nothing to live on! But what did Jesus say? “Seek ye first the kingdom, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6.33). Truly, the Gospel of the kingdom provides and costs us everything, all at the same time.
Have you understood all this?
At least you will understand why sang “Joy to the Word” just before the sermon, a hymn we usually only sing at Christmas. Because the kingdom of heaven which Jesus has established brings joy to us, not only at Christmas, but also in the height of summer in the midst of a pandemic.
Perhaps you will also understand as we heard in our Psalm portion today from Psalm 119 our participation in the kingdom of heaven is also a matter of keeping the commandments of God, which gives shape to the self-giving that flows from our joy. This is not, as is sometimes suggested a matter of earning our salvation, getting a reward for good behavior. No. it’s a matter living into our salvation. Keeping the commandments is what salvation looks like.
Finally, you will understand as St. Paul also shows us today, our participation in the life of God’s kingdom is principally a matter of prayer, where prayer is not so much something we do, but rather is something that God does in us and through us, conforming us into the image of His Son. (Romans 8. 32)
But the weakness and the helplessness we experience in the face our inability to fix or solve our problems, extends to the area of prayer, for as Paul points out, “ we do not know how to pray as we ought.” ( Romans 8.26)
But it is precisely in this place of weakness and of ignorance that God’s kingdom is manifest. “Like wise,” writes Paul,” the Spirit help us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8.26).
St. Sophrony of Essex, a celebrated Russian monk of the 20th century, has written a prayer for the break of day which, it seems to me, breathes with the sighs of the Holy Spirit that are too deep for words. Of the power of this kind of prayer, St. Sophrony writes, “If any of my readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by failure in life, he can attain to a regal freedom of spirit and radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a personal prayer such as this.” (His Life is Mine)
And it is with this prayer that I wish to close.
Prayer at Daybreak by St. Sophrony of Essex.
O Eternal Lord and Creator of all things, in your inscrutable goodness you have called me into this life and have given me the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. You have instilled in me the desire to seek your face. Hear my prayer!
I have no life, no light, no joy, no strength, no wisdom without you, O God. Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not lift my eyes in your presence. But I obey you who said:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11)
Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16)
Therefore I now dare to approach you. Purify me from all stain of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray rightly. Bless this day which you give to me, your unworthy servant.
By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and to act with a pure spirit to your glory; with faith, hope and love, humility, patience, gentleness, peace, purity, simplicity, sobriety, courage and wisdom. Let me always be aware of your presence.
In your boundless goodness, O Lord God, show me your will and grant me to walk in your sight without sin.
O Lord, unto whom all hearts are open, you know what I need and what is necessary for me. You know my blindness and my ignorance. You know my infirmity and corruption. My pain and anguish are not hidden from you. Therefore I beg you: Hear my prayer and teach me by the power of your Holy Spirit the way in which I should walk. And when my perverted will leads me otherwise, O Lord, do not spare me, but force me back to your way.
Grant me, Lord, to hold fast to what is good by the power of your love. Preserve me from every word and act which corrupts the soul, and from every impulse that is unpleasing in your sight and harmful to the people around me. Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be your holy will that I be quiet and make no answer, inspire me to be silent in a peaceful spirit that causes neither harm nor hurt to my fellow human beings.
Establish me in the path of your commandments, and until my last breath do not let me stray from the light of your ordinances. May your commandments be the sole law of my being in this life and for all eternity.
O Lord, I pray to you: Have mercy on me. Spare me in my affliction and misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with you for many and great things. Yet I am ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness. Have pity on me! Cast me not away from your presence because of my foolish presumption. Increase rather in me the right presumption of your grace and grant that I, the worst of people, may love you with all my mind, all my heart, all my soul and all my strength, as you have commanded.
By your Holy Spirit, Lord, teach me good judgment and sound knowledge. Let me know the truth before I die. Maintain my life in this world until the end that I may offer worthy repentance. Do not take me away while my mind is still blind and bound by darkness. When you are pleased to end my life, give me warning that I may prepare my soul to come before you. Be with me, Lord, at that awesome hour and assure me by your grace of the joy of my salvation.
Cleanse me from secret faults. Purify me from hidden iniquities. Give me a good answer at your dread judgment seat.
Lord of great mercy and measureless love for all people: Hear my prayer! Amen.