Growing with the Kingdom

A Mustard Tree

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2011. The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

Royalty have been in the news a lot recently. There was the wedding of Will and Kate, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There was the wedding of Albert, the Prince of Monaco and Charlene the Olympic swimmer from South Africa. More sadly, today in Oslo, the King and Queen of Norway are attending a memorial service for those who died in this week’s tragedies.

In this country, we tend to have conflicted feelings about royals. They are interesting from afar, but often, if we think too much about them, they do not fare so well “up close and personal.” Much of our country’s founding and a large strain in our the Episcopal Church’s history in the United States had to do with creating distance from royalty and royal things. How, then, do we hear royal language in scripture? How do we respond to royal language when we sing it in hymns, or when we pray it in our prayers?

I’ve pointed out in other sermons some of the issues many Christians have with the male pronouns having to do with God, but another word that has often been stricken from liturgical use is the word “kingdom.” “Kingdom” is that it is too patriarchal, too hierarchical. It smacks of hereditary monarchies and musty old Prayer Books. And so in some churches, one can hear other terms substituted. Instead of speaking of the kingdom of God, they will speak of the “Reign of God,” or “God’s Commonwealth” (which makes me want to sing, “O Canada”), or “God’s Holy Realm,” which sounds nice, but I’m not sure what it means.

The obvious problem is that whatever word one chooses, there will be confusion. Another problem has to do with clergy sometimes underestimating the intelligence of people who sit in pews, read scripture, and listen to sermons. People understand that words are symbols and they always point to something beyond what they describe.

The word, “kingdom” comes up in today’s scriptures. Rather than ignore the word or try to substitute a more politically correct word, I wonder if we might do better by exploring exactly what is meant by the word, and then asking God to improve our understanding. Especially given the many different images for the kingdom given in scripture, especially given Jesus’ own frequent use of the word, and given the state of the church in our day—I want more kingdom talk, not less. I want more kingdom thinking and I want more kingdom living.

Scripture offers us various images for a “Kingdom.” The Old Testament is of several minds about kings and kingdoms. Especially in 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, one can tease out a voice that is very suspicious about Israel even having a king, while at the same time hearing another voice that consistently cheers for the king.

In today’s first lesson, King Solomon re-defines kingship. God appears to Solomon in a dream and promises to give him whatever he asks for. Anything he wants. A traditional king—a patriarchal king, a hierarchical king, a king interested only in perpetuating power and the status quo—might ask for a huge army, or vast wealth, or a new weapon to obliterate the enemy.

But King Solomon prays for Wisdom, for Sophia—the wisdom unique to God that the scripture pictures in female terms, as running through the city like a woman in search of a lover. This is the sort of king Solomon is. His is a kingship that is based on wisdom. And wisdom has a tendency to undermine a conventional, traditional understanding of kingship.

In the line of King David, in the line of King Solomon, Jesus personifies this kind of wisdom. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, in the event we commemorate with Palm Sunday, he re-defines kingship. He is praised, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he talks in terms that complete re-define, completely re-orient, completely re-picture any earthly idea of Kingdom. And so, the kingdom of God is pictured as a place where children are welcome. It is a kingdom where the poor have a place of honor. It is a kingdom where the persecuted are blessed. And this new kingdom, Jesus says, is already at hand.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us five images for the kingdom.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A tiny, tiny mustard seed that can grow into a large bush or tree. Everything it needs to grow is contained in that little seed, invisible to the eye, but thorough known to God. And it is the seed’s nature to grow. It can’t help but grow because that is what it does.

The kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman works into the dough. It is worked in quietly, mysteriously, almost without noticing anything special. Until the dough is covered and left a lone for a while. Before you know it, it has doubled in size.

The kingdom of God is like hidden treasure in a field. One stumbles upon it. Others might be looking elsewhere for treasure, or perhaps they’re too busy doing other things. But you—you find the treasure. And so you take special care to cover it up, while doing everything you need to do to make sure that you purchase the field and make it your own.

The kingdom of God is like a pearl of extraordinary value. Like the treasure in the field, the pearl is of such value that it re-orients everything else. Finding the pearl, priorities change and shift and allow for this one, very best, most precious thing. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. Augustine talked about the ordering of our loves—putting what’s most important on the very top, which then puts into proper place everything else.

The kingdom of God is like great net that is cast into the ocean and gathers all kinds of fish. Some good, some bad, some a few in-between. But the time of the kingdom is to be all together in the net. At the end of time, God will sort out which is of value. For now, we live together.

And so we have various images for what a kingdom looks like and how a kingdom begins and grows and continues. I wonder how we are called to participate in God’s kingdom. What is the pearl of great price for us? Are we the leaven, or do we participate in the leaven in some way? Or is the kingdom of God to be updated in some new way—like a hypertext of love, perhaps? Is the kingdom of God like a tweet that causes a flashmob, or a revolution? Or maybe the kingdom of God begins with one person’s asking for a summer Bible study and then after three weeks, nineteen people are gathered in the All Souls undercroft at 10 am studying the Gospel of the Day. (And yes, that is a shameless promotion for our summer study.)

The kingdom of God can be found in every direction, but some of its characteristics can be found in the mustard seed, and the leaven and the pearl of great price. One aspect of the kingdom is that it unfolds on its own time table. It cannot be fully planned, strategized or outlined. We have some good mustard seeds. We have some good, sneaky, faithful leaven in our midst. And we have those who have stumbled upon All Souls and have recognized it not as the one and only place to hear God’s love, but as a treasure, a real treasure in the field. And so priorities shift. Loves are ordered anew.

We’ve got some good seeds, but they need to be watered. And so I want to challenge us all to do three things that might help us live into the kingdom of God.

We need more kingdom thinking. Prayer is our lifeblood. The first thing is to ask for your prayers. One of you mentioned some time ago, “we talk about growth and wanting to grow” but are we praying for it? I am, I told her. But I want all of us to be praying for the growth of God’s kingdom everywhere, but especially at All Souls.

We need more kingdom talking. The second thing is this. Fall is coming and we are celebrating 100 years of worshipping in Woodley Park. Especially for our Centennial Week, October 9 and October 16, invite someone to come to All Souls with you. Father Van Dooren will be preaching on the 9th and Bishop Chane will be preaching on the 16th. If you’re away, that means you need to invite two people, because you need to have someone here in your place. There is no reason why we don’t have 400 people both Sundays.

And finally, we need more kingdom living. What is your role at All Souls? What is your place? Do you simply keep a spot on the pews from being dusty, or do you do more? Do you pray for the church? Do you volunteer for the church? Do you teach Sunday school, or will you? Do you get your workplace or company to help in some way? Do you fold flyers? Do you simply straighten up the pews or pick up trash? What do you do to contribute to the growth of the kingdom of God from All Souls?

During this summer of deep growth and blooming outside, may God bless us with deep growth on the inside as well, as we grow more faithfully into the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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