A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017. The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33,44-52.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Last weekend, Prince George—the future king of England—celebrated his third birthday, and new, official photographs were released. As cute as the little boy is, I have to say that my favorite photo is the one that shows him with the family dog, Lupo. (Lupo, you may know, is a beautiful, black English Cocker Spaniel. His name comes from the Latin “lupus” for wolf, and is partly a joke for a sweet dog, and also a reference to Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother, whose last name was Lupton. Lupo’s mother was named Ella, and Lupo will be six years old just in time for Christmas, if you’re interest. But I digress.)
Especially in the United States, we often have conflicted feelings about royals. I have friends who are slightly more British than the Queen, and they follow every move of the royal family and can recite genealogies and lines of succession. I have other friends and family who find the whole idea of hereditary privilege and aristocracy completely disgusting, and would happily sing along with the song by Lorde, “… we’ll never be royals /It don’t run in our blood/ That kind of lux just ain’t for us.”
Given diverse views of royals and royalty, how, then, do we hear royal language in scripture? Especially today, how do we hear that word, “kingdom.” “The Kingdom of God is like… what?” How would you complete the sentence?
It can be a problematic idea. Not only does a word like “kingdom” conjure up a lot of different images, but it suggests there is a “king” somewhere, and if we’re not careful, it limits God to be one gender. Some suggest other terms might be better: the “reign of God,” or “God’s commonwealth,” or perhaps even, “God’s Holy Realm.” But there are problems with each, aren’t there?
You’ll notice that I tend to use the word, “kingdom,” more often than not. But I do so, remembering that all words are symbols and, as such, they always point to something beyond what they describe. Scripture helps us think about kings and kingdoms in different ways, because confuses the symbols and complicates the images.
The Hebrew Scriptures are of several minds about kings and kingdoms. Especially in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Samuel, one can tease out a voice that is very suspicious about Israel even having a king. At the same time, there’s a competing voice in those same scriptures that prays for a king and understands the king to be God’s representative among the people.
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. The followers of Jesus understand this and comment on it when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and he is praised, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” But Jesus redefines any possible succession to the throne.
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 alone 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.
How might we imagine God’s kingdom among us? How is God calling us to participate? In other words, “What is the pearl of great price for you? In what way can you be leaven?
Or are we called also to rethink and reimagine the kingdom of God? Perhaps the kingdom of God like a tweet that causes a flashmob, or a revolution for good. Or maybe the kingdom of God begins with one person’s asking for a summer program of some kind, and then we have something like last Wednesday’s Prayer and Pie, with 21 people gathered together. (And yes, there will be one more this summer, the last Wednesday night in August.) Or maybe you share a bit of my vision, that the kingdom of God includes a now empty gymnasium sitting on East 88th Street, looking to be used… The kingdom of God looks like the programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center, growing and expanding and including more of our new neighbors. And the kingdom of God looks like more people finding this incredibly space to pray with us and grow with us and help us see God’s doings in our midst.
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 Holy Trinity 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. Priorities shift. Schedules are adjusted. Loves are ordered anew.
We’ve got an incredible foundation, but I would challenge us all to do at least three things in order to live more faithfully and fully into the kingdom of God.
We need more kingdom praying. 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 Holy Trinity.
We need more kingdom talking. So much goes on in our building and around us that we keep to ourselves. From the office, we’re doing everything we can to communicate with a newsletter, working towards a new web site, we have sermon podcasts, and great signs—but we need to jump start all of this with “holy talking.” Tell your friends and neighbors. Invite them. And reach out to other members to let them know they are missed when they’re not here, and also that they are missing a lot of the kingdom, when they’re away.
And finally, we need more kingdom living. What is your role at Holy Trinity? 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? Are you willing to help with a program for children, or dream about more faithful stewardship of our space? Can you get your colleagues, 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 Holy Trinity?
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.