Sermon: Episodes of the Kingdom

[Sermon preached on Sunday, July 30, 2017 (Proper 17, Year A) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Matthew 13:52

This morning I want to take a break from our journey through the book Genesis to reflect on the words of Christ that we have in the Gospel as he expounds upon the qualities of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven depending on the Gospel account, is one of those phrases that we hear of often in the New Testament that is worth our time and careful attention.

Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest and the father of Latin American Liberation Theology, began thinking of what this phrase – “Kingdom of God” – might mean for Latin America in the 1960s and 70s amidst is climate of incredible poverty, political corruption, and the unsteady tectonic plates of a rapidly shifting world. He came to understand the “Kingdom of God” primarily as “a gift”[1] that we receive from God that offers us a better, more just and equitable way of being in the world. For him, its advent – its coming – does not depend on us; rather, it is a direct outgrowth of the salvation work of God. As bearers of the mission of God, the authentic work of the Church, then, is to “be a sign of the kingdom within human history.”[2] We are called to bear witness, here and now, to the reality that the Kingdom of God is here, that compassion, and justice, and grace, and reconciliation, are not in some far-off reality, but alive and in the world right now.

One of the issues involved with using words of “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” is that they possess a certain misleading magnitude. We hear words like Kingdom and we think of conquering armies, trumpet fanfares, and grand choirs of angels. We aren’t alone in that. Many of Jesus’ followers were looking for the same thing. They assumed that he would be the one who would overthrow Roman occupation and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel with a dramatic flourish.

Except that the Kingdom of God doesn’t always work like that. God’s reign doesn’t need earthly power to sanction it. It doesn’t require conquering armies to establish it. It doesn’t need political leaders to uphold it. The Kingdom of God is a gift that is given freely to each of us to share. Its smallness undermines the machinations of the mighty. Its humility confounds the schemes of the strong. Its quietness confuses the bombast of the proud. The Kingdom of God is often found in smallness and simplicity that invites each of us to see that even the most mundane events and the most ordinary people bear the image of God.

The Kingdom of God is like, well, like a small church I know. For now, we’ll just call this church Saint Mary’s Church. Founded in the late 1800s in the inner city, Saint Mary’s bounced around a few times before winding up in its current location in the 1950s. As with most Episcopal congregations, Saint Mary’s was once a lot larger and wealthier in its hay day with programs and staff and choirs galore. At present, though, those glory years are but a faint memory. If you look around Saint Mary’s now, you can see reminders of those golden years in the plaques on the wall, the antique furniture, and the church itself which now easily accommodates the much smaller congregation who worships there each week. Although they aren’t the large parish they once were, Saint Mary’s is still fiercely committed to loving God through worship and loving their neighbors through service, even if they aren’t quite sure how exactly to do that given the uncertain realities of their changing world. The Kingdom of God is like Saint Mary’s Church still trying their best to faithfully pursue the mission of God.

On Sunday morning during coffee hour, a few Saint Mary’s parishioners were gathered in the old parlor of the parish house just catching up and talking. In the group was s young, gay couple who had just moved from Tennessee, a middle-aged single mother who had returned to the church of her youth with her young son after leaving in her early adult years, and an older widower who had been at the church for decades and was still active even in his late 80s. The Kingdom of God is like this intergeneration group of folks gathered around freshly cut strawberries, coffee, and donuts loving cut into quarters and sacramentally displayed on a serving tray.

Beau and Jonathan, the gay couple from Tennessee, had just moved into the area a few months prior for Beau’s new job in an architecture firm. Beau was raised in the Episcopal Church, but like many young adults, had sort of floated away in early adulthood. He came back when he met Jonathan, a young man raised in an Evangelical church who fled because his church wasn’t affirming of his identity. They met at a bar, fell in love, got married, moved into the area, and quickly joined a church. They yearned for community, but more than that, they were filled with gratitude and were looking for a tangible way of paying that forward. They volunteered for a lot, like hosting newcomer gatherings in their backyard for other folks who wandered into Saint Mary’s looking for community. The Kingdom of Heaven is like cheese-grits and bourbon served on a backyard patio on a cool summers evening.

Tessa, the single mother who had grown up at Saint Mary’s and returned with her young son Liam, realized how much church had provided structure for her life. She had gone off to college and gotten married, but it didn’t work out. After the divorce, she and Liam moved back to town and she slowly found her way back to church. She joined the choir, not because she was all that great of a singer, but because she could hold a note and follow direction well. She worked for a local retail corporation and between work, shuttling back and forth to daycare, choir practice, and her sorority meetings, Tessa was very busy. To be honest, Tessa struggled a bit with balance, but she was trying. The Kingdom of Heaven is like young parents squeezing in short, exasperated prayers between episodes of Doc McStuffins and bedtime.

Rich was sort of the parish patriarch. He had been around for decades and was involved in the decision of the parish to acquire its current location in the 50s. He had worked for a local insurance company for years and had retired in the 80s. His wife, Eileen, was the parish maven. In her day she would throw these amazing parties at the church so that the parishioners and the community members would have an opportunity to meet and get to know each other. In the early 2000s, Eileen became ill and she eventually succumbed to breast cancer. The parish gathered around Rich and supported him through it, but he felt a bit unmoored in the absence of his beloved. A few years ago, he started a support group for folks like him who had lost their spouses. He was also one of those people who liked the worship to be just right and even though he could sometimes come off as stuffy, on the inside he really is a gentle soul. The Kingdom of Heaven is like folks finding grace in the world as they move into old age.

In their own way Beau and Jonathan, Rick, Tessa, and even little Liam, are all harbingers of the Kingdom of God. None of them did anything big or noteworthy. You won’t find their names on any marquees or major news articles. They were simply together more Sundays than not, searching for signs of beauty and newness in a world that can so often be ugly and scary.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like you and I, here and now, sitting, listening, singing, and praying, hoping for a tomorrow that is just a little bit better than today.

Amen.


[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 132.

[2] Ibid., xli.

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