Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, July 27, 2008 (Proper 12A): Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
For two Sundays in a row now, some terrific parables from Jesus about the kingdom of heaven have ended with a pretty ominous threat. The evil will be separated from the righteous and “thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It is a favorite phrase of Matthew’s (and it only occurs in his Gospel). Matthew and his community had a taste, if you will, for judgment.
One should note that it is judgment “at the end of the age.” It is God’s judgment not ours, and the parables it follows are very clear that we are not to be judging in the present. Leave the weeds in the field. Gather fish of every kind in the net.
But that still leaves the threat intact, just delayed. There remains that option of a furnace of fire and eternal torment—hell, we have come to call it.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Bible does imagine something like hell—eternity lived apart from God which we are promised is eternity in anguish. But it is easy for the threat to get blown way out of proportion. Two things are important for us to keep perspective.
First of all, despite the sound of Matthew’s separation of the righteous from evil doers, the overall biblical witness is that hell—separation from God—is something we choose. It is a state created by the use of our own freedom and the one thing God will never, ever take away from us is our freedom.
I imagine judgment something like this. My life will be passed before me and I will have to acknowledge all the ways I have fallen short—to use the words of the confession we are now using, “the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.”
But that doesn’t change what Jesus did for us on the cross. We are forgiven sinners; our acceptance by God is sealed. That will be the amazing good news brought home one last time as we face our Maker. Yet even at the end we can choose to say no, refuse, for whatever reason, to either deny or to say an outright “no” to our acceptance.
Personally I can’t imagine anyone actually doing that, but as I said, I believe we are utterly free for eternity.
You see (and this is my “second of all”), we can allow the thought of judgment and hell to scare us or we can hear and believe the words of St. Paul this morning. It is Jesus who is our judge, the same Jesus who died for us, who totally united his life to ours in an act of love so total that nothing can separate us from it.
Hell is not a place where anybody has actually to be. No one has to be eternally separated from God.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way I can say something about these five little parables we have in the Gospel reading this morning.
You may recall that we’ve been hearing a lot about the kingdom these past few weeks, ever since we heard back in chapter 10 that Jesus was going about spreading the good news of the kingdom, and the disciples were told to proclaim the message that “the kingdom of heaven has come near to you.”
Since then we’ve had the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds among the wheat, and this morning we have this kingdom avalanche. What do they tell us about the kingdom of which Jesus speaks?
Not surprisingly, they tell us pretty much the same thing that those two previous parables told us, but with new imagery.
The first two we have this morning are the mustard seed and the yeast. Both emphasize the mystery of the kingdom, its hiddenness. Jesus calls the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds (whether it actually is doesn’t really matter). It literally disappears into the earth. So does yeast in flour. It literally disappears in the dough.
But in both cases what the mystery produces is not hidden. What it produces is at least thousands of times its size. This is to say that kingdom often begins in hidden and mysterious places and ways, but its fruit is large.
One small act of kindness, for example, can produce far more than we can ever imagine. Just saying “hello” can turn a person’s day around. Acknowledging someone’s presence is an acknowledgement of their dignity and is, therefore, a little act of justice.
So the kingdom of heaven starts in small and mysterious ways, but works like a mustard seed or yeast to produce a great effect.
The second two parables this morning are the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. They emphasize our response to the kingdom. It is to be highly valued; it is worth holding onto whatever cost it takes.
Paul’s beautiful words in this morning’s reading from Romans are an expression of this value. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Is not that worth everything? Isn’t it true that believing in this astounding good news can make all the difference in our life?
The kingdom is that thing for which Jesus asks us to give our lives. It is the amazing news that God is so near to us that we can never be separated. God is with you is the message. Not God will be with you if you behave yourself, but God is with you. Jesus asks us to risk our lives for anything that delivers that message, indeed he wants our lives themselves to deliver that message.
Last of all we have the parable of the net, very similar to last week’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. The emphasis is on the “catholicity” of the kingdom, which means it is for everyone, everywhere, every time. Yes, there may be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for some in the end, but I hope I’ve taken care of putting that in its proper perspective in the first part of the sermon.
We don’t have to be afraid. The God who is with us, the God who is for us, is the same God who will judge us. On judgment day we don’t find out that it has all been a “bait and switch,” and God really is against us in the end.
I hope over the last few weeks you’ve gotten some idea of just what the kingdom of heaven is and why Jesus thought it was good news. How do we recognize it? How do we know it has come near to us?
We know the kingdom of God has come near when small, hidden, seemingly insignificant or mysterious things happen that are not entirely within our control. And it has come near when we give ourselves to doing these small, seemingly insignificant things, trusting that they will make a large difference when God puts them to work.
We know the kingdom of God has come near when something beyond ourselves moves us to risk our lives in some form of generosity, hospitality, or act of justice.
We know the kingdom of God has come near when all sorts and conditions of people are included and there is a suspension of judgment.
And most of all, we know the kingdom of God has come near when we can believe with Paul that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us hear this good news this morning and believe it to be true and commit ourselves to proclaiming it with our lives in word and deed to everyone, everywhere, every time.