Sunday, July 30, 2017

Reign of Heaven

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

What does the phrase the Kingdom of Heaven mean to you? …

People often think that the kingdom of heaven means a place we go to after we die. But that is not what Jesus is talking about.

The parables in today’s Gospel tell us that the kingdom of heaven is worth having. It is as valuable as a giant pearl or buried treasure.

It is as ever-present as the aroma of yeast in baking bread. Jesus mentions a quantity of flour that may have produced this loaf of bread. The sizes and quantities Jesus mentions are enormous, nearly impossible to imagine. That is the point – the kingdom of heaven is abundant, more than enough for everyone.

These parables tell us we should do everything we can to get the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. They tell us it is worth having, and here now, today, for the asking. But they don’t really tell us what the kingdom of God is.

Since we are reading Matthew’s Gospel, we need to know what Matthew believes about the term. So, I checked out the other texts in Matthew about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven.

First, it’s important to know that Matthew uses these two terms to say the same thing.  Matthew often uses the word heaven to avoid speaking and writing God’s holy name, which is one way of obeying the commandment to respect the name of God.

Second, the term kingdom of heaven refers to life here on earth. The kingdom of God has come, John the Baptist and Jesus both say. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees did believe in life after death, but only after some sort of apocalyptic event, at the end of days. Other groups of the time, like the Sadducees, did not believe in an afterlife. Life is today, and it’s essential to make the best of what we have here and now.

So, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is talking about conditions in daily life, on earth, today. Other references in Matthew describe the attitude we are to have in order to receive it. We are to be like children; we are to be humble, not like privileged rich people; we are to be merciful. We are to seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into place in our lives. 
It is in Matthew 5, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we get a good look at what Jesus means. Especially in the Beatitudes, we begin to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like.

It is comfort for the oppressed and the grieving; it is righteousness for those who seek it; it is the whole earth for the meek; it is mercy for the merciful; and it is a relationship with God like the relationships we know between parents and children.

The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, is not a place, it is a way of life, a life of mercy and justice and humility. It is God’s activity and our activity; it is verbs more than nouns. I like to think of it as the reign [R-E-I-G-N] of God. The reign of God is everywhere, all the time, if we just look for it.

When we show mercy to a person in need, that is the reign of God in action. For example: When we gather food for the hungry, that is the reign of God in action. … When we fill the bus with school supplies and socks, that is the reign of God in action. … When we welcome someone new to the church, that is the reign of God in action, especially when we share cookies and conversation with them after worship. … When we call or visit the sick or homebound folks, that is the reign of God in action.

There have been lots of short clips on TV lately of a new documentary about Princess Diana, who died in a car accident 20 years ago this month. Some of the clips are of her and her children, but others are of her focus on humanitarian aid to many people around the world. She touches and holds sick children, bends down to listen to a story; she uses her popularity to get other people involved in helping, too. When I remember her, I remember her devotion to her children and her care for others, signs of God’s reign in her life and her heart.

I love this video of God’s reign in action. For over 15 years, Dr. Patrick Angelo has delivered meals and warm clothes twice weekly to the homeless living on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago. Lower Wacker is a street beneath a street in Chicago. Because it is somewhat sheltered from rain and snow, it is a frequent shelter for homeless people. Dr Angelo tells the story of realizing these people needed help, and how he believes he is responding to God’s call by feeding them and helping to keep them warm.

Please pray with me. God of mercy, you reign in our lives and in our world, even when we don’t notice your activity. Lead us to seek you and be your hands and voice in your kingdom. Amen