Scary words from Matthew today: “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Our country, our culture, feels like a furnace of fire right now. Each and everyone with much weeping and gnashing of teeth is trying to find some kind of moral high ground from whichever side they are on.
On a very personal level I, myself, tend to side with those who are oppressed. Shaped by my faith, my loyalties skew towards those who cry out, like our ancestors the Israelites did in slavery in Egypt, like our savior did abandoned on the cross. But I’m not naive. I know enough to know my views are my own, and that many people disagree with me with deep values and loyalties of their own.
In these grim, final words of Jesus’ teachings today I’m wondering if Jesus isn’t helping us, his disciples, to un-know and un-learn what the world tells us is an open and shut case, what are black and white issues of who is right and wrong.
Now, that past several Sundays here at St. Andrew’s we have been sort of wading through the parables, the sayings, of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Actually, ever since Trinity Sunday, which was June 7th, we have been bouncing around Matthew’s gospel. And on June 7th we heard the very, very end of Matthew’s Gospel. We heard the resurrected Jesus bid farewell with these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” So that is what these past months have been about, refreshing us, Jesus’ disciples, what he had taught and commanded.
As I mentioned a few Wednesdays ago at Evening Prayer, if you were watching, the word “disciple” is related to the word “discipline.” Not “discipline” as in, getting in trouble, but “discipline” more like a rigorous training. And seeing as baseball has started up again—instead of calling it Spring Training in the sense that Jesus is using the word “disciple” you could say that as baseball players work and train to improve themselves in the off season they do “Spring Discipleship”—same idea.
So, today, in our Gospel lesson from Matthew we heard this: “And Jesus said to them, ‘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.’”
There’s that word “trained.” And, yes, you betcha, it’s the same word in Greek as the word for “disciple” and “disciplined.” So, we have to look at these parables, all these sayings and teachings of Jesus, as a program of discipline, a Kingdom of Heaven Training Routine, if you will. And this training program is not designed to give us knowledge and mastery. This discipleship is to soften us, to open us, to help us un-know and un-learn what the world has told us.
As Lutheran Christians we so rightly emphasize Jesus on the cross. We rightly remember that Jesus shows us exactly who God is as he dies, gentle and gracious, and who God is as Jesus is risen, proving that love is stronger than death. But Jesus was teaching this truth all along as he walked with his disciples. We would be oversimplifying the ministry of our Lord if we skip from the Christmas story to the Easter one.
So, what has Jesus been teaching us these past Sundays? Well, as Pastor Krey said last week: we ourselves cannot tell the difference between wheat and weeds. God will judge the world, not us.
Now, of course, we are neither wheat nor weeds. These are metaphors and similes. A simile is when you compare one thing to an unlikely other to create deeper meaning and understanding. So, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is itself a simile, and it can be very confusing, as are all of Jesus’ parables at first. Is God a human man, a king, with a sword and a throne? Obviously not. But, a kingdom is the place where a sovereign reigns and rules. It is the the reign, r-e-i-g-n, of God—the rule, the place and space and time that God is in charge. “Heaven,” the word, is more than sky to us, obviously… but does God only rule in the “great beyond” of afterlife? Or do we everyday pray and plead for God to help us here, in our bodies. Don’t we everyday give thanks to God for the blessings and joys of children and enough to eat, and the laughter and delights of our lives?
The “kingdom” can’t only be in the great beyond. Then what is it? How do we know what it’s like? Well, that is why we are in the training program of Jesus to recognize it! Tell us, Jesus, what Heaven’s kingdom is like.
And Jesus says some puzzling things, he says it’s like: a mustard seed that turns into a big tree; yeast that rises dough; treasure found in a field; a merchant who buys a pearl; and a net cast into the sea which catches all kinds of fish.
A mustard seed is small, unassuming, and is buried in the earth, but it grows hugely beyond its size to protect and shelter the birds of the heavens. So, Heaven’s kingdom is a small, small thing, easily overlooked, but with great potential. And that lines up well with the next image. Yeast is a colony of tiny microorganisms and yet they leaven flour, making bread exactly what it is. Heaven’s kingdom starts small, but spreads slowly, steadily, and makes us what we are.
But in case you might think seeds and yeast are too common, Jesus changes gears. Heaven’s kingdom, God’s reign, is like a treasure buried in a field found by a person not even looking for it, but who abandons everything else in their life to seek it out. Now God’s reign is getting serious. Not only is it small, but with magnificent potential to help us and shape us—yet it is something we didn’t even mean to find, but is valuable beyond price, so precious that when we find it we will literally sell everything we own to get it. God’s reign is tiny and small, but it is power beyond power.
Jesus’ next parable drives this home, but continues to shift a little. Heaven’s reign is like a merchant in search of pearls now, not just the treasure itself. There is a slightly different version of this parable of Jesus out there, it goes like this: “Jesus said, ‘[God]’s kingdom is like a merchant who had a supply of merchandise and then found a pearl. That merchant was prudent; he sold the merchandise and bought the single pearl himself. So also with you, seek treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to devour and no worm destroys.’” Heaven’s kingdom is small like a seed or a pearl, something that comes upon us unlooked for, something that is worth more than all our normal “merchandise.” It spread and spreads, sheltering not just us but many, and making and shaping us to be who we are.
Going farther, Jesus says Heaven’s kingdom is like a net that catches all kinds of fish. God’s reign starts small and unassuming, it spreads and spreads, it is valuable beyond measure, and it scoops us all up, unawares like fish, into it’s loose and fibrous net. And I can’t help but think that the weeping and gnashing of teeth, is the attitude of those who thought they were right, staked their whole life on it rather than the pearl of great value, and who will find, in the end of all things, that they were wrong. Because the net has been cast and we are all already caught up in it. It is not up to use to divide the world. The seed has been planted and the curious cross-shaped tree has already grown.
The good news today is this: the Reign of God is not something you have to find yourself. And it’s not up to us who is in and who is out. Praise be to our God, who has already found us! Praise be to our God, who has forgiven us, and disciples us to un-learn!
Praise be to our God, because neither political party, nor cable news channels, nor coronavirus, nor social media, nor Russian hackers, nor riots, nor masks, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.