Sermon Preached at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I don’t know about you but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys taking BIG risks.
I like to make measured decisions with the risks carefully analyzed and put into a larger perspective. I’m the kind of person who likes to shop the sale rack for the best prices and then comes back with a coupon for a discount 2 days later—with a spring in my step because I know I’ve made a really good decision.
In light of this, I’ve always thought that gambling with money was stupid because of odds.
But on a recent stop through Las Vegas while on vacation with my husband, Kevin, I found myself sitting in front of a slot machine, something I’ve only done a few times in my life.
And not just any slot machine, a DOLLY PARTON slot machine that sang to me “Working 9 to 5” and “Jolene” anytime I put coins in. I know it’s not a preacher-ly thing to do—starting off the sermon talking about gambling . . . but hang with me.
Within minutes, I found I’d doubled my $20 bill with Dolly singing my praises with another round of “Jolene.”
It was exciting but I was ready to stop. My husband—the biggest Dolly Parton fan—egged me on though.
“Don’t you just want to keep playing?? You’re hot! Why don’t you bet it all? I think you’ve got Preacher’s luck!”
But, I said no. I just wanted to leave the game and the entire experience while I was ahead. Proud of the fact that I was doing what few do: leaving Vegas with more money (if only a few dollars) than I started with.
Sure, I could have made more money, but I could have lost more money just as easily!
Though I don’t think that the parables before us this morning really have anything to say about gambling as we know it in our modern context, they do challenge our sentiments toward risk management and playing it safe. The scriptures before us today ask us questions like:
Why do we NOT make impulsive decisions when the Spirit moves us to act?
Why do we NOT stay in the game longer, even if we can’t be assured that we’d win?
Why do we NOT make so- called “unwise” investments when a neighbor is in need?
For what we see before us is teacher Jesus telling stories about what it looks like when the kingdom of God comes near.
Look with me at verse 44.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has buy that field.”
We don’t know much about this featured person, and Biblical commentators warn us from supposing an extra detail or even focusing on the morality of a man or woman hiding a treasure in a field that is his or hers to have.
But what we do know is this: there’s nothing that holds him or her back from selling EVERYTHING owned so that the treasure buried in the field can be obtained.
Can you imagine how crazy this must have sounded to friends and family?
“Well there’s this treasure that I need to have so I am going to sell everything so I can have it!”
No more house. No more land. No more well. No more bed. No more, anything else other than this field.
Such is the kind of purchase that we might deem worthy of a psych evaluation, wouldn’t we?
Look with me at verse 45.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
It’s important to understand here that at this time, pearls were the jewel of choice. Not diamonds, not rubies or any other precious object. In the first century Mediterranean world, the pearl was often the symbol of the highest good.
And, for this person to find one fine pearl, ONE, and sell everything that he had to purchase it was an unheard of!
Imagine how crazy this man would have sounded in his Christmas letter to family and friends:
“Well, this year’s highlights include becoming homeless so that I could purchase this fine pearl.”
Again, such is the kind of purchase that we might deem worthy of a psych evaluation, wouldn’t we?
We just don’t do things like this in the civilized world do we?
But according to Jesus, we do. This is what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
I want to pause a minute and consider what is meant by the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” As an aside, the terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God are often used interchangeably in the gospels.
In the church I grew up in—the Southern Baptist Church— a phrase like “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” would have always implied one thing: the life hereafter. In Sunday School, we would have interpreted the two parables we just re-read as passages that shared a message to us about what it means to “win souls for the Lord.” I could just hear echoes from my past saying things like, “How could we put a price on salvation of one person? Wouldn’t we sell everything we owned if it meant that just ONE more child of God would get to heaven one day?”
But, as I have grown both in my faith and the tools given to interpret scripture, I’ve come to realize that the “kingdom of heaven” is not explicitly about the life to come, but rather a way of being in this world that brings more of the love of God to it.
The kingdom of heaven, in short, is Jesus’ way of pointing to the Spirit filled world, a world without limits of race, nationality or tongue, a world where righteousness always wins and truth is brought forth to life.
The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says in other parts of Matthew’s Gospel IS NOT far away, out there for someone else or about the holy waiting on their reward. The kingdom of heaven IS possible in the here and now, everyday life.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says this about the kingdom of heaven,
“If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom is in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for . . . The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all homesick for it.”
And it is just for this that we are ALL asked to be ALL in for. No matter the cost.
In the earlier part of the reading in verse 31, Jesus put before them another parable which said:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of the seeds, but when it is has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
If you have been around church people for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the phrase: have faith like a mustard seed.
Folks are often to quote the words of Jesus saying, “If you have faith like that of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” And/or put this verse of scripture on magnets, coffee mugs and mustard seed chains to wear around their neck.
And it is true, just as Matthew 13 says that the mustard seed is small and our contributions to the kingdom don’t have to be large and overbearing to be important. What I think is even more significant than this is: mustard bushes are stout. They never grow as tall as an oak or a pine tree. But when they grow, they spread across a field quickly. And out of nowhere they are EVERYWHERE.
A similar plant that we might be more aware of is kudzu. Growing up my grandparents had kudzu in their yard. My grandmother hated it but every time she’d send my grandfather out to the garden to get rid of it, it would just come back and come back and come back. So annoying.
In the same way, once you’ve got a mustard tree, you’ve got all you can handle and then some.
And in the kingdom of God, though our radical living might come in deceivingly small and seemingly insignificant ways, our presence in the world will be like an unstoppable weed. We cannot be controlled. The powers of evil of this world can do nothing to stop us. The kingdom of God comes. Period.
But first we have to be all in. We need to make that choice to give ourselves over to kingdom living. To say to the Holy, I am going to follow your leadings. Period.
Pastor Kyle Childress writes on this blog of how he has come to see this principle lived out in his congregation:
Kyle says: I have a woman at my church who has Multiple Sclerosis. Since I’ve known her she has declined from a very active life, involved in a variety of concerns including backpacking and camping, to a person who is in a wheelchair and some days can’t get out of the house.
But every single day she writes letters and notes and cards. Every day. She writes our congressman urging him to work for peace or to care for God’s good creation or to show compassion for the least of these.
Every day she sends birthday cards to members of the congregation and every single day she sends prayer cards telling people who are ill or suffering of her prayers for them.
Every day, day after day.
Never relenting, never giving up.
No one blows trumpets or shoots fireworks when she slowly, sometimes painfully writes her notes and cards and most of the time no one knows about it at all unless you’re the person on the receiving end of her correspondence.
But like the mustard bush she persists. Like a mesquite root under a sidewalk, one day the sidewalk cracks. Our congressman has no idea what he’s up against.
And the same is true for us when we too are all in . . . whatever all in looks like in our lives.
Maybe it’s like my friend who’s almost blind who bakes bread every single week for communion at her church and can’t wait to present it to her rector.
Maybe it’s like my friend who knits blankets for newborns born premature, taking them to the NICU of her local hospital as often as she can. Then sticking around to rock the babies who moms are at work.
Maybe it’s like my friend who regularly welcomes those who are recently released from prison into her home without any questions asked until they are able to get back on their feet again.
In all of this, the unjust powers of this world better start shaking in their boots for when the kingdom comes and our “mustard seeds” are planted, the duplication of God’s love is about to roll across our highways, our fields, our schools, our workplaces, and our government offices.
Nothing is ever the same once you’ve experienced the coming of God’s kingdom.
This is what I most know:
We can’t play it safe my friends and live in the kingdom of God.
We can’t hold back part of ourselves my friends and bring the kingdom of God.
We can’t not lay ALL bets on the table my friends and expect more of the kingdom of God to come.
We’ve got to be all in.
It’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.