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Sermon for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost

First Reading: Deuteronomy 7:6-9

 6{Moses said to the Israelites,} “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations ….”

Psalm 125

 1Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but stands fast forever. 2The hills stand about Jerusalem; so does the Lord stand round about his people, from this time forth  forevermore. 3The scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just, so that the just shall not put their hands to evil. 4Show your goodness, O Lord, to those who are good and to those who are true of heart. 5As for those who turn aside to crooked ways, the Lord will lead them away with the evildoers; but peace be upon Israel.

Second Reading: Romans 8:28-39

 28We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52

44{Jesus said to the disciples,} “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”


What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like

By in large, I believe we human beings have a perception problem.  We often think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we’re way off.  Thomas Wheeler, the onetime CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, illustrates this point by relating a story about himself.  He said he and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas.  Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump.  He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil, then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.

As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation.  The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant.  But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, “It was great talking to you.”  As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man.  She readily admitted she did.  They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year.  “Boy, were you lucky that I came along,” bragged Wheeler.  “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant, instead of the wife of a chief executive officer.”  “My dear,” replied his wife, “if I had married him, he’d be the chief executive officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.”  Yes, we often think we have the proper perspective on things when in fact we’re way off base.

Jesus understood this tendency for us humans to get it wrong.  Especially when it comes to things spiritual.  This is why He so often described things in parables.  This can be seen by the stories He told here in the 13th chapter of Matthew.  If you were to turn back a few verses, Jesus begins this series of parables by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  Now the first parable that begins this series starts in verse 24, which was our gospel lesson for last week.

Now before I get to this first parable Jesus uses, we need to understand that the kingdom Jesus is talking about isn’t a kingdom that is only in the future.  Jesus said, “the kingdom of God [heaven] is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21).  Jesus came to usher in God’s kingdom, and He used no less than eight parables to describe the kingdom He was ushering in.

In Jesus’ lesson, illustrated by the weeds and the wheat, Jesus was clear of two things; there are the people who hear the seed of God’s word and live a righteous life yielding a good crop and they will be gather into God’s presence at the proper time.  The weeds are the people who refuse to listen to God’s word, and instead allow the devil to plant corrupt seeds of selfishness and thereby live self-focused lives.  These are the people who will, at the end of time, be gathered and thrown into the fires of Hell to be burned.

In this parable Jesus is saying that in the kingdom of heaven, in the here and now, there are good people who listen and obey God and who will receive their reward when God comes to dwell among us, and there are sinful people in this world who refuse to respond to God’s message of love and forgiveness.  These are the ones who will spend eternity in punishment, separated from God’s love and mercy.  This parable is very cut and dried.  This parable is a warning for those who fail to live as God commands.

The next parable Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God is that of a very small seed.  A tiny seed, a mustard seed to be precise.  This is an illustration we’re all familiar with.  In this parable Jesus choose to use this small item to illustrate the fact that even though the Kingdom of Heaven is in fact unmeasurable, we are far too often blind to its presence.  First, please notice the irony in Jesus words, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  Over the years, I’m sure each of us has seen a mustard seed, and for those who have, you know what a ridiculous statement this is.

Mustard seeds are not much larger than a grain of sand.  You can literally hold thousands of them comfortably in the palm of your hand.  Yet it’s a seed that grows into a very large bush.  Large enough for birds to build their nest among its branches.  So, what then is Jesus saying?  For one, He’s saying, “God is at work, even though our human eyes often fail to perceive that it’s happening.”  God works in the cosmic realm and in the subatomic realm.  God is at work in all of nature, and in the recesses of the human heart.

As Christians, we understand that imperceptible things have real influence, but we live in a society that is enamored with bigness.  We too often get overwhelmed by huge social problems such as world hunger and children in crises and too often miss the small opportunities for ministry in our homes and communities.  As a result, we sometimes overlook the tiny seed problems that are at the root of so many of these difficult situations.  Consider the issues that surrounded the Shuttle program several years ago.

For many weeks the Shuttle program was grounded due to cracks in the fuel line.  Recall if you will that at the center of these problems was a tiny rubber O-ring about three-tenths of an inch wide.  To look at that tiny O-ring it wouldn’t seem that impressive.  And yet in 1986, two of those rings were placed in the aft field joint of the Solid Rocket Booster to stop gases from escaping.  Whether it was the unusually cold weather, a contaminate introduced into the zinc putty used on them, any number of potential compression problems, or human error during manufacturing, these two miniature O-rings failed to do what they were designed to do, and the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the watching world, 73 seconds into her flight, claiming the lives of all seven crew members.  It’s oftentimes the little things we fail to perceive that change our lives.

Tiny viruses the size of a pinhead, heart valves no larger than a man’s thumbnail, single votes in an election, an ill-chosen word from a loved one – little things have enormous power.  Matthew 13 records the story Jesus told about the smallest thing His audience could identify with–a mustard seed.  We should never underestimate the impact of little events, small kind, or hurtful, words, small acts of kindness, a helping hand, a word of prayer for someone hurting.  The kingdom of God can come to us in the small and the ginormous, so we must be mindful of its presence among us.

Sometimes it takes just a little bit of patience to work with people.  Sometimes it takes just a little bit of love to redeem a situation.  Sometimes it takes just a little bit of grace to bring about healing.  Sometimes it takes just a little bit of understanding to save a marriage.  Oftentimes, it’s the little things that can have massive impacts in our lives and in the lives of others.

I have a lot of respect for Abraham Lincoln, he was a man who represents a true profile in courage.  During the war, his wife experienced extreme depression, some might say insanity, his twelve-year-old boy died of typhoid fever, and he carried the burdens of a nation upon his shoulder.  My favorite political cartoon of that era shows two farmers passing on the road.  Howdy, mister, anything going on ‘round these parts.  “Naw,” replies the farmer, “ain’t nothing going on in these parts, ‘cept that time Lincoln had a baby boy the other day.”  So many of God’s greatest happenings are unobtrusive and imperceptible.  They seem to be of little or no significance, but how great is their ultimate importance.

Consider that when God moved in history for the salvation of humankind, He didn’t do so with a legion of angels, or some grand computer, or some meeting of all the principalities of the earth.  God began with a seed planted in the womb of a peasant girl.  That microscopic seed would one day grow to full life and change the world and die for our sins and reconcile us, once and for all, to the Father.  Yes, we often think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we’re way off.  Imperceptible things have real influence.  And that, Jesus said, is what heaven is like.  Secondly Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.

I’ve always been very cautious when interpreting the Bible, as everyone should be. Unfortunately, there are some who are not.  Some sincere souls, to their own destruction, mangle in their minds the meaning of the scriptures.  Their confusion leads them to misrepresent Jesus, Paul, Moses and all the other teachers and authors of the Bible.  A simple example is the text before us.

Again, in St. Luke’s gospel (chapter 18), Jesus flatly states that it’s difficult if not impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Yet in today’s reading, He says that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.  In other words, the kingdom is like a lot of loot stashed away somewhere.  The difference in these two teachings is, in one He’s talking about the rich, and in the other, he is talking about the kingdom of heaven.  The criticism of the rich is a direct statement of fact.  The illustration about the kingdom being a hidden treasure, is a simile.  Note that Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure.”  God’s kingdom is something we must always be on the lookout for and anytime we encounter it, we must seize the opportunity to take part in it.  This is why we must be careful in how we approach the Bible.

Yes, there are things we need to take literally.  For example, thou shalt not covet, murder, bear false witness, honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  All these passages, and many more, are to be taken literally.  However, when Jesus is teaching in parables, we need to wrestle with His words, to pray and struggle with them to ensure we fully comprehend His meanings.  We also need to bear in mind that oftentimes a parable can have more than one meaning.  The Bible is complex, and God intended for us to read it over and over, pray about it, and savor the richness of its complexities.  This is also why the Bible is timeless.  It was applicable when it was written, and it’s still relevant to us today.

When reading the Bible ask yourself several questions; what am I reading?  What type of Literature?  What was the setting?  Why is this being written?  What comes after the verse I’m reading and what comes before?  What’s the connection?  On one page you may be reading history, on the next you encounter wisdom literature, on another a teaching, then a song, a parable, an allegory, a letter, a prophecy, poetry, interpretation, and theology.  We must consider the who, what, when, where, why and how of what we’re reading.  The Bible is indeed authoritative.  It’s source and norm for our faith, it’s the rule for life both with regard to faith and practice.  We must also be careful not to be dismissive of what we read.  A parable can be just as authoritative as the Commandments.

So when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like” we know this is a figure of speech and that what’s being taught is important.  Jesus is using a common action to teach us about the uncommon kingdom of heaven.  And this heaven Jesus is talking about is worth whatever it takes for us to get it.  Whatever sacrifice we must make, whatever loss we must endure, whatever trade we have to make to bring heaven into our lives is worth the effort.  We must consider, like St. Paul, everything as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord and being part of His kingdom.  That’s what heaven is like.

The next parable Jesus uses to help us understand what the kingdom of heaven is like, is that of a merchant in search of pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he goes and sells all he has to buy it.  This time it’s not a hidden treasure which was found by accident, but a pearl on sale in the marketplace.  The merchant finds the precious mineral in his daily business rounds.  In this parable, this is the part of God’s kingdom that is out there for all to see, for all to enjoy, for all to possess.  This is the part of the kingdom that is visible, that is highly noticeable, very evident to anyone looking.

In this illustration Jesus is referring to the gifts God freely give through His church, salvation, mercy, forgiveness, nourishment through the proclaimed word and at the altar.  God’s gift of adoption in the waters of Baptism and of His love shown through you and I as we reach out to others.  The kingdom of heaven is seen in the hidden, as in the treasure of the field, and in the pearl of great value on display in the marketplace.  Another key to understanding this parable is seen in the response of the two people.  Both sell all they have in order to possess the valuable treasures.

I like the ancient legend about the monk who found a precious jewel.  A short time later, the monk met a traveler, who said he was hungry and asked the monk if he would share some of his provisions.  When the monk opened his bag, the traveler saw the precious stone and, on an impulse, asked the monk if he could have it.  Amazingly, the monk gave the traveler the stone.  The traveler departed quickly overjoyed with his new possession.  However, a few days later, he came back, searching for the monk.  He returned the stone to the monk and made a request: “Please give me something more valuable, more precious than this stone.  Please give me that which enabled you to give me this precious stone!”  A commitment of the whole heart, that’s what the kingdom of heaven requires of its followers.  We also need to take notice of how Jesus brackets these parables here in Matthew chapter 13.

Jesus begins by describing how there are good and evil people in this world, and in eternity, He will judge both the living and the dead.  Notice this final parable.  Jesus compares the kingdom to fisherman who bring in their catch and sort out the good from the bad.  Jesus is reminding us that judgement will come and how we’ve lived in God’s kingdom will determine our eternal future.  Some will be retained in the kingdom, and some will be thrown into the place of eternal fire.  However, this passage doesn’t end here, Jesus continues with an instruction for us.

Jesus concluded His teaching session with these words: “And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).  As members of God’s kingdom, we’re the ones who have been trained.  We’re the ones, who need to be in the marketplace openly showing and announcing the many gifts God has for the people.  And we’re also called to be opening the eyes of everyone around us to see the less noticeable gifts of God’s reign.  We point them to the gifts as old as God’s good creations itself, or to the new and wonderful things God is doing in our world today.  The kingdom of heaven is all around us and in us, and it’s up to us, to show God’s kingdom to the world.


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