HR 30 July 2017 Trinity 7 (Pr 12)
I Kings 3.5-12; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” – and we find ourselves on familiar ground. These sayings are lodged deep within us. Heard and reheard over years and years, they form a central part of our experience of being a Christian. Following Jesus is to be looking forward to the kingdom; it is about discovering the signs of the kingdom now; it is getting ready for life in the kingdom.
The sayings themselves have an obvious link to Jesus’ parables: here too, Jesus takes familiar, ordinary things, but asks us to see them in a new light. Did I ever tell you about Alice and Eric in my title parish? Alice was now retired, but had been Harold Wilson’s housekeeper at No 10, and Eric worked on the buses in Stevenage. They lived in a Council House in the middle of a typical terrace, but as the door opened you entered a miniature stately home: deep pile carpets and antique furniture; and, in the garden, Alice’s pride and joy, – a swimming pool! (True it was more like a giant bath tub and took up most of the garden, but it was a swimming pool nonetheless.) And couldn’t we imagine Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like opening the door of a council house and finding yourself in a palace…” And, thinking of what illustrations might come to mind now, what about, “The kingdom of heaven is like a child at Disneyland meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time”.
This sends us back to look again at Jesus’ own similes. And two things are immediately apparent. First, none of them is much help at all in telling us anything about the kingdom. But secondly, what they do tell us is something of the impact the kingdom has on us. Some are obvious: delight, joy, surprise. Others are more obscure: what of the woman baking? Here the recognition seems something learned over time, a deep appreciation gained from long practice and experience, a gradual synergy gained from years of kneading dough and baking bread – but still something capable of giving joy. And the catch of fish is directly about the element of judgment: some belong, some do not.
R S Thomas, in his poem The Bright Field explores the nature of our response further. He begins with our capacity for just not registering what part of us has already instinctively grasped: ‘I have … gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price…’ And the crux of the poem is a poignant insistence on the absolute necessity of living in the present – something we all find so hard: ‘Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush…’
Jesus then gives us no snapshots of the kingdom – does it have Laura Ashley furnishings, we don’t know…, but rather clear pointers to the kinds of reaction that we can expect when we encounter the kingdom. This might be enough, but that would be to suggest that Jesus’ illustrations have no other importance. In fact, the choice of signs – the natural and the man-made – suggests something more. The kingdom is not a kind of glorified London club for human beings who have done well. The kingdom of which Jesus speaks is one where a pearl, a coin, a catch of fish, some well-baked bread are more naturally at home than we are. The summons is for us to learn what it might be to find joy, delight, contentment where the value of everything is simply the love God has for it (and us). It is not an uneven world where some things (and, even more tragically, some people) have value and worth only for what they offer us. Rather it is an as yet unimaginable world where everything and everyone is equally loved and valued for and in themselves – and, in that, are set free to love in return.
This acknowledgment of the kingdom as the fulfilment of all creation, not just of human beings, is crucial. It is one of the distinctive characteristics of Christianity that impels us to a serious care for everything – natural, human, synthetic, manufactured, mysterious, visible, invisible. And it is something that life in this century makes more and more difficult – what does it mean to live responsibly and well. It is another of the privileges of this life in which some of these Gospel priorities can perhaps be seen in a clearer light. Though, with the privilege comes the responsibility of sharing our insight with others.
One of the most extraordinary articles in the Guardian this past week had the heading “We are all made of stars: half our bodies’ atoms ‘formed beyond the Milky Way’”. This new discovery has come about as a result of research into the way that galaxies grow, leading to the conclusion that at the minute, atomic level, each of us may be constituted by atoms that have come from other galaxies, blown into our solar system by winds directed by giant exploding stars. At a stroke this makes our picture of every entity, human and other, more multi-layered and complex, more mysterious and extraordinary than we could possibly have imagined. As one of the scientists put it, “in some sense we are extragalactic visitors or immigrants in what we think of as our galaxy!” But this also makes a connection with the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, the new creation in which everything belongs and is valued for and of itself. It lends another dimension of meaning to Jesus’ own remark, ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ (Lk 17.21).
Here then are we, coming to the end of another Chapter, wrestling with all kinds of challenges and uncertainties, aware of our frail resources – and yet reminded constantly of the never failing power of grace – challenged by the Gospel to renew our passion for the kingdom that is both being realised and also very much yet to come. We are invited to consider again Paul’s confident assertion that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’ – reading it less as a pat on the back, and more as a challenge to discern more truly what loving God will look like for each of us. And we sense that pondering Jesus’ similes of the kingdom may lead us further into the truth as it did R S Thomas. And then we may be able to recognise some connection with Solomon and that singular gift of a ‘wise and discerning mind’.
And, who knows, maybe the fruits of all this may appear on television for all to see?