Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man is working in the field as a hired laborer. He’s digging, turning over the soil, preparing the field for planting. And he finds the treasure. He’s overwhelmed with joy! These riches could free him from bondage, give him a whole new life, and his family too. But how can he claim the treasure? It belongs to the owner of the field, the rich man who hired him. So he covers the treasure with dirt, finishes his day’s work, and goes home, and tells his wife about it. They scrape together all their meager possessions – yes, even their tiny house – and sell them. The next day he takes the money to the landlord: Sir, I’ve decided I’d like to start farming myself. Can I buy this field? It’s small but I think I can make a go of it. The landlord sells him the field, and the treasure with it.
What does it mean to proclaim the Kingdom of God? That’s the work Jesus gives the disciples he sends forth here, the message with which he charges them. He’s inviting them to join his own mission – back in Luke chapter 4, at the beginning of his public ministry, his disciples find him praying and want him to come back to the town of Capernaum and do more wonders there. He tells them, “It is necessary for me to announce the good tidings of the Kingdom to the other cities as well, because for this I was sent forth.” In Matthew and Mark, too, Jesus begins his ministry with this core message: “Change your hearts, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” (Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are both used; they seem to be more or less interchangeable.)
What do Christians think is our core message? For some of us, it might be: God loves you as you are. Love wins. For others: Christ died for you. Repent and be saved.
But this is what Jesus names as the core message: The Kingdom of God has come near. A message of such urgency that the seventy sent forth are called to proclaim it whether or not they find a receptive audience. Whether those around them are curious, or hostile. Eager or indignant. Ready or unready. The Kingdom of God has come near.
Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field. Mustard seeds are so tiny, the smallest of all the seeds. But when the plant grows, it becomes larger than all the other garden plants; it grows into a tree, and the birds of the heavens come and make nests in its great branches.
Listen: The Kingdom of God is like this – A gardener casts seed upon the prepared ground. And then she goes on about her life; she sleeps at night, wakes in the morning, and days and weeks pass. And meanwhile the seeds do what seeds do: they sprout, first growing roots down, then a tiny shoot up towards the sun. In time the seeds grow to maturity and produce fruit, and the gardener enjoys her harvest.
What does it mean to proclaim the Kingdom?
When I am speaking to someone brand-new to this God stuff, and curious about it, it’s a lot easier to explain the story of Jesus as I understand it – or to talk about God’s fierce redemptive love – than it is to explain the Kingdom and what it means that it has come near.
Part of what’s hard for us about Kingdom language is that it lacks the context and resonance for us that it had for Jesus’ original audience.
For one thing, Kingdom language made them think about the kingdom they used to have. For first-century Judeans, the glory days of their people were the long-ago time when King David ruled a free and united Israel. Making Israel great again meant making Israel a kingdom again. So in naming God’s reality as a kingdom, Jesus is working with an image that’s familiar and meaningful, even as he tries to break it open and help them imagine a different kind of kingdom. For us, in contrast, a kingdom is something from a fairy tale; we are not nostalgic for the good old days of George the Third.
For another thing, Kingdom language made Jesus’ first hearers think about the kingdom they have now. The Greek word translated as “kingdom” in the New Testament is basileia. The Roman Empire, the outside power that ruled Judea in Jesus’ time, would have been called by the same term: Basileia Rhomaion. So in Jesus’ time people would have heard a direct contrast here: the Kingdom of God over against the Kingdom of Rome.
But even with that context and resonance, Jesus’ friends and followers didn’t really understand what he meant by the Kingdom of God. The Gospels show us that those closest to Jesus, those who had the opportunity to ask clarification questions, didn’t really get it; and the Gospel writers likewise struggled to put down on paper what they thought he meant with all those stories and sayings. A treasure in a field – a seed in the ground – what do those things have in common with any kind of kingdom? And why does he insist on telling all these stories, instead of just explaining things?
The paradox and perplexity surrounding Jesus’ kingdom talk, for me, is our best proof that there’s something here that isn’t easily captured in human language, or grasped by human intellect. Something mysterious and ineffable.
In Luke chapter 17, somebody comes right out and asks Jesus: “When is the Kingdom of God coming?” And he says, “The Kingdom doesn’t come as something you can see; people aren’t going to say, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘There it is!’ Rather: the Kingdom of God is within you.”
The Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical gnostic text written about a century later than the Gospels of the Bible. I believe the early church leaders were correct in excluding it from the canon of Scripture – but at the same time it may preserve some sayings of Jesus that aren’t in our four Gospels. Perhaps including these sayings about the Kingdom: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ then the birds of the sky will get there first. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will get there first. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and outside of you.” And, “The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” That definitely clears things right up, Jesus.
In addition to talking about the Kingdom, Jesus talked a lot about the life of the Age, or the Age to Come, which is almost certainly another way of talking about the same thing – about some other reality or way of being that’s just beyond our perception but that tugs on us, invites us, troubles us. Our translations tend to obscure Jesus’ talk about the Age by translating the Greek word “aion” as “eternal.” But often that’s the opposite of what Jesus is saying. “Eternal” sounds like the same thing is going to last forever. Jesus is taking about a different Age or aeon. So where our translations make it sound like Jesus is promising that his followers will never die (manifestly untrue), he’s actually talking about a different order of reality that we can enter through transformation of heart and mind. David Bentley Hart’s wonderful translation of the New Testament holds the ambiguity of the original Greek much better than our usual translation, the NRSV. For example, the famous verse John 3:16 is usually rendered as “whoever believes in Jesus may have everlasting life.” Hart translates this way: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age.”
The life of the Age. The Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus uses the metaphors of time and place to talk about something that is neither a time nor a place.
I guess where I’m going here is that this other, divine reality that’s just at the periphery of our vision, as near and as far as our next breath – this is a really central part of what Jesus teaches, and what he calls his followers to proclaim. And yet: his followers, then, now, and in between, find it confusing and elusive.
Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Yeast looks like a powder, but it’s actually a microorganism, a tiny tiny creature. When you use it to make bread, the creature eats the sugars in the bread and emits gases that make the bread light and fluffy. There are holes in bread because of yeast. But you only need a tiny bit of yeast for each batch of bread. There’s a wonderful word for that process: leavening – meaning, to add yeast to a dough to make it rise; or, by extension: to permeate and transform something. So this is what the Kingdom is like: A woman is making bread and she mixes just a tablespoon of yeast into three cups of flour. And it’s enough: that little bit of yeast leavens all that dough.
The Kingdom of God has come near to you!
Jesus calls his followers to share this news – and to share it with urgency. Tell the people who want to hear it – and those who don’t. We heard some of that urgency in last week’s Gospel, too, as Jesus tells a would-be follower that if he hesitates and looks back before following Jesus, then maybe he isn’t as ready for the Kingdom as he thinks he is.
Today’s Gospel is a really familiar text for me; I’ve read it with many groups over the past few years. I’ve found that people often take issue with the part about how to respond when the messengers are unwelcome. It feels harsh to us. We can get stuck there, unable to receive the text.
So I want to say a couple of things about that. First: We reflected on this text together at Vestry a couple of weeks ago. Now, our junior warden, Mike Krause, is a traveler. He’s done amazing road trips all across our nation, taking back roads and camping out along the way. And while we were talking about this passage, Mike said that in his experience, when you pull into a town, you really can feel whether you’re welcome or unwelcome. Whether strangers and guests are seen as a blessing or a threat. Not every place is glad to see you. I thought that was fascinating.
I wonder, too, whether we get stuck with this text because deep down we identify more with the people closing their doors to these grifter evangelists, than with those experiencing unwelcome. I am a nice middle-class educated neurotypical straight cisgender white lady with a credit card. There are not very many places where I am unwelcome. I wonder if folks whose lives encompass a lot more experiences of unwelcome – because of the color of their skin, or their gender presentation, or their accent, or their size, or the way they dress, or the way they engage socially – I wonder if folks who have spent their lives walking into a room and feeling the walls go up, read this text differently. If the harshness, the calling-out, the public naming of unwelcome, might feel less less petty and more prophetic to them.
It is intended to be prophetic.The “wipe your dust off our feet” business is not privately cleansing yourself of the soil of people you don’t like; it’s a public act, trying to get the attention of people whose minds and hearts are closed. And when you have their attention, what do you do? – You proclaim the Kingdom. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. This isn’t slamming the door in ultimate judgment. This is trying to get through to people who believe they don’t need what you have to offer.
This is HARD. A lot of us are hesitant to talk about our faith even with a friendly audience, let alone a hostile one. It feels so vulnerable – like Jesus says: lambs among wolves! But this is what Jesus names as our good news: The Kingdom of God is so close to you right now. God’s Age is coming. Get ready. Open your heart. Free your mind. Change your life.
Okay. But. And. Still. If I walked into Willy Street Market and started telling people, The Kingdom of God has come near! – well, not only would I probably be invited to leave the store, but folks would have no idea what I was talking about. “Kingdom” is an obscure concept for us; “God” perhaps even more so. So what words do we find to proclaim the Kingdom in our time and place? If Jesus couldn’t explain it in plain language, I sure as heck can’t. I know it’s like a treasure that can change someone’s life, hidden just out of sight. I know it’s something that grows – permeates – transforms. I know it’s hospitable and fruitful. And I know that it needs or wants just that little bit of help from us: Plant the seed. Work in the yeast. Then stand back and watch things unfold.
How can we proclaim the Kingdom of God in our time and place? I think there are lots of ways to do it – and that we maybe are doing it already, more than we realize. I think we proclaim the Kingdom every time we point ourselves and one another up and out and away. Every time we step back and look around for the bigger picture and the greater good. Every time we remember that the world is not as it could be. That the powers and principalities of this present age, of the kingdoms of this world, do not define our worth or own our souls. Every time we say, simply, in these words or others: It doesn’t have to be like this. And then – act accordingly.
I heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, back when he was just Bishop Curry, preach this message: God loves you just the way you are, but God isn’t going to leave you that way. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom: The possibility of change, of healing, of liberation.
In Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic, the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: More can be mended than you know. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom, beloveds: More can be mended than you know.
Walt Whitman, the poet, born 200 years ago this spring, wrote: All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom, friends: Death has no dominion over us. Which means: we don’t have to be afraid.
This past week a few folks gathered in a noisy bar to read Wendell Berry poems to each other. Berry is a writer and a farmer who invites us to slow down and pay attention. So with soccer on the big screen over our heads and rock and roll playing over the sound system, we leaned in close to listen to poems about thewonder of a turtle, or what our souls can learn from the deaths of trees. And our friend Jonathan read one of Berry’s poems that I’ve often read here on Ash Wednesday – a poem that invites playful yet profound resistance to the logic of the kingdoms of this world. A poem that proclaims the Kingdom.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. …
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. …
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. …
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
(Wendell Barry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)