For fifty-two verses in this 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus spins parables to preach about the Kingdom of God. That’s a lot of verses, a lot of preaching and teaching for one sitting (if, indeed, it was one sitting). But Jesus did draw large crowds who would listen for long periods of time -- an interesting fact considering that nobody had to be there.
Which, of course, brings to mind a story…
A rich man said to his priest, “I want you to take a three-month, all expenses paid sabbatical to Europe. When you return, I’ll have a surprise for you.” The priest, as you can imagine, accepted the offer on the spot. Three months later he returned and was met by the wealthy parishioner. A new nave had been built in the priest’s absence – a state of the art house of worship. (Three months! That’s a miracle right there! To get plans approved on the diocesan level, to get permits, to get a contractor and then to complete the job all in three months is akin to walking on water!)
Anyway. When the priest walked (not on water) into the new nave – his new kingdom, if you will – he noted a shocking difference. There was only one pew, and it was at the back. The priest voiced his concern. “A church with only one pew?” “Just wait until Sunday,” the wealthy parishioner countered. Sure enough, when the time came for Sunday service, some early arrivals entered the church, filed into the pew, and sat down. When the pew was full, a switch clicked silently, a circuit closed, gears meshed, a belt moved, and smoothly the pew began to move forward. When it reached the front of the nave, it came to a stop. At the same time, another empty pew rotated up from below in the back, and more people sat down. And so it continued, pews filling and moving forward until finally the church was full by 10:00.
“Wonderful! Marvelous!” exclaimed the priest.
The service began, and after the hymns and collect and readings, the priest started to preach his sermon. He launched into the text, and when 12:00 came, he was still going strong – with no end in sight. Suddenly a bell rang, a trap door in the floor of the pulpit dropped open, and the priest disappeared.
“Wonderful! Marvelous!” exclaimed the congregation.
Jesus, as preacher/teacher was never accused of being long-winded and pedantic, or boring. His sermons were not lectures complete with three points, each developed very, very fully. They were not dry explanations of doctrine. He spoke with authority, i.e., he spoke out of his experience of God. No one surreptitiously checked a watch (not that they had watches. . .) or took friendly wagers as to how long his preaching would last. Jesus never needed a trap door.
All he needed was to know the people to whom he was speaking.
In talking about the kingdom, he said, “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven,” right? Thy kingdom come. Jesus said that the kingdom was at hand. Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand. Interesting phrase – at hand. Does that mean that the kingdom of God is here? Right now? At this hand? Or this hand? Or does Jesus mean that the kingdom of God is imminent? Here any day . . . Any minute now. . .. And how do we recognize the kingdom? How will we – or, how do we – know it? Whoa – so many questions. Let’s turn to Jesus and ask him. What is the kingdom like?
Well, Jesus says, let’s see. It’s like – it’s like – and he pauses. He looks at the people who are asking. How can he make it plain to this specific group of people what the kingdom is like –Is it a place? A place prepared for us? A place of many mansions?
I know this is anachronistic, but a kingdom can make us think of a palace, and a king or some form of royal government, of majesty. I remember when my then-five-year-old granddaughter was smitten with princesses. And our imaginations ran to kingdoms with castles and knights in shining armor on horses.
Which leads me to C.S. Lewis and his imaginative idea that the kingdom of God is like a wonderful horse. My grandmother Pat used to bounce babies on her knee while she sang “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, to see a find lady upon a white horse.” Or she’d say, “This is the way a lady rides – trot, trot, trot. This is the way a gentleman rides – gallopy, gallopy, gallopy. And her bouncy knees would go from a gentle trot to a “you’d better hang on” gallop. C.S. Lewis would remind us that by the time we became toddlers we had a toy horse, on wheels or on springs.
When my son Ole was four he had one on a wooden frame with bouncy springs. He named it Pudding and fed it grass. One day a neighbor girl started beating Pudding (don’t ask me why), and Ole came running into the house, sobbing “Laura’s beating my horse!” I don’t know what became of Pudding, except that Ole outgrew him. Or it.
For those who have an interest in horses, or access to them, when we outgrow the horse on springs, the next step might be riding a small horse – a real pony or a pony on a carousel. There are exceptions, of course. My granddaughter Abby was on horses, big horses, really big horses, by the time she was two.
Consider the progression. Grandmother’s knee to pony, then on to larger horses. Trotting gently on grandmother’s knee, then galloping and jumping fences.
What about the kingdom of heaven? I don’t know what those horses will be like, but C.S. Lewis’s parable suggests that we don’t stop growing or developing just because we die. And life of the spirit in the kingdom of God is something bigger and better and more majestic than anything we are experiencing now.
We know that Lewis isn’t suggesting that there are real horses in heaven. But if you like horses, you gain some understanding of what it might be like. If you’re not a horse person, you can substitute cars (Karl would make it Corvettes) or paintings or boats or gardens – or anything else that speaks to you.
But do we have to wait? If being at hand means “right now,” which I prefer, there are at least a couple of ways to look at it.
One idea is that we ourselves do the work of bringing in the kingdom. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, expects us to do just that. And we are doing that, aren’t we? By following our baptismal covenant. By giving our time, talent and treasure to outreach. By inviting. By welcoming, being hospitable.
But the idea that speaks to me even more strongly is that the kingdom is here. Now. All around us. At hand. The treasure is buried where we will find it now if we turn our attention to it, if we focus on it, if we live into it. The pearl is there to be found. Yeast, when we nurture it in an appropriate environment, leavens the loaf, as long as we maintain the proper temperature, and use the right amount of moisture and ingredients. And we can bake and share and eat the bread today. (Which is why I brought a loaf of homemade bread for coffee hour today.)
The mustard seed grows through no effort on our part. And it’s there to be used by all – no prerequisites. Just fly to the mustard tree (or bush, or plant) and rest or roost or nest there. The kingdom is ready for all. Right now.
It is said that in relationship to the kingdom, people are like a man perched on the broad back of an ox looking all around for the ox. Or like a person looking for his/her glasses that are perched on top of his/her head. Like a man sitting among the plants of a potato patch starving to death because he doesn’t realize that the potatoes are down in the soil under those green leaves. It is true that not everyone recognizes the kingdom even when they are surrounded by it.
Here is a simple story, probably true, about just that. Ancient mariners told stories of many ships’ crews that died for lack of water while adrift in the sometimes all-too-calm, windless South Atlantic waters off the coast of Brazil. An irony surrounded these desperate experiences. It seems that the mouth of the Amazon River, the largest river in the world, widens to some ninety miles and flows out to sea nearly two hundred miles. That’s fresh water for nearly two hundred miles off the coast.
From time to time a suffering, dehydrated ship’s crew would be lucky. They’d see other ships and hail them, pleading for water. And the other crews would yell back to them that all they needed to do was lower their buckets over the side and haul up all the fresh water they needed. The full force of the Amazon current was flowing all around them.
That’s another parable about the kingdom. Those who thirst have only to dip into their surroundings. So let those who thirst dip and drink their fill.