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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like …

Readings: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus was a great storyteller. He told parables about the kingdom of God that opened up what God’s kingdom is like. It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a plant large enough and secure enough to harbour nesting birds. It is like a fish hiding in the deep water that should be fished out. It is like a pearl, like a treasure, hidden in the earth. It needs to be found. It is like yeast that one puts into the dough to make it rise.

And the people listening to the stories nod their heads in agreement. They can picture it. They have planted tiny mustard seeds and seen them grow to be twelve feet high. The smallest of seeds becomes a plant that expands out and is so large, secure and encompassing that the birds of heaven come and nest in its branches, hidden and safe where their young can be nurtured.

They can see themselves finding the pearl of great price. “It really is possible,” they are thinking to themselves. Palestine was infested with brigands and soldiers. The best way to ensure the safety of treasure was to bury it. You could happen upon a great treasure. “Why, there could be treasure buried in my own back yard,” they think, “and wouldn’t that be wonderful!” And that is what God’s kingdom is like. It could be mine. The kingdom of God is within my reach.

They heard as well the ominous tone in Jesus’ voice as he told them about their responsibility. The kingdom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. The net is a drag net that sweeps along the bottom of the sea and catches every imaginable kind of fish. At the end of the day they are sorted and some are thrown back. “Could I be found wanting at the end of time?” they consider. “What do I have to do to make certain that I live as God wants me too?”

The parables that Jesus tells are attempts to grasp hold of our hearts and shake us into a new position. They are meant to be unsettling, to overturn our certainty and startle us into insight and vision into God’s kingdom. Jesus’ purpose is to reveal what God’s kingdom is about. It is a new kind of kingdom, a spiritual one that will include people of every nation and race. An inclusive kingdom that does not judge us by the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation, our intelligence, but rather by our faith in God and by how we have lived our lives. In other words, it is about our commitment to God. When we offer ourselves to God we fid a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction in our ongoing life, but we become accountable to God.

That means that the Church is like the net. Its community contains a whole spectrum of human motivations and intentions from the most self-centred to the most self-sacrificing. All are brought into the net. We are all called to a process of change, transformation and growth in Christ. As with the first disciples, we are a varied catch, ranging from the totally committed to the lukewarm.

So the question is, how much is our Christian life worth to us? How much is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one’s life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything.

The parable is intended as a message to Jesus' disciples. "The cost of discipleship," he tells them over and over again, "is very great. It costs everything." They have found a great treasure in Jesus. At the moment it is hidden from the world. It is their secret. They must leave everything to follow him. They must look to God, not humanity, for their reward. The claims of the kingdom are total. They leave no room for self-interest. Discipleship demands total response, total commitment.

As Christians we are searching for a great treasure. We are children of the kingdom, living in a kind of exile from it, discovering glimpses of it from time to time. It is worth the search, for it is a great treasure. But the search is costly. It will cost everything we have. But the transformation in our lives will make it a treasure worth having.

Most of us would like our faith to make a difference – but perhaps not too much. We may have had a wonderful mountain top experience in our lives, a Conference, a retreat weekend, or a moment in our lives when everything came together for us. We perceived God in a different light. But over time the experience fades. We think about it once in a while. But there are problems in our lives. We have to earn a living and raise our family. There are the stresses and conflicts of life to deal with. There is sickness. We go to church on Sunday. But to make a commitment to the faith, to work at it, to read our Bibles, to pray, to reach out to others in Christian love, to give of ourselves – those things we put aside. We want to be committed Christians, but on our own terms.

There is a Japanese folk saying that goes this way, “The scent of the flowers remains on the hands of the person who gives the gift away.” That is the way of the kingdom of God. That is the way the kingdom comes, yielding the treasure to others, giving away the pearl of great price, making bread and opening our arms so that others can come and find a home secure in us.

We have access to a treasure so great and awesome that it is enough to share with a hungry world. What a treasure we have in our Christian faith! What a treasure it is to know what it means to be loved by God, to be totally accepted by God. The tragedies and conflicts of life can discourage us but they do not change God's love for us. Failures and defeats may bother us, but they do not affect our relationship with God. God's love and reconciling grace are forever. God's will is carried out through us. We are children of God.

Of what value is a sense of the presence of God, of the love of Christ, of the peace and meaning that such realities can bring into one's life? How much are these things worth? The ultimate truth is that these realities are worth everything. The Christian story is one of miracles. It is the story of lives turned around, of hope reborn, and of amazement at how, when we seek to live in concert with God's will, great things can happen. May we find that great treasure!

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