We were just over 30 attending our Parish Communion this morning either in church or by zoom. It was our first attended service post Covid 19 and we were all wearing face coverings including our readers and the minister who practically collapsed with asphyxia while delivering the following sermon through his face covering and peering without glasses to avoid them steaming up! Judith Mezger read the reading, Gerry Stacey led the prayers and Chris Ellis was the zoom jockey. Sara Mason the chair of our Covid Committee was the sidesman. Thank you to all of them – it went as well as could be expected. We listened to the wonderful singing of the choral scholars of St Martin in the Fields which was accompanied by melodious humming, but not singing.
The video follows:
The Mustard Seed, the yeast, the treasure and the pearl Matthew 13:31-52
Are you the king of the Jews?
Pilate’s words recorded in all four gospels ring down the ages. ‘You say so’ is Jesus’ enigmatic reply. It’s not entirely unreasonable for Pilate to scoff in the way that he did; his scorn culminating in the sign he nailed to the Cross above Jesus’ beaten and bloody body ‘This is Jesus King of the Jews’. It’s the contempt for the broken, of those who wield earthly power. It’s as if he was saying, ’what sort of kingdom do you think you’re king of then; which brings you to this….?’
What sort of kingdom is the Kingdom of Heaven and are we part of it?
Where is our true loyalty?
Lucy and I were walking on our walk of hope last Sunday; praying for the farmer of the land through which we were walking, for success in his business, and happiness in his family. The South Downs Way went straight on, but the parish boundary went left down a track, past a sign saying ‘No footpath’. As we continued along the parish boundary, past that sign, despite this instruction, it occurred to me that it is only us who recognise who owns what property…the birds and insects and wildlife…all creation in fact, except for us, see no barriers between one person’s land and another’s, between one country and another. Indeed, the indigenous peoples of America, Australasia and Africa were mystified by our flags and property boundaries, when we arrived with them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They had been more nomadic, following what the creator had provided them to eat. But we turned up with our freeholds and leaseholds, our artificial divisions between one kingdom and another….and our European rivalries epitomised by the first verse of the hymn written by a career diplomat: ’I vow to thee my country.’
I vow to thee my country
All earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect
The service of my love
The love that asks no question
The love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar,
the dearest and the best
The love that never falters
The love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted
The final sacrifice
The love which found its apotheosis in the disastrous first world war.
I mention this because it seems to me that it is relevant for seeing what Jesus meant when he spoke about the kingdom of heaven.
‘Kingdom’ is quite a weak word in modern parlance. We think of our wonderful Queen, who is powerless, except gently to influence events. But in Jesus’ time ‘Kingdom’ was a massively powerful word. You were either for the Kingdom of Caesar or you were a traitor and likely to be executed. It was a life and death matter whose kingdom you belonged to, as it was for us in the First World War. It was very obvious if you were for the king (or the Emperor in the case of Rome) or not. And it was the foremost concern for Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus.
But the kingdom of heaven was, as Jesus explained, (in the parables we are looking at today) very different indeed from the Kingdoms of the World.
Firstly, by the standards of the world it was tiny like a mustard seed. When Jesus was speaking to his disciples 2000 years ago there were just a few people, those Jesus had encountered, who had loyalty to him who were subjects of the kingdom of heaven. But, like a mustard seed, this little group of disciples had the DNA, had the potential, to change the course of history and ultimately to dwarf, even the might of the Roman Empire, as all nations, like birds in the parable, came under its protection to nest in its branches, so that 2.3 billion, a third of the world’s population would now call themselves Christians. So yes, Pilate, Jesus is a king of a kingdom which might have looked to you as broken and battered as he hung on the cross, but now it is Rome which is only a relic of a bygone era.
Secondly, the Kingdom of Heaven has the power to change the character of humanity, like the yeast changes flour into bread. Despite its many failings, Christianity has been at the centre of all sorts of means by which our society has been improved. As theologian Michael Green writes: ‘it is beyond question that down the ages the church has had an amazing record in medical care, social work, education, liberation of women and slaves, and the defence of prisoners, the aged, the helpless, and those whom society neglects. Hidden and obscure the kingdom may be, but it has had and continues to have an undeniable effect upon society. It is yeast in the flour’
Thirdly, the Kingdom of Heaven, once discovered, is much much more precious than anything else; really out of all comparison with other things. The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl show two ways in which people come across the Kingdom of Heaven either by accident – as the treasure found buried in the ground found by a farm worker, perhaps ploughing a field and colliding with a chest of gold just below the surface, or we come across Christianity after patient search and rejecting all other alternatives – as with the merchant who finds the most precious pearl after a life time of trade. But really these two parables are one, because the striking message in both is the total enthusiasm that both the farm worker who buys the field and the merchant who buys the pearl show. They sell everything they have to get the treasure, to get the pearl. Its only because the farm worker and the merchant realise how incredibly valuable their discovery is, that they are willing to sacrifice everything for it.
This of course is where the second verse of I vow to thee my country comes into its own:
And there’s another country
I’ve heard of long ago
Most dear to them that love her
Most great to them that know
We may not count her armies
We may not see her King
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
her pride is suffering
And soul by soul and silently
Her shining bounds increase
Her ways are ways of gentleness
And all her paths are peace
I don’t know whether Sir Cecil Spring Rice, who wrote these lyrics in the aftermath of the first world war, was gently questioning the assumptions of the first verse, by the second, its likely because, as British Ambassador to the United States and friend to Woodrow Wilson, he would have been acutely aware of the cost to both countries of that conflict. The cost of putting country first.
But its clear that the kingdom of heaven advances soul by soul and not by changing geographical boundaries. But actually the Kingdom of Heaven is much more influential and much more valuable than the kingdoms and empires of this world.
So how do we feel about the Kingdom of Heaven?
I think its unlikely that any of us scoff like Pilate, although we will have neighbours who do so.
I think it is unlikely that any of us underestimate the huge beneficial impact that Christianity has had on humanity, although we will have neighbours who focus on a history of crusades and conflict, but overlook a history of care, education, liberation and protection of the vulnerable.
But the big question for us: for you, for me, is how enthusiastic are we are about the Kingdom of Heaven?
Is it most dear to us than other loyalties? Is it more dear to us than the kingdoms of the world, than the other things to which we give our loyalty?
I am not saying that we have to but would we give up everything else to obtain it without a backward glance?
We are required to put our loyalties to the Kingdom of Heaven way beyond our loyalty to anything else and as with the man who finds the treasure or the merchant who finds the pearl, it will be obvious that we have done so. Because it is not a question of degree ‘Oh I am a Christian but also I am very passionate about……’ ‘Oh going to church on Sundays is one of the things that I do’ but not as important as football or fishing or tiddlywinks…
It will be obvious in the importance we place on worship.
It will be obvious in the importance we place on looking after others.
It will be obvious in the importance we place on studying God’s word.
It will be obvious in the importance we place on giving.
When we can suddenly find ourselves in hospital dying with Covid 19 because someone sneezed next to us, really what can be more important than this?
Is the kingdom of heaven most dear to us?
If not have we really found it?
Because the final parable told by Jesus is really quite challenging.
Jesus says (verse 47) that the Kingdom of Heaven is also like a net which catches all kinds of fish but ultimately there is a separation between the good fish and the bad fish.
Just because we have been caught by the Kingdom of Heaven. Just because we occasionally come to church; just because we give to the kingdom of God as we do to the RNLI…
Just because we see ourselves by our own standards as ‘good people’ is no guarantee that we are not going to be separated out ‘at the end of the age’.
Where is our true loyalty?
Where is our ultimate priority?
What is most dear to us?
Is it to the Kingdoms of the world and everything that comes with them property, land, power wealth? Or is it to the Kingdom of heaven?
Because if it is to the Kingdom of Heaven we have every reason to be confident as the diplomat come poet wrote the kingdom of heaven is Most dear to them that love her, Most great to them that know’
“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.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 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.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 13:44–52). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.