Monday, August 4, 2014

Sermon: "Heaven and Hell"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 3, 2014 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“Heaven and Hell”

Imagine that you fell asleep one night and God came to you in a dream.
Not an imagined encounter with God conjured up by your subconscious because you have some unresolved issue that you’re wrestling with, but a real encounter with the real God. 
The God who created you, and sustains you, and is the reason why you find yourself here on a Sunday morning.

What if God came to you in a dream and gave you the same offer that was presented to Solomon –  “Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

What is it that you would ask for?

Solomon asked for wisdom.     
Would we choose as wisely?

We’ve all seen enough movies and I Dream of Jeannie reruns to know that we should beware of supernatural beings granting wishes.
It rarely turns out well for the wish makers.
Inevitably they ask for great riches or great powers and once they get it everything goes downhill fast. There’s always some consequence or semantic loophole that they did not anticipate.

You may have heard the joke about the three men who are stranded on a desert island, when a bottle washes up on the shore.
When they uncork the bottle, a genie appears and offers three wishes, one for each of them. The first man wishes he were in Paris. The genie snaps his fingers, and the man suddenly finds himself sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower sipping champagne and eating caviar at an outdoor cafe.
The second man wishes that he were in Hollywood, and with a snap of the genie's fingers, he finds himself on a Southern California movie set, with a gorgeous actress on his arm.
The genie then turns to the third man, who was now alone on the island, and says, “You have the final wish, what will it be?  The man looked around and said, "I wish my friends were back."

Hopefully if we were given such a choice we would have the wisdom to know that sometimes what we wish for has unforeseen consequences.

The heaven we imagine sometimes turns out to be hell.
While the hell we do everything to avoid turns out to be heaven in disguise.

If God asked us what we desire above all else, we might say we want world peace.  But what if it took a devastating worldwide war to obtain it?

We might ask for untold riches, and then spend the rest of our lives living in fear of losing it.

We might ask for good health and a long life, and then find ourselves alone and grieving in our later years, because all of our family and friends have already gone.

What we imagine we want more than anything else in the world isn’t always what we expect it to be once we have it.
And sometimes the last thing that we would imagine that we want is just the thing we need to help us feel happy and whole.

Jesus’ disciples thought they knew what it was that they wanted when they imagined a world filled with God’s abundance.
When Jesus talked about this Kingdom of God – this heavenly existence that God was seeking to build right here on earth, they nodded their heads in understanding.

It would be a world where THEY would be on top for a change.
The powerful would fall, and the powerless would rise.
And their enemies would suffer just as they had.
This is the reign of God as they expected to see it.
But as we know, Jesus had a way of defying expectations.
We see it in this simple string of parables that Matthew recorded in his gospel -  the Kingdom parables, where Jesus tells us what this reign of God will be like.

Here he rattles off a rapid-fire succession of analogies that tell us that the Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed or a pinch of leavening mixed in flour.
It’s like a treasure or a beautiful pearl.
We can almost imagine the mental gymnastics that his listeners have to do to keep up with what he’s saying, and make sense of it all.

To our modern ears the meaning of these parables is not that difficult to surmise.
The Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree.
The Kingdom is like a pinch of yeast that yields an abundance of dough.
The Kingdom is like a treasure found in a field or a single pearl that wills us to sell all that we have to obtain it.

In all these parables, the things that we dismiss as being small and insignificant are in reality bountiful and valuable.
The imagery WE see here is beautiful and poetic.
But Jesus’ first century listeners most likely were left scratching their heads.

Because a mustard seed does not grow into a tree, it grows into a low and unwieldy bush.  Once it takes root it’s likely to overtake anything in its path.
It’s a weed, and it’s the last thing that first century farmers would have planted in their fields or their gardens.

It would be like Jesus saying to us, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field of dandelions. Once we see those things pop up we do everything we can to get rid of them.

Comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a pinch of yeast would caused the same puzzled reaction in Jesus’ Jewish listeners.  The leaven they used was not the same yeast that we use today.  They created leaven by setting aside a piece of leftover bread to spoil.
If it wasn’t left long enough it was useless as rising agent, but left too long and it could cause food poisoning. Which made using leaven a risky and sometime fatal undertaking.
In fact, the Hebrew scriptures often used "unleavened" as a metaphor for the Holy, and anything associated with leaven was thought to be unclean and corrupting.

So why did Jesus choose what would have been offensive and off putting imagery to describe this bountiful, beautiful, wonderful Kingdom of Heaven to his followers?

Perhaps because he saw it as way to shake up their expectations – to help them to see that often what they desire the least is actually what they need the most…and what they value the least is priceless in the eyes of God.

All of these parables are about finding something of value that is hidden in plain sight.
This Kingdom of Heaven, this reign of God that defies expectations, is found where we least expect to find it.

It’s in Keshia Thomas, the African American teenager who threw herself on top of a white supremacist protester in Michigan to keep him from being beaten by an angry mob.

It’s in the hundreds of faithful Muslims who formed human chains around churches in Egypt and Pakistan to protect Christian worshipers from extremist attacks.

It’s in the Seeds for Peace summer camp, a program that brings Israeli and Palestinian children together to breakdown the barriers of mistrust and hate.

It’s in the face of a frightened child from El Salvador who traveled for thousands of miles to escape the violence and gangs of his home country only to be met by a line of Americans brandishing guns and shouting racist rhetoric, because they fear that these children will take something that the they have no right to receive.
The Kingdom of God is found in unexpected places.
In the smallest, in the most vulnerable, in the most hated, in the most misunderstood.

This heavenly realm that we imagine God resides in stands in stark contrast to the hellish places where God actually lives.

But this is where the Kingdom takes root.
In the places that we tend to avoid or overlook.
Where a tiny little mustard seed grows into an unwieldy bush that spreads before anyone can contain it, and becomes a place for birds to nest.
Where a pinch of leavening that many consider to be too dangerous to ingest produces a bountiful amount of bread for those who hunger.
Where a simple little pearl is worth giving up all that we have to obtain it.

But in a world where so much of what we’re told to value has no true value at all, it’s hard for us to discern where our world ends and God’s Kingdom begins.

Perhaps this why Solomon chose to receive wisdom above all else.
Perhaps it is the only correct response to give when God asks what it is we would like to receive as a gift.
The wisdom to discern good from evil.
The wisdom to listen to what is in the hearts of others.
The wisdom to hold on to what has value and let go of what does not.

The challenge that Jesus offers is to keep looking for the Kingdom of God in unexpected places.

To help bring God’s realm into being by lifting it up wherever we see it.

And to wake each morning asking ourselves,
“Where will I find it today?”