The kingdom of Heaven is like…”Good trouble”
Where on earth do we get our ideas about heaven? What do you imagine? Clouds, angels, golden thrones, music? It is impossible to talk about the kingdom of heaven without conjuring some sort of picture in our minds. Most of these images we think of come to us from the Book of Revelation, amplified by liturgical art across the centuries. But is that what the Kingdom of heaven is really like?
Episcopal priest and writer, Barbara Brown says “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?” Perhaps we do best if we use the most ordinary things or the most ordinary of beings. (The Seeds of Heaven)
And that’s just what Jesus does.
Soil and seeds, flour and yeast, pearls and fish; gardeners and bakers, fisherman, laborers and entrepreneurs; men and women, this is what Jesus uses to speak of the Kingdom of heaven.
Rather than point to a future place or final destination of some sort, Jesus tells a variety of parables utilizing everyday images, so that his hearer might connect with an image. What he describes isn’t a mythical, pie-in-the-sky place. The parable’s images reveal a sense of immediacy, something in the here and now, not something fantastic and far away, or inaccessible.
These parables change our rosy vision of the Kingdom of heaven, grounding it, as it were in our everyday lives. The lives of the crowds and disciples who followed him, and ours, making the kingdom of heaven something possible, not just imaginable. It is as if he’s saying: “Look for signs of the kingdom everywhere — it hides in plain sight, it’s overlooked among the delusions of grandeur, it only becomes visible when you’re among kindred spirits, rising to the top.”
The Kingdom of Heaven, while not fully realized, is not like a dream deferred, or something that is outside our human experience. In fact, Jesus affirms with his presence that he is breaking down the barriers, clearing out the obstacles, removing everything that stands in the way of the establishment of his kingdom.
Perhaps that’s the need for the parables themselves, because we can’t see what’s emerging in front of us; because to see it, we need to reframe our notions of heaven. And that will take work, discipline, vision and faith.
But God does not disappoint.
Believe that something insignificant could become something mighty, something grand. Jesus says. Invest in something that doesn’t seem worthwhile. Get your hands dirty, work hard, tirelessly for something unappreciated by others. Try something new, break with ‘the way we’ve always done it’ to uncover the treasure hidden in plain sight.
Make no mistake, the parables of the kingdom offer us images that are powerful, beautiful and absolutely disruptive: they tell us there is another way to see the world.
Consider that Jesus’ audience would have thought a mustard bush a weed; they would also have thought to add any kind of leavening something unclean, even corrupting. The foolishness of selling everything to own only one thing could only be compared to the foolishness of sowing seeds in rocky soil. Letting the wheat and the tares grow together? Crazy. Jesus used such language and such images to offer an alternative vision, breaking through the customs, structures, norms and traditions that kept people from having an authentic relationship with God.
Because that may be the point: It’s not the what, it’s the how
Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that “the kingdom” isn’t so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can’t seem to see [or our hearts comprehend] what’s happening (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). We make a mistake to think of the kingdom as a reward at the end of our lives. It is in fact a call, a vocation to live out now. The more and harder we work for the kingdom, the more it’s truth is revealed as: the shrub that shelters a diversity of birds, the bountiful bread, the pearl of great price, the wonderful catch of fish.
The parables all talk about taking on a specific –though strange or difficult- action to achieve a specific –but worthy– result: sometimes it means divesting oneself of the unnecessary things, in order to reach something greater; sometimes it involves sorting through and letting go of things that are toxic; sometimes it means taking risks, traveling in uncharted territory; sometimes it means trusting in ways we’ve never trusted before; sometimes mixing things up, resorting to ‘good trouble’ so that others may reap the reward.
I keep thinking this morning about Congressman John Lewis: a giant of the civil rights movement, an icon for nonviolent change, the moral “conscience of Congress.” He lived an incredible, storied life. One that begins as a sharecropper’s son and ends in the highest halls of government, but not before enduring the oppression of segregation. He labored on even though he was arrested, beaten, incarcerated, as he worked tirelessly and single mindedly for the great pearl of justice. Because of his work, laws were overturned, people’s dignity restored. His legacy is one in which many will rest and find shelter.
Few of us will be able to accomplish what he did. Few of us will be able to inspire others like he did. His life was a parable, a parable of hope, showing us that humble can be great, that ‘good trouble’ is not a contradiction in terms, that non-violence is the path to peace, that the kingdom of God is here breaking into this world, into our time, into our lives, making it a reality for us all.
The kingdom of heaven is like…Good trouble
It’s like nothing you have ever imagined, but everything you’ve hoped for. In Jesus’ name. amen.