The Kingdom of Heaven
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In the dark of night one June evening in 1966, a somewhat harried minister from Virginia arrived to our Rectory here on Upper Saranac Lake with his wife and three children. They had never been here before, and there was some trepidation about staying at a “camp” in the north woods. Not yet understanding Adirondack parlance for a summer residence, they suspected that the word “camp” might suggest wooden platforms and canvas tents. It had been a long journey, and all five family members had wondered to themselves what on earth they were doing driving so far north towards a ministry about which they knew very little. They were alone, it was dark, and they were each worried in their own way.
A few moments after they arrived, their son noticed a canoe with a lantern bobbing across the waters of Back Bay. It was a couple named Charlie and Pooh Ritchie, paddling over to welcome the new minister and his family. Charlie and Pooh had been making laps to the back shoreline of their property all evening to verify when the Rectory lights had been switched on, signaling the arrival of this new family to our community. It was a small gesture of welcome. But in the dark of night without any notion of the beauty that stretched before them down Upper Saranac Lake, that little lantern coming across the water made each member of the Sheerin family feel welcome. That bobbing light was, to quote John the Evangelist in a rather literal way, “the light shining in the darkness” (John 1:5).
“The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mtt. 13:31-32). It was a small gesture to wait up and paddle across Back Bay to say hello and welcome. But that tiny seed of kindness grew into thirty-six years of ministry, and now three generations of the Sheerin family have taken care of us all on this lake. Not unlike the birds in Jesus’s parable, how many of us have been sheltered by the Sheerin family’s love?
Surely, many of us can think of a moment like this. A moment when some small act of kindness, an act we might say is the size of a mustard seed, buoyed us up when we felt alone and lost in the darkness. Such small acts can transform a life. They can transform a community. They can transform the world. That, Jesus tells us, is the kingdom of heaven.
After my third year at University, my father interrupted one of my many rants on politics and religion and suggested that I write to a colleague and peer of his who was a priest and retired headmaster of the Roxbury Latin School in Boston. My father claimed that he was unequipped to help me regarding theology, but I suspect that he may simply have been tired of my truculence and was punting to a friend who he hoped might inject me with some humility. He could have had no idea that his suggestion would lead to an actual letter, which would lead to several more letters, and then an invitation to visit with this priest at his newly formed program at Divinity School.
At the time my father made his suggestion, I had no interest at all in being a priest. I likely wouldn’t have even been able to imagine it. I was a political science major, and I was moving rather contentedly towards the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service. To be honest, the topic of my first letter to this priest/headmaster named Tony Jarvis was questioning the purpose of the existence of the Church. And yet, this was the man who first told me that I should be ordained a priest. Seven years after that first letter, Father Tony Jarvis preached the sermon at my ordination.
“The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus continues in today’s Gospel lesson, “is like yeast that a woman took and hid with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Mtt. 13:33).
Notice in this parable the word “hide;” the kingdom has started to come, God is already at work in the world, but the work is hidden from us. Such a small thing -- to write a letter. I had no idea that my life’s trajectory was already changing, becoming something different. The yeast of this parable was at work in the flour of my soul, and seven years later, it matured into a calling.
Surely almost everyone in this Church can think of a moment in our lives that resembles that first fateful letter that I wrote to Tony Jarvis. A moment when some small spark of a new relationship unknowingly starts a process of transformation that will leave us in a place that we cannot have imagined. These moments: they are like yeast in dough, and they can transform a life. They can transform a community. They can transform the world. That, Jesus tells us, is the kingdom of heaven.
Five times, Jesus tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like in our lesson today, and in each of these five parables Jesus reaches into the messy world of our lives to help us see that the kingdom of heaven is all around us. “The Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus continues, “is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one of great value, [in his joy] goes and sells all that he has and buys it” (Mtt. 13:45-46). Isn’t this exactly what parents do when they discover the pearl of their children? Everything that we strive for as young adults is suddenly offered up freely for the benefit of a new born child: money, time, sleep, energy, health. Just as this merchant joyfully sells everything he has for one pearl, so too do parents offer their lives and possessions joyfully for their children. That, Jesus is telling us, is the kingdom of heaven. And it can transform the world.
One of the central points of this collection of parables is to suggest that the kingdom of heaven is all around us, if only we look with eyes to see. But seeing the kingdom requires us to put down our defensiveness, our resentments, our fear, and our shame. Seeing the kingdom requires wisdom. We don’t need anything more than we already have, because the kingdom of heaven is already here; we are simply too often blind to it. Perhaps this is why King Solomon’s request of God is so pleasing to God. Solomon could have asked for long life or riches; instead, he asks that God give him “an understanding mind” (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon seems to be aware that he already possesses the kingdom of heaven; he only needs the mind to understand it.
Our lack of wisdom is precisely what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26-27). We think we need love or power or recognition, so we pray for these things without realizing that we already have them. To repeat Paul’s words again, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” And yet, Paul asserts that the Spirit will prevail, like a mustard seed, like a little yeast, like the joy in finding one true pearl. These are the signs of the kingdom, and they are in the world all around us.
This morning we are blessed with one of the greatest signs of the kingdom of heaven: the baptism of a new child of God. William Austin Kriz is here with us today from Atlanta, to be sealed as Christ’s own forever through the love of God in this Church. We are here today to proclaim with him and for him and in him the love of God in Christ Jesus. And to quote Paul’s beautiful passage in Romans again, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor thing to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [William] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38).
Look with eyes to see, and in this small font of water from Upper Saranac Lake and on the tiny brow of young William, we may just be able to glimpse the kingdom of heaven. This humble act of baptism can transform the life of William. It can transform the life of this community. It can transform the world. That is the kingdom of heaven.