There have been several books out within the past couple of years telling of near death experiences. These are experiences where a person dies for a few seconds and then revives for one reason or another to come back to life. It’s within those split seconds of death, that little sliver of the afterlife, is what they write about. Mostly those experiences have always been one of heaven.
They go on to describe it as beautiful, peaceful, reassuring, warm, loving, light filled. The Rev. Peter Panagore has had an experience such as this and it changed his life. After that experience he embarked on an intense spiritual journey that continues today. He will be here later in October to promote his book. More information will follow the closer we get.
But for now, heaven seems like it is quite a pleasant place, somewhere that I think I’d like to end up someday. But in the meantime, and I hope it’s a long meantime I’ve got to deal with the here and now and try to make this place a better place, maybe even a bit of heaven here on earth.
Our passage for reflection this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew the 13th chapter. Jesus tells three parables in a row all beginning with the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’….
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven 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.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Bing, bang, boom, three parables in a row. Actually, in it’s entirety, there are four parables with a interlude of explanation of these parables and then three more. One following on the heels of another as if Jesus were in some big hurry. His point must be really important because they all deal with relatively the same message, the kingdom of heaven is like a sower sowing his field, a mustard seed, weeds and wheat, yeast, a treasure, a merchant, a net thrown into the sea.
In fact there are 32 references to the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s a dominant theme in this Gospel. Quite simply put, the kingdom of heaven is the concept of the universe as one divine kingdom where God is sovereign. It is the unification of the human race prompted by love, divine love and universal love. It is social order brought to perfection. I think that Lung-chu Chen has it right in the preface to his book, “An Introduction to Contemporary International Law“ , he says, “Citizens of the world must be taught to think globally, to think contextually, and to think creatively for the common interest. The ultimate goal should be the establishment of a world community of human dignity.” [i] This sure sounds to me like the kingdom of heaven. I think, ‘if I can take a moment to think like God’, that would make God very happy diety.
Of course it’s just not that easy, never is. It gets much more complicated than just that. These parables set off a scholarly debate that has ensued ever since. They argue, is this kingdom, this fullness of grace and beauty in the future or is it in the here and now. Does Christ have to come again to bring in the kingdom or is he the kingdom fulfilled in our hearts? So we could go on and on till those proverbial cows come home but we would waste so much of our precious time and still may not agree or come up with an answer. All we know is that human life is finite and the only moment we have is now.
Essentially these parables teach us that there is good and there is bad in the world; we cannot change that, the weeds grow among the vital, hardy plants. That evil is hard to distinguish and it is best left up to God to handle. God will be the one to judge in the end what is good and what is bad. Perhaps that’s why we utter each week the phrase, “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer. We want God’s hand in our lives, in the beautiful, sublime kingdom here on earth. We want God to rule in our hearts and in our minds and to make this world a better place to inhabit. We want good to win, Thy kingdom come. Please God – can’t your kingdom come now rather than later?
But that doesn’t mean that our hands should stay folded and our heads are bowed. It means that our hands should be wide open and actively seeking ways to bring the kingdom into your present reality, that your heads should be held high and your eyes wide open to what needs to be done. Why wait when now you have the opportunity and the wherewithal to make a difference, to advance the kingdom of heaven. Just to make this place a better place – a little slice of heaven here on earth.
There is a phrase in Judaism, ‘tikkum olam’ which means simply repair the world. We know that this world has so much to offer and it has so much that sorely needs our help. You can name any number of maladies that our world suffers from. Working to alleviate hunger, homelessness, violence, nuclear warfare, resettling refugees, becoming an ally to someone who has been bullied all are fine and worthy causes and there are so many more, that you can spend your precious life’s hours on to repair this world.
How might you begin? Where is your niche? ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life’ as the poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem, ‘The Summer Day’.
The kingdom of heaven really does have to begin within you. A heart that is open to having Christ as it’s guide is a heart that is willing to advance that glorious kingdom. If you take Christ seriously, if you understand one measly lesson in all of the teachings then you’ll know what to do.
What you do matters whether its on a micro level or macro level. When you, in what you do, declare truth it matters. Your work, whether it’s in our out of the home or in retirement is a divine called from God if you choose to frame it that way. And living into that call will make all of the difference in God’s world and in your life.
I want to leave you with Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”, that I referenced earlier because it’s descriptive and appropriated for a late August day but, more importantly, it motivates me to strive for the kingdom.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?