Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
If heaven isn't now, I think we've missed it.
I've been a priest for a decade. I've been an Episcopalian for two. I've been a Christian for all thirty-six years of my life. And I feel like I am only now learning to appreciate the fact that heaven isn't a destination at the end of our life but a reality that is here among us right now. Where have I been?
In Matthew 13:44-52, Jesus gets on a bit of a preacher's roll and spouts off one analogy for the kingdom after another. "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field...It's like a merchant in search of fine pearls...It's like a net thrown into the sea... Do you see what I mean? Can you see it? Can you see the kingdom?" Matthew doesn't give us any editorial comments like, "Working up a good, holy sweat, Jesus said..." but he does string these parables together in quick succession in a way that makes it feel like we're spinning around, looking at the kingdom from one angle after another. None of these is a full depiction of God's reign or our experience of it, but together they leave us with an impression of what it means for God to be in charge.
And the impression that they leave me is now--the now-ness of the kingdom. "The kingdom heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field," Jesus says. And what do you do with a buried treasure? You find it and dig it up! Every child of God knows that. We've been imagining ourselves on treasure hunts since we were old enough to explore in the back yard. Jesus' hearers knew that, too. If the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field, that means our job is to go and find it. That's how the parable continues. A man, upon stumbling upon that treasure of incomparable value, sells all that he has and buys the field so that the treasure might be his. He didn't go home and spend the rest of his life telling his kids and grandkids about the treasure that could have belonged to him. No, of course not! The man went and got it. Immediately. Buried treasures aren't supposed to be admired from afar. They're hidden so that we might find them.
The same principle is at work in the parable of the merchant in search of fine pearls. When he finds the pearl he's been looking for for his entire life, he sells all that he has and buys it. Not tomorrow. Not after discussing it with his wife. Not after assembling a cadre of investment bankers who might fund this project. No, he seizes the opportunity as soon as he find it, sells everything that he owns, and buys that one pearl. Is this ludicrous? Maybe, but it doesn't matter. This man's life was focused on searching for fine pearls. That is what gave his life direction and meaning. Why wouldn't he cash in his life insurance policy, liquidate his 401(k), and scrape together every penny from his savings in order to get the one thing he's dreamed of for his whole life? When an opportunity like that presents itself, you don't let it pass you by. You take it. Immediately. Now.
Sure, the kingdom is not finished yet. As the parable of the net reminds us, one day God will come and make everything right. The edible, kosher fish will be separated from the sea creatures without fin and scale, which is to say that those who belong to God will be treasured by God himself, and those who do not (whoever they are) will be cast back into the water. But just because the kingdom isn't complete yet doesn't mean that it's not here. We're still swimming in the water. Until the end, we're going to be surrounded by those seem to get in the way of God's kingdom, but don't let that fool you. We may have a destination of completeness and perfection in mind, but that doesn't mean the kingdom isn't here and now.
Today is the feast of Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret was an English princess who married Malcolm, the Scottish king. When she came to the north, she brought with her a zeal for reform. She insisted that the Christianity of the Celts be conformed to the Roman practices. One might argue that her reform of the liturgy and clergy was another example of English colonialism, but it is hard to criticize her reforms of hospitals, schools, and orphanages. As a queen, she felt that God had called her to transform the lives of her people from barbaric brutality to peaceful prosperity. She endeavored (ultimately unsuccessfully) to end the fighting among the Scottish clans. Although never fully realized, she dreamt of a nation united in prayer and worship. Despite being an Englishwoman (English and woman), Margaret did succeed in making her country a place that looked more and more like the kingdom of God, and we celebrate her as a saint because she refused to simply throw up her hands and say, "Someday God will sort this out." She knew that kingdom work was her work--that the kingdom of God is something to be seized here and now.
What about us? There are children in this town who go to bed hungry at night. There are men and women in our community who do not get the physical or mental health care that they need. In our city, a child's opportunity for success--in school and in life--is more heavily influenced by what neighborhood they are born in than what the genetic potential they possess. We have not figured out how black and white and brown people can live together with any greater sense of community than a détente. What will our response be?
Although we are called by God to feed and clothe and house and educate those in need and seek reconciliation with everyone in our community, that's only scratching the surface. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. The reign of God--the beautiful, peaceful, equitable, holy way of God--is within our sight. We know what it looks like, and, if we're honest with ourselves, we know where it lies. Will we sell everything that we have to unearth it? Margaret insisted on making systemic changes. She didn't just give food and clothing to those who needed it. She built schools and orphanages. She changed the way her country dealt with them. She found a way to include in society those who had been left out. Will we insist on the same? Will we recognize the incomparable value of the immediate kingdom? Will we seize that which God has placed before us?