Before I came to St. Paul’s and St. Martin’s I was a children and youth minister at an Episcopal Church in the San Francisco bay area. Part of my role was designing the curriculum for Sunday school and coordinating our volunteers. When we taught the parable that we heard in this morning’s Gospel in our Sunday school classes we would say to the children, “Close your eyes and picture a kingdom.” After a moment, we would ask them to describe what they saw.
“A giant castle, with a throne covered in gold.”
“A king, a queen, and their knights in shining armor.”
Children’s imaginations draw them towards the stuff of fairytales. Our minds produce what we know of kingdoms from our experience in the world.
In our Gospel this morning it is like Jesus already knows what our answer might be to the question, “What is a kingdom like?” His parable responds to the prompt. Jesus tells us, God’s kingdom cannot be bound by what we deem a kingdom on earth.
When we say, “A kingdom is of great size.” Jesus says, God’s kingdom is so small – it is like a mustard seed that you can hardly see. Look at that tiny seed, if tended, it will grow into something large enough to house the birds of the air.
When we say, “A kingdom is powerful, with great shows of strength.” Jesus counters God’s kingdom has power that works in ways that are not always evident like yeast that causes flour to rise. In this way we are able to bake bread to feed each other.
When we say, “A kingdom is wealthy, with many assets and resources.” Jesus tells us God’s kingdom has treasure that is out of sight. A wealth that is hidden that has nothing to do with money or belongings but of goodness and virtue.
When we say, “A kingdom must have important people.” Jesus responds God’s kingdom takes each person, honors them and treats them as worthy. It does not designate one person as more valuable than another but names each of us as a beloved child of God.
Now, when Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not describing an elusive place to which we will go when we die. He is not describing what will come about in due time. Jesus is talking about us, here and now. We are the Kingdom of God. We are the Kingdom of Heaven.
You are the field in which God sowed a tiny mustard seed to be tended. You will become like a mighty tree where birds make their home.
You are the flour to which God has added yeast to leaven. You will become like bread that will feed many people.
You are the keeper of treasure, which God has hidden in you. God claims you as God’s own.
You are the bearer of fine pearls. Which when found and shined, God loves with all God’s might.
You are the net which holds the fish, where God preserves the good and sets aside the bad.
We are all these things. And so, it is our duty to tend the seed, to knead the dough, to shine the pearl, to foster the good.
I returned from the Episcopal Youth Event a couple of weeks ago. It was a magnificent and transformative gathering of over a thousand high schoolers from all over the world. The event was a beautiful glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. One of the songs we sang during worship together was entitled “Montaña.” It is a song sung in Spanish with the words:
Si tuvieras fe, como un grano mostaza
Eso lo dice el Señor
Tu le dirías, a la montaña, muevete
Esa montaña se movera
If you had faith, like a grain of mustard
This the Lord says
You would tell the mountain to move
That mountain will move
Imagine a chorus of fifteen hundred enthusiastic, sweaty, passionate humans singing these words as one voice. It is powerful. At events like this mustard seeds are planted. It was at the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) as a junior in high school that I first felt a call to ministry. It was the first time I understood how vast and broad the Episcopal Church is and how the church acts to transform people and the world. During EYE as a youth, I had the blessing of mentors who walked alongside me and showed me, by example and sometimes in a more straightforward way, what it means to be a Christian in the world. They named things in me that I could not see myself, like the person in the parable who knows of the hidden treasure or who finds a pearl and shines it up.
I returned Friday from spending the week with Dick Johnson Children’s Camp for children age eight to twelve. A camp most of you know well and a ministry of the church which many of you support. A community of about forty children who have or have had a parent who is in prison, a dozen or so counselors who are committed to creating a safe an inclusive space, and a handful of volunteers who work hard to offer therapeutic and formative experiences for the campers.
I could tell you story upon story about the campers that would break your heart, fill you with compassion, or make you laugh. Most of the campers have experienced more heartbreak in their lives than many adults. But instead I want to tell you about the counselors, the Camp Mitchell summer staff that will put on eight full weeks of camp this summer. It was their care and dedication to serving the campers that I found truly beautiful. They held such good will and intention during what is probably the toughest week of the summer session. The summer staff spent all week helping to uncover hidden treasure in the children. They affirmed them and loved on them, helped them manage conflict and had hard conversations about their experience in the world. They named the good, and set aside the bad, or as they say in the Camp Mitchell Rule of Life, “We strive to turn our imperfections into improvements.” The counselors were patient and kind even when they were tired. Because of the counselor’s commitment to being the face of Christ forty children had the opportunity to know the love of God. This is what it looks like to live out the parable of today’s Gospel.
The lesson of this parable is ordinary, everyday stuff. Seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, fish. We can have this kind of deep and full faith life, if we just pay attention and spend the time to foster it in ourselves.
If we have faith like a mustard seed. If we have love like yeast in dough. If we take care like the owner of a single valuable pearl. If we steward like the fisher with a full net. We can transform ourselves and the world.