1 Kings 3:5-12 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
I'm preaching again in two weeks, at the St. Stephen's reunion. I've rarely, if ever, had to write two homilies this close together, and I have deep respect for people who do this every Sunday.
In November 1998, Esquire published a cover article by Tom Junod about Fred Rogers, host of the beloved children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Junod’s immensely moving profile includes this story:
On December 1, 1997 . . . a boy . . . told his friends to watch out, that he was going to do something "really big" the next day at school, and the next day at school he took his gun and his ammo and his earplugs and shot eight classmates who had clustered for a prayer meeting. Three died, and they were still children, almost. The shootings took place in West Paducah, Kentucky, and when Mister Rogers heard about them, he said, "Oh, wouldn't the world be a different place if [that boy] had said, 'I'm going to do something really little tomorrow,'" and he decided to dedicate a week of the Neighborhood to the theme "Little and Big." He wanted to tell children that what starts out little can sometimes become big, so they could devote themselves to little dreams without feeling bad about them.The really big news this week is the horrific massacre in Norway, which seems to be everywhere we look, inescapable and omnipresent. Our Good News this week, our Gospel reading, is about really little things, the seemingly insignificant items we can so easily overlook: the mustard seed that grows into a large, life-giving shrub; yeast, invisible when stirred into dough, that transforms it into the miracle of bread; a fine pearl, grown from a grain of sand, that’s worth more than everything else in the market.
The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, dwells in and results from these really little things. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I have a strong hunch that he was thinking about this Gospel passage when he planned his week of “Little and Big” programs.
Jesus is speaking metaphorically, indirectly. As usual, he doesn’t tell us everything, but forces us to figure things out for ourselves. From this morning’s metaphors, here are a few things we can figure out about the Kingdom of Heaven.
First, it requires patience. Mustard seeds don’t become large plants overnight.
Second, it requires faith. You won’t plant the mustard seed unless you believe it will grow. You won’t look for the pearl unless you believe the market contains things worth finding.
Third, it requires discernment. Here’s a jumble of stuff in a market stall: souvenir t-shirts and plastic fridge magnets and 100% genuine local handicrafts made in China, and hey, the merchant’s offering a special sale on paste-glass rhinestones, five hundred for ninety-nine cents, and over here, almost hidden in a corner, is a small, round white thing with smelly bits of oyster still clinging to it. What are you looking for, and what will you buy?
And finally, attaining the Kingdom may require sacrifice, both of wealth and reputation. Dude! You can get five hundred of these pretty paste-glass rhinestones for ninety-nine cents, and you’re selling all that you have to buy that little smelly round white thing? Are you nuts?
A firm grasp on history helps with all this. Just as that large shrub started out as a tiny seed, famous King Solomon started out as “a little child” in the midst of “a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” We most easily discern the Kingdom of God, then, when we look both forward and back.
In fact, the Kingdom is everywhere around us, and also, Jesus promises, within us. Because our really big news is so often about atrocity -- Norway, 9/11, Columbine -- all of us need to cultivate the discipline of seeking out and tending the Kingdom, the Good News that starts out really little, usually where no one else is looking. It might show up, for instance, in a stable, in an obscure corner of an occupied territory, in the form of that weakest of creatures, a newborn human infant.
But that was two thousand years ago. If the Kingdom is everywhere, invisible and omnipresent as yeast in bread, where do we find it now?
With luck, all of us have many answers to that question. Here are two of mine.
First, I firmly believe that we become citizens of the Kingdom, helping to create and maintain it, when we perform even the smallest acts of mercy and charity, loving our neighbors as Jesus commands us to do. The really big bad news, the horror we see on TV, is often the work of people who’ve used terror and violence to tear huge holes in creation. It’s easy for us to despair, to believe that nothing can fix these gaping rents. Certainly we cannot do so by ourselves. But each tiny act of kindness is one stitch, repairing those holes, and enough small stitches will mend even the most tattered fabric.
Some of you know that I volunteer as a lay ER chaplain. On Friday, I helped an elderly man eat his lunch, cutting his turkey for him because he couldn’t do it himself. That tiny act couldn’t fix what happened in Norway, but it made me –- and him -– feel better. It kept me focused on what I can do instead of on what I can’t, and it reminded me that even the smallest kindnesses are infinitely valuable to those they help. When any of us feed our neighbors, we expand the Kingdom, giving despair and atrocity a little less growing room.
Here is my second example of finding the Kingdom in something small and easily overlooked. A few years ago, my husband and I spent a week in Honolulu, staying in one of the garish Waikiki mega-hotels. We love to snorkel, and before flying to Oahu, we’d read guide books describing the best snorkel spots on the island. Most, because they’re in the guide books, are overcrowded tourist meccas.
Our first morning on the island, we strolled along the Waikiki beach until we reached a small park, a series of pocket beaches separated by jetties. On a whim, we asked one of the lifeguards, “Hey, any good snorkeling around here?”
The lifeguard pointed two jetties over. “There. The fish love the rocks and the coral.”
We walked over to the tiny beach he’d indicated, donned the snorkel gear we’d brought along just in case, entered the water -- and found ourselves in heaven. The water was crystalline, filled with brilliantly colored fish, so numerous they could not be numbered or counted. We watched schools of angelfish, butterflyfish, yellow tang. We stayed there for hours, hovering above endless parades of fish. We saw no other humans. This little beach wasn’t in the guidebooks. All of our fellow snorkelers had rushed to the tourist meccas.
We returned to our pocket beach every day. It never failed to delight us, to create deep joy. We didn’t sell everything we had to keep visiting it –- although airfare to Hawai’i can feel like that –- but we did forego a host of more famous, high-profile attractions.
Coral polyps, as most of you probably know, are very small animals. Coral reefs take even longer to grow than mustard plants do, and like mustard plants, they support an enormous diversity of life. If Jesus had been a snorkeler, I’m sure the Gospels would include some parables about reefs.
I’m home in Reno now, but that little reef is still inside me. During the really big news from Norway, I’ve found myself revisiting it, cherishing its fragile peace and beauty. In the midst of horror, it comforts me. May all of us find such Kingdoms, and help others find them.