Here is the sermon I preached at High Mass today:
‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’
Today we continue our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, looking at the line ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’
Since we are in Lent, the season of self-examination, confession, and acknowledgement of our weakness, I feel it is only right to admit at the outset that after quite a bit of reading and self-examination this week, I realised I wasn’t quite sure what to say about God’s kingdom today — it’s a big topic for a ten minute sermon. And therefore, acknowledging my weakness and lack of imagination, I confess to you, my fellow members in the Body of Christ, that little of what you are about to hear is my own.
But perhaps that is a good place to start. Because as we pray this line of the Lord’s Prayer, the first word — ‘thy’, ‘your’ — is an indication that this is not about us, not about our ideas of what the kingdom might look like, not about our own building of the kingdom.
The truth is that we’re all rather lacking in imagination when it comes to our visions of the kingdom. Its values start to look strikingly similar to our preferred political party’s policies. The people who inhabit it seem to look, act, speak remarkably like us. The landscape of it and the language we use for it is shaped by our own experience and desires.
But the prayer which Jesus commanded and taught us to pray turns our gaze towards God, invites us to enter into God’s infinitely more creative imagination, and to look for the coming of God’s kingdom.
What does the kingdom look like? How do we know it when we catch glimpses of it? How do we discern what is God’s kingdom and what is a reflection of our own prejudices and preferences? Well, what does Jesus himself say about the kingdom?
According to Jesus:
The kingdom may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field (Mt 13.24), a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves (Mt 18.23), a king who gave a wedding banquet to his son (Mt 22.2).
The kingdom is like a mustard seed which someone took and sowed (Mt 13.31), like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened (Mt 13.33), like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid (Mt 13.44); like a merchant in search of fine pearls (Mt 13.45); like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind (Mt 13.47).
Some, if not all, of these parables you’ll be familiar with. So that’s all fairly straightforward, right? I mean, how could we possibly get it wrong when talking about the kingdom with all that helpful guidance from Jesus?
Jesus’ parables constantly undermine, subvert, challenge and broaden our assumptions about God and God’s kingdom. They tell us that the kingdom can be associated with precious pearls, but also with simple yeast, with grand banquets, but also with tiny mustard seeds, with powerful kings, but also with humble homemakers. They ask us to assess what is currently of ultimate value in our lives and what lies beyond our imagination that holds an even greater worth. They illustrate abundance, generosity and diversity.
The Jewish theologian and biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has written a wonderful book on the parables called Short Stories by Jesus. And writing about the parables of the mustard seed and yeast, she says:
‘What we see now is potential, but that potential needs to be actualised. The yeast has to be placed into the dough and the seed has to be planted. Even small actions, or hidden actions, have the potential to produce great things.
‘In addition, from both plant and dough, we learn at least three more lessons. First, some things need to be left alone. Keep fiddling with the dough and it will not rise; keep exposing the seed to air and it will not germinate. … We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own. Second, sometimes we need to get out of the way. We are not always the focus; sometimes we are the facilitator for something bigger than ourselves. The woman hides the yeast in the dough; whether people knew she did the baking or not remains unstated. The man plants, or even tosses, the seed. Who sowed it is much less important than the tree into which the seed grows. The final image is not a focus on the human actor, but on the results of the action.’
She continues: ‘Finally, both images are of domestic concerns: the seed parable is set in a garden or local field; the yeast parable is set at a village oven. The kingdom of heaven is found in what today we might call ‘our own backyard’ in the generosity of nature and the daily working of men and women. We need not adopt an ‘anti-empire’ image here. Better would be the notion that the ‘lust for big-time success’ is misplaced. The challenge of the parable can be much homier: don’t ask ‘when’ the kingdom comes or ‘where’ it is. The when is in its own good time — as long as it takes for seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate, in the world’ (Amy-Jill Levine, 186-7).
Questions for the post-Mass discussion:
- Where do you believe you have you seen glimpses of God’s kingdom?
- How do we discern what is God’s kingdom and God’s will and what is a reflection of our own prejudices and preferences?
I found it interesting that one of the comments emerging from the discussion was that people felt they had seen glimpses of the kingdom most outside the church. Others said they believed that non-Christians can do good things, live what we might call ‘kingdom lives’, and asked what the difference is between those lives and the acts we are called to. And what I wish I had said in response but didn’t, was that this speaks a truth we don’t often acknowledge. It speaks of a tension Jesus himself lived: of working both within and outwith a religious institution which is as flawed as the humans who lead and serve it, which at times inhibits the coming of the kingdom. It’s a tension I feel acutely at the moment. But with which I think we all must wrestle.