Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven (Jan 30, 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 4; Jan 30 2011
Readings:  Micah 6:1-8; Ps 15; 1 Cor 1:18-31; Mt 5:1-12

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”

Jesus went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he taught them, saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, what is this kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about?

Or, to ask the question another way, if the kingdom of heaven was a choir, what sort of choir would it be?

As many of you know my daughter Michelle sings in a choir.  She has in fact over the last few years been a member of two children’s choirs.  Presently, she’s a member of the Christ Church Cathedral Girls’ Choir, you remember the choir that came and joined us for our worship in October.  And before that, she was a member of an Ottawa Children’s Choir.  Both are very good choirs.  But they have very different approaches to things.

When Michelle wanted to join the Children’s Choir, the first thing she had to do was an audition.  She had to sing for the choir director, whose job it was to evaluate whether she could sing well enough to be invited to join the choir.  And so the week before her audition she would practice singing, so that she could become good enough to qualify for the choir.

A few years later, Michelle heard about the Cathedral Girls’ Choir, and decided that she would like to join that choir.  So we contacted Tim, the choir director, and we started to tell him about Michelle’s qualifications and experience choral singing, and we asked when she would be able to audition. 

“There aren’t any auditions,” said Tim.  “Everyone’s welcome to join the choir.  Just bring her to the practice on Thursday.”  Tim’s philosophy is that everyone is a singer, that all are welcome and that as members of the choir all the girls will learn to sing beautifully, and that everyone’s voice will make a wonderful contribution to the choir’s purpose, which is, after all, to worship God.

In last week’s gospel, we heard Jesus begin his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  In today’s gospel, even before he says a word, Jesus begins to act out for us just what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

Recall that Jesus has just passed through the waters of baptism in the Jordan River.  Then he went to the wilderness where he was tempted.  Now, Matthew tells us, Jesus goes up the mountain.  In Jewish thought, the mountain is the place of revelation, the place where God and humanity meet.  For Matthew’s readers, Jesus going up the mountain would immediately call to mind the story of Moses in Exodus chapter 19.  Moses led the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea. Then they passed through the wilderness until they arrived at Mount Sinai.  There the Lord called to Moses from the mountain and instructed him to tell the people “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my people.”  And when the people agreed that they would indeed obey God, then the Lord summoned Moses up to the top of the mountain. 

But in Exodus, only Moses was allowed to come up the mountain.  The people were told to stay away, that if they even came close to the mountain, they would die.  So they kept their distance.  And Moses went up the mountain, and God spoke ten words, and wrote them on tablets for Moses to take down to the people.  And the words God spoke to the people were commandments:  you shall have no other Gods but me, and you shall not make idols for yourselves, and so on.  You shall do this and you shall not do that, and if you keep these commandments I will be your God and you will be my people.

This story of Moses going up the mountain would have framed the expectations of Jesus followers as Jesus went up the mountain.  But Jesus is full of surprises.  Instead of telling his disciples to stay below, he brings them up onto the mountain with him.  No conditions imposed, no strings attached, no need to keep their distance.  The people are gathered into God’s presence on the mountain, just as they are.  And when Jesus opens his mouth to speak, the words that come out aren’t commandments.  He doesn’t tell the people what they should and shouldn’t do.  Instead Jesus pronounces blessing on the people.

It is a dramatic illustration of the new relationship with God that Jesus is calling the people into, a dramatic change from the story of Moses.  Instead of a God who keeps the people at a distance and imposes conditions on them, Jesus is telling us that God wants to draw us near, no audition required, and bless us.

Repent, Jesus has told them.  Change your way of thinking.  For the kingdom of heaven has come near.  The kingdom of heaven is yours, and you are blessed.

And from this place of nearness, this place of intimacy, Jesus teaches us and pronounces blessing on us and in so doing starts to illustrate for us just what the kingdom of heaven is, just what it means.

If the kingdom of heaven is a place, what sort of place is it?
If the kingdom of heaven is a relationship, what sort of relationship is it?
If the kingdom of heaven is a way of life, what sort of way of life is it?
If the kingdom of heaven is a choir, what sort of choir would it be?

The kingdom of heaven is first of all a place of blessing.  And it is a place of blessing now, not a place where blessing is promised only in the future.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  And the blessing is extended, far and wide.  Jesus extends the blessing not just to those who are listening, but to all, all who are poor in spirit, all who mourn, all who are meek.

The kingdom of heaven is near, it is in the present tense, it is a place of blessing now, and yet it is also a promise for the future.  There’s a recognition that change is going to come.  Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted, blessed are those who are merciful for they will receive mercy, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  The qualities or characteristics of the kingdom of heaven, things like comfort and fulfillment and mercy, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, these are things that we get a taste of now but long for more of in the future, and God’s promise to us is that our longing we experience today for these things is good and true and will be fulfilled.

And so we get a picture of the kingdom of heaven as a place not just of blessing but of transformation.  We don’t have to be transformed to enter the kingdom of heaven; we enter the kingdom of heaven to be transformed.  To be transformed into peacemakers, into people who are meek, that is, people who are gentle with each other and walk humbly with God.  To be transformed into people who mourn not only their own losses, but who mourn the losses of others, and who mourn the injustice that we see around us.  To be transformed into people who are merciful, people who love kindness and practice compassion and forgiveness.  To be transformed into people who are pure in heart, people who strive for justice and are sincere in worship.  To be transformed into people who hunger and thirst for righteousness and learn to do justice.

You see, there is a vision here, a great vision of what we are to become, a vision of each one of us becoming the person that we were created to be.  A great vision of the future, but one that is firmly rooted in the present, firmly rooted in the intimacy of a relationship with God that requires no audition.  We need pay no price of entry.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  It is a blessing of us just as we are and a vision of what we’re to become.

And if I had to sum up that vision in a few words, I could do no better than to draw on the words of the prophet Micah that we heard in our first reading.  God’s vision for us, the vision of the Beatitudes that Jesus pronounces in today’s gospel, is this:

Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  It’s one of those bible verses that’s worth memorizing, worth pinning on your wall or sticking to your mirror where you’ll see it first thing every morning.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it.  It is a vision meant to inspire us, a rule meant to guide us.  Sometimes we’re good at it.  And yet sometimes it eludes us. In our Bible Study on Tuesday this week, someone mentioned that it sounds so simple and yet in our world today there are still problems aren’t there.  There is justice and yet there is also injustice.  There is kindness and yet unkindness persists.  That can be discouraging.  It can leave us dispirited.  In fact it can leave us feeling poor in spirit.

To which Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”


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