There has been a little trend in the movies this year of films based on Bible stories. At the beginning of the year, there was Son of God, about the life of Jesus. Then came Noah. Up next is Exodus: Gods and Kings, with Batman, I mean Christian Bale, playing Moses. Now all of these adaptations are really action-packed. These are not contemplative reflections on the spiritual dimensions of God’s presence with God’s people; no, these are big CGI extravaganzas that glam up the most cinematic moments of the story. Exodus is being directed by Ridley Scott, known for blockbusters like Alien and Gladiator. Noah added all kinds of dramatic elements into the biblical narrative, like ancient near-eastern bombs and terrifying fallen angels. Even Son of God included some over-the-top storms on the Sea of Galilee and at least one shot of Jesus wielding a staff like a Jedi knight.
Compare all of this to a movie that our 20s/30s group watched this past spring, a movie that I know some of you know well: the 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. When reading through the Gospel to prepare for the making of the film, Pasolini found himself fascinated not by the dramatic miracles in Matthew, but by the speeches. He loved the moments of Jesus’ teaching, the moments that were filled to the brim with words. And so in his film, there are long stretches of scenes with little to no action at all – shot after shot of Jesus’ face, just talking. “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst….” “You have heard it said….” “But I say to you….” Simple, still shots, with a flood of words, so many words that at times you can feel like you want to pause the movie, take a moment, and think about what you’ve heard.
This morning’s Gospel reading is more like Pasolini. There is very little dialogue and almost no action. We aren’t told where Jesus is or what he’s doing. There’s just shot after shot of him talking: “The kingdom of heaven is like…the kingdom of heaven is like…the kingdom of heaven is like.” Five parables packed on top of one another like sardines. Now it’s hard to tell if Jesus really talked this way. Maybe he did – maybe he just woke up of a morning and decided that that day would be simile day. Or maybe this is just the Gospel writer organizing things – the miracles go here, the Sermon on the Mount here, parables here. To be sure, the lectionary is organizing things for us today by serving up all five of these baby parables while skipping over the eleven verses in the middle. We heard those verses last week, Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares.
Because remember, this is the third week of parables in a row. But the last two weeks, we’ve heard not only the parable but also Jesus’ explanation. We were given a chance to take a breath, to click pause, to step outside of the parable for a second to reflect on what we’ve heard. But there is no time for that today. The parables just come one on top of the other – bang, bang, bang – full of words, rich with imagery, with no time to pause and ask questions or just to mull over them for a minute.
Now we could take that time now. We could pause and pick through each parable, exploring the metaphors, delving into some of the strangeness of them – that a mustard bush was really just a nuisance of a weed, that yeast was considered unclean, that a man seemed to have been digging for treasure in a field he didn’t actually own. But that sounds like five sermons, not one, and it is a gorgeous summer day and we have brunch to get to, so let’s not do that.
And besides that, I think the folks who shaped the lectionary are really on to something here. I think there’s something to the bang, bang, bang, approach of these parables. Because when they are stacked on top of each other like this, what do we hear, again, and again, and again – the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like, the kingdom of heaven is like. And as we hear this phrase over and over, we start to hear something else, something really important. We eventually hear that Jesus really seems to know what the kingdom of heaven is like. It sounds like he has actually been there, like he really knows the kingdom, personally, intimately. He has spent so much time there that he can describe it to us in all of these different ways. And so he says the kingdom of heaven is like all of these things, and we believe him, because we’re sure he has seen it.
And not only has Jesus seen it, he wants us to see it as well. He wants us to spend some serious time in the kingdom. Why else would Jesus tell us about it over and over if he didn’t want us to go there? He who “overcame the sharpness of death has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” He has thrown wide the doors and wants us to enter in. And I don’t mean in the future, I mean now. The kingdom of heaven is, Jesus tells us, right now, not just on that great gettin’ up mornin’. The kingdom of heaven is, here and now, not in all of its fullness, of course, but it is nonetheless, more real, more dense, just more than all of this earthly kingdom.
It is, though, not always readily apparent. The kingdom is not always easy to see in this world. It is often lost, hidden behind heartbreak and sorrow, obscured by pain and persecution and the paraphernalia of this mortal life. If we are to look beyond these things temporal to see the things eternal, we will need some help. And so Jesus offers us all of these fabulous similes. Because he knows that if we are going to see the kingdom, we will have to use our imaginations. Not to pretend, for the kingdom is not pretend. Using our imaginations does not mean that the kingdom we see is imaginary. It means that it is image-full, illuminated; it means that we are opening the eyes of our hearts along with the eyes in our head, that we are learning to see what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Using our imaginations helps us to look at this broken mess of a world and to see more. Using our imaginations helps us to endure a news cycle like that of this past week and to see that those stories are not the full stories; the news is not just grief and anger and waste – the news of the kingdom is comfort and reconciliation and growth. Our imaginations help us to look at something that seems as worthless as a mustard bush – for example, an oversized, underused rectory attached to a church on Locust Street – and see how it can be a place where servants come from all over to make their homes in its hallways. Our imaginations help us to look at something as tiny and seemingly insignificant as bowl of soup and see how that one small thing can transform an entire life, an entire city of lives. Our imaginations help us to find something that just forty years ago was well and truly hidden – like the call to ordained ministry among women in the Church – and do whatever we need to do to bring it into the light. Our imaginations help each of us to find that one thing – that call, that relationship, that offering, that work, that service – that is worth everything to us, and to shed all of the flotsam and jetsam of our lives to give it the place it deserves in our lives.
It is only when we use our imaginations in this way that we can look at this world and see the promise, the more of the kingdom. And this world desperately needs us to see in this way, to look at the Holy Land and the thousands of children at our borders and the violently mentally ill and Christians in Iraq and those on death row and to see not mustard seeds and yeast and lost treasure, not things worthless and hidden and broken, but a kingdom of abundance and freedom and purpose and hope and life.
The kingdom of heaven has come near to you, Jesus has promised, if only you are willing to turn around and look at it. So look. Let yourself be a disciple trained for the kingdom of heaven. Employ and enjoy the gift of your imagination, let yourself be flooded with image after image, with shot after shot, of the kingdom. And then, when you are filled to the brim with visions of the kingdom, go live a life that is action-packed. Step out into this world and proclaim in your own voice, in word and in deed, what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
27 July 2014
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia