Harrowing Of Hell
November 12, 2023

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

What is the Kingdom of heaven like? Is it like good seed planted in a field, maybe a mustard seed? Is it like leaven kneaded into dough? Is it like buried treasure in a field, or pearls, or jewels, or a net full of fish? Is the Kingdom of heaven like the owner of a vineyard, or a man whose son in about to get married? Maybe it is like a Sunday morning when four children are baptized; and a woman who has walked the earth 100 years is honored by her church.

What is the Kingdom of heaven like for you? How ever you define a Kingdom of heaven encounter, it is important to realize that in the Kingdom of heaven there are always two plotlines running simultaneously. The Kingdom of heaven is quintessentially entangled between a moment in time and an eternal landscape.

Jesus says it this way: the Kingdom of heaven is right here right now, and the Kingdom of heaven is yet to come. God’s eternal narrative and your unique perspective are wound together in an experience called your life.                        

My intention in talking about two simultaneous plot lines is to further form us as people of hope. When we perceive the particular and the universal simultaneously we have a greater capacity to know hope in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Today, I’m going to share with you different Kingdom of heaven vignettes; but before I do, I want to give you one more way to think about the Kingdom of heaven. If the Kingdom of heaven was a branch of physics, it would be like quantum mechanics. Why? Because of the relationship that exists between the context of a moment and all moments that have or will ever exist. Quantum mechanics is like one person’s perspective floating in an ocean of all past moments and all future possibilities. It is the science of two things happening simultaneously. 

In the Gospel today we hear: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”It is a turn of phrase used 12 times by Matthew. The keyword here is “like.”

When I was the General Manager of a factory in Cleveland I would say to the guys working on the factory floor: “I need you to do what I say, and I need you to think for yourself.” That is what Jesus is doing with the word “like.” It indicates we need to understand the point he is trying to make and then apply that principle to whatever new circumstance we find ourselves in. It’s the reason I often say: “We want to live our life as Jesus would if he had my life or your life,” rather than encouraging you to try to live like Jesus did 2000 years ago.That would be weird.

Jesus was a particular man, in a particular context, at a particular point in time. Just as we are particular people, in a particular context, at a particular point in time. What connects us to each other and to Jesus is the wonderful wave of God’s love.

So, back to the Bible, where we hear the Kingdom of heaven is like 10 bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom who is running late. Night comes; the bridesmaids become drowsy, then they fall asleep. Suddenly, someone announces that the bridegroom is on his way. The bridesmaids rouse themselves and trim their lamps. In doing so, 5 of the bridesmaids realize they don’t have enough oil to keep their lamps burning. They turn to their compatriots and asked to borrow some oil, only to hear: “No. Go buy your own.”

In this response, at least for me, there is tension. And whenever there is tension in scripture, or in the patterns of my regular life, I know I am being invited to listen for the second plot line. What seems clear to me is the 5 bridesmaids are in trouble. What seems the right thing to do is help them out. It seems to me that is what Jesus would want me to do…care for my neighbor. And yet, since that isn’t where Jesus goes, I am compelled to wonder about a second plot line.

You see, it is often in the tension, and anxiety, and anger, and grievance –that we are invited to stop, and to ask ourself are we hearing more than just the particular context of our own point of view?

For me, at first, all I saw was brass lamps and clay jars filled with oil. All I sensed was the haves snubbing the have nots. But then I wondered, what if the lamp is a metaphor? What if the lamp sits outside the material? What if the lamp is the metaphysical human heart…and the oil the spiritual practices that open space for that wave of God’s love to wash up right in (here)? What if wisdom is maintaining our connection to that wave even during the drowsy routines of our regular life?

Many years ago, on a hot July day, a parishioner came into my office and flopped down in one of my big red chairs. She then announced: “I am in Lent.” Now as a clergy person, I knew we weren’t in Lent. The season of Lent never overlaps the month of July.

And so, I said: “Tell me what you mean?” And she began to talk about a number of really difficult things that were taking place in her life. Punctuating the final trauma with: “It feels like I am in Lent…”

We sat there in silence for a little bit. She continued: “It feels like I’m in Lent, because I know what Lent feels like. I have been there before, year in and year out, as I throw myself into the story of Jesus and I walk with him to the cross.”                           

She paused, then said: “Because I am practiced in experiencing Lent, I know two other things: I will endure this, and, in the end, Resurrection will arrive…the bad thing is never the last thing.” That is the punctuating point of Lent… Resurrection. This truth, of course, doesn’t make suffering less. Hers was legitimately what it was, and it was tough.

I had the privilege to be there with her, and to witness the hope she so gracefully retained. I couldn’t change her context any more than the 5 wise bridesmaids could pour the oil of spiritual maturity into the hearts of the 5 foolish bridesmaids.

You see, you are where you are spiritually when “it” hits the fan. You are wherever you are on your spiritual journey, and there is nothing anyone else can do to accelerate or improve your ability to see Resurrection off in the distance; or to hear both plot lines, particle and wave, simultaneously. That takes practice…practice seeing the Kingdom of heaven vignettes in your life.

And so, the Kingdom of heaven is like a woman dying in a hospital room. I went to see a parishioner who was coming to the end of her life. I walked into the hospital room where I found her family loving on her, talking to her, holding her hand stroking her brow, and they were sad.

As I took off my blazer, I said: “Well, today is a once in a lifetime event for our beloved sister. She is going to pass into the presence of God.” The wave of God’s love on that day was going to wash her out into the sea beyond the particular context she shared with everyone in that room. And all present were certain of this reality, even as they grieved together…two plot lines entangled.

The Kingdom of heaven is like a choir singing at St. Paul’s Cathedral London. They process into the great cathedral, taking their proper place under the mighty dome. The Music Director lifts his hands as the organ rumbles to life and in that space the choir lifts the notes in front of them into song, but only to the sound of their own voice, or maybe paired with one or two voices near them. And yet, to the ears of the congregation their voices blend and dance together as one, on the wave of God’s love. Two plot lines entangled.

The Kingdom of heaven is like a choir worshiping at St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Kingdom of heaven is like a woman dying in a hospital room.
The Kingdom of heaven is like the suffering of Lent.
The Kingdom of heaven is like 10 bridesmaids, 5 of whom, even in the drowsy routine of their lives, attend to their heart and the spiritual oil that fuels the light of Jesus right in (here).

What is the Kingdom of heaven like for you? Where does tension, and anxiety, and anger, and grievance surface for you? What are those particular plot lines, and how are they entangled with the love narrative of God?

If you are not experiencing hope, you may not be hearing two plot lines; because hope is the topography of Kingdom of heaven. Hope is the landscape upon which we are designed to walk. Hope is the geography of the spiritual journey.

My hope for you is that you listen for the two plot lines: your perspective, within God’s narrative. And then you bear witness to how these two stories are entangled in a way that brings hope to your life, and hope to the world.