Scripture reading: Matthew 13:31-35, 44-52

It wasn’t too long into Christian history before the PR staff up in heaven decided that it was time to put together the official story of Jesus’ life. So all the recording angels got together in the heavenly newsroom to recite all their stories, clarify the details, and put together the authorized version. Well, at this meeting, there was a copy intern (for anonymity, let’s just call him Matthew), and this copyist’s job was to take down each story in the correct order on notecards.

The process took weeks, months, years, but finally, the whole Gospel was written down, carefully sorted, ready to publish. And suddenly – you guessed it – this huge gust of wind came up, right in through the window, picked up Matthew’s careful stack of notecards, and scattered them all over the room! Matthew, of course, didn’t listen to his high school speech teacher, so his cards weren’t numbered. He would have had to read through the whole story all over again to get things in order, and there was no time to do that and make the publishing deadline, so the story just got put together in the order Matthew picked things back up.

I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it happened, but it’s got to be close. I mean, just imagine trying to listen to Jesus speaking like this. Just in this chapter alone, we have seven parables, three extra discourses, and just about no tie-in to anything else. We hear the parable of the sower, a reference to Isaiah, and then an explanation of the sower parable. Then, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, and then Jesus explains the parable of the weeds. Finally, these last three parables about the treasure, the pearl, and the net, and then a lament about faithlessness that we won’t read for you. Just about the whole rest of the chapter has come up in the lectionary readings for the past few weeks. If we tried to follow the whole thing as written, our heads would spin. That’s why the lectionary breaks up the passages, and that’s why I asked Stephanie to read just a parable or two at a time for us this morning.

Maybe a parable is like a mustard seed: individually, they’re all too small to deal with, so somehow we try to take them all together. Preferably all mashed up, and with some turmeric for color.

When Jesus told these parables, they were probably all little moments of their own, with plenty of time in between. You don’t just go listing aphorisms like this, one right after the other. Maybe Jesus filled the time in between with some explanation of what he meant, like he gave us for the sower and the weeds. Maybe he just left silence, for everyone to let the truth sink in. Knowing Jesus, it was probably all dinner plans. But right in that time, the parables were sinking in.

We need time to process parables. Maybe they really do grow like mustard seeds, like yeast, like the realm of heaven. Jesus tells us, the realm of heaven – the reality of God’s new life in and among us – starts from something small and becomes something great. It grows just like faith grows, like life develops. Heaven’s love spreads beyond everything we could have expected.

Or the realm of heaven is like a treasure, or a perfectly formed pearl. The life of faith is like a treasure hunt, and the realm of heaven is buried in the sand somewhere. Heaven is something you just know when you see it: you know and rejoice. But you have to know, be aware, that the pursuit of heaven is going to take everything you have.

Or maybe heaven is like a fishing net. This one surprised me, at least this time around. The realm of heaven dips down into the world we know and sweeps us up into something we don’t know. It catches us out of the water we swim in and gives us a whole new element. That’s promising, isn’t it? All kinds of people, I guess, get caught up into heaven’s realm, so maybe there’s even hope for the rest of us!

But Matthew doesn’t just leave it there. It seems like Matthew just needs to tell good people from bad people, and he’s convinced that everybody is one or the other of those. He has to know who’s going to be in heaven, and of course who won’t. The end of the age must come with a big moment of judgment, and the bad people just have to get theirs. Matthew just knows, there are bad people out there (and of course those bad people aren’t me!).

Are there people who are good and people who are bad? Or isn’t it more likely that good and bad are both within me? Hasn’t that really been our experience, when we think about ourselves? I can’t honestly set myself up as entirely good, but I know just as well that I’m not honestly completely bad. So when I get caught up in this net, in the realm of heaven, it’s not just good people and bad people. The good parts of me and the bad parts of me get caught up together, and the angels won’t be around to peel off the bad stuff until the end of time. But then again, there’s still that hope that eventually I’ll somehow be made whole.

Blessings and challenges usually come to us in the same package, and this parable gives us the blessing (and the challenge) of being greater than Matthew’s vision of heaven. It seems to me, Matthew would want to keep heaven clean. That’s only pious, isn’t it? But this parable isn’t very selective. The net isn’t very selective, it just picks up anything it can get.

That’s sort of like my fishing. People ask this bizarre question sometimes: they ask, “What do you fish for?” I guess that’s not so strange a question, since I’ve just recently canoed on “one of the top five muskie lakes in the world,” and if you want to catch a muskie, you’re fishing with equipment that means that anything else you catch is just bait. Some people are less aggressive – they go for trout or walleye or even northern or bass – but they’re still particular about it. Me, I’ve never had this luxury, or maybe I’ve never had the focus or skill to do this. What do I fish for? I fish for anything stupid enough to bite my lure. It’s like a little assisted Darwinism: the species of fish is that much smarter because I took this gullible one out of the gene pool.

Okay, maybe the realm of heaven isn’t like that. Surely, Matthew would have preferred to keep the bad people out from the beginning, but the realm of heaven is full of people we don’t necessarily want to see there. We want to know, and a lot of us want to decide, who gets to be on the cloud next door to ours. At the very least, we might be like Matthew and want people thrown out at the end of time. But then, we still have to deal with these people until then, and Matthew knows it’s not our job to vote people off the cloud.

Even our parables don’t get to choose what the realm of heaven is like. The grace in the parable is that heaven’s realm is surprising beyond every idea we’ve ever had of it.

So our job is to keep our eyes open to find where the realm of heaven is. It’s right there in front of us. Jesus finds heaven in the ordinary stuff around us. The question is not whether heaven is like a mustard seed, the question is, “how is heaven like a mustard seed?” What about heaven is like a net let down into a lake? Where is heaven in coffee hour? In a session meeting? In baseball practice?

Heaven today, for us, might have different shapes than it did when Matthew was writing these parables down. We can’t just tell the old parables without seeking heaven in them all over again. Heaven lives in our life, but we have to learn how to see it, like the scribes Jesus talks about. We have to learn new ways and old ways of seeing heaven, because they both teach us. We remember the comforting old truths – the Bible, our church, our families – that have held us up for so long. We can imagine bright new realities, where heaven is happening now. If we look, we see heaven being transformed in front of us, the way a plant is transformed from spring into summer.

The realm of heaven takes hold of our lives, it takes everything we have, but we’ll know it when we see it. We can pay that kind of attention, we can imagine how heaven could be here among us. And suddenly, there heaven is! Beyond all our parables, our lives are transformed into that new holy realm that our words could only ever hint at. Thanks be to God! Amen.