Attending to the Kingdom
At the risk of pointing out what is by now a tired cliche, we’re suffering from shorter and shorter attention spans these days. Everything is so immediate, so accessible, that there is little reason to sit with and work through the slow and the mundane. And so our fleeting attentions go hand in hand with our demand for instant gratification, which not only grows stronger, but there’s always more
efficient means of satisfying that demand. We don’t even have to wait for the technology that takes the waiting out of life.
Now, lest you think that I’m just wringing my hands about all this, I also believe that it’s not totally our fault. It’s not just our own impulsive lack of discipline that accounts for this state of affairs. In fact, part of the reason we’ve lost the strength of our attentions is that our world is intentionally filled with things that are not worth paying attention to.
Everything is convenient for the purpose of being disposable; it’s not supposed to be lingered upon, contemplated, or saved. Our inevitable discontent with this disposable world can thus be manufactured that much more effectively, and there’s a lot of money to be made off of our discontent.
Anyway, for me, living in a world like this means that I want things to be entirely straightforward and accessible up front. I want to immediately understand the whole of something before I devote my time and effort to it. Because I only have so much time and effort, of course. So when I’m reading an article online, to use a common example, I’ll often impatiently skim through the body of the text to the conclusion. Then, if the conclusion suggests something worthwhile, I’ll maybe go back and give it my proper attention. Maybe. But the point of this exercise is to actively avoid humbling myself to join the writer in the gradual development of his or her thought or argument. Because to do that would be to risk sacrificing the detached and disinterested position I occupy as a consumer, hovering over things instead of committing to them. After all, I might even be changed -- or, God forbid, transformed -- if I risk that commitment. And this risk goes right in the face of the dominant logic of modern life. We are conditioned in this society to demand the whole of something up front, immediately, so that what is relative and conditional is our commitment to it. In short, we insist on maintaining our control over what we give ourselves to and over the extent to which we give ourselves.
This perspective on life is the exact reverse of what we find in Jesus’ various parables about the Kingdom in today’s Gospel. There, we find that what is relative and conditional is not our commitment, but the Kingdom itself; it is like the
mustard seed that slowly grows from being the smallest of the seeds into a mighty tree which provides shelter to the birds of the earth; it is the yeast which is so incorporated into the flour that it becomes impossible to differentiate one from the
other, even as it as irrevocably transforms it. So while we’re accustomed to expecting fixed and definite objects for our own measured commitment, the Kingdom itself is what is measured.
Moving on, Jesus says that the Kingdom is also “like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It’s “like a merchant in search of fine pearls,” who, “on finding
one pearl of great value... went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Again, our normal ways of engaging the world are being challenged. Not only is the Kingdom like something that roots itself within the processes of our world, thereby being difficult to comprehend in full, it nevertheless demands a full and unyielding commitment on our part. Our commitment to the Kingdom is to be decisive, total, just like the one who finds the treasure or the merchant in search of the greatest
pearl. And when you combine these analogies from Jesus, that we are to go all in on what can actually be difficult to discern, we are faced with the risk and the adventure of faith.
Returning to the analogy of the mustard seed, whenever I have heard this parable in the past, my mind has often pictured a tiny seed that automatically turns into a giant tree without much attention to what it is that is actually be described. Trees
take forever to grow. Not only that, but they even remain latent and hidden in the ground as seeds for a time before they germinate. And then they’re just saplings. But Jesus says that the Kingdom is like this, which means that it’s not only like the
final maturity of a tree whose branches provide shelter, but also like every stage of the tree’s growth. The Kingdom is like the seed, the sapling, and the mighty tree. This is why we are to always be on the lookout for those “foretastes of the
Kingdom” that Mother Beth talked about last week, fully investing ourselves in those small little glimmers of redemption. In fact, the Christian life is this present age is nothing other than our participation in those foretastes.
So that, I think, is the take-away from the first few parables that Jesus tells us today. We never know at what stage of development we might encounter an outpost of the Kingdom. It might be a hundred years of prayer and devotion
saturating the very bones of a place, like here in this sanctuary of Emmanuel. How leavened must the flour of this community be with such longevity? Or, it might be a sudden sprouting of the most fragile and delicate possibility of redemption in
your life or the life of a loved one. But once we discern it, we are called to suspend all manner of shrewd calculation or keeping ourselves at a safe distance “to see how things pan out.” No, we’re to go all in for the life of the world as is
found in those foretastes, just like the merchant who sells all he has to purchase the
pearl of great price.
After this, Jesus moves to a different image of the Kingdom, that of the “net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Jesus continues that:
...when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into
baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the
righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Not exactly as stirring of an image as the others that I’ve described already, but it’s no less important for a grasp of the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. It teaches us that the Kingdom is not necessarily found to be this discreet and clear-cut
phenomenon. It’s not necessarily something that we can clearly distinguish from something else. Because like Jesus says, the net of the Kingdom pulls in fish of every kind, both good and bad, and until the fishermen sort out the fish, the net is just one big mixed bag. And it’s not for us to do the sorting. This means that on this side of the final judgment, the Kingdom is never to be found in a totally pure or final state. For the time being, the Kingdom contains within itself the brokenness of the sinful world, even as it also contains the goodness of the saints. And just as a net full of fish convulses and squirms with the frantic movements of a thousand little fishes, so too does this present life in the Kingdom. We are joined together in solidarity with both the good and the bad -- we’re all in this net together
-- and somehow, this too is the Kingdom that we are to drop everything for. It’s complicated, this Christian life.
Here toward the end, I want to close with some thoughts about some habits and practices that might aid us in discerning this mysterious Kingdom. Recall that our world today is one which actively trains us in patterns of living which make this
discernment more difficult than it already is. Consumerism, after all, is nothing other than the failure of proper attention, an habituated distractedness which is designed to keep our affections suspended from ever making any real commitments. So cultivating periods of single-mindedness, through prayer, silence, and solitude, can help overcome these vices. They help tune our gaze to the things above, the mysterious things of the Kingdom that we might not otherwise see. This is the point of fasting as well, as the lack that it creates becomes the very space in which contemplation can advance. You might find the
treasure that had been hidden. In short, unite yourself with the experiences of your day; don’t just pass through them as through the aisles of a supermarket, suspended in detachment.
All in all, remember that the Spirit blows where it chooses, and it takes the Kingdom with it, in and through all the corners of this material life. It rests for awhile where you’d least expect it, perhaps even suffering there by virtue of its faithful presence in a place that despises it. That’s why the Kingdom is the Gospel, for just as our Lord on the cross was flanked on one side by one who taunted him, and on the other by one who wished to join him in paradise, so too are we, as citizens of the Kingdom, surrounded at times by those who afflict us and by those who, like the birds who rest in the branches of the mustard tree, come within our fold for a relief that is found nowhere else. Amen.
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