Grace to you all and peace from God the creator, and our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
The dominion of heaven is like…in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus, who was known for sharing a parable or two, really gets into a parable mood. Six times in theses twelve verses, we hear that phrase “the dominion of heaven is like.” But a question that we don’t often stop to ask is, what is the dominion of heaven? Sometimes we might hear it referred to as the kingdom, the realm, the kin-dom, but what is it? Is it a place, a time, a “state of being?” It must be pretty important for Jesus to be referring to it so many times.
In fact, the phrase “Dominion of heaven” appears 31 times in the gospel of Matthew beginning with John the Baptist proclaiming “Repent, for the dominion of heaven has come near.” This “dominion of heaven” that John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching, it was something that the disciples and those they lived among would know well–so much so that it could be source of hope for the communities they were ministering to.
The Gospel of Matthew, which was written at least 35 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was written for a community living under a different dominion. They were living under the Roman Empire. Under this imperial rule, these Jesus followers didn’t “fit in” with those who surrounded them. They were not worshipping the “Approved Roman Gods,” but they also did not fit in with the wider Jewish community, believing that God had lived among them as an itinerant preacher. And this set them apart.
For them, the dominion of heaven that Jesus was preaching, was both the message of Jesus that they firmly believed, and also the hope that they had for a future that would allow Jesus’ message to be enacted.
This community that the Gospel was written to– they were not alone in this trust and hope for the future.
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans to another community living under the Roman empire. They were a community that knew weakness, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. Like the first community in Matthew, they did not fit in with those who worshipped the Roman Gods or with those who were accepted for other beliefs. As such, they were a community that knew the truth in Jesus’ proclamation that if one desired to become his follower, that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). And these crosses, the suffering that one experienced as a follower of Jesus was not something that they would choose, but that would result from a plain profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. For Jesus to be crucified by the Roman empire was not an event that could have been easily or quickly overlooked. Christians in the first century knew just how terrible death by crucifixion was, and to willingly follow one who was killed by the empire you lived within was a bold statement of courage and faith.
While we may not be living under the Roman Empire like those to whom the Gospel and epistle were written, we live lives that aren’t free from suffering and oppression. Anyone who has loved another knows that grief and loss are part of the human experience.
These days, especially under the specter of a global pandemic, the universal nature of pain as a human part of life is all too near and real. It is hard even turning on the radio, or reading the news because of the overwhelming amount of time and energy that are devoted to this topic.
But we know that it is not only the people that contract the virus and their families who are suffering. It is also those who have had to close their businesses, or stop going to their job that their family relies on to put food on the table. It those whose jobs are “essential” who have had to neglect their personal health and safety for those who can work remotely. It is farmers who have had to plow their crops into the ground because there is no market for them. And we should not–we cannot–forget communities that even before the pandemic were already struggling–poor…rural…black and brown–whose suffering has been magnified in both visible and invisible ways.
And in this time of pain and sorrow, it can be hard to recognize the ways that God is present and active in our lives and our community.
In response to this suffering that the Christ followers in Rome were experiencing, Paul wrote that “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” One of the ways this verse has been interpreted through history, is that through everything, God is working good-and that includes all the actions in humanity and creation.
The understanding that all things work for good has been a dangerous interpretation, and has contributed to people using their faith as an explanation and justification for the suffering and exploitation of others and the planet-Dear people, That is not the gospel. That is not the good news of Jesus.
The gospel can be recognized in understanding Paul wrote that God is working for good in all things. Yet, because of our human experience of suffering, good is not always the result we encounter.
Paul was saying to the believers, in Rome, “the persecution that you are experiencing at the hands of the Roman empire is not a “necessary evil” that you needed to endure as a sign of faith. You can call it what it is. You can and should name it simply as evil. Yet, despite that evil you and other believers are living through, God is still working for Good in and through you.” There did not need to be justification for the pain they experienced. And their suffering did not in any way diminish the faith they possessed.
There have been many ways that our church community has had to adjust to this “new normal.” We initially had to stop meeting on Sundays to worship and join together in fellowship in our church. The social ministries that we work so faithfully with–Rodeo Days, VBS filled with community children, the weekly bible study– these have all been impacted by having to stay distanced. Those in our congregation that are homebound who look forward to being able to share in communion with a pastor have lost that point of contact with our church community.
But with the apostle Paul, we can still say that God is working for good in this time and place. In these past two weeks, I have seen this congregation join together as we have each encountered new and unexpected challenges. The good news of the “dominion of heaven” is something that I have witnessed being made manifest through safely worshipping together again and through moving VBS online. And it is something that we can continue to desire to be made real among us every time we join in praying the Lord’s prayer.
The dominion of heaven is like… In our gospel for today we heard that it is like: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a net. And at the beginning of this message, I asked with all of these examples from Jesus in mind, “what is the dominion of heaven?” For the earliest believers, the dominion of heaven was the good news of Jesus that brought freedom to those who were living under imperial rule, and a hope for a day when that imperial rule would be no more.
As we go from this place today, not knowing what kinds of grief and loss we might experience, we can go forth sharing a hope for what the dominion of heaven might be here in Isanti. And with this hope, we can continue to make the dominion of heaven manifest through our words and deeds in this community and in the wider world. Amen.