The Kingdom of Heaven
By The Rev. Alma Beck †
My story begins about three years ago, when my life is entering a time of change. My youngest son is finishing up high school, and I am at the end of my tenure as assistant rector at a downtown church in Huntington, West Virginia. As I ponder my choices, I know three things: Having been married for 26 years and now divorced, I plan to remain single the rest of my life, I love being a parish priest more than anything else I can imagine, and I canít wait to move to a land of snow and ice. As a woman priest, and an openly gay one, at that, I know Iím not the most coveted candidate out there, but I have no doubt that God has a place for my gifts. Iíve started corresponding with the Bishop of Alaska about ministry opportunities up there (where thereís lots of snow), and Iíve begun exploring church vacancies in New England where liberal priests are welcomed (and it snows a lot).
Then, one Saturday, I get an email from Eve, my very best friend from high school. Weíd been soul mates in high school, but life led us down very different paths after graduation, and although we kept in touch through the years, we hadnít seen each other since our freshman year of college. She is going to be in Lexington, KY, our hometown, over Memorial Day weekend, she says. Would I like to meet her there to catch up on our lives?
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearlsÖ
Now, Iím not in search of fine pearls at all. I am quite content with glass beads.
Lexington is only a three hour drive from Huntington, so I jump at the chance to visit with Eve. The weekend is great. We talk until we are exhausted, then we talk some more. Her partner of 20 years had died of cancer the same day my divorce was granted, and, like I, Eve plans to remain single the rest of her life. She is content living in Little Rock and working at her own ministry. (Sheís a psychiatrist and Chief of the Addictions program at the North Little Rock VA.) As I drive back from that visit, though, I realize that something has touched my soul. I am filled with an incredible sense of peace. I canít shake the feeling that I have encountered the kingdom of Heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, she went and sold all that she had and bought it.
You might guess where this is all going. Eve and I discover that the love we had for one another 30 years ago has not dimmed one bit, and she invites me to come and share life with her forever.
Suddenly I feel like I am right in the middle of a parable. Without even looking, Iíve found one pearl of great value, and to get it, I have to sell all that I have.† Iíll have to say good-by to lands of snow and ice and hello to what often seems to be Little Rock, the Land of Eternal Sauna. I know that coming to Arkansas may very well mean giving up being a parish priest. But in exchange, Iíll get the pearl.
And it is a holy pearl, a kingdom-of-heaven pearl, of that I am certain. I can feel Godís love come to me through Eve, and I know that this offer of a lifetime together is a gift from the Author of love. So, in the end, it really isnít a hard decision to make at all. (Besides, Eve points out that we have two air-conditioning systems, so if one goes out, weíll always have the other part of the house to live in.) I said, ďYes,Ē and I have never been so happy, known so much joy, as I have the past two years.
I tried very hard to write this sermon without including my story; itís a bit risky to share such details of oneís life. But it has all the marks of the kingdom of heaven and every other sermon approach I tried that left it out fell flat.
I needed to share my real-life story because the kingdom of heaven is not some Pie-in-the-Sky promise of good things when we die. Itís the touch of God, right here, right now. ďThe kingdom of heaven is among you,Ē Jesus said. And it is. But itís not made out of stained glass or silver and gold. I think thatís why we miss it so often. Weíre looking for the wrong thing. The kingdom of heaven looks ordinary, like a mustard seed, or a packet of Fleischmannís yeast, or an email from an old friend.
The kingdom of heaven appears when we least expect it. We stumble over it walking through a field, we pass it in the hallway at work or at school, we find it in a chance meeting. Just when we have our lives all worked out, content with our pretty glass bead, God smiles and drops into our lap one magnificent pearl, and we know weíve been touched by the kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven usually comes to us through other people. Itís easy for me to see Godís love coming to me through Eve, but God also loves me through hundreds of other people, including lots of you folks and the grocery store clerk who smiles at me at the end of a tiring day. We humans get to be the UPS and FedEx trucks of Godís grace. We often donít realize it, either when weíre the delivery person, or when weíre the recipients of the divine gift. Too bad God doesnít ask us to sign for delivery; we might be more aware of all the times the kingdom of heaven touches us every day, dropping off pearls of Godís love. The reality is that the mustard seed has been planted in each of us. That heavenly shrub is growing, sending its branches into every hour of every day of our lives. If we donít see the kingdom of heaven in our midst, itís not because itís not there, but because we havenít yet learned to recognize it.
The kingdom of heaven is powerful. Itís a place where a pinch of yeast can leaven ten loaves of bread and a small act of kindness can start a heart on the path to major healing.
Itís a kingdom where a coach yells, ďThatís okay, youíll get it next time!Ē when a kid strikes out, and that mustard seed of encouragement plants itself in the kidís heart and grows into a shrub and when sheís a research scientist looking for the right combination of chemotherapy drugs, she hears his words time after time, so keeps on trying until she does hit the winning combination. Neither the coach nor the scientist may ever recognize the kingdom connection, but the power of the kingdom is still there.
The kingdom of heaven. Itís among us, my friends. I encourage you to look for it this week, expecting that it will look very ordinary, very plain. It could spring forth when you least expect it. It might come just when you have your life all planned out and it may not fit your plan. Never mind. The kingdom of Heaven is better than anything you or I could ever plan.
It will probably come to you through another person, special delivery. Godís love might be passed on to you by a stranger, a tired, whiny kid, or even your enemy. Since you probably wonít be asked to sign as proof of delivery youíll have to recognize the presence of the kingdom another way. Perhaps you could look for the fruits of the Spirit: the peace I felt driving back from that weekend, love, joy, patience, or kindness. Other fruits are goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They ought to be good indicators of the presence of the kingdom of Heaven.
The kingdom of Heaven that you notice in your life this week might be very small: the touch of a hand, a smile, an email from a friend. Donít worry; it will grow into something magnificent.
The kingdom of heaven, my friends, is right here, right now, growing among us. When you recognize it, go, sell all you have and buy it. Itís worth more than we can ever imagine!
--The Rev. Alma Beck
St. Michaelís Episcopal Church
Little Rock, Arkansas