The kingdom of Heaven

A sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Nearly always when Christians gather to worship they say the lord’s prayer, with its  pledge to hallow the name of God and to will that his kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus had a poetic imagination.  When he wanted to convey the wonder of the kingdom of heaven, he didn’t say:  the kingdom of heaven is a state of perfection which lifts us all out of ourselves and at the same time makes us relish being alive.   He said the kingdom is like a mustard seed or yeast or treasure hidden in a field or a fine pearl.  In fact, the last comparison is with the merchant who’s searching for the fine pearl – Jesus is not too particular about being exact.  His excitement is about the features of the kingdom.  It’s as natural as a growing plant or a measure of yeast – there’s nothing forced about it; you create the right environment for it and it starts to grow.  And at the same time, the kingdom is as spectacularly beautiful as a rich pearl.  Or it’s as exciting as finding hidden treasure – you think you’re digging a furrow to plant a row of potatoes and suddenly your spade hits something that’ll transform your life.

The first comparison is particularly significant I think because it emphasises the communal aspect of the kingdom.  When the seed germinates, it creates a shelter for all the birds of the air.  The yeast, the treasure, the pearl bring personal satisfaction.  The  benefits of the plant are there for all to enjoy.

The reality of our news at the moment makes it hard to imagine how the kingdom can ever come on earth.  One day while we were on holiday I read the paper from cover to cover, something I rarely do.  The grimness of both national and international news was almost relentless.   There were Palestinian children being killed by machine gun fire from Israeli soldiers.  A meeting of senior police officers admitted that they might be overwhelmed by the scale of child abuse.  The new minister for employment and disabilities was hailed by the Daily Mail as the Queen of the Catwalk.  1 in 6 families in some cities struggles to pay basic bills without resorting to payday loans.   Deaths from the Ebola virus are being reported in Sierra Leone.  And this was the day before the Malaysian air liner crashed.  Even a letter celebrating the Synod vote to allow women to be bishops ended with the hope that now that the C/E has moved into the 20thc., it’ll begin to address itself to the problems of the 21st.

Jesus lived at a bleak time in human history.  His country was occupied by an oppressive  imperial force.  The religious leaders were time-serving, hierarchical and power-hungry.  Poor people begged for food.  The slightly more fortunate made do with subsistence wages.  But Jesus preached a message of hope.  The followers of John the Baptist who were bewildered by Jesus sent to ask him: Are you the one who is to come, or do we have to wait for someone else?  Jesus sent the disciples back, saying:  tell John what you hear and observe.  The blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and good news is proclaimed to the poor.    Jesus was announcing  that the kingdom of heaven had arrived. The miracles were symbolic of new, universal values which are transforming and transcendent.  The signs of the kingdom are wholeness, inclusiveness, new insights and perceptions, justice, equality,  peace.  And the kingdom parables show his disciples that their role is to be sowers of the seed.

In the early 1900s, William Beveridge, a lawyer, was asked by Winston Churchill to become  a cabinet member and join him at what was then called the Board of Trade.  Beveridge introduced a pilot system of national insurance to combat the  poverty which was the consequence of unemployment.  In 1919 he became Director of the LSE, but in 1940 he again became a temporary civil servant and began work with Arthur Greenwood, an MP, on the document which became  the Report to Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services, published in 1942. It proposed that all people of working age should pay a weekly national insurance contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed.  Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”. It recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Beveridge included as one of three fundamental assumptions the fact that there would be a National Health Service of some sort, a policy already being worked on in the Ministry of Health   In 1948, these proposals became law in what we know as the NHS.

Beveridge was a member of the liberal party and became a liberal MP.  But his vision of a more equal society where everyone was entitled to a basic welfare programme, whatever their means, was recognised and affirmed by Conservative, Liberal and Labour governments.  His arguments were always economic – welfare institutions would increase the competitiveness of British industry in the post-war period, by producing healthier, wealthier and thus more motivated and productive workers who would also serve as a great source of demand for British goods.  As Jesus once famously said: the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.

There’s an exhibition at Tate Britain at the moment called: Kenneth Clarke – Looking for Civilisation.  The Kenneth Clarke in question isn’t the recently removed  Europhile cabinet member,  but a man who at one time was director of the National Gallery and who presented a series of tv programmes in the late 60s called Civilisation.  He was extremely cultured and  immensely wealthy and had a large collection of beautiful works of art, many of which are in the exhibition.  The video introducing the exhibition consists of extracts from the programmes.  At the very end, he sums up his reasons for making the series:  I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction.  I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.  On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.  …………I also hold one or two beliefs that are difficult to put shortly.  For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our egos.  And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature.  All living things are our brothers and sisters.  Above all I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

I don’t know if either Beveridge or Kenneth Clark was a religious man.  One of them had a vision of a world  where a safety net protected vulnerable people in our society from the cradle to the grave.  The other offered a mass audience a glimpse of great beauty in a variety of forms and helped them to understand the relationship between beauty and civilisation.  I’m sure Jesus would have added them to his list of seed sowers, bread makers, men and women who show us the possiblities of life lived to the full.

People who have lived fulfilled, useful lives have had an experience of heaven.  They have been able to see above the inevitable drudgery which is a part of most work experience to the value of what they have done for themselves and for others.  We all relish and cherish the moments in our lives when we are with those we love, when we enjoy a superb natural landscape, when we look with satisfaction on a task well done, when we read something that shifts the kaleidoscope.  These transfiguring moments expand our lives.

But the kingdom Jesus talks about is not just a matter of a personal experience, of seeking out circumstances which will make us happy.   It’s felt and known and shared in community, day after day.  We must live in the kingdom in communion with one another in a passionate commitment to each other and to the wider world.  Many people in our world will never know the satisfaction of a lifetime of productive work, social interactions among friends and colleagues, of culture or of the support of a family.  The kingdom must be for them as well, whether they live in Blackheath or in  Gaza. What we must offer here is a model of service and generous sacrifice to our immediate, privileged group and to the disadvantaged and dispossessed in our society and beyond.  When our hearts yearn in sympathy with the wretched of the earth and we are moved to do something to help them, we are living in the kingdom.  Because the core kingdom value is love.  Paul reminds us that nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus.  When we know that love and share that love we’re helping to build the kingdom..

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