“The kingdom of heaven is like . . . ” Colchester Federated Church, July 26, 2020, (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52) Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, (**Virtual Worship)

One of the best tales of adventure and allowing ourselves to be surprised by the unexpected is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s the tale of a group of dwarves who return to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their once glorious home from Smaug the evil dragon who drove them out decades before.  It’s an epic journey filled with danger, battles, mythical creatures, and plenty of moral lessons.  This group of dwarves ends up finding allies on their quest to win back their home, including Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit from the Shire.  (As an aside, hobbits are creatures like humans except they are quite short with huge hairy feet, and always content with food, drink, merriment, nature—the simple things of life.)

When Bilbo is first approached by wizard Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf says, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”  Bilbo responds, “I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”[1]  If you were off on a quest where you needed battle skills and courage, a hobbit is perhaps the last creature you would invite along.  Bilbo ends up going on this adventure though, much to the chagrin of some of the dwarves (their leader Thorin Oakenshield most of all.) And this is the basis of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in the film series.  That story revolves around Bilbo finding his courage and purpose and the dwarves’ wrestling with viewing him as a worthy part of their fellowship. 

Tolkien was a devout Christian and Christian themes play out in his books.  At one point Gandalf reflects on why he would want Bilbo Baggins (a simple hobbit of the Shire) to even come on this quest.  Bilbo seems so unqualified, almost the worst choice possible.  Though Gandalf muses, “I have found that it is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”  It ends up that unexpected things happen, whether we feel worthy of them or not.  It ends up that small acts of kindness and love by ordinary people can actually make a huge difference in our broken world.  That’s certainly what Tolkien emphasizes in The Hobbit and we can see this embrace of the small things in life yielding big blessings in Jesus’ parables today.  Parables where he contemplates what the kingdom of heaven is like. 

Jesus often taught using parables—these stories we’ve been hearing from Matthew’s Gospel that make comparisons between everyday objects and ordinary experiences and eternal, transcendent realities.[2]  In today’s Gospel text Jesus makes several comparisons to the kingdom of heaven.  This kingdom where humans would become passionate about what God’s passionate about.  Think of that famous verse from the Old Testament—Micah 6:8—“what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Justice.  Kindness.  Humility.  Love.  These are the values that Jesus didn’t just talk about but embodied, due to his concern for those on the margins of society.  His values are kingdom of heaven values, and it’s worth exploring the ways Jesus explained kingdom values to his followers.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed in with flour so that it becomes leavened.  Jesus gave an encouraging word here.  Those committed to following Jesus may sometimes wonder if our efforts of witness are impactful in the world.  Yet we can rest assured that this work is of ultimate importance.  Because God has a significant outcome in store for all of creation even though right now we see in a mirror dimly.  Something good is happening when we live into Jesus’ teachings of compassion, even if we are just performing small acts of kindness and love.  The leaven makes a huge difference!

Jesus teaches that the joy we feel when we discover the kingdom is like the joy of finding that hidden treasure in a field.  We can’t help but respond.  For finding this treasure is due to the grace of God and not due to what we have single-handedly done in our lives.  We may experience God showing up unexpectedly, and our lives are transformed.  The kingdom is something that we may stumble upon by accident as opposed to seeking high and low for it.  We show up, pay attention, and see where God has to lead us.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of an especially fine pearl.  When the merchant finds that pearl, he goes and sells everything he has to buy it because it’s that valuable and precious.  There are some who seem to stumble upon the kingdom of heaven like the one who discovered treasure hidden in the field.  Others are earnestly committed to finding ultimate meaning.  Those folks may spend years studying on their own, going on pilgrimages to holy places, and learning from great teachers in order to find ultimate meaning.  Jesus says in this parable that this earnest path of seeking meaning is good too.  We’re allowed to put in some effort here.  And when we discover what we’ve been looking for, we’re willing to make some pretty drastic changes in order to accept the gift that is freely given.

Or recall that the kingdom of heaven is like a net that’s thrown into the sea and catches fish of every kind so that the net overflows.  The work of evangelism is like casting that net into the sea and bringing in fish of every kind to hear about God’s love.  We need to cast the net wide and keep casting the net, spreading our seeds with abandon as Jesus teaches in another parable.

Finally Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed—one of the smallest seeds.  But plant that tiny seed and it can become the greatest of all shrubs so that birds can nest in its shade.  This seed will sprout and grow with God’s help.  We may be starting off insignificant.  We may be a small hobbit going off on an unexpected journey in a big world like Bilbo Baggins.  Yet we can blossom and provide shelter for those who need compassion.  God works in unexpected ways and in unexpected people.  These are words of hope and comfort in the face of uncertainty.  A reminder that if we’re working to help God create a just and loving world, we will bear fruit.  We just need a bit of faith. 

And why not us—why not you and me?  What can give us hope in these tumultuous pandemic days is that God can use small acts of kindness and love to do great big things in the world.  That mustard seed may be small, but it grew and provided shelter for the birds.  And that shelter may not seem all that important to us, but it’s important to those birds.  There’s no telling how God may show up, and thanks be to God for those unexpected moments of grace on our journeys of life.  Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit (illustrated by Jemima Catlin), 5.

[2] Exposition of Parables from Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary.