One rainy Sunday morning in Ireland, I was enjoying a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. Something I don’t get a chance to do when I’m at home. There was one article that especially caught my attention: “Ireland, A Great Little Country.” The article was a kickoff to a contest asking locals to write about those little tucked away gems of Ireland that few people may know about. The author wrote that sometimes you need to be an outsider to really see the texture of a place. I had just finished walking the hundred miles of the Wicklow Way between Dublin and Clonegal and I knew the exact rare gem to share with others.
Just fifteen miles south of Ireland in the Glencree Valley is an ash tree that sits along the Glencree River. The tree must be two-centuries old. The base diameter is about ten feet, stretching thirty plus feet high into the sky. Over the course of the life of the tree, the base grew around a rectangular stone that is four feet long and two feet high. The tree growing around the stone has created an opening large enough to allow someone to stand on the stone and disappear inside the tree. I’ve stopped at this tree on several occasions. I love spending time sitting on the stone, listening to wind blow through the leaves, and feeling the cool damp safety of being inside the womb of this majestic and magical tree. My experience is that I feel that I have become one with this tree and therefore, one with God. Sitting inside the tree is heaven on earth for me.
In Matthew 13:31-52 Jesus is trying to give us his description of heaven on earth. Jesus tells his followers several parables about the kingdom of God of earth. His stories are subversive and require thinking outside the box. He uses the imagery of a mustard seed being planted in a garden, and the tiny seed becomes a tree that attracts all kinds of birds into the garden. On the surface that story doesn’t make much sense, but it gives us a picture of Jesus’ strange image of the kingdom of heaven on earth. All of his examples of the kingdom of heaven, are things on earth, things we can relate to; like the tree in Ireland. The kingdom of God is not something to be experienced in the afterlife—the kingdom of heaven is now, on earth. And sometimes those experiences are hidden and subtle and we have to keep our eyes open to see them.
Jesus quoted the psalmist who says, “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.” (Psalm 722-3) It’s pretty clear that Jesus is speaking about himself. And then he goes to say “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Jesus is taking the words of the ancients and shining a new light of understanding on our relationship with the divine and where we will find the kingdom of heaven. According to Jesus—the kingdom of heaven is being at one with God. To be one with God changes us, changes our interior world; changes our exterior world. To be at one with God in this heavenly kingdom on earth will change our relationship with God, with our family, with our friends, and with our enemies. Jesus tells us that to be one with God will change how we treat the poor. Jesus tells us that to be at one with God will change how we treat immigrants. Jesus tells us that to be one with God will change how we treat people who are different than we are. To be at one with God will change us at the very core of our being.
And how do we become one with God? How do we have this intimate, daily, personal relationship with the divine?
The simple answer is: become like the master, become like Jesus.
He studied the teachings of the ancients, in other words, he knew and understood the scripture.
He spent time alone in prayer, in conversation with God.
He fed the hungry and ministered to the sick.
He spoke truth to power.
He took risks.
And he paid attention to the things around him, those things where he experienced the kingdom of heaven on earth.
If we’re going to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth; if we dare have the courage to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then we will dare to be like Jesus. And in doing so, like Jesus, we will become one with the Living Spirit of God.
We got home on Sunday night. Tuesday morning I was up before the sunrise, ready to head out on my morning walk. Just outside the front of our house is a straggly old cactus that I had thought about taking down several times. But on Tuesday morning, perched on top of those prickly arms was the most beautiful white flower. I took a few pictures while admiring the paradox of this magnificent flower set against an unattractive cactus. By the time I came back from my walk, the flower had closed. And by the next morning, the flower dropped off the cactus. The kingdom of heaven is like a stunningly beautiful flower that blooms in the most unexpected place and lasts only for a few hours. Amen.