Hidden in Plain View
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017
Some years ago, a book titled Heaven is for Real hit the bookshelves. This book was such a hit that it later became a movie, which is a testament to the books popularity. Maybe even some of you here today read it, but for those who didn’t I want to tell you a bit about this non-fiction story. The entire book centers on the Burpo family, and in particular 4 year old Colton who claims to have visited Heaven while having emergency surgery. Once he recovered from this surgery, Colton begins telling his parents about watching the Dr. operate and seeing his Mom praying and his dad praying. He then tells about meeting his great grandfather, who died years before Colton was born, and about meeting his unborn sister who passed due to a miscarriage. 4 year old Colton even gives a detailed physical description of Jesus who he claims to have met and talked with during his time in Heaven. Colton goes as far as to provide a very detailed account of the horse he says Jesus rides in Heaven.
At that time, Colton’s Dad, Todd Burpo, was a part-time minister of a struggling church. Once all of this happens, Todd chooses to preach about all of his son’s heavenly experiences. Ultimately, some years later, Todd struck a deal for the publication of a book he authored titled Heaven is For Real. His book was so well received that he later turn that success into a movie deal with Sony Pictures, resulting in the April 2014 box office release of the movie by the same name. Not only was the Burpo story incredibly successful, both at the bookstores and at the box office, Heaven is For Real lead the way for other stories of people going to Heaven and coming back. For awhile during this period of time, stories such as these were a mainstay on all best seller lists.
Now, whether or not you believe there is any truth to the Burpo’s story, or any of the other Heaven experience stories written and published during that period of time, there is something I find a lot more interesting about the whole phenomena… a large percentage of people really want to know what Heaven is like. Whether they simply want to confirm their own previously held beliefs, or just want to satisfy some particular curiosity, the incredible popularity of the Heaven is For Real empire can leave no doubt people really do want a more concrete understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven. Which leads me to ask… whatever happened to mystery? Are we so scared of mystery that we are willing to cling to the claims of a 4 year old, or that 4 year old’s dad? And finally, what is it about Heaven that makes us act this way?
For the past couple of weeks we have been traveling through Matthew’s Gospel where he is telling of the ways Jesus was teaching the crowds about the Kingdom of Heaven. As we discussed, Jesus’ preferred method of teaching was through the use of parables, or stories where something fictitious is used to represent something that is real. So two weeks ago we read about Jesus teaching that the Kingdom was like a selfless extravagant sower who lovingly went about sowing seed everywhere, that story is better known as the Parable of the Sower. Last week we discussed Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom could be compared to a place where everything, both good and bad, could grow and mature together. Now here we find ourselves reading in quick succession five new and different ways Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven. These five parables come so fast, and unlike last week’s parable, there is no explanation as to their meaning leaving us feeling like we have been caught in a bit of a whirlwind.
Here, in these Parable, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like:
I can get so wrapped up in this quest to get it right because I have never wanted to give the wrong answer to anything. For as long as I can remember I desperately want to know the correct answer to whatever question is being asked. Or be someone who knows information about whatever topic is being discussed. It makes me feel like I belong, or that I’m respected. There is at first some level of excitement to it all. You know, that same sort of excitement you feel when you are searching for something lost, or hidden. There is an adrenaline rush that can seduce all of us, which to some extent explains why people continue to search for hidden treasures all around the world. “It is the stuff legends are made of, right? The sunken treasure, the secret knowledge, the long-lost masterpiece gathering dust in the attic-suddenly discovered, suddenly found ...”
There is another aspect of this hunt that can creep in and destroy my excitement though and that is the proposition of not finding what I’m searching for… not discovering the right answer. In fact, when faced with the proposition of being questioned about my knowledge, there have been times when my levels of stress have become so great that I begin to wonder how much more I can take. The funny thing is, it is in those moments that I become so thankful for my experiences with hypnosis, meditation and contemplation. You see, it is those moments of stress that help me to recall that part of my life’s experience and when I do I can begin to find a bit of peace and quiet and with that peace and quiet I can start to find some clarity. When I remove myself from the pressure cooker of feeling like a Jeopardy game show contestant, then I somehow become free to explore the mystery in front of me instead of living as though the mystery has to be figured out, or understood.
Getting to this place of free exploration of mystery, especially with all of these parables, allows me to see something I couldn’t when I was on the quest to figure them out. The thing is, the parables themselves never changed, yet it took me having a new mindset to see what was there the whole time. It was only in this new space that I can notice something that has been hidden in plain view… Jesus never once said the Kingdom of Heaven is like this OR like that.
All told, in a span of three weeks we have read seven different ways Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven and never once did he say it was either like an extravagant sower or a hidden treasure. Never once did he say the Kingdom of Heaven was either like a mustard seed or like yeast. Our quest to find the right answer to this question will only lead us into a state of frustration because the truth as told by Jesus is the Kingdom of Heaven is a whole lot of things.
Father Richard Rohr would call this realization an alternative consciousness which he says, “is largely letting go of [the] mind’s need to solve problems, to fix people, to fix myself, to rearrange the moment because it is not to my liking. When that mind goes, another, non-dualistic mind is already there waiting. We realize it is actually our natural way of seeing. It’s the way we thought as children before we started judging and analyzing and distinguishing things one from another.” It’s the way we saw before we decided it was our responsibility to figure everything out. And here’s the thing, this alternative consciousness is not about discovering something new about ourselves, it is actually a long and sometimes painful return to realizing what has always been.
It is this very freedom to see what has been there all along, see what has been hidden in plain view, that helps me grow. Getting outside of either or thinking, getting outside of such a dualistic mindset allows us to explore the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is teaching the crowds about, instead of getting stuck in someone else’s description. You see, how we imagine the Kingdom of Heaven depends a lot on what we need the Kingdom of Heaven to be. This may explain why the Burpo’s story resonated with so many people across the world. Nothing in the Burpo’s description of Heaven comes close to resembling Jesus’ description in any of these parables. Where the Burpo’s gave specifics, like the horse that Jesus rides in Heaven, Jesus’ teachings allow our minds to wander in generalities. In this way, it is important to recognize that our desire “for certain visualizations of the Kingdom of Heaven have less to do with what the Bible says and more about what’s at stake for our own theology. Our language about the Kingdom of Heaven tends to be attached to how we think God should act and our assumptions about the Kingdom of Heaven rely heavily on our system of rewards.”
I want to encourage you to do something. At some point, I hope each and every one of you takes time to make up your own parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. And for those who do so, I pray that you realize that in creating your own parable about the Kingdom of Heaven you are making a critical connection between a perceived theological need and the immediate contexts of your lives. If you do this, know that you are not just making something up, something that sounds kind of nice. No, you are giving witness in that moment to a specific expression of faith. You are offering testimony to what the Kingdom of Heaven needs to be in light of your individual reality. This, I believe, is what Todd Burpo did in writing that book and claiming all of it came from the mouth of a 4-year old. And even though I didn’t care for the book, ultimately that is not what matters because truth be told, there is nothing inherently wrong about Rev. Burpo choice to write his own parable. It is what he and his family needed, and clearly what many others around the world needed.
In the end, we can all be assured that Jesus spent so much time explaining the Kingdom of Heaven because he seemed to know that we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent. And maybe more than that, we need to be reminded that the Kingdom of Heaven is manifest in many different and various ways. The promise of the parables about the Kingdom of Heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near and that’s a promise each and every one of us needs to hear and hear often.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown – The Seeds of Heaven
 Lewis, Karoline, Workingpreacher.com Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52