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“How Often Do You Use the Word ‘Like’”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“How Often Do You Use the Word ‘Like’”
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

Perhaps you have experienced the exasperation of trying to define a particular word or phrase to someone and coming up short.

There are the big words like antidisestablishmentarianism. My friends and I knew this word in sixth grade but, not in a million years, could we have told you what it means.

Then there are the tough ones like inchoate, circumlocution, and exigent; most of us have never used them in a sentence and we are clueless as to what they mean.

And then there are those churchy words like faith, grace, and mercy. My seminary preaching professor forbade us from using such go-to-words in sermons because, while they sound awfully holy coming from pulpits like this on Sunday morning, most people don’t have an inkling what they really mean.

Take for instance that pesky phrase the “kingdom of heaven.” Can you define that?

You can, of course, revert to your Webster’s. Kingdom: the spiritual reign or authority of God often depicted as being above the sky or a state of being eternally in the presence of God after death.

One thing is for certain, when I try to define the kingdom of heaven, I stumble and bumble: “The kingdom of heaven is like…you know… like…well…uh…like…you know.”

You have probably noticed a speech pattern of late where people rely heavily on the word “like.” “Like,” by the way, is replacing “you know” as a go to word.

Linguists say that we use “like” unconsciously as we try to gather our thoughts, not sure what it is we want to say. The problem, they claim, is that when overused, words like “like” and “you know” make us sound nervous and incapable of explaining what we mean.

If you are a bit embarrassed right now because you use “like” as much as a D- tenth-grader, you may be relieved to hear that Jesus used the word “like” five times in today’s gospel reading when trying to define the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he said, like yeast in dough, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea.

Could it possibly be that Jesus was as challenged as we when trying to define the kingdom of heaven?

The Bible offers clues about what the kingdom of heaven is like. In heaven, we will sing “Holy, holy, holy” with the angels before the throne of God. The book of Revelation claims heaven will shine with the glory of God, and its brilliance will be like a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. Isaiah describes heaven as the lovely place where death is swallowed up for ever and the Lord God wipes away tears from all our faces. While these majestic visions are instructive, I have a hunch we still catch ourselves stuttering, “The kingdom of heaven is like…well…you know…. like.”

Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to ordinary things like nets, yeast and dough, and pearls. He even claimed the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and yet it becomes the greatest of shrubs where birds make their nests. A shrub, perhaps a big bush—certainly not a soaring tree—this is the kingdom of heaven!

When I try to describe the kingdom of heaven, I increasingly turn to poets and novelists rather than theologians and biblical scholars—but, please, don’t tell a soul! Take for instance the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth is crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

According to Browning, if we don’t see every common bush as an occasion to discover God, we will likely end up sitting around plucking blackberries.

Do you have poetic eyes? Will you discover the kingdom of heaven this afternoon as you walk through Central Park—in the majestic American Elms lining the walkway just across the way, in the staccato-mad cadences of the red-bellied woodpecker, and in the lazy boats as lover’s glide across the lake? Is God somewhere thereabouts?

Annie Dillard, the writer I spoke about last week and whom I adore, regularly discovers God in mustard seed kind of places and doughy kind of folks. “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the pines…The church women all bring flowers for the altar; they haul in arrangements as big as hedges, of wayside herbs in season, and flower from their gardens, huge branches of foliage and blossoms as tall as I am, in vases the size of tubs, and the altar still looks empty, irredeemably linoleum, and beige. We had a wretched singer once…a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles, a long lace dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

How about The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity: are you able to spot the kingdom of heaven in this mustard seed place? Are you able to glimpse heaven in the words of this broken-down preacher, in the rotgut wine purchased on the fly at the corner drugstore, and in the plastic disks passed off as Christ’s body? Can you catch sight of the kingdom in our pedestrian missteps and pathetic insecurities as we do our best to speak gentle words to our detractors instead of bombastic ones? Do you gaze at the kingdom as we try to arouse rich people to bow to the poor and to urge our leaders to pray as did Solomon when he asked of the Lord, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”? Maybe that’s a shrubby kind of kingdom dream but I believe it something like what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of heaven.

Yes indeed, earth is crammed with heaven right here at 65th and Central Park West. This mustard seed kind of place called Holy Trinity and the doughy people we are rubbing shoulders with this very moment are like…you know…. like…uh…. like the kingdom of heaven.