My 1959 Revised Standard Version (a gift from my parents when I was a young, eager lad) said Jesus talked about the â€œkingdom of heaven.â€ The RSV was the first Bible I seriously used to sermon preparation. Newer versions that followed often echoed the RSVâ€™s â€œkingdom of heaven.â€
However, I frequently used â€œrealm of loveâ€ in sermons, like . . .
The realm of love is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
I can more easily tell you why I prefer â€œrealm of loveâ€ to â€œkingdom of heavenâ€ than what it means. Simply, realm is not male-oriented. A king is male. I was raised in an era that started to question male-only words and phrases. In a sense, I was trained to emphasize alternatives to sexist language. Once I thought God was male, bearded, and mostly elsewhere. He seemed a Divine Dude you were obligated to invite to activities, but often wished Heâ€™d arrive early and leave quickly.
When I started using â€œrealm of loveâ€ instead of â€œkingdom of heaven,â€ it was pretty cool that I got reactions from folks in the pews.
â€œWhat the heck do you mean by that nonsense?â€ my generous-spirited parishioners grumbled.
I replied that I used â€œrealm of loveâ€ because people were too familiar with â€œkingdom of heaven.â€ Itâ€™s old news. By reframing the language, people might wonder, might hear it anew. But soon people stopped asking questions. I preached or taught and used â€œrealm of loveâ€ andâ€”ta-daâ€”they stopped listening again. At first it was new and unsettling, then my new version became little different than the old version.
Additionally, whatever phrase was usedâ€”kingdom of heaven or realm of loveâ€”Jesusâ€™ examples were not exactly flashy. His â€œrealm of loveâ€ was like a mustard seed that grew, a woman mixing yeast, someone finding (and hiding) a treasure, and a merchant searching for pearls. They were mundane, all a ho-hum part of first century daily life.
And yet in each example, a person does something and there is transformation.
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Why not suggest a â€œparableâ€ from my personal experience: the realm of love is like the woman at the tennis court hitting a ball with me until I rediscovered myself.
Maybe Iâ€™m thinking about this after watching American Sloane Stevens eke out a three-set victory over tenacious Italian Camila Giorgi at this yearâ€™s French Open? And for me, as a one-time player and still enthusiastic fan, tennis has been part of my daily life.
Years ago, I angrily left a denominational gathering where my suggestions for a new church (that Iâ€™d been asked to start and lead) were ignored or criticized. Why are some so hypocritical? How can people so casually belittle another? Why was everyone dumping on me?
With an unplanned â€œfreeâ€ afternoon before me, I grabbed a can of tennis balls and racket, took my aforementioned anger, and headed for nearby courts. I smacked a ball against a wall. Frustrated. Bam! Misunderstood. Bam! Doubt-filled. Bam!
A woman appeared, asking, â€œWant to hit with me?â€
Every moment is a choice. What a radical difference there can be between â€œyesâ€ and â€œno,â€ between wallowing in self-pity versus turning to hear another. Will I add the leaven? Will I open my eyes wide enough to notice the treasure?
I muttered, â€œYes.â€
We never played an official game, let alone a set or match. It was all backhands, forehands, lobs, and net play. I never knew her name. She never knew mine. After two sweaty, intense hours, her boyfriend arrived and we bid each other farewell.
I was alone again. No longer angry. No longer feeling hurt.
Jesus rarely used traditional religious language. In particular, in his parables, he spoke words his listeners understood. I fervently believe we all have our divine stories, moments where the seemingly predictable present is upended. We can never plan them, but enough of the time we can welcome them, andâ€”maybeâ€”glimpse the divine.
Once I had a long, revealing talk outside of a seminary housing apartment with a woman . . . way back when studying for the ministry. We were both married. Both attracted to each other. Would we do â€œsomethingâ€ to threaten our vows? And yet, in the stunning openness of the conversation, a new direction emerged. Mutual respect. A courage to say â€œno.â€ It was like a third presence, Holy and honest, entered into our encounter.
Once, driving a friend to a mutual friendâ€™s wedding, my companion suddenly shared he was gay. This was when you could lose everything if anyone knew. Anguished words poured from his soul. For miles, on a California freeway, I listened to the worst and best truths of his life. It was like there was another passenger, Holy and hopeful, allowing my friend to share what he never dared to reveal.
For me a tennis game (or near an apartment or in a car) can become a realm of love. Not because â€œloveâ€ is one of the scores in that game*. But because for a few unexpected hours someoneâ€”unbidden but essentialâ€”helped transform human anger into Holy healing play. I had not known there was a pearl on that tennis court. I did not know that making the right choice would become leaven in my heart.
â€œWant to hit with me?â€
How blessed to answer, â€œYes.â€
What is your parable, what is your moment in Godâ€™s realm of love, that helps define the divine in your life? It will be different for each one, and yet it will always have a similar result . . . we will have been transformed.
* By the by, the website Mental Floss has a semi-helpful article (go here) to explain the weird ways of scoring in tennis. What, love is . . . nothing?