Notes for a sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.
Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Recent world and local news has given me occasion to give thanks.
Two weeks ago, my spouse & I were at a family gathering, which included a BBQ on a beach. No incoming artillery threatened the crowd enjoying the BC sun. Thanks be to God.
This week, we will travel by air to Vancouver Island. We can be quite sure that no one will aim a surface-to-air missile at our flight. Thanks be to God.
The reports about the condo fire in SW Edmonton made me grateful that we live in a building with a full sprinkler system and a non-combustible exterior. Thanks be to God.
None of these—or any other bits of dire news—point us toward God’s Kingdom, except in a negative sense. This is not what God desires for his people. For that, we turn to the Gospel—the Good News!
That gospel passage we just heard could almost make us a bit dizzy, with its repeated refrain “The kingdom of heaven is like…” We hear it five times, associated with five very different images: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a net—images with no apparent connection with each other—they are just piled up together. The closing comment about the scribe trained for the kingdom adds another layer.
We’re talking about parables here, most of them coming without any explanation. As Fr. Paul Fromberg said from this pulpit last Sunday, explanations actually go against the nature of parables, which are less like object lessons than Zen koans: they just sit there, challenging us to find meaning in them.
The theologian Sally McFague says that parables open “cracks in reality,” to allow us to see things freshly.
As Leonard Cohen wrote:
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Jesus uses parables to open cracks in our carefully built world-view, challenging us to see things in a new light. He takes the stuff of ordinary life, and gives it a twist, and all of a sudden new light is streaming!
He asks his disciples if they have understood, and they answer “Yes.” I recall a saying of Albert Einstein:
If one is asked “Do you believe in God,”
the answer least likely to be understood is “Yes.”
Even the shortest parables have multiple layers and shades of meaning.
Recall that Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven,” a term found only in Matthew, generally in contexts where Mark and Luke use “the kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of this term is widely believed to be a circumlocution: Jews avoid misusing the name of God by avoiding talking directly about God. It is one of the reasons many scholars believe this Gospel was written for a church composed mainly of Jewish converts. The two expressions mean the same, so it is important not to assume that “heaven” points to something entirely beyond this world. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom:
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
God reigns in heaven—he always has and always will—but our prayer is for God’s reign to come in its fullness on earth. God’s kingdom will be fulfilled when the holy will is done in all of creation—on earth as in heaven.
When will that be? How will we know it? The five short parables have one thing in common—they all involve action, as people do things that point to what life looks like when we seek to allow God’s will to govern our lives. Let’s take a look at just the first two of them, beginning with the mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…
It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It has a “standard” interpretation, stressing how the very small becomes the very large. That’s correct, as far as it goes, but if we end there, we’ve missed the point. Mustard gives useful seeds and oil, but it is actually a weed—a fast-growing, invasive plant that is almost impossible to eradicate once it is established. What sane person would sow mustard in a field, where it crowds out the wheat, and provides shelter for birds that eat the growing grain? So why does Jesus liken the kingdom to such an apparently counter-productive action? The people who first heard this parable would surely have sat up straight, and scratched their heads at such a suggestion.
And so? The kingdom of heaven is like… well, it’s not always what we expect it to be.
A mustard plant in the middle of a wheat field may be unwelcome, but it can’t be ignored. It is urgent business. The kingdom Jesus announces can also at times be unwelcome, as he challenges us:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matt 4:17)
The urgency of God’s business puts demands on us: action, commitment, sometimes extreme behaviour, as we work for the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as in heaven.
Mustard seeds remind us that even the simplest and seemingly most insignificant actions can have big consequences—sometimes unexpected, even undesired. What about yeast? Same thing! The yeast used in ancient Palestine wasn’t the nice domesticated stuff we are familiar with. It was more like what we today call sourdough starter, kept over from the previous batch of bread to leaven the next one. It goes bad or dies very easily, and must be refreshed from time to time. If proper care is not taken, you can produce a loaf of bread laced with poison.
Just so, small actions can produce very large and very negative results, not because people mean to do evil, but more often because they do not take the proper care and attention. This past week, a single cigarette butt caused $10M in damage to a west-end condo, and made 400 people homeless for months or years.
Jesus invites us to be part of that kingdom which has come near. The invitation is a challenge—to us individually, to the church, and to the world around us. The call to follow Jesus can mean being a nuisance like the mustard bush—sometimes unwelcome, but unavoidable in its urgency.
However urgent it may be, the call to follow Jesus is not a call to act blindly or rashly, but to take care in what we do, seeking always to do God’s will, seeking to be good yeast in a world that critically needs God’s leavening.
Far be it from me to suggest that these interpretations are anything more than an opening of a crack—how do YOU hear?
We do have urgent matters before us. Let us therefore seek to know God’s will, through prayer, study, and worship—and then in the holy action—God’s Mission!—that arises from these disciplines. Let us be wise and diligent in attending to them, and may our lives reflect our prayer:
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.