Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Monday Vespers

Another sermon preached at Kanuga Conference Center. This night we were able to be at the beautiful lakeside chapel. Poor Little Charlie was stung by a bee in the middle of the service, but his Nana was there to take hold him as so many kind folks gathered round to help. The kingdom of heaven is like...

Matthew 13:31-35

Reflecting upon Jesus’ experience of proclaiming the kingdom of God to the disciples, the Reverend Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Ah, how fearful and wonderful it must have been to be the teacher of such a brilliant collection of point-missers.”

So it is that in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tries again and again to describe God’s work in the world in such a way that the disciples cannot miss his meaning. Of course the kingdom is as much mystery as it is manifest, and so Jesus put it before them in parables. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

The Greek word for parable means something like, to lay beside. In these stories, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God at work in and through creation in extraordinary ways they couldn’t even imagine. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat...so when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds came up as well. This was the parable we heard Saturday night.

My father is an Episcopal priest, and I have always loved to hear him preach - his voice was the same in the pulpit as it was when he read bedtime stories to us at night. I remember one sermon, or rather an image from a sermon, that must have been a reflection some or another of Jesus’ many parables about wheat. Dad asked us to imagine Jesus and his point-missers (I mean, disciples) walking down a dusty road and talking about the kingdom of God. They stop to rest under the shade of a tree, and Jesus leans against the rough stone wall separating the road from a crop of young wheat waving lazily in the hot breeze. There is silence as the disciples, brows furrowed like a field, try to understand what he has been saying to them. Jesus is silent, too, absentmindedly running his fingers through the stalks of wheat just beginning to reveal their kernels.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? To what can I compare it? he wonders to himself, looking out across the field. And then he knows. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed... Perhaps on another occasion as they walked from one village to the next they passed by a fallow field in which wild mustard grew rampant. The kingdom of heaven is like this, he thought. And seeing a woman with a basket of bread, ah, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

I love that image of Jesus noticing the things around him, the ordinary, everyday things with which his listeners would be familiar, and weaving them into parables of the kingdom, with which they were utterly unfamiliar. It’s not so different, is it, than what he urges us to do, to notice the things around us, the ordinary, everyday things with which we are familiar, and see in them glimpses of God.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed...The point-missers, whether or not they had ever worked a farm, would have known that tiny mustard seeds grow up not into trees, but, at best, large, scraggly bushes that spread like weeds, which, in fact, they are. It is a humble, ordinary, and persistent plant, not generally welcomed in a farmer’s field. The kingdom of heaven is like this. The marvelous and transforming kingdom of God begins as a tiny seed, spreads like a stubborn weed, and is not always welcome when it appears.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast... The point-missers, whether or not they had ever baked bread, would have known that a small amount of leavening changes flat bread into a thick rounded loaf. They also would have known that most scriptural references to yeast were less than favorable, signifying that which corrupts whatever is clean. The kingdom of heaven is like this. The marvelous and transforming kingdom of God is mixed inseparably with all that are considered unclean, and even the smallest amount can make the spirit rise.

So what’s the point? It’s easy to miss - the kingdom in its fullness remains a mystery, hidden like seed in the ground or yeast in dough. But the nature of the kingdom is to grow, to spread, to stubbornly persist. The nature of the kingdom is to rise, to be indissoluble from the world as yeast is indissoluble from the dough. Tiny as a seed or a spoonful of leavening, the kingdom may not look like much to begin with, growing, rising without making a sound, until there is bread enough for the world.

We are reminded, then, that our part in proclaiming the kingdom might also appear tiny, small as a seed planted, invisible as yeast mixed in dough. But that which is done on the kingdom’s behalf will by its very nature grow and spread and bear fruit. Borrowing words from Helen Keller, the kingdom is most often revealed in great and noble things, but rather in small things that we do as if they were great and noble.

In what small things are you seeing the kingdom of God this week? Where do you see it growing? Where do you see it rising? Because the point is, it is all around and in us - we can’t miss it... Amen.

Artwork: Photo from lakeside chapel at Kanuga; photo of cleavers (kind of weed commonly found in cereal crops) in wheat; photo of mustard seeds; terracotta woman kneading dough from 5th century BCE.

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