Sunday, July 24, 2011

Preach One: Proper 12A

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Have you understood all this?  As a school chaplain and as a parent, I have become very familiar with this question.  I have also become very familiar with the facial expression that conveys a lack of understanding. And so my students and my child have become very familiar with the sound of my sigh as my brain attempts to figure out a different way to explain whatever it is I am trying to teach.  You see, it's like this...well, how about, it's like...have you understood all this?

Moments like these take me back to my own childhood as my teachers and parents tried to explain things to me.  There are plenty of lessons it took me a while to learn, especially, as you know about me by now, if it involved math.  Listening to kids at school talk about their math classes, trying to help my son with his own math homework, flipping through pages of the SAT and ACT practice test booklets in the hall outside my office door...suddenly I'm in high school again, staring at a blackboard, staring at a test, staring at questions I was not at all sure I understood about the hypotenuse of a triangle and two trains traveling at different speeds and the point on a graph where the line approaches infinity.  Have you understood all this?  Well, maybe...

I was always better at reading and language and writing.  I remember those classes and practice tests, too, and can hear the voices of my English teachers asking, Have you understood all this?  Yes, I could answer confidently.  I could write a poem, I could find the main idea, I could do reading comprehension and sentence completion and analogies.  A carrot is to a vegetable as an orange is to a...

Have you understood all this? Jesus asked his disciples, searching their faces for the slightest sign of comprehension.  Yes, they answered, but the Greek word Matthew uses here can mean everything from absolutely to um...unh-hunh.  Elsewhere in the gospels we read how slow the disciples were to understand anything that Jesus said or did, and how slow they were to realize they didn't understand.

Have you understood all this?  The kingdom of heaven is like... Over and over again Jesus tries to explain what it is his whole life and ministry have been about.  The kingdom of heaven is like... Okay, a mustard seed is to a tree as the kingdom of God is to... Yeast is to dough as the kingdom of God is to... (sigh)... Have you understood all this?

Remember that parables are not really metaphors or analogies, but they are like them.  Two Sundays ago we heard theologian Walter Wink describe parables as "tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds...that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives."  The light that shines through a parable challenges us to see in new ways, to move in new directions, to consider new facets, to leave what is comfortable and familiar, to encounter God where we did not expect God to be.

This evening's parables seem quite simple at first, filled as they are with ordinary, everyday images and actions.  The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed, yeast mixed with flour, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great value, a net thrown into the sea.  In all of these stories, the kingdom of heaven - the kingdom of God - is revealed to be working in the world right in front of us and beneath us and all around us, with or without our understanding.  The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "Why else would [Jesus] talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women breaking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fishermen sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things...right here, right now, in all the ordinary people and places and activities of our lives."

Ordinary things, like a tiny seed that grows up into a broad and mighty tree that holds in its branches all the birds of the air.  The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.  Do you understand all this?  And we can say with confidence, yes, absolutely, yes.  The kingdom of heaven begins small, and grows to fill all the world.

Ordinary people, like a baker woman who mixes yeast into dough.  The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.  Do you understand?  And, after a little review of the process of leavening, by which the dough is filled with thousands of tiny pockets of air that expand when they are heated, we can say, yes, absolutely, yes.  The kingdom of heaven is worked into the world, and spreads to fill it and expand it and raise it up.

The kingdom of heaven is like... Again, the kingdom of heaven is like... Again... Jesus repeats the lesson three more times, covering the material from different angles, different perspectives, different facets, so as to glint as much light as he can on the subject of how God is at work in the world.  Then, having taught us, having trained us in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus places the parables, themselves priceless treasures, in our hands.  Therefore every scribe who has been trained in the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out treasure that is both old and new... Jesus invites us to turn the treasures, the parables, like diamonds in our hands and see how their facets reflect something deeper and more ultimate and more challenging than what appears on the surface.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed... Jesus' disciples, whether or not they had ever sown a field, would have known that mustard seeds grow up not into trees but, at best, large, scraggly bushes that spread like weeds, which, in fact, they are.  Mustard is humble and ordinary and persistent, and not at all welcomed by those who are attempting to grow a pure crop.  The kingdom of heaven is like this.  The marvelous and powerful and transforming kingdom of God is like a stubborn weed, uninvited, unwelcome by some, but determined to grow despite all efforts to uproot it.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast... Jesus' disciples, whether or not they had ever baked bread, would have known that other scriptural references to leavening are far less favorable than this one.  Over and again in the scriptures they knew, yeast was used as the image for that which corrupts whatever is clean. The kingdom of heaven is like this.  The marvelous and powerful and transforming kingdom of God is expansive, making one bread, one body, out of many...clean and unclean...

Jesus' parables aren't so simple after all.  They are challenging, revealing a kingdom that is not pure and clean and pristine, like a prize-winning orchid in a greenhouse.  Rather, the kingdom of heaven is found deep in the dirt, where mercy makes a mess of things.  The kingdom of heaven is inseparable from earth, where once God stooped and breathed life and called it good, where the breath of God still moves and searches our hearts and makes our spirits rise.

It is a difficult lesson, but one that should come as no surprise if we have been watching closely, if we have had ears to hear.  Every moment of his life was lived among the weeds and the leaven of society, inviting them to the table, healing their hurts, forgiving their sins, and calling them to follow.  Jesus was himself a living parable, revealing a kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world, that one writer has suggested "was more pervasive than a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest."

In fact, the parables glint at our lives a kingdom that is very much alive, very much growing and expanding and reaching, more of a verb, really, than a noun.  In them Jesus is not talking about things but action, movement.  He is not talking about love as a feeling or idea but love in motion.  The kingdom  is not simply a mustard seed but a mustard seed that someone has taken and sown, a mustard seed that grows and spreads.  The kingdom is like yeast mixed in and rising.  The kingdom, like treasure, is hidden and found, inspiring joy.  The kingdom, like a net, is thrown into the sea, catching fish, catching people, catching lives of every kind.

The kingdom has always been at work in the world and is inseparable from it.  It may be hidden from our sight, but from time to time we catch the glint of its ultimate reality.  The Reverend Robert Farrar Capon writes of his favorite of this evening's parables, "Just as yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved into the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all - just as there is not a moment of the dough's existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened dough - so...the kingdom enters the world at its creation... There is not, and has never been, any unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world."

And so we ourselves are not unkingdomed.  As Paul teaches us, nothing in all the world can separate us from God's love-in-motion.  And we are called to be living parables, to reveal God at work in and through our own lives, loving others - all others - as Jesus taught us.  Have we understood all this?  Maybe, or maybe not, but then is it really possible to measure the area, or the circumference, or the volume of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of our seed-planting, fish-catching, pearl-hunting, bread-kneading God?  We are not called to understand these things, thank goodness, but to live them.  How will we, as kingdom people, catch rays of ultimate things and glint them at the world?  How will we, as kingdom people called to search and sow and love and rise and save, say to God, yes, absolutely, yes?  Amen.

Artwork: "World's Smallest Seed," by Jim Janknegt; "A Little Leaven," by Jim Janknegt; "The Lost Money," by Jim Janknegt; "Discovering the Pearl of Great Price," by Daniel Bonnell; "Treasurefield #3: Buying the Field," by Jim Janknegt.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

My problem is not just understanding but also remembering what I am understanding! Wonderful, thoughtful, challenging sermon...