Delivered July 27, 2014 (VII Pentecost, Year A – Proper 12D) by the Rev. Bill Wieland
In my sermon this morning I want to concentrate for the most part on our gospel lesson. But for the last several Sundays my colleague and your interim rector, the Rev. Mary Slenski, made it a point to keep tabs on the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob saga in Genesis, so I want to continue that too. Besides, something about the dynamics of this week’s episode between Jacob and Laban invites me to stop and reflect, if only for a moment, on why in this particular case we should be gratefully receiving what God’s Spirit is saying to the churches!
It might help to remind ourselves of why Jacob is, as they say, on the lam.
He has beaten his brother, Esau, the firstborn, out of his birthright and also, with the help of his mother, Rebekah, out of Isaac’s patriarchal blessing, and he is fleeing from his brother’s anger, which has become, needless to say, murderously hot. Surely, any good novel of such proportions would demand at this point in the narrative some sort of comeuppance for our headstrong protagonist. So it’s not all that surprising that we should see the trickster himself handily tricked into working fourteen years instead of seven for a wife he doesn’t want and the wife he wants by his wily uncle, who is, after all, his mother’s brother.
But not to worry; Laban will get his, more or less, when Jacob takes off with the two wives, the children they have borne, and the best of Laban’s livestock. But that’s another story, so to speak.
Still, the question remains: Why should we be grateful to God for yet another example of how one act of deceit inevitably leads to another, unless…unless we are being invited to imagine what a better way of doing things, what a better way of living, might look like. Something that might well be called the kingdom of heaven.
A grain of mustard seed that grew into the greatest of shrubs, some yeast that caused three measures of flour to rise, buried treasure in a field, a pearl of such great value that a merchant sold everything he had to get his hands on it, a net full of fish—offhand, I would say that this week’s gospel lesson presents us with the greatest concentration of images pertaining to the kingdom of heaven to be found anywhere in the gospels. And the compiler of Matthew’s gospel isn’t the only one responsible for this intense concentration of images. The folks who put our lectionary together had a hand in it, too.
It’s easy to see from the listing in the bulletin that the gospel lesson we heard a bit ago was two separate passages combined into one. So it’s unlikely—not impossible, just unlikely—that Jesus uttered these pointed illustrations about the kingdom of heaven all at one time.
But let’s suppose for a moment that he did.
Imagine what one listener’s reaction to such a flood of images might have been:
“Like a mustard seed. Yeah! You know, that makes sense. It ends up growing into quite a—yeast? Well, I guess that’s kind of how it works. Course I really don’t know all that much about cooking. I’m more into— buried treasure! Now there’s something I wouldn’t mind having. I could use a little of that—actually, not a little, but a lot! Trouble is, every field I’ve ever—a pearl, huh? Eh, that’s kind of like treasure, only smaller. Easy to carry with you. Still, it would take a whole string of them for me to—A net? Now, wait a minute! What does a net full of smelly fish have to do with…?”
You get the picture.
It would have been awfully confusing.
I had a chemistry teacher in high school whose favorite expression was “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em.” If he really meant that, I’m glad he left teaching. But I bet there are a lot of people who wish he hadn’t gone into law!
Of course, confusing people was not what Jesus of Nazareth intended, even though we have evidence that the early church fell to speculating about why people—particularly a good majority of his fellow Jews—failed to understand what Jesus was talking about.
Perhaps the church’s great concern over that failure accounts for one tradition that grew up, a tradition that claimed that Jesus passed on secret teachings to his disciples while disguising them in the form of parables that were impenetrable for his larger audiences. Such an explanation simply flies in the face of a statement made elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel to the effect that in his parables Jesus was able to reveal what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world.”
No, confusing people was not what Jesus of Nazareth was about. It was revelation—helping people to see beneath the surface of things. Realizing that Jesus sought to reveal the truth, not to obscure it, can help us recognize the relationship between a net full of fish and a mustard seed. More important, it can help us catch our own glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven might be like.
Taken one at a time, they’re so simple, aren’t they—these images that Jesus invites his listeners to ponder? So simple, and yet at the same time so elusive.
If, in fact, what we often find in the gospels are collections of sayings that may have been uttered at one time or another in front of different audiences, is it unreasonable for us to suppose that Jesus was talking to farming people when he used a grain of mustard seed for an image of the kingdom of heaven, fisherfolk when he likened the kingdom to a net, merchants when he told of the merchant and the pearl, and, dare we say, women (for the most part) when he referred to the action of the yeast? With the image of buried treasure, Jesus may have been trying to appeal to a wider audience—a group of investors, let’s say, or a band of mercenary soldiers.
When they are seen in this light, commonplace images like these take on a totally different significance. If Jesus was talking to farmers about the potential in a grain of mustard seed, then he was talking about the rewards of farming. If Jesus was talking to some merchants about closing the best deal of their lives, he was talking about being successful in business. If he was talking to some women about what happens when you add some yeast to some dough, he was talking about the joys of cooking. And so on.
The notable feature in these images is that they all have positive outcomes. Each of these modes of being is represented at its best. Even the image of the net full of fish—for all the connotations of the end of the world and the last judgment that the image may conjure up, even the image of the net full of fish evokes the satisfaction of a good day’s catch.
Now let me hasten to add at this point that we dare not forget that these images are similes, not equations. We can no more say that the kingdom of heaven is a grain of mustard seed than we can say that the kingdom of heaven is a good day at the track.
(Oddly enough, nothing would stop us from saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a good day at the track—or like winning the lottery, for that matter—so long as we remember that the kingdom of heaven is a lot more than either of those things.)
Now, the kingdom of heaven, as far as Jesus’ original listeners were concerned, can best be described as a future they hoped would come very suddenly and very soon. These people were looking forward to “the end of the age,” as it is referred to in the last sentence of our gospel lesson, though it would seem that his listeners did not necessarily make anything more than an indirect connection between Jesus’ own person and the coming kingdom.
That Jesus, the Christ, was already the kingdom of heaven in the flesh as well as the one who proclaimed that it was on the way—an understanding like that had to wait for the Easter faith, when his disciples realized that he had been raised from the dead and that the New Life was in him was in them through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
But the age did not come to an abrupt end. It was transformed by God’s participation in it in through the person of Jesus Christ, just as everything in life continues to be transformed and renewed by God’s participation in it in through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
All life is a gift from God. And images like a grain of mustard seed, a measure of yeast, buried treasure, a priceless pearl, a net full of fish—images like these point to all that is good about God’s gift, all that is good in the life we have been given. And they point to God’s promise to us: that everything good in the life we have been given will be preserved and transformed by the purifying fire, which is life in Christ—New Life in the Spirit.
By our baptism into his death and resurrection, our life in Christ begins—life in the Spirit. We enter into a relationship with God where God is in charge, where what God has promised will happen begins to happen: the preservation and transformation of all that is truly good in our lives.
“God’s dream” is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the kingdom of heaven in a beautifully illustrated book for children, “God’s dream for all of creation.”
When you come right down to it, Jesus’ opening: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” can have as many different endings as there are people willing to utter them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like…”
All you and I need to do is use our imaginations.
How would you end Jesus’ sentence?
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” we could say, and then fill in the blank with the neatest thing we can think of. We wouldn’t begin to exhaust the possibilities, because the kingdom of heaven is that and a lot more—infinitely more than you and I can possibly imagine. But it would be a good beginning. A near perfect dive off the high board, a hole in one, an exquisite geometric proof, life here in St. Stephen’s when things are humming along at their best—that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. Only, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. There are all kinds of places where you can start—and end up.
The kingdom of heaven is like…what? The sky’s the limit!
The sky—and a whole lot more!