Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O’ God that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
The Kingdom of Heaven is like……………………..? Is like what? How would you complete that sentence? What images came to your mind right off the bat? What images might come to you after you’ve thought about it for a bit, I wonder?
Well in today’s Gospel, we come upon Jesus as he is helping his disciples discover and understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like…….and he does this through the use of, no surprise here: parables. In fact, these are called the Kingdom parables. And he says through them that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed, like yeast, like buried treasure, like a searching merchant and like a far flung fishing net. These comparisons must have surprised and confused the disciples!
See, all of those things had bad or negative connotations in Jesus’s time, so saying they were what the Kingdom of Heaven could be compared to would have been pretty odd for the disciples to hear. And, these parables would have been disconcerting to the disciples because each of the objects Jesus referred to in them contained something that was sort of hidden at first sight – something that was a little bit sinister in their substance or through their use.
Look at the mustard seed: a seed so very, very tiny that it usually could not be seen when mixed in with other seeds, hidden in plain sight. It would produce a weed that would grow strong and fast – chocking out and killing the plants it was near. It was pulled out and discarded as soon as it was spotted in a field. (BTW, I have a mustard seed in a pin on my clerical shirt, if you have never seen one so you can take a look at it during coffee hour if you want.) Then there is yeast: In Jesus’ time yeast was very different from what we are familiar with and if not prepared correctly, it would cause not only the bread to spoil but it could kill those who ate what was made from it. It was considered so unclean that the word yeast was often used to convey a meaning of corruption or impurity. Then there is the hidden treasure that someone found and hides in someone else’s field that he then comes back when the time is advantageous and retrieves it through nefarious means – which is a nice way of saying that someone acts like a thief, hiding and then taking loot that is not really his. And the merchant and the pearl? Back in Jesus’ day merchants were definitely not respected; they were considered suspect and non-trustworthy, people who would hide the true value of their wares. And then there were the fishing nets; they themselves were not considered evil or bad, but unwanted fish would be collected in them and hide among the wanted catch, necessitating more work and sorting by the fishermen. All odd, disconcerting comparisons for Jesus to use when describing the Kingdom of Heaven.
But with each case, Jesus goes on to transform the negative, the evil, the non-respected object or action into something else –—- a transformation to something good and positive. The mustard seed is transformed into a place of shelter, a place for birds to rest. Yeast, carefully used, can be transformed from a poison to an agent that will make a feast for many. The actions of the merchant and the thief become a willingness to sacrifice all they have, a willingness to give up everything for that which they considered of great value……..a metaphor of passing through things temporal so as not to lose things eternal…….as we prayed in this morning’s collect.
You know, I often wish Jesus had just come out and said clearly what he meant instead of using parables, or metaphors, since in today’s world at least, they can obfisticate his message. But…..in his time, the people he was talking with would have understood his meaning immediately – they would have known he needed to use parables and stories because he talking in code, as a means of preserving his, and their safety from retribution from the authority of Rome, which was the occupying power. They would have known that he was comparing what being a disciple of Jesus – or a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, looked and behaved like – as opposed to what being a follower of Caesar — or a citizen of the Empire of Rome —- looked and behaved like. He was equating that which was thought of as sinister, to the authority of Rome. And then he was showing how God’s goodness and mercy can transform even that to something good. He was telling them that God’s realm and the realm of Rome were not at all the same and that the real authority, the one to pay attention to was God’s love, not Caesar’s occupation. And at the end of the Gospel he asks them. “Do you understand?”…do you realize you must choose and you must be prepared to help others choose … to whom will you give authority in your life…..God or Rome?
So what of today’s world? I know many of you have heard me say that Deacons are to try to bring the problems, concerns and issues of the world into the church….but I may not say often enough that we are to send the Word, the message of the Gospel, into the world. The reason I place the Gospel book flat on the high altar rather than standing-up, after I, or Martha in my absence, proclaim the Gospel, is to symbolize that The Word of the Lord, has been sent out into the world….., that that message, is then to be carried out by all of us, not just in word but in our actions and through our behaviors.
So what of this Gospel? What will you and I be taking back out into the world from our look today at what Jesus was saying to his disciples….what about this message will walk through the door with you? I know I’m going to be thinking a lot about what the authorities and powers at all levels of our nation are saying and doing. I know I will be wrestling with what authorities in other nations are telling their populations. And I’m going to think hard about the authority in the messages I hear from the institutions I deal with each day and about the messages I send and receive in my family. Is it Caesar’s realm or God’s realm I will find? And then I’m going to continue to explore how my implicit biases (the ones I’m often not even aware of, much less those I know I have even though I fight against them), how they contribute to the structural evil I see, locally and globally – that evil imbedded in our society….the ones I know are not of God’s realm.
And I invite each of you to do the same in your own way – to join me in identifying and intentionally watching – there is something very important about the intentionality of it all. I just returned from about three weeks of being in the home town I grew up in and I was amazed at how easily I found myself slipping back into thoughts and mores I have worked hard over the years to change. I had to pull up and intentionally examine what I was seeing and hearing.
And then after we intentionally examine all of this, what if we don’t like what we hear and see? Can we challenge what we find by asking what it means to prepare to be a disciple first for the realm of God’s heavens? Warren Carter, a New Testament theologian, writes in commenting on this parable, “if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness”. Let me quote that again, “If a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness.” Kind of a scary sentence, but as the Methodist theologian, Gary Feluso-Verdend reminds us, “Helping persons to adjust, or be balanced, to fit into a sick society, is not the work of the Gospel”.
With God’s help may we become even more strongly agents of the transformative power of that which causes that which is bad or evil to become that which is spirit-filled and overflowing with God’s love.
And if we are asked next week to finish the sentence, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like………………” how would we each finish it? Would it be any different from how we may have finished it today?