Pentecost VIII – Proper 12 – July 30, 2017
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Warning! Good News Ahead
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
It was a long day of storytelling for Jesus… In this string of parables, that we began hearing two week ago, started with the parable of the sower. The next story was the parable of the wheat and the weeds that we heard last week… Both of those stories might have special meaning to folks who work the soil, scatter seeds, and toil in the fields to tend crops, amidst the many challenges that face farmers, all in hopes of reaping good harvest.
Today, Jesus seems to be on somewhat of a parable binge. Today we hear six brief stories, about ordinary people, stories that are offered at a fast and furious pace… stories that might especially catch the imagination of bakers, or fishermen, or merchants… though the parables offer those rich, multilayered messages for all listeners. The kingdom of heaven is like…. the smallest of seeds used for planting… seeds so tiny that that they quickly disappear into the earth. Yet, surprisingly, these wisps of seed have a life force… so great… that they grow with the tenacity of weeds becoming sturdy and substantial plants… the largest of shrubs, tree-like in their stature, a welcome place for birds to build their nests and raise their young. In God’s realm, we are called to see the potential that is seeking to be grow and thrive… potential that is contained within even within the most humble of beginnings.
Then there is the story of a woman baking bread. This is no ordinary kitchen scene. The woman is not adding yeast that comes in neat tidy packets as we know yeast today. In Jesus’ time the leaven that the baker put, or rather, “hid” in the three measures of flour… was actually a substance of rotting or moldy bread. The notion of sour dough starter comes to mind but the suggestion, in the text, is that this leavening agent is more of a negative or troubling symbol. The connotation is that the leavening is a corruptible substance… In fact, in Jesus’ time, and in kosher kitchens in our day, the challenge is to eliminate every trace of leavening in a kitchen. Yet in Jesus’ story, this actively rotting substance, surprisingly, does not taint or destroy the bread. The woman mixes in the leaven… that full disappears and is incorporated into three measures of wheat… three measures that produces enough bread to feed 100 people. From the addition of this strange substance… inserted and hidden by the baker, the entire batch of ordinary dough is transformed in bountiful ways… the kingdom of God is like this, says Jesus… God’s work is seemingly strange at times…. God is at work in small and hidden ways seeking growth, fruitfulness and abundance… so faithful ones… expect the unexpected!
Clearly, there isn’t one clear-cut definition of the kingdom of heaven. We are given glimpses, mere brush strokes of a picture of God’s reign that is larger than our capacity to see the big picture in its totality, but a picture that we are, nonetheless, invited to enter into as best we can. Clearly, the Kingdom is not a geographic location that can be identified with compass or map. What we learn from Jesus’ parables is that God’s is at work in the world, and in us, in surprising and in unexpected ways … and that God’s work incorporates elements of growth, hiddenness and great value. To say that we have a grasp on God’s dream for us and for creation is to forget that we can only get hints, glimpses, pieces of a large picture that, in its totality, is beyond our limited, human capacity to comprehend. When Jesus finishes telling the rapid fire string of stories he asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” They answer: “Sure. Yup. Got it.”
The kingdom of heaven… is like a treasure that has been buried, hidden in a field for a very long time. A passer-by stumbles upon the hidden treasure… he is so surprised and delighted by his discovery… he is so changed by the experience, that his life changes course. With seeming abandon the man decides that everything that he has possessed, up until this time, has little meaning compared to this new treasure. This new discovery is so precious that, without hesitation, the man sells everything he owns so that he may purchase the whole field… that the precious treasure may be his for all time. All the man needs, all that he desires… is this great treasure… and this, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like… all else pales in comparison.
As it was for the merchant who found the one great pearl that made all the others pale in comparison. The find, this new treasure… captured the merchant’s heart inspiring him to change course, sell all that he had, because this discovery, this find, was more precious than anything else. This, says, Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like. God’s work in us seeks to disrupt our lives in the best of ways…. changing us, shifting our priorities… and it comes with a message of warning: Beware! the results of God’s working in us may result in a blessed urge to take risks, and a willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of our life in Christ. The delight and joy we know in this discovery of God’s ever-present, ever-loving call to us… changes everything! It changes the world. Have you understood all this? …asks Jesus…
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind: when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets and threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This view of the kingdom seems a bit more ominous. There is a separating out, a culling. It will be evident that the health of those who have not lived into God’s love, and yielded to God’s desires, will not cause them to thrive as have the rest.. and they will know it. This will happen at “the end of the age” which, rather than an image of a final endpoint or termination, can be interpreted as the “fulfillment of the age.” The image is more about “arriving” in the realm of fulfillment and total fruition of God’s reign on earth.
Be clear about this… over and over Jesus tells the disciples… Jesus tells us… about the reign of God that is not simply an abstract thought or idea about an idyllic future that is beyond our lives and outside of this present moment. The kingdom of heaven, that Jesus teaches about, is an experience seeking to do its work in us… and in our world… right here and right now… in ways that may seem hidden and mysterious. God is seeking to grow us in the ways of kindness, caring and peacemaking. The kingdom is seeking to make itself known by working in us… in surprising ways… that may well end up changing our perspectives and priorities. The experience of God working in us has the power and potential to shift the course of our lives, and our world, bringing new joy and new strength to rise above difficult circumstances and meet the challenges that are before us. Beware! Have you understood this?
WARNING! God’s creative and redemptive work is powerful! By encountering, experiencing, and getting a taste of the kingdom you may be inspired to do “crazy, counter-cultural things” like offering your gifts of time and treasure to others in acts of radical sharing, or of finding new clarity and strength in standing up for the bullied and disenfranchised… or you may realize the awesome power of witnessing with one’s life through actions… and in words… at school, in the workplace, or wherever you… wherever we… may find ourselves…
WARNING! In Christ’s love you may know the gift ever-greater calm and resolve to be peacemakers amidst violence… of all kinds… that seeks to tear town and destroy. Warning! The gift and reality of God’s blessed, nagging urge to come to life is with us right here, right now. The kingdom of heaven is coming… and it in our midst. To quote the New Testament scholar Dale Allison, “Jesus sets out, in word and deed, to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He seeks to shift our attention, to alter our perception, to expand our awareness, to change our behavior.” Jesus declares that upheaval is afoot. Can you feel it?
I would like to end with a prayer:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen
 Dale Allison, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=107