Monday, July 28, 2014

July 27 Sermon

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Maybe I am wrong about this, but I am assuming that the reason most of us come to church is that we want a chance to see God at work. We want to hear a good word, get some hope for the week, learn something that is going to offer us what one of my favorite theologians says about religion, a sense and taste for the infinite.
And what better place to look than the church?
I would bet good money that if you did a survey of American Christians, or just people for that matter, and said, “Tell me the best place to find God,” they would say, with near unanimity, the church! The church. Of course the church. This is the place we come to worship God and learn from one another and experience God’s grace.
And, my friends, you are in luck! For the scripture lesson today is all about where to find God.
If you have been in worship the last few Sundays, you will notice that we have been dealing with a number of Jesus’s parables, little short stories Jesus tells to get a point across. We talked about the parable of the sower, and the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and we arrive this Sunday at what seems like the parable of all the rest of the parables. The kingdom of heaven is like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large tree, and the yeast that leavened the bread, and treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great price, and a wide fishing net, and it makes you wonder what it must have been like to hear this all at once from Jesus’s own mouth.
The thing is, there are all these parables, one after another, and they don’t seem to have a whole lot to connect them other than the fact that they are parables. Jesus throws a truth bomb at us, all of this wisdom in rapid-fire succession, and we’re left to figure out just what on earth he’s talking about.
Just for instance.  You might be familiar with the parable of the mustard seed.  
The mustard seed is a tiny, tiny seed, not actually the smallest of all of them but small enough for the story, and when you plant it, it grows like a weed because, in fact, it really is a weed, and it ends up being the tallest of all the shrubs, so big, in fact, that you might well call it a tree.
So there’s an easy message there about the Kingdom of God, the way that God works in the world. It may start as small as an infant born in a stable in Bethlehem, but it ends up as big as the tree of life.
Or.  The parable of the women baker, who takes three measures of flour and hides within it a little yeast and waits for it to rise. The kingdom of heaven may start small, but it raises everything around it. A rising tide lifts all boats.
This is all well and good, but parables aren’t little morality tales. They aren’t like Aesop’s fables. If there is a contemporary English word that fits, it is joke. Jesus tells jokes. Now that is an image I can get behind, Jesus as Stand Up Comedian, sitting on a stool with a microphone and a bottle of water, saying things like my favorite joke from the comedian Mitch Hedberg, “How is a stoplight the opposite of a banana? On a stoplight, red means stop, yellow means wait, and green means go, but on a banana, green means wait, yellow means go, and red means where on earth did you get that banana?”
Only Jesus tells jokes, tells parables, that mean something.   They turn our understanding of the world upside down because, of course, that is why Jesus came, to turn things upside down. It is why he says things like the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is why the prophet Isaiah says of him, a little child shall lead them. Jesus turns the world on its head, which is why I get so frustrated at politicians who hold onto a false sense of piety, as if the politically popular thing is always the faithful thing; frequently, not always, but frequently. We’ve seen this in our politics at the border of the United States, and I don’t want to get too far into it because there are complicated politics involved, but there are not complicated Christian perspectives. There is one. Children are the very first in the kingdom of God. Red, yellow, black, white, it does not matter. And if that tweaks you a little bit, good, because this is why Jesus tells parables in the first place.
The parable of the mustard seed isn’t just about how something small grows into something big. That’s the way life woks. It isn’t enough to say oh, look, the seed was small and now it is big. The parable of the mustard seed is about how the smallest seed, the most unexpected seed, has so much potential energy within it that when it sprouts, it really sprouts! It bursts forth towards the sky, and it may be small, but it is powerful!
The parable of the woman baker isn’t just about some small amount of yeast helping the bread to rise.   Three measures of flour and a little yeast, which is what Jesus says she has here, will give you enough bread to feed a hundred people! Can you imagine trying to knead that so much dough! I have to admit to being a little amused imagining this poor woman watching the dough rise and rise and rise until it is so big it is almost unmanageable!   It puts that episode of I Love Lucy with the chocolates and the conveyor belt to shame! This tiny little amount of yeast and this unbelievably huge amount of flour combine to create something bigger than the baker herself! You throw a little yeast into the mix and there’s no telling what is going to come out!
And it is a lovely scene, indeed, a woman with a mixing bowl, and I don’t know what you are imagining here in our modern world, but she doesn’t have the Fleishman’s packets and a Kitchenaid Mixer.  The way she would have collected yeast would have been by allowing an old piece of bread to rot, to mold, to stink, and then using part of that bread to stick in her flour. It’s why just about every other time yeast is mentioned in the Bible, it is talked about in negative terms, which of course it was, because it was gross. What is remarkable is not just that the woman was making so much bread, nor that the yeast was so strong, but that a) something so seemingly disgusting is used as an example for the kingdom of God, and b) that a woman is viewed in positive terms here,    because two thousand years ago, when the story was told and the words were written, it isn’t like we had the egalitarian society we have today. What Jesus is doing is turning things upside down, so that the woman, the one who would have been viewed as little more than property, is the bearer of the kingdom of God which is, in the final analysis, born of smelly, old, rotten, moldy bread. This is not exactly Hallmark material. It is probably not where you thought to look for God.
And yet this is how Jesus operates, how he has us understand the world,  that his unusual mind can come up with the story of somebody who sees a treasure in a field and who without mentioning to the seller that there’s gold in them thar hills, he goes and makes an offer I am sure the seller thought was a bit high for desert property, but at least he’d get it off the market, and the buyer digs the treasure up and keeps it for himself like a dishonest businessman, AND YET JESUS TELLS THIS STORY AS IF IT IS A GOOD THING! It is unexpected behavior, and yet as people who have come to church to catch a glimpse of the divine, it is a helpful word, for while it is good that we are in church, perhaps we ought to do some looking of our own.
The merchant, after all, did not just happen upon the pearl of great price.  He didn’t just sort of stumble on it. He went searching. He spent hours learning the craft, learning the trade, making connections with dealers, traveling all over the world looking for fine pearls. He did not just happen to come upon it. He searched. He looked. And after all that time, what he found was not a string of fine pearls. He found something much more incredible, much more unique. He found one. He found one pearl, just one, and yet quite unexpectedly it was so perfect that he sold everything he had, all of his equipment, his home, everything he had to purchase this one small, perfect pearl. The thing in this story that is unexpected to me is not that he was trained, not that he searched far and wide, not even that he sold everything he had, for when you have been searching so intently for something, you’ll do anything to achieve it. The punchline is that even with all of his training and preparation, at the end of the day, he left with one. There was only one pearl, perfectly round and ivory. He spent all of his time looking for pearls and at the end of the day, he found one.
I want to finish by sharing a recent discovery. Maybe you’ve seen it, but it is new to me. I have been enamored as of late with an ongoing photography series called, “Humans of New York.” A photographer named Brandon Stanton has taken it as his mission to take photos of everyday people in New York City, to get a little bit of their stories. And I am just taken by them, this series of everyday people who share extraordinary insights about life.
Let me share a few of these with you, because it turns out that it is true that God bursts out in the most unexpected of ways.
This man said, "She was 2 lbs 11 ounces when she was born. We named her after Amelia Earhart, in case she needed to fly away."
"I told the truth on my job application about my past drug use, and they sent me a letter saying I didn't meet their standards of integrity."
"I'm doing this internship to make my parents happy. But as soon as I graduate, I'm heading to Bollywood!"
 “The only thing people care about is if you’re working, and if you’re paying your taxes. I worked for the city for six years. During the time that I was working, I was Mr. Matthew Phillips. The moment that I wasn’t able to work anymore, I became a social security number.”
And then there’s this one. I will leave you with this one, because I can’t get it out of my head. Here is what the photographer said:
The woman in the blue coat approached me by the United Nations building yesterday, and said: 'There is an interesting man around the corner that you should photograph. I don't know his name, but everyday he stands directly across from the UN, and says 'God Bless You' to everyone who walks past. I've always sort of viewed him as the conscience of the world.'
'Let's go together,' I said, and she agreed to bring me to where he was standing. When we finally found the man, I asked for his photo, and he cheerfully agreed. But he pointed at a nearby wall:
"Let's take the photo under that scripture," he said.
It is hard to see the scripture on the screen, so let me read it. It is from the prophet Isaiah. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Every single day, this guy stands across from the United Nations and says God Bless You to every person who passes by. I’ll be honest. Most days, this kind of witness seems like a waste of time. The world is so broken, the agents of violence are so powerful, I just don’t know why you’d bother. But some days, I’m so moved by the witness of someone who would stand up against something so powerful as the governments of the world, that I’m almost moved to tears.

This is what we are after, isn’t it? A sense and taste for the divine? And if you found it, wouldn’t you do anything to hang onto it? Wouldn’t you give your very life to it? Dear God, let it be.

No comments:

Post a Comment