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."
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 will it 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."
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
I was meeting with the chaplain at the hospital near where Leah and I live. One of the first people I met at Shelby Presbyterian Church had gotten the impression that I wanted to be a chaplain and so set up a meeting for me with the the head of the pastoral/spiritual care unit at Cleveland hospital. It was a good meeting, we shared lunch. Towards the end of the conversation, the chaplain asked me what single phrase I would choose to describe the good news God has given me to tell through my ministry. There's a lot of good news to tell! So much that it took four gospels to describe just some of the aspects of who this Jesus character is! No one person could carry the whole of the good news through their ministry, except of course Jesus. Spoiler alert: I'm not Jesus. So Chaplain Len Byers question has stuck with me as a way of focusing myself, not trying vainly to give the whole truth, which is so much bigger than me, but just pointing to the piece of it I have been given to tell.
God intervenes in this world.
Jesus taught in parables, we've all grown up hearing them, and the last three weeks worth of gospel readings were from the same chapter, and all of them are parables. "[These parables] are not simple illustrations but...enigmatic utterances teasing the mind into reflection and response." They're a window that allows us to see how God is at work, but only dimly, because they can only describe what the kingdom of heaven is like, they can't paint an unambiguous portrait that encompasses the whole of God's kingdom. But these parables invite us to be curious about how God is at work in the world. They provide narratives into which we can insert ourselves, but it's not always clear what God the Son is telling us about God the Father through these stories. When Jesus asks the disciples, at the end of our reading this morning, "Have you understood all this?" I picture them awkwardly shuffling their feet in the sand before giving their teacher the answer they think he wants. We can imagine them wondering, maybe it'll make more sense once I hear the next thing. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't get it. Maybe he'll be disappointed in me if I say no. So they say "Yes?"
But I don't believe them. I'm highly suspicious of anyone who claims that they totally understand everything Jesus said. The truth is not dependent on our understanding or knowledge, we're just people after all. But when knowledge fails, we still have faith, which guides us forward in spite of our limited understanding.
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand.
In fact, we often understand very little of the world around us. One of the oldest questions that religions all over the world have had to address is "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
One of the solutions to this issue is to write off this world as inherently sinful, and that those of us who are saved will ascend to heaven where there will be no more suffering. I'm sure we've all heard celebrations of "When I get to heaven, something will no longer be a problem." There's even a taste of it in our scripture passage, "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 but threw out the bad. So will it be at the end of the age..." I think that kind of theology can be a great comfort to people at certain points in our lives, but when we get stuck in that mindset, it can train us to only look to the future for God's activity. One day God will do this... as though God is distant, or sleeping, and not active in the world all around us.
This mindset may be especially appealing in our success, when we can tell ourselves that our victories are out of our own ability and goodness, rather than free gifts from the God of all creation.
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future.
I've always pictured the parable that begins our passage this morning through the classic Sunday School image of a tiny seed that grows over time into a mighty tree. Whenever someone brought up the image of a mighty tree, I always pictured the 200 year old oak that sits on the front lawn at my home church in Morganton, so big that it takes several people holding hands to wrap their arms around it, with long branches and broad leaves. We've got one beside our church. Isn't it amazing that such a small seed can grow into such a mighty tree!
But that image doesn't take into account what a mustard plant actually is. "Jesus probably has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty Political Kingdom is like a great and strong tree." Growing up in temperate climates and deciduous forests, our image of a great tree brings oaks and hardwoods to mind, those are noble trees. But a mustard plant is a fast-growing weed, sure its seeds can be used to make spices, but in the arid ground of first century Palestine, growing plants for flavor was a waste of garden space. Imagine Jesus standing in the shade beneath a mighty tree, perhaps one of the cedars mentioned so often in the Old Testament in connection with Israel's monarchy, and describing the greatness of the kingdom of heaven as being like... kudzu.
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers.
Jesus is a master of reversing our expectations. We expect a mighty tree, he gives us an invasive weed. We expect inspiring speeches, he gives us veiled stories. "He put before them another parable." We expect a conquering king driving the occupying Romans out of the Holy Land, he gives us a poor traveling rabbi. We expect a great and strong tree, he gives us a mustard plant,"it 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." It's a wild and invasive plant, it's tiny seeds would get mixed in with the seeds a farmer would plant in his or her field, and the farmer would never know something different was coming until the fast-growing mustard would appear in the midst of his carefully cultivated crops.
So too the kingdom of God tends to mess with our carefully cultivated ideas. I think sometimes God likes to remind us exactly who is in charge around here. In the words of one writer, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." We try to put up barriers to God so that we can maintain the illusion of control over our world instead of relying on the faith of one who finds a "treasure hidden in a field... then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."
These parables give a picture of the abundance and invasiveness of God's kingdom, not as a far-off future, some utopia for which Christians can hope. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God is at hand, not on the way. The kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world and we get to watch as it happens. As followers of Jesus Christ, we even get to participate, as God works through us in the world, showing that God does not always wait for an invitation, but seeks out those who are in need. So too the church seeks ways to gratefully live in faith.
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God.
Someone told me recently about a preacher who confessed that many of his prayers were variations on "God, I have a problem, and here's how I need you to fix it..." But we don't get to choose the solutions. Sometimes we get the ones we pray for, the one's that we think fit our plan the best. Other times we get a mustard plant in the middle of our wheat field. It's never what we would have chosen in our own narrow view of our needs, but that's how the kingdom of heaven works. It pops up where we do not expect, and will take over our carefully cultivated plans in a hurry.
We can try and hold on to our own interpretation, and it is faithful to try and discern whether God is invading or if something else is trying to pull us off course, but it's important to remember what God has already done in our lives, to be reminded of who it is we serve, and to help us discover what God is doing in our midst. It will be surprising and sometimes frightening, because it's out of our hands. But we're in God's hands, and though it's not our control, it's even more comforting.
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world.
So we're not in control, but we do have faith in the Almighty God, whose kingdom is already present among us, breaking into our daily routines that surprise us, and comfort us at the same time. Perhaps, when we learn to watch for God's activity among us, we can put aside some of our fears and trust God to carry us not just at the end of the age, but right now. Our hope is in the future God has promised us. Our comfort is in the mighty works God has done in the past, recorded in scripture and remembered in the stories we tell from our own lives.
But we have the opportunity to sing praises to the God who is doing marvelous things. So our response is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, because he's not content to let us alone, but claims dominion over all creation, from the earth, all stars, and planets rushing through space to the daughters and sons at prayer here in this small-to-medium sized church in a little town called Lowell. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it 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."
I wonder how God has intervened in our lives?
I wonder how we can watch for the kingdom of heaven present among us right now?
God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world, but we are rescued and reformed by God's invasive maneuvers.
I wonder what God's invasive maneuvers will be in the life of this group of people?
Let's find out.