Sunday, July 27, 2014

Seedy Business: MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-49a

This morning's Gospel lesson is MATTHEW13:31-33, 44-49a. We've been spending some time in the parables in this Gospel and this is a particularly exciting selection of parables. I hope you find them as wonderful as I do! As usual, the manuscript can be found after the break.

The Kingdom of Heaven!!! What an exciting idea! The people wanted to know more about it and rightly so. Everyone seems to have slightly differing opinions on what The Kingdom of God is like, but I think most people would agree that it must be something pretty spectacular.
            When Jesus began telling the people what the Kingdom of God is like. . . I’ll bet they were all filling in with their minds before he finished.
            The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . . a palace! A wonderful giant palace with giant, ornate rooms and courtyards and swimming pools!
            The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . . the Garden of Eden! A beautiful garden full of fruit and flowers and friendly cuddly animals!
            The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . . a city! A heavenly city with streets paved with gold and angels lining the streets and filling the air with song!
            And then Jesus finished his sentence. The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . . a mustard seed. A plain old stupid mustard seed that got accidentally tossed in with the other seeds because it’s so tiny the farmer didn’t notice it.
Jesus was clearly not the sort of Messiah the disciples had been raised to believe was coming to save them. They expected someone to come in with a flash and a bang to free the Hebrew people from the Roman rule and here they have a guy talking about plants. Last week, it was weeds. This week. . . Jesus is talking about seeds and bread baking and digging around in fields. The stories he tells seem to be so ordinary – no flashy talking animals like Aesop. His parables have no powerful Roman gods. He’s not even talking about kings or royalty.
            Jesus is talking about things that aren’t really seen. They are hidden. The mustard seed is so tiny that the farmer sows it without even meaning to. The leaven – possibly yeast, but probably more like a sourdough starter – is mixed into the dough and isn’t seen. The treasure – hidden. The pearl – discovered after a great search. The fish – underwater. These are plain old, ordinary and unseen things. And these are the things that the Messiah has chosen to focus on.
            Jesus didn’t tell the followers what the Kingdom of God looks like in these parables. He didn’t describe some powerful kingdom that the people expected to hear about. They knew what a powerful kingdom looked like – they had been conquered time and time again by powerful earthly kingdoms. The exciting part wasn’t that God had a powerful kingdom, it was that God’s Kingdom acted like no other Kingdom they knew. It acted in ways that were better seen in the ordinary every day things around them.
Jesus reminds those hearing these parables that in the things we don’t see because they are small or unseen or ordinary, there are wonders. Jesus says, “You don’t have to look very far to see the kingdom of God – it’s reflected everywhere in the things around you! It’s really closer than you think!”
            One of my commentaries says that “Jesus transforms human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand.[1]The Kingdom of Heaven is a priceless pearl, but it’s as close as the next bush or loaf of bread. Jesus has no interest in frightening people into submission to the Kingdom of God, rather he looks to invite them in. “It’s right here in front of you,” he says, “come and see.” He offers the comforting word that the Kingdom of God isn’t a far reach away.
            We like flash and bang. I think that’s a universal human trait that we’re easily distracted by the unusual, the exciting, the extraordinary. There is a reason that we don’t see headlines like, “Local grass grows green this year” or “Most of the nation ate lunch today.” Those are just things that happen around us. We want to hear about the exceptions. It’s easier to find wonder in the things we don’t see every day than it is to find wonder in our own backyards. And it’s easier to believe that big change will come about from big exciting things.
            I spent a great deal of time in churches and monasteries this summer. I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened. Before going to Scotland, I was really excited about getting to go to Iona. I talked a little bit about Iona last week. I thought, if ever I’m going to have a major spiritual experience this summer, it’ll be on the holy island of Iona for sure. But here’s the thing about Iona: as beautiful as it was and as neat as it was to see the ancient abbey and explore the ruins of the nunnery. . . it was crowded. We were only able to be there for a few hours and because it takes two ferries and a bus to get there from where we were staying, it was the same few hours that all the other tourists were there too.
            I had no major spiritual moment on Iona.
            “That’s OK.” I told myself. “Tim and I are going to Istanbul! I’m going to see the Hagia Sophia! That’s as old as Iona! Surely that’s where I’ll have a grand moment with God this summer!
            But here’s the thing about the Hagia Sophia – it’s not a church anymore. A very long time ago it was converted to a mosque. And then a few decades ago, it was converted into a museum. Much like Iona, it was packed with tourists. It was an incredible building and I have hundreds of pictures of it to show you if you have a few hours to spare, but there was no grand spiritual moment in the Hagia Sophia.
            About a week after touring Istanbul, Tim and I found ourselves in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.  This is in central Turkey and it’s known for wild rock formations that come up out of the ground and look like mushrooms. There are crazy, rocky canyons filled with lush valleys. In the middle of the rock formations – which they call “fairy chimneys” – and in the sides of the canyon walls, the people have since Neolithic times carved out homes. When the early Greek Christian Fathers went to the desert, this is where they went and they did like the people before them did – they carved their monasteries and churches out of the rock. We visited dozens of these ancient cave churches while we were there and while some of them still had very ornate paintings still visible in the walls, some were very plain and all were relatively small. They were just rooms carved into rocks and caves. These were never grand cathedrals – they were simple little churches.
            Most of the churches had other tourists in them. Some were downright crowded with people packing in to see the amazing frescoes and churches built by famous Christians. They were pretty neat, but like Iona and the Hagia Sophia, they didn’t feel very real. They were another museum exhibit. But after a day of going to the well known and well preserved churches, we made a discovery. There are many rock churches there that very few people bother visiting. There are so many dozens of these places in the area, that many of them go completely unnoticed.
There was one in particular – I remember that it was called the “deer church” because on the walls, a painting that included a deer could still be faintly seen. There was nobody else there. It wasn’t a museum with a guard yelling at us for taking pictures or an attendant asking us for 5 lira per person to get in. It was just a simple little church in the side of a rock wall off the beaten path. Nobody paid any attention to it.
When we walked into the Deer Church, I was hit in the side of the head by that moment I’d expected on Iona and in the Hagia Sophia. Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors in the faith carved this church into the rocks with their bare hands so that they would have a place to worship. I’m a singer, so one of the first things I thought was, “There’s no one around but Tim. I think I’ll try out the acoustics in here.” So I sang the first thing that came into my head – the doxology. As I listened to the words dancing through the domes and tunnels of that little rock sanctuary, it was earth-shaking. I’ve sung the doxology thousands of times in my life but this was different. I was overwhelmed by the presence of hundreds of years of corporate worship in that small stone room. We were both stunned into silence and just sat in that tiny church for a half hour or more – completely speechless.
I can’t explain it other than to say that God was there. It was a plain little church tucked away in the rocks. But it was more powerful than communion at the High Kirk of Edinburgh or afternoon prayers in the Iona Abbey. It spoke more loudly than the Hagia Sophia or any of the well preserved rock churches in the national open air museum.
That little church that was hidden away in a short paragraph in the guidebook was a treasure. It was a reflection of the Kingdom of God.
These parables sound very familiar and cozy to many people because we hear them often, but here is something wild and wonderful about this passage. We can reflect back on the Psalm from this morning which starts off, “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”
Bread is so ordinary and yet so unpredictable. The smallest change in the amount of yeast, the temperature of the oven, or even the moisture in the air when the dough is raising can completely change how the bread turns out. A mustard bush isn’t organized or neat. It’s an out and out plant explosion! One moment it’s a teensy little seed and before you know it. . . it’s an enormous bush bug enough for birds to nest in!
These parables feel so familiar because we have heard them over and over so many times with explanations of their meaning, but don’t let that make them irrelevant or less special. That’s exactly why they are so exciting! It’s not often we find ourselves among mustard bushes or baking hundreds of loaves of bread (three measures of flour is about three barrels of bread dough). I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been digging in any fields recently, let alone finding treasure in it. So what are some of the hidden wonders we can look at today as everyday reminders of the nearness of God’s kingdom?
There’s an old song I almost chose for this morning. “It only takes a spark. . . to get a fire going. . .” But looking at this passage more, it’s even deeper than something small becoming something big. It’s about noticing the un-noticed and finding the hidden. Sure, you can’t see the yeast in the bread dough, but take a good hard think about how weird it is that bread rises! You might not notice that tiny little seed, but look at the great birdie-paradise it becomes! That plain old field might just have buried treasure!
The Kingdom of Heaven is unexpected and closer than we think! It’s right within our reach – right here where we least expect it.
Go forth into the world as seeds and yeast – both reflecting and seeking the kingdom of God in the world around you.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord be kind and gracious to you.
The Lord turn his face upon you and give you peace.

[1] Arnold, T. J. (2011). Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 3, p. 286). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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