Saturday, July 26, 2008

11 Pentecost

July 27, 2008
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Grand Forks, ND

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

For those of you who have been attending church regularly these last few weeks are no doubt groaning quietly to yourselves this morning as you hear the Gospel reading. Oh no, you’re probably thinking to yourself. More a parables from Jesus!

Some of us really enjoy the parables. But, let’s face it, most people feel a certain level of frustration when they come across them.

After all, we, as a society, aren’t comfortable with such things. Yes, we love stories. We love to hear a good story that really captures our imagination—a story we can retell to others. But, for the most part, we like them for purely entertainment reasons. We like stories that are straightforward. We don’t want to think too deeply about these issues. We want something simple and clear.

As some of you know, I am a teacher. I teach theology at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus. One of the areas I always cover in my theology classes are the parables. Recently, when I asked the students to read several of the parables before we discussed them, one of the students was quite vocal about his frustration over them.

“Why couldn’t Jesus just tell us what he was thinking?” this student asked. “Why did he have to tell us these difficult riddles that don’t have anything to do with us?”

Of course, the gist of this is that this student missed the point completely by that very statement. The fact is, when we start talking about God and God’s work among us, we are dealing with issues that are never simple and clear. To put it bluntly, there is no simple and clear way to convey the truth of the Gospel. That is why Jesus spoke in Parables.

The word parable comes from the word “parabola,” which can be defined as “comparison” or “reflection.” “Relationship” is probably the better definition of the word. When we look at Jesus’ parables with that definition—reflection, comparison, relationship—they start to make even more sense to us. These stories Jesus told then—and which we hear now—are all about comparison. The Kingdom of God—which is difficult for us to wrap our minds around—are we talking about heaven, some otherworldly place? or are we talking about the kingdom of God in our midst?—is explained in a way those first hearers could understand.

Jesus spoke in parables simply because the people he was speaking to would not have understood any type deep theological explanations. Jesus used the images they would have known. When he talked that day of a mustard seed and what it grows into, when he talks of yeast being mixed into dough, when he speaks of a treasure hidden in a field or of a merchant looking for fine pearls, those people understood these images. They could actually wrap their minds around the fact that something as massive as a bush of mustard can come from such a small seed. They understood that something as simple as a small amount of yeast worked into dough will make something large and substantial.

Yes, they could say, even with the smallest amount of faith in our lives, glorious thing can happen. That is the message they were able to take away from Jesus that day. So, these parables worked for those people who were listening to Jesus, but—we need to ask ourselves—does it work for us, here and now?

Does this comparison of the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed make sense to us? Do we fully appreciate the image of treasure hidden in a field or merchants looking for the finest pearls?

First of all, we need to establish what is the kingdom of God? Is it that place that is awaiting us in the next world? Is it heaven? Is it the place we will go to when we die? Or is it something right here, right now. Certainly, Jesus believed it was something we could actually experience here and now. Or, at least, we experience a glimpse of it here and now. Over and over again, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God can be found within each of us. We carry inside us the capability to bring God’s kingdom into being. We do it through what we do and what we say. We do it by letting our faith grow from the tiniest kernel into a vibrant, fragrant bush. We can bring the kingdom about when we strive to do good, to act justly, to bring God into the world in some small way. The kingdom of God is here—alive and present among us—when we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Yes, the mustard seed represents our faith, but it also represents in some way, those small actions we make to further the Kingdom. Those little things we do in our lives will make all the difference. Don’t ever think they won’t. Even the smallest action on our part can bring forth the kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of those we know. But those small actions—those little seeds that we sow in our lives—can also bring about not only God’s kingdom but the exact opposite of God’s Kingdom. Our smallest bad actions, can destroy the kingdom in our midst and drive us further away from God and each other.

Clergy deal with this all the time. We clergy have to be very careful about those small actions. I cannot tell you how many times I hear stories about clergy who said one thing wrong and it destroyed a person’s faith. I’m sure almost everyone here this morning has either experienced clergy like this first hand or has known someone close who has. Now, possibly these remarks by clergy were innocent comments. There may have been no bad intention involved. But one wrong comment—one wrong action—a cold shoulder or an exhausted roll of the eyes—the fact that a priest or deacon did not visit us when were in the hospital or said something that we took the wrong way—is all it takes when a person is in need to turn that person once and for all away from the church and from God.

My mother is a prime example of one of these people. My mother was active in her church for years. But one day, the pastor made plans to have a package delivered to my mother’s home. The package never came—it simply got lost in the mail. When the package never arrived, the pastor jokingly made a comment to the effect that my mother probably still had it at home. I know for a fact that the pastor never meant to accuse my mother of “stealing” the package. My mother, however, took his comment to heart as an accusation and, as a result, she couldn’t bring herself to go to church for a very long time.

That mustard seed all of a sudden takes on a whole other meaning in a case like this. What grows from a small seed like this is a flowering tree of hurt and despair and anger and bitterness. So, it is true. Those seeds we sow do make a huge difference in the world. We get to make the choice. We can sow seeds of goodness and graciousness—seeds of the Gospel. We can sow the seeds of God’s kingdom. Or we can sow the seeds of discontent. We can, through our actions, sow the weeds and thistles that will kill off the harvest. We forget about how important the small things in life are—and more importantly we forget how important the small things in life are to God. God does take notice of the small things.

There a wonderful poem that the poet Daniel Ladinsky translated from the Indian poet Kabir:

What
kind of God would [God] be
if [God] did not count the blinks
of your
eyes

and is in absolute awe of their movements?

What a God—what a God we
have.

We have often heard the term “the devil is in the details.” But I can’t help but believe that it is truly God who is in the details. God works just as mightily through the small things of life as through the large. This is what Jesus is telling us in the parable of the mustard seed. This is what he is saying when he talks about a small amount of yeast worked into dough. Take notice of the small things. It is there you will find your faith—it is there you will find God. And when you do, it will be like that person who has bought the land on which he knows a treasure has been buried. When you do, you will feel like the merchant who searching for the perfect pearl, finds it. It is in those places that God’s kingdom flourishes in our lives.

So, be mindful of those smallest seeds you sow in your life. Remind yourself that sometimes what they produce can either be a wonderful and glorious tree or a painful, hurtful weed. Sow God’s love from the smallest ounce of faith. Further the kingdom of God’s love in whatever seemingly small way you can and let it flower and flourish and become a great treasure in your life before God.

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