8 Pentecost, Proper 12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Our gospel this morning presents us with five short parables about the kingdom of heaven: the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the priceless pearl and the net.
Of interest in these parables, are the diverse socioeconomic settings represented there: a sower of seed, a woman baking bread, a fortune seeker, a merchant, a commercial fisherman.
They reflect activities easily recognized in the world of the Gospel and also today, each individual going about their work. The tasks are ordinary, they’re everyday tasks which invite us to see signs of the kingdom of heaven in our day-to-day lives; to recognize that the kingdom is emerging in our very midst.
But, you may say….let’s recap 2020 so far…. COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, widespread protests demanding racial justice, impeachment, a record-breaking economy followed by a rapid, self-imposed shutdown, widespread job loss, backlogged medical procedures, swarming locusts on the African continent, democracy under threat in Hong Kong, an ongoing crisis in Syria, brush fires in Australia … and you know that’s not all, we could keep on going. We can say, without risk of overstatement, that 2020 has been a meat grinder. And so, is there any gift to find in this hellscape? Where is God in this picture?
Well, as David Lose shares, there is something sneaky about the parables we are reading this week. And he means that quite literally – in each parable, there seems to be some element of surprise or stealth. A quick overview to explain:
While most of us grew up reading the parable of the mustard seed somewhat simplistically – “big things often have small beginnings” – the truth is that mustard was a weed, uncontrollable, invasive, undesirable.
And so different from our cultural associations, leaven in the biblical world was a sign of impurity, and kneading it into the flour irreparably tainted the loaves.
Rushing out to buy a field because you know it’s worth far more than the seller is aware, while perhaps shrewd, could also be considered dubious, if not dishonest.
There is a surprising joyfulness in the one who sells all to buy a precious pearl, though few around that buyer would likely have understood his actions.
This quick succession of provocative parables suggests two things: First, the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom is threatening before it is comforting, because it invites no half measures. The Gospel makes a claim on your whole life, not just part. It invades your whole world and reality and can’t be contained only to your spiritual, Sunday self. Not only that, but it taints the reality we’ve grown to accept, challenges the views we’ve lived by, and again and again calls into question assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.
In this very difficult, stressful time that we are experiencing, we may just be called to “bounce forward”, a term used by a colleague and therapist, Wally Fletcher. We may be called to “bounce forward”, and probably not bounce back. What does that mean? Well, our gospel is calling us to challenge the views we’ve always lived by, and calls into question assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.
“That discomfort that you’re feeling is grief”. This is the title of an article being circulated by an editor from the Harvard Business Review which captures an interview with grief expert David Kessler.
In it he talks about anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. And we are living in uncertain times, for sure. The article also talks about a new stage of grief called “meaning” or “meaning making”.
Let’s go back to our gospel again…Jesus never said things exactly the way His listeners – or we – thought, or think He should. Jesus, it seems, always compares the Kingdom of heaven to things we don’t expect. Just like the rest of Jesus’ message, the comparisons to the Kingdom are meant to make us scratch our heads and say, “I’d never thought of it that way.” So, when Jesus tells his listeners, the Kingdom you search for is not at all what you think it will be, perhaps Jesus is reminding all of us that God does not see things as we see them.
So, like the parable of the mustard seed, the leaven in the bread is about an unexpected, almost upside down description of the Kingdom, not as something that spoils the end product (as would have been expected), but something that makes the end product grow and become an amazingly abundant gift.
Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It’s not just flour any more. The yeast is in the dough, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye. As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There’s no way to stop it! The movement from mystery to manifestation: Jesus presents this to us as the pulse of the kingdom of heaven. Here is how God’s sovereignty becomes apparent: it resembles the strange transformation that turns flour into dough.
We get to watch the baker woman at work. We’re invited to look at this process and see it for what it’s worth. But if we’re to get a glimpse of the kingdom, if we’re to look down to the center of this parable, then two things are asked of us: we must be patient, and we must exercise discernment.
Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we’re patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. The baker woman is at work with our life, our circumstances, and the people around us. Nothing is outside this lump of dough.
Life is something other than a pile of flour and a bit of yeast. Life is an ungainly, promising mass of dough, on its way to becoming abundant bread. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom is present everywhere, and everywhere it becomes manifest for those with eyes to see.
If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. That kingdom is at work, just as yeast is active in the dough. And as yeast is invisible and known by its effects, so the kingdom is hidden, concealed, buried deep in ordinary circumstances, yet known by its effects.
Look at your life in the light of grace. Something is there for you to find–whether you feel happy or sad, whether your life seems successful or disastrous, whether you call yourself a winner or a loser. That something is the activity of the kingdom, yeast bubbling away in your corner of the lump.
And when you find the kingdom among the realities of your life, nothing prevents you from finding this same kingdom, present as well, in the circumstances that surround you, in the lives of other people, and everywhere you choose to look. (The Rev. Charles Hoffacker).
Faith is about seeing – seeing something others do not, seeing something that the world does not acknowledge and perhaps does not want you to see.
“The kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus says many times. Among us, and meant to be uncovered, to become visible, to offer sustenance and grace for the life of the world. Like bread. Trees. Pearls. Treasure born of what is old and what is new.
Perhaps we can strive to “bounce forward” to a healthier and more adaptive new normal than the one we are leaving behind. How have things changed in ways that make it unlikely and even undesirable to simply ‘bounce back?’ and what might ‘bouncing forward’ look like instead?
The great Creation story is inviting us to join in writing the next chapter in the forever unfolding of God’s love. Trust in God. Jesus says to us all “I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.” Amen.