9 Pentecost, Proper 12 – July 30, 2023
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Given a choice most of us would probably prefer a “what you see is what you get” kind of life and world. We want to look at the world and know what is coming and what will be asked of us. We want to know that if we work hard and do the right thing we will get the result we expect and think we deserve. We don’t want surprises or hidden agendas. We prefer the stability, order, predictability, and control that a “what you see is what you get” kind of world offers. It makes life easier and more manageable. Or at least that’s what we hope and want to believe.
The problem is that life doesn’t always work that way. Nor is that, Jesus says, how the kingdom of heaven works. Sometimes real life, kingdom life, is like a net dragged through the sea. It pulls up both the good and the bad. Other times it is like a field that you see day after day. It’s always there. Not much changes. It’s just an ordinary field like any other field except that it is not. Deep within that ordinary dirt is unseen treasure waiting to be discovered.
Most of us have lived long enough to know that, despite our desires and hopes, our planning and hard work, we do not always get what we want. The good and the bad, the dirt and the treasure, are never far from each other. Nothing is as it seems. What you see is not always what you get.
So, Jesus tell us a string of parables this morning. What do a mustard seed, yeast, buried treasure, a pearl, and a net full of fish have in common? It seems the image of concealment is common. Hidden and unseen within the bread lies the source of its inevitable transformation. As with the mustard seed, a small amount of yeast produces dramatic, transformational change. If it is not evident at first, the change is nevertheless coming. The parable intimates that the world is being re-made, God’s reign at work, even when it doesn’t appear to be so.
God’s reign is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone finds and then hides again so as to lay claim to the parcel of land and then also the treasure. The story’s protagonist does something radical and extreme. He sells everything to take the risk of possessing a treasure he never expected to find. Can it be that the reigning presence of God in the world is like that? Is it worth everything? The parable challenges us to embrace whole-hearted commitment to this cause. As with the parable about the pearl, the question posed is not an easy one: Are you all in? Where does your ultimate concern lie?
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 his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer tells a story about the time he was offered the presidency of a small educational institution. He wanted the job, and thought that he should take it. But given his Quaker tradition, he assembled a “clearness committee” of a half-dozen trusted friends. Their job wasn’t to give him advice, but to ask honest, open-ended questions so that Palmer could discern his vocational call for himself.
Halfway through this three-hour meeting, a friend asked Palmer why he wanted the job. What would he like most about being president? Palmer mentioned several things he would not enjoy, like wearing a tie, at which his friend pointed out that he wasn’t answering the question.
Palmer paused, thought a bit, then “gave an answer that appalled even me as I spoke it: ‘Well,’ I said, in the smallest voice I possess, ‘I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word ‘president’ under it.'”
He concludes: “I was sitting with seasoned Quakers who knew that though my answer was laughable, my mortal soul was clearly at stake! They did not laugh at all but went into a long and serious silence — a silence in which I could only sweat and inwardly groan. Finally, my questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked all of us up — and cracked me open: ‘Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?'”
“By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life.” The clearness committee had made things clear, and Palmer withdrew his name from the search.
Palmer isn’t alone, maybe just more honest than many of us, and maybe more in touch with his divided self. The good and the bad.
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 us, 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.
Charles Hoffacker writes: 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!
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.
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. Amen.