Sunday, July 27, 2014

27 July 2014 -- Proper 12

Proper 12 / 7 Pentecost  — 27 July 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

RCL1:  Genesis 29:15-28  |  Psalm 128  |  Romans 8:26-39  |  Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

(I love that line in the first reading, “When morning came, it was Leah!”  I wrote  a sermon about that that I kind of like!  Unfortunately, I have already preached it to you three years ago!)

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…like yeast…like treasure…like a merchant…like a net…”

When you hear the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” what pops up in your mind?  Or “the kingdom of God”?  (The phrases have the same meaning.)

In recent years I think we’ve gotten a little more aware of what Jesus means, and doesn’t mean, when he talks about the kingdom of God (which he does all the time – that, after all, is his mission from the beginning:  to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God).  But I think there still lingers some baggage on the word “kingdom,” and on the phrase “kingdom of God,” that we acquired somewhere along the way and need to be aware of, so that it doesn’t distort our understanding of what Jesus is talking about.

First of all, for us a “kingdom” often is first of all a political entity, a geographical area, typically a nation-state, like “The United Kingdom.”  But in the ancient world, and in the world of the Bible, that’s not really what is meant by the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin words that we translate “kingdom.”  A perhaps subtle but important distinction:  they carry the idea that we would call “kingship,” “reign,” “rule.”  Yes, it involves geographical extension, but it’s really about personal dominion. The kingdom of God is not a place, but a life in which God rules.  It is God’s kingship.

Well, what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  We all grew up with all sorts of pictures, many of which continue to appear in cartoons in the New Yorker,  where they are usually pretty funny.  Clouds, and angels playing harps, and streets paved with gold (well, that’s from the Revelation of St. John, who didn’t mean that any more literally than any of the other bizarre apocalyptic imagery he uses).  But in sum, I think we tend to think of the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, as a very religious place.  (Which may explain why lots of folks really aren’t particularly interested in going there!) 

Well, anyway, Jesus tells little stories about what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is really like.  One of the things we notice, I hope, is that these are not particularly religious stories.  I think we need to remind ourselves, paying attention to what the Gospels actually say, that Jesus was not in fact very religious.  (The scribes and Pharisees were very religious.  Jesus gave them a hard time about it.  They gave him a hard time because he wasn’t.)  Occasionally there are religious figures in Jesus’ stories, but they are not usually the good guys.  The priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side.  The Pharisee in the Temple who reminds God about how religious he is.  The little stories that we hear in the Gospel today are very ordinary, day-to-day life, stories.  They tend to be a bit extravagant, as we’ll see, but they’re not particularly religious.  And my own suspicion, because of their extravagances, is that if we could actually hear them as Aramaic speakers we would realize that they are jokes.  Not that they’re not serious, but they’re amusing.  People hearing them probably laughed.  Maybe a little nervously, especially as they began to “get” them and to realize how much they actually challenge us and how we think about things.  Jesus was not a standup comedian, but I think he was a little like Mark Twain.

Today Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”  The smallest of all seeds, he says; well, not really; lots of seeds, especially flower seeds, are smaller; but compared with wheat seed, or barley seed, or olive pits, or acorns, or other agricultural seeds, they are pretty small.  But a mustard plant gets to be pretty good size, although “tree” is something of an exaggeration.  But this parable is not a lecture in botany.  The tree in which the birds come and nest is an image of a great kingdom that protects all its people.  [Ps 104; Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:12,21]  That’s how God’s kingdom is.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”  Another extravagant tale:  three “measures” of flour is not three measuring cups, the Greek word means about ten gallons!  That’s a lot of bread!  And the text says the woman “hid” the yeast in the dough.  And in the morning she uncovers her (very large!) mixing bowl, and poof!  The kingdom of God works like that.  Undercover, unexpected, extravagant!

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…”  Does anyone notice that the guy in this episode is dishonest; at least in Roman law this would have been illegal?  After all, this treasure is not the finder’s to recover, it belongs to the field’s owner, and to buy it without telling the owner why you want it is a little crooked.  (In our modern world no investor or real-estate speculator would ever pull off something like that!  Oh, surely not!)  But that’s not the point.  The kingdom of God is worth giving up everything else in order to gain.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

And so also with the jewel merchant who finds the pearl of great price.  More extravagance!

And then Jesus shifts the tone a little.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”  The kingdom gathers in everyone, with extravagantly open arms, and sorts them out only later.  Kind of like the Wheat and the Weeds.  And then there is added another instance of what a lot of us think is a later addition by the early Christians “explaining” with the bit about the angels what the parable means.  We saw the same kind of thing with the parables of the Sower and of the Wheat and Weeds in the last two weeks.  Like I said last Sunday, I don’t think Jesus ever “explains” his parables.  We either “get” them or we don’t.  The early Christians, compiling the Gospels from the original Jesus traditions, felt guilty because so often they didn’t get them at first, so they felt they had to explain them!  Not to say that this explanation is wrong, but I think Jesus himself left it up to us.

Then Jesus wraps up this set of stories:  “So do you get it?”  They answered, “Yes.”  Actually, at the time, probably not!  And Jesus concludes with a final parable:  If you do get it, you’re like somebody who lives not only by the tradition but also is open to radically new insights, because that’s what the kingdom is like.  The kingdom is not “up there.”  The kingdom is not off in the sweet by-and-by.  the kingdom is not “here!” or “there!” (as Jesus points out elsewhere [Luke 17.20-21]).  The kingdom is among us, within us, in our midst, suddenly, extravagantly, right when we least expect it, beginning here, beginning now.

No comments: