The Sunday Sermon: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Teasing Our Minds Into Insight
A month in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew “teasing our minds into insight” through the parables, or the parable of Jesus. We’ve been exploring the parable of the sower that Jesus shares and explains in chapter thirteen, of course. We’ve been doing that in conjunction with a conversation that’s been taking place in an hour before this hour of worship on Sunday morning. We finished up that earlier conversation this morning, or at least the first part of a conversation that I hope, in one way or another in one form or another, has only just begun.
In our class conversation we’ve been taking an “incarnational approach” to our presence here as a faith community in Pewee Valley. That is, we’ve begun with the belief that the Spirit of God abides in this place, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, not in its buildings and grounds, but in you and me. And from that starting point, we’ve been exploring how we enflesh (incarnate) the values of love, grace, and justice – not just as a community, but in our community.”
We do so by coming together with our wider community, by listening more deeply to one another and to our neighbors, and by transforming the partnerships we have with all who come to our campus and use our spaces and/or worship together. We are the sowers, Jesus teaches us in the parable we’ve chosen to illustrate our discussion. We are the sowers and we are to sow the seeds of the Kingdom of God everywhere and in every way we can.
We finish this month in this room, our most sacred space, with five more parables that attempt to teach us what the result of our “seed-sowing” can be, namely, the deeper manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. We hear in the final verses of chapter thirteen what this Kingdom looks like so that we may know it when we see it – not later when we die, but here as we live. Listen for the Word of God …
Read Matthew 13:31-33 (34), 44-50. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, before we get to trying to understand these teachings better, we have to wonder: Were the crowds of Jesus’ day, and maybe even some of his closest disciples, as disappointed as some of us may be after Jesus finishes these Kingdom parables? Be honest. From the beginning it’s about seeds and plants, baking bread, plowing a field, and fishing. There’s this one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are about things as ordinary as a mustard bush. No kings or queens in this Kingdom, no princes or battles fought to procure power and control. Rome is still on its throne as far as anyone in the first century can see. There are no revolutionary leaders in these stories to please Simon the Zealot or no sword wielding heroes to comgort Judas Iscariot. Jesus is teasing them, surely. They must have felt let down.
I wonder if you’re a bit disappointed, too? And not just by the ambiguity these parables bring, not just by what you don’t understand them to say. But also by what you do understand. I doubt your visions of heaven, the Kingdom of God, include mustard seeds and housework! Be honest. You know about these teachings, but you hope that they’re just coded messages for what’s really in store for us faithful followers of Jesus. In our hymns and liturgy God is “King” and Jesus is “Lord,” not a farmer and a baker. Most of the contemporary liturgy and music in the mega-church pulpits and stages sing about God “enthroned” in heaven and raising Jesus up and exalting him in the highest heaven, not finding him in the kitchen baking bread or in a boat pulling in fish.
Our images of this Kingdom are ultimately far out there, way up there, kind of Camelot-like. But the stories Jesus tells of his kingdom and of heaven are, literally, down to earth. They are common stories about ordinary people – tenant farmers, housewives, fishermen – doing everyday things. This is hardly an exalted vision of God’s realm. But, of course, that is exactly the point.
As Christians, we profess to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of the divine, God’s anointed – the Christ, in the human, Jesus of Nazareth. For us Jesus is Christ. Capital “I”, Incarnation. The church, since the very beginning has done a pretty good job with that profession, though it’s been used to justify some incredibly un-Godly acts. What we haven’t done such a good job with for at least a millennia and a half is understanding that Incarnation is not a single act. It never was. Jesus never said it was. All that came later. Jesus, himself, “did not regard (his self-understanding as God incarnate) as something to be exploited,” but rather as very reason he should “empty himself” for others. Philippians 2:5-7 Why? Becusae that’s what Love does and because in the other, in you and in me and in all others, is the possibility of Incarnation. The kingdom is among us.
Jesus didn’t stay separate from the world around him. He was never about “later on” or “when you die.” He listened with compassion and was available to people, adapting to their realities and teaching in parables using images they could understand (Neighborhood Church, 118). In these parables, Jesus puts the “incarnational focus” not on himself but on the world around him – seeds, sowers, shrubs that grow, yeast and bread, hidden treasures in hard work. The kingdom of God is like the most common things in human life. In other words, the everyday world embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
According to Matthew, the first thing that Jesus does when he comes out of the wilderness way back in chapter three is to proclaim that the “kingdom of heaven has come near”. He shares that nearness in these kingdom parables. God’s realm is not some obscure destination in the sweet by and by, but as close as the next field or loaf of bread. And it’s that nearness, that “reach out and touch it” nearness, not some threat of eternal agony, that is our call to belief. Of these five parables, only the last one includes some images of apocalyptic judgment and gnashing of teeth. The rest envision God in every nook and cranny of life, from kneading dough to plowing fields. Jesus transforms life no by scaring “hell” into people, but by helping us see heaven all around us (Arnold, Talitha, Feasting on the Word. A3, 286). That’s why we profess Christian faith, maintain our faith, and share it with others. Not out of a fear of hell, but through the closeness of heaven. The nearness of God and God’s realm challenges us daily to choose that realm.
“Have you understood all this?” That’s the question Jesus asked. Listen as I finish our scripture reading. Read Matthew 13:51-53
Have we understood all this? The teachings in our bible are so rooted in his world, that Jesus’ parables may keep us from understanding, let alone experiencing, heaven in our world. We find mustard in plastic bottles on the grocery store shelf, bread in plastic bags, and pearls on the Home Shopping Network. So we need to find new parables. Because, we read and hear, those with whom the secrets of the kingdom have been shared – that’s us – we now become teachers of those secrets. “And every scribe who has been trained brings out what is new and what is old” to teach others. We bring out the old, church traditions and the interpretations of scripture such as these from time past, and engage it in the conversations of today, ones we’re having right even now. We read old parables to tell new stories to share timeless truths. The kingdom of heaven is like …
A farmer lay on his deathbed despairing of the fate of his lazy sons. Near his final hour, and inspiration came to him. He called his sons around his bedside and asked them to come close. “I am soon to leave this world, my sons,” he whispered. “I want you to know that I have left a treasure greater than gold for you hidden in my field. Dig carefully and you’ll find it. I only ask that when you do, you share it evenly.
The sons begged him to tell them exactly where he had buried it, but the father breathed his last breath and spoke no more. So, as soon as their father was buried, the sons took their shovels and plows and began to turn the soil in their father’s field. They dug an they dug until they had turned over the whole field twice. They didn’t find any treasure, but they decided that since the field was so well dug up, they might as well plant some grain as their father had done. The crop grew well for them. After the harvest they decided to dig again, but once again they found not a treasure, but a field prepared for sowing. That year’s crop was better than the one before.
This went on for a number of years until the sons grew accustomed to the cycles of the seasons and the rewards of daily labor. By that time the farming earned them enough money to live a happy life. It was then that they realized the treasure their father had left for them. (Sufi wisdom tale)
Have you understood all this? The secrets of the kingdom ae found in the depths of life, lived together and shared together.
Our minds are being teased into insight every moment we’re together. How long until we truly understand what we, as a congregation, would give up everything to possess? The kingdom of God is among us. May our eyes see and our ears hear what is as close as the people sitting right next to us.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 25, 2019