07/27/14 Sermon (July 27, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 11:59 AM by David Hawkins

“Have We Understood all This?”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

"Have you understood all this?"

They answered, "Yes."

And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Sermon: "Have We Understood all This?"     Rev. David Hawkins

This morning we find Jesus continuing his discussion about the kingdom of heaven that he began last week. You may remember that he compared the kingdom of heaven to a field with weeds and wheat in it, and as we unpacked the details of that parable, we discovered that there was more to that little story than meets the eye.

Right after the service last week, Kim Butler had some further details to tell me, and if there’s anybody who knows their weeds and wheat, it’s Kim Butler. He told me that the two grasses Jesus was talking about can only be differentiated if you examine two tiny hairs on the stalk at exactly the right time of the growing cycle.

It turns out that Jesus knows more about agriculture than we give him credit for.

On a different note, Kim also told me that the fungus that infects those particular weeds is believed to have caused the hallucinations that first created the myth of the werewolf, and I sure wish that I had known that before I wrote the sermon, because that would have been a most excellent theme for a Sunday morning.

Anyway, while I was doing last week’s research into the parable of the wheat and weeds, I realized that sometimes the details matter to the meaning of the parable just as much as the big picture stuff does. Jesus is careful with his words, and the little things count. It turns out that God really is in the details.

And so this week, as I was reading through the parables in our scripture, I decided to pay more attention to the details.

In the first parable today, Jesus talks about a mustard seed planted in a field, growing into a giant tree, big enough for all the birds of the air. The meaning of this parable seems clear enough. The kingdom of heaven might look small at first, but in reality it’s pretty big. With lots of birds.
With my luck, they’re probably grackles.

But then I thought, why did Jesus use the Mustard tree as a parable, instead of something like an oak? I mean, a giant oak tree grows from a tiny acorn, so the analogy is still meaningful. So why not an oak?

Well, it turns out that the mustard tree is a weed in Israel. It grows everywhere. It thrives in hot, dry climates, and it takes over. It’s like Kudzu in Georgia, or Salt Cedars along the Brazos, or mesquite out on the ranch. You don’t have to plant it. It just grows by itself. It’s a pest.

But in the parable, the farmer plants a mustard seed. Now that is weird. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to an aggressive weed that a farmer deliberately plants in his carefully prepared field.

And the next parable is no easier. Jesus says a woman is preparing some bread dough by putting yeast in it. That doesn’t seem too strange. It happens all the time. Except for a couple of things. First of all, the idea that Jesus would compare the kingdom of Heaven to the work of a woman, in that time and place, is absolutely unheard of.

In first century Palestine, women could not study the Torah, they weren’t allowed in the Holy Places of the Temple, they were excluded from every kind of economic and social position. They were banned from political and religious leadership. And yet, Jesus uses the image of a woman working to describe the  kingdom of heaven. This had to be a scandal to his listeners.

And then, to compare the kingdom to yeast, are you kidding? Every other time Jesus talks about yeast in the New Testament, it is the symbol of impurity. It’s the symbol of corruption. Yeast and leaven were forbidden in the household during the Passover week. Yeast was a dangerous substance, unpredictable, with occasionally disastrous results. And Jesus compares the kingdom of Heaven to yeast?

And finally, Jesus casually mentions how much bread the woman is making. It doesn’t sound like much. Three measures of flour, he says. How much can that be? Well, let’s see. One measure of flour is the same as a Roman Statum, which is one and half medii, which is about 14 quarts which is something like 56 cups, times 3, let’s see, carry the one and that’s 168 cups of flour.  One loaf of bread takes 2.5 cups, so the woman in this parable is making 70 loaves of bread!

She’s obviously not making this bread for herself. She’s not making this bread for her family. She’s making this bread for the whole village.

The next two parables are about two men with really lousy business sense. In the first, a man discovers a treasure in a field, and so he sells everything and buys the field. One would would think that he would have just gone and dug the treasure up and taken it, but instead, he sells everything of value in order to have this one thing. In the second, a man sells everything he has in order to buy a single pearl. Obviously the economics of the kingdom of heaven are out of whack. Somebody in this story isn’t very good with money.

And I wonder, am I the one searching for the treasure, or am I the treasure itself? It’s hard to tell.

The last parable is about fish, and with this parable, Jesus brings us back full circle to the theme of last week’s parable about the wheat and the weeds. The fisherman casts his net into the sea, and the net catches all the fish. Not just some of the fish. Not just the good fish. Not just the kosher fish. All the fish. The whales, the guppies, the squids, the sharks, the eels, the stingrays. The kingdom of heaven brings everybody in. And we don’t get to sort them out. That’s someone else’s job.

Jesus tells these slightly off-kilter stories about weeds and birds and bread and treasure and fish, and then he asks the crowd, “OK, you got all that? Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

And what does the crowd say?

Well, of course, they say, “Sure we do. We understand.”

Yeah, right.

I’m glad the crowds following Jesus understand what he’s trying to say, because I’m not sure that I do. What does he mean when he says that the kingdom of heaven is a giant weed with birds in it? Why would a farmer plant weeds in his field? Chris, Gaylan, Bryan, farmers, can you help me out? Does this make any sense?

What does Jesus mean when he says that the kingdom of heaven is a woman using the impurity of yeast to make 7o loaves of bread? What is he trying to say about someone who finds a treasure in someone else’s field, and buys the field for himself so he can have it? Or the man who gives up everything for one pearl? Or about a kingdom into which all are dragged like fish, and sorted out later?

Do we really understand what Jesus is saying?

If the kingdom of heaven is like a weed, then what’s it doing in our carefully cultivated theology? What’s it going to do to our rows and rows of planted dogma, our faithfully watered traditions and ways of thinking about God?

If the kingdom is like a woman baking yeasty bread for the whole village, what does that tell us about generosity and compassion? What does it say about our ideas of purity and holiness?

If the kingdom is like a person who sells everything they have for the one thing they treasure most, what does that say about the way God feels about you, and about me, and about that guy over there? What would God give up in order that we might know that he loves us?

I’m not sure that I feel like that kind of a treasure. I’ve been told more than once that I’m no pearl of great price. Maybe not in those exact words, but I got the message. I’m not sure that I’m worthy of being searched out, found, and purchased.

If the kingdom of heaven is like a giant net, with all the fish of the sea in it, what does that say about our attempts to limit the kingdom to those we think are worthy, or the ones that look and act like us?

I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not convinced that the crowds following Jesus really did understand what he was saying in these parables. I’m not sure I really do. Jesus is saying so much about so many different things that I wonder if we ever can understand everything that Jesus is trying to tell us about the expansive, generous, inclusive, upside-down kingdom of heaven.

But I do know this.

I know that I want to live in that kingdom. I want to live where I know that I’m welcome, and that others are welcome. I want to live where there is enough, enough for me, and enough for everyone. I want to live where I know that I’m loved, loved even when I don’t feel worthy of love, even when I’m not particularly lovable.

I want to live in that kingdom that Jesus is trying to explain to me, even if I don’t really completely understand it.  

And the wonderful thing is, I think we can live there, at least, from time to time. However strange these stories are, however far-fetched they might seem, they all have something in common. They all center around simple things: bread, wheat, fish, fields, yeast. The people involved are simple people: housewives, fishermen, merchants, farmers.

Living in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t mean that we have to be supernaturally good, or pious, or smart, or rich, or strong, or anything, really. We don’t need special tools, special words, special doctrines to live in this kingdom..

All we need to do is remember that we are citizens of a different realm, we are subjects of a different king. We are not captive to the rules of this world. Regardless of whether we fully understand what Jesus is saying in these kingdom parables, we have been given a glimpse of what life looks like, what real life really looks like, and we have in our hands all the tools we need to live in that place.

Thanks be to God. Amen.