July 30, 2017
Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak with them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Jesus asked us a good question today. Did you hear it? It was buried in the text toward the end of our Gospel lesson: “Have you understood all this?” Certainly, we have a big advantage compared to those first disciples. Most of us have heard the parables, and the interpretations of them, many, many, times. We hear Jesus’ question, and like the first disciples, we are likely to answer quickly. “Yes.” “Yes, we understand.” It’s just that I’m not so sure about those first disciples, after all, it’s only been a few verses since they asked Jesus why he taught in parables instead of speaking plainly. And I’m not so sure about the church as a whole, not when I look back over 2000 years or so of history and see the long and frequent periods in which it’s plain that church really didn’t understand what Jesus was about. It all makes me wonder if we, are really all that much better at understanding. Jesus’ question deserves careful thought. Have we understood him? First a translation issue, because of course Jesus didn’t speak English, most likely he spoke Aramaic. Further, when the stories about him were finally written down, they were written in Greek. In English we hear “The kingdom of heaven is like…” A more direct, if wordy, translation would say “it is the case with the kingdom of heaven as with…” I can almost hear someone asking; “What difference does it make?” The thing is, the wording shifts the focus of the comparison from each single item to the pattern of the whole and especially the conclusion. These parables are about both the value of God’s Kingdom and the cost of discipleship. Once again we have parables of the Kingdom. But the focus is shifting to our discipleship of that Kingdom. What has Jesus told us about God’s Kingdom? Well, Kingdom of Heaven is universal. Like the broadcast sown seed God has sown the Kingdom everywhere, for all people, and for all time. Further, as in the parable of the net, sometimes we don’t understand God’s selection process. Remember, in order to fish with a net the net is dropped into the water and dragged along, collecting everything in its path, good fish and junk together. Who knows really what is junk? The fisherman, God in this case, gets to decide. What else? Jesus has said that the Kingdom is our greatest treasure but it’s not an individual possession. We can’t earn it by our own effort, or deserve it because of our merit. We can’t hold onto it as if it were ours alone. All we can do is receive the Kingdom. It is a gift, freely given. All we have to do is say yes to it. What else? I think it is fair to say that there is an element of mystery about the kingdom. God is in charge and God’s ways are not our ways. I’m thinking here about the image of seeds. Seeds are tiny compared to what they produce. Once planted we almost lose track of seeds all together. For all we can see the seed is gone, buried in the dirt. And again, in order for seeds to do their work, they basically have to die and disappear. They are transformed into something entirely new. And what about leaven? The kingdom of God is like leaven. When used it disappears. First it is dissolved in water. Then it’s mixed into dry ingredients to form dough. The leaven as leaven is lost, it cannot be picked back out of the dough. But it does its work and with a little work, and more patience, we have the goodness of fresh bread. Mystery, the Kingdom is a hidden thing, always at work in our midst, but not so very obvious. And more mystery. All of creation is included. Good fish and junk gathered together. There’s one more image to notice though, the Kingdom is treasure. It is with the Kingdom as with a merchant in search of pearls or a treasure hidden in a field. The one who found the treasure made sure the treasure was safe and invested everything else to make sure that he could hold onto the treasure. The merchant actively looked for pearls and when he found one pearl of great value he sold all that he had for it. The Kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God, is our greatest treasure worth searching for, worth spending ourselves for. Have you understood this? It might feel like a bit of a rabbit trail but I want to take just a minute to focus on Jesus himself now because it is Jesus who opens the door to God’s kingdom for us. Think about Jesus, a particular individual. Someone who was born in a small backwater country, a particular place, over 2000 years ago, a particular time. Jesus, who grew up to be rejected, then executed. And then who could not just stay decently dead, as we would expect, but rose again. And then vanished. Leaving the mystery of a truth that cannot be seen or touched or proven rationally, but must be trusted, must be believed in if we are to live into the Kingdom of God. Jesus came as a sign of the Kingdom in our midst and taught that we serve God best when we share ourselves with those who are least in our view, prisoners, the sick, the homeless, strangers, those who are not at all like ourselves. Jesus taught us what it means to live as though God’s Kingdom is our greatest treasure. He taught about what it means to respond to the treasure and about the cost of discipleship. So, another question, how are we going to respond to the treasure of the Kingdom of God, hidden in our midst? Because this is where it all comes together. Jesus came as a sign, a living sacrament, of the Kingdom. And Jesus left behind the church. Imperfect certainly, human certainly but mysteriously a sign, a sacrament, to the world to show that God has already sowed, lightened, leavened, or provided salvation for all the whole of creation. Here we are, the church, a random sampling of the broken, sinful world that God loves and has declared good. The love of God in Christ is hidden in our midst. And yet, I hear so often, and from so many that the church has become less than what we had hoped, less than what we have been in the past. It is as though we are filled with hopelessness and despair and fear. I find myself falling into fear and despair. And yet. And yet. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is that place where God’s love for each of us is made real.
God’s Kingdom is indeed the greatest treasure of all. And so I wonder, how can we, to borrow a question from a favorite book on church growth, “How can we communicate Jesus, even as we long for Jesus?” In some ways we already do it well, I’m thinking of those mats crocheted or knit for the homeless, of the groceries given to the Salvation Army, of our space shared with N.A. or the Red Cross. All those things and more communicate the presence of Christ in the here and now. I started with Jesus question, “Have you understood all this?” There just may not be a clear-cut answer. We understand and we don’t. We do know that God loves us, and that love is our greatest treasure. We hope that just the smallest amount of faith allows God to do wonders through us. Like the first disciples we ask for the gift of faith as we are sent out into the world to continue the work of the Kingdom. And that’s all we really need for God to do wonders through us. Amen