July 30, 2017, 8th Sunday after Pentecost YR A Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 The Rev. Anne Abdy
In seminary when you did not have any inspiration or insight when it came to writing a sermon, the expression that was used was “I have nothing.” In fact, our preaching professor preached on nothing. No lightning bolts from heaven to inspire him. No words from the Scriptures that jumped out at him. His opening line was “I have nothing” and he had fifteen minutes of nothing to say. That sermon was one of the best that I have heard yet. I kinda feel the same way this week. This is a third week of parables. What was it about these parables that the farmers, shepherds, townsfolk, and children did not understand? After all, as a first century story-teller Jesus used all the tricks of the trade: everyday items, everyday problems and celebrations, including what some believed were magic tricks to persuade the vulnerable to join is his movement.
I have nothing. I don’t have any more gardening stories and have already suggested that God’s Kingdom is illustrated in these parables with the metaphors of sowers, seeds, birds, thorns, and yes, even in the weeds because good triumphs over evil. This week we have seeds and birds, yeast and bread, hidden treasure, searching for fine pearls, and good and bad fish.
Matthew in writing his Gospel is concerned about rooting the new deep within the old, and allowing the old to come to a fresh and exciting expression in the new. How does he do this? He tells Jesus stories. Jesus brings with him the history and wisdom of the old things found in the ancient stories and in the hopes of Israel merging it with the new Good News. Remember Jesus is a Jew and he is well versed in all things Jewish, especially the contents of the Torah. At age twelve he astounded the rabbis in the temple. So as I looked a little closer, I found the common thread in the phrase: “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus and his Kingdom are meant to startle us. Bring us back into reality. Maybe readjust ourselves to the new normal.
At the hospital I teach numerous skills and one focuses on the use of ice. The idea is that when you are in distress placing your face in a bowl of ice water or holding an ice cube has a jarring effect bringing an individual back to present moment. To the here and now. It is the notion of truly “snapping out of it” as you’d see in old movies where one individual slaps another hysterical individual. Another way of thinking of this experience is as an automatic “STOP!” switch.
These five parables are that “STOP!” switch. Jesus gets the attention of those who are following him and he gets the attention of us. It is as if Jesus attempts to shock his followers with not one parable in one sitting but with five parables to teach us how to live as Christians in this new world. Jesus shocks us to believe that the Kingdom of God is here on earth.
The first and overarching point that Jesus makes is distinguishing those who are with him from those who are not with him. We know this because at the end of this passage there are references to the end of the age following by Jesus asking: “Have you understood all this?” Remember, he is living in a time of Roman occupation and oppression. People are afraid of changing their ways. Jesus is advocating a very new and radical way of interacting that is different from the old traditions. He became (and I think always intended to be) friends with the poor, the weak, the tax collector, the despised, and the sinner—and so must we.
So what do these five parables symbolize? The first parable about the mustard seed is most often associated with the power of Almighty God to do wondrous works in our lives. That one of the smallest seeds of all will provide shelter to the birds of the air. It provides protection to life itself. That protection towards another is often seen in the animal world.
I love stories about animals because I learn so much from them. Animals make me stop and ponder what I might do in a similar situation. Before I put my lights out I troll Facebook looking for “happy” stories. Many times I stop at elephant stories. In one video a baby elephant is upside down with legs in the air stuck in a water trough. The mother is increasingly anxious and more so because a pride of lions are now circling. She trumpets and runs in the direction of the lions but her mind is always on the welfare of her baby stuck defenseless in the trough. Then the camera pans out and the viewer sees another elephant family running to the aid of the distressed baby and anxious mother. As the scene unfolds, the mature elephants create a perimeter keeping the lions at bay, while the matriarch elephant wraps her trunk around the baby’s front right leg pulling the baby into an upright sitting position. Then gently but forcefully she uses her tusks and trunk to push the baby onto all fours and out of the trough. Now that is love and protection for one’s neighbor when the stakes are high! What is the status of care and protection for one another in today’s world?
The next parable is of the yeast mixed with flour to make leaven bread. Jesus suggests that if you take the Gospel seriously, then choosing to be a child of the Kingdom of God is not easy. The gospel of this Kingdom is not a pleasant idea or experience. You will have to knead the flour and yeast together, and then to experience the gifts of God, this dough has to be baked on a glowing hot fire to become bread—to become something beautiful and yummy to eat. Growing up in Walvis Bay as a youngster, Mrs. Jensen lived around the corner from the rectory and knew my brother and I liked her homemade bread. I have no idea what her recipe was or how long the dough took to knead or bake, but the end result had us running to the Jensen’s back door. It was pure joy for us and I imagine for Mrs. Jensen too. With delight Mrs. Jensen watched us come through the door, pull back the wooden chairs at her kitchen table, and scoff down the gift of a single slice of warm buttery bread with a thick layer of peanut butter spread on top. My brother and I reaped the benefits of a bread dough kneaded together. Our enthusiasm for eating the first slice should equal the enthusiasm we have for our work in God’s Kingdom.
The third parable is about finding treasure hidden in a field and selling that treasure for a larger field. Fields play an important part in ancient times and to this story. The wheat stalks that fell during the harvest around the corners and edges of fields by Torah law were dedicated to the poor and hungry for them to make their own bread. The owner of the field sells the smaller field to buy a larger field knowing he will not only increase his yield of grain but there is more of the harvest available to feed others. In our modern 21st century world Pay-If-You-Can Restaurants, such as the one owned by Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, offer an alternative to food banks and create a normalized dining experience for those who are hungry. My first experience of this unique dining was eating at a similar restaurant in Berkley, California. The menu has no prices. You pay what you believe you think the meal costs. Incredibly these restaurants are not only “making it” in the difficult hospitality business but more and more restaurants are popping up like these, some with a twist. Some restaurant owners offer breakfast and lunch to paying patrons but the profits go towards providing free dinners to those literally living on the corners and edges of our towns and cities. What other creative ways could we feed the hungry?
The next to last parable is of the person who seeks out and finds the largest pearl and then turns around to sell all his processions to buy the same field because the huge pearl or treasure is there for the taking if you own the field. This parable reminds me of the gold rush days in the west or the expansion of gold and diamond mines in Southern Africa. The famous diamond mining company, De Beers “purchased mining rights to more than 3,000 square miles of the Namibian seafloor in 1991. So far, it has explored only 3 percent of that area [resulting] in more than 90 percent of Namibia’s diamond-related revenue.”
This parable is the first of the two parables “separating” the good from the evil. The second apocalyptic and last parable is the parable of the good and bad fish. The bad fish are discard and thrown back into the sea. Only the good fish are to be saved and eaten. This parable can also be interpreted as the children of God are the pearl, the precious stone or jewel.
I leave you with one last story. The story goes that there was “a man who had been on the outs with the church ever since his adolescent days. The church, he said, was too concerned about the rules, so he left and said he was finished with it. His father worked on him, begging him to give the church another chance, and finally the man agreed that he would. He got up the nerve one Sunday and wandered into a church. The congregation was in the middle of the prayer of confession. “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.” The man heard that and smiled to himself. “Good!” he said. “This sounds like my kind of crowd.”
Living here on earth in the Kingdom is not easy. Christianity is not easy. Tom Wright, a noted New Testament scholar, suggests that these five parables challenge Christians in two ways: understanding and action. He writes, “Understanding without action is sterile; action without understanding is exhausting and useless.” In his accompanying reflection he suggests that we should contemplate how we today in our thinking, in our speaking, in our living, bring both our rootedness in the old and in tradition, into the light of day through the use of stories bearing the new and fresh fruit of Christian action in the Kingdom of heaven.
What new stories would you tell your family and friends about God’s Kingdom on earth? If you were St. Matthew and had to write a modern parable, what story would you write?
 Kevin Sieff, “A New Frontier for Diamond Mining: The Ocean,” Washington Post, July 1, 2017, accessed July 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/a-new-frontier-for diamond-mining-the-ocean/2017/07/01/a04d5fbe-0e40-4508-894d-b3456a28f24c_story.htmlutm_term=.983658a3a1e2.
 N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 2nd ed., New Testament for Everyone (London: SPCK,