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Of Parables and Promises

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland on Sunday July 30, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  All credit is given and belongs to Jill Duffield, editor, Presbyterian Outlook: from “Looking into the lectionary for July 30, What is the kingdom of heaven like?” accessed/published online/email, via http://pres-outlook.org

 

Text: Matthew 13:24-39

Of Parables and Promises

I don’t know if this applies to any of you–probably not.  But I feel like there are times during these summer months when my brain-power goes on a bit of a summer hiatus.  Especially after I return from vacation which is what this past week was for me–back in the office after being away the previous week.  All of which leads me to declare, “what was I thinking”?! when I decided weeks ago to preach on this pack of parables from Jesus!

I’ll tell you what I was thinking:  I thought, (naively) hey, I love Jesus so spending time listening to him is always time well spent–even if I’m not feeling particularly sharp (sometimes, especially then!) So it’s all good, right?

Yes … well so, about four weeks ago, I sit down, read and reflect on these parables. Usually my mind starts filling with ideas or images which I jot down during my first or second reading.  With this passage, I look down at my notepad.

Nothing.

Okay. That happens from time to time. I’ll just try again the next day.

The next day I read it over … and over … and over again. Again: nothing.

Oh just give it time, I tell myself.  Wait for some words or images emerge.  Come back fresh.

So I go away on vacation.  I come back. I’m eager to get to it.  Time to start writing.  So I read it again.

And again.

And again.

Over and over and over … and over again.

The one image that stays with me is near the end when Jesus asks his disciples if they understand these parables.  Jesus must realize that all these parables raise as many questions as they answer.  Why else would he ask, “do you understand?”

They all say, “Yes”.  Their reply reminds me of all the times I’ve said “yes, I get it” but really didn’t get it at all. That word “yes” on the page offers no indication of the look on their faces or in their eyes as they respond to Jesus.

Let me demonstrate:

Jesus to the disciples:  “Do you understand all this?”

Disciples: “Yes, we understand”

(while I say this I silently shake my head and mouth the word, “no” while shrugging)

At least, that’s me with this passage.

Whenever this happens I consult other interpreters.  One that was especially helpful was written by Jill Duffield, editor of Presbyterian Outlook.  Okay so you know she’s bringing the requisite brain power to make sense of these parables.

I was so relieved to read that she compares her own encounter with these parables to the nerve-wracking experience of taking standardized tests in school.  She even composed a standardized test essay question based on these parables:

“If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … and yeast  … buried treasure and fine pearls, explain, with examples, how it is also like a net full of fish.  Compare and contrast.  You have twenty minutes to complete your essay. Spelling and punctuation count.  Good luck. You may begin…”

It feels like that pressure-filled test experience, she explains, because earlier in Matthew, Jesus informs his disciples that the parables help Jesus distinguish between those who discern the kingdom of God in their midst and those who do not.  Uh-oh!  I guess that means I’m one of the “nots”.

Duffield confesses, “Like those seated at the feet of any master teacher … we nod and murmur ‘yes’ or ‘now I see’ ” hoping that we’ll figure it out eventually!

“… the kingdom of heaven is like … a mustard seed. … Eureeka! Yes of course! Now I see.”

“ … a pearl of great price, you say?  Yes I always thought the kingdom of heaven was like that.”

“Every time I make bread I always think how yeast is like the kingdom of heaven! So obvious!”

NOT!

“I don’t see,” Duffield cries out.  “I don’t get it. I fear I’m destined for the fiery furnace along with all the others who failed to use a No. 2 pencil, or didn’t completely fill out the bubble, or didn’t put their name of their paper.  My hope is that my wanting to understand … grants me at least some extra time before the proctor of the test blurts out “Time’s up!  Pencils DOWN NOW!”

God bless Jill Duffield.  I was starting to worry about my summer slide.

These parables don’t readily invite immediate understanding.  Don’t think they’re supposed to.  I think Jesus uses parables to challenge us to think more deeply about God’s kingdom, to take our questions and confusions with us out there, observing and seeking and comparing what we see and who we see and what’s going on out there with what we know about God’s kingdom of love and grace and hope.

Nevertheless, the images and examples Jesus uses in these parables are familiar, everyday things for his listeners.  So Duffield challenges us to find comparable, everyday items from our modern experience which may help us get what Jesus is trying to show us about the kingdom of heaven:

“If the kingdom of heaven, the rule and reign of God right here and now, is like a mustard seed,” Duffield says, then given that a mustard seed is “tiny, easily overlooked, hidden away in the soil, out of our sight but it eventually emerges and grows and invades” the surrounding territory.  Is there anything in our everyday experience that works like that? Duffield suggests: a computer virus! Hidden and unknown “until it blows up your hard drive and your day-to-day routines …”

New Testament Scholar Richard Swanson notes how the images Jesus uses in these parables all share one telling characteristic: disruption.  That’s something to keep in mind. When we feel like our lives are being disrupted this is not evidence that God has forsaken us, on the contrary, it could very well indicate the presence of God working for us and around us!  The encroachment of kingdom of God

The second parable’s image of yeast or leaven … consider how it also does its work invisibly, and like the mustard seed it changes the surrounding substance.  So what else does that?  How about antibiotic medicine, or even chemotherapy: again, unseen, silent, but powerfully active, life-saving and life-altering.

These first two kingdom parables, Duffield notes, emphasize God’s presence and power at work whether or not it’s being noticed: The kingdom of heaven is encroaching whether or not we perceive it. The Bible is good at reminding us, however, that the kingdom of heaven will not remain invisible forever.  In due time, God’s time, the kingdom of heaven will radically alter not just our own personal lives, but the entire surrounding world.

These first two parables mustard seed and yeast—or computer virus and antibiotics—proclaim that even when it appears that nothing is “immediately happening” there is change happening out of our sight.  And at a certain point, disruption happens, which, it seems to me, is usually indicative of some profound change happening.

The buried treasure and the exquisite pearl go together much the same way.  Duffield shares the example of some forgotten, inherited painting tucked away in the attic, hidden, obscured, by boxes and junk. One day you’re up there and you see it there.  You pick it up, dust it off and bring it down. For fun you Google the artist and discover it’s worth a mint.  All that time, there it was–so close by.  But you never realized.  When one day you come across it, it now could change your life.  Nothing like that ever happens to anyone I know, but hey, I watch Antiques Road Show on PBS.  This sort of thing DOES happen.  Treasures of a kind do often hide in plain sight which I think is also Jesus’ point.

The action and energy in these examples and in those Jesus uses is about the response to the discovery more than it is necessarily about what is discovered.

What I notice in the process of these examples is how whether we happen upon the presence of God or intentionally search for and “find” God’s presence, at a certain point this involves some kind of detachment from whatever we were doing before … and that detachment is where the seeds of change and growth are sown.

Jesus notes how the heavenly kingdom consists of all kinds of “fish”.  The parable uncomfortably declares that while the “good” fish are kept and the “bad” fish are destroyed, what I hear Jesus saying is this process is God’s concern.  It’s not our job, nor are we qualified to distinguish between good and bad “fish”.  I’ll give you an example:  When I was young and we’d go fishing for sunfish every summer, every once in a while one of us would reel in a bullhead! My father HATED bullheads because of their stingers—none of us would take it off the hook.  So my dad despised bullheads and we never kept them.  But I hear they make great eating.  One person’s nasty bullhead is another person’s delicacy.

There comes a moment of truth, a kingdom moment when it all comes down to our willingness to push all our chips into the middle of the table, go all in (there’s another image for ya).  In those moments the critical tell is recognizing the kingdom of God in our midst.

Thankfully, Duffield concludes, the kingdom of God is not like some standardized test. God is not the proctor of inflexible test. But clearly God is the keeper of time … and “God, it would seem, has incredible patience, waiting for seeds to grow, bread to rise, treasure to be discovered, pearls to be kept. While eventually the contents of the net will be sorted, there is no urgency to eradicate the bad fish who may well have value God alone can see.”

The great good news about these parables is how they reveal to us the abundant variety that identifies the kingdom of heaven.  “There are many paths to the right relationship to the one true God. We may discover God, we may look for God, we may get accidentally caught up in God’s broad net; no matter, for we are still part of the kingdom of heaven, the one we can be certain is present and powerful and growing and sure to provide home and sustenance for more of creation that we can imagine.”

That’s God’s saving promise

Even when we can’t or don’t yet perceive or understand, we can trust and be on the lookout, going all in when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness and promise.