A Sermon Preached
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 27, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
Two weeks ago, Jesus told the parable of a sower who threw seed all over the place – on the pathway, on rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good soil.
Las week, he talked about weeds sown among the grain, about the sower commanding that both should grow together until the harvest.
Today we hear Jesus invoke a litany of parables as he talks with those who follow him: about mustard seeds and yeast and hidden treasure and a magnificent pearl and a net. All of these are meant to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like.
At the end of it all, he asks one of my favorite questions in the Bible: Have you understood all this?
And they answer: Yes.
To which I would like to respond: Really? All those astonishing and confounding illustrations of the kingdom of heaven and what it is like…you understand it all, without hesitation?
It’s an audacious question for Jesus to ask, a more audacious answer for his followers to give.
Scripture teaches us that the disciples are not the most powerful or sophisticated or educated people in first-century Palestine. They are fishermen, tax collectors. They’re everyday, ordinary, common people, going about their everyday, ordinary, common lives…until they’re not. Until Jesus shows up, asks them to follow him. And they do.
And theologians teach us that “a parable is a parable – not a complete systematics.” Jesus does not tell these stories to deliver “a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all.” Instead, as he offers these parables, Jesus shares a glimpse of the kingdom, helps make visible what has been hidden. Jesus gets involved in people’s lives. And because he is involved, because he knows who they are, he knows something of the substance of their lives.
As he tells these parables, Jesus takes his listeners’ attention off of himself and focuses it on the world in which he and his disciples lived at the time, the world as his followers would have experienced it.
My own life and well-being is not dependent on where I sow the seeds I have, or whether weeds grow up among the crop…but Jesus’ listeners might have. I bake bread only as a very occasional hobby, not as a matter of necessary sustenance for my family…but listeners in Jesus’ audience probably would only have had bread to eat if they, or someone in their household, made it. I haven’t stumbled upon great treasure in a field, or gone looking for tremendously valuable pearls, or had to sort fish of every kind from a net I have cast. Have you?
Since we likely haven’t done these things, it’s harder for us to get a full glance of these parables that would allow us to understand as the disciples did. Since few if any of us are farmers, it’s hard for us to know that a mustard seed – yes, small and insignificant, easily overlooked – grows into something of a weed itself (which then re-casts much of last week’s parable about an enemy having done this, but we’ll have to take these things one at a time). Mustard is actually not something a farmer wants growing in a field, because it takes over, re-seeds itself in sneaky and invasive fashion. It doesn’t grow it nice, straight rows, but instead spreads on the wind and overtakes without warning. So what does it mean, that the kingdom of heaven is like that?
Since few of us depend for nourishment on the bread we bake daily for ourselves and our families, and since even fewer of us probably create our own yeast from spoiled bread as they did in first-century Palestine, it’s unlikely we’re aware that yeast was considered a contaminant. Usually when it’s mentioned in the Bible, yeast is connected to sin, thought of as a pollutant. So what does it mean, that the kingdom of heaven is like that?
As Jesus tells stories about seeds and plants, about baking bread and plowing a field and fishing with nets and then sorting his catch, he is telling his followers in that moment stories about their own lives. And he is tying those stories to the kingdom of heaven.
So, yes, if Jesus had turned to us after that litany of parables, and asked if we understand these illustrations of the profound nature of God, we might have to pause for a moment in translation.
If he were here now, with us, in 21st century Wilmette, Illinois, the parables might involve smartphones and iPads and grocery stores and conference calls. Who knows what those illustrations might be? How entertaining or confounding could it get, to imagine what connections he might draw? How would he take the ordinary substance of our lives to intersect the kingdom of heaven, to give us a glimpse of those things that are now hidden to us? What would make us think, and then nod, and say “Yes,” when he asked us that same audacious question about whether we understand?
The passage concludes with Jesus telling his followers that “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.”
When we allow ourselves to see a glimpse of what is now hidden that Jesus would reveal to us, potent and subversive and disruptive and defiant of our expectations as it may be, we train ourselves for the kingdom. When we allow ourselves to be captivated by God getting involved in our lives, we train ourselves for the kingdom. When we allow the substance of who we are to be transformed into what we might become, we train ourselves for the kingdom of heaven.
What treasure will you bring forth?
 “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 284.