Training for the Kingdom of Heaven, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 30, 2017

Proper 12

[RCL:] Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

It’s rather good for those who preach and those who hear preachers to step back and remember how Jesus communicated with his disciples and the crowds that followed him. Today’s appointed Gospel text gives us a wonderful example. As we hear Jesus talking about planting seeds, baking bread, and fishing, we are on familiar ground. Very often, thousands of years seem to get in the way and obscure our ability to hear Jesus in the way those who actually heard his voice absorbed his message. Last week, we were confronted with yokes and oxen. Most Americans have seen neither. However, most of us have planted a seed, if only in a pot. Perhaps not all of us bake bread or fish, but we know people who do. For once, we can hear Jesus with much the same mind as his hearers.

These three illustrations are not quite the same. The first two refer to something tiny and insignificant that grows or expands enormously. One could be trite and merely remark that all good things have tiny beginnings, and this homily, to your relief, would be over.

Perhaps you have noticed that we’ve omitted two of Jesus’ illustrations; they may not be so familiar. They talk of a man who finds hidden treasure in a field and sells everything to buy the field, obviously without telling the owner about the treasure trove. Then there’s a jeweler who comes across a costly and rare pearl and sells his entire stock in order to buy it. In both these illustrations, there’s an element of renunciation, of divesting everything in order to gain something of enormous value.

Again, the fishing parable has a sting in its tail. It talks about judgment, some final reckoning based on our choice: “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.”  As if to finally confuse us, Jesus reveals his meaning in these words: “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.”

One can see the surprise on the faces of those listening to him. They thought they understood him and indicated that they did. Preachers rarely ask congregations whether they understand a sermon; perhaps that is just as well.

What was a scribe? In a day when most had only the most elementary education, the literate person who made that skill available was highly esteemed. They wrote letters for people and seem to have acted for clients in local courts. Jesus usually presented a rather low view of the scribes, lumping them together with Pharisees. In this parable, Jesus talks about good scribes, just as there were also good Pharisees like Nicodemus and Gamaliel.  What, then, is a scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven?

This person is someone who has decided to dedicate her or his life to being Kingdom Folk. One of the biggest temptations we confront is to regard our faith as an add-on, a pursuit for our spare time. There’s much talk nowadays about “America first.” The Gospel dispels such a notion; for Kingdom Folk, God’s reign is first. That doesn’t mean we are working for a theocracy. The necessary, messy business of politics requires the sort of compromise that, if practiced within the Jesus Movement, invites judgment. Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God.”

It is so easy for us to put our political and social opinions first and then somehow shape and mold our faith to accommodate these views. In so doing, we quite often enlist Jesus in our passion for that which passes away. Our form of justice becomes God’s justice and our form of mercy becomes God’s mercy.

We have been called to be those who work for God. We are to work and pray for God in our homes, streets, communities and our nation. We plant little seeds of goodness and mercy and they blossom into visible signs of God’s presence. We give up the things that clutter our lives or disguise the fact that we belong to Christ, in order to live into heralding the return of Christ. In the meantime, we fish for people, and in some manner, the way we do this fishing will determine how we will be judged. The Kingdom is yet to come. We can’t create it. But we can create communities dedicated to God’s mission, places where people selflessly serve each other in serving Christ, so that the watching world may catch a glimpse of what God intends. Is your parish such a community?

The Rt. Rev. Tony Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Granite City, in the Diocese of Springfield.

 

Download the sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Finding value in what others overlook, 7 Pentecost, Proper 12 (A) – 2014

July 27, 2014

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the Finger Lakes region of central New York, you can find a delicious and unique treat: concord grape pie. Like many other places in the United States, there are a variety of bakeries and shops in the small towns nestled among the winding roads. They sell all sorts of pies, but grape pie is a specialty. It makes sense, especially given all the vineyards in the Finger Lakes region. So why not make wine and pie?

Vineyards are everywhere. Rows and rows of grape vines next to rows and rows of corn and other crops. So neat and orderly looking – quite pretty. Quite predictable, except for the weeds, of course. You never know where or when they’re going to show up. Just like we can never predict how the Kingdom of God will show up.

Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. What we may not know today, but what the early listeners would have most likely understood, is that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that will constantly and inevitably keep growing and spreading. Have you ever seen ivy on an old house, taking it over completely? Now there’s a visual. That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

But that’s the endgame. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny. The Kingdom of God starts small and unnoticeable. But when the Kingdom comes into its own, it is everywhere, and you can’t miss it. We are part of that growth, part of that kingdom, whether anyone recognizes us for what we are or not. The most important thing is that God knows.

Jesus does not stop there in our gospel lesson today. He gives even more parables – more stories of ordinary things that possibly have extraordinary meanings. Parables like these should be wrestled with.

In his book “The Parables of the Kingdom,” C.H. Dodd wrote:

“At its simplest, a parable is a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or the common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

So, what else do our parables tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven? It says in the gospel that it is like yeast that a woman mixes with flour to make huge amounts of dough – enough for an entire wedding feast. In Jesus’ time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. Unlike the convenient packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients. The Kingdom of Heaven is being modeled after something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life. And yet, God makes it good.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also like a treasure hidden in a field that makes a person sell all they have in order to buy the field that the treasure is in. It is like a pearl of great price that makes the merchant sell all he had in order to have just that one pearl. How valuable is the Kingdom of Heaven? What would you give up everything to possess? Would possession be worth the sacrifice?

The Kingdom of Heaven in your part of God’s vineyard is like … . You fill in the blank.

What is valuable in God’s Kingdom, others may see as junk. How often do we buy into the attitude that on Sundays we carry Jesus in our pocket and take him out for a while, only to put him back in as soon as we leave the parking lot? We get settled in our daily lives the rest of the week and forget whom it is we follow. We might think, “Oh I’m just part of a little church. We can’t do much, so why bother?”

As Lou F. McNeil in his essay on Christianity in Appalachia puts it, “When one’s thinking begins with the parish and its members, rather than the gospel itself, it is likely that ministry and planning will not get beyond the parish and its membership.”

Why bother indeed? Except that God bothers. Then God asks us to bother more than we want.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed and grows into a tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. When that small mustard seed starts growing, it has an advantage, because it can grow in and around the landscape, sheltering those beneath it and giving a place to perch for those above it. This, too, is how the gospel is spread in neighborhoods where churches discern which leaf to unfurl in their present landscape. A little branch here, a little branch there, and suddenly the place is alive with people in the neighborhood being nurtured by the spread of the gospel.

God’s gifts are unexpected, but they are so vast that they require a response. Do we give up our self-centered attitudes and everything else for the Good News of the gospel? That’s a question that will take a lifetime to answer and is easier said than done.

Sometimes we don’t know what to do with the section of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been given. Even right now, we are in flux – we don’t know what the future holds for the church. But even in that unknowing, we have an advocate – the Holy Spirit – that helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. As Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It might not look like what we think it should look like, but God knows better.

We must trust God. The God that uses what others think is unusable. The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon. The God that sees in us what others cannot see. By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is an Episcopal priest serving in the Diocese of Olympia. She is also becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Abundantly present, Proper 12 (A) – 2011

July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today let’s picture the world as an ungainly, promising mass of dough. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The comedian comes out on stage, and starts his routine. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up jokes. His timing is masterful, and the one-liners burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but laugh.

Jesus comes out in front of the crowds and starts his teaching. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up parables. His timing is masterful, and these word-pictures burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but see.

Here there’s a similarity between Jesus and a stand-up comic. The comedian makes you laugh; Jesus makes you see. And what you see is something of the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

The routine Jesus offers in today’s gospel is a bonanza: five short parables in a row. All of them are gems. Parables about a mustard seed, treasure buried in a field, a pricey pearl, a fishing net. Then there’s the one we might focus on this morning: the parable about yeast in the flour.

It’s a one-liner. You might have missed it if you sneezed when the gospel was read. It goes like this: “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.”

Three measures of flour. Do you know how much that is? About eighty pounds! This woman is not Martha Stewart whipping up a couple delicate, exquisite little biscuits that together weigh less than a canary. No, no. This woman is a baker!

She’s emptying sixteen five-pound bags of flour into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve ever seen. She’s pouring in forty-two cups of water. She’s got a mass of dough on her hands that weighs over a hundred pounds. Kneading this lump of dough, shaping it, pounding it. It looks like some scene at the end of a professional wrestling match. Here we have a no-nonsense operation. Sports fans, this is baking at its best. A woman, with her apron dusted with flour, her ten fingers deep into the dough – she’s a combination of Julia Child and Hulk Hogan.

“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.” Jesus tosses out this parable, this one-liner, and he does so for a purpose. Just as the stand-up comic wants us to laugh, Jesus wants us to glimpse the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It’s not just flour any more. The yeast is in the dough, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye.

As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There’s no way to stop it! The movement from mystery to manifestation: Jesus presents this to us as the pulse of the kingdom of heaven. Here is how God’s sovereignty becomes apparent: it resembles the strange transformation that turns flour into dough.

We get to watch the baker woman at work. We’re invited to look at this process and see it for what it’s worth. But if we’re to get a glimpse of the kingdom, if we’re to look down to the center of this parable, then two things are asked of us: we must be patient, and we must exercise discernment.

Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we have to be patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. The baker woman is at work with our life, our circumstances, and the people around us. Nothing is outside this lump of dough.

We need to be patient and to exercise discernment if a lump of dough is ever to be bread for the world. And we must exercise this same patience and discernment about the universe. Life is something other than a pile of flour and a bit of yeast. Life is an ungainly, promising mass of dough, on its way to becoming abundant bread. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom is present everywhere, and everywhere it becomes manifest for those with eyes to see.

If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. That kingdom is at work, just as yeast is active in the dough. And as yeast is invisible and known by its effects, so the kingdom is hidden, concealed, buried deep in ordinary circumstances, yet known by its effects.

Look at your life in the light of grace. Something is there for you to find – whether you feel happy or sad, whether your life seems successful or disastrous, whether you call yourself a winner or a loser. That something is the activity of the kingdom, yeast bubbling away in your corner of the lump.

And when you find the kingdom among the realities of your life, nothing prevents you from finding this same kingdom present as well in the circumstances around you, in the lives of other people, and everywhere you choose to look.

There’s one caution to keep in mind. The kingdom does not come with brass bands. It is not the subject of headline news and public-relations efforts. We are talking here about yeast working invisibly in the dough, a hidden yet potent activity.

As it takes faith to believe that bread will rise, so too faith is necessary to see the kingdom manifest in the everyday and the ordinary. We must exercise patience and discernment wherever God places us. Then we will see that what seems like a dead lump is in fact bubbling with divine life.

So may each of us go forth this week, and encounter places and people and circumstances, and look there for the kingdom: not as distant, but near at hand; not as obvious, but hidden; not as static, but alive and becoming manifest; a kingdom making room for all of us.

When we look for the kingdom, then we find it present, abundantly present. And when we do, then we have more reasons to give thanks than we ever expected.

We discover it’s true, that one-liner Jesus tells us. All the world is a lump of dough, flour with yeast mixed in, and SURPRISE! God’s a baker woman making bread.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

Have we understood all this?, Proper 12 (A) – 2008

July 27, 2008

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?”

Without hesitating, the disciples respond, “Yes!”

Now that “Yes” coming from the very same disciples who only back in Verse 10 were asking, “Why do you teach in parables?” has to strike us as somewhat unbelievable. Add to that 2,000 years or so of church history with extended periods and frequent episodes in which we, the church, quite clearly have not understood all of this, and one can begin to sympathize with Paul who appears to get it just right: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We do not know how to pray as we ought. A tiny book called Prayers and Graces of Thanksgiving, by Paul Simpson McElroy, includes this prayer by an anonymous writer:

“Lord of the Universe, I am a simple man, an ignorant man. Oh, how I wish I had the words to fashion beautiful prayers to praise thee! But alas, I cannot find these words.

“So listen to me, O God, as I recite the letters of the alphabet. You know what I think and how I feel. Take these letters of the alphabet and you form the words that express the yearning, the love for Thee that is in my heart. Amen.”

Have we understood all this?

If we are honest, we might say, “No, not really.”

Years ago, long before becoming Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw, spoke to a group of clergy and addressed one of the Parables of the Kingdom, “The Pearl of Great Value.”

Bishop Shaw began by saying that our God is a very frugal God and does not waste one iota, not one jot or tittle, of our life experience. Each moment we live and breathe on this fragile Earth, our island home, God values and savors who we are and what we are doing – especially the work we do for God’s kingdom.

A hidden truth embedded in the Good News of Jesus, and hidden in these parables like yeast in dough, is that at the end of the day each one of us is the Pearl of Great Value. Through our Baptism, we are made God’s beloved. To show how much our God loves us, he sends his only Son to walk among us, dwell among us, to show us the way of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

So much does God savor our life experience that he did not let us get away with killing his Son, his only Son whom he loves, but returned him to us, so that wherever communities of Christians gather in his name, Jesus himself is in the midst of them, calling us back to the God from whence we come: We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. We are God’s beloved.

Bishop Shaw urged us to think of ourselves as Pearls of Great Value, hidden in this world, for which God was willing to pay a great price: the ultimate price. He sold all that he had to obtain us, to retain us, to bring us home to him.

So precious are we in the eyes of our God, said Bishop Shaw, that we really need to take time each day in our prayers to allow God the time to thank us for what we have done for God today. Every day we are to sit in silence in our prayer time and allow ourselves to feel God thanking us for all that we do for God in this world.

Are we really capable of believing and knowing that God loves us that much? Can we feel like Pearls of Great Value? It is central to the life of faith to accept and receive God’s love – to know how much our God values us and everything that we do.

This is why all these kingdom parables are so important to us. They each point to the hidden-ness of God’s reign in our midst. They each suggest that the life of faith begins with something as small as a little bit of yeast or a single grain of mustard seed. And like the yeast, this faith of ours often remains hidden and unseen – unrecognized.

This is why the disciples ask Jesus for more faith before he sends them out into the world to continue the work of the kingdom. But Jesus replies, “You just need a little bit of faith. With just the smallest amount of faith you can move mountains. With just a little bit of faith you can raise the dead. With just a little faith you will do the things that I do, and greater things than these will you do!”

We do not need to do big and heroic things. Though in truth, as God’s own pearls of great value, every little thing we do brings a smile to God’s face. And the more we let God thank us for what we can do for God, the more confident and empowered we become as God’s own people. And soon the people around us and the people we meet begin to feel like pearls of great value as well.

It does begin with faith. But all we really need is faith as small as a mustard seed to make the whole creation new. To give new life to our own tired bodies. To put a smile on the face of a stranger. To plant seeds of God’s love throughout the neighborhood in which God has made his home.

How ought we to pray? Like the anonymous author of the alphabet prayer, we can recite the letters and leave it to God to put our thoughts together for us. But as Pearls of Great Value to God, we would do better to be still, and know that God is with us. In the stillness and in the silence, give God the time to thank you for who you are: God’s Beloved with whom God is well pleased. And allow God to thank you for what you have done for God today.

The life of faith begins with accepting God’s love into our hearts, minds, and souls. Without that, we are nothing. With God’s love poured into our hearts we become Pearls of Great Value.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Md., a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.