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July 26, 2020 is Pentecost 8A/Proper 12A/Ordinary 18A
1 Kings 3:5-12
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?
The semi-continuous (summary just before June 14) Old Testament readings continue our walk through in Genesis, culminating on September 13 with (spoiler alert) Joseph forgiving his brothers in Genesis 50. In this Sunday’s passage, the tables turn on Jacob, who works seven years to marry Rachel, but Laban sneaks in Leah instead, so Jacob has to work another seven years for Rachel.
Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your statutes.
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Remember the covenant that God made with Abraham, the promise to Isaac, confirmed to Jacob, to Israel, an everlasting covenant: “To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.”
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Wisdom – 1 Kings 3
The prayer from 1 Kings is the one in which Solomon prays for wisdom instead of wealth, power, or glory. God is pleased with the prayer. “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right…”
Ecclesiastes purportedly records some of the wisdom God gave Solomon.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
There hasn’t been a bestselling book entitled The Prayer of Solomon like there was The Prayer of Jabez. Wealth sells. Wisdom? Not so much. And yet, in this pandemic, we have found that wisdom and prudence can protect us and those we love, while ignorance kills.
I am reminded of some of Paul’s words that my beloved mother, may she rest in peace, often quoted:
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12
‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. – 1 Corinthians 10:23
Psalm 111 may be a better match for today’s first lesson and Gospel reading than Psalm 119. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Convinced – Romans 8
As 1 Corinthians 13 is to weddings, so this section of Romans 8 is to funerals. And just as Paul wasn’t talking about marriage in Corinthians…. This is the end of the first section in Paul’s letter, a section in which he addresses the unity of Gentiles and Jews. He then goes on to the unity of Jews and Christians beginning with chapter 9, and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians beginning with chapter 12. This section of Romans is about unity through diversity in Christ.
There is a lot of wisdom, and homiletical material in this passage.
26Likewise 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…
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?…
35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Neither Death Nor Life” (ELW 622) is a joyful rendering of this passage. Congregations easily pick up the refrain, and it sticks in the ear.
Seeds and Yeast – Matthew 13
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “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…”
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And 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.”
We are in three weeks of Matthew 13. Last week we learned that kingdom of heaven is like…
- good seeds that bear fruit when sown on good soil but are choked in other places
- good seeds sown along with weeds, to be sorted out in the harvest at the end of time
This week we hear that the kingdom is like…
- a mustard seed, which starts small but grows big
- yeast, a catalyst for growth
- a great, hidden treasure
- a pearl of great value
- a net used to gather, then sort
Seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, nets. The kingdom of heaven is something that starts small, maybe hidden, then grows into something significant, and worth great value, though mixed in this life and needing to be sorted out at the end of time. We dealt with the sorting out business last week, so let’s start with the mustard seed and yeast.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Jesus is still outside the house, in the boat on the lake, speaking to the crowds at this point. He tells the crowds that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, very small. In time it grows to a huge bushy tree.
The mustard seed isn’t technically the smallest seed. This is probably not sermon material, but the wise preacher should know, and it might come up in a Bible Study with agriculturally astute readers. Mark puts it even more poignantly, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” There were plenty of smaller seeds, known to Palestinians even in Jesus’ day. There are lots of microscopic seeds, but even among seeds visible to the naked eye, there are some pretty small ones. Begonia seeds are 1/100th of an inch. Petunia seeds are 1/50th of an inch. Mustard seeds are 1/20th of an inch. Black and white mustard are 1/8th of an inch.
Mustard does not need to be planted by the seed. It propagates on its own, quite nicely. Pliny the Elder says it’s a garden plant. The Mishnah says mustard grows wild in the fields. We don’t know how the Israelites or Palestinians used mustard plants. There are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall growing near the Jordan, but the branches are not strong enough to support birds’ nests. Click here for more on mustard plants than anyone wants to know.
Jesus is not teaching botany. He’s making a point with poetic means. With fundamentalism in the water, many people still read the Bible like it’s a science book, taking its cosmology, anthropology, and botany as gospel. Jesus is pointing to spiritual matters not physical matters. Any reader of the gospels must learn to read hyperbole and allegory. When someone says, “He was the largest of people,” it is not to say, he was the very largest person, but among them. Jesus uses hyperbole a lot. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…” “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…” If we get into scientific truth claims in the Bible, we are on the wrong track. Jesus is talking about the growth of the kingdom, not botany.
This is not the only place Jesus mentions the mustard seed in Matthew. Jesus uses them to create an image of smallness, perhaps because they are so prolific in Palestine. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says if we had the faith of a tiny mustard seed (a tiny amount) we could uproot trees, in fact, he says, nothing would be impossible. This is a relief, since Jesus is constantly reminding them how little faith they have. Apparently, a little dab’ll do ya’. You can pick up a spice bottle of mustard seeds at the grocery and show it, even if you’re doing online worship. It helps people get the point.
The next verse compares the kingdom of God to yeast. The point seems to be similar; a small amount has significant impact. A little bit yields explosive growth. The woman mixes in three measures of flour, and the yeast leavens the whole bunch. The yeast grows and has influence, like the gospel. Not by our exhaustive effort, though we add yeast and plant seeds. It’s all built into the way nature works.
Jesus uses images like this, everyday household images that capture the imagination. “You are the salt of the earth.” A little salt affects the flavor of the whole dish. A little pinch can make a big difference unless of course the salt has lost its saltiness, in which case it’s worthless and should be thrown out. The brave preacher/teacher could chase this rabbit down the trail. I had to throw out some yeast recently. It had gotten old. When I proofed it, it wouldn’t rise.
The kingdom starts small but expands. It may seem humble and insignificant now, but it moves toward greatness. Watch!
And how right Jesus has been. Could the disciples have imagined the gospel would grow from their small band of traveling disciples in Galilee to what it is today?
Beware, however. The greatness is not in the numbers, but in the power of what God can do, is doing and will be doing in the world. Granted, the church is part of that future as the visible presence of Jesus in the world, the body of Christ, but we are not the end product. Sometimes the church misses the point, and other times God uses those outside the church to bring the kingdom. The end product is peace, justice, healing, righteousness, and hope. The growth is not the spread of a religious institution, but the message of hope in God’s future for the world.
What does this future hope for the world look like? Are we jumping into what God is doing in the world, or trying to get God on our agenda? Are we jumping into what God is doing in the world, or content to build a personal kingdom in our church?
The kingdom is like a hidden treasure which someone found. Or a pearl of great price for which you sell everything to own. I doubt Jesus explained his metaphors and similes. I suspect he spoke enigmatically in parables, and this was part of his allure. People leaned in to hear and then leaned back to ponder. His healing ministry gave him credibility.
The kingdom is hidden. It isn’t obvious or in your face. It lurks beneath the surface of life. If you aren’t looking you could miss it. But for those who seek it will find it. Knock, and the door will open.
The last image is that of a net. The kingdom is like a net that is thrown into the sea. Once drawn ashore, people put the good fish in baskets and throw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age (end of time?). Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, God will sort out good and evil at the harvest.
Have you seen this mustard seed/yeast phenomenon in your town? Have you seen it change lives, grow and spread in the world? If not, why not, do you think? What could be inhibiting growth? Revisit The Parable of the Sower and the Seed from two weeks ago. What birds, rocky soil, sun, or thorns are in the way? What roots need to be set?
The great joy of the preacher/teacher is this: all we have to do is plant seeds, sprinkle yeast. The gospel does the rest. The Word has power. It is a catalyst. We plant this tiny seed of possibility and hope for what God might be doing in the world, and the Spirit does the heavy lifting. Through our preaching and teaching about the kingdom we spark imaginations and stuff happens. Often things will happen that we could not possibly have imagined ourselves. I’ve seen it happen. A homeless ministry is started by a member who is captivated by the problem, and the call that haunts her dreams. A divorce ministry is started by a broken person who found a healing so great it had to be passed on to others. Ministry is most exciting when it is out of control, greater than the leader could accomplish alone, even beyond the leaders’ imagined future.
This explosive gospel power works even when we are in this exile of quarantine. Maybe the power of the gospel is seen even more clearly in crisis. Some people who are out of work, and struggling to pay the rent need food. Knowing Jesus’ concern for the hungry, one person plants a mustard seed idea of sharing food. Dozens of people show up to make a difference.
What jewels of hidden treasure have been revealed to you? What tiny mustard seeds has God planted in the good soil of your heart? This summer, stir up the imaginations of your people for what God is doing in the world, during this pandemic. Give them permission to run amok. Plant that seed. Add that yeast. See what happens. See if the gospel is indeed like yeast, or a tiny seed, with the incredible power of life and growth in it.