Scripture - Matthew 13:31-33 and 44-46
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Throughout the four gospels, Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God, or what Matthew prefers to call the kingdom of heaven, more than any other topic. And yet, most of us would be hard pressed to define it. This slippery concept is difficult to grasp because Jesus talks about the kingdom as something present, but also as something yet to come. He says God's realm is in heaven, but it also emerges here on earth. He talks about it as being in plain view, but also hidden. So, how can we possibly make sense of this elusive concept?
In today's passage, Jesus tells four pithy parables about the kingdom that furnish valuable insights. In the first, Jesus says God's kingdom "is like a mustard seed that someone 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."
Picture a mustard seed which is only slightly larger than the head of a pin. Jesus reminds us that inside this one millimeter seed is the potential to create a large tree. When you pause to think about it, it's truly remarkable.
Jesus says God's kingdom grows in a similar fashion. Something so tiny that it is easy to overlook can produce amazing results. Jesus not only says that the small seed can produce a large tree, he adds the detail that the seed grows into a tree "so that the birds can build homes in its branches." The tiny seed not only produces something grand, but something that supports and enhances life.
When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed, he hoped to inspire his followers. Jesus was teaching and healing, sure signs of God's kingdom, but his initial impact was paltry.
In the first century, the Roman Empire was not only geographically extensive, covering most of the known world, but it possessed overwhelming power and influence. Further, it seemed as if it might hold sway over people's lives forever. On the other hand, the ministry of Jesus was confined to a small territory and touched only a limited number of people. Compared to Rome, the ministry of Jesus seemed inconsequential. It was as invisible as a tiny seed planted in the ground. Yet when we consider the growth of what Jesus began, it is beyond belief. The Christian faith has touched every corner of the earth and shaped the course of history.
Can you imagine the response of the handful of followers Jesus sent out to spread the gospel if he had told them that one day their efforts would reap a harvest of over a billion people around the globe? They would have phoned the mental health experts to take him away! Jesus did not make any projections, but he reminded his followers that something small can grow into something grand.
Then, Jesus drops another one sentence parable on them. He "moves from the outside male world of farming to the domestic female world of baking."1 Jesus says God's kingdom "is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Similar to the mustard seed, God is at work in invisible ways, like yeast mixed into dough to make it increase in size and give it a new quality.
The disciples must have wondered if their efforts were accomplishing anything worthwhile. There certainly was not much to show for it. Jesus compares God's kingdom to yeast mixed into dough. Yeast is actively changing the essence of the ingredients before we are aware of it. Yeast is an unnoticed energy that transforms its surroundings. We cannot see the chemical reaction that is taking place, but we would make an enormous mistake if we said that because we don't see it, nothing is happening.
God is at work transforming the world whether we recognize it or not. What we generally see is that it takes forever to establish justice; and peace always seems elusive.
It is heart-breaking to see that the Hamas-Israeli conflict raging yet again. Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli towns and cities. The Israeli army is extracting a heavy civilian death toll. "Israelis are correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas and Palestinians are correct that they have a right to a state...(and) to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land."2
Following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youth, I wrote a statement for Delaware Churches for Middle East Peace. If you did not see it in The News Journal, here is the statement:
We deplore the murders of the three Jewish youth in the West Bank. There is no justification for these vicious murders. Such acts of violence embolden those who thirst for vengeance, encourage those who profit from perpetuating strife and dim hopes for resolving the conflict.
Further, it triggers deadly retaliation - I wrote this before the Palestinian youth was burned alive and before Hamas began firing rockets at Israeli communities and before the Israelis killed more than 800 trapped in Gaza. No one could have predicted the extent of the killing that would ensue, but retaliation was a foregone conclusion.
The statement continues: Further, it triggers deadly retaliations that destroy more innocent lives while adding energy to the spiral of death. And the forces of evil triumph again - thwarting attempts at reconciliation and pushing any resolution further into the future.
However, we are called to resist powers of darkness, to seek justice for all and to do the impossible work of peacemaking in a world gone mad. As followers of the one we know as the Prince of Peace, who prayed for his enemies and commanded us to do the same, we deepen our resolve to work for a just and lasting peace in the land that is holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Many say that conflict in the Middle East is inevitable. It will continue to be an eye for an eye and innocent people will continue to suffer. However, there are dreamers who refuse to give in to the madness and are tireless in mixing yeast into the batter and planting tiny seeds of hope.
That is the focus of the Peace Drums project in Galilee. We are supplying steel drums for middle school students who are Jewish, Christian and Muslim and helping them make music together in a single band. We hope the students and their parents will get to know each other and some of the stereotypes they have of the other will fall away as they make personal connections.
In the midst of rockets, tanks, bombs and bullets many would say, "It is a waste of time to create a youth band. It is miniscule in the scope of all that is happening."
It is true that it is small, but these parables of the mustard seed and the yeast inspire us. Though Jesus and his disciples were not even a blip on the Roman Empire's radar, these parables remind us that God can use small, seemingly insignificant actions to transform the world. Small efforts, well-timed actions and God-inspired projects can lead to something astonishing.
Jesus tells a third parable. He says God's kingdom "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."
Similar to the first two parables, the kingdom is something not seen by many. It is imperceptible, like a buried treasure. But, if you stumble upon it and recognize its value, you will do whatever you can to possess it.
What do you value? Your family, your home, our faith community? What do you value? Friends? Laughter? Good health? What do you value? Honesty? Freedom? Hope?
Some of you remember Terry Waite, who was assigned by the archbishop of Canterbury as an envoy to Beirut to negotiate the release of hostages, but it went badly. He became a hostage himself and for four years he was in a tiny cell in a Beirut prison, cut off from everything he loved. Cut off from his family, his church and his country; he was isolated and alone.
Over the years, though, he developed a sense of trust with those who were guarding him to the point that one of them did something very risky. He slipped a transistor radio into Terry Waite's cell. For the first time, Waite could have contact with the outside world. It had one precious battery with no indication there would ever be another one.
If you were in that situation, what would you do? Would you turn to a station with news to find out what is happening in the world? Would you listen to music?
When Terry Waite was given the radio, he did not turn it on that day. He did not turn it on the next day, either. The third day, he did not turn it on. On the fourth day he turned on the radio. It was Sunday and he tuned in the BBC to hear a worship service.3 He knew what would give him strength to endure his ordeal; he knew what would satisfy his hunger; he knew what would breathe life into him and rekindle his hope. Terry Waite knew a hidden treasure when he spotted it.
Our fourth and final parable is similar to the third. Jesus says God's kingdom "is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it." God's kingdom is not always apparent; we must keep our eyes peeled for it or we will overlook it. But if we discover it and we are willing to risk everything for it, it can transform our lives.
While visiting Los Angeles, Mark Ramsey stopped in to see Father Gregory Boyle's Homeboy Industries. This remarkable ministry helps young people escape gang life and establish a new existence. He ate lunch at "Home Girl CafÃ©," that employs only former gang members. He was led to his table by a young woman with a bandage on her neck that covered the painful process of removing a tattoo that identified her former gang. Later, he heard her say how grateful she was to have that job and to not be working the streets.
After lunch, Mark walked through the store where they sold merchandise to support the ministry. The cashier was a young woman who bore signs of former gang life. She said in a voice where everyone around could hear: "If you have questions, ask me. Ask me about the shirts, ask me about the hats, ask me about my life. Really, ask me anything. I'm telling you, I was gone, but I'm here."4 That says it all, doesn't it? I was gone, but I'm here.
In the midst of all the phony glittering gems the world serves up as treasure, she found the true treasure that brings health and wholeness to our soul. In a world cluttered with flashy enticements and false promises, she can spot God's kingdom and she knows that to embrace it is to save your life.
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