God in the world now
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …” (Matthew 13:31).
Lectionary blog for July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: I Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136;
Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
By Delmer Chilton
Jesus has talked a great deal about farming in our recent Gospel lessons. My friend Mark Scott is like a lot of pastors I know. They don’t know much about life on the farm. Though he grew up in east Tennessee, Mark is no farm kid; his dad was a manager at the Eastman Kodak plant in Kingsport. Mark was a town kid through and through. He called me the last time these lessons came up and told me he simply could not deal with any more Bible stories about farming. I advised him to preach on Paul.
Understanding what Jesus is getting at in all these short parables about the kingdom of heaven is not easy, even for an old farm boy like me. I get the framing side, but like the disciples, I don’t always get the spiritual side. It’s important to remember that Jesus in not talking about farming, and he’s not talking about heaven with a capital H, the beautiful city with streets of gold where we go when we die, the eternal destiny of our souls. Jesus is talking about the divine activity of God in the world now, in the midst of our ordinary, earthbound existence. He is talking about the hidden holiness lurking about in the mundane monotony of our daily lives.
In this Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is, at one and the same time, a very present reality in the world and also very difficult to discern and locate in the world. In particular, we are reminded the kingdom of heaven is not something we create; it is rather a treasure that God has already created and given to us and that when we find it (or more correctly) when it finds us, we are called to give ourselves to it completely.
Our lesson today consists of six analogies starting with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like.” And these six analogies come in three sets of two that are similar to each other. This parallelism is typical of Hebrew thought and poetry. The first set is the mustard seed becoming a large tree and the yeast acting on flour and water to make bread. The second set is the treasure found in a field and a pearl of great value found in a shop. The third set is the net of every kind of fish and a homeowner showing off his stuff.
Let’s look first at the mustard seed and the yeast. These stories are about how the work of God is often slow and subtle, not fast and flashy. They also teach us that, unless you know the whole story, you won’t even notice what God is doing. And this is most important: Often the one who plants the seed is not around to see it grow. The kingdom’s work in the world is often hidden from our eyes, but Jesus assures us that the kingdom is here and it is working, like a seed beneath the soil or yeast in bread dough.
The second set of images is the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great value. The point here is not so much the surprise of finding the valuable items, but the whole-hearted response of the farmhand and the pearl merchant to their good fortune. The farmhand stumbled upon his treasure, the pearl merchant searched long and hard for his, but both gave up everything to possess the prize.
Some people go through life never giving God a second thought, and then, suddenly, they find themselves overwhelmed by the presence of God in their lives. Others spend years diligently searching, praying, thinking about the meaning of life and eternity, unable to feel God fully, and then they find it, or rather “it” finds them. Either way, the important thing is that both the farmer and the merchant give away everything they have in response to the new treasure in their lives.
The famous Ryman Auditorium was the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. It began as a church, built around 1900 as a preaching place for the then famous evangelist Sam Jones. Jones was holding a month-long revival there once, and it turned into what the Methodists used to call a “quittin’ meeting,” during which people confessed their sins and swore off things like drinking and smoking and running around and the like. Jones called upon one ultra-pious lady in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said, “I ain’t been doing nothing and I’m going to quit that too!” These two parables, about a treasure in the field and a pearl of great price, are a call to us to “quit doing nothin’” in response to the great treasure of the gospel, the kingdom of heaven. We are called to give up all else in order to have this beautiful thing as a part of our lives.
The third set of parables, the fish in the net and the homeowner showing off the old and the new, reminds us of the radical inclusivity of the kingdom of heaven. People of every kind and every time are a part of God’s kingdom. One church I served in a southern city had a significant ethnic diversity. Our vacation Bible school was held at night, and one evening parents and teachers were standing around in the gathering darkness, enjoying the cool of the evening while the children were out in the side yard playing. They were boys and girls, black and white, ages 3 to 13. They were playing a game called “ghosts in the graveyard,” a version of hide-and-seek. I stood on the church stoop and watched and listened. What I saw was joy and what I heard was laughter.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? Maybe it’s like a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. When you really can’t tell who’s who, differences cease to matter. Surprises are around every corner, activity is going on whether you see it or not, and it really doesn’t matter who’s looking for whom; for the game’s the thing. The joy comes because of the good news that everyone gets found in the end.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.