Sunday, July 27, 2014
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52 (NRSV)
Today, I am going to do something absolutely amazing. I’m going to lift an entire tree using just my thumb and index finger. First, let me do some stretching exercises. [Go through an exaggerated series of hand stretches] Are you ready? [Reach into bag and lift out a single seed] Are you amazed? Do you like my tree? [Listen for someone to point out that you hold a seed, instead of a tree. If no one does…] Okay, so it’s just a seed! It’s a really tiny seed too…One of the tiniest seeds of all. I’ll bet you can’t even see this seed from where you’re sitting. You’ll just have to take my word for it – it’s here! – hidden between my two fingers. Now I’ll tell you something really amazing: inside this seed are all the things that make it grow into a tree…Just add water, sunlight, and good dirt. In time, a tree will grow. Every tree produces different kinds of seeds. Do you think an apple tree will grow peaches? [Allow children to respond] Would a palm tree grow oranges? [Allow children to respond] Each seed knows exactly what kind of tree it came from and what kind of tree it will grow up to be.
In the Bible, Jesus talks about seeds and trees and faith. He tells us this story: Once upon a time, there was a mustard seed. It’s one of the smallest seeds in nature. It doesn’t look like much, but it grows and grows and grows until it becomes a mustard tree. It’s so big that birds can perch on its branches. Let’s all pretend to be mustard seeds. [Crouching down] If you were to crouch down and make yourself as small as you can you’d be kind of like a seed. How could we grow ourselves into trees? [Allow children to respond. Possible answers include stand up, spread our arms, etc.] Now, if we very, very slowly start to stand up., it’s like we’re growing. [“Grow” in slow motion for dramatic effect.] Make your arms like branches that sprout out from the trunk of a tree. Keep growing until you’re as tall as you can be. Stretch your arms as wide as you can stretch them. We’ve got a whole orchard of trees now. New seeds can grow and birds can use your branches as nesting places. OK, let’s all sit down again.
There’s a lesson that we often hear when we talk about the Mustard Seed Story in the Bible. Usually when we tell this story we use it to encourage the church that even small ideas can grow into big ideas when given the proper nurture and care. We talk about how nobody is insignificant and how our faith may start out small, but it will grow bigger as we learn to know more about God in our lives. Now these are really good lessons for us to learn, but today I want us to think about how these several parables fit together and move us beyond the typical understanding of the Mustard Seed. So, let’s go back through the list:
THE MUSTARD SEED – it is this tiny seed, small enough to hide between my two fingers. It’s very difficult to see and it typically grows wild. It is unlikely that ancient farmers planted it on purpose very often.
YEAST – even a small amount of yeast hidden in a batch of dough will act and cause the dough to rise into bread much larger than the original dough.
TREASURE HIDDEN IN A FIELD – Accidentally found, the hidden treasure causes the man to go sell all that he has so that he can buy the one field where the treasure lies hidden.
PEARL OF GREAT VALUE – lying amongst many ordinary pearls, this one pearl is special and so the man sells all that he has just to purchase the one great pearl he has found.
GOOD FISH HIDDEN WITH THE BAD – the fishermen catch many fish and sort through them to select the best fish hidden among those of lesser value.
I have to wonder if the primary emphasis of the Mustard Seed parable is on growth, or does its placement with these other stories imply another meaning? Do these parables point us toward something “invasive and unpredictable about the kingdom of God?” What is it that Matthew wants us to find among these hidden things? Could it be that God has something unexpected in mind for us? The tiny mustard seed finds itself lying undetected in a bag of other, more dominant seeds. When the handfuls of seeds are sown, the mustard seed finds its way into the soil and manages to survive somehow. It is not the crop that is desired and nobody suspects it is even there…no one notices. Eventually, the seed germinates, sprouts, and grows. The result is a re-oriented understanding of what is expected from the crop. Unlike the tares from last week, the mustard tree is not destructive, in fact it has its uses; it is simply unexpected and surprising.
The disciples were probably surprised to hear Jesus compare God’s kingdom to a mustard seed. They would have assumed that cultivating such a kingdom would be more orderly and predictable than the story about tiny seeds invading the crop. This is so typical of Jesus to hide an unexpected message within what seems like an obvious story. We talked last week about how we tend to want to draw boundaries for who is in and who is out of God’s kingdom. We want to bring order to the chaos. We want to see clear edges. We want to know and set the limits. “In the church, we want to be able to define what fits within it and what does not.” (Theodore Wardlaw) We do that by setting up formulas…We have scripture…We have creeds…We have liturgy…We have traditions. We make “official statements” about baptism. We set boundaries – neat little rows of carefully guarded doctrine and practice. What happens next can be frustrating for us: The voice of God whispers in our ear and pushes us beyond the boundaries we set. We are forced to think about whether our boundaries may have set limits on God’s hospitality. In this sense, the kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that invades the neat and tidy farmer’s field and bursts forth with something big, unexpected and useful.
That happens a lot to us – God invades our orderly sense of things; we get comfortable and God leads us to something or someone unexpected. These little surprises in our life are there, just out of sight, hidden among the ordinary. In a sack of seeds, in the sea of faces, among the people walking through the church doors…Like a tiny seed, or a rich treasure; like a valuable pearl hidden among the many or the tastiest fish hidden amid the whole catch…Hurting people hidden behind masks of self-reliance. Important truth hiding in the midst of too-familiar liturgy and waning enthusiasm. Each of the parables we heard this morning describe God’s kingdom using images of something hidden, then found, then desired. We think we see things so clearly…We’re doing all the right things…They are simply beyond our ability to help…He has gone too far, done too much…We know what God wants and that ain’t it! Hidden within the things we think we understand is the kingdom of God – unexpectedly invading our space. Before we know it, God’s hidden kingdom has transformed what we thought we were so sure of and redeemed it. Out of the whispering voice of God comes the victory shout as we stand surprised and amazed at the truth we were missing. Suddenly the boundaries are changed and we are no longer the gate keepers.
The story is told of a man who had been on the outs with the church since he was a teenager. The church, he said, was too concerned about the rules, so he left and said he was finished with it. His father worked on him, begging him to give the church another chance, and finally the man agreed that he would. He got up the nerve one Sunday and wandered into a church. The congregation was in the middle of the prayer of confession. “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.” The man heard these words and smiled to himself. “Good! This sounds like my kind of crowd.”
Today’s message is both – FOR us and ABOUT us. Matthew wants us to realize that we sometimes miss God’s treasure because it is hidden in plain sight and we can’t see the forest for the trees. Matthew also wants us to hear that sometimes we are the ones who are hiding God’s truth from others. One of the most important lessons we learn when we do Vacation Bible School is that the best way to teach Jesus to anybody is to keep it simple and have fun. This message does not need to be complicated. It doesn’t need to be surrounded by all the obvious trappings of “church” as we sometimes do it. The message – Jesus – stands clear on its own and it is so simple that we miss it hiding in the middle of all our falderal. Jesus came to reveal to us the God who made us and loves us and wants to be with us. He shows us a perfect example of how we are supposed to treat one another and how to live in the world. He reminds us that we are all flawed and broken and that’s OK. All he asks is that we do our best to change our lives from the mess we’ve made into the blessed he offers. In the end, whenever that is, God will indeed separate the weeds from the wheat…There will come a time when the bad fish will be thrown back in the water. This world is not our home and someday we will find out what our eternity looks like. In the meantime, seek those hidden surprises from God and do all you have to grab hold of them. Recognize the hidden treasure and the finest peal, and the best fish. And, please, don’t hide what God gives you behind a smoke screen of religion that prevents others from seeing what God has revealed to you. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.