~Eight Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 26, 2020
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And Jesus said, “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” This was a sharp group that Jesus was talking with that day—very wise to have understood all this on their first hearing! For me, this reading takes a little ‘unpacking!’ In this reading, we hear Jesus describing “The kingdom of heaven.” Come to find out, calling it “the kingdom of heaven” is St. Matthew’s preferred way of referring to what two other evangelists, St. Mark and St. Luke call, “the kingdom of God—or the reign of God.” This, in and of itself, helps us understand more clearly that what Jesus is talking about is a relationship rather than a place. Jesus is saying, in essence, this is what it is like to be in relationship with God.
In this reading, we hear several of these comparisons, of what it is like to be in relationship with God. First of all, we hear that to be in relationship with God is like being a mustard seed. We can understand that we are this seed—tiny and insignificant. But, when we are planted in God’s field, when we break away from our aloneness, our singleness without God, and join in relationship with God, we grow in all kinds of unimagined ways.
Similarly, we also hear that this relationship with God is like the yeast that is mixed in with the flour to make bread. I hear that with so many people staying home these days that baking bread has become a popular pastime. So, many of us, either from our own experience or maybe from watching a parent or grandparent when we were small children, will recall what happens when that yeast is added in. I remember when my father baked, he placed the dough in a large crockery bowl and put a moist towel over the bowl. A few hours later we’d come back and remove the towel, and to my great surprise that little ball of dough had taken over all of the interior space of that big bowl! Like the growth of the mustard seed, when we join in relationship with God, this is our path, to grow into the fullness of what we are, or who we are; we grow in to the fullest expression of our unique being.
We move next to three other comparisons that Jesus makes: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; and the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. Each of these has its own special quality to suggest about our relationship with God.
Let’s look first at the treasure hidden in the field. The background on this teaching story is that a person was tilling around on some land that he did not own, and discovered this enormous treasure—so great, in fact, that when this person discovered the treasure, he immediately hid it back into the ground. Now in Jesus’ day, since there were not safety deposit boxes at nearby banks or other means of securing objects of wealth, it was not uncommon for folks to bury their treasures in the ground. Suggested in Jesus’ teaching story, either the landowner forgot his treasure was buried there, or maybe the landowner died and left no information for his heirs to know that the treasure was there. The finder of this great treasure clearly understands that this wealth is greater than the sum of all of his accumulated possessions, so he sells everything, and purchases the field to claim the treasure. I won’t get into the ethics of this purchase because I have read biblical scholars that take positions on both sides of the ethical argument, and I think this detail distracts from the arc of the teaching story. Primarily, the story tells us of a person who discovered the greatest treasure of all and experiences equally great joy. This person does everything within his power to claim that treasure and that joy. Further distilled, let’s understand this teaching tale as saying that this person has had a conversion experience, suddenly finding a treasured relationship with God and fully understanding the enormous value in this relationship; understanding that this relationship is greater than all of his possessions combined, and does everything within his power to claim that relationship and its inherent joy.
A similar story, the merchant who searched for years for fine pearls, also finds THE ONE, THE PEARL of GREAT VALUE, sells all and purchases it. There are obvious parallels between these two stories of finding something of unbelievable value and selling all to claim the prize. The difference between the stories, and I believe what Jesus was describing here, is that there are those of us who have quick and radical conversion experiences—as portrayed by the man who bought the field—people who discover God and immediately understand the value of this relationship. But there are others who, by contrast, work at this relationship day after day, year after year—just as the merchant who must have looked at millions of pearls before he found THE ONE of great value. Our relationship can take either form. One is not better than the other.
I think of my friend George, whose daughter had been murdered. He and his wife had gone through the most difficult days of waiting to hear of her whereabouts and then getting the call from the coroner’s office in a distant city. They went to claim the body and make funeral arrangements. George, a man who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, a self-made man, had done quite well for himself according to worldly standards. But, this blow was devastating. Aside from his relationship with his sweet wife, George only had his wealth and status to fall back on. And this proved to be no safety net. George was distraught. However, he came home from the funeral, and felt called to go into his bedroom and shut the door. He then entered the closet of that bedroom, and again shut the door. What he did next surprised this man who had never been one to pray. He felt compelled to fall to his knees there, alone in that closet, and ask God for help. George says that at that time, he palpably felt the love of God comfort him and bring him into relationship with God. This relationship, like a mustard seed, like yeast and flour, grew and grew. It grew George up beyond his own self-acknowledged arrogance and insecurity. George grew into becoming a deacon and in God’s own fertile field, God and George grew something of their own: The Episcopal Prison Ministry in Oklahoma, where George became well-known throughout the state as a prison chaplain and friend to prisoners. George was often asked if serving those in the state’s prisons might have actually exposed him to his daughter’s killer. And George always responded to this question in the same way… “It very well may have. That’s OK. I’ve forgiven him.”
Less dramatic are the many, many people I know who have built their relationship with God day by day, year by year. That number probably includes most of us, doesn’t it? And, that’s OK; that’s wonderful! The interesting thing inherent in all these parables is that God is there first, and it is we who by surprise or by plodding, discover God.
This brings us to the last teaching story in this series (paraphrased), God’s kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down and put the good into baskets and threw out the bad. What a timely message! What Good News is this!?! This net that God casts is for everyone! All are welcome! This has long been a motto here at St. Augustine of Canterbury, and here we learn is God’s own value: All are welcome! The sorting is not done by color of skin. It is not based on who we love. It is not based on our wealth or our lack; it is not done by how smart we are, or how healthy or good looking we are. It is not based on whether our politics are conservative or liberal. The sorting is simply made based on “good” or “bad.” And while our God of compassion and love surely has a deeper understanding of what constitutes good and what constitutes bad, here we are given to understand that in the end, there will be a reckoning. How have we lived the gift of life that we’ve been given?
In this Gospel lesson, we are pointed to consider what we value. Posing the question, “What do you most value in your life?” I can imagine a range of answers from “my spouse or family” to “my home.” Maybe “peace wherever I can find it” makes the list, or “my skill to earn a living.” We can go lots of different directions on this. But I wonder how many of us will also list, “My relationship with God”? When we name it and nurture this relationship like we would with anyone we love, the relationship will grow into something larger than ourselves. We grow into our fullest expression of what God created and calls us to be and do in this life. This relationship will be there as a tremendous support when we have little to fall back on. And in other times, let us share this Good News of Jesus with others who may be alone and feeling insignificant, who may be searching for something larger than themselves.
This brings us to consider what concrete form our relationship with God takes on this earthly, human-to-human, plane. I think it’s important to first of all, remember that we are born in the image and likeness of God—God made us to reflect Godliness! That’s a lot to think about, but God didn’t create us and leave us here to sort it out on our own! We must steep ourselves in and follow the teachings of Jesus: Love God, love ourselves, and as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is so fond of saying, “Oh, and while you’re at it, love yourself, too!” We must invite and allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit—actually, pay attention to when the Holy Spirit is nudging and directing us, inspiring our thinking and feeling, creating openings for us to do the right thing, be the right people; creating openings for us to meet the Holy. When we do these things, doesn’t it follow that we will resist evil and whenever we miss the mark, will repent and return to our relationship with God? Doesn’t it follow that we will want to share this Good News about Christ with others through our own words and deeds? Doesn’t it follow that we will seek to find this Christ we love in all persons and want to serve Christ in them—that we will love others as we love ourselves? And, doesn’t it follow, that we will do whatever we can to strive for justice and peace, that we will respect the dignity of every human being? And, surely, doesn’t it follow that to live in this way—a so much larger life—that we will need God’s help and fall on that relationship daily?
And Jesus said, “Have you understood all this?” and they answered, “Yes!”
~ Fr. Tony Moon