Roberta Felker delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on July 24, 2011. The readings from the common lectionary for the day were 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33.
Most of the gospel readings this month come from a collection of parables, sometimes called the sermon on the water or the Kingdom parables, stories that form the structural and thematic heart of Matthew. We can view them as concrete examples, intended to help us simple folks who might not otherwise understand these lofty spiritual matters. And it also may be that through parables, Jesus was reminding us that the raw stuff of the daily life of the poor – debt bondage, subsistence farming, taxes, crop contamination, food preparation – all of these are vital to understanding the reign of God.
Jesus has clearly been in a story-telling mood, and in the parables this morning He takes his listeners to the kitchen, to the garden, to the seashore. He talks about a mustard seed that grows into a tree, yeast mixed with flour, a man who discovers hidden treasure, a merchant who finds a pearl, and a net filled with fish. These analogies certainly open a window on the reign of Heaven: A couple of the images contrast the smallness of the reign with the greatness of its effects, a few more stories illustrate how God’s reign is more valuable than anything else. And then, as I puttered a while with today’s parables, there were a few things more things I noticed.
“The reign of Heaven is like a mustard seed” – a familiar and comforting image – God will do something wonderful if we have just a tiny bit of faith. Something good and grand can come from something small and insignificant. We think this because we don’t know much about mustard, and Jesus may have had a twinkle in His eye when he played off this popular image of power. A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and impossible to get rid of. The reign of God is like kudzu, like dandelions.
The pesky little mustard seed parable is paired with the one-verse parable of the yeast. A nice domestic image, a little gender parity, maybe even an instance of Jesus speaking directly to women in a Julia Childs-type cooking lesson. But yeast was a popular symbol for corruption; the analogy of a “little yeast leavens the loaf” was equivalent to saying that “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” Unleavened bread was the holy bread used in the important religious rituals – but the people’s daily bread used yeast, and from this yeast today came incredible abundance – three measures of flour would have made bread to feed more than 100 people. The reign of God is not separate and holy but a blessed part of the every day life of God’s people.
And then there’s the story of the lucky field hand who found the treasure. So, if we open a purse at a garage sale and find a wad of hundred dollar bills, what is our obligation to the frazzled seller? The reign of God is … like a koan, challenging us to put aside rational thinking and wait patiently for the wisdom of the Spirit. And finally, the dragnet parable, again drawn straight from the everyday experience of the people. Another beautifully mixed message: The old “furnace of fire” reign, complete with weeping and gnashing, contrasts with the “new” reign, where God indiscriminately and non-exclusively encompasses all with the good news, a reign where God often foxes us by choosing to use the very people (the tax collectors, lepers, women of ill repute) we assume are the bad fish.
Jesus so easily turns the kaleidoscope of images, shifting from the agricultural to the culinary to the marketplace to the fishing trade; at first blush, perhaps, a bit of a jumble of similes. But we’ve already glimpsed, embedded in the tangle of the stories, two intersecting, overlapping illustrations of the nature of the reign: Its unexpectedness and value of the path, the process, in discovering a treasure hidden in plain sight.
Today, Jesus reminds us about the real nature of the reign, once again subverting expectations of a powerful, flashy, showy political takeover. The reign that Jesus announces is invasive (think of the mustard seed); both ordinary and paradoxical (consider the yeast being kneaded into the daily bread, now think of a woman kneading the reign into the world!); a bit devious? (reflect on the treasure purchased from the unsuspecting owner); priceless (remember the pearl); and abundant (consider the net full of fish). There are no gleaming capital cities studded with marble colonnades and soaring executive mansions here, no fierce armies plowing under the opposition by sheer dint of power. The reign is a great treasure. But you won’t see its kind posted on the big board on Wall Street or for sale on eBay; you may, in fact, stumble on it by accident. The parables today are all about the redefinition of the reign: the holy in the human, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miraculous in the mundane.
And how might we stumble upon these re-framings of the reign? We wait. We take our time. We see how the holy, which so often seems hidden, emerges when we stretch ourselves into searching for it, seeking it, working toward it. The baker woman kneading in her kitchen, the man who sells all that he has to buy the field, the merchant who gives up everything to purchase the pearl of great price, the scribe training for the reign of Heaven – all of these have, in one way or another, given themselves to a particular process through which treasure emerges. They understand what skills it takes, what vision, what devotion, what openness to surprise. They possess in their bones the knowledge that tells them what ingredients to use, what tools and dispositions (old or new) to employ, what treasure might lie before them.
Offering these images, Jesus reminds us that there are things that are worth a long devotion; that there is treasure worth giving ourselves to for a day, for a decade, for a lifetime. Such treasure might not have a usefulness that is immediately obvious or readily grasped. In a world where shortcuts abound, Jesus may be suggesting that something happens when we take the long way around, when we hunt for the holy that often loves to hide in work that takes time, that takes the development of compassion, takes commitment, takes the long view.
So as bearers of God’s reign, we keep plugging away at activities that may not seem to be bearing much fruit but that contain the very seed of our new creation. We commit to sit, we keep coming into community each week, singing our hymns, reciting our creed. We keep dripping water onto squirming infants and sharing the bread in the earnest faith that through the spirit, baptism and communion don’t just mean something, they mean everything.
This type of long laboring and searching doesn’t just reveal something about the parables – it reveals something about us. Submitting ourselves to the discipline of practice brings secret parts of ourselves to the surface; it draws us out and un-hides us and the holy that dwells within us. Frederick Buechner says it beautifully: “All his life long, wherever Jesus looked he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field. It is not just that the Kingdom is like a pearl of great price, a mustard seed, leaven. It is indeed like them in ways that Jesus suggests in his parables, but it is also within them, as it is also within us. Pearls, seeds, fields, leaven, the human heart, all of them carry within them something of the holiness of their origin. It is the wholest, realest part of their reality and of ours.”
“The reign of God is among you,” Jesus says in Luke. And indeed it is among us, within us – hidden in plain sight and meant to be uncovered, to become visible, to become whole, to offer sustenance and grace for the life of the world. Like bread. Shrubs. Pearls. Pages. Treasure born of what is old and what is new.