Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 27, 2014
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
An elderly gentleman had a problem hearing for a number of years. Finally, he went to the doctor who was able to fit him with state-of-the-art hearing aids that restored his hearing by nearly 100%. A month later, the man went back for a checkup and the doctor said, ‘Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again.’ The man replied, ‘Oh, I haven’t told my family yet. I just sit around and listen to the conversations. I’ve changed my will three times!’
There are some things Matthew has to say to us that we might wish we couldn’t hear like his classic line about “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” that rears its ugly head again today. (Matthew, what were you thinking and were you asleep when Jesus talked about mercy and compassion?)
Then there are the parables that need to be heard with a new set of ears because they hold such keen insight about the Kingdom of God and the mission of Jesus. Jesus used parables to invite, entice, even disturb us into moving away from the mundane in order to experience the world of wonder and imagination. Parables tell us the truth from different angles and turn our conventional ways of understanding upside down. The five snippets we hear today provide insights about life in the Kingdom of heaven and encouragement for those who are trying to live as Kingdom people.
All five of these brief parables deal with the element of surprise with respect to the kingdom of heaven. The runt of the seed world—the mustard seed—grows into the largest of shrubs; a tiny amount of yeast can leaven many loaves; a person unexpectedly finds great treasure, a merchant finds a magnificent pearl, and a fisherman, hauls in an unexpected amount of fish.
The characters in the parable of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price have made a discovery. They have found great joy in the surprise of their findings and have acted purposefully because of that discovery. The last little nugget in today’s Gospel tells us what we’re not meant to do. We’re not to be concerned about who is worthy or welcome or entitled. We’re not expected to decide who might be on the “A” list. Leave that task for the angels if and when God even thinks it is necessary.
And even then we may well be surprised. If the parables teach us anything they should confirm that God doesn’t look at things the way we look at things. We measure importance in size, numbers, market value, and volume. God has a very different value system.
The good news hidden in of this final parable is radical inclusiveness—the kingdom gathers in everyone. There is not a net for the worthy and a net for the unworthy or one for the elite and another for the rest of us. Although there may be weeds in the field and inedible fish in the catch—some undesirable acquaintances, frustrations and regrets along the way—it is God’s task, not ours, to sort all this out in God’s good time.
In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking, Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright says that “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
There are things about the world you and I cannot change. Beyond praying for it, there is little we can do to restore peace in the war-torn Middle East or stop the killing of so many innocent civilians. Yet we can make peace in small ways and to a tiny modicum of our world.
A friend of mine who owns a hair salon shared this story. He mistakenly booked two people for the same appointment and both appeared at the same time. One was a brand new customer, the other a regular client. The new customer immediately told him that if he can’t have the appointment he made they will never see him again. The regular client offered that it was no problem and that she would come back whenever it was convenient. The owner then realized that his regular client is a member of St. Paul’s and wondered if the ethos of hospitality and graciousness we nurture and foster does not spill over into our everyday lives.
As the master of the household brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old, so the stuff of our daily lives becomes the treasure that we bring forth to offer to the world for the glory of God. Mustard seeds and yeast teach us that even the smallest things can grow into great outcomes. Our treasure is not buried in some exotic place that requires a cryptic map to find it but is rather right here, right now, in the everyday and familiar people, places and activities in our lives.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is here already. I think he wants us to discover it and to enjoy it now. The reign of God is so near that we can find traces of it in everyday life. It is an ordinary as a mustard seed or a measure of yeast or a good catch of fish. It is as attainable as what is in our ovens and in our backyards. The power of God in our lives is alive. God’s kingdom and presence is real and it’s here and God wants us to know that.
Frederick Buechner says it so well in his book Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons: “The kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis, a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is our home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are—all of us— homesick for it.”