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30th July 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
27 July 2017

Readings

Genesis 29: 15-28

Jacob’s journey takes him back to his own relatives but his return to his own land is delayed as Jacob the trickster is tricked by his uncle.  What goes around comes around we might say. Maurice Andrew says this story reminds us that it takes a long time to get back to our own place and delay is often caused by the family. [1]

This is an interesting story when we remember that one of the stumbling blocks in uniting the two Presbyterian Churches in New Zealand was a change of New Zealand law in 1881 that allowed a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.[2]

The historical background is that pioneer households were isolated enterprises in the same way that Jacob was isolated. 

People died in the harsh environment and wives were as much part of a pioneering enterprise as they were mothers of a family.  In the isolated pioneer world the most likely woman a widower would know and seek help from would be his sister in law and parliament recognised that reality. 

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

This section is a selection of parables about the kingdom of heaven.  ‘The first is a very small seed that grows into the greatest of shrubs.  The yeast in the second parable is a corruption that is hidden and works away unnoticed but alters the nature of a large amount of bread.

The treasure is also hidden and those who find it commit their total resources to possess it.

The fishing parable not only brings in an element of judgment but also stresses the hidden nature of God’s realm that exists alongside present structures and ideologies.

Bill Loader suggests that Jesus, who taught with authority and not as their scribes, (Matthew 7:29) is instructing his disciples to be better scribes who will both draw on tradition, or scripture, and on contemporary experience.  The parables reflect God's reality in the world and the reality that understanding of divine purpose is found in a mixing of the old and the new.[3]

Sermon

Dominican Cecily Sheehy wrote in the chorus of the hymn we have just sung ‘The kingdom is within you.  Why do we go searching for the answers of the mighty? 

The word kingdom immediately invokes images of ‘the mighty.’  Even as citizens of a Western Democracy we envision a kingdom as a pyramid organisation with ‘the mighty’ supported by a bureaucracy filled with people whose might depends on their position within the organisation.  That kingdom image is so ingrained that we have real difficulty understanding the idea of people of different talents working for a common purpose.  We struggle to see value in a team unless we can imagine the team leader as a superstar. 

Certainly being captain of a cricket team requires a special set of skills.  But, I imagine it is a lot easier to be a great captain if the team has two or three very good bowlers and the whole eleven have the capability of scoring a big tally of runs.  

Given this inclination to ‘go searching for the answers of the mighty’ it is not surprising that the most common image of ‘the kingdom of God’ is of a world where God sits on the throne surrounded by angelic bureaucrats.  That god inevitably is a god that people build in their own image and such a god precedes to judge humanity by the prejudices of those doing the imagining.  Therefore that kingdom is filled with people like the imaginers so they are free to enjoy eternal bliss.  One obvious problem with such a heavenly vision is that we dislike in others what we most dislike in ourselves so with eternity filled with people like us it would probably feel more like hell than heaven.

Living in a time of kingdoms and empires with failed experiments in democracy in both Greece and Rome in their recent history I would imagine most of those who listened to Jesus had a similar vision of a kingdom of heaven.  After all wouldn’t it be great to live in a realm where the all powerful image of goodness, justice and lovingkindness was in charge.  In such a realm people could just get on and live a life of total bliss without a care in the world. 

However, even with just the minimal amount that we know about Jesus we can assume that he was not silly enough to believe that such a realm was possible. 

What the Gospel writers tell us is that Jesus said ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’. 

That could mean that the world was about to transform into utopia but here we are two thousand years and counting and it still hasn’t happened. 

Of course there are Christians in the United States that are quite convinced that Donald Trump is the first step in establishing the United States as the long awaited ‘kingdom of God.’  However most thinking Christians have grave doubts about that and are still annoyed that Constantine attempted something similar. 

The other possibility is that Jesus meant that the kingdom of God is all around us and we just have to grasp hold of it and be part of it.  The gospels tend to support this vision and today’s selection of short parables demonstrates that.

For us it might have been easier if Jesus hadn’t used parables to explain what his vision of the kingdom was like. 

Instead of parables we might prefer a document with carefully numbered and indexed paragraphs and a glossary of technical terms. 

But that was not the way people debated ideas in the first century Mediterranean world.  Greek cynics used to debate ideas in a confrontational question style and give answers using everyday life as examples.  Many Jesus scholars feel Jesus followed that style.

So in the parables we read this morning Jesus is trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like.  Jesus is explaining his vision that is like nothing that anybody has any experience of.  Jesus’ audience did however have experience of planting a tiny seed that grows into a gigantic tree.  They also had a scriptural image from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel where birds in a tree represent small nations sheltering in a great empire.

Its foliage was beautiful.

Its fruit abundant,

and it provided food for all.

The animals of the field found shade under it,

the birds of the air nested in its branches ,

and from it all living beings were fed. (Daniel 4:12)

So the mustard seed parable might not be completely botanically correct but it explains that the kingdom of God starts very small.  The kingdom of God is not a mass revolutionary movement but a small group of people living as they believe God intended people to live. 

But even from such a small beginning the movement will spread out and give shelter and security to many people and nations.  Looking at two thousand years of church history we can also say that the fruit of the tree contained more seeds, tiny seeds of new beginnings that also became giant trees.  Trees with the same genetic base but full of new adaptations from a mixing of DNA that suits new environments.

 

The next parable is even more telling because it explains that the small beginning is hidden in the dough of an indifferent society.  Furthermore the yeast is the embodiment of decadence and corruption.  We buy yeast in nice little sterile packets or in its dried form but we also know that yeast is a mould and in the time of Jesus a bit of dough was kept from each batch of bread to keep the mould alive to work its miracle in the next batch. 

Without the yeast the bread was flat and crisp but when the yeast is able to do its work the bread is transformed into a beautiful textured loaf, the staple diet of the evolving human civilisation.  When we look at a loaf of bread, or even the dough as it is being mixed the yeast is invisible.  What we see, taste and enjoy is the result of the transforming properties of the yeast’s presence.

There has been debate recently about the rule of law but let’s just cast our thoughts to the fourth of February 1913 in Montgomery, Alabama. 

The United States was on its long journey from an economy that created huge wealth based on the free labour of slaves captured and brought to America from Africa.  Let us also remember that until its abolition in the western world slavery had been part of human society for thousands of years.  So we can imagine that even in 1913 in the parts of the United States where slavery had been so important to the economy there were people who resented that the slaves had been freed.  Furthermore former slaves and the children of former slaves resented those who had made them slaves.  Therefore as the rule of law is designed to keep communities safe a law that keeps the two conflicting races separate would seem to logical.  To honour that rule of law it was also logical that, when a very tired black Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus, the part reserved for white people, she got arrested.  Nobody expected the great loaf of the human rights movement would rise up from that moment.  Nevertheless the world became a better place from that illegal and corrupt incident.

Whoever executed Jesus thought they were just getting rid of a trouble maker.  But that incident, unnoticed amongst the mighty, certainly transformed world history. 

The transformation began among those who had listened to Jesus.  They saw in the teaching of Jesus a pearl of great price. They therefore sold what they had to live together and promote a community of caring.  They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:45) 

Very similar to last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds Jesus told the story of net fishing that every fisherperson understands.  The followers of Jesus gathered together and valued what they were doing. They were the catch of the disciples called to abandon their nets and fish for people.  Yes they were part of a multi ethnic, multi faith and multi cultural world but it wasn’t their calling to be concerned about the diversity around them.  

It was their task to value who they were, to be the seed that grows the great tree and the yeast that transforms the bread. 

That is our calling in the multi ethnic, multi faith, multi cultural and secular society that we live in.  We are not called by these parables to despair at the seemingly hopelessness of the world that surrounds us.  In fact stories like the marriage of Jacob remind us that there are other ways of building even the most intimate of relationships and, although we might not approve, God can work in those societies as well.

These parables remind us that the kingdom of God is within each of us. 

After more than two thousand and counting we can certainly appreciate that ‘the fullness of the kingdom is not quite yet’ and with the view of an alternative, but still God fearing, culture that the Genesis reading gives us, the kingdom will probably always be ‘not quite yet’.

But like they have always been ‘the seed of the kingdom are here and now.’  Not only do we have to ‘be patient’, and ‘let it grow’ these parables suggest that we are the seed.

We are challenged to be the countercultural disturbance, the yeast that brings out the best from the mix that is our world.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.72.

[2] John McKean The Church in a Special Colony: A History of the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland 1866-1991(Dunedin: Synod of Otago and Southland 1994),p.98

 

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