A Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason
at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 24, 2011.
The Scripture Texts for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year A are:
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was 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 but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
From time to time when I have a meeting in Little Rock or am traveling down into the river valley, I will occasionally take old highway 71 which parallels the interstate. The winding road requires that I slow down my pace, and the scenery is spectacular. Even the old buildings—roadside homes and businesses which have largely given over their livelihoods to the bypass provide the space to consider what once was, is now, and may yet be. The road runs parallel to the new highway, but it conjures up thoughts of a different time and place. Similar, yet different.
Such is the nature of parables, those little stories that Jesus used to engage people in parallel to everyday life—a story or, as we receive them in today’s gospel, a string of similes that resonate with what is common in life, so simple as to belie profundity, and yet they invite us into the slower lane, to pause and ponder deeper meaning and purpose.
The kingdom of heaven is like…a mustard seed, leavened bread, a pearl of great value, hidden treasure, and a fishing net cast wide…
Perhaps not so familiar images for us today, but the invitation is there for us as well, to slow down our pace, to consider the truths embedded in such simple sayings, and for those of us who would claim to follow the wisdom that this man offers from a different time and place, to consider what the kingdom of God is like—what it once was, is now, and may yet be.
Matthew offers the alternative language—kingdom of heaven—in deference to God’s holy name, but make no mistake, Jesus is speaking about God’s kingdom—the alternative way.
Jesus’ parables are part of a larger tradition arising from the ancient rabbinical practice of masal. A masal is a fiction that tells the truth—it points to some deeper meaning, and it was a poetic practice that ranged from simple proverbs to complex allegories. The Bible is chock full of these little gems.
The richness of meaning comes with the juxtaposition of two unlike things that, on the surface (and to the larger society) offer nonsensical rambling—the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… But for those willing to wrestle with the thing, an abundance of life comes rushing forth. They are designed to provoke us, to open new insights by considering that which is right before us—common, mundane, simple—but, oh, so profound when run in parallel to the business of life.
So what can we infer about the nature of God’s kingdom as extrapolations of these five little parables?
Well, first and foremost, that the kingdom is already sown by God the planter into the field. Mark’s version of the mustard seed uses the word ge from which we get our name for the Gaia Guild. It means both “ground” (or dirt) and “earth” which implies a comprehensive scope. The seed of God’s kingdom, small as it may seem, is there, and will develop into a full and glorious tree of life. It would have been language harkening back to the origins of creation, and to Isaiah’s promise of a peaceable kingdom while also projecting down range to the beautiful scene in the final chapter of Revelation, with its trees of life alongside the river of life to which all are invited.
So, it is hidden but hope-filled in its universal scope.
Next is the parable of leavened bread, but I want to save it for later.
So, what’s next? “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…and a pearl of great value.” There it is again—the great treasure is hidden, past tense, harkening back to the presence of God’s kingdom from the very beginning. Mysterious, yet present alongside things all along. But note what happens—the person finds it, hides it again, and then instead of buying just that plot of land where the treasure is hidden, he buys the whole field. And the same for the pearl merchant—he sells everything else.
But it is done with joy. Something about living in reference to the kingdom is worth giving up everything else. Now that is scandalous talk, make no mistake. It was for folks in Jesus’ time; it is for us now.
The kingdom of God is there, whether we act on it or not, always has been, always will be, but the joy to be experienced in being connected to it requires nothing less than the devaluing of everything else. But, remember, it is comprehensive in scope, so it is not like a little cordoned off section of life that we deal with for an hour on Sunday mornings, it’s no ring of Gollom to be held in one’s hand and adored as “my precious”—the kingdom is realized and evokes joy when it effuses and colors everything else in one’s life, and when it is seen in relation to the whole field—the entirety of creation.
Which brings me to the fifth saying: the kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net cast wide, teeming with fish of every kind, good and bad. It is resonant with last week’s Parable of the Weeds. Let it suffice here that we should leave the judgment of what is good and bad to God in the fullness of time. We are invited to trust that in the infinite wisdom of a loving God who has seen fit to sow the kingdom into creation from the beginning, that in the end, all will work as it should.
Okay, I saved my favorite of the five parables for last. The parable of the leaven. "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Let it be noted that Jesus, in the great tradition of masal, references God as a woman, and what’s more, she’s either a poor woman or a servant woman, who finds herself in the kitchen preparing bread.
And not just a little loaf or two. Three measures of flour—a bushel of flour, 128 cups to be folded in, which along with some 42 cups of water yields a dough weighing more than 100 pounds! Yes, there have been preachers and Bible study groups who have tried this at home…
She mixes yeast into it until all of it—the Greek word here is holon, meaning the whole of it—was leavened. You see the pattern here? This big lump of dough represents the whole world into which the yeast of the kingdom has been kneaded. But you can’t see the yeast, it is there mixed in, inseparable, integrated, infused, growing. Hidden, yet at work—always has been, always will be.
For us, the challenge is to be patient as the yeast works on the dough so that it rises into its fullness.
You all know I love words and their etymologies. The Greek word for “yeast” is zyme from which we get our word enzyme—a catalyst of chemical reaction. The yeast uses the flour—that is, you and me, and all of creation, and breathes out air pockets to grow us. When heated, the air pockets expand in our midst, changing us, and we rise to the occasion. It is a breath, a wind, a spirit that breathes over creation, as it has from the start. It’s a beautiful parable—a fiction that tells the truth about God and us.
The kingdom of heaven is present, eternal, comprehensive, hidden yet growing, precious, joyful, hopeful. And to all creation, God says, “Come.” All are invited. What good news that is! Amen.
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Parables of the Kingdom. Eerdsmans, 1985.
Keim, Paul. “Reflections on the Lectionary” Christian Century. July 12, 2011.