Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“A God Who Must be Discovered”
Rev. Art Ritter
July 26, 2020
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
He put before them 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.”
When I was very young, my family lived in a small house in downtown Stanton, Michigan. I use the term “downtown” very loosely. We moved out to the farm just outside of town when I was around 4 years old. One of our neighbors was Mrs. Lower. I don’t remember much about Mrs. Lower other than that she was a nice lady who took my brother John to Sunday School at the nearby church. Eventually the whole family started going to church and well, you know the rest of the story! I don’t recall Mrs. Lower ever yelling at us for being too noisy or for running through her yard during our play. Somehow she put up with three crazy neighbor kids, all between 2 and 5 years old.
A few years after we moved to the farm I remember Mrs. Lower hosting our family at her home one night. She had set up her old film projector and showed us some old movies of her vacation trips. It wasn’t real exciting. Many of us mature folk might remember when that was kind of a typical social experience. Dinner and home movies. Yet at the end of her show she presented a movie that starred my family. There were scenes of us lined up, perhaps getting ready to go to church, so my Mom and Dad must have cooperating in the filming. But there were other scenes, when my brother and sister and I obviously had no idea that someone was recording us. And it was filmed during a period of three or four years. We watched my brother and me playing baseball when I could hardly stand or walk. We watched my brother riding his tricycle and pulling a wagon with me and my sister inside. We watched my siblings and me trying to steal the large wooden cardinal out of Mrs. Lower’s birdbath, never realizing that she not only knew of our theft but that she was recording every minute of it. Perhaps such filming of neighbors wouldn’t be very appropriate in today’s society but those secret clips provided my family with a treasure that I still enjoy watching today. Such a gift was a hidden surprise.
When we lived in Salt Lake City, we had some beautiful raspberry bushes that grew on the terrace in our backyard. They didn’t produce a large crop, but they offered enough delicious raspberries to satisfy us for three or four weeks of summer. During our time there, those raspberry bushes tried to make their way into the surrounding terraced area that I used to plant tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. Some of them even pushed their way into my beautiful green lawn. I recall always having to dig out the roots of raspberry bushes.
One day as I was standing on a step ladder, painting the seven foot fence that separated our property from my neighbors, I decided to peek over the fence to see what was in my neighbors’ yard, carefully and without fanfare of course, like a good neighbor would do. I was amazed. All I could see was raspberry bushes, taking up most of their backyard. Suddenly I came to an understanding. Evidently all of my raspberries were the gift of grace from my neighbor’s bushes. My raspberries were really my neighbor’s raspberries that had made their way under the fence and into my yard. The raspberries I enjoyed and the raspberry bush roots that I had to dig out, were compliments of the life and vigor planted by someone else many years before.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had an inscription on a plaque that was over the doorway of his home. It read in Latin, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Whether realized or understood, God is always revealed in the everyday events of our lives.
This morning we continue on with Jesus’ teachings from the 13th chapter of Matthew. Today Jesus offers four short parables: one about a mustard seed; one about yeast or leaven; and one about a treasure hidden in a field; and finally one about a pearl that is so valuable a man sells everything he owns to buy it. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are usually treated as parables of growth. But the real lesson perhaps lies in the sharp contrast between the initial state of things and the final outcome. Something that starts small and unnoticed and perhaps unnecessary and unwanted becomes an impressive source of power. It is something unexpected.
Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. A tiny, perhaps the tiniest of seeds. The emphasis is on God’s action in the world that is almost unnoticed but which yields results that contradict its unimpressive appearance. Nadia Bolz Weber asks “what kind of off-brand kingdom this is? It’s like saying someone is the smartest of all idiots or the mightiest of baby dolls.” The leaven illustration isn’t any better. Such yeast was considered impure, something of which Jews were required to rid their entire house before celebrating Holy Days. In the ancient world, this yeast used as a positive symbol of God’s influence was widely regarded as an agent of corruption. We might think that the Kingdom of God should demand more dignity than that. It should be pure and powerful or shiny or impressive. But yet the Kingdom of God comes even now in surprising ways, at work in people and events and situations- perhaps even in a global pandemic- in acts and words that we regard as insignificant or impossible. And God’s actions have results that are beyond our wildest expectations. God is at work in people and events and situations- like national unrest and protests- in things that offer us hope that runs counter to the status quo, in things that demand change from the status quo and from our standards of worldly success.
The second set of parables, the treasure and the pearl, stress our human response to what God is doing. Like buried treasure, God’s activity in our world is hidden and has to be uncovered. Like a pearl of great value, we have to want to find God’s activity, we have to seek it out for it to be found. The emphasis is on the response made by the discoverer. He sells all that he has to take possession of what he has found. When we find God’s presence in the midst of our world and our lives, we are to set aside all other interests and concerns and emerge ourselves in that grace and mercy. Like a buried treasure, God’s activity is hidden and must be discovered. Like a valuable pearl, God’s presence must be sought in order to be found. When our eyes are opened to see what God is doing, we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly in faith.
Perhaps Jesus was merely trying to encourage the efforts of those early Christians to be faithful, to be faithful in following him in a world that seems stacked against them and where even the most faithful of actions don’t always seem to make a difference. There are huge threats around us these days. We are confronted with problems for which no one has answers. We long for a day in which we might have more certainty and more comfort, but don’t know if that day is within the scope of our vision. In this time, we are to seek and to be the presence of God in small and seemingly insignificant ways. We are look for God in ways that make sense and in ways that are hidden and surprising. We are to seek the ways of God in all that we do and with a desire that established new priorities and bring us to new behaviors.
William Willimon writes that whenever the Church starts thinking too big, or whenever the disciples of Jesus start thinking too predictably, we become a silent partner to the power of the world. Yet history teaches us that with the world being what it is, whenever the Church is most faithful, the world has characterized it as small and apparently insignificant. When we see ourselves as a mustard seed rather than a sequoia, we may just be at the spot where God can use us. When we see ourselves as unwanted yeast in the carefully orchestrated recipe of society, we might be working toward following God’s intention. When we find a treasure in the fields of this crazy world and reorient ourselves toward buying it, or a pearl of such value that we are moved to seek it with our whole hearts, then we are actively following God and acknowledging that there is more of God’s word to be said and more of God’s way to be discovered.
Whatever else we learn from these four short parables, it is good to know that Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is close at hand, right there in the midst of our lives. It is not something to be found in an ivory tower or in the rules and demands of religious tradition. It is right there in ordinary life, perhaps right in front of our face without us knowing it. Perhaps it has been there all along and now we understand it. And when we see it and when we understand, we are surprised. We are made new. God loves us so much that God will not leave us alone.