Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 1
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew13:31-33, 44-52
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
What’s it like?
Let us pray. Gracious, heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the kingdom of heaven and to motivate our hearts to increasingly live in it through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
A 17-year-old boy, who was pronounced dead after developing a fever, woke up a day later in a coffin on the way to his funeral. Police confirmed the incident to the “Times of India”. Relatives were startled as the teen’s eyes suddenly opened and he began breathing hard on route to his cremation ceremony.
Last month, Kumar Marewad developed a high fever after being bitten by a stray dog. Physicians placed him on a ventilator after his condition began to worsen. Marewad’s family was told by medical staff that his infection had begun to spread throughout his body, leaving him in critical condition. Doctors said that he would not survive unless attached to a respirator. They opted to take the boy home when asked if they wanted to keep Marewad on life support.
Once removed from the ventilator, the family said the teen became motionless and they believed he had stopped breathing. Under the impression that Marewad had passed, the family went forward with ceremonial preparations for his death. Marewad woke up on the way to the cremation ceremony and was immediately rushed back to the hospital, where doctors were reported to have said he is suffering a viral infection called meningoencephalitis, caused by the dog bite.” (Aris Folley, AOL.com, 2-21-17).
What’s it like to die? Though we may not like the question, it is one I am certain every one of us here this morning has entertained. What’s it like to die? Will it hurt? Will I be afraid? Will it be a long, protracted death? What will happen after at die? What’s it like to die?
The question, “what’s it like,” may apply to any number of potential situations in our lives. As a child we might have asked ourselves, “What’s it like to drive a car, go on a first date, fly in an airplane, get married, or drink that first beer?” As we got older that question of “what’s it like” turns to other possibilities. What’s it like to have a really good job? What’s it like to win the lottery? What’s it like to retire? Even older, we might have asked what’s it like when your body no longer functions as it used to—the aches, the pains, sickness, or limited mobility? “What’s it like” is a question that tries to imagine something new, unknown, and difficult to explain or understand. The use of the simile, “like”, is one way of addressing those unknowns, those things that are difficult to understand or explain.
In this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew we hear Jesus going on a simile binge. Six times He uses the word, “like”, and for what reason? He is trying to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like. Now, that is a conundrum. Even if we have given it much thought, trying to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like is challenging, if not impossible. How can something so big, so profound, so essential to life itself be explained at all? It would be like explaining the universe.
So, in using the simile, “like”, six times what does Jesus tell us that kingdom of heaven is like? He first tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone planted. Now, we have heard this one before. The mustard seed is one of the smallest of seeds, yet it produces a shrub that becomes as large as a tree, larger enough for birds to build their nests. In other words, the kingdom has much potential and power despite its small origin. We can expect great things from the kingdom. As example, we might think of our preschool. It started out with seven students and two teachers five years ago. Now, it is up to fifty-two students, ten teachers and there is a waiting list. It is literally bursting out of the seams of our facilities. Something larger is needed.
Next, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman mixed with flour. Here again, Jesus tells us that in the kingdom there is great potential. A little yeast will cause the flour to expand, modifying it and producing something enjoyable, indeed necessary to survive—bread. Our preschool has expanded.
In these first two similes, these first two “likes” Jesus wants us to understand the mysterious potential the kingdom of heaven has for making something quite small become quite large, for making something that appears to have no future, no potential in fact becoming something beyond imagining. Certain Biblical examples document this kingdom reality. The universe itself was created out of nothing; talk about something small. There are Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who in her nineties gave birth. That little family would eventually become the nation of Israel, more numerous than the stars in the sky.
What of the next two “likes”? In the first, Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like a treasure of such great value found in a field, bringing so much joy, that the person who found it sells all he has in order to buy that field. Can we imagine selling all we have in order to buy such a treasure? Can we imagine a treasure of such value that we would risk everything we have and own in order to procure it? To further emphasize, Jesus then tells us that the kingdom is like finding one pearl of such great value, that one sells all one has in order to buy it.
What other kind of “likes” might Jesus have employed in order to stress the immense value of the kingdom of heaven? What does it take to get across the picture that the kingdom is beyond any potential, power, or value imaginable, yet seemingly people are blind to it? Are our priorities out of whack? In thinking we have so much; do we really have so little? Might we be living examples of the king’s new clothes? “But, he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.
In the summer of 2016 there was a remarkable news story about something that was lost for 35 years, and then found again. It was a Stradivarius violin, nearly 300 years old. It belonged to Roman Totenberg, one of the world’s greatest concert violinists. His Stradivarius was stolen in 1980, after a concert he gave at the Boston music school where he taught. The instrument was never seen again — until 2015.
It was then that a California woman contacted a violin appraiser, asking him about an old instrument her husband had given her just before his death in 2011. She’d put it away for a few years because she couldn’t open the case’s combination lock. Finally, curiosity got the better of her. She broke the lock. When she opened the case, she realized she had an antique instrument. The appraiser recognized it immediately. He alerted the authorities, who called the FBI. The woman insisted her husband never told her the violin had been stolen. She surrendered the instrument, and law enforcement did not press charges. The woman’s late husband was a lesser-known violinist by the name of Philip Johnson. He’d been hanging around backstage on the night of the crime. Mr. Totenberg had suspected Johnson was the thief, but could never prove it.
The instrument is worth millions. To Mr. Totenberg, it was priceless. Totenberg daughters decided, at the time the Stradivarius was returned to them, not to sell it to a mere collector. As one daughter put it, great violins “are meant to be played by great artists …. [It] will eventually be in the hands of another great artist.”
Can we imagine something worth millions of dollars stuck somewhere in our houses, and we do not know it? The lost Stradivarius violin is just one example. The antique shows are full of examples of people who own or have inherited some item, but were ignorant of their immense value. Can we really be so blind, so uniformed as to not know or appreciate the value of what we have? Jesus seems to suggest this may be true when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. Here is something of such potential, power, and value, and we walk right by it as if it were nothing at all.
Finally, there are two more similes, two more “likes,” which Jesus uses in this morning’s gospel. Whereas in the first simile, Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like something quite small, a mustard seed, in this the fifth simile Jesus tells us that kingdom of heaven is like something quite large. The kingdom of heaven is a like a net thrown into the sea, which caught fish of every kind. Here, we hear that the kingdom is not without purpose. It has potential, power, value, and now purpose. In other words, if we thought we could somehow ignore the kingdom, dismiss it as having no consequence, think again.
To put it bluntly, the kingdom of heaven, this thing of great potential, power, and value, is out to get us. That is its purpose. God has not abandoned us. He is watching out for us. He has this great gift, called the kingdom of heaven, that He wants us to have, but what happens if we ignore the gift and embrace something else, something ungodly?
We don’t like to hear this sort of stuff. Somehow, we think it is unkind or unfair. Then again, we don’t like to see evil in the world. We don’t like to hear children are abused, people are oppressed or mistreated, livelihoods are destroyed, minds corrupted, and all the other evils that beset us on a day to day basis. What is to be done about this evil and the people who instigate and perpetuate it—the pushers, the thieves, the murders, the liars? What is to be done about this evil? Jesus tells us that the angels will come and separate what is in the net, the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire. The kingdom has purpose; it is God’s purpose to protect and provide for His creation and His people.
Lastly, we hear Jesus say that: “every scribe who has been trained by the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” What is this simile, this “like”, of which Jesus is speaking? What does He mean by it? Well, the scribes were the Bible teachers of Jesus’ day. They studied the Bible, the Old Testament, and they taught it. So, if a scribe is to bring treasure, something new and old, out of today’s gospel reading, what might that look like? (Incidentally, Jesus is emphasizing the importance of Bible study, here.) How might we find something old and new in today’s gospel reading?
In a sense, we have already brought out what is old in today’s gospel. Nothing of what I have said has been particularly surprising. Each “it is like” is pretty self-evident as to its meaning. What, though, might be a new insight and offer us a fresh and better biblical perspective than saying the kingdom of heaven has potential, power, value, and purpose. Of course, those four are no small thing, but is there more to be discovered that will give us a greater understanding of God’s plan for the world and for us?
Let us first note that though there are six similes, six “likes” in this morning’s gospel, it is only one parable, meaning the six similes are connected and belong to the same continuum. Since there are six and since they are connected, of what might the number six reminds us, biblically speaking? Certainly, God created the universe in how many days—six, right? Science will disagree, but it was God who created time in the first place, not science. The Genesis account tells us that God’s creation was “very good,” until Adam and Eve corrupted it, which led to even more corruption. What was God to do about it? How would He fix it? How would He redeem His fallen creation?
Put it this way: He decided to plant a mustard seed. What or who was the mustard seed? Abraham was that seed, and of him God said, “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). Abraham’s offspring became the nation of Israel, but there was something missing, something needed to make them a blessings to others—a yeast if you will. What was that yeast? It was the Law of Moses, which instructed the Israelites in how and who they were to be. Then, if they obeyed God, they would be blessed. In Deuteronomy 28:2 we read: “All these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God.” It was these blessings which were the treasure of great value.
What, though, did the Israelites do with that treasure? In a manner of speaking, they buried it. They went after the pagan gods and corrupted themselves. The prophets were sent to dig up the hidden treasure, calling the people of Israel to repent and return to the Lord God, the source of blessing that treasure of great value, but the people did not. Even so, the prophets continued to cast the net of God’s kingdom of heaven. Lastly, God sent His only Son, Jesus, to cast an even wider net, offering an even greater treasure—that one and only pearl of great value, eternal value.
In other words, this parable of similes, of “it is like” is Jesus’ summation of salvation history from beginning to end. As the world was created in six days, so too has God set in motion six means by which to redeem His fallen creation. It began with that little mustard seed, Abraham, who grew into a people, leavened by the yeast of the law with a promised treasure if they would obey, but they buried the treasure in pagan practices. So, God sent the prophets to cast the net to recall His people, finally sending Jesus to cast the biggest net of the kingdom of heaven of all.
You and I are part of the kingdom of heaven. We are living in it, directed by it, captured by it, as if in a net. Indeed, all of God’s creation, whether it likes it or not, is part of this great movement called the kingdom of heaven. Of its characteristics, it has potential, power, value, and purpose. Where then are you and I in this great drama of salvation history, in this great drama of “it is like”?
Each of us in a manner of speaking is a mustard seed, just as Abraham was. It was Abraham’s faith in God that made his seed so powerful and so prolific. Likewise it is our faith in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us leverage to grow the kingdom of heaven, to push it towards its finality, to redeem God’s creation.
God has His hand on each of us. As He called Abraham to follow Him to a rich future, so too has He called us in the name of Jesus to a rich future, a future not limited by what we have or don’t have in this world, but unlimited because we have faith that can move mountains. The following reflection by Samuel Rutherford, the Georgia politician, captures something of what the power of the kingdom might be like in our lives, especially when circumstances are unfavorable.
“If God had told me some time ago that He was about to make me as happy as I could be in this world, and then had told me that He should begin by crippling me in arm or limb and removing from me all my usual sources of enjoyment, I should have thought it a very strange mode of accomplishing His purpose. And yet, how is His wisdom manifest even in this? For if you should see a man shut up in a closed room idolizing a set of lamps and rejoicing in their light and you wished to make him truly happy, you would begin by blowing out all of his lamps and then throwing open the shutters to let in the light of heaven.”
The kingdom of heaven is like nothing else. It is life itself and nothing, nothing can touch or be compared to it, not even all the wealth in the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.