Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Heaven is Like Parables Sermon

Organ Pipes at St. Sebald Lutheran Church, rural Strawberry Point, Iowa

This is the sermon that I gave at the Skip-A-Way Campgrounds at Clermont, Iowa and at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour which is also in Clermont, Iowa on Sunday, July 27th.

I believe that sometimes we human beings have a perception problem. Often we think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we are way off. It causes someone to look ridiculous.

That is the focus of the readings today. In the first lesson, Jacob works for seven years for a precious treasure—Rachel, only to be given Leah instead. Jacob felt ridiculous, because it was dark and he did not realize it was Leah until the morning after the wedding! And he still wanted the treasure, Rachel, but Leah was part of the package. We look at that story and it is ridiculous by today's standards.

There's a story that Thomas Wheeler who was CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, tells on himself: Mr. Wheeler and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas. Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil; then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.

As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, "It was great talking to you."

As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year.

"Boy, were you lucky that I came along," bragged Wheeler.

"If you had married him, you'd be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer."

"My dear," replied his wife, "if I had married him, he'd be the chief executive officer and you'd be the gas station attendant."

Often we think we have the proper perspective on something when in fact we are way off. Jesus understood this propensity for us humans to get it wrong. Especially when it comes to things spiritual. So he told us parables. In fact sometimes the Gospels seem like a parade full of parables, - moving from one significant parable to the next – the parable of the sower, the parable of the weeds (that we heard last week), the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son, and so on. But when we get to this small group of parables, we've reached a float in the parade that doesn't seem too remarkable. It's like a civic group that we've heard of but don't know too much about and they always have the same old hay rack as their entry. We've noticed them before in other year's parades but they've never seemed significant enough to hold our attention for long.

Let’s see if we can come up with some fresh insights into them today.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (vs. 31-32)

I don’t know if you deal much in mustard seeds. I don’t. I looked around to see if we had any mustard seeds at home. We did. I'm not sure why we have some, I know I haven't used any before. But apparently my wife, Marcia, has used some before.

Parables are often intended as dry jokes, with camels going through the eye of a needle, and finding dust in someone else’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own. And here, with the mustard seed, where you’ve got the smallest of all seeds developing into a magnificent piece of foliage.

True? Well, from what I understand, and I've found out more about the mustard plant this week than I ever wanted to know, the mustard tree is hardly an impressive plant in its adult form - more like an over sized weed from the descriptions I’ve been given.

‘And birds of the air come and build their nests in this over sized shrub’, Jesus says. ‘Very small birds’, he neglects to add. A ridiculous proposition.

And what about this woman?

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (vs.33)

Unless you’re a baker by trade, you might miss the fact that Jesus is talking about an absurdly large amount of dough in this parable - using the equivalent of about 90 pounds of flour, as I understand it! We’re talking about a lot of dough, and very industrious woman...or a woman who has just wasted yeast and contaminated 'unleavened flour' It is a matter of perspective.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (vs.44)

I remember as a kid, using my dad's metal detector to see what I could find. I enthusiastically dug lots of holes in the yard, hoping that I might uncover some buried treasure. All I ever found were some rusty nails.

I accept now that there’s not a lot of pirates’ gold buried in rural Iowa. Even so, in the Middle East, in areas of land where Jesus was, where numerous tribes, peoples, and civilizations had fought over the same plots of ground over many generations, it was always possible that one of the previous owners of your property had stashed his treasure deep in the ground when he saw the enemy coming, and didn’t get an opportunity to redeem it.

Treasure law is complicated. In ancient days there were clear laws about treasure. And there were common stories about people discovering treasure. Those stories had to do with being rewarded for some righteous behavior.

One such story was about Abba-Judah. He was wealthy and generous but he lost his wealth. He was saddened that he couldn't give anymore to the rabbis and in his despair his wife said to him, "Well you still have a field, sell half of it, give to the rabbis and then just plow the other half." Which he did and they blessed him for his generosity. They said, "May the Holy One, blessed be He, make up all the things that you lack." And one day when, Abba-Judah went to plow his field, his cow broke a leg and he went to lift the leg of the cow and there right where the leg was, he found a jewel worth a great deal of money. These were the kinds of stories that were floating around in the 1st century as well as all the rules about what you could find and keep.

This was the backdrop for this parable. And so Jesus opened his mouth and said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again and then in his joy, went and sold all that he had and bought the field." What does this mean? Now we read this and we assume maybe at first glance, that the kingdom of heaven is about joy.

And certainly it is, but the hearers who heard this parable would say, "Wait a minute, that man did not own that field. He was a day laborer who found treasure marked; it was hidden. It was marked and yet he was so excited that he bought the field." They are thinking that he just snookered the owner of the field, like we are tempted to snooker the person in a yard sale find.

And probably the clearest proof of that assumption is this. If he could have legally lifted the treasure, why not just take it? But he didn't. He had to go and sell everything he had to buy the field in order for it to be legal. And unlike the Jewish treasure stories, there is no sense in Jesus' parable about whether the man who finds this treasure is good or bad. Often Jesus reverses things to drive home a point. So why is the kingdom of God like this hidden treasure? Because the kingdom of God comes to us before our deeds can dictate anything. The kingdom of God is discovered by "morally good people" and by "terrible people."

Jesus tells them another parable:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Now I know nothing about pearls. I’m rather uncultured in the way of pearls. I don’t know if pearls are valued today as they once were.

Legend has it that Julius Caesar gave Brutus’ mother a pearl worth six million sesterti. (and no doubt lived to regret it since Brutus was the one who assassinated Caesar). Cleopatra was supposed to have a pearl worth 100 million sesterti.

Certain pearls were evidently worth a lot to certain persons in the first century. You’d sell everything you had in order to get the right one. That doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not an pearl addict. It's absurd to think about.

The parables today either speak of a ridiculous proposition, or a treasure. The Kingdom of God is waiting here to be discovered. Sometimes it will be discovered with joy and ease; other times it will be hidden, waiting. Our struggles as Christians can miss that. Sometimes, despite all our efforts, our achievements in Christian ministry may well seem to us to be as minuscule as that mustard seed, or that hidden yeast.

And that brings in the question of time lines and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes in many Churches, after years and years of hard work by dedicated people, all we’ve have to show for it is this little mustard seed. Where are the results? Hidden! Like yeast that’s hidden somewhere in the dough. Oh yeah, the Holy Spirit is growing Kingdom of God through our efforts, you can be sure, but don’t put a time line on exactly how long you think it’s going to take before you see the results.

One day … you’ll be able to put that magnificent pearl around your neck. One day ... you’ll be able to cash in your treasure. One day you’ll see how that mysterious and invisible yeast has transformed the whole enormous lump of bread dough. One day … that tiny seed will become a huge over sized bush. They are all representations of the Holy Spirit's treasure--grace and goodness in our lives

In the meantime, we pay the price, we give up everything we have, we hang on to the mustard seed, and we keep on kneading the dough, because we know that the Kingdom of God was given to us when Jesus died, and we work each day through our lives to bring it to its fullness.

Well … what do you think? Was it worth taking a closer look at this entry in the parade? Did you perceive anything new in them today?

God knows that we need fresh insight into the Scriptures and into our world,. We need fresh perspectives on life and ministry, but we need too the old, old story, and we need to keep being reminded of the basic truths - that following Jesus is not a promise that we can see results for our efforts. Yet we can be confident that our work is having its effect, and as sure as there’s a mustard plant blooms, we can be sure, that one day, that we will arrive at the fullness of the Kingdom.


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