Proper 12, Year A, RCL, Track 2
Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Whether you are a gardener, a fisherman, or a baker; a collector of fine art or a bargain hunter; our set of parables today seem to have something for everyone. Since there are so many to choose from, it may be easy to pick out one of these parables that fits your imagine of the kingdom of heaven. Yet to choose just one would be like attempting to create a beautiful painting with only a single color.
Today Jesus paints us a picture of the kingdom of heaven. It incorporates images from several other parables. And it is only when we combine all these bits and pieces, all the various colors in the palate together, that we begin to recognize the complete picture of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Through the six analogies, Jesus explains that the kingdom of heaven starts out small, and over time it grows large; so much so that it can provide shelter. The kingdom of heaven, with a little feeding and attention, spreads almost uncontrollably. It is so precious and wonderful that a person would sell all they have to obtain it. Yet the kingdom of heaven itself is searching for those precious pearls. The kingdom of heaven is so enormous that it will contain both good things and bad. But we don’t need to worry about that because the angels will sort this out later. The kingdom of heaven is wise; it reflects on what is old and what is new; it is not stuck in time. Because of the expansiveness of this image, we may wonder how our experience fits into this picture. As a whole, these parables ask us to look within ourselves and at the world around us.
When we look at the world around us we may say that the kingdom of heaven isn’t growing. We can look at the vast majority of parishes of every denomination and see there has been a decline in church attendance and that fewer people are claiming to be Christian. We may be wondering, where is this expansive growth illustrated in this parable.
While it is true that there is a decline in the United States and much of the Western world, it is not true worldwide. In 1919 there were an estimated 600 million Christians in the world. And as of 2010, it is estimated to be 2.3 billion. Believe it or not, the number of Christians in the world continues to rise.(1) This is the hope we have; that the seed is being scattered, that they are finding fertile soil; and the harvest is abundant.
Each parish started out small and with the personal attention and the energy of the first few parishioners they grew. This is like the woman, who took the yeast and put it into something rather mundane; flour. Flour and water alone might make a cracker. It will definitely make paste, but for it to have the wonderful texture and smell that we know as bread, it needs yeast. Much like God’s gift of salvation, yeast is all around us, available to all. Yet it is up to us to include it in the mix of ingredients; to work it into the dough allowing life to emerge out of something that otherwise may be bland and mundane.
Anyone who has made their own sourdough starter knows that it takes a little TLC, some time, and it definitely takes attention. If you don’t feed it on a regular basis, it will no longer be active; some would say that it dies. To keep it alive you have to add more flour every few days or hours. And because you routinely feed it, you have to make something with the excess or it will keep getting bigger and bigger. Much like life, you have to put something into it to get something out of it. You can’t simply sit back and expect life to get better and better; much as Jesus warns us in a different parable where the landowner wanted to build a bigger barn to store his grain for retirement. This type of thinking is not what God wants for any of us. He wants us to help him build the kingdom of heaven now and throughout our lives.
The sower planted seed, the woman put yeast in the flour, and the man who found the treasure sold all that he had. None of these people seemed to be forced to do these things but they almost seem compelled to do them. The man who found the treasure caught a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Through what he saw and the emotion it stirred up he felt compelled to sell all he had to receive that gift.
If the gift we are talking about is salvation or God’s love for us, these gifts are free, unearned, undeserved, freely given to us out of pure grace. But it seems that the kingdom of heaven urges us to change, to become more Christ-like, to love our neighbors as deeply as we love our sleeves, to make a difference in the lives of other people, and to continually turn toward God. Like the people in these parables, we are not forced to do these things but some would say if you have truly seen our Lord you just want to do them, simply out of your love for God. The treasure you seek is at hand, but we may need to dig it up, embrace it, and share it with others. This is where mutual love comes in.
God loves us more than we can perceive and we love God in return. If the kingdom of heaven is like the treasure then for us in this parable we are like the most precious pearls to God. God will not stop seeking you out; whispering in your ear to come closer to him. God has done his part. He is next to you, wrapping you in his arms of love. And if we pause just for a moment we can feel that love. We can see God present in our lives, and we can acknowledge the love we have for God in return.
We can put all kinds of things into life. We can put money into it and with a good investment, we may receive more. We can put our time in it. Sometimes our time is our occupation and other times it looks like volunteering. But our time can also be used simply by hanging out with our friends, our family, and most importantly with God, in prayer.
Maybe life is difficult. We see violence, destruction, hunger, and disease. And we are asked to continually put something into it; time and energy. We get tired, we don’t have the energy to do for others or for God, and we look inward and focus on ourselves. Yet even in this hardship, all hope is not lost for we have the Spirit, we have Christ who knows our heart and who advocates for us when we have fallen. We will be picked up; encouraged to try again, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_population_growth (based on Pew Research)