Monday, July 25, 2011

Like a Pebble in Your Shoe; Pentecost 6, July 24, 2011

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a 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 realm of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The realm 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 realm 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 realm 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 Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the realm of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

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Will you pray with me? Loving God, pour out your grace on us today. Open our hearts and spirits to speak and hear your truth and love; all that you would have us know, that we may work more effectively to bring about your realm here on earth. We ask in your own mighty name, amen.

Wow, this reading sounds like some of my sermons—just all over the place, trying several different metaphors trying to explain or even just discuss the realm of God. A mustard seed, the realm of God is like a mustard seed—or no, it’s like some bread dough—wait, it’s more like a treasure, a pearl…or maybe it’s a netful of fish…

Human language cannot really explain the things of God. I think we all understand that. The best we can do is use metaphors, images, ideas of what God’s realm is like. And so Matthew has come up with this array of images—mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure in a field, pearl, a pile of fish. If that’s not a bunch of unconnected images, I don’t know what is! 

And yet…these all do have something in common. Matthew is trying to convey the idea of something seemingly small, hidden, inconsequential at first glance, something that needs discernment and understanding to see and claim. 

That mustard seed—it’s small, but once it’s planted, it grows tall. A little bit of yeast is all you need to make a lot of bread—and don’t forget bread was the main food item in those days. Jesus is indulging in hyperbole here, by the way—there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds and it never grows into an actual tree, and there’s no way that yeast could leaven the whole amount of flour.  But that exaggeration emphasizes the point—minor, insignificant things can in fact be very important.

A hidden treasure—how valuable could it really be if someone has forgotten about it and someone else can just stumble on it in the countryside? And yet it is valuable enough for the finder to buy the whole field in order to get it.

That pearl of great price…a tiny thing, easily crushed or damaged—and yet the merchant sells off everything else she has in order to get it—to put all her resources into this one small pearl. Not good business is it? It speaks of a passion—for the perfect, for the ideal, for a willingness to sacrifice everything for a goal.
Finally, those fish… The fishers were using what’s called a seine net—you pull it through the water and gather up everything that’s too big to get through the meshes. So then they had to sit down on the shore and sort it all out. There were, I am sure, old bottles, and sticks, and a worn-out sandal someone threw away, and turtles and some broken pottery and algae mats and fish that were not good eating and fish that were good eating. But they didn’t try to sort them out until afterwards—until the whole catch had been brought in—and when it comes to us, it’s not human beings who do that sorting but angels. There’s a saying I’ve always disliked, usually associated with the military—“kill them all and let God sort them out.” I’d rather change that to “Bring them all in and let God sort them out.” 

The realm of God is like that, too—gathering all the people together, regardless of whether they are seen as valuable or worthless or somewhere in the middle. God knows their worth. And after all, even the bottles could be used as a flower vase and some turtles make good soup. 

But the truth here is that important things, good things, valuable things, can come from small beginnings or look like they are worthless. A tiny seed, a turtle, an empty field; or a few disciples who were not well-educated, wealthy or important. The smallest things, the most insignificant acts can change the way people look at each other and the relationship they have with God.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon at a fundraiser—a cruise on the River. The majority of attendees were not people whom we will probably ever see here in our service—some are simply not interested in church, others have churches they attend already, some we see from time to time, a few are opposed to churches. But my presence there spoke to them in a different way—even if they weren’t aware of it, even if it was on an unconscious level. A pastor, on the river cruise, dancing to the DJ, friends with many of them, talking, laughing, bantering, and yes, drinking a Mike’s Cranberry Lemonade…I was there, I was present for them, sharing their lives and their experiences. It may have been a mustard seed—or a pebble in their shoes, reminding them of God’s presence there, not so much in me but in each one of them—that tiny pebble that won’t go away, but reminds you of its presence with each step. 

It’s telling that I am often told by members of the community that I am their pastor, or this is their church, when they have no formal ties to the church.  What they do have are ties of affection, of understanding that here they are welcome and loved and wanted, even if they choose not to come, or not to come regularly. They know that if they decide to come, they have a place to come to worship. From such little things, seemingly insignificant, great things can grow. 

And you know, this is not simply a denominational thing. When I served two small country churches as a Methodist pastor, many people had the same sense about those churches. There was no town cemetery, so every one was buried in Waterside UMC on one side of the ridge or Countryside UMC on the other side. Most of the families didn’t belong to either church, but they still felt as if they were “their” church—there for them when they needed a church. Those small churches were pebbles, too—reminding people of God’s presence, always.

My sisters and brothers, consider this. Are you a pebble in someone’s shoe? Is this church a pebble? 

Are we intentional about being those seeds, that pearl, the fish in the net? Are we reminding the people around us of God’s presence with them—always?
There are so many ways to do that, many of them very simple. Just by behaving in ways that are Christian—caring for others by not gossiping or tearing down, showing respect for our sisters and brothers and ourselves in our actions, lifting others up who are in need—that sets an example, a counter-example to those who claim the name Christian and yet act in very un-Christlike ways. When the topic of spirituality arises in conversation with friends, strangers, family--mention church—that you go, that you go to church,  your role at church is—you usher, you serve communion, you were once on the board. 

That simple knowledge of you—someone who has a face to them—as a Christian who attends church means more than all the sermons, than all the glitzy campaigns or fancy buildings. It’s a mustard seed, a pearl—a hidden treasure.

In all God’s many names, amen.

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