Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's as clear as mud

Matthew 13: 44-52

44 “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.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 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.”
Before we begin, I want to warn those of you who follow the lectionary and anyone who maybe already heard one sermon today, that because of some scheduling weirdnesses I have switched the readings for this week and next week.  So come back next week for the parable of the seeds.   And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  

I have a question for the teachers.  And the parents, who are also teachers, after all.  Does it ever happen that you explain a fairly complex concept to your students (or your child), ask them if they understood, and get lots of head nodding to go with the glazed over expressions on their faces?   I know I do that sometimes, mostly to get the explanation over with.  Like when one of my geek friends starts speaking computerese in great detail.  I can sort of follow, but not well enough to really get what they are saying.  So I nod sagely and hope they will be finished soon.  If I know them really well I might confess that I understand all the words they are using, but can’t follow the order in which they are arranged.  

So, Jesus tells some parables and asks his audience, “Have you understood this?”  And they all say “Yes.”  As I read through them I wondered what Jesus’ reaction would be if I put my hand up and said, “Um, no, not really.”   I mean, I can guess at what they mean and speak to meanings that sound right to me.  But what Jesus meant by them is not necessarily something I can say “yes” to without doing some serious study.  What they would have meant to a person living 20 centuries ago may not be anything like what we understand them to mean.  So, I turn to theologians to see what on earth Jesus was talking about.  (Specifically, I will be referring to Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, pp 284-288) 

Because Jesus was absolutely talking about earthly stuff.  The kingdom of heaven is a phrase Jesus used to describe living in God’s will here and now, not a place where we hope to end up later.  

Both the parables of the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great price are about merchants. The first thing we need to know is that in Jesus’ time merchants were regarded with about as much respect as we traditionally give to used car salesmen.  The first one found a treasure in a field, and sold off all his other possessions in order to buy that one field.   We do have to ask ourselves what he was doing digging around in someone else’s field . . .and why he kept the finding of the treasure a secret from the person whose field it was.  Not especially honest, but definitely in keeping with the 1st century opinion of merchants in general.   The second merchant sold off all he owned in order to possess one, perfect pearl.  His actions were not dishonest, but certainly not at all merchant-like, as he now has nothing to sell, so he is effectively out of business.   As is the first merchant, who has sold everything he had in order to obtain the treasure he found.  These two merchants have behaved in a manner contrary to the ways of the world, in which profit is more important than anything.  To them, the treasure they have found is worth more than everything else they might possess, so they have given up everything, even their means of making a living, possibly even their homes and families, in order to possess that thing.  

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live differently than what is expected of people living in the Roman empire.  It is to break with convention, as these two merchants have done.  

Another parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like a net cast wide, which catches everything.  Today’s net fishermen do the very same thing the ancient fishermen did - they separate what they can sell from everything else.  Some of what is left they use for bait, some they take home for their families to eat, some they just toss out of the boat so other fish can eat it.   Jesus says that at the end of days, this separation of good and bad will be done by the angels, with the evil being thrown into the fire.  The prophets speak of the end times as a time when a fire like that of a refiner will cleanse the evil from God’s people, as does the Book of Revelation.  (Both of which are subjects for another time.)  The point Jesus makes in this parable, according to the theologians I read, is that judgment is not our job, but the job of those angels appointed by God to make those decisions at the end of days.   This is a concept familiar to us from Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  Hard to do, not judging.  Another thing that is opposite of what society expects.  Pretty much everything Jesus directs us to do is the opposite of what society expects.

As an example of the difference between what is expected or normal in our society and what is not. . . The TV show Survivor puts people in difficult environments, in usually very primitive conditions, in which they will compete with each other to win a large amount of money.  Unlike a race or sporting event where skill is a major determining factor in winning, this competition typically rewards the most devious and underhanded of the contestants.   This program and its predecessor Big Brother have spawned a plethora of other “reality” shows, which show humanity at its worst.  Another “reality” type program, which sadly didn’t last long, was “Who wants to be a Superhero?”.  Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics, produced this program which expected people to be the very best people they could be.  In one episode the contestants were told they must complete a task in a certain amount of time in order to stay in the competition.  On their way to the finish line each of them passed a crying child.  Anyone who continued past that child without stopping to help was dropped, because according to Stan Lee, no superhero would ever put winning a contest ahead of helping a crying child.   You cannot imagine the shock on the faces of those who finished the race in time, but passed by that child.  This is so opposite to what society expects that I can’t help but see it as an example - a parable, if you will - of the kingdom of heaven.   The fact that Survivor has lasted 34 seasons to date (17 years!) and Who Wants To Be A Superhero lasted only 2 seasons is, I think, a rather sad commentary.  

And Jesus says, “Do you understand?”  Receiving a yes - and maybe now I can also say yes - he goes on to say that those who are scribes (students) trained for the kingdom of heaven are like those who value both their old and their new treasures.  The old is the Law and the Prophets, and the new is the teaching Jesus brings, which builds upon the old.   There are those who believe that only the New Testament is necessary for Christians to study, but seriously, doing that is like trying to understand calculus without first mastering basic arithmetic and algebra.  

You know, I used to think that these parables were all about the treasure and the pearl - that it was their value that was being likened to the kingdom of God. That was easy.  Faith is like a pearl or a treasure - it is something more precious than anything else we might have!  That would be easy to preach.  It wouldn’t have  occurred to me that it was what the merchants did to obtain those things - behaving in a way completely contrary to social expectation - that was the kingdom.   I used to think that the description of what the angels were doing was about heaven and hell.  I didn't realize that this parable is really Jesus warning us against a very common behavior - judging others - that we are to avoid.   And frankly, the discussion of old and new treasures simply confused me, until I learned that Jesus was speaking of old and new knowledge.  

Behaving in a manner opposite to the expectation of the society in which we live is incredibly difficult.  Doing the right thing may seem counter-intuitive, like stopping to comfort a crying child in the middle of a timed race.   

Another example is something I experienced just this past week.  I spent part of the week at Camp Tamarack, which is staffed entirely by volunteers.  So in a modern parable, the kingdom of heaven is a young married man who had no vacation time and took a week off work anyway to sleep in a tents and shower in an unheated bathroom and work with the children he’d never met, some of whom have developmental challenges.  And spend his own money to design and buy materials for a solar oven so he could teach them science-y stuff.  That just doesn’t make sense to most people.  Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is the 50+ woman who walked away from her one-woman business for two weeks to work without pay, standing on her feet from 6 am until past 8 pm, cooking for 30 or more people.   May we all find ways to live in the kingdom of heaven, to behave in a way society doesn't understand.

We have some people going to Camp Tamarack this week.  Jessica and Michael are going as counselors - they will have left yesterday.  Several of our youth are going as campers.  Could you come forward please, so we can bless you on your way?  

Commissioning of Campers
WE of the congregation want those of you going to camp to grow in your faith as Jesus grew in his faith.
We hope that you will grow in the spirit of God and bear fruit that reflects the kingdom of heaven.
We want you to learn the lessons of nature that Jesus taught.
We remember the contributions of the individuals who make the camp and conference program possible; the time, the imagination and the money that comes from people in this and other congregations. 
We hope your experience at camp will go well.  Hold us in your prayers as we will hold you in our prayers.
May your time at camp be fruitful and fun and spirit filled, from the first day until the last.

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