7th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 27, 2014
More stories! A virtual blizzard of images of God’s Empire that lets us think about it in comparison to the empires and systems of our own day. One of the problems of such a blizzard is that it’s disorienting. The disciples seem to be cool with all the images Jesus throws at them, but I’m not so sure I can keep up. “So what is it, Jesus? Something tiny that grows, something hidden, something so precious we’d risk everything for it? All of the above?”
Perhaps like any good teacher or preacher, Jesus recognizes that each of us comes to the mystery of God’s presence with us and God’s dreams for us from a different story of our own. The idea that God’s empire is nearly invisible at first but grows into something big and beautiful could be a great comfort to someone who struggles. Or it might be the image of unexpectedly finding something of infinite value that captures your imagination. So each of these stories builds on the images of God that we have found in the sowing and reaping stories that we’ve already heard: that God is always at work, that God’s patience for growth and development is endless, that only God can see into the heart of a person, and that those who listen for God’s invitation and follow it will live lives of abundance.
So let’s take a minute to open these stories up a little bit. If you’ve ever lived in Southern California, as I have, you know about mustard. You see it everywhere in the spring, sprouting in every grassy field and every wayside. The story is that the Franciscan missionaries who colonized the Mexican territory of California brought mustard thinking of it as a cash crop for the Indians to grow and harvest in the mission’s fields. Mustard may have miniscule seeds, but it is an invasive species, escaping the boundaries you set for it and colonizing every piece of ground that those tiny seeds blow onto. It was not popular in the Holy Land of Jesus for the very same reason. You didn’t want mustard taking over your carefully cultivated space. Yeast, too, is generally thought of as bad in Jesus’ time, and Biblically it represents the pernicious quality of sin. Wild yeast was on the breeze and could contaminate any thing left open to the air. Hmmm. Why would Jesus compare God’s Empire to an invasive weed or a pollutant? Maybe because of their persistent nature. God’s Word, Jesus, is always present, always at work, always creating something that grows way beyond its initial tinyness to take over your world. No matter how much you try to keep it out, it flies in and does its work, growing, growing, growing, and in Jesus’ image, becoming something rich and valuable: a tree that shelters all the birds of the world, or rich bread to feed a household.
Two other stories also play with the images of small and big: a huge field hiding a buried treasure or a single pearl worth everything a rich merchant already owns. But these stories also bring in the image of hiddenness, of surprise, of risking all you have to grasp a new opportunity. Jesus’ suggestion is that God’s Empire could lay dormant and undiscovered in your life, your experience, until suddenly you happen upon it and realize that it is worth giving up everything else you’ve been striving for in order to follow your newfound treasure.
And those fish, “of every kind.” A whole world full of possible candidates to get caught in God’s net and harvested. Matthew’s Gospel always has images of some being faithful and some not. He’s always showing us how the righteous are those who listen for God’s word and live by it. They don’t live a religion of rules and regulations that exclude people and set themselves up as the experts. They are rather those who humbly attend to working out God’s love in the world of war, famine, poverty, suffering and shame. They learn to see with God’s eyes and want to be God’s hands, all the time realizing that they have been called by God’s gracious forgiveness and healing in spite of their inadequacy and imperfection.
In all these stories, the image of God’s empire is that it is something life-changing, something that might cause you turn in a whole new direction. The tiniest seed of God’s love might make you dare to participate in a food bank, or stand up for someone who is being bullied at school or at work. Discovering God’s love at work in the middle of your life might make you start coming to church, or reading your Bible, or talking about your faith to your friends. From there it could really take off, causing you to change career path, or like my skeptical friends Cyndi and Eileen, who’d left church years before, suddenly come back to discern a call to pastoral ministry and become powerful witnesses for the Good News of God’s Empire here among us.
I think Jesus’ images are evocative, not limiting. That means that Jesus is not giving us the only examples of images of God’s Empire. They are Jesus’ images for the people of Jesus’ time. If Jesus were here now, he might have chosen different images to tell us what God’s Empire is like. Maybe he’d use images of microbes and DNA or transformers that make our phones so smart, or space probes and the Big-Bang theory. I’d like to invite you to imagine your own parables, your own images of how God’s Empire feels to you, in your life, your experience, your dreams for the future. Just think about what those images might be, and share them with someone today, or this week. You can even share them with me. How is it that God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire becomes part of your life? What’s your story? Amen.