Clutch It Tightly! Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 July 30, 2017
While attending a workshop on preaching, a renowned preacher, theology professor and storyteller, swears this happened to him: He was visiting in a home of one of his former students, and after a great dinner, the young parents excused themselves and hustled the kids off to bed, leaving the professor in the living room with the family pet — a large, sleek greyhound. Earlier in the evening the professor had watched the kids roll on the floor playing with the family dog. “That’s a full-blooded greyhound there,” the father of the kids had told his former prof. He once raced professionally down in Florida. He was retired; then we got him. Great dog with the kids, that greyhound.”
So, now sitting alone there with the dog by himself, the dog turned to the prof and asked, “This your first visit to Minnesota?” “No,” he answered. “I went to school up here a long time ago.” “Well, I guess you heard,” said the greyhound, I came up here from Miami, Florida”. “Oh, yeah, you retired?” The prof asked. “No, is that what they told you? No, no, I didn’t retire. I tell you, I spent 10 years as a professional, racing greyhound.
That means 10 years of running around that track day after day, seven days a week with others chasing that rabbit. Well, one day, I got up close; I got a good look at that rabbit. It was a fake! I had spent my whole life – 10 years chasing a fake rabbit! Just like fake news, with that dude in Washington D.C. With the bushie, bushie blond hairdo, you know! Ten years!! Hey, I didn’t retire; I quit!”
We’re here today to hear a gospel message through some rather strange, absurd, ridiculous, crazy and unexpected stories, & like that greyhound story, that will help us discern the difference between the real & the fake, the treasure & the trash & then have our Lord Jesus give us the guts to go for the gold & clutch it tightly.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” is a familiar and comforting image—God will do something wonderful if we have a tiny bit of faith; something big and good comes from something small and insignificant. How nice! We think this because we don’t know much about mustard and focus on the tiny seed, not the “great tree.”
A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast growing, and impossible to get rid of. The kingdom of heaven is like kudzu, like scotch broom, like morning glories, like dandelions. And birds of the air?!? Well, they eat those mustard seeds, don’t digest them & then they fly over and drop their poop on my car and then on your yards & farmers’ fields & reseed them! The last place we want the mustard seed is in our grain fields or back yards.
The pesky mustard seed story is paired with the one-verse story of the yeast. A nice domestic image, a little gender parity, maybe even an instance of Jesus speaking directly to women. Well, it would be if the central images didn’t all convey contamination, corruption, and subversion.
In other bible references to leaven or yeast it is always in a negative tone. Now, a modern paraphrase, very close to the heart of this story & quite eye opening, might be: The kingdom of heaven is like the virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took in the alley behind University Lutheran Church and injected dope into a vein so the whole body was infected.” Yet in the story, from this woman’s “hiding” the yeast comes incredible abundance. Three measures of flour is about 50-60 pounds, bread to feed more than 100 people!
What is Jesus saying here? In these stories of Matthew, the kingdom Jesus announces is subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, abundant. The gospel, once let loose is going to mess up our stuff, our structures, the way we do things, our expectations. The Kingdom of Heaven is not going to go away. It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior, which leads us to the next two stories.
The workman finds a buried treasure in a field. Surprise! In the days when that land was being forever conquered by some army or enemy nation, the prudent householder gathered the valuables & hid them in a field for safe keeping. There were no safety deposit boxes then. Afterward, the treasure could be retrieved.
Evidently, as later discoveries indicate, some even in this century — a few people forgot or were unable to retrieve their treasures. I know of people who have tucked money away in dresser drawers, jars, cupboards, envelopes & have forgotten about it or couldn’t remember where they were…right, Darleen?!?
What happened to the workman occurred in a different way for the pearl merchant. I would guess as Jesus told this story there must have arisen in the imagination of his hearers a picture of a busy Jerusalem marketplace — narrow cobblestone streets, people packed together, unbelievable sounds & smells & fascinating booths.
The various street markets, even the famed Pike Place Market, that we have in the Puget Sound pale in comparison to the Jerusalem marketplace. The hallmark of that Jerusalem marketplace was the bartering, the wheeling & dealing. The merchant knew what to look for; he wasn’t surprised. He found it and soon learned it would cost him everything he had to make the purchase.
Jesus compares this treasure & pearl to the Kingdom of Heaven — the gifts of God, God’s purposes, way of life, a relationship implanted in us at our baptism. These stories suggest a variety of responses to god’s grace alive in the world. But the attitude of expectancy illustrated in these stories isn’t just sitting around waiting for something good to happen.
There’s a will within the expectancy, which issues into action
The workman acted to legitimately own the buried treasure. The merchant was forever looking for the pearl of great value & once he found it, did everything necessary to acquire it. These stories illustrate not so much a person possessing a field & its treasure, or a pearl of great value, but how those treasures possessed them; possessed them so much that it took over their lives that they had to have them, no matter the cost. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a treasure we possess. It is something that grasps us!
In Luther’s Small Catechism, the meaning of two petitions in the lord’s prayer captures this spirit: we pray, Yyour kingdom come.” What does this mean? Asks Luther: “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may come among us.” The same thing is said about the next petition, “Your will be done.” “God’s good & gracious will comes without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in & among us.”
We pray this every Sunday and perhaps even in the week. The Spirit of Heaven is continually unleashed, continually providing opportunities & instances in time to receive god’s spirit & power, often when we least expect it.
That’s what’s packed into that cryptic verse at the end when Jesus asks if his disciples understood all those stories & they say, “Duuh, yes!” I don’t think so!! Jesus is encouraging his followers, then & now, to let these old words from the bible speak a new word to our world, speak the word anew to our current situation, and give expression to these old words in new and refreshing ways. Look what takes place when that happens and we really discover this.
We do crazy things…..like open our doors daily to homeless Women to give them a safe place to shower, eat, pursue jobs, be safe in our day center; or serve meals to homeless youth living on the U district streets as well as U-Dub students involved in campus ministry; or provide transition housing for 7-8 homeless Women, as well as provide assistance with counseling & job seeking assistance; or support a sanctuary arts program for homeless youth, giving them opportunity to let their artistic gifts blossom & grow; or provide emergency overnight shelter for 15 women; or go over the goal to raise money, currently totaling 0ver $34,000 to the refugee resettlement program’s emergency assistance fund, along with 13 of our members volunteering for Lutheran Community Services NW.
As God’s people we speak Kingdom of Heaven truth to power in our actions for common sense health care, decent, respectful immigration reform, proper, lasting climate control, and strongly affirming the fitness of transgender military to serve and protect our country. Why?? Because, it’s the right thing to do.
And the crazy list goes on, right up to us calling a new pastor, who will no doubt bring even more change, innovation & creativity. This is what happens when one discovers the treasure of the kingdom.
To use an image in Boeing country, it is like building an airplane that we are already flying!! The stress on the stories is not what has to be given up in order to gain the kingdom, but on the great value to be grasped in our relationship with God, a relationship which brings great joy to those who enter it.
Despite all the moral and ethical overtones of these stories, the central thought is that The Kingdom” is something God is doing, that is, it is to be received as a gift. The Kingdom of Heaven is not something that can be acquired & from then on held as a legal & permanent possession. It is a sphere into which one enters. The stories do not teach good morals. They say that our response to the gracious gift of participation in God’s Rule must be total, immediate & not to count the cost.
There was a typo in a worship bulletin announcing a hymn. Instead of “Rise Up, O Saints of God” , it read “Wise Up, O Saints of God.” Maybe that’s the parting shot of these stories. Let’s wise up & be through with the sorting, the categorizing, the judging
The surpassing worth of the kingdom of heaven, given root and substance through the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord, provides us with the heart & urgency to continue life’s journey with our God. Let’s wise up & then rise up to embrace this priceless gift & clutch the pearl tightly — Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord — forever taste his goodness in the bread & cup — clutch him – our beautiful brightly shining Savior – clutch him tightly ‘til the lights go on!
And let the rest go hang!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 7-30-17” name of the sermon.