Matthew 13: 31-33;44-52 Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his 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 kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“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.
“Again, the kingdom 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 kingdom 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 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.”
Someone, YEARS ago, gave Rob and me a lovely little gift: a hand-written bible verse, about 5×7, matted in a cornflower blue. It was wrapped in plastic, and ready for framing. We never framed it. I’m not sure why. The truth is, we never even took the plastic off. I hung it, as is, in our laundry room for some reason— I put a little tape on the back and pasted it to the wall over the deep welled sink, and there it stayed.
I had nothing against this bible verse, at least I didn’t think so. I was not judging how it fit into my décor—I just decided to put it there. Seemed like a good enough place; the plastic kept it safe from the dampness of the handwashing.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”
I say I had nothing against this verse, but I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how St. Paul could be so sure of his conviction…that all things work together for good for those who love God. It sure doesn’t seem that way sometimes. Take right now, during the pandemic, it sure doesn’t seem all things are working together.
For Paul, though, this statement was no flowery idea; he was not trying to impress the Romans with fancy rhetoric, well, maybe just a little bit. Paul was actually speaking to his own scary and transformative experience of God. No doubt you remember his story…
There once was a man named Saul. He was a devout Jewish man from a city called Tarsus in the country we now know as Turkey. Tarsus was a university city on the Mediterranean Sea and a city central to much of the world’s trade. As a young man Saul went to Jerusalem and studied Torah, religiously, under one of the most well renowned rabbis of the time, Gamaliel. Saul was also called Paul at times. Saul is his name in Hebrew name and Paul is his name in Latin, the language of Rome.
Paul studied stoic Philosophy and was an artisan—he knew the craft of tent making—he was a man of many talents. But most proudly, Paul called himself a Pharisee of Pharisees, telling how dedicated he was to knowing and following the Law.
Early Christian converts feared Saul, as he worked for Rome, rooting out and persecuting those who followed the way of Christ. Saul, was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, and putting them in prison.
The Book of Acts tells us, Paul “breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Just imagine what we’d think about Saul if he were alive today: a Jewish man sent out by governing authorities to kill Christians. Yet, as we know, God chose to love Saul and use him for good.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the risen Christ confronts Saul. From that encounter Saul is temporarily blinded, he made friends with the disciples, and he began to witness to Jesus as the Messiah.
I use to kill and imprison Christians: this where Paul’s emotion comes from when he writes his epistle to the Romans: “Nothing,” Paul says, expressing his soulful regret for the things he had done, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” God chose me, a murderer, “how can that be? And yet, here I am.” Christ came to me and altered my direction…Christ changed my heart to love, so I know with all my being, that ALL things work together for good to them that love God.
If you’ve been tuning in to church lately, and paying attention, you’ll know that for two weeks in a row, we’ve heard Matthew tell Jesus’ parables about weeping and gnashing of teeth. Last week we talked about the wheat and the tares—you can find this sermon on our website if you missed it. Matthew has a whole string of short parables about the kingdom today, following up on last week’s. Jesus is continuing to explain to the crowd what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sowed, he says, and like yeast that a woman mixed in with flour; it is like a treasure buried in a field which someone found and then hid and then, sold all he had to buy the field, the kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, and like a net thrown into the sea that caught all kinds of fish….. there is so much imagery here! Maybe one of these strikes you as your favorite image, but it strikes me that Jesus means for us to think about, and imagine, all of them somehow…together.
You see, what, he says, “the kingdom” is, is not a place at all. It is a dynamic, an active and revolutionary force. Perhaps instead of the words “kingdom of heaven” which seems to us like a fixed residence, a clearer translation is, “the reign of God.” Some bibles use this language: “The reign of heaven” is like a seed that someone sowed, like yeast that a woman kneaded, and so on. Jesus’ is sending a subtle and subversive message about how working for the coming of God’s kingdom changes the world as we know it.
Jesus knows the mustard seed doesn’t actually grow into a tree, he is using parody or caricature—the mustard plant is a shrub, and a scrubby one at that; it is not welcome in most fields, it is invasive. Like mint: if you’ve ever grown mint in your garden you know what it does, it takes over, the mustard plant is like that. We are to see that the reign of God is so persistent, it needs only a small start. God’s love is obstinate and tenaciousness, hard to root out once it is found. In God’s reign many are able to finally hear the message and find a home.
Likewise, once yeast is mixed in, there’s no getting it out—it is a living agent that reproduces and greatly expands a mass. The kingdom is like this—it grows inside of us and uses us for good.
Paul never met Jesus during his life. He never heard Jesus tell a parable. He never saw Jesus heal anyone. Paul had to learn all about Jesus’ work and teaching from others—the gospels hadn’t even been written when Paul began his ministry. Paul wrote all of his epistles before Mark and Matthew and Luke and John picked up their pens. Yet, we get so much of our theology from Paul, from his avid and sometimes rabid faith. Why?
Paul let the yeast inside of him and from that he sowed the seed of Christianity, sharing the message of God’s kingdom, and giving many, many of us a home of faith.
Paul experienced the courageous and transforming love of God.
Courageous…who but God would choose one such as this?
Transforming…who but God has the power to change one such as this?
I guess I let that little bible verse, hung over my sink, work on me over the years— helping me to understand that “All things work together for good” does not mean that if you love God, everything will work out hunky dory in this life— that you’ll live life in the lap of luxury—that is not what happened to Paul; he was in prison off and on for years and according to the letters of the early church father’s, Paul met his end in brutal martyrdom.
No, All things work together for good to them that love God means, that when you love God faithfully, fully, you cannot help but be changed for good. God works on us. God changed Paul from persecutor to apostle. When we open ourselves to God’s love, we become that sower who sows seed everywhere, or the yeast that expands the kingdom; some of us become pesky mustard seeds helping others to find homes, it is hard to get rid of us. All things work together for good to them that love God, means, no matter what comes…
not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
thanks be to God.