I want to consider Jesus’ parables in our gospel today, with a passing reference to that wonderful passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I’ve never found the idea of process very easy. By that I mean that I struggle sometimes with the idea that things take time. On the whole I’m more interested in my destination when I’m travelling than in the journey. I’ve found our present circumstances hard sometimes because I’d like to be there (wherever that is) rather than be in a seemingly endless process of emerging. I would be the one to say, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ when I was a child.
So, here we are today with parables that are about slow growth, slow emerging and waiting and hiddenness. O dear!
This is now the 3rd Sunday that we have followed Jesus’ teaching about what Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven (Kingdom of God in Mark and Luke). Jesus is teaching about a way of life right now, not after death (Matthew uses ‘heaven’ as a typically Jewish way of avoiding naming God – a sign of respect). We might paraphrase entering God’s kingdom as being about living a life that is at one with his best desires for humanity and for the whole of creation. And, Jesus seems to be saying, how this happens takes time, the process might be hidden, it can be costly, and we might mistrust some features of it.
Then at the end of this section Matthew and only Matthew, includes this observation about teachers who are in tune with God’s kingdom bringing out from their store of wisdom what is old and what is new. This is generally reckoned to be how Matthew the gospel writer understood his task. But as we approach scripture we too can draw on old and new wisdom in order to better see what is going on around us.
So I thought we might start by looking at some events that might illustrate the wisdom in these parables – the mustard seed growing into a tree, the yeast spreading through a lump of dough, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price and the net full of fish.
Nearly two years ago Greta Tunberg, age 15, stopped going to school once a week and sat instead outside the Swedish parliament holding a placard saying ‘School strike for the climate’. It was a very small action, but it started a world wide movement. It raised awareness of our climate emergency. Not everyone applauded her. There were concerns about children’s education as young people in other countries started staying out of school. Nevertheless she had planted a tiny seed, like the mustard seed Jesus refers to in the first of today’s parables.
As lockdown began Green Christian, a very small environmental charity, recognized that a prolonged period of inactivity could be an opportunity for nurturing a vision of how we might better cherish the earth. They launched a series of weekly online conversations called ‘Radical Presence’ where Christians and others might engage together on ways forward. They offered resources to stimulate reflection and action. Now on its third round of conversations, Radical Presence has reached Christians from every denomination and from all over the British Isles. It is stimulating a range of actions and further conversations – community gardening, lobbying MPs, opening new forums for discussion on climate change. Radical Presence is like the yeast in Jesus’ 2nd parable.
In the 1850s a middle aged Jamaican widow, Mary Seacole, volunteered at the London War office to go to the Crimea, to join Florence nightingale’s hospital for soldiers injured in the Crimean war. She had a particular calling to nurse soldiers, having been brought up in a hotel cum hospital in Kingston run by her mother. She was experienced in treating cholera and yellow fever, both of them diseases that ravaged military camps at that time. Mary was persistent, but the War office in London turned her down several times. She didn’t give up easily. Rather like the men in the 3rd and 4th parable she sold everything she had in Jamaica and travelled to the Crimea independently where she set up a hotel/hospital similar to the one she had run with her mother in Kingston Jamaica. She helped 100s of soldiers and was so loved and respected by them that when she eventually came to London virtually destitute after the war they did the equivalent of crowd funding for her so she had something to live on. Her calling was like the treasure in the field, or the priceless pearl and she had been ready to give up everything for it.
St Peter, having a nap on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house (Acts 10.9-23), dreams of a big net holding all kinds of creatures, many of which would have been considered unclean by Jews like himself, and hears a voice telling him to kill and eat some of them. ‘No’, he says, ‘some of those are not ok for us’, and God (it is after all his voice)tells him that it’s God, rather than Peter, who determines what is clean or unclean. I wonder if Peter’s dream took him back to the story of the net in Jesus’ 5th parable today?
We might perhaps imagine Peter looking back to those days when he and the other disciples were with Jesus on the road and at the end of a long day where they’ve been alongside Jesus as he taught and as people followed them round, one of them says to Jesus, ‘Have you noticed some of the people in the crowd following you? I’m not too happy about some of them. There are tax collectors, for a start, certainly some prostitutes and other dubious characters who might give us all a bad name. There’s danger too; what about those two who look like spies from the Jewish authorities? Shall we ease them out? And Jesus tells the story of the net. In effect he’s saying, ‘You are called to fish for people (remember my calling you by the lake?) you just get on and do that. You know how to sort fish, but people are a different matter. Leave God to sort out that catch’.
Or another evening after a long day mainly taken up with vigorous arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees which seem to lead nowhere and a visit to a small village where there was little interest one of the disciples says, ‘I’m wondering if we should try something a bit more ambitious, a sort of Jesus roadshow, sending some of us ahead announcing your arrival, with suitable publicity, perhaps arranging a flotilla of our boats on the lake and some music. Let’s go large’. And Jesus tells the stories of the mustard seed and the yeast as a way of saying they don’t have to try so hard. The kingdom of God is a given. It’s actually woven into the way creation works. It’s a natural outworking of God’s grace. It will happen, however small its beginnings might be. ‘Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’, Jesus says to them in Luke’s gospel. ‘You just do what I called you to do and leave the rest to God. Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, written some time before Matthew’s gospel, ‘We know that everything works together for good for those who love God….If God is for us, who can be against us’?
In these parables, as in so much of Jesus’ teaching, there is an implied invitation to trust in God’s good purposes for ourselves and our world; a trust that the working out of these purposes can take time, just as nature takes time, that responding to God’s call to us to share in working out those purposes will involve taking a risk, however small, and might be costly in other ways, and that we may well find ourselves co operating with people we wouldn’t usually associate with. And yet, as we do so, we find what is for us the equivalent of the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field.
I was wondering what mustard seeds might have been sown in our church during the last few months. Perhaps one might be the 30 minutes with the children before the main zoom service? But there will be others. In the week ahead I invite you to look back over lockdown, holding up perhaps two (or more, if you like) of today’s parables and seeing where they might be illustrated in your life and the life of our church. Sit with the parable. Express gratitude. It may be too, that there is a calling somewhere in there for you. Like Mary Seacole you get in touch with something you really want to do. Stay with that desire, voicing it to God in prayer. We are all in the process of becoming. We haven’t yet arrived and as we ponder the events around us in the light of wisdom old and new, turning to God in prayer, we can trust, St Paul says, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness..the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Again, that invitation to trust.
Christine Bainbridge July 2020