This is the sermon I gave today at Saint Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood
Readings: Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight oh God our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s Gospel consists of several parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. The crowd Jesus was talking to would have been no stranger to Kingdom of Heaven stories. It was associated with visions of power and holiness. God’s chosen people triumphing over their oppressors. It is a Kingdom somewhere in the future that would usher in a glorious new age of peace and prosperity.
One parable often associated with this kingdom can be found in Ezekiel chapter 17 verses 22 and 23 “Thus saith the Lord God:…On the high mountains of Israel will I plant it, and it shall shoot forth into branches and shall bear fruit, and it shall become a great cedar:
and all birds shall dwell under it,
and every fowl shall make its nest under the shadow of the branches thereof.”
But the parables we heard today give us a very different picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom that Jesus talks about is hidden and it is not concerned with outward signs of beauty and holiness. If you have ever seen a mustard plant you would know that it is no Cedar of Lebanon. It is a minor herb, unimpressive, and can be invasive to the point of acting like a weed.
I can only imagine how disappointed the crowd must have been to hear the Kingdom of Heaven compared to a mustard plant. But the parable of the leaven would have been downright shocking to them. You see in ancient times leaven was made by leaving a small piece of bread in a dark damp place to rot. It was then added to the bread to make it rise. Leavened bread was considered unclean and in this parable the woman adds it to three measures of flour –that is enough to feed 50 people at least. What could Jesus possibly mean by comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a corrupted batch of bread?
To our modern ears these parables simply show us examples of something small growing into something large. But Jesus was saying something more than that. He used these parables to question the hearer’s assumptions and preconceptions about where goodness can be found. God is present in the darkness, in the corrupt and unclean places. God may be hidden, but God is there. And being hidden does not mean passive. Unlike the parable in Ezekiel these parables of Jesus do not have God acting alone. The man plants the seed in the field, the woman hides the leaven in the bread: The littlest actions on the part of ordinary people bring about the Kingdom of Heaven in everyday life. Very often the mighty works of God’s Kingdom happen deep inside ourselves, in changed perceptions and attitudes. They happen when we choose compassion and forgiveness over ruthlessness and pride. And often they go unnoticed, even scorned by the world, which only makes discovering God’s Kingdom more difficult.
Because let’s be honest, forgiveness is hard, true understanding and compassion are hard. It means making oneself vulnerable by giving up the pride that we hold onto to keep ourselves from getting hurt. We live in a culture where both admitting mistakes and truly forgiving the mistakes of someone else equals weakness. But it is not weakness at all, it is humility.
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist Monk and mystic, tells us that “humility is the surest sign of strength” he goes on to say “A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.
For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, not even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle.”
Two of the parables we heard today show us two men pursuing the Kingdom of Heaven, giving up everything in order to possess it. One man finds a treasure in a field and he sells all he has in order to possess that treasure. Another man, a wealthy merchant, sells all that he has in order to possess a single pearl. He does not buy this pearl so that he can then make a profit by selling it again later. He makes himself destitute because he saw something of true value. It is absurd if you think about it, he gives up all of his wealth - essentially putting himself out of business - for a one pearl. To thoroughly humble oneself in this way seems to be a truly foolish thing to do.
And yet, Who does this remind you of?
Our Lord Jesus Christ humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. He did this because God sees that pearl of great price in each and every one of us. He sacrificed everything so that we too could have eyes to see, and ears to hear the Kingdom of Heaven within ourselves, and within each other.
We need only pay with our pride.
It is not easy, not for me anyhow. I struggle everyday to see God’s Kingdom in the world around me, in the people I encounter and most especially in myself. Still, I have to trust that it is there, as it is in each of us, growing every day as we struggle to follow in Christ’s footsteps. And I too, like Paul am persuaded, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”