Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon: 12 Pentecost (3 August 2008)

12 Pentecost (Proper 13): 3 August 2008
(Gen 29:15-28/Ps 105:1-11, 45b/Rom 8:26-39/Mat 13:31-33, 44-52)
What Do You See There?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parables of Jesus are like a man who visits his psychiatrist. After a few preliminaries the doctor hands the patient a Rorschach inkblot, asks him to look it over and tell him what he sees there. The patient examines it, turns it this way and that, and finally begins describing a very graphic scene of sex and violence. The more the psychiatrist listens the more upset he becomes until finally he interrupts his patient. “Is that what you really see? This is very disturbing.” “Tell me about it!” responds the patient. “You should be ashamed of yourself showing people pictures like this; you need some help!”

This old joke turns on an assumption about the Rorschach Test: that the ink blots are really just that – “contentless” blots of ink and not a picture produced to communicate anything at all. There is no meaning in the figure; what a person sees there is not what is there but what the person projects onto the figure. The blank slate of the Rorschach inkblot reveals not what is outside on the paper, but what is inside the observer.

The parables of Jesus function, in part, as verbal inkblots. They are not, of course, contentless; Jesus meant something specific with each of them in the context in which they were spoken. But, Jesus – and the church – also used the parables to draw out of those who really listen – those with ears to hear – new insights, new questions beyond the established boundaries of meaning. At the end of a series of parables Jesus once said to his disciples,

“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” (Mat 13:51-52, NRSV).

The parables are such treasure out of which we must draw the old – the meaning Jesus intended in his historical setting and theological context – and the new – the questions, hints, and insights the Holy Spirit draws forth from us in our historical setting and theological context. A parable can never mean less than what Jesus intended; that is certainly its true meaning. But it can mean more. That is why the parables are ever fresh, ever challenging, ever useful.

There is a word of caution to be spoken when using the parables this way, a word Peter gives us.

First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21, NRSV).

The trick with the parables – when we move beyond the historical meaning – is to know whether a particular new interpretation is a human projection or a divine insight. That determination is a matter for the church, not the individual: the whole church, the communion of saints in this and every time, in this and every place. That’s why we open scripture together, why we pull ancient commentaries off the shelf, why we do theology on our knees in prayer. We listen for Athanasius’ amen. We look to see if Augustine nods his head in approval. We bounce our ideas off Luther and Calvin and Wesley. We look toward Africa and Latin America and China – to the south and to the east – as well as toward Germany and England and the United States. We listen for a consensus of the voice of the faithful. It is fully orthodox to take the next step in the direction the church has pointed us; it is dangerous heresy to strike off in a new direction.

The proper direction is toward the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God). From the outset of his ministry Jesus came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The heart of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And the parables he speaks this day are similies of the kingdom: each begins with the formula, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” and continues with a comparison of the kingdom to ordinary and extraordinary things – seed and yeast, treasure and pearl, nets and fish.

What is this kingdom of heaven? Perhaps the closest we come to a direct answer is in the prayer Jesus taught us: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. These aren’t two separate requests as if we are saying, “Father, we long for your kingdom and we want your will to be done, as well.” This is parallelism, a traditional Jewish literary form in which the second line restates or amplifies or supports the first. So we pray, “Father, we long for your kingdom which is the perfect reign of your perfect will on earth as in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is not a place, but the reign of God in which his will is fully accomplished and his righteousness pervades all places.

Jesus’ contemporaries longed for the kingdom of heaven, so his proclamation of its immanent arrival was gospel – good news – indeed. Raised on the visions of Isaiah, these Jews knew exactly what the kingdom of heaven would look like: judgment and destruction of the nations who had oppressed Israel, vindication of God’s elect, the end of exile, the establishment of God’s reign of peace and justice and holiness, a new heavens and a new earth, the year of Jubilee writ large and writ forever. YHWH had promised.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God (Is 62:1-3, NRSV).

YHWH had promised and Israel was more than ready for YHWH to keep that promise.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV).

Of this they were certain: when YHWH finally acted, it would be quick, decisive, and clear. Everyone would see and everyone would know, “as lightening comes from the east and flashes as far as the west” (Mt 24:27, NRSV).

Then Jesus speaks. It’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: a man hides a mustard seed in the ground and waits while it does its work in the silence and the dark. Or, it’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: a woman hides yeast in three measure of dough and waits while it does its work in the silence and the dark. And Jesus speaks not only with his words, but with the parable of his life. It’s like this in the kingdom of heaven: God hides the Word made flesh—his only-begotten Son, in the tomb for three days while God does his work in the silence and the dark.

In these parables of the kingdom – and in the living parable that was his life – Jesus emphasizes the hidden nature of the kingdom, a nature contrary to all expectations of his contemporaries: Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe, Herodian, Essene, Zealot, peasant. The kingdom is a small thing, a hidden thing, a secret thing that works out of sight. The kingdom is death before it is life, burial before it is resurrection, cross before it is crown.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? They tell us of a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world, now revealed to the saints in these last days – a mystery that God has now made known to all people – Jews and Gentiles – the mystery of Christ, the mystery of Christ hidden in us bringing us the hope of glory (cf Col 1:26-27). As a mustard seed is hidden in the ground or yeast in dough, so the mystery of Christ – the mystery of God’s plan to restore creation through Christ –lay hidden in the heart and mind of God from the first sin until the ultimate defeat of sin on the cross. And now the seed has sprouted; now the dough has risen. The church offers a home to all the birds of the air and provides them the life-giving bread of the most precious body of Jesus Christ.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? They speak to us of patience and remind us that though Christ inaugurated the kingdom of God he has not yet completed it. The kingdom is already-but-not-yet: already present but not yet in its fullness. They remind us that we must still pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – even as we now live in the kingdom and do God’s will on earth. They remind us that God accomplishes his will in his own, good time – timing is of the Lord – and that God’s ways often seem hidden, inscrutable at the time; that sometimes all we can do – the very best we can do – is to wait and pray and hope, trusting that the seed will sprout and the dough will rise. Don’t lose hope, the scribes tell us; God works in hidden and mysterious ways.

What of new treasures? What new questions, hints, and insights might the Holy Spirit draw forth from us in our historical setting and theological context? Once again, hiddenness may be the answer. I wonder if it may be time for the church to be less open and more hidden.

Google Miley Cyrus and you will find this quote from her YouTube videos: “Jesus rocks! That’s why we do what we do. She (her friend Mandy) dances for Jesus. I sing, dance and act for Jesus! … Now that I think about it, I do everything for Jesus.” Of course, in the same Google search you will find pictures of Miley pulling up her shirt and pulling down her pants to show her boyfriend and the international teenage world her underwear. Did she make those pictures for Jesus, too? Frankly, I wish she had been more hidden – either in her faith or in her underwear. Placed side by side, those pictures and that proclamation don’t help us any.

George Bush is quite open about his faith. "My faith plays a big part in my life. And when I was answering that question what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very, it's very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.” Was that same faith the basis for a preemptive strike on a sovereign nation, a war of aggression justified by misrepresentation of facts and a campaign of propaganda, a war that may have rendered Christian mission to the Islamic world essentially impossible for generations? Frankly, I wish our President had been more hidden about his faith or his war rhetoric. Placed side by side, the war and his proclamations don’t help us any.

Evangelical Protestants are known for their opposition to same-sex unions. While they expound God’s intent for human sexuality and the sanctity of Christian marriage they are having affairs and filing for divorce at essentially the same rates as non-Christians. Frankly, I wish they were more hidden in either their faith or their behavior. Placed side by side, their proclamations and their own sexual behavior don’t help us any.

And if just one more driver with a fish or a cross on his bumper sticker cuts me off in traffic or blows by me at 90 mph in a 65 mph zone … well, you get the idea. Either hide the fish or obey the law. You’re not helping us any.

Maybe the parables are calling the church to a bit more hiddenness. Paul writes this to the Colossians.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) (Col 3:1-5, NRSV).

Perhaps it’s time to hide from the world until we are hidden in Christ. Perhaps it’s time to hide our proclamations until we have hidden his word in our hearts that we might not sin against him.

Matthew follows the two parables of hiddenness with two parables of discovery. A man discovers a treasure in someone’s field, goes and sells everything he has, and purchases the field. A merchant searching for fine pearls discovers the one that excels all pearls, goes and sells everything he has, and purchases that pearl. That which is hidden is discovered and revealed.

What do the scribes tell us about these parables when they bring forth the old treasures of God’s household? Jesus is that treasure hidden in the field, that one pearl of great price. Some stumble across him as a workman plowing a field might accidentally uncover a treasure. Some search him out as a collector searches for a prize specimen. No matter: when found, Jesus is worth every sacrifice. Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me, Jesus once said to a rich, upright man who found him. You can have Jesus – or be had by Jesus – if that is what you really want; but, it may just cost you everything. Paul understood.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith (Phil 3:7-9, NRSV).

The translators are too nice, here; they feel a need to protect our sensitive ears. Paul really says, “I consider everything else as crap compared to Jesus.” And so it is.

What of new treasures? What new questions, hints, and insights might the Holy Spirit draw forth from us in our historical setting and theological context? Looking at these parables I think I understand the man who finds the treasure in the field. He’s an opportunist who’s just won the lottery. Sure, his behavior is less than upright – that’s not the point of the parable – but we identify with him in spite of some ethical shakiness; Finders keepers, losers weepers we all learned as children. (That’s not in the Bible, you know.) His life has expanded unimaginably; with this treasure, new vistas open before him. This man is the modern equivalent of the tax collector or sinner, the leper or prostitute, the Samaritan or Gentile. For this man Jesus is a way up or way out – the unexpected means to a glorious end. We can understand the shadiness of his actions given the desperation of his circumstances.

But the pearl merchant? That’s another story. This man makes his livelihood – and probably a good one – trading these gems. When he sees this pearl, this one beyond compare, he sells all his merchandise and buys it. His large, expansive life has now contracted to a point, to a single treasure lying in the palm of his hand. What now? Will he trade this pearl for profit? Having found it, can he part with it? Has he finally looked beyond mammon and glimpsed beauty? Has his heart been captured? Has this pearl become the end rather than the means to an end? If so, this pearl has ruined his life. Everything he had is gone, save for this pearl. This is St. Anthony, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and countless other nameless saints – not nameless to God – who have sacrificed everything for the glory of God in the face of Christ. They stand witness against all of us with divided hearts and lives, against all who see Jesus as the means to an end and not the end itself.

A woman goes to see Jesus. After a few preliminaries Jesus hands her a parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like,” he begins. “Listen,” he says. Think on these things. Keep them in your heart and ponder them. What do you see there?


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