Saturday, 26 July 2014

Kingdom parables: sermon and images

This is my sermon for Sunday 27th July, on the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13:31-52.
(Edited to more closely reflect how it was actually preached on 27th July).
There is an accompanying powerpoint presentation of images to be played alongside it at the end.

From the lectionary reading from Matthew 13:

Jesus put before them 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.

Here we are given four brief images, in quick succession, of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
A mustard seed that grows into a tree; yeast mixed into flour; treasure hidden in a field; a pearl merchant.

I wonder if Jesus was here now, would he tell a parable that began, 'the kingdom of heaven is like this church...'? The kingdom that Jesus announced was both something that was to come, but also something he announced had already begun, in him and in his followers. So I wonder, is our church anything like these images of the kingdom?

Lets consider them one by one.

Is our church anything like a mustard seed? A seed that is small, but grows to be the greatest of garden plants, so that birds from all around can come and build nests in its branches?

What would a church be like that was like that?

Firstly, it would be in its nature to grow. That is what seeds do. It might either be growing, or it might be fully grown. If it is still growing, it will be getting bigger by the day - maybe imperceptibly day by day, but from week to week and month to month the growth would be unmissable. And as well as growing above ground, it would be putting down deeper and deeper roots.

Or if it isn't still growing, it might be in its second phase, and be fully grown. If it is fully grown, then it would be providing a safe and attractive place for birds to come and nest. It would be somewhere to which people were flocking from miles around because they felt safe there. And if it was fully grown, if it was anything like that mustard plant, it would be setting seed: if it wasn't growing itself any more, it would be growing new seeds, which would themselves be going to grow into new plants to provide shelter for more birds.
And of course, being mustard, some of those seeds probably wont get planted, but will get ground up and used to make other things tastier.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like a mustard seed?

Or Is our church anything like yeast, that a woman mixed with flour?

If so, we will only be any use when we are totally intermingled with the world outside these four walls. Without changing the essential nature of the world around us - yeast doesn't turn flour into more yeast - we will transform it. By being mixed through, kneaded into the flour around us, we will lighten it, raise it, transform it into something tasty and wholesome and digestible.

Yeast works by digesting sugar, the empty calories mixed with the flour, and using that energy to raise up the whole to a new, transformed state. If the church is like yeast, we should be able to see how we are eating up, absorbing, digesting whatever sugar might stand for in our society - emptiness, those fleeting pleasures that lead to decay or bloating obesity - and transforming that energy into action that raises up the whole community, the whole world.

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like yeast?

Or is our church anything like treasure buried in a field, or a merchant in search of fine pearls?

Is what is hidden here, what you would have to dig deep behind these walls to find, so obviously precious and valuable, that anyone who stumbles across it will give up anything they have to possess it? Is that how we see what we have here? How much of our time and our possessions do we think it is worth to us?

And is what is on display in our shop window, what anyone walking past can see, so beautiful, such a perfect example of its kind, that anyone who is looking for fine pearls will instantly recognise it as the best they could ever hope to find? That they would again, give up everything they have to possess this great treasure?

How could our church be more like the kingdom that is like treasure?

I want to end with one further reflection. We often focus, with the parable of the mustard seed, on the issue of size. The small seed grows into the big tree. The kingdom of heaven is like something that grows very big. So it is interesting, I think, to note that in all of these images for the kingdom no actual measurements are given. In each case the image is of something that is just big enough to do its job.

That mustard seed, we are told, grows big enough to shelter, to provide a safe and welcoming space for birds to build their nests, to nurture new life, a place the fledlings can practice flying from.

In the parable of the yeast, we are told how much flour there is, 3 measures, but not how much yeast is needed. Its like ine of those annoying recipes that assumes that you know what you are doing: it simply says 'take enough yeast to leaven three measures of flour'.

So there is something here about the kingdom of heaven being just enough. It isn't measured in feet and inches or pounds or kilograms, it is big enough to do its job - of sheltering, providing safe space in which to grow and from which to explore: of leavening, raising, lightening, feeding.

And the treasure parables are also about something being just enough. The treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl in the shop window, isn't given a specific value  in terms of pounds and pence: but in each case, the person who finds it and wants it is just able to buy it, because what they have, when sold, is just enough.

We often focus in these stories on the preciousness of the treasure, the pricelessness of that pearl. But how tragic these stories would be if in each case, when the person found the treasure, and sold all that they had, they were still hundreds, or thousands, or millions of pounds short. The real miracle in these parables is that when they sold everything, it was enough.

The kingdom of heaven is not any particular specified size. It is big enough. Big enough for us, big enough to do its job. And what are and have, the resources we have available to us, individually and together, if we use all of them, are just enough for it.

So let us pray.
Thank you God, for  welcoming us into your kingdom, and promising that it will always be just big enough for us and for the needs of all the world. Thank you that what we have will always be enough to enter and possess and serve the needs of your kingdom. Give us grace, we pray, to trust you enough to risk everything we have to enter it. And help us, as we seek as your church in this place to order our common life in the likeness of hour kingdom.

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