July 30, 2017 | Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 | Nancy Talbot
This week I spent the final days of my summer vacation in one of my favorite places, Naramata village on the shore of Lake Okanagan. It’s a place I have been making pilgrimage to for over 25 years now, mostly to attend programs at Naramata Center, a place for learning and spiritual growth owned and operated by the United Church. Some of you have been to Naramata yourselves and many of you are aware that the Center, like many church camps and sites for learning across the country, has fallen on challenging times these last few years. A labor dispute resulting in a strike combined with aging buildings and a general disinterest by the public of any church related organization has brought the Center to its knees. After closing its doors for a couple years it re-opened last year and again this summer with great hope and anticipation that a new direction for the place will take hold bringing with it renewed success and exciting opportunities for the future.
But the truth is, right now it’s just not the same as it once was. So on Monday, as our car approached the corner where we turn down into the village and the glorious panoramic view of the lake and surrounding vineyards was spread out before us, a flood of emotions washed over me. I was both overjoyed to be coming home to the place where my heart so often finds rest and rejuvenation and at the same time full of sadness that we wouldn’t actually be participating in the life of the Center this year because there were simply no programs that would accommodate the needs of my family. I was both celebrating the Naramata I know and love and the possibility for the future and lamenting that it doesn’t look and feel the way I want it to look and feel. Despite the best efforts of many dedicated volunteers and a bare minimum of staff, life at Naramata Center is pretty humble these days.
It was with this grief and disappointment fresh in my soul that on Tuesday morning I opened my bible to the readings for this Sunday and was confronted with the five parables about the kingdom of heaven. Now I’ve read the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough and the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price many, many times in my life. They’ve always spoken to me about the way the realm of the sacred, the illusive life we search and long for, so often comes to us in small and unseen ways. In the words of writer Jan Richardson, the way the holy which so often seems hidden, emerges when we stretch ourselves into searching for it, seeking it and laboring toward it. But in my research this week, I learned something about these parables that I had not previously known. I learned just how offensive these metaphors about the reign of heaven would have been for early Christians, especially Jewish Christians for whom the writer of Matthew’s gospel was written.
Mustard plants weren’t just weeds, they were invasive species that were very hard to get rid of once established in a garden or a field. Not only that, because they were weeds they were considered to be unclean according to Jewish law. Mustard couldn’t be grown alongside any other crop because it would contaminate other herbs and plants with its noxious taste. So instead of the tiny seed of faith that grows into a great big tree that I’ve always envisioned with this parable, Jesus seems to be saying that the realm of heaven is actually more like the bamboo that took over the garden of the first house we ever owned. Every time we thought we had it rooted out it would pop up somewhere else.
What about the yeast the woman puts into the flour to make all that bread? I’ve always thought that was a beautiful image of holy mystery, something so abundant and delicious coming out of something so small. It’s a particularly pleasing image of the sacred for those of us who are women who for centuries were the ones who would knead the dough. But yeast in ancient Israel was also unclean, not to mention the woman herself who for at least one week a month would also be considered unclean. In Jesus day and age leavening agents were consistently understood to be corrupt. Which is why to this day, leaven is removed from the homes of observant Jews in preparation for Passover.
An unclean weed and an unclean woman would have been shocking images of the “kingdom of heaven” for the first hearers of these parables. And if we think the next image in this series is any better, someone who finds treasure hidden in a field is clearly a labourer who has been out digging in the dirt. It’s not a very regal image for someone trying to sell their version of an empire is it?
So what is Jesus really saying to his followers through these parables and the ones that follow? The first thing that’s being said is that these are parables and as soon as we think we have them figured out they’re likely to jump up and give us a shake, just like they did to me this week. They’re meant to do that because that’s how it is when we are dealing with the realm of the sacred. If there’s nothing about our life of faith that surprises us or challenges our thinking then I think there’s something wrong with our life of faith.
For the early listeners of these parables, the Jewish Christians Matthew’s gospel is written for, these parables would have challenged their thinking about the rules and regulations, of their tradition. They would have challenged the status quo saying to the listeners: “You think God only works according to the strict laws you have inherited and within the boundaries you have placed upon your faith but God’s love and God’s grace is so pervasive it can’t be contained. It grows like weeds and takes over people’s lives. You think only people of high social standing, men and the well educated are good enough to participate in the work of God but I tell you everyone is capable of bringing forth the realm of heaven here on earth.” Surely these are at least some of the messages intended for those who first heard the words of Matthew’s gospel and the teachings of Jesus.
It’s a message that still needs to be heard by communities of faith who put very defined limitations on who can and can’t preach or receive communion or love who they love, or be who God made them to be.
But for those of us in more permissive communities of faith the messages these parables contain are no less relevant. In our world full of weed free manicured lawns, bread machines, metal detectors and fake pearls, there’s something very provocative about the notion that the realm of God hides in wild and unwieldly places, in hands on effort that take time and labour, and in slow processes that take a long view of life.
There’s something in these parables that speak of what the Apostle Paul calls “the foolishness of the gospel in the eyes of the world.” They invite us to see possibility in places many are blind to and to invest in a future at which others mock and scoff.
As I sat reading these parables earlier this week, thinking Naramata Center has seen better days I was challenged by the message they deliver. As I walked the grounds, staring at the weeds that have literally taken over the gardens I asked myself “who are you to think the Spirit of Life and Love can’t invade this space once again as pervasively as those weeds have?” I found myself wondering what effort and what labour I am willing to mix into the dough to help the yeast rise up once again in that place.
I found myself thinking about the many times in my life I throw up my hands in despair believing that my efforts are in vain, or that there’s really no hope for our world which seems so hell bent on destroying itself these days or simply that my children will never amount to anything due to my constant parenting failures. I thought about how often I measure success, my own and other’s based on money and status and size. And here’s Jesus telling us the realm of heaven is like a noxious weed that draws birds to our gardens.
I wonder this morning who or what you have lost faith in or judged according to its size and status or what small miracle of life, hope and treasure has been planted within you that has the capacity to be something that brings forth great joy.
At the very end of today’s reading there’s a curious bit that talks about sorting through the good fish and the bad fish caught in the net. I call that discernment. And then there’s a piece that says “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.”
For the original hearers of this passage, those early Jewish Christians who were Matthew’s audience, these words would have spoken to them of the need to sort through their ancient laws, the Torah, to reclaim and make new those aspects of their faith that were truly life-giving not just for some but for all.
For us they are a reminder of the ancient wisdom and universal truths that in every generation has found a way to sustain and nurture life, to bring hope and possibility.