July 30, 2023 Reflection and Worship Link

Summer Worship

“A Woman, A Weed and A Worker”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-49          

To join with us by watching our online worship, please click here.

In May I travelled to Minneapolis to attend the annual Festival of Homiletics, a gathering of 1,200 preachers from all over the US and Canada at which we have the good fortune of hearing some great preaching and teaching about the art of writing and delivering sermons.

To refresh our memories, Minneapolis was a the center of the world’s attention in 2020 following the death of black man named George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Since then there has been two other similar incidents in which a man named Daunte Wright and one named Amir Locke have also been killed by the police. It’s not surprising that the festival preferenced African American preachers this year by inviting them to address this year’s theme “Preaching Hope for a Weary World.”

On the third day of the festival the Rev. Dr. Melva Sampson took to the pulpit. I was ready for more of the strong African American style preaching we’d been hearing the last couple days. What I wasn’t prepared for was Melva Sampson’s honesty. After starting her reflection by telling us just how weary she is of everything that has been going on in her country over the last several years, she told us about an interview she had given recently in which she was asked this question “Tell me, when was the last time you encountered the awesomeness of God.” Now I don’t know how she responded in the actual interview but I can tell you what she had to say to us about her thoughts on that question. “The awesomeness of God” she said “the awesomeness of God. Do you know what kind of privilege it is to sit around talking about the awesomeness of God in the midst of a society where all hell is breaking loose?”

As someone who has often asked people to reflect on their encounters with the awesomeness of God, I was completely caught off guard by her comment. Do you know what kind of privilege it is to sit around talking about the awesomeness of God in the midst of a society where all hell is breaking loose?

Now I don’t know if we who are gathered in the midst of our pretty privileged North Vancouver context this morning would say that all hell is breaking loose in our midst. But I did see a news headline this week that read “Era of global boiling has arrived.” So if nothing else, the fires and floods that have been breaking loose across our country and the entire planet this summer and perhaps the cost of buying groceries and eating out might be enough for us to feel a bit hellish. Or maybe you are living in your own personal version of hell these days.

It was with this in mind that I turned this week to the five parables about the kingdom of heaven we have before us this morning wondering what they have to say about all hell breaking loose in our midst.

These parables about mustard seeds, yeast and treasure are pretty well known in our tradition. They speak to us about the way the realm of the sacred, illusive life we search and long for, so often comes to us in small and unseen ways. But at the Festival of Homiletics I also heard Jewish scholar Amy Jill Levine speak about the parables of Jesus and how they are meant to surprise, shock and make us feel uncomfortable, so as I considered these familiar parables this week I tried to look at them from different angles to allow myself to be surprised and to reconsider what might have surprised the first listeners to these parables, the Jewish Christians Matthew’s gospel addresses.

We begin with the parable of the mustard seed. I love the way this parable reminds us that small things count but in Jesus’ day mustard plants were considered invasive weeds. In fact they were considered unclean according to Jewish law. Mustard was never grown alongside any other crop because it might contaminate them. So instead of the tiny seed of faith that grows into a great big tree that I’ve always envisioned when I hear this parable, I wonder if Jesus was actually saying that the realm of heaven is like the bamboo that completely took over the garden of the first house I ever owned. Every time we thought we had it rooted out, it would pop up somewhere else. Is it possible Jesus is saying that is how love, justice and peace grow in our world, like a weed you can’t get rid of that has the capacity to pop up in places you might rather it not disrupt? Isn’t that how racial injustice, climate change and economic disparity are feeling these days, like they are going to keep rearing up in our midst until we do something about them?

What about the yeast the woman puts into the flour to make all that delicious bread? It’s the yeast, the leaven that I have always focused on in this parable. Like mustard seeds, yeast is also one of those things that is frequently prohibited according to Jewish law. So again, it’s presence would make the first hearer’s of Matthew’s gospel sit up and listen, as would the woman mixing it in with the flour. Women in first century Jewish society were second-rate citizens who were considered weak and prone to sin. So Jesus’ depiction of a woman as an agent of the realm of God with her own sphere of influence would have been pretty surprising to Matthew’s original audience. But I recently learned that it’s actually the flour in this parable that would have been most surprising of all. Three measures of flour is about144 cups of flour. This recipe would have yielded about 52 loaves of bread. In the days before big industrial mixers, we can imagine this woman requiring a whole team of people to help her knead that dough. Clearly, she was not baking for her household alone, she was planning to feed an entire community.

Is it possible that heaven touches earth whenever we are working together to make sure that everyone has enough to eat? Is it possible that the realm of God needs all of us, not just those society considers powerful but even those who are considered weak and on the margins to bring it about on earth? What do you think would happen if all the marginalized people of the world banded together for the sake of feeding one another? There might be a revolution don’t you think? Is the realm of heaven like a woman who starts a revolution at her kitchen table?

Inclusion is a theme that gets carried over into the next parable in this series where we have someone who we can only assume is a labourer stumbling upon a treasure while digging around in the dirt. If a mere labourer can find treasure then surely any of us can find treasure and if treasure can be found in a field, surely it can be found anywhere, can’t it? Is it possible that God can bring treasure even out of the dirty and mucky places of our lives?

Like the merchant in the next parable, who by the way, would have been an unpopular citizen in Jesus day, what seems to matter most in both these parables is what the individuals do when the treasurer or the pearl of great price is found. They sell everything to claim it. So not only does Jesus seem to be saying to his followers, the kingdom of heaven is for everyone and can be found everywhere, he also seems to be saying it’s costly. He might even be asking us to consider what is it in our lives that is of such value that we would give up everything to have it? Our planet? Food for all? Meaningful participation in creating a realm of peace, love and justice here on earth?

For the early listeners of Matthew’s gospel these parables would have been very surprising. They would have challenged their thinking about the status quo by saying to them “You think God only works according to the social conventions of your day, the boundaries and restrictions you have placed upon your faith and upon your love. But God’s love and God’s grace is so pervasive it will not be contained. It grows like weeds and takes over lives. It’s disruptive. It knows no limit, no colour, no race or even creed. You think only people of high social standing, men and the well educated are suitable to participate in the work of building God’s realm of goodness here on earth but I tell you everyone is welcome and everyone is capable of participating in God’s work. You wonder what it will take to bring about a world where everyone has enough, where life is flourishing and our eco-systems are in balance. I tell you it will cost you everything you have to give.” The realm of heaven is an all- in kind of proposition.

I have no way of knowing if Melva Sampson would think these parables address the hell breaking loose in her context. But perhaps what’s more important for us this morning is to ponder if they address our context and the hell breaking loose across our land.

At the very end of today’s reading, there’s a final parable that talks about sorting through the good fish and the bad fish caught in a big net. Biblical scholar A.J. Levine says that Jews were used to sorting fish to determine which ones were kosher and which weren’t. It’s a reminder that a life of faith is one that is attentive to our daily lives, to what we choose to consume or not to consume, whether we feast on what is nourishing and hopeful and life-giving for ourselves, each other and our planet or not.