Parables, Kingdom, Us?

Posted: July 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Parables, Kingdom, Us?

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

July 28, 1996

He is behind his ox, plowing down the row, when suddenly the blade catches a huge rock, and everything stops, and the is hurtled forward into the handle of his own plow. Some graphic four-letter words, in Aramaic perhaps, and then he notices that’s not a rock, it’s a box of some kind, so he reins in the ox, kneels down and scooping with his hands pulls enough of the dirt away to be able to open the box. His eyes bulge, his jaw drops, it is filled with jewels and coins worth a fortune. Now what to do? There’s a major obstacle here. He works this field but he doesn’t own it. He thinks about this for a bit and decides to head off down to the real estate office or goes on google and begins to inquire. It is as formidable psychological challenge as you can imagine; how do you act nonchalant in the real estate office; how do you feign passing interest on line when in fact you must have that field?

The real estate agent says “Tell me, Jake, why all these questions? Why are you interested in that piece of property all of a sudden?” What does Jake reply? How does he reply What do you suppose Jake said? Probably something devious like:

“Always enjoyed the view from up there.” Or even better, maybe he told a carefully camouflaged truth, “It has this unusually rich soil.”

“Rich soil! Sure, tell me about it.”

So, what is Jesus trying to tell us? Jesus who expends great time and energy warning us against complicating our lives with affluence, nevertheless is tuned in enough to human nature so that he understands that deep seated conviction in most of us, that if we should suddenly be blessed with a few million dollars it would settle a lot of anxiety and we would then be truly free to devote ourselves to the betterment of the human race. I heard someone say just this last week that they hoped they would win lotto so that they could help people. Jesus understood why a person would try to conceal their excitement in the real estate office, or carefully search the internet for an advantage in negotiations, or invest a dollar in the impossible dream of riches.

The realm of God is such a treasure, it is a bonanza like that of our unlimited imagination and we should go for it with the same guile, the same gusto, the same abandon, that we do the lucky chance, the windfall of riches, because there is nothing we could ever possess that offers more. Don’t gamble but see the desire as like the desire for heaven. The treasures of heaven are beyond one’s greatest desire.

One difficulty we have is that sadly the metaphor of the kingdom doesn’t quite fit the church. In fact, it would be an especially hard sell to say that the kingdom is reflected in what we call the Presbyterian Church. Our Church impresses us as something other than extravagant value, a long way from an unimaginable treasure. In this particular field of the kingdom, all the numbers seem to be descending, and the only thing that’s increasing is the anxiety level. We are not that burgeoning, blossoming movement that Jesus depicts in the parables, we are in fact the folks who are projected to disappear, (that is of course if the present trends continue?)

It would be fair to say that the mood of the church has been infected with the dramatic loss of members and dollars. Since around 1965 in the Western World, the so-­called mainline churches, the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, have lost many members. The trends in these churches seem to be virtually identical, so we can’t blame it on any one national or even global event. According to the research most of these people did not leave in a huff over any one theological shift or social ideology. Liberals have not become conservatives nor vice versa. The large majority simply drifted away, phased themselves out of the community, slipped quietly away to that private place where the church is no longer a necessary component of their lives. They find that they can get along without it, and this response is particularly manifest in the so-called “baby boomers” and the following generation” It seems that there has been a whole generation of people for whom the faith did not take.

So, we have to say that the church is not the treasure that people yearn to obtain. We have become a “take it or leave it” church, with a growing continuing number inclined towards “leave it.” We are no longer perceived as a “with it” organization. We are no longer at the social center of the communities that we serve. We are no longer the primary catalyst for education, medical care, providing for the hungry and the homeless, that we once were. Some would say that we never were and others would say that our liturgy is out of date, our music is archaic, that we no longer mediate an experience of the presence of God, we being hindered by all of the institutional and theological baggage that we have accumulated through the years.

Let’s be honest here too. It is not easy to be confronted with all of that, because we sense that much of that diagnosis is accurate, and some of us argue that the church must continue to reform, and to reconstitute itself so that we are become a more pertinent, current and helpful gathering of people. But before we go down the fix it road we need to remember that it is unhealthy to live with a sense of failure or with some burden of guilt for the inadequacies of the church. If we are a dying church, a loser institution, what are you and I still doing here? Are we not still the church as followers of Jesus? And why should we be the ones to deal with all the guilt trip? What does it mean to insist that the Christ is alive and going before us? What does that mean? Has not the Christ promised to be with us even to the end? Surely this has some value? Where is the church as a treasure? Our tradition says that this conviction transcends all the statistics and trends does it not?

Yet we cannot ignore them. But maybe they don’t indicate the failure of the church so much as they do the adjustment of the church to the monumental shifts and changes that are taking place in the world. Some of our church sociologists depict that at the end of an era we will see not just the decline in the church but the conclusion of that experience of the church generated by the Reformation. One that I find particularly insightful, Loren Mead, finds us in the concluding days of Christendom, a form of the church that has persisted for 1700 years. Mead argues that we are returning to a context more reflective of the apostolic church, a minority community in a sometimes supportive, sometimes hostile but mostly indifferent world. We are starting again perhaps?

Another argument is that the church has been at these crossroads before. Endings are never easy and are always accompanied by grief and pain. But in the Christian church endings have always been at the same time, beginnings. The pain of the demise of one form of the church has been at the same time the birth pains of the new spirit filled community. And so, we are not so much the last of the Mohicans of the Christian church, so much as we are the privileged who are called to be a part of the transition of the church from what we have been to the new church.

So, though we may be confronted with a loss of members and dollars, there is a strong suggestion that there is still a need for vitality in what we call the church. In traditional terms, there is still the presence of God, the good news of Jesus, the moving of the Spirit, so the predominant mood could be one of celebration, and we could continue to invest our best energy to the quality of life of church experiences.

Our reading is the third reading in a row from chapter 13, that has a parable.  The parables highlight Jesus’ role as teacher, which is important for the writer of Matthew’s gospel. His source for the parable of the mustard seed was Mark (4:30-32), though Matthew gets “tree” from elsewhere.  The parable of the leaven appears to come from Q if Q exists and the gospel of Thomas also includes both parables.  The word for “parable” is parabole–literally, “thrown alongside.”  So this suggests that parables are stories “thrown alongside” life, you might say, which prompt comparisons and contrasts between the two.  Paul Tillich had his “method of correlation” which called for points of contact and comparison between the faith and the world.  Parables do something like that.

The parables of Jesus sometimes use hyperbole, as in the parable of the mustard seed.  A mustard seed is small, but it is not the smallest of all the seeds.  First, it grows into a laxanon, which means either “garden herb” or “vegetable.”  Laxanon refers to a plant that was planted on purpose. Matthew adds the “tree” to the original version of the story we have in Mark.  Perhaps Matthew didn’t think a garden vegetable was a grand enough comparison for the kingdom of heaven.  What Matthew is really doing, however, is making a hyperlink to Daniel 4: 10-22, particularly verses 11-12, which use a tree as an image for the great kingdom of God which is visible to all and for all:

11The tree grew great and strong,    its top reached to heaven,    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.  12Its foliage was beautiful,    its fruit abundant,    and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it,    the birds of the air nested in its branches,    and from it all living beings were fed.

Two primary themes abound in only a few verses–universality and “weakness.”  Both the tree and the field are universal images.  The field is the world, and the tree “provided food for all” (Dan 4).  This universality has an anti-triumphal twist, however.  The seed itself, the agent of this universal mission, is small and hidden in the ground.  It does its work mysteriously and out-of-sight. Can we perhaps see this as the point of transition we find ourselves in in regard to the church, the Christian faith and perhaps even religion?

One approach to this could be to look at our liturgical year again and ask if there is a season that we might have all year long. This might sound strange but maybe we have too many seasons in the liturgical year and we need to spend longer time on the one that is important for our global circumstances. We might perhaps suggest that all year should be an advent season. A season of expectation, of preparation and anticipation Advent seems to encourage the appropriate response for a people in transition. Advent seems to call us to hang in there in hope, and to live in expectation of God’s new day, to keep a very light grip on what has been, and cultivate openness and flexibility in anticipation of an amazing and surprising future. T.S. Elliot indicates this in his poem from the Four Quartets where he summons us to wait without faith, hope and love, for fear that we will have faith in the wrong things, hope for what is inconsequential, love for what is trivial, and then it concludes, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought; So, the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In the meantime, we can continue to do those things which have always been a part of the church and always will be. Like an All blacks team that is not quite ready for the Lions attack, but they can always practice defense and tackling because that will be a part of the game, wherever and whenever it is played. So maybe we should proclaim the good news, tell the story to our children, and embody that which we believe is God’s love for all of our near neighbour, especially the poor, the emotionally scarred, the homeless, the oppressed, the outcasts, the innocent victims. Whatever the form of the church in the future it will be composed of people in ministry, people living out of their gratitude for the gift of life. Maybe we could take sensitive and generous care of each other. And maybe we could remember that there was a time of declining numbers and dollars in the career of Jesus, and He asked His disciples, “are you going to leave too?” And the reply was, “where shall we go, Lord, you have the word of life.” Maybe we can’t quite see the realm of God, the Kingdom that Jesus saw but maybe the realm is still treasure, and our appropriate response is still, “Let’s go for it.” Amen.

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