Friday, July 29, 2011
Down to Earth
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 24, 2011
Down to Earth
Do you remember Highlights magazine? If not, let me refresh your memory. Highlights magazine is a children’s magazine. It’s been around for 65 years. If you ever spend time in a pediatrician’s office, elementary classrooms, or the children’s section at the public library you have probably run across Highlights Magazine.
Highlights magazine is unique from other magazines. It has hidden pictures throughout the magazine for you to find. For a child, the game of looking and looking could take up a good amount of time, and sometimes longer for adults.
In order to find the hidden pictures, you have to have eyes to see them.
You have to look carefully. You have to sometimes flip the magazine around, or at other times the hidden picture just seems to pop out at you in plain sight. With time and practice, the game of finding the hidden pictures can get a bit easier as you begin to know how to look. The delight of finding the hidden picture never grows old.
Today we turn from our recent exploration of Romans to the Gospel of Matthew. But, don’t forget what we talked about the last couple of weeks…Remember, you are free for service to God, and you are children of God as you live in a liminal place.
Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that, “Jesus uses parables to train his disciples how to be family.” Parables are great teaching tools because they usually involve a metaphor or a simile that’s strange, exaggerated, sometimes humorous and not easily forgotten.
Parables are designed to shake up the status quo. A parable rarely provides answers, but does ask the right question. In fact, it’s a wonder we teach them to our children as parables are subtle and subversive.
At this point in the Gospel Jesus has gone off the road and retreated to a boat and is teaching on a boat to gathering crowd and disciples. Our lection reading from Matthew 13 is in the middle of a longer section of parables given to the disciples regarding the kingdom of heaven. The focus of all of them is to help the disciples discern how the kingdom of heaven is established and how to see it.
This particular reading has multiple parables, each using a different simile to describe the kingdom of heaven. This is rapid fire teaching on Jesus’ part. One commentator notes that Jesus is “on a simile binge. The kingdom is…a mustard seed…a bit of yeast in dough…a hidden treasure…a pearl of great value...a net catching fish.”
While Jesus may be pitching too many similes to follow good writing, teaching or preaching rules, he is repeatedly illustrating one point: the kingdom of God is unpredictable and hidden.
The kingdom of God is unpredictable and hidden. What is a kingdom exactly? The kingdom of God doesn’t consist of power that’s consolidated, in a large ornate palace, or capital cities…Usually the word kingdom implies a monarch: king or queen that holds all the power. A kingdom is consolidated, obvious, and grand.
Jesus draws a paradox with the first unexpected image. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed, the smallest seed, it is weightless, and wild. The mustard seed grows into…wait for it…a mustard shrub. A weed. Not something strong and mighty like a tree or even a beautiful flower, but a weed. The Kingdom of heaven can disappear in the soil and sprout up in the middle of a field, in places where it isn’t desired…it’s inconvenient, invasive, an annoyance, it’s revolutionary…you might want to use Round-Up to get rid of it.
You don’t stop to marvel at a mustard shrub. Sure, Jesus says it is great and many birds and animals make nests in its branches. The mustard shrub is a nice little eco-system in this description, but the reality is that it was unwanted by most, even in antiquity it was regarded as a weed. Mustard seeds mix in with other seeds and mustard bushes sprout up, not in neat rows like the cornfields you drive by, but they invade the rows of cornfields. Mustard seeds know now boundaries.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? A wild weed that springs up in unexpected places?
While living in Philadelphia Peter and I enjoyed exploring the city. One day as we were walking from the Museum of Art to the train station, we happened upon this Presbyterian Church that had a large gate around it and looked closed. Many Presbyterian Churches in Philadelphia have died and closed over the years. But, this one caught our eye because of the beautiful architecture and its prominent location right next to Comcast Center and Comcast headquarters on Arch Street. We were curious. We both wondered aloud what would happen. I was cynical; they’ll probably sell out to the Comcast Center and add the money to the Presbytery mission fund. After all, it’s prime real estate.
We learned Arch Street Presbyterian Church was once a landmark congregation at the center of the Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy in the 1920’s. Arch Street has dwindled in active membership and at best there were 7-12 in worship for nearly a decade. The building was preserved and the church alive because of a generous endowment, but everything else was dead as there were no children, no youth, no full time minister, and no mission. Most thought Arch Street had died. Many were ready to close the church and sell the property, and an Administrative Commission was looking at options.
Yet, a few folks in the Presbytery and those 7 in worship were willing to take a risk and let their old vision die. The congregation with the support of the Administrative Commission chose to risk and take on the wild and unorthodox idea to spend the unrestricted portion of their endowment on salaries for three part time pastors. Three part time pastors for a church of 7? The church also applied to have seminary interns from Princeton Seminary come and learn and use the congregation as a place to experiment, risk, and dream in big ways.
These pastors also happen to be our friends. I remember talking to my friend Becky who is their pastor for family ministries over lunch one day. We were sitting the old side room that Becky and the congregation had converted into a nursery. We sat surrounded by a few simple donated toys and a pack and play, Becky’s daughter Anneke toddling about. At that point church only had 3 children, and they were all pastors’ kids. Becky noted the nursery space and her position were created in faith that an intergenerational body might worship at Arch Street again.
Taking a risk, planting a seed, this congregation and new pastoral team have committed to risk and re-envision what it means to be a church in a changing context.
They started by looking around them at the neighborhood and needs of the neighborhood. Sharing a wall with the Comcast center and near the heart of City Hall and downtown Philadelphia, the church has realized she has a calling and opportunity to minister to working people primarily during the week. They offer worship, a meal, and Bible study mid-week during the lunch hour. They see themselves not only as a traditional Sunday worshiping body, but also mid-week space and community where people can drop in during the week. In an age where loneliness and vocational restlessness abound, Arch Street has become an important sanctuary for many to gather.
Now, two years after taking this risk the church has a membership not of 7 but of 50. It’s a diverse group comprised of the young adults living in lofts across the street, the homeless, and a few transplants, like my husband Peter who were invited to be part of strategic planning and visioning. Arch Street now has enough members to have a Session again and is present in the neighborhood in vibrant ways. The gates and doors are open.
Now, the church is taking another risk. They are renovating the huge unused Sunday school portion of the building and turning it into a faith based pre-school. They hope to welcome children from the neighborhood as well as children from the employees that work at the 7-eleven across the street.
I’ve got to say, the approach to ministry at Arch Street is both life giving, exciting, and scary. This church takes risks many wouldn’t dream of. But, seeing and hearing the vision and mission in light of the parables of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven makes me think they are on to something. The members and pastors see something that was hidden for so long.
To think, two years ago Arch Street Presbyterian Church was dead. But now, it’s a wild growing piece of the kingdom of God.
Jesus goes on. The kingdom of heaven is like “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.” Yeast did not come in nice little packets. No, yeast was rotten bread. You would set aside a bit of bread to spoil in order to use for future baking. If leaven was allowed to spoil too long it could ruin the loaf of bread being baked and cause food poisoning and be fatal. Leaven was understood by Jesus’ disciples as unclean.
The amount of flour mentioned is also strange. You only needed a pinch of leaven for a loaf of bread. The “three measures” of flour mentioned in the passage was enough to bake bread to feed well over one hundred people, or a wedding feast. This woman mixing and kneading the dough had a large project on her hands. She wasn’t just kneading one tiny lump of dough, but a large table full.
Jesus’ inclusion of a woman is also interesting. Women were not exactly respected at this time. They were treated as property and had no role. Yet, Jesus places the kingdom of heaven in a baking woman’s hands, and the kingdom of God is like leaven…something unclean, that can produce enough bread to feed multitudes.
Unexpected and hidden. The kingdom of God will be kneaded and handled by a woman? It will be nurtured by a person who has no place in society? The kingdom will multiply and feed others?
The Kingdom of God is present in hidden and unexpected ways.
The kingdom of heaven is down to earth, as we say. You all know people who are down to earth. It could be your unpretentious Aunt Beatrice who tells it like it is and doesn’t bat an eye. Or, your down to earth neighbor who has driven the same car for the last 30 years on principal.
Or, your down to earth best friend, who is grounded and doesn’t get caught up in the latest trends, usually a step behind them, but who makes you feel at home each time you spend time together.
The kingdom of heaven is down to earth…it is modest, sometimes hidden. The kingdom of heaven always requires vision from those that have eyes to see it.
I was chatting with a friend this past week. She was telling me about her brother, Dan . Dan was a bit intellectually slower than his peers, and didn’t go to graduate school like my friend.
But, her brother was the kind of person who walked through the park each day on the way to work and paid attention. He would frequently see someone asleep on a bench. Knowing that person had been there all night, he would usually stop, slightly tap the person and say hello. That’s more than most would do, or even recommend. It seemed like a reckless act to reach out and touch someone whom he didn’t know.
Dan would then invite the person to breakfast at the Denny’s across the street from the park. My friend recounts that Dan wouldn’t just buy some toast and coffee; no Dan would buy the person the Grand Slam breakfast and have one himself. You know the Grand Slam. It includes pancakes, toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, orange juice, and coffee. They would share a meal and conversation. Then, Dan would bid the person farewell and go on to work.
My friend is also a Presbyterian minister, but she says the real minister was her brother. Now, no one would ever know that about Dan. He didn’t win awards; he didn’t donate large sums of money to charity, or make the news. But, he had compassion, and dared to offer it to someone that you or I might walk by.
The kingdom of God is hidden and unexpected.
Thankfully the kingdom of God is not in one geographic place, but everywhere…If we have eyes to see it. Sometimes it’s growing in a corner and we have to trim away the dead brush to catch a glimpse of it. And, we do…we can little by little. Sometimes it requires spinning around, looking at a different angle, or looking through the lens of Scripture in order to see it more clearly.
We are ambassadors of the kingdom of God…our job is to see it, point to it, and invite others to see it with us…It’s not escapist, but quite the opposite.
Seeking the kingdom means being down to earth, grounded…it’s the leaven in the bread, it’s the wild mustard weeds, it’s the meal you offer, the visit you pay to someone who is sick, the accountability you provide, the impossible baptismal vows we strive to keep, and the bread we break and the cup we share.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of us all. Amen.
Image from Sunshine & Lemonade Blog
commentator quote from Scott Hoezee. Calvin Seminary Center for Preaching Excellence
Understanding of these parables heaily influenced by Dr. Amy Jill Levine's lecture in Dallas on October 2010.
Hauerwas, Stanley Matthew Commentary (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids MI 2006) page 126.