Friday, July 29, 2011

The Parables of the Little Things

As you know, on weeks when our interim priest is not here, the lay leaders organize the Morning Prayer service, finding sermons that have been made available for that purpose. Rev Pattiann Bennett, our interim priest, wrote the majority of the text below - but as it was my turn to organize the service last week, I had a sermon by Rev. Charles Hoffacker that was also quite good. I noticed that a couple of paragraphs from Rev. Hoffacker's sermon would fit perfectly into Rev. Bennett's sermon, so with their permission, I repost it below. Rev. Hoffacker's portion is in italics.

In the gospel today, Jesus’ genius of parables brings his message of God’s presence, activity and love for the whole world and our living in it right down to here and now, to earth in the very near and real element’s of our most basic and daily of days.

The kingdom is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is like yeast. The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. It is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.

When we think of the kingdom of heaven, we might think of a place “up and out there”. A place we will arrive at someday, a place that is tomorrow instead of today. A place that is far away and one we can’t really get our hands on. But doesn’t Jesus teach that the kingdom of heaven is right here after all, within us and in the objects and happenings and people in our lives. 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 like a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

When I was confirmed, I received a necklace which had a mustard seed embedded in a tiny glass magnifying globe hanging from the chain. It was given as a symbol of faith and reminded me that God works in mysterious ways and that the smallest seemingly inconsequential things in life can have great God possibility and promise and value. On my birthday 2 years ago, a dear friend gave to me a whole container of mustard seeds, reminding me again that God works in mysterious ways and that the smallest seemingly inconsequential things in life can have great God possibility and promise and value.

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.

Three measures of flour. Do you know how much that is? About eighty pounds! This woman is not Martha Stewart whipping up a couple delicate, exquisite little biscuits that together weigh less than a canary. No, no. This woman is a baker!

She’s emptying sixteen five-pound bags of flour into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve ever seen. She’s pouring in forty-two cups of water. She’s got a mass of dough on her hands that weighs over a hundred pounds. Kneading this lump of dough, shaping it, pounding it. It looks like some scene at the end of a professional wrestling match. Here we have a no-nonsense operation. Sports fans, this is baking at its best. A woman, with her apron dusted with flour, her ten fingers deep into the dough – she’s a combination of Julia Child and Hulk Hogan.

Whenever I bake bread, I do it the way my mother taught me. I use a heavy blue pottery bowl. I pour in warm water, add sugar and stir til it’s dissolved, then add a spoonful of yeast. Sometimes I stir it in. When my grandchildren are there, we patiently wait together and expectantly watch for the mystery to unfold. In a little while the water begins to bubble as the yeast which has been laying in the bottom of the bowl begins to work; to bubble, expand and begin, it is very exciting to watch this amazing silent explosion of power occur where a moment before there was simply still water and sugar. Then we add oil and flour and more flour and more flour and mix and knead and knead and knead until we have a mass of dough ready to rest abit on the counter as it begins its transformation into something very different from what it began as.

Without yeast, dough just sits there, not growing or changing, only fit to fry flat. Flat bread is what it will be, which is not a bad thing. But yeast changes the character of the whole thing. Yeast brings transformation. ‘Unleavened bread is like a water biscuit, hard, dry, unappetizing and uninteresting; bread baked with leaven is soft and porous and spongy, tasty and good to eat. The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; just like the coming of the kingdom causes a transformation in life.’ (William Barclay The Gospel of Matthew [The Westminster Press, 1975] 79)

Jesus uses the stuff of every day living to help us understand how God works in the world. How God in the dough of us changes everything. Instead of thinking of the kingdom of heaven as up up and far away, out of reach, Jesus brings it right here to our hands and heart’s reach. He shows us that if we look we can see the kingdom all round us in the little, the hidden and the unexpected events in our lives, because we can be blind to the presence of the kingdom in our life even when it is obvious.

Three weeks ago I met a woman who is a nurse and has specialized in caring for children with cancer for 32 years. In the midst of our conversation, she mentioned how little she had done in her life, and how sorry she was about it. She’s only been a nurse she said. Hasn’t done anything special. I almost choked when I heard her say it. I thought, what? Here is someone who has devoted her life to taking care of children and after 32 years of it feels she hasn’t made a difference or done much with her life.

She had no idea how the mustard seed of her life had grown into the greatest of shrubs and become like a tree where birds could make their nests. She had no idea that the yeast of herself had leavened the whole batch and the leavened bread which became her life wouldn’t have been possible without what she and God brought to it. She didn’t notice the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes we think that the only way to make a difference in the world is to do something extraordinary and big. And some people do do extraordinary big things that have made differences in the world. Look at any number of scientists or engineers or technology experts for example. Look at any number of recognized writers, inventors, activists, musicians and artists. Some of us are not ever going to do those kinds of big things in the world. And we don’t need to. We need to bloom where we’re planted, step in faith, trusting that God is taking the seeds that we are and the yeasts that we are and growing us for the kingdom of heaven. We need to notice. We need eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart open to find God in our midst and at work in the world.

The kingdom of heaven is like many things we already know, like someone quietly doing her work for 32 years and not noticing the effect her compassion and love for children has had on the world. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Closer than we know. Under our nose. As we go into the world today may we notice where the kingdom is.

Not up and out there, but close at hand. May we notice. Amen.

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