- Parish House
Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Joyce Hardy
I heard a very unusual story yesterday on NPR. Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel, two of the hosts of Invisibilia, recently interviewed Karen Byrne, who had surgery to treat her epilepsy. After she woke up, her speech was a little slurred, but she felt fine. Later she was sitting up in bed talking to her surgeon when her left hand started unbuttoning her shirt. “My hand was taking my clothes off.” And then the hand started ripping off the buttons. Her doctor told her to control her hand, but she couldn’t. Karen had alien hand syndrome, probably a result from her surgery when they cut into her brain. Her hand would slap her hard enough to bruise her face. She decided that her left hand didn’t really like her very much. She thought it was trying to make her a better person. When she deviated from the cultural norms that part of her brain had stored, it would punish her.
Now most of us don’t suffer from alien hand syndrome. But how many of us have people who feel that it’s their responsibility to make us better people, more specifically, better Christians? How many of us have had friends or family members tell us that we’re going to hell? Not telling us to go to hell but telling us that we’re going to hell, usually because we don’t believe in the Bible. “I do believe in the Bible,” I have started responding, “I just don’t believe in your interpretation of the Bible.”
Probably most of us gathered here today do believe in Holy Scripture.
In fact, we promised at our baptism or confirmation-with God’s help- to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers and to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,
Do I believe in the Bible? Absolutely. But believing in the Bible is a process; I believe that it requires on-going discernment concerning what God is actually saying to us right here, right now. In the Episcopal Church, we tend to spend more time studying the Bible than memorizing specific lines of scripture.
The Rev. Robert Capon, who has been quoted many times from this pulpit, is one of my favorite teachers. He has been most helpful in my understanding of some of the more difficult sayings of Jesus, especially some of the parables we have been hearing these last few weeks. We understand that the parables are not so much a physical description of the kingdom as they are a way of helping us see some elements of God’s reign and reality in our lives.
Today we hear what seems to be Jesus’ lightning round of parables. The first two parables that he shares are part of his Sermon by the Sea. Recently we’ve heard the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. This week we hear Jesus wrap up this group of parables:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field.” He reminds us that the mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds but it produces one of the largest shrubs.
And then, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.”
He shares both of these parables with the crowd gathered to hear him preach. What was he trying to teach them? It may seem strange that the “star elements” of these parables were considered corrupt, impure, maybe even evil by Jesus’ audience. No one would consider planting a mustard seed in their field or garden, but the mustard seed was so small that it may have been mixed in with the other seeds; it was hidden. And the leaven? Well, in the Jewish community, we know that a house had to be free of all leaven before the celebration of the Passover feast because it was considered unclean.
Capon suggests that these images are used to help us understand the hidden nature of the kingdom. We often don’t see the kingdom right here in plain sight. Our mission is to see the kingdom around us and to share it with others. That’s sometimes difficult because we have heard so much about the kingdom of God that we think we will know it when we see it. It’s also hard to imagine some of the characters that Jesus includes in his parables as being part of God’s realm; they don’t seem to belong. You know-the characters like the Prodigal Son, or the Laborers in the Field, or the Unjust Steward.
And what about the person who was plowing the field and discovered a treasure? He hid it and then went with joy and sold all that he had so he could buy the land. We wonder why Jesus would use such dishonest sinners in his parables. And Jesus doesn’t explain many of parables. We don’t completely understand the parables, but it does seem that people who have experienced the kingdom of heaven (no matter how questionable their character may seem to us)—those people who have been infected by the Good News–have done some pretty crazy, counter-cultural things like
– sharing a cup of water with someone who is thirsty, or
– giving a sackful of fresh produce to someone who doesn’t have the resources to buy food for her family, or
– helping someone find shelter, or
– standing up for others’ values or their rights as human beings, or
– mentoring a student, or
– resisting injustice, or
– sharing their faith by word or example.
So, the first two parables about the mustard seed and the leaven are to help us understand the hiddenness of the kingdom of God. The next two about the treasure and the pearl give us some insight about the value of the kingdom. We can also begin to understand how much God loves each one of us. In fact, God has fallen so madly in love with us that we are like pearls that God has found. And, as implausible as it sounds, God will do ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING to help us recognize that we are God’s children and help all those around us understand that they too are integral parts of the kingdom. What can separate us from God’s love? Paul asks the church in Rome. Nothing–not death, not our mistakes, not our spirituality, not our interpretation of the Bible, not any part of who we are, nothing. God never gives up on us; he just keeps inviting us to the banquet.
That brings us to another parable. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” And then the angels of God-not the fishermen and not us-separate the good from the bad. We can get rid of the notion that we need to make people better Christians or that others need to follow our criteria for being Christians.
Capon says that heaven and hell are both populated by forgiven sinners. But some make the choice to refuse forgiveness, to refuse to be in communion with God and with our sisters and brothers. “There is to be joy in heaven,” he says, “not just over the one sinner who repents but over the ninety and nine as well—over a New Jerusalem populated by nothing but sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their acceptance of forgiveness.” (Parables of the Kingdom, p. 136.)
“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks us. Well, no, not really. And we don’t have to. But what we do understand is that the kingdom of heaven may feel more threatening than comfortable because it makes a claim on our whole lives. It invades every part of us and will most certainly challenge the reality and assumptions we have grown up accepting. The Gospel appears foolish to so much of the world. But for those of us who are dissatisfied with the inequities of the world, who recognize that there is more to life than what the world is offering, or who simply have nothing to lose, it’s the best news we’ve heard and worth sacrificing absolutely everything,
Let us pray:
God help us to understand how much you love us. Open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts so that we may glimpse your kingdom hidden in plain sight around us. Help us to recognize who we are so that we can be welcomed back to be fully who we were created to be. Amen.