Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 27, 2008

2008.07.27 “Looking Around for God”

Central United Methodist Church

“Looking Around for God”

Rev. David L. Haley

Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52

July 27th, 2008

“Jesus put before them another parable: “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 a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “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.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

          “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.  So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52, The New Revised Standard Version

Recently I came across a book whose title sounded interesting to me, as well as applicable — I have used the title of the book for the title of this sermon — “Looking Around For God,” subtitled “The Oddly Reverent Observations of an Unconventional Christian.”

The book is by author and poet, James A. Autry, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa.  I was not able to come up with the book to actually read it, but here’s what I found out about it.

 Autry thinks that the true message of the old spiritual — “His Eyes is on the Sparrow” is not just that God has an eye on the sparrow – it’s that God is demonstrating that if these details are worth God’s attention, they are worth ours. And it may be that we will more readily find God in the details of this world, and of our own lives, than anywhere else.

For example, in the first chapter, Autry tells of what happened when he had coronary artery bypass surgery. Going into it, everybody told him that it was going to change him, through more than just diet and exercise.  They told him that it was going to make him more spiritual, more religious. Sure enough, after the surgery, recovering at home, he discovered that the light streaming through the windows into his living room was more beautiful than he’d ever seen it before, almost like a hallucinogenic vision. Or the next day, when he listened to music of Beethoven, the music seemed richer, more intense, more complex than anything he’d ever heard, like Beethoven, going deaf, must have heard it himself.  And so Autry’s book is filled with such glimpses and experiences, here and there in different places, of the divine.  Mind you, I do not recommend coronary artery by pass surgery as the way to improve your spiritual life. (But if that’s what it takes . . .)

The reason the title of Autry’s book appealed to me is because that appears to be exactly what Jesus is doing in the series of short parables which make up our Gospel for today. 

Over the last two Sundays we have been listening to some of these stories Jesus told, known as parables. Two weeks ago we heard the story of the Foolish Farmer, scattering seed everywhere.  Last week we heard the story of another farmer, and how he recommended dealing with the Wheat and the Weeds.  Today we hear a collection of short parables, told on different occasions, but lumped together here in one place by Matthew.

Each parable is a tiny vignette Jesus used to help us imagine not only what God is like, but what God’s kingdom is like.  Because if parables were Jesus’ favorite form of teaching, God’s Kingdom (or the Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew calls it here) was Jesus’ favorite topic. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that Jesus didn’t get his sermons or stories or parables out of a book, he got them out of life.  He evidently went “Looking Around for God”, and he found God.  He had an eye for God lessons, for kingdom lessons, for life lessons all around him: a seed planted, dough kneaded, farmers farming and trading, a merchant’s selling and buying, fishers fishing. To make a film about it, you wouldn’t need a special effects budget, and the cast is mostly unknowns, ordinary people doing what ordinary people do.

May I ask here what’s happened to us? Let me ask, are we only able to get God’s lessons out of a book, even if that book is the Bible?  Is not God still speaking in the world?  Are we afraid to raise our heads, and look around? Is our spiritual sensitivity so dulled by the lives we lead that we can no longer find or see God lessons in life, like Jesus did? 

In the book “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church” (which you’ll be hearing more about), Paul Nixon goes so far as to suggest that a church ought to do “kingdom walks” through its community, to “look for what God wishes to show them, to look for clues of God’s presence in the community, and for opportunities to extend and amplify that presence.”  Look around, people, look around.

These little stories Jesus tells are like diamonds, none very large, but how many facets they have, how they sparkle when we hold them up to the light.  Through them we get a different vision of what “thy kingdom come,” the in-breaking of heaven on earth, is like. It’s not a grand apocalypse, as we often imagine, but a seed planted, dough kneaded, farmers farming and trading, a merchant’s selling and buying, fishers fishing. Says Jesus, “This is the process through which the world is being transformed.”

“God’s kingdom is like yeast that a woman works into the dough for dozens of loaves of barley bread — and waits while the dough rises.”  Work the yeast into the dough, and wait!

“God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed that a farmer plants.  It is quite small as seeds go, but in the course of years it grows into a huge pine tree, and eagles build nests in it.”  The reign of God, either in our hearts or in the world, may seem tiny and insignificant, but take heart: Don’t be fooled by puny beginnings.

“God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidentally found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic — what a find! — and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise money and buy that field.  Yes, living under the reign of God reshapes our priorities, often resulting in single-minded devotion.

“God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it.” One thinks of the demands of discipleship, the costliness of life under the rule of God.

“God’s kingdom is like a fishnet cast into the sea, catching all kinds of fish. When it is full, it is hauled onto the beach. The good fish are picked out and put in a tub; those unfit to eat are thrown away. That’s how it will be when the curtain comes down on history.” This reminds us that he discovery of treasures and pearls is not a trivial pursuit; it carries ultimate significance. Selling all one has and buying the object of desire are not just admirable options, they have everlasting consequences.

The section begins to draw to a close with Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” I like the way Eugene Peterson renders it in “The Message”: “Are you starting to get the hang of this?”  To which the disciples respond, “Yes.”  But I’m not sure they had a clue.

In fact, not only did Jesus’ disciples not get it, those who wrote the Gospels were so worried that others (like them?) wouldn’t get it, they inserted allegorical interpretations of Jesus’ parables.  It’s like telling a joke, but when nobody laughs you only make it worse by trying to “explain” it.

Sometimes we still don’t get it. With our western, logical-rational, literal-historical way of thinking, we want everything to be laid out in five simple steps, or reduced to three points. Or we think that if didn’t happen, it can’t be true, the fallacy that only fact is truth and only truth is fact. However, for most of human history, the stories told over and over again from generation to generation, the stories that have taught us the most, have had nothing to do with whether or not they actually happened, and sometimes, are even quite fantastic. Like these little stories Jesus told.

If you’re starting to get the hang of it, then you’ll appreciate the final parable best of all. I like how The Message puts it: 

“Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

As you grow in your spiritual life, as you learn how to look around for God and find God in the scenes of life, you’ll always have the right tool to teach others, whether story or song, readily available.  You’ll be like Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, able to pull anything out of your religious overcoat. You’ll be able to find anything, just the right thing, whether old or new, in your spiritual basement, garage, or attic.  

You’ll be able to tell the old, old story, of God’s promise to establish a new reign of peace and justice in the world and God’s work through a ancient people to bring about that reign.

You’ll be able to tell the new story of Jesus’, confirming the promise, pointing to in life, and demonstrating in his word and works, the nature and presence of God’s reign. 

But you’ll also be able to tell the latest story, of what God’s done for you, through things you can point to around you and in you, to illustrate the nature and presence of God’s reign.

Example:

Old Story:  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes sells all that he has and buys that field.”

New Story: Renowned preacher, theology professor and storyteller Fred Craddock swears this happened to him: He was visiting in a home of one of his former students after graduation, and after a great dinner, the young parents excused themselves and hustled the kids off to bed, leaving Fred in the living room with the family pet-a large, sleek greyhound. Earlier in the evening Fred had watched the kids roll on the floor playing with the family dog.

“That’s a full-blooded greyhound there,” the father of the kids had told Fred. “He once raced professionally down in Florida. Then we got him. Great dog with the kids, that greyhound.”

Well, sitting there with the dog, the dog turned to Fred and asked, “This your first visit to Connecticut?”

“No,” Fred answered. “I went to school up here a long time ago.”

“Well, I guess you heard. I came up here from Miami,” said the greyhound.

“Oh, yeah, you retired?” Fred said.

“No, is that what they told you? No, no, I didn’t retire. I tell you, I spent 10 years as a professional, racing greyhound. That means 10 years of running around that track day after day, seven days a week with others chasing that rabbit. Well, one day, I got up close; I got a good look at that rabbit. It was a fake! I had spent my whole life chasing a fake rabbit! Hey, I didn’t retire; I quit!” (Quoted in “Go for the Gold”, a sermon preached on Day 1 by Bishop William H. Willimon, July 23, 2005)

Look around, people.  Look around for God!

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