Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 30, 2017

2017.07.30 “Look Around” – Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52

Central United Methodist Church
Look Around
Rev. David L. Haley
Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52
July 30th, 2017

mustard seed

“Parable of the Mustard Seed”, a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel, Germany. (from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

“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

It was one of those “reason-you-travel” moments, in the Yuan Gardens in Shanghai. We were walking through a gift shop, and began a conversation with a man who worked there. What made it different than most was that he pushed no sales pitch, but engaged in conversation with us, about us, about himself, about our two countries. It’s said that the three topics tourists should never bring up in the PRC are the three “T’s”: “Taiwan, Tiahnamen, and Tibet.” We didn’t bring those up, but both agreed that when we live under governments and leaders that are – shall we say – less than satisfactory, “we the people” must find a way to get by, to live our lives as best we can. It was one of those conversations that builds bonds between people and nations, which reminds us that no matter who we are and where we live, most people have the same basic goals, which Thomas Jefferson described as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But let’s admit it: when news from the highest levels of government is ugly and disturbing, when government seems incompetent and dysfunctional, when we are scared to think what might happen if a major crisis along the lines of 9/11 occurred today, like – for example – a nuclear confrontation with North Korea – then it is hard to stop and smell the roses along the way.

It is even more difficult to look for signs of God’s kingdom -peace and justice, for example – when the news is distracting and disturbing. Indeed, those of us who look for signs of God’s kingdom may find ourselves discouraged, and wonder if we have regressed rather than progressed.We may even wonder sometimes, if we are only deluding ourselves, whether there are any signs of God’s reign on earth at all.

In light of this, we can be thankful for Jesus’ words today, for helping us have eyes to see and ears to hear. As on the last two Sundays, Jesus speaks in parables, those tiny vignettes of life that are really stealth bombers, sneaking in under the radar to blow up our preconceptions, get our attention, and make us think and see and hear in different ways.

The question to which all of these parables are an answer is this: “What is the kingdom of God like? What do you think the kingdom of God is like? Is it being “born again?” Is it living in faith and trust in God? Is it when we see signs of peace and justice in life? Is it when Christians work and worship together in community – in what we call church – to embody the reign of God, regardless of what is happening in society? Is it when society also manifests signs of God’s kingdom in tangible ways, such as – for example – making sure everyone has access to health care, one way or another.

If any of these are what we believe the signs of God’s kingdom are, let’s admit it: on many if not most days we are disappointed, because too often, we don’t see it.

So to help us have eyes to see, Jesus says – using these parables not only as examples but as an example of how to live: “Look around you, look around.”  When Jesus looks around, he gives us these examples:

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Don’t you love it at the end, where Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood this?” “Do you get it?” And while they answer, “Yes,” I’m not convinced. In fact, not only did Jesus’ disciples not get it, those who wrote the Gospels didn’t either. They were so worried others wouldn’t get it, that they inserted allegorical interpretations of Jesus’ parables, which is like telling a joke which nobody gets and then making it worse by trying to explain it.

With our western, logical-rational, literal-historical way of thinking, we don’t get it either. We want everything to reduced to a formula, laid out in five steps, be spelled out in three points. We think that if it didn’t happen, it can’t be true. However, for most of human history, the stories told over and over, the stories that have influenced us the most, have nothing to do with whether or not they happened; in fact, sometimes these stories impart the most truth. Jesus’ little parables? Aesop’s fables? King Arthur? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? All these are genre of these simple stories Jesus told, which have inspired us ever since.

When we do get it, we we do learn how to look around and see signs of God’s kingdom, we become the spiritual student Jesus described when he said:

“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.”

Even when the world around us may grow more threatening, we will learn how to look for and find hope in scenes of life around us. We’ll be like Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, able to pull anything out of our overcoat. We’ll be able to find the right thing, old or new, in the libraries of our soul, thus becoming a spiritual Master as Jesus was, able to see God in anything and everything.

Here’s an example: inspired and challenged by Jesus to look around for signs of hope, in the midst of all the bad news, I found some good news this week. It is a story which begins with tragedy, but now brings tears to our eyes with its life and hope.

We first met Pei Xia Chen, at one of the most difficult moments in her life. In December of 2014, her husband, NYPD officer Wenjian Liu, and his partner, Rafael Ramos, were ambushed and killed in their patrol car by deranged gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who then killed himself. Incidentally, Liu was the first Asian-American NYPD police officer to die in the line of duty.  At his funeral in January of 2015, attended by thousands of NYPD officers, the tearful widow spoke about her husband, her “best friend” and “hero” whose parents were “his everything.”

On the night her husband was shot, Chen had the foresight to ask that his semen be preserved with the hope of one day having their child.

Last Tuesday, more than 2½ years after his death, Chen gave birth to their daughter, Angelina, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. On Tuesday, Liu’s parents came to see Chen and the grandchild that once must have seemed inconceivable with the death of their son. Liu’s mother, Xiu Yan Li, said, “The past three years have been the most difficult. This is the best news we’ve gotten.” When Angelina is a month old, the family plans to take her to visit Liu’s grave. “This way, said Chen, “I can tell him he has a daughter.” (Joseph Goldstein, “Daughter of Slain Police Officer is Born, Two Years After Father’s Death,” the New York Times, July 26, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/nyregion/daughter-of-slain-police-officer-is-born-2-years-after-fathers-death.html?_r=0)

Even when the news is bad, people, look around, look around. As Jesus taught us, look around and you will see in the scenes of life around you, signs of life and hope, signs of the kingdom of God on earth. May we see it with our eyes, and practice it in our lives. Amen.

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