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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love this passage from Romans.  It is one of my two favorite passages from the Epistles, the collection of letters in the New Testament.  I include it frequently in memorial services and I want it read at my memorial service (though I hope that detail isn’t needed for a long time).  I agree with Jim Wallis who says, “This remarkable and uplifting passage describes the unshakable promise of God.”[1]

Notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage.  He doesn’t say that people who follow Jesus will live a life free of hardship, conflict, and weakness.  In fact, “Paul assumes that weakness, conflict, and hardship are normal for the Christian life and, for that matter, human life.”[2]

How’s that for good news?  Congratulations, Christian, your life will have plenty of hardship.  You will face conflict (perhaps especially because of your faith).  And when you face the principalities and powers you will see how weak (at least as culture measures it) you are.

Do you see how antithetical to our culture’s general messages all of this is?  The general message of our culture is that you cannot just feel powerful, you can be powerful.  The general message of our culture is that conflict should be avoided because you can’t be happy if you’re in conflict (I sometimes call this the tyranny of ‘nice’), and happiness (not joy, but happiness) is the to be pursued.  The general message of our culture is that if you are facing hardship it’s your own darn fault; you, in some way, chose this.

Is it any wonder that the “prosperity gospel” is an American invention?  Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you know of this theology.  It’s a theology that is more steeped in American values than Christian values.  It’s a theology that tells us that the goal of the Christian life is “to get out of adversity and into security.”[3]  People who subscribe to this particularly American form of Christianity (that has become very popular in parts of Africa and South America) are pushed to believe in the God of the quick fix who will make us happy, prosperous, and protected.  It’s a theology that says that all of our uncomfortable feelings, our insecurities, and our weaknesses are bad that that we should move into strength, security, and control.[4]

This is how Wikipedia defines it:  “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel …) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.…

“The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy.  The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession.”[5]

Televangelists have embraced this theology and made it famous.  Oral Roberts was a huge proponent of this theology.  T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar are three of the more prominent contemporary preachers of this.  The whole “Prayer of Jabez” movement – if you don’t know about it, don’t worry, you can ignore it – came out of this theology.

All of this is a false gospel.

What Jesus preached was not personal prosperity.  What Jesus preached as the kin-dom of God.  And the kin-dom of God was always presented as an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar.  This kin-dom of God is subversive and infiltrates the systems that oppress, the systems that allow a small elite to be wealthy at the expense of the masses.  The kin-dom of God is how the arc of history bends toward justice.  Just look at the parables in today’s gospel reading.

The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed sown in a field.  It grows into a big old shrub and birds come and nest there.

A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and impossible to get rid of (like darnel, the weed sown among the wheat in last week’s parable).  To say the kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed is to say that the kin-dom of God is like kudzu, that it’s like Scotch broom, that it’s like like morning glories and dandelions.  “And birds of the air?  The last place we want them is in our grain fields.  You’ve heard of scarecrows?”[6]

The kin-dom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into three measures of flour until it was all leavened.

Have you ever heard the expression, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”?  This little aphorism actually is from the Bible.  It’s in both the letter to the Galatians and the first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul uses it in much the same way we might use the expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”  “Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption:  Leaven equals … corruption.”[7]

And three measures of flour?  According to Jim Douglass, that’s about 50 pounds – enough to make bread for more than a hundred people.  Oh my goodness, the leaven of God is far more corrupting than a rotten apple somewhere in a barrel.[8]

And consider the woman’s actions.  She “hides” the leaven, the corrupting leaven, in the flour.  She sneaks God’s tiny corrupting power into the giant bin of flour, transforming the whole shebang.  I like the way Douglass restates the parable:  “The reign of God is like a tiny, corrupt substance, which a shrewd woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour, until it accomplished a [massive] transformation.”[9]

The kid-dom of God is like a buried treasure that someone finds, so he goes and sells all he has so he can buy the field.  The kin-dom of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl and sells all he has so he can buy it.  The kin-dom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught every kind of fish.”

Here’s the thing:  The kid-dom Jesus announces turns things upside down.  Once it takes root, you can’t get rid of it and it upsets all your plans for your farm and for the rest of your life.  In the kin-dom Jesus announces, serfs are buying land, a peasant woman bakes bread for 100 and feeds them.  The kin-dom Jesus announces is rising, “and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have [so that maybe they, too, can be part of it].  The kin-dom Jesus announces is springing up faster than we can uproot it.

I hope you noticed that “the objects described [in this series of short parables] are inseparable from actions and actors:  Seed is sown by a sower, yeast is hidden by a woman, the treasure hunter and the merchant buy and sell, the fishers fish.  The kingdom is not about static symbols but about people engaged in action.”[10]

The kin-dom Jesus announces is “subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant.  It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior.”[11]  It is not about your financial blessing and physical well-being.

If we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, our pets will still die, our spouses will still disappoint us from time to time, we will watch our children make bad choices or suffer and there won’t be a thing we can do about it, we will watch our parents and grandparents grow old, and we will face health crises and financial hardships at different points in our lives.  In fact, if we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, we will face more hardship than that.  The principalities and powers in their many forms will try to stop us, sometimes simply with inertia and sometimes with more overt forms of persecution.  This is especially true when we undertake the extreme action the kin-dom requires of us.

What Paul is saying in the passage from Romans is that “adversity is part of life, and especially part of the Christian life lived in conflict with the world.

“Success, according to this passage, is not the avoidance of adversity but knowing the love of God in adversity.  The promise made by the passage is not that God will remove the difficulties of life, but that God will continue to love us through them.

“Those who accept the adversities of life and find God’s love in the midst of them are those who become the wise, healed, whole, and joyful people.  Often Christians whose faith has been purified through suffering are the most joyful of all.  On the other hand, those who spend their lives in the desperate attempt to avoid hardship and pain often end up most miserable and filled with anxiety.”[12]

That said, “Suffering does not necessarily lead to spiritual maturity.  It can lead to bitterness, frustration, anger, and violence.  We all know people who have allowed their suffering to embitter them and destroy their lives.  Even social movements, in response to injustice and suffering, can become violent forces of revenge and hatred.

“But oppression and suffering can also lead to trust in the love of God.  Suffering can help us let go of everything and realize that there is no alternative but to depend on God.  Abandoning ourselves to the love of God leads to spiritual maturity and wisdom.”[13]

Paul asks, Who can separate us from the love of God?  Can trouble?  No.  Hardship?  No. Persecution?  No.  Famine?  No.  Nakedness?  No.  Danger?  No.  Sword?  No.

So, what are you afraid of?

“Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.  Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of God?  They can’t.  Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.

“Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over your children’s future?  They can’t.  Negative self-image?  It can’t.  Economic hardship, racial hatred, street crime?  They can’t.

“Rejection by loved ones, the suffering of loved ones?  They can’t.  Persecution by the authorities, going to jail?  They can’t.  The President?  He can’t.  [Congress?  They can’t.]  War?  It can’t.  Nuclear war?  Even it can’t.”[14]

That is the promise of this passage:  the unshakable promise of God.  Whether we feel it or not, whether we accept it or not, it’s there.  It’s our choice.  Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis, “The Unshakable Promise of God,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/unshakable-promise-god (accessed 25 July 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Prosperity theology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology (accessed 29 July 2017).

[6] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 25 July 2017).

[7] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption? (accessed 25 July 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dykstra, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wallis, op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think the funniest thing about today’s gospel lesson is the final word:  “Yes.”  Jesus finishes his string of parables, his recitation of riddles, asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer him, “Yes.”

The kin-dom of heaven is like …
… a mustard seed.
… yeast.
… a treasure hidden in a field.
… a merchant in search of pearls.
… a net thrown into the sea.

Have you understood all this?  I sure haven’t.

Every three years, this set of parables comes up in the lectionary.  Sometime toward the end of July, we read or hear these five parables – riddles, really, given how short and obtuse they are.  Some years I’m on vacation or at camp and I can avoid them.  And some years, like this year, they land in my lap, challenging me to make some sense of them.  And the more I study them, the more certain I am that I can’t be certain about their meaning (or maybe its meanings [plural]).

“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.”

A mustard seed

Now even I, as horticultural challenged as I am, knows that a mustard seed it tiny.  Hiccup while you’re examining one and you’ll likely inhale it or blow it away.  So the kin-dom of heaven is really small and easy to miss and easily destroyed.  Except that can’t be Jesus’ point.

Ah, but the parable doesn’t just say the kin-dom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The parable says it’s like a mustard seed that a farmer plants in his field.  I suppose the farmer could like the taste of mustard, so he plants it.  Except mustard is like dandelions, or kudzu, or morning glory.  Once it’s established, it’s really hard to get rid of it.  It’s going to grow into a shrub that’s big enough for birds to nest in.  And, though I don’t know much about farming, I know you generally don’t want birds in your fields, eating your food before you can harvest.  Scarecrows have a purpose, and it’s not just to accompany Dorothy to Oz.

So, the kin-dom of heaven is something that, once it takes root, is hard to get rid of and creates a place for people you may not want to have around.  Is that Jesus’ point?

The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast, which is a little shocking in its own right.  Yeast is unclean.  According to author Jim Douglass, “In those days leaven was made by storing bread in a damp, dark place until it molded.  In Exodus leaven symbolized the unholy (Exodus 12:19).  Paul understood leaven as symbolic of the morally corrupt.  He twice cites a proverb, ‘A little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), whose meaning by his application is the same as our own saying, ‘One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.’  Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption: Leaven equals moral corruption.”[1]

Yeast leavening the flour

And the kin-dom of heaven is not just like yeast, but it’s like yeast that a woman (who is unclean one week a month) takes and mixes in a bunch of flour until the whole lot is leavened.  Once a woman mixes in the yeast, there’s no separating it back out.  All the flour is contaminated.  And by “a bunch of flour,” apparently we’re talking about enough flour to make bread for 100 people.[2]  One commentator says, “A modern paraphrase [of this parable] might be: ‘The kingdom of God is like a virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took and injected into a vein so the whole body was infected.’”[3]

So what do we make of this parable?  I like how Jim Douglass framed an interpretation:  “A woman, probably a poor one.  One of the oppressed.  This far cry from a king turns one’s sense of ‘kingdom’ upside-down.’

The next two parables are so similar, we’ll look at them together.  “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.”

Both of these parables have people selling all they own so they can purchase this thing of great value.  In the first case, the treasure is found by accident.  In the second case, the merchant is searching for it.  In the first case, upon finding this treasure, our guy buys the property where it’s hidden “in his joy.”  Not in his greed, but in his joy.  The kin-dom of heaven seems to have something to do with joy.  In the second case, the merchant finds the pearl and sells all he has so he can have the pearl.

It doesn’t matter how you come to the kin-dom of heaven, by accident or on purpose; once you find it, nothing else matters.  It is worth a total commitment of everything we have and everything we are.  I can’t hear these parables without thinking of the time Jesus called on a rich man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.[4]

Our fifth parable is the most embellished of the five, containing its own interpretation.  “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.”

That’s where the parable ends.  What follows is an interpretation, the comparing of the sorting of the fish to a sorting of the good and evil at the end of time.  The interpretation might make us think that all of these kin-dom of heaven parables are about life after death, about “heaven.”  I think we need to resist that line of thought.  Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians, and good Jews don’t call God by name.  So, while the other gospels have parables about the kin-dom of God, Matthew has kin-dom of heaven parables, thus avoiding using the word “God.”

The other parables in this set are about the here and now.  The kin-dom of heaven is unstoppable, insidious, almost infectious.  The kin-dom of heaven is transformative and subversive.  The kin-dom of heaven is of intense value right now.  Perhaps this fifth parable may have something to do with the here and now, as well as about the end of time.

The kin-dom of heaven is like a net that scoops up all types.  You may think you’re small fry, inconsequential, but the kin-dom of heaven will scoop you up, too.  And you know that fish get sorted, but do you know how this fisher is going do the sorting?  Don’t assume that the salmon and the sturgeon and the blue fin tuna are the “good” fish.  This fisher may have other ideas.

There is an offensive undercurrent to these parables.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a nut job farmer who plants a weed like mustard in his grain field.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a symbol of moral corruption:  yeast.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to both a treasure that is insanely worth giving up everything to possess and to a person who insanely gives up everything to possess it.  And Jesus says that kin-dom of heaven will scoop up everyone and it will decide who is good and who is bad.

The offense doesn’t stop there.  The English translation of the Greek, the basileia of heaven is traditionally “kingdom.”  This is because, when the Greek was translated into English, England was a kingdom.  Had it been translated during the reign of Queen Victoria, it might have been translated “Empire,” as in the British Empire.  In fact, the Greek basileia is the word used to describe Rome at the time of Jesus.  The basileia of Rome, the Empire of Rome.  Every time Jesus talks about the basileia of heaven/God, he’s setting it up in opposition to the basileia of Rome.

I believe that, in using this language and these images, Jesus is offering an alternative way of life.  He is offering a vision of hope, a possibility of life that is different than life under the Roman Empire.  For us, today, he is offering an alternative to life under militarism, corporate greed, and the various forms of oppression we have not yet overcome.

This is why I choose to translate basileia as “kin-dom.”  Are we going to identify ourselves as kin to oppression, greed, and militarism; or are we going to identify ourselves as kin to the alternative Jesus offers?

When I started really thinking about and reading about these parables early last week, the painting on your bulletin cover came to mind.  The reproduction of neither the whole picture nor of the detail really captures what I was hoping for, but let me explain.

Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

The painting, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a prime example of pointillism.  This is a painting technique where little dots of color are applied to a canvas.  Take a close look at the canvas and all you see are the little dots.  You can’t make out any image.  But step back from the painting and you see the image.

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

This detail from the picture  is supposed to show you a small part of the painting up close.  Like I said, it didn’t work all that well, but you get the idea.

I was thinking it might help to use the same technique to look at these parables.  Any one of the parables is like a bunch of dots of paint, but you can’t see the whole picture until you step back and let them work together to paint the picture.

So, stepping back, I notice a theme running through these five parables:  hiddenness.  The mustard seed is hidden in the soil.  The yeast is hidden in the flour.  The treasure is hidden in the field.  The pearl is hidden and must be search for.  The net is hidden under the water.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if these parables can remind us “that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are ‘signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days.…  [It is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…’”[5]

Maybe Taylor has seen the bigger picture.  Or maybe Laurel Dykstra has found it:  “Serfs are buying land, a peasant woman has baked bread for 100, the kingdom of God is rising, and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have.  The kingdom is springing up faster than we can uproot it.”[6]

Or maybe they both have seen it.

What do you see?

 

[1] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption (accessed 21 July 2014).

[2] Several sources I read make this claim, including Douglass, op. cit.

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 21 July 2014).

[4] See Matthew 19:16-22 and its parallels in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-25.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor in Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-27-2014.html (accessed 21 July 2014).

[6] Dykstra, op. cit.

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