Year A, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2023
Year A: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-22, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The Shenandoah Valley, with its fertile soil and vibrant agriculture, is known for many food items that reflect its cultural heritage and farming tradition. I love it when apple cider becomes available in the fall. And as the leading poultry producer in Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley is known for its chicken and turkey products. At the outstart of the pandemic a few years ago, when meats were scarce, and prices were soaring, I was glad to live in the Shenandoah Valley.
And vineyards dot our landscape. Local vineyards, Reville among the best, produce some excellent vintages.
Rows and rows of grape vines stand next to fields of corn and other crops. The Valley is also known for the outstanding beef that comes from our cattle.
So neat and orderly looking – the Shenandoah Valley is quite beautiful.
Except for the weeds, of course. You never know where or when they’re going to show up. Dealing with those persistent weeds can be quite the gardening challenge. And they can grow in the most unpredictable of places.
Speaking of unpredictable places reminds me of the Parables of the Kingdom in today’s Gospel, where Jesus used everyday scenarios to convey what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.
Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed. What we may not know today, but what the early listeners would have most likely understood, is that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed.1
So, Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that will constantly and inevitably keep growing and spreading.2 Have you ever seen ivy on an old house, taking it over completely? That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny. The Kingdom starts small and unnoticeable. But when the Kingdom comes into its own, it is everywhere, and you can’t miss it. We are part of that growth, part of that kingdom, whether or not anyone recognizes us for what we are. The most important thing is that God knows.
Jesus does not stop there in our gospel lesson today. He gives even more parables – stories of ordinary things that seem to have extraordinary meanings.
Jesus uses all sorts of creatures and parts of creation – animate and inanimate objects, human and animal, plant and mineral to paint a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. He’s left almost nothing out. And that’s probably because he’s trying to make something stick in the disciples’ memories.
Today’s parables, and yes that is plural, there are multiple parables go something like this: God’s kingdom is like a tiny seed that grows into a shrub and then a tree, with birds nesting in it. It’s like a woman mixing yeast and flour. It’s like a valuable treasure in a field. It’s like an entrepreneur hunting for exquisite pearls. It’s like fishing with nets and then sorting the catch – this is for the table, this is for sushi, that’s for bait, and toss that one back and let them grow some more.
Michael Curry is such an amazing presence as our Presiding Bishop, I suspect that some forget his predecessor, Katherine Jefferts Schori. She was also a first – the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. She preached a pretty amazing sermon on these parables a few years ago.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a stream of refugees, fleeing war in their homeland, and they are taken in, sheltered, and welcomed by people from another nation.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a prairie, filled with wildflowers and children playing.”
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a vestry meeting filled with passionate debate.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like collecting garbage – especially when people begin to see the treasure it contains.”3
These vivid and diverse portrayals of the Kingdom of Heaven remind us that parables most often defy simple definitions and human understanding. Each parable offers a glimpse into God’s kingdom, demonstrating that it is not confined to a single image or experience. Instead, it encompasses the whole spectrum of human life, from acts of compassion and hospitality to moments of joy and playfulness, from intense discussions and disagreements to discovering hidden value in the seemingly mundane.
Jesus’ parables challenge us to embrace a broader perspective and recognize the countless ways God’s kingdom unfolds in our lives and in the world around us. life, from acts of compassion and hospitality to moments of joy and playfulness, from intense discussions and disagreements to discovering hidden value in the seemingly mundane.
What do you see in the examples Jesus gave? Can you see Jesus prodding and encouraging his hearers to see God at work in surprising people and in unexpected parts of creation?
Our perception of the kingdom of heaven often evolves over time, influenced by personal experiences, cultural backgrounds, and the teachings we hear.
When you were growing up, what did you think the kingdom of heaven was? What image comes to mind when you learned the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven”?
If you were going to describe the kingdom, what story would you tell?
Is it a place? A state of mind? A place where your soul lives? All three of these?
Jesus’ disciples and the other people to whom Jesus preached had just such questions, too. And not understanding who Jesus was and what he was preaching about just gave them more reason to question who he was and why he was here.
In our reading from Romans, Paul is writing to a community in Rome who know they are not living in a heavenly kingdom. In fact, they are living more in an oppressive than a heavenly realm. Paul writes to them to give them encouragement, telling them to pray even when they do not have the strength or the words to do so.
Paul reminds them that God’s own Spirit is within them (and within us as well). Paul tells them the Spirit helps them in their weakness and intercedes for them when they do not know what to say in prayer.
Paul reminds both the church members in Rome and us that we are greatly beloved by God and have been made good in God’s image. Just like the proper amount of yeast that makes flour rise into bread, we know God is at work even when we cannot see beyond the problems and death and destruction in the world around us. Paul also reminds us that the love of God surrounds us in ways that are beyond our knowing, and that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ, Jesus our Lord.”4
Jesus reminds us that there is not just one way to find the love of God. Jesus is telling us to hold on to old traditions when they are life-giving but be willing to be surprised and be open to new possibilities at the same time.
Jesus is telling us to be open to starting out small like a mustard seed and grow into a tree that shelters and nurtures life around it.
Isn’t that a fantastic vision for a church? How do we hope to spread the gospel in our community? – a little branch here, a little branch there – and suddenly we are alive with people being nurtured by the spread of the Gospel.
A little branch here, a little branch there. I love that thought.
Sometimes we don’t know what to do with what we are given. Even now, we are in flux – we don’t know what the future holds for the church. But even in that unknowing, we have an advocate – the Holy Spirit – who helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.5 As Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”6
We must trust God. The God who uses what others think is unusable. The God who calls us to love others with reckless abandon. The God who sees in us what others cannot see. By living this way, we become what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Amen.
3. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Sermon, July 27, 2014
4. Romans 8:39, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)
6. Romans 8:28, NRSV