Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 17) – Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

This morning our gospel reading contains a selection of short stories or sayings from Jesus called parables. These parables form a large part of the teaching of Jesus that is recorded in Scripture, and from the very beginning they have fascinated those who heard them, because in many ways they defy our attempts to explain them completely or universally. The whole point of the parable is to make us think, to force us to ponder it from different angles and perspectives, to mine it for truth over and over again. In most cases, they have different things to teach us about their subject: in this morning’s case, the kingdom of heaven, or “Heaven’s Reign”. Let’s look, for example, at the parable of the mustard seed that leads off today’s reading from Matthew:

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.

Some people read this and focus on size: the mustard seed is tiny yet yields great results; in the same way, things that seem small and insignificant are capable of revealing God’s power and presence in unmistakable ways. Others think about the nature of mustard itself; one plant, left unchecked, will quickly take over a field, crowding out other, more desirable crops; in the same way, Heaven’s Reign is capable at any moment of spreading like a weed, engulfing the world with signs of God’s gracious will and abundant life. Still others, knowing something about the typical mustard plant, see the exaggeration Jesus uses as the main point; mustard doesn’t normally grow much larger than a medium-sized bush, so the image of a tree that can house all the birds of the air is intended to convey the idea that Heaven’s Reign surpasses our expectations, making the impossible possible. All that from a scant fifty-four words.

Besides all that, of course, what matters is not the mustard itself, but the reality that it points to: Heaven’s Reign, the rule of God that began to break into our world in the person of Jesus and continues to spread by the power of the Holy Spirit. So as we ponder this day what Heaven’s Reign looks like for us, I’d like to present two modern parables, informed by the experience I shared with those youth from our STSX3 group and the Nebraska Synod who “journeyed to Jersey” last week to accompany and serve victims of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Atlantic Coast back in October 2012.

First, this one: The kingdom of heaven is like a postcard left on the doorstep of a home. Thousands of postcards, door-hangers, and brochures bearing this design were distributed by Nebraskans to homes throughout Ocean County, New Jersey. It wasn’t always the most interesting work. These youth often walked blocks without encountering anyone at home. They left thousands of these postcards at homes that suffered little or no damage in the storm, and hundreds at houses that had already been rebuilt completely. We slogged through heat and humidity to do it all, not knowing whether our work would make any difference at all; in truth, these cards could be easily mistaken for junk mail and thrown away with the coupons and store ads that also get dropped off on doorsteps all over that area. But friends, it did. After the first day, during which mission trip participants exhausted the entire supply of 5,000 door hangers we’d been given and left the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group scrambling for more literature for us to distribute, calls came flooding in from residents who had given up hope until they heard anew that message of hope: Help is here. We’re still moving forward together.

Or how about this one: The kingdom of heaven is like a familiar song being sung again and heard as if it had never been sung before. At the conclusion of our last work day, the whole Journey to Jersey crew – all 315 of us – gathered in red t-shirts (or other colored shirts bearing the fabled ‘Block N’ and marched down the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, NJ, holding signs with messages of support and singing:

Lean on me
when you’re not strong
and I’ll be your friend.
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘til I’m gonna need
somebody to lean on*

People stopped their shopping and swimming and stared as strangers sang of their commitment to share the load and lend a helping hand. It was a powerful experience to be a part of, but it was even more powerful to hear the stories that emerged of the impact that this song had on those who heard it. One of them involved an elderly couple who had come to visit the boardwalk that day, and who had just sat down on a bench with tears in their eyes. Their despair at feeling forgotten by the rest of the nation was overwhelming – until they saw the wave of red walking toward them and heard the strains of a song that told a different story. Suddenly, those tears were transformed, and hope that had been lost was renewed again.

Obviously, it would be all too easy to make this story about us and the work done by the youth of the Nebraska Synod and their leaders. Both of these stories, however, and both of the parables that came from them, point beyond the mere fact of our travel and work to the one who made all that possible. Those who traveled to New Jersey did so because they were called through the gospel to regard the interests of others as more important than their own. They heard the Scriptural teaching that love of God is bound up with the love of neighbors both near and far. The glimpses of the kingdom that we have experienced in our own lives – at the life-giving table of grace, in the renewing waters of baptism, in the word of forgiveness spoken and accepted, in the support given to one another as brothers and sisters – all these compelled us to go out and extend Heaven’s Reign to people who are still suffering, still recovering, still fighting the pain and struggle and loss unleashed upon them by that storm almost two years ago.

That Reign, of course, has not come in its fullness. When families in Central America are so desperate to find a safe place for their children at home that they send them hundreds of miles alone to seek safety in a foreign land, we know that Heaven’s Reign is not yet unopposed. When mistrust and prejudice and hatred lead people to exchange rocket fire instead of words, we know that sin’s grip on this world has not yet been relinquished for good. When the gap between rich and poor both in this country and around the world continues to grow, and lack of opportunity drives into people to lives of violence and crime, we know that the vision of harmony and abundance has not yet come to fruition. When disease continues to ravage families, communities, and entire nations, we know that life unending has not yet come to this broken world. And yet, in the midst of those realities – conflict and strife, hatred and war, injustice and poverty, disease and death – the Spirit of God is urging people to welcome the stranger, to raise the cry for peace alongside the wail of mourning, to bring an end to exploitation and increase opportunity for the poor and vulnerable, and to seek solutions and cures even as they pray for healing that surpasses understanding. Heaven’s Reign is at hand in the small and insignificant, in the invasive and sometimes undesirable, in those things that defy imagination and explanation and lead us to see the world in a new way.

Today, brothers and sisters, may we be inspired by these strange and beautiful stories of Heaven’s Reign to seek it above all else, and to pray not only that that reign would come to us, but also that God would make us partners in extending that reign to others. Thanks be to God for mustard seeds, postcards, and songs that remind us of the peace, hope, and joy that is God’s gift to us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* “Lean on Me”, lyrics by Bill Withers, 1971.

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