“Stumbling and Bumbling into the Kingdom” Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

I am a firm believer in “Serendipity.” If you have ever traveled with me, you know that I have the outline in place, the sleeping arrangements made, and some benchmark sights to see, but I pretty much make up everything else along the way as a matter of “a voyage of discovery.” That’s how you find the good stuff; interesting diversions, side-trips and even make a few errors that end up making the trip all the more memorable.
So while vacationing in Prague, I turned us down a back alley covered with graffiti on our first day there that looked like a great place to get mugged. But, Serendipity! We stumbled on the memorable pub and our first wonderful and authentic meal away from all the commercialized tourist joints.
When my daughter Nyssa and I were stuck in Detroit on a flight weather delay, I perused a local newspaper and found a dinner theater with a Sunday Matinee that we could attend to kill time until the storm blew over. Serendipity! While most of Detroit was crippled with snow, we made our way downtown and we still talk about that as being the highlight of the trip. (Well, that and using the ironing board from the motel room to shovel out our rental car.)
Serendipity is defined as “a fortunate happenstance or pleasant Surprise.” It’s not the kind of thing for which you can plan. It happens while you are engaged in other things.
That seems to be the intent of the parables of the treasure, the pearl, and even the net full of fish. Serendipity! That’s what the Kingdom is like.
At the end of time there will be a reckoning. Things will be sorted out, but for now hope for day to day life is found in the Kingdom as it infests, infects, and transforms people and situations.
But now, one of the questions that raises right away is “and where do we see this happening?”
If the Kingdom of Heaven, (the reign of God) is breaking into this world, why does it seem so hidden away? Where can you point to something that looks like God’s Kingdom breaking in? What does it actually feel like? Taste like? Look like? How do we know it when we see it?
Those are the kind of questions these parables seem to address.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. Burying property was a perfectly acceptable way of safekeeping in a day before banks and credit. Laws about such things were the subject of considerable debate in the Roman empire, but the general rule of thumb was “if you own the property, you own what’s on/in it.”
So this treasure is discovered. Serendipity! It wasn’t the kind of thing you could plan for, but here it is, and now what must one do?
While it may seem like a no-brainer, when this sort of thing happens, you drop the previous plans you might have had, you buy the field and claim the treasure! The truth is there is plenty of risk in the endeavor.
It is not so clear cut. There is an element of risk here. But this is what it feels like to stumble on to the in-breaking Kingdom of heaven. Would you give everything own to have it? Should you?
Or you are that merchant in search of fine pearls, and you happen upon this one that your expert eye tells you out-shines everything else on the market. Serendipity!
But now, what do you do? Do you keep your current inferior stock hoping to pass it off to the unsuspecting buyers, or do you risk it all and claim this prize for your own before someone else snatches it up?
Again, it isn’t clear cut. What will do I with this prized pearl if it becomes “my precious?” Do I hoard it? Keep it to myself? How do I eat and clothe myself if I have no wares to sell? You can feel the tension the parable presents to the hearer The merchant is overjoyed that he found it, but the “now what?” looms large!
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Serendipity! I found the right fishing spot, but now what??”
I think it is precisely the “now what?“ that these parables are meant to invoke. They drive us to wonder aloud, or struggle with ourselves. If/When I sense that I have stumbled upon the Kingdom of Heaven, God at work in this world in and through me, will I recognize it? Will I know what to do with it?
And here is a moment of grace tucked in the midst of this.
Much like the Weeds and Wheat, the sorting out of all of this is a matter for the angels at the end of the age. The ultimate matters of salvation are left to God’s timing and God’s activity.
In the meantime, here is the commentary Jesus makes.
“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.”
At first that seems like a pretty enigmatic statement. What does scribe work have to do with these parables??
But then you realize that the important work of the scribe is to not just to record scripture, but also to interpret it, to figure out what the old word, the story, the prophecy, the writings, have to say in this time and to this place.
A scribe struggles with it.
He or she has to appropriate the scripture, and the present situation, the world in which they live, into their understanding, into their very lives. They do become keepers of the household of faith.
For anyone who has ever done interpretation work, (and we all do it!) you realize that much of the time you are stumbling and bumbling around trying to make sense of it all.
What does this scripture passage have to say to me? To us?
What does the story of Samson, or Moses, or Joshua have to tell me? To tell us in this time? Have I copied this right? Remembered it right? Does it have any connection with what I know, what I have experienced?
You live for that moment of “ah ha!”, that discovery, that fleeting moment when things come into focus and you can connect your situation, where you live, with what God has said before, done before, and you begin to recognize that is at work again through you.
Serendipity!
You discover something in the scripture that leaps off the pages of the scroll, and into your life.
This is exactly what it is like!
You perhaps find your own parable, your own story in it.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like stumbling on this fine restaurant in what looked like a useless alley.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like bumbling into a stage show with your daughter making a memory that lasts for a lifetime.
It’s finding that treasure, whatever it is, that turns your thoughts away from yourself, and toward something that can captivate your life.
Serendipity!
What is it that you value, that you find brings delight and meaning and purpose and hope? Could that be a moment of the Kingdom, when you begin to sense that whatever this is, it is worth more than anything else?
Like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Every time we hear the scripture, or remember it, or study it and find it connecting with our lives in the here and now we get a glimpse, and an opportunity to be part of God at work in this world through us to bring in that Kingdom.
We won’t always get it right.
What we do is bumble through.
Sometimes we make the right choices.
Sometimes we miss Kingdom moments.
Sometimes we reject the opportunity for fear of the risk, and sometimes we embrace it, throwing caution to the wind.
This is what the Kingdom feels like.
Serendipity!
So Jesus is not so hard on us as we are on ourselves here. The disciples say they understand. They say “Yes!” and I want to say “Liars!”
But maybe they did, for a moment. That is the way the Kingdom is. Those first disciples will blow it in the future, and they will also aspire to great things, only to turn around and disappoint. That is what we do as humans.
This is what it is like, that’s the best we can do in this world. Glimpse, and bumble and stumble our way into the Kingdom of Heaven, with Jesus’ blessing, and his assurance that the trajectory is set for completion.
That is what Jesus came into this world to give us after all, the gift of grace and forgiveness. Gifts very useful as we bumble and stumble in life with an eye toward the Kingdom, and find the wonders and treasures of living along the way.

“Invasive Maneuvers” Matthew 13:24-43

You’ve heard the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and the explanation, but what is left out this week is what will be read next week. So partly this is a “preview of coming attractions”, but more importantly I want to include it because it provides (at least for Matthew) a crucial context to this week’s parable.
So then, after the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, and before Jesus’ explanation, Matthew records this:

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 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.”
33 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.”
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.
35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

I think it is important that we hear those parables and the reason Jesus speaks in parables, particularly today, because the parable of the Mustard Seed and the parable of the leaven are counterpoint and answer to the Wheat and weeds.
This is a Parable of the Kingdom, remember. We start off with good seed and good intention and yet something goes terribly awry! Weeds and Wheat are growing side by side. Good and bad are intermixed.
A quick survey of the situation has the servants in the parable scratching their heads, but even more importantly, it has them questioning the Master! “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”
This is in fact the classic question concerning the matter of good and evil, right?
If God creates, and God creates and pronounces everything “good,” then how did things get mucked up? How do we end up with the mess we have today, of good and evil all mixed and tangled together?
It’s a good week to ask that question, because it’s been a tough week in the world.
Ukraine and Russian separatists are vying for control of a country, and a proliferation of weapons and arms are thrown into the mix. Ukraine under the old Soviet Union was a chief manufacturer and supplier of all things military, so why not have a few Surface to Air Missiles available, and why not fire them off to impede the Ukrainian military transports, or the Russian fighter fly overs?
And then, somehow, a Malaysian commercial passenger aircraft in ends up in someone’s sights.
Israel and the Palestinians are once again hurling rocks, mortars, missiles and propaganda at each other.
Hamas lobs missiles into Israel to protest the isolation they suffer, the lack of jobs, the inability to earn a living, the land taken away, and that the walls that impose restrictions more than provide peace.
Israel responds with much higher tech, more surgical strikes and precision we are told, knocking down incoming Hamas missles fired, but nothing is perfect, and even from a casual observer it is apparent that the supposedly more sophisticated and “surgical” side seems to rack up a much higher body count, and most of them civilians and children.
I don’t really care where you are in the spectrum of support of Israel or Palestine or the Ukraine or Russians, the point is that when you look at these issues, the more you look at them, and into them, and try to figure out what to do about them the more you realize that there is really only one word that describes it all – and that word is “Intractable.”
That word flies in the face of everything that WE as a society think should be the way to address the situation, because we as good students of the Enlightenment and the Modern Era are just sure that if you can take things apart and figure out how the individual pieces work, we should be able to come up with a solution to the “problem”… be that Palestinian or Ukrainian or Israeli or Russian.
You hear that on the evening news all the time, correspondent after correspondent instructing you on the history of the conflict, the steps that led up to the event, searching for who’s missiles they were, who gave the order, who is to “blame” as if by discovering that ONE KEY PIECE of information, we could somehow unlock with clarity the core of the issue and solve the problem.
“Did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then did these weeds come from?” There has to be an explanation as to why things are so messed up.
The Master in the parable is quick to address the issue. “An enemy has done this.”
But then, what is most interesting in the parable is that it is left at that. There is no going into who the enemy is, or how it happened or how it could have been prevented. Just an acknowledgment that things are messed up! “An enemy has done this.”
It is the slaves who make the suggestion of “fixing” things by pulling up the weeds, but the master forbids that precisely because it can’t be done. Things are “intractable!” You can’t pull the weeds without harming the wheat, so don’t do that!
Do not try to fix the problem! We will until the harvest, when things can be disentangled and the good and bad separated out, then the bad gets thrown into the fire, and the good gathered in. That is the long term solution to the problem of evil. We don’t address it by trying to root it out!
That’s not very satisfying for us, because that means that we are going to have to LIVE with this intractable situation. We are going to have to live with the reality of evil in this world, and entangled in things in such a way that WE can’t pull it apart, recognize it, or do anything about it. That is a hard thing to hear.
It is the hardest thing to hear when it comes at you, as it so often does, in a personal matter.
The diagnosis comes in and there are no good options for eliminating the disease. “I’m sorry, you will just have to live with it.”
The treatment options are exhausted, and there are no more drugs coming out or available to try. “I’m sorry, we will make you as comfortable as we can.”
The job ends, and it will not be again.
The loved one’s mental illness cycles once again. Fill in the blank here, you have felt that moment when weeds had overtaken, when you could not find a way to extricate yourself, or the situation, or the events without causing more harm than good.
What is the word of hope for the here and now to the intractable situation? Does God have nothing to say, nothing to do until judgment and the end of things?
Well, as a matter of fact, God does, and it comes to us in those two other little parables.
The problem of evil is intractable. It turn out that evil is invasive. An enemy does it, but it takes root and when it does there is no getting rid of it without ripping out the good with the bad, and God just won’t do that.
But here is what God will do.
God will fight invasive, with invasive!
So, if the enemy has sown evil, what is it that can choke that out? Well it is going to have to be something even more invasive than evil. The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that once it gets started, just ends up popping up where you least expect it and it becomes an unexpected refuge. Mustard grew wild in Israel, as it can here, and it spreads easily and pervasively, so much so that it blocks out light and chokes off other weeds.
That’s what the Kingdom of heaven will be like. Weedy wheat fields will be left until the day of judgment, when good and bad can be separated out, but in the meantime, the Kingdom is like Mustard, taking root even in Wheat and Weed fields and bringing respite.
The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, yeast, hidden in a huge lump of dough. It doesn’t take much for it to take over, and soon the whole measure is infiltrated! In most of Israel’s history yeast is seen as a “bad” thing, but you have to hand it to yeast, once it gets into something it is not satisfied until it makes its way into every bit of it!
God isn’t above using what may look like a “bad” thing for “good” purpose.
So, here is the way it will be in this world. God is not going to waltz into intractable situations and try to rip out evil. Instead, God is going to fight the infiltration of evil with an infiltration of the Kingdom. Let it push, glow, crowd out the bad, infect the inert, and change the character of things.
At the end of the age, make no mistake Jesus explains, God will send the angels to clean up this mess, separating out things as they should be.
But it’s not the end of the age yet, and not yet the time for the Angels to come and winnow, so for now, we let grace be invasive.
For now, Jesus says, the Kingdom will be like yeast and mustard, getting in where you least expect it, changing things, bringing abundance, shade, shelter in unlikely ways and places.
You need to see these two little parables in this context, because that changes everything! It is not the case that God has abandoned this world and that evil gets to do whatever it pleases! No, God is sneaking grace in, and grace will do what it does best.
Grace will crowd out evil in the most intractable of situations.
This is the hope we live in, as we wander through this increasingly weedy and complicated world.
This is the gift we bring, that it is not our place to go ripping things out, or judging actions, or making the call on what to root out and what to leave in place.
That is God’s call. Our call is to be invasive ourselves, bearing that Word of Grace that God has entrusted to us until the day of harvest.
I can’t tell you how to resolve the middle east crisis or Ukraine.
I can’t identify who is evil, who is good, who is worthy of our support and how is not.
This is what I can do. I can say to all sides, “God is moving and the invasive power of the Word is something that this world cannot in the end impede.”

God’s love, children swearing, failure and other realities of sowing seeds

A better sermon than mine today. Well done Brigette.

A Lutheran Says What?

My first teaching job out of college was as a lead preschool teacher at a childcare center name Over the Rainbow that was shortly bought out by a local church in Lincoln, Sheridan Lutheran. My very first day was Dec.26th, 1993, I had just graduated on the 18th (so you can imagine how happy my parents were that I already had a job!) and honestly, I was fairly confident at 21 in my teaching abilities. I had graduated magna cum laude and had been awarded the outstanding student teaching award. I had it goin’ on. So, I came in my first day with lessons, songs, stories, and lots of lovely ideas of how the children and I would spend our days learning, playing and growing. The morning went fairly well and it was time for recess. Which in NE in the winter is a process with young children. I had…

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Ask Jesus to Clarify? Good Luck! Matthew 13:1-23

This is going to be a thoroughly unsatisfying post. It will be an unsatisfying sermon because it won’t answer any of your questions.
If you ask folks to tell you a parable of Jesus that they remember off the top of their head, it’s a good bet that this will be one that they remember. Something about this one “sticks.”
But if you ask folks what this parable means, well that turns out to be an entirely different exercise. What the parable “means” depends upon which Gospel you are reading, and whether or not you include Jesus’ “explanation” of the parable that is tacked on for the benefit of the inquiring at the disciples.
You see, before Jesus “explains” it, this parable is pretty straight forward. The parable all about the sower! It’s about God’s activity. It’s about Jesus (or God) as the Sower flinging the Word, or the news about the coming Kingdom of God out, scattering it as far and as wide as possible without regard as to where it might land. It is a parable about unmitigated graciousness.
Yes, it defies modern agricultural practice of maximizing yield. The prolific sower doesn’t have any regard for where the seed falls, it will do whatever it does when it gets there and that is just fine with the sower.
When Jesus is asked by his disciples to explain the parable, he starts off by once again re-affirming that this is a parable about the Sower. But then, unexpectedly, Jesus shifts his attention to the receptivity of the soil, and in the explanation spends copious amounts of time evaluating what happens when the seed, (which was earlier scattered prolifically and without regard,) lands in particular types of soil.
So then, which is it?
Is this a parable about the sower, or about the soil? Just where are we supposed to focus our attention?
If we focused our attention on the Sower, this parable becomes all about God and God’s lavish and even foolish nature. He’ll throw the perfectly good seed of the Word any and everywhere without regard as to how it is received.
If we focused our attention on the soil, then this parable becomes about us and about the kind of receptor we are of God’s good Word, and that is a bit of a problem because then I get all busy trying to figure out how to “improve” the soil.
The parable seems to indicate that there are no guarantees anywhere. Shoot, even if we end up being good soil, receptive to the Word, it’s not like there is any guaranteed yield that is always spectacular! Maybe 100, maybe 60, maybe 30…. meh, whatever the sower gets, good enough.
And that, of course, so flies in the face of everything that we think the Kingdom of God ought to be about.
Gee Whiz, if this is the Son of God doing the sowing, and if this Word, this Kingdom is so “of God” how can it not be received? Or, how could it not bear fruit? Or how could it be fragile as to be choked out by the world, the devil, cares? Aren’t we supposed to be transformed by God? Shouldn’t we get “better?” Bear more fruit?
You expect me to lay this all open for you and to explain how it works, right, allay all the ambiguity once and for all?
I will disappoint you.
I do not know.
And, curiously enough, that seems to be what the parable and the explanation are meant to confirm!
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus has been making his way teaching and gathering followers apace, but we are now to the point in the Gospel where opposition is starting to show itself.
Not everyone is captivated by Jesus’ teaching.
Not everyone gets healed.
Not everyone’s questions concerning his activity and purpose are being answered to their satisfaction, and so even more questions are being raised.
The Pharisees, (the religious leaders of the day) are accusing Jesus of doing his miracles because he is in league with the Beezebulb, the devil! How could people who spend their lives in synagogue and studying the scriptures come up with an accusation like that? How could they so totally miss Jesus’ teaching and authority? Why hasn’t the Kingdom taken root in them? Converted them? Brought them into the fold?
John the Baptist hears about Jesus’ activity from prison, and despite baptizing and proclaiming Jesus as the one, he begins to have his own doubts. So, he sends his Disciples to verify “are you the one, or should we look for another? How could John have doubts? Why hasn’t the Kingdom taken root in him, of all people, the one sent to prepare the way for this Kingdom?
And on the opposition goes, and the doubts multiply, and the plots and schemes to get rid of Jesus begin to develop.
Just when one would think that the Kingdom of God Jesus comes to proclaim should be rolling and sweeping away all doubts, the dog gone doubts and oppositions start to pop up like… well… weeds! (but then, that’s another parable, give us a week or two.)
The parable of the Sower and its explanation seem to appear at the critical moment in the Gospel when everyone is asking the question. “If this Kingdom is of God, why isn’t it taking root?”
And so the parable addresses it, but it does not answer it.
Make no mistake about it, this is about the Sower and the character and activity of the Sower is absolutely consistent! The Sower could care less about where the seed falls. The Sower is in the business of broadcasting far and wide the good news of this coming Kingdom, regardless of how it is received, or where it takes root, or what happens to it when it hits the ground. The essential nature of God is not in question.
But how, when and where the Kingdom proclaimed takes root, and what happens to it, well that is a bit of a mystery, and it is not one that Jesus seems compelled to solve or answer. He gives a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer to the inquiry of the Disciples, and to us. His answer is descriptive of what happens, but is certainly not prescriptive about how to change it. In fact, no change seems necessary. The seed of God’s Word and the Kingdom falls where it will, and it does what it will, and if you have ears to hear it, you’ll see that this is precisely the way it works. That’s how it worked then, that’s how it works now!
You or I would want to apply modern farming methods, wouldn’t we? If I knew what kind of soil to scatter it in, I’d go there to maximize yield.
I’d skip over some folks. What’s the point in spreading the Word if they are just gonna let it die? That’s the temptation that the explanation dangles before us. We want to get all efficient and make this Kingdom of God fully manifest in this world.
You know this schtick. Heck you’ve probably said it, I know that I have. I am ever wishing the church would be more efficient. I am ever wanting to know why it is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t light the fire I’d like to see happen here. I am always wondering why we don’t have a better yield!
If we could all just be better givers!
If we could all just be better inviters, or better at hospitality, or more compassionate, or less critical!
If we could all just be more passionate about our following of Jesus!
If we could just get to 30% attendance, or 60%, or 100% on a regular basis!
And on and on we go, analyzing why it is that the Kingdom of God, the Word of God, doesn’t seem to grab hold of this person, or that person, or us the way we think it should. I mean, if this is “of God”, shouldn’t we be packing them in? If we were truly “of God”, wouldn’t we be treating each other better, no hard feelings, nor suspicion, no anger or resentment, forsaking T-ball and Soccer and Gymnastics and all the worldly things to gather for worship every time it is available? WE must be doing something wrong.
Ah, how easy it is to fall into the explanation of the parable, and our own analyzing of it! And so (and this is where it gets deadly) I begin to make judgments about who is good soil, and who is getting choked out by the cares of this world, and I end up diverting all of my attention from the Sower to the Soil, and when that happens, I discover that I have pretty much shut God out of the picture.
I’ll take over the Kingdom, my Word will be final. I can make this work better. I’ll decide who to concentrate my efforts on, who to dismiss and forget about, and I am right there with the Pharisees, questioning Jesus’ wisdom and work.
Jesus is content to let the mystery of the Kingdom be, and in fact the story depends upon it.
The redemptive activity of God will be dependent upon the betrayer.
The salvation event comes about precisely because in the end we are all lousy soil that lets the Word get choked, crucified, snuffed out— but that does not stop the Sower from casting it out all the wider, and as seed that is thrown into the soil is want to do, it rises, and new life comes, and it is a mystery how that all works.
So, this is my thoroughly unsatisfying sermon. I told you it would be. I cannot explain what God is up to, or why things go wrong around here from time to time, or why we can’t just get along and have the same vision.
It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the power of God’s Word, that takes root where and when it will.
It often has more to do with us, and our own judgment about what we would do if we were God…. Lousy at that as we all are.
I just can’t guarantee, when, and when, and in what way God’s Word and the Kingdom will take root in you, but whatever way it happens, Jesus seems just fine with that, even if we are not.
God makes no judgment in that area, we are the ones preoccupied with that.
That is the mystery of the Kingdom.
Unsatisfying I know, but so often that is the case when we want to search the mind of God instead of being content to live in the mystery.
It’s always, all about the sowing with God, and should be with us.