Welcome to our video service, which can be accessed through this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Awn4Kjpc-u0
I am delighted to welcome our friend, the Rev’d Dr Paul Collins, to share with us a reflection this morning.
There is a sense in which this time of worldwide pandemic has similarities to the prolonged time that the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. They were always on the move, with the alertness and adaptability that nomadic existence brings with it. Each day brought a mixture of new uncertainties and fresh hopes, partially minted. They looked forward in hope to the promised land of Canaan; they looked back, with mixed feelings, to their slavery in Egypt – at least, it was secure, albeit subservient.
The book of Numbers records that there was not universal joy when the land of Canaan finally came into sight in the distance. Spies were sent out. Some reported seeing a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (Numbers 13: 27). But the majority emphasised the risks and danger. They reported on the danger posed by the giant occupants of the land; the Israelites were but tiny and vulnerable grasshoppers, they warned ominously. That same majority wished for a return to the supposedly ‘good old days’ in Egypt.
Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:2-4).
The risk assessment was demoralising. They were defined by fear that caused them to renege on the land of promise.
As we look forward, what defines us?
Let me speak personally: My vision for our town centre parish is simple and profound. We want everyone to have fullness of life with God, through personal and diverse community relationship with Jesus. We want to join in partnerships with others for the common good of our town, particularly working together to help the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us.
In a nutshell: it’s about friendship with Jesus and active solidarity with the poor.
The Kingdom of God, brought before us today by Matthew, in five evocative little parables, urges us to take risks for God and to set our hearts on what truly matters.
We move forwards a bit like the Israelites in the wilderness, who felt they’d ‘had enough’ and wanted stability, at almost any cost – and we are mightily tempted to look back to how things were before the pandemic. ‘Can’t things just return to normal, please?’ But ‘normal’ has changed, and is in constant flux. There is no future for us, any more than there was for the weary people of Israel, in looking backwards, longingly.
Yes, I find it strange that we are all now advised to wear face-coverings whenever we attend public worship. Yes, like most of you, I yearn for us to be able to sing again in our worship; for many of us that is one of the most natural ways in which we praise God. But that is where we are right now. Our view of the future is blurred and messy.
How do we look forward with hope?
Surely, Jesus encapsulated it in those five small parables – set your hearts on what truly matters and treasure it above all else; it’s about friendship with Jesus and active solidarity with the poor.
I always enjoy listening to your perceptions of these things – send me an email – distanced coffee calls!
Enjoy the week!
Sermon – 26th July 2020
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 – ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ – invites us to ask ourselves:
How much reality can I cope with?
How much reality can we cope with?
Might it be that we sometimes domesticate and tame Jesus? – How could that be?
Well, that would certainly have been Jacob’s attitude. It wasn’t enough that he’d swindled his brother, Esau, out of his birth right, now he wants to be able to take his pick of Laban’s daughters! Their father is aware that if his older daughter, Leah, is ‘left on the shelf’ she will have a sad life – so he manipulates the situation a bit …and Jacob is out-manoeuvred!
Now, we would never do that, would we?
Part of the challenge for us is, of course, that we inevitably think of Jesus in our own image. We want to think of him as meek and mild, gentle and well-mannered, – I wonder what school he went to? – perhaps in my imagination he is gently strolling round the Israeli countryside, or even on Bournemouth beach, talking in happy metaphors about sheep and lights on a hill and performing wonderful miracles for his adoring crowds.
And it is clear from our Gospel reading that Jesus constantly draws pictures, comparing the kingdom to ordinary things we understand. That’s what we find in today’s Gospel passage. He delivers five, rapid-fire metaphors that impart a vivid impression of God’s kingdom. He says the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the kingdom is like yeast, the kingdom is like a buried treasure, the kingdom is like a valuable pearl, and the kingdom is like a fishing net.
So he begins in verse 31 with the parable of the mustard seed: “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.” (2 slides)
How exactly is the kingdom like a mustard seed? Well, the mustard seed appears to the eye as tiny and unimpressive. But do not underestimate it. This seed, the size of the head of a pin, can grow into a large plant thousands of times its size.
What would the Palestinian masses have heard when Jesus told them this parable? They would have known the danger that the mustard plant will grow and grow and invade the rest of the soil and take over that part of the landscape, making the soil unusable for any other form of vegetation.
To help us grasp what Jesus is saying, we need to remember that the early followers of Jesus were subjected to Roman occupation. The Roman Empire was an earthly kingdom that was brutal and suffocating. In ancient times, the Old Testament prophets had prayed for a day when God’s kingdom would be present on earth. They envisaged a day when swords would be beaten into plough-shares, the oppressed would be set free and justice would reign. Jesus expanded on their notion of the kingdom as a place where the hungry would be fed, the ill would be healed, the weak would be cared for and the repentant would be forgiven. And Jesus went further. He said that God’s kingdom was drawing near. What did that mean?
The people he addressed were experiencing the harsh rule of Rome each day of their lives. Their freedom was severely restricted, their society was structured to keep them in poverty and they lived in constant fear. Jesus said an alternative kingdom, God’s kingdom, was taking root, even as he was talking with them. Yes! This had serious implications for the day-to-day lives of his hearers! Some of them, like St Peter, died – rather than give up belief in Jesus.
How is the kingdom like yeast that leavens bread?
in verse 33: “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.” (slide)
Ah, the Great British Bake Off…now we know what Jesus is talking about! The woman in her kitchen, kneading the dough whilst her children play around her, the lovely smell of freshly baking bread hangs in the air, perhaps the kitchen door is opening out onto a lovely little garden where the husband sits and reads his newspaper with the faithful family dog sitting at his feet. An idyllic family scene – a comfortable image for us.
But, I’m afraid that Jesus didn’t tell this parable to make that comforting point.
So what did yeast mean to the first hearers of this parable? Well, of course, yeast was to be avoided at the most holy times of the year: Unleavened Bread was the order of the day. And elsewhere, Jesus used the symbol of yeast to describe the insidious, subversive behaviour of the Pharisees. For those people who lived in an agricultural, even nomadic culture, yeast was pretty hard to handle. It was unpredictable, it bubbled up, it oozed, it collapsed, it grew again. It was hard to handle in that culture and, at certain times, was to be avoided altogether.
So again, Jesus is not giving us a neat and comfortable image here: The Kingdom of Heaven is unpredictable. It bubbles up from within and completely transforms the environment in which it grows. The status quo – the Romans in this case – will not be happy!
Mustard seeds and Yeast. These are uncomfortable products. They are subversive. They cannot be contained or controlled. They grow in secret and then, all of a sudden, the host environment becomes transformed. Such is God!
And the effects of the seed and the yeast will do what it wants to do: the sower and the baker cannot control them.
Looked at this way, the rather unavoidable message seems to be:
The Kingdom of heaven is about God’s subversive love and justice and we cannot control it.
Now, yeast is a small unimpressive looking substance, but when mixed with flour, it will make the flour rise. Yeast does not work instantly; it is a time-consuming process. For a long time, it goes unnoticed. It’s hidden in the flour. In a similar way, God’s kingdom is hidden from the eyes of the Roman rulers. They do not recognise it. Yet, as the yeast transforms the flour and creates bread, the coming of God’s kingdom transforms the world. Like the parable of the mustard seed, this parable gave hope to the followers of Jesus. Although nothing seemed to be happening and their efforts seemed to be achieving nothing, their work washaving a gradual impact, slowly changing the world as more and more people adopted a new creed by which to live: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” “Find your meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” That’s the heart of it!
How is the kingdom like a treasure hidden in a field, where upon discovery, a man sold everything he had in order to buy the field? (slide) Or like a merchant who discovered a valuable pearl and liquidated his assets in order to own it? (slide) Jesus is saying that once you grasp the value of God’s kingdom, you will go to extreme measures to obtain it. Nothing compares to God’s kingdom, but it requires a wholehearted commitment, such that we will risk everything in order to be a part of it.
Finally, Jesus says that the kingdom 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. (slide)
Jesus prepares us for a kingdom that can be as messy and ugly as it is beautiful. When the fishermen cast out their nets in the Sea of Galilee, they were primarily wanting to catch three types of fish: sardines, barbels, and musht. These were the staple fish diet of the population and would have been considered of worth. But the truth is, of course, when the nets were drawn back to shore, they wouldn’t just have been full of sardines, barbels and musht. There were 23 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee at that time. So alongside the sardines and barbels and musht, their nets would have been full of Cat-fish and Anchor – both considered unclean to the Jewish people – and eels and shellfish and all sorts of others too. So the trawl of the net would bring together the clean and the unclean, the good and the bad, and the task of the fisherman was to separate them out ready for the market place. Fishing was a messy business, and so is living God’s kingdom!
With this final parable, Jesus contrasts the Roman Empire with God’s Empire. The Roman Empire relied on propaganda, oppression, cruelty, greed, violence and fear. God’s Empire relies on truth, justice, compassion, generosity, peace and hope. One kingdom brings death;
the other brings life.
Jesus told these five brief parables, not to describe theoretically the essence of God’s kingdom, but to encourage our active participation in it. He does not want us to be swept up by the very many alluring but fleeting and fake kingdoms – and miss the one kingdom that is life-giving and eternal.
To that end, these parables are packaged together to confront us with a decision.
Often, we face a decision and we must choose whether we will take one path or another. Jesus wants to know which kingdom we will pursue. The one that leads to emptiness and despair or the one that leads to wholeness and hope.
Allow me to end with an illustration:
I have never been to a greyhound race, but I know these sleek dogs are extremely fast and they chase a mechanical rabbit around the track. (slide)
Fred Craddock tells of visiting his niece in Arizona who had adopted a greyhound after his racing days were over. This dog was wonderful with children. One day when Fred was sitting in his niece’s den, the dog was lying on the floor and his niece’s toddler was pulling on its tail. The other child, a little older, had his head on the dog’s stomach, using it for a pillow. The dog could not have looked happier. Fred said to the dog, “Are you still racing?” The dog said, “No, I don’t race anymore.” Fred asked, “Do you miss the glitter and excitement of the track?” He said, “No, I don’t miss it.” “Well, then what’s the matter? Did you get too old?” “No, I still had some race in me.” “Well, did you not win?” “I won over a million dollars for my owner.” Fred kept pursuing the matter. He asked, “Then what was it, bad treatment?” “Oh, no, they treated us like royalty.” “Well, then, what happened?” And the dog said, “I quit.” “You quit?” “That’s right. I quit.” “Why did you quit?” And he said, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit. All that running, running, running and what I was chasing was not even real.” (slide)
And what about me? – and even you?