please note the gratuitous Harry Potter referenceProper 12A
St. Augustine’s, OKC
July 24, 2005
When you're on the road as a supply clergy, you never quite know what you're going to find when you turn up at a new church. When I first started supplying in St. Louis, I drove by the church I was going to on a Friday to see what it looked like and to find the real door (you know, all churches have the door and then the REAL door). The part of the building that looked like the church seemed large and spacious, but when I turned up on Sunday, it turned out that was the parish hall, and the small building, the size of a chapel, was the church. When I was here the first time, back in early June, when I walked into the worship space here, I realized that what I had imagined it looked like in here as I had driven by was quite different from what it actually looked like. For some reasons, I had expected it to be a smaller space, and was startled and pleasantly surprised to find out how large and spacious it was in here, and with such a formal pulpit. In both case, I had expectations, had imagined how things looked.
The people that were listening to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel had also arrived with a set of expectations. They were expecting a Messiah. They were expecting God to send them a new king for Israel. But what they were expecting was kind of a cross between Julius Caesar and Dumbledore from Harry Potter, someone who would ride triumphantly in at the head of armies, and fix everything with a magic wand, kick out the hated Roman occupiers, right all the injustices and immorality in the world. They were expecting clouds of glory and flashes of lightning. That’s how the kingdom of God was going to arrive.
Instead, what they got was a rabbi wandering around the desert telling stories. And these weren’t grand tales of adventure. They were stories about everyday life. Like this morning. A seed grows up into a bush. A woman bakes some bread. A merchant goes shopping. A man buys a field.
Can you imagine what his listeners were thinking? What kind of kingdom is this, anyway? Mustard seeds? You can hardly see them. A woman baking some leavened bread? Women aren’t holy enough to participate fully in the rites of the Temple, and yeast is unclean, dirty, sour stuff. And what’s this with the pearl and the field?
There were a number of political parties in Israel making plans for the Kingdom of God. The Zealots were planning to overthrow the Romans by force, so I suspect they were training and hoarding weapons, I’m sure. The Essenes had withdrawn from society, and were planning for the Messiah by stringent purity codes and closing themselves off to outsiders. The priests in the Temple enforced their own codes of behavior and cooperated with the Romans, as did those who supported the puppet king Herod. The Pharisees offered strict adherence to the Law of Moses, all 613 of them. And the ordinary everyday people were probably just too worn out making enough money to keep their families alive to worry about anything else at all, and so were excluded from access to positions of privilege in any of these groups.
But the kingdom Jesus was talking about required a different set of plans. You can’t use a weapon to make a mustard plant grow. To bake bread you actually have to mix yourselves with the unclean things of leaven, and hang out with the women. And to find the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field, you have to be keeping your eyes open for what is real and what is not, and be willing to give up everything you own for it when it comes along.
The virtues this kingdom was asking for were a little bit different. I’ve learned a little bit this summer, gardening on my patio for the first time, about the kind of patience it takes. Watching the plants grow, and flower and waiting, for example, for the tomatoes to grow and ripen, I discovered how impatient I am. I can’t will those tomatoes to turn red no matter how much I go out there and talk to them. The same is true of making bread—it must rise and be kneaded and rise some more, and there’s no hurrying it along.
The other kingdom value in this morning’s parable is shared by the merchant and the man who buys the field. They’re going through life with eyes wide open, searching for something of great value, and recognizing it when they find it. They exercise the wisdom of true discernment, being able to distinguish those things which are not worth their time and energy from the things which are real, which are most precious, and worth committing yourself to, body, mind, soul and possessions.
I suspect there were people in the crowd that day who stood up and walked away, shaking their heads. This wasn’t what they came for. They wanted fire and brimstone, judgment on the Romans or on those who didn’t keep the Law of Moses. They wanted predictions of God’s triumphant return in glory.
There are moments when I’m tempted to walk away. There are moments when I feel impatient and blind, ready to give up on the whole kingdom of God project. Because I want someone to come in with a magic wand and fix all that’s not right in our world, someone to stop global warming and poverty and sadness with a triumphant return. And I suspect I’m not the only one.
But what are we offered instead? A meal. You can’t get more simple and everyday than that. But when we come to the table, with our eyes open, and waiting for God’s time to unfold, we may find that we are strengthened anew, for the tasks of patience and discernment we are called to.
The kingdom of God is all around us, happening in spite of us. With the grace of the One who went before us, to prepare a table for us, we can train our eyes to let go of our human expectations, and see God’s hand at work in the world about us. That treasure is worth everything we have and more.