SERMON from 7-24-11: “Now, Back to the Seeds”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52:

31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.’ 44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘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.’

Now, Back to the Weeds

I am going to begin this morning by being a little academic. We have spent the last couple of weeks in Matthew chapter thirteen and attempted to take the related components and gather some sort of wisdom from them. Granted, this is some very important wisdom. The Parable of the Sower informs us of the great hope we may have in relationship with God–and where we should position ourselves to be best prepared to receive it. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds tells us how important it is to be aware of our own sins–with the purpose of being a transformative influence on the world around us.

Along the way, we learn why Jesus teaches in the form of parables–because it’s how we best understand the complicated mysteries of God. We learn this in the midst of an entire chapter of Matthew which is almost solely devoted to parables. The final portion of this chapter–what we are covering today–is a series of shorter parables covering the same basic topic as all the others. This chapter is Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God. The things of God. The mysteries of God. With such a complicated and mind-bending topic, no wonder he decided he had to help the people digest them.

However, an even greater lesson emerges when we take a wider view of chapter thirteen. It is sandwiched in-between some pretty intense situations in which Jesus found himself. Chapter 12 finds Jesus embroiled in conflict with the Pharisees over some of his teachings. In verse 14, they plot against him–and he knows it. In chapter 14, Jesus is rejected in Nazareth and learns of John the Baptist’s murder. So, in the midst of all this turmoil, Jesus decides it is best for himself and those following him to sit down–right smack-dab in the middle of a pretty tumultuous time–and consider the things of God. It takes faith and strength, but that’s what he does. How important, then, should that same practice be to us?

It’s one of the purposes of the church, isn’t it? No matter what is going on in the world, we Christians come together and do two things: give thanks to the God who sustains and blesses us, and consider the things of Him. This practice has two side effects for us in our lives outside of this place: it centers us around that which we should be centered and prepares us for service to Him once we are gone from here. Think about it. How do you feel after a time of quite meditation with God as compared to beforehand? Jesus is teaching us this same principle. Jesus is facing some pretty stiff opposition and intimidation–stress–yet he takes the time to be with God and teach about God’s kingdom.

Now, I said he takes the time–he doesn’t retreat. What’s the difference? Jesus is taking the time to understand and contemplate the wonders of God, not retreating from the world which seems to be out to get him. This seems to be a knee-jerk reaction some in the church seem to have in response to the rigors and realities of the world. If it offends ones delicate sensibilities, we must avoid it. We cannot be seen with it. Of course, this runs contrary to every one of the side-lessons taught by Jesus in all these parables.

Matthew 13–all except for the arguable exclusion of the Parable of the Sower–include warnings against separating the bad from the good. Yet, there are those of us who would attempt to stay as far away from those people who scare or offend us as we possibly can. While there are certainly arguments to be made for steering clear of those who would be a negative influence on us, Jesus gives us a different example. He dined with sinners. He welcomed prostitutes. He engaged those with whom he disagreed.

What’s the point of this little diversion from the scripture? If we are–as Jesus said–to be “fishers of men,” then where is it we are most likely to fish? If we have done our jobs right, the church should be all fished-out. So, then, should our family reunions and other typical haunts. What is it that Jesus said about those who aren’t sick not needing a doctor? The point is that when it comes to other human beings, we shouldn’t find anyone whom we cannot reach out to or share God’s love with.

What does that mean? It means that a Christian should be just as willing to sit next to an usher on Sunday morning as they would be sitting next to a drunk, in a bar on Saturday night. It means that a Christian should be just as comfortable discussing their faith in Sunday School as they would with a prisoner across a heavy sheet of plexiglass. As you have and will always hear me say, Christians are called to something more. Certainly, it is difficult, but it is far more amazing than we can possibly imagine.

The parables Jesus shares in this passage hint to the reason we should be willing to go where he calls us–no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with it. It happens in steps which I will lay out one at a time. These parables point to how our measly efforts can add up to great things–by the grace and power of God. The yeast to which Jesus refers is in a small amount compared to the flour it is being used to leaven, yet it yields a great quantity. This refers–like the mustard seed before it–to what God can do with our comparatively puny efforts. It is an indication that, while we can work in service to God, it is His involvement in the whole thing which makes it a success.

The Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl have a bit of a different spin to them. It is the thing being sought–not the thing being added–which is important. The yeast being added to the flour is our efforts, through God, begin made in His name. The treasure being found by the person is of great value, and gives joy to the finder. If you hear shades of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this parable, you would be right. We are definitely insignificant in comparison to God, but He searches for us and rejoices when we are found.

This is the same for the Parable of the Pearl. It is something so insignificant and small. However, the person who finds it is immensely happy. Joyous, even. I saw someone say of these parables that the finder is us and our joyous reaction is over finding the life God desires for us. This is also a very valid reading of this parable. It can be read and understood either way. Not only that, it can be valid and enlightening either way it is read. If you ever have a difficult time with a specific passage of scripture, chances are it was because of this type of situation. The important thing to do in these situations is not to lose it–or your faith. God is “a big boy” and can handle questions having to do with who he is and why His word can be difficult for us to get sometimes. The problems come in when we don’t make thorough examination of ourself.

This is evidenced by the final parable. The Parable of the Dragnet is misleading. In light of the the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, you might think this is a similar parable with a similar lesson. You’d be about half right. There is evidence to suggest that Jesus is referencing those who had been following him. Jesus implores us to be “fishers of men.” Then, the fishermen in the parable are sorting between “good” and “bad” believers, and not between solely “good” and “bad” people. This is a warning to us that we must be willing to search ourselves. It’s a commandment against becoming complacent or rusty. We need to stay on our game and remain engaged in the faith we may only have a sliver of to begin with.

This brings us back to the most influential parable of this passage–at least for me. It is an indication of the great awesomeness of God. The mustard seed is a significant faith metaphor because it is a very small seed which can yield a significant tree. The size of the mustard seed is important, not because of how small it is, but because of how big it becomes. It can only become that large by what acts against it. Given the proper soil and water levels, it will grow to be magnificent in size–and it only started out as a tiny, little seed.

We serve a God that is so great. He can take whatever small amount we give to Him and do amazing things with it. Whether it is seeds or yeast, God can take our insubstantial offerings and turn them into something extraordinary. Additionally–and more importantly–whether it is a treasure or a pearl, God rejoices in finding that which was hidden or lost.

What do those things have in common with each other? Only the fact that we are God’s hands and feet in this world. Through our wholly inadequate efforts, God can seek and save that which is lost. If we look ahead to Matthew 28, isn’t that how these things are to work together in the life of the Christian. If you need a reminder, Jesus said in that chapter that we (the church; the believer) are to go out into the world and make disciples. We in the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church add as a refrain; for the transformation of the world.

How does that transformation work? One seed (life) at a time. Like the story of the father who lived by the railroad tracks with his two sons. It was a modest house and they were modest men. They all worked in the local metalworks slaving away in the unbelievable heat of the melting metal. For all their hard work, they didn’t have much in the way of money or possessions to show for it. All their savings–about 6,000 dollars–were kept in a safe within the house.

One day, the eldest son decided he had had enough of the meager life of nothing special. Once his father and brother went to bed one night, he emptied the family safe and left town. His destination were the alluring lights of the nearest big city. With his family’s savings in hand, he proceeded to waste it on wine, women and wicked living. He fell in with a crowd that was happy to have him pay for their drinks and show off his ill-gotten fortune.

Unfortunately, the money he had stolen ran out. His new, so-called friends helped him for a bit, but threw him out soon after. He attempted to find work enough to pay for a place to live, but soon realized that wasn’t an easy prospect. The money he did earn from odd jobs he could land went directly to drugs and alcohol. Within a few months of leaving his modest-but-loving home, the eldest son found himself alone and homeless.

He had developed a bad case of pneumonia and decided he could only seek treatment for it from a free clinic. Once he arrived, he sat down in the lobby and looked around at the other lives gathered around him. As difficult as it was for him to believe, he was surrounded by people who were far worse off than he was. Brought to the end of his rope, the son devised a plan to attempt to go back to the home he had foolishly left behind.

The son sat down to write a letter to his father. It said: “Dear Father, I am writing to say how truly sorry I am for stealing our money and abandoning our home. I don’t expect to ever be forgiven for these horrible things I have done. However, I wanted to ask if it would be alright for me to come home. I wouldn’t complain any more. I wouldn’t expect any special treatment. I wouldn’t even attain anything for myself until I had paid back all the money I stole and foolishly lost. In a few days, I will be the 5 o’clock train which passes right by our house. If it is okay for me to come home, you may signify that by tying a white cloth around one of the branches of the large tree in our back yard. If I see no cloth, I will continue to the next stop and never bother you or my brother again. Sincerely yours.”

The son began to scrounge around enough money to buy a train ticket home. It took him two whole days, but he got the money. He gathered up his remaining possessions and boarded the train. Soon, an elderly woman came and took the seat right next to the son. At first, they said not a word to each other. Once the train began its journey, the son held tightly to the burlap back which contained his possessions. The further they traveled, the tighter his grip got. The woman, noticing his tension, asked if he wanted to talk about his problems. The son opened up about everything. He told her how he stole his family’s money. He told her how he foolishly spent it. He told her about the letter he had wrote and the tree he would be looking out for.

As he was finishing up his story, he said his stop would be next and the tree would be coming up. The grip he had on his bag made his knuckles turn white, at which point he asked the woman to look for the tree because he was too scared at what the outcome would be. The woman said to him, “Son, there is not one white cloth on that tree. There are dozens.” The son raised his head to see that the woman was right. He saw the tree was covered from top to bottom with white cloth. And jumping up and down on their yard was his father and brother waving white cloth in their hands.”

Our puny faith–the mustard seed–can turn into something amazing. With that “something amazing,” God can do amazing things. Like create a tree, covered with cloths, that will signify to others that God celebrates in their being found.

The grace that makes that possible is available to all of us. The love that makes that possible is available to all of us. Every once in a while, it is beneficial to take a step back from the life that seems like it is ready to cave in on us from all sides and meditate on that simple-yet-amazing fact. That’s the kind of thing we do here in the church. But it doesn’t end there for us.

We cannot retreat from the world just because it is hard–just because it offends us. Through our faith, God is able to do some amazing things. However, he cannot use us if we are taking up shelter in the places where we feel most comfortable. Jesus took a step back from the rigors of his ministry to meditate on the amazing mysteries of God, but he went back out so God could work through him. The same principal applies to us, today. To retreat is to be one who calls Jesus “Lord,” but ignores his commands. That’s what you might call a bad fish, and I know there isn’t one of you out here today who wants to be considered a bad fish.

So, that brings us back to the seeds. Through our faith–which only has to be as large as a mustard seed–God can do some pretty big and amazing things. By his grace, let’s let him do that today. AMEN

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