Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 13:33
Chris: We are about to interpret, to translate, a mysterious teaching. Jesus taught in parables--stories or comparisons. The story of the mustard seed is found in Mark, in Luke, in the Gospel of Thomas, in the preaching of the church for two millennia, and here in Matthew. In each case, the parable has been given a slightly different thrust, depending upon the needs of the community for which it was remembered. Of all, Matthew may contort the passage the most, as he tries to use, or misuse, its imagery and language to help his church face persecution. Yet in its origin, after what we have learned about it this week, the set of parables probably had to do with mystery, with the mystery that is at the heart of the start of something new, with the surprising mysterious gift that is every day and that is at the heart of every day. It makes the matter of interpretation itself somewhat mysterious. Now that you are getting older, Dad, I thought maybe now and then you could use some help, especially on hot Sundays.
Bob: Which reminds us of the story of Jorge Rodriquez. Do you mind if I tell a supposedly humorous, quite old story?
Jorge stole money from Texas banks until at last a Ranger caught him. But the Ranger spoke no Spanish and Jorge no English. So the Ranger found a translator. A very enterprising, entrepreneurial translator. The Ranger said “Tell him if he does not tell me where the money is I will shoot him dead, blow his head off, right here, right now”. On translation of this Jorge immediately said, shaking, “Tell him the money is at my house under the back tree behind a stone.” After a little delay, the cagey translator turned and said to the Ranger: “Mr. Ranger, this is a very unusual day. Jorge is a very brave bank robber. He says he is ready to die. He is not afraid to die”. (courtesy Bill Ritter, John Claypool, and a cast of thousands). That is: translation can be a matter of life and death.
Chris: I wonder if this saying of Jesus is meant to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of being alive. I have been reading David Hempton’s book, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, this summer, in which he explores the mysterious growth of our church, especially in circumstances of harsh confinement—sailors on shipboard, prisoners in cells, soldiers in confined barracks, poor settlers in small prairie dwellings. There is a mystery at the start of something new. You have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which Mr. Farebrother’s preaching explores this mystery and is “ingenious, pithy, and delivered without book”. Our world is reeling in the throes of mysteries tragic and comic both. Maybe that is one reason we come to church on Sunday. To be invited again into mystery through the beauty of the sanctuary. To be impressed again by mystery in the telling of the Gospel. To be immersed in mystery again in the music of the church. To be inspired by mystery in silence. To be intrigued again by mystery in the lives of others around us.
Bob: Mystery drenches us, stem to stern, day and night. Like mountains overshadowing our ordered days, ranges of mystery overshadow us.
How is it that a sense of interest becomes a deep calling in life? How is it that a friendship suddenly blossoms into romance and romance into love? How is it that a regular attendance on church life catches fire, some summer Sunday, and a man enters church a churchgoer and leaves a man of faith?
How did the universe bang into something from icy black nothing? How did the stars and planets find placement? How did some 6 billion breathing humans find, after the last contraction, the cry of life? How is that, one day, a woman realizes that not only will all people die, but one day, she will too?
How does a woman find courage, on a Sunday afternoon, to leave her abusive and alcoholic husband, saying, ‘God did not mean for me to endure this and neither did my parents raise me to endure this”? How does a one time, half million dollar act of charity, rise up as a pretty good imitation of heroism, in the midst of an ordinary summer?
Why are some healed? How does it happen that an unexpected phone call changes, utterly changes, the path of a life, and many lives?
Really, breakfast to late news, we are drenched in mystery. These sayings of Jesus, arranged and edited by Matthew, if nothing else cause us to consider good news today: mystery lies at the start of something new; the start of something new is clothed in mystery. What do you make of this my son?
Chris: Before we take up the parables, I would like to point out something, a mystery of a different sort. Jesus was a young man. His earthly life, cut short at the cross, was, other than his growing up years, spent as the life of young man. His ministry was purely that of a young man. Now age 30 was not as young then as it is now, but young it was nonetheless. The one transcript in time of God in eternity is the figure of a young man! I take that as something of an affirmation of the young men in any age, and of the young men here today. Not to exclude women, or older men, like you, but just to notice the mysterious fact of Jesus’ life: he preached, taught, healed, suffered and died as a young man.
Bob: Thanks for sharing, but you had better be careful in the age of AARP and feminism not to dwell too long on this young man theme. After all, I was once a young man, and the older I get, the better I was. And your mother, sister, aunts, pastors, teachers, might take offence if you sound exclusive, rather than inclusive or pluralist.
Chris: Thanks for the advice, pops. I just thought it fit with your opening about mystery. Here is an overlooked, simple fact, and facts are stubborn things: the life Jesus knew was that of a young man. The physical growth, the personal maturation, the spiritual and sexual development, the economic pressure, the longing for friendship, the family struggles, the passion, the energy, the idealism, the fire of being a young man. We have worked for thirty years to make space for women and men in life, leadership, church, and ministry.
Bob: Fair enough. Here is a chance for you and me to share in some interpretive leadership. Today’s Gospel states:: The kingdom of heaven is like a seed, like leaven, like treasure, like a pearl, like a net. What is it that Jesus might mean by this? We read about Matthew and his interests—protecting the church against coming persecution, teaching the third generation about their history and their new faith, organizing the many stories of Jesus into a five part drama, giving the community some shape, explaining their bitter and dark experiences in the late first century by reference to even more bitter and even darker predictions about the end of time, when bad fish and good fish are scaled together. But here, in chapter 13, for a moment, the voice of Jesus seems clearly and audibly to peek out of Matthew, free for a moment from the later, inevitable worries of the church. What a miracle! What a mystery, that after 20 centuries, here and there, we can still hear His voice. There he sits, yes, as you say, a young man, perhaps a poor young man among others so struggling. He looks across his Galilean homeland, and across his life experience. He feels and sees the start of something new. Call it a kingdom. Call it a reign, or domain, or space, or sphere or orb. He points to the start of something new. You have the feeling that Matthew records, here, better than he interprets. Matthew leaves the meaning a mystery. And perhaps that is the point, after all. With the warmth of a Palestinian summer about him, Jesus says to those he draws: “this is the start of something new”. It is like…It is like…well, it is like all things that start new, it is a mystery. But the mystery is good.
Chris: I can give you five adjectives that fit this teaching about the mysterious realm of heaven on earth. The mysterious start of something new is small like a seed, expansive like yeast, hidden like treasure, precious like pearls and open like an ocean full of fish. Like the things you learn growing up, before you even go off to school. Or like the things you learn in church or sports or from friends. Perhaps that is meant to give those who are here today a sense of hope about the start of something new.
Bob: Your adjectives have made me think whether perhaps some verbs would do more work.
Chris: Well, I can think of five verbs that tell about this mystery, too. At least “ing verbs”, if they count. The mysterious start of something new is like planting, like seasoning, like finding, like buying, like catching. But in that book you had me read by Dominic Crossan, he said something that really struck me: It is one thing to communicate to others conclusions and admonitions based on one’s own profound religious experience. It was this that the Pharisaic theology did so admirably at the time of Jesus. It is quite another thing to try to communicate that experience itself, or, better, to assist people to find their own ultimate encounter. This is what Jesus’ parables seek to do: to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life. In my generation many are struggling with apathy, technology, fears from 9/11, indifference, scientific advances like stem cell research, really fast pacing, extreme specialization. Every generation has to find its own experience of God.
Bob: Mystery is at the start of something new, and that is good news for us today.
Chris: It is good news for you if you are ready to try a new job, but are aware of all the inevitable uncertainties.
Bob: It is good news for if you if you are thinking about making a commitment to a person or an institution, but are aware of all the possible perils.
Chris: It is good news for this congregation, as you move to a time to build: for the first time in 50 years to be not only renters but owners, not only maintainers but builders, not only inheritors but donors, not only receivers but givers, and yet you know that there will be struggles.
Bob: It is good news for you, too, if you are ready to continue the steady, long pull toward a life goal, and yet sense the unexpected uncertainties at every step. The mystery of something new comes as surprise and gift. We see it in the beauty of nature, and we sense it in the power of Grace. We see it in the ash groves of natural wonder, we sense it in the communal power of love and Grace.
Bob & Chris: May this service invite you to sense the mystery in seed, in yeast, in treasure, in pearl, in catch, to sense the mystery in the start of something new.