Sermons from St
Revd Denise McDougall, Sunday,
July 30th, 2017
7th after Trinity 2017 Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52
I don’t know if anyone here is a golfing enthusiast or perhaps like me you live with a keen golfer, but whether interested or not I’m sure no one could have missed the excitement generated by the 146th Open Golf Championship held this year at Royal Birkdale! There were thousands of officials, marshals, golfers, their caddies and spectators, in and around Birkdale. The atmosphere was electric and everyone involved was full of excitement and expectation as various dreams began to unfold. The golfers, the established names and new names of those embarking on their sporting journeys were all after the ultimate prize, the treasure found in a trophy, treasure only achievable by listening and learning from a coach with far greater wisdom than the golfer; but a coach can only do so much and what follows comes from how his or her wisdom has been received and responded to. And so after gruelling rounds and battles against the elements Jordan Spieth was rewarded with his trophy, The Claret Jug!
Jesus could be likened to a coach in today’s gospel reading, he told parables, short stories which communicate meaning but unlike last week’s parable, today’s parables don’t have the benefit of an explanation; they need personal interpretation. Interestingly some scholars believe that the parables with meanings weren’t actually from Jesus’ lips but were the interpretations of the early church.
The parables relate to the Kingdom of Heaven - the gathering of all who belong to and live for Christ in the name of the Father and the text addresses how to establish ourselves in that Kingdom. Jesus likens it to a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, fine pearls and a net, all things that Jewish peasants would be familiar with.
The first two parables were addressed to the crowds. The first being about the microscopic seed, it may look insignificant but is capable of growing into an enormous tree; it is a symbol of growth and hospitality within the kingdom and the birds symbolise the nations of the world. Jesus tells the crowds that the Kingdom is beyond the old confines of Judaism and extends to include a home for the Gentiles as well. The potential is there although initially it is hidden. Similarly with the yeast, it can transform the whole loaf. Yeast is a disturbing element in the dough, it makes it rise and become active. Aren’t we all sometimes called to disturb situations that have become dull or inactive? One definition of priestly ministry is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. So yes, humans can be transformed and in turn they can, with perseverance transform society.
However generations of people from Jesus’ day until now have questioned how there can possibly be a Kingdom when there are so many atrocities and tragedies going on in the world.
Yet despite the appalling failures and sins of nations and individuals there is no doubt that Christians throughout the ages have made a difference and do have an amazing record in compassion, health care, education and justice, and the responses to recent events at The Manchester Arena and Grenfell Towers certainly prove that. So yes, although it can be difficult to accept, the dough does continue to rise and seeds that are sown today can grow and spread into something huge and ultimately lead us closer to our goal of entering The Kingdom of Heaven.
After these two parables Jesus leaves the crowds to think about his words and he moves on to talk to the disciples with two more stories which stress the incalculable value of the Kingdom, both the cost of gaining it and the fact that it will cost all we have. He talks of surprises and treasures. And we hear about treasure found by accident by a poor man when his ploughshare suddenly hit on a box. He reburied it until he was able to buy the whole field.
The point is clear that suddenly against all the odds we can discover Christ! I have often heard stories from people who have had one specific moment when they recognised the blessing of Christ in their lives.
The treasure in the next parable was a perfect pearl which was found by conscientious and patient searching. Despite other pearls of value on the market there were none to compare with this one. This is how some people come to know the Kingdom of God, they try many faiths, ideologies and philosophies but then there is one moment of great joy when the glory of God is revealed to them.
In both stories the treasure was found and both men were prepared to sell everything in order to keep their findings. St Gregory the Great commented how in the first case the treasure seemed to have been stumbled upon, whereas in the second, the pearl seems to have been hard sought. Both situations offer a parallel with that greatest of gift of all, Faith. What a gamble; someone else may have dug up the treasure or the pearl merchant may have got it wrong! Our paths towards the kingdom do involve taking drastic risks but those risks are worth it as we will ultimately be given the confidence of well-invested faith.
We then come to the final parable in the series which highlights judgement and separation and like the golfers we need patience and above all else perseverance; then at the end of our journey we will be judged.
The coming of Jesus began the process of the final judgement and as Jesus taught and lived the Kingdom the world was sharply divided in two, those who followed him and hung on his every word and those who rejected him and stuck blindly with the old ways. God keeps the good but He loves everyone and does not want the bad to stay bad. We are all are given a chance to grow and be transformed until eventually the time comes when judgment is made.
The disciples claimed that they understood, I wonder do we fully take on board that our life choices will determine whether we are gathered into the Kingdom or rejected from it. We have stark choices to make and need wisdom to recognise our deepest longing for the treasure still to be found.
So what holds the parables together? It is the scribe in verse 52, he is the disciples and he is us. He is the one to use these stories to plant small ideas which will feed family, friends and the world. He is the one who shows that the treasure is so beautiful that it is worth sacrificing all that we have to possess it. The stories highlight the fact that those who risk selling their earthly belongings will find the Kingdom of God and come to know the value of their investment. No price is too high to pay for the timeless treasure offered in the eternal kingdom. This a practical invitation to put aside all our wealth, perceived importance, prestige or comforts and so on because if we overvalue them then we are devaluing God.
These parables although they are clear and familiar to us they need to be reread on a regular basis, then we realise they set us challenges on two levels, our understanding and our actions. As Tom Wright says, understanding without action is sterile; action without understanding is exhausting and useless.
The parables seem to speak for themselves but like the golfers in Birkdale we need to hear the words of our great coach over and over again until they become second nature. As a Christian community we are surrounded by the blessings of God’s Kingdom and Jesus is pleading with us not to let our faith lie buried in the field or resting on the seabed. Jesus invites us to open our eyes to become aware of the treasures that we have each received from God and through love and faith we can bear fruit for the kingdom. And yes, although the cost can be considerable, the treasure will be priceless!