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Another sermon for Proper 12/Ordinary 17 A Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

July 20, 2014

mustard seedIsaac was a poor man who lived in the city of Krakow. He had a recurring dream about a treasure in a box under a bridge in Prague, a dream so real that Isaac decided he must go and look for the treasure. He walked the three days journey to Prague and found the bridge of his dreams. Before he had a chance to search for the treasure, he was arrested. The police wondered what Isaac, a Jew, was doing under a bridge in the Gentile area of the city. Thought how stupid he was to believe in a dream! One of the officers said he, too, had been having a dream about a treasure hidden under a stove in the kitchen of a peasant named Isaac who lived in the city of Krakow. He, however, was not foolish enough to waste his time and make the journey to Krakow just because of a dream. When the officers tired of making fun of Isaac, they threw him out, telling him to go home and forget about dreams. Isaac hurried home and went directly to the stove in his kitchen. There he found a treasure large enough to make him a wealthy man for the many, many remaining years of his life.

We tend to think that the treasure we dream of is somewhere else, something important. But the Bible constantly challenges our view of what is important.

Tree parables are not quaint agrarian tales of fecundity, but rather, political theology. In Judges Jotham criticizes Abimelech’s murderous grab for power. He tells a story of olive, fig, and vine refusing to become “king.” And a thorn bush offering to devour the cedars of Lebanon”

Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (“a tree at the centre of the earth . . . its top reached to heaven . . . and the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed”). He exhorts the king to “atone for your sins with justice and …mercy to the oppressed”

Ezekiel’s tree parables also protest against royal domination. He tries to persuade Israel’s rulers to resist the temptation to forge security through military alliances even though they dwell in the shadow of the “tall cedars” of the surrounding empires, He says God promises to preserve Israel “that it may produce branches and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar . . . in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind”

Then Ezekiel asks the Pharaoh of Egypt if he thinks he is more powerful that Assyria, which “towered high above all the trees of the field. Assyria’s empire crumbled. “On its fallen trunk settle all the birds of the air,”

Ezekiel holds up small Israel against big empires and within Palestine, the church was a small, persecuted minority. What chance did Jesus’s followers have against the global power of the imperial economy?

Yet the parable of the mustard seed remembers the promise of Ezekiel: “All the trees of the field shall know that I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree” The church will succeed against all the powers of the world? What a joke. Like a messiah who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a war horse. The joke is that the powers of the world have treasure they don’t know about. Instead of counting the coffers and listing the great and the good, they should be looking for treasure in ordinary people. Their land is full of them, like the land where the pearl of great price is hidden.

In Jesus’ day pearls were more precious than gold. Cleopatra had 2 pearls worth £2 million. The Talmud spoke of pearls as being beyond price. Some Egyptians and Romans worshiped pearls. Lollia Paulina, wife of Roman emperor Caligula, often wore a vast fortune in pearls in her hair and on her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers.

When a ruler wanted to flaunt his wealth he would sometimes dissolve a pearl in vinegar and drink it in his wine! Pearls were valued because they are beautiful, small and easily transported. Great amounts of wealth could be kept in a very small place. They were very hard to get. Many divers lost their lives or ruined their health to get the oysters that contained the pearls.

Ordinary people are the real treasures in the land. And they become treasures by being irritating. Those beautiful gems began their existence as a simple irritant. A piece of grit or sand buried deep in the mantle of an oyster

Jesus’s other image, the mustard seed, is pretty irritating too. Mustard was known to be an irritant, something fiery and biting, stirring up the blood. When Darius, king of the Persians, invaded Europe with a great army he was met by Alexander the Great. Darius sent Alexander a bag of sesame seed as a kind of taunt, indicating by the number of these small seeds the vast multitude of soldiers he had at his command. Alexander sent back a bag of mustard seed by way of saying, “You may be many, but we’re tough and biting and pungent. We can handle you.” And they did.

Mustard seeds don’t grow into a tree. Jesus obviously intended to teach that this growth is unnatural. Iit does not fit in with what religious people expect. Mustard is not kosher – it’s unclean if you don’t watch out where you plant it. By planting the seed in a garden, the man has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed, creating the garden as an unclean space.

Jesus wants to get us to see the world differently, to unmask illusions about the status quo and our place in it. Today we might call this “deconstructing” and “reconstructing” consciousness. To help us open our hearts and minds to what he proposed as an alternative -what he called the “kingdom of God”

In what political and religious establishment see as a well-ordered promised land are unknown treasures, pearls, that irritate and weeds which you cannot stop growing. The kingdom of God is not a treasure we possess. It is something that grasps us. The pull of the treasure is corrupting, the power of the kingdom causes those caught in its grasp to associate with sinners and tax collectors and other unclean and unsavoury types to give away money and time, to give up materialism and consumerism in order to follow faithfully

We are tempted to despair that the church has lost its voice in modern society. Yet we are called to be a small, irritating group that gets everywhere. Being small, we can accomplish more than we can imagine, like the mustard seed growing into a tree. They say “the smallest ripple can make the biggest waves in post-modern culture.” In the business world. John Naisbitt says, “Small companies, right down to the individual, can beat big bureaucratic companies ten out of ten times. Therefore, unless the big companies reconstitute themselves as a collection of small companies they will just continue to go out of business.”

In the book Aquachurch, Leonard Sweet says, You can change the world, literally. Small companies are changing and re-creating the global company. In fact, fifty percent of U.S. exports are created by companies with nineteen or fewer employees. Only seven percent are created by companies with five hundred or more employees. Small players are dominating the twenty-first century global economy, which should make the small-membership church reconsider its future.

Small churches may appear insignificant – like a weed, or a little garden hiding a pearl.

“Let’s build a bridge across the Niagara,” someone proposed a century ago. Great idea, it would save miles of travel and solve many problems. But how were they to begin? The canyon walls were too steep, and the rapids were too wild to get that first strand across from cliff to cliff. Then someone got a bright idea. They’d offer a ten dollar prize to the kid who could fly a kite from one side to the other. When the project was first announced, the critics laughed. When they heard that a “kite was going to solve the problem,” the sophisticated engineers had a field day. History had the last laugh. One young boy, Homan Walsh, flew the first string across the chasm with his kite in 1848. He succeeded and the process worked just as envisaged. The boy collected his ten dollars; the great suspension bridge was started with a single string.

It was then connected to larger string, and it in turn was connected to a slender cable. And the slender cable was connected to the strong cable that made the entire construction possible.

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Small is beautiful, especially when it is irritating.


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