Sermon for July 26, 2020

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 July 26, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

31[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The dominion of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a 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."

      33Jesus told them another parable: “The dominion 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 dominion of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

      45“Again, the dominion 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 dominion 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 Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the dominion of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the household treasure what is new and what is old.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Given the pandemic and its interrelated crises, there is so much bad news out there that a new term has been coined: “doomscrolling.” Doomscrolling is when we move from one news feed to the next on the various formats on our devices that proclaim doom and gloom.

Our current realities, not just that there is a global health crisis, but that leaders in various settings are making choices to make matters worse, bring to mind words of one of the stanzas of Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” The first line of stanza three goes like this in translation: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us….”

Hordes of devils filling the land with devouring threat – that seems to me to capture the most publicly evident aspects of the spirit of our age. Where’s the good news amidst all the bad news? Where is there obviously available, public evidence of God’s reign of justice, love, and peace in our current realities? How do we make sense of the apparent absence of the sacred in our very profane world?

Today’s Gospel passage presents five, maybe six, different parables attributed to Jesus which may help us make sense of the nature of the divine presence in our current crises.

The dominion of heaven is variously likened in these parables to a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, a fine pearl, a net thrown into the sea, and if you count the last verse of today’s passage, a head of a household who reveals treasures new and old.

What each object in these parables has in common is the hiddenness of each thing, its apparent insignificance, but at the same time the great power and value of each:

  • The mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds, yet it grows to be the greatest of the shrubs to shelter birds of the air.
  • Yeast, too, is very small, but a little bit of it goes a long way to leaven the whole loaf, causing it to rise.
  • The treasure in the field is hidden and hidden again when the seeker spent an entire fortune to purchase it, revealing its immense value.
  • The pearl of great price also is worth a life’s fortune, and yet, a pearl is simply the by-product of an oyster responding to an irritant in its system.
  • The net thrown into the depths of the sea is likewise hidden from view, but results in a huge catch of fish.
  • Finally, the householder reveals treasure new and old; in the case of the new, it’s a surprise that was previously hidden, unknown, and in the case of the old, it was treasure forgotten, but which offers a renewed sense of its value.

What does all of this have to do with what God may be up to in our current circumstances? In short, divine presence and activity are in fact realities in the life of the world, but they are realities that may at first be hidden and far from obvious, and which, despite apparent insignificance, also have great value and powerful effect.

Where can we turn to see this hidden power and value? What in our current circumstances is comparable to the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure old and new, the pearl, the net?

We’re not likely to see evidence of the hidden, yet powerful reign of God in the seats of governmental or corporate power. Such signs of God’s reign may well not make the national news or become viral on social media. It may even be that the hidden but efficacious incarnations of heavenly dominion are not evident in the megachurches and other sizable ecclesial organizations and ministries.

My sense is that the mustard seeds, yeast, the pearls, the nets are more likely to be discovered at places like Arlington Food Assistance Center, the Arlington Free Clinic, and Arlington Pediatric Center and initiatives like Arlington Street Peoples Assist and Arlington Thrive and Phoenix House and Offender Aid and Restoration – all social programs which Resurrection Church financially supports, all local efforts to assist those in need which hold promise to transform individual lives.

I enjoy reading columnists like David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times who take pains to go around the country and world looking for local programs that make a difference toward transforming not just individual lives, but whole communities. Brooks and Kristof are like the ones in the parables seeking hidden treasure, pearls of great price.

Perhaps you could name initiatives that are not well-known, but which nonetheless have great effect. Add up all these efforts and it may prove to be the case that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Given concrete examples of where we can in fact discern the hidden, but active divine hand, I am drawn to echo the words of Paul in the Romans passage which is today’s second reading, words which are beloved, words which I believe proclaim the power of God’s often hidden hand:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose…. If God is for us, who is against us?... Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (cf. Romans 8:26-39)

I also believe that faith-filled, faith-inspired confidence in the hidden power of God is what led Luther and translators to pen the rest of the stanza in “A Mighty Fortress” which begins with acknowledging the seeming overwhelming force of the devils filling the land: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, We tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpower us. This world’s prince may rage, in fierce war engage. He is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail! One little word subdues him.” (ELW 503)

One little word subdues and prevails against hordes of devils. In like manner, a mustard seed prevails and subdues; as does the yeast and treasure hidden in a field, along with the pearl of great price, and the net thrown into the sea, and the treasure both new and old.

And when it’s all said and done for us Christians, the little word that subdues and prevails is Christ Jesus. Christian parables are often Christological, that is, they point to Christ. So, Jesus Christ is our mustard seed, our yeast, our pearl, our net of abundance, our treasure new and old.

The challenge and opportunity for me, for us, in this season of doomscrolling seemingly relentless bad news is to trust in the hidden power of God working in, with, under, and often in spite of our circumstances.

Here again, I invoke the encouraging words of Paul in today’s second reading: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26ff.)

God in Christ help us to see God at work in our world, through the intercessory power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I encourage you to take some time now to reflect on where in your life and in our world you see signs of the at first hidden, but transformative power of God’s heavenly dominion.

  • What are those hidden but holy occasions and settings and initiatives where you see God’s dominion?
  • How can you be sustained in your disciplined search for such good news amidst so much bad news in our world today?

As always, God bless your reflections and holy conversations.