Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pentecost 10A - mustard, yeast and treasure

‘Come on’, Jesus says,  ‘Gather round and I’ll tell you a story’.  ‘Another one?’, asks a wrinkled old grandma, ‘we haven’t worked out the last lot yet!’  ‘But these are some of my best ones’, Jesus says.  ‘Ones?  How many have you got then?’  ‘A few’, Jesus admits, ‘but they’re really good.  I promise.’  So they all leave what they’re doing and gather around politely, though to tell the truth there are nets that need mending and children to be fed.

‘This is how God’s kingdom happens, says Jesus, ‘it’s like a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field’.  ‘What sort of treasure?, asks an old fisherman.  ‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  Old coins maybe.  Maybe someone buried them there when there were foreign armies around.’  They’re satisfied with that, these things happen from time to time in a land that’s been as fought over as theirs has.  ‘So he covers them up again and goes away and checks his bank balance’. 

‘What – so he can buy the treasure?’

‘No, so he can buy the field’

‘Well, if it isn’t his field, what’s he doing there then?  How did he find it in the first place?’

‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘You’re not supposed to analyse it, you’re just supposed to listen.   Anyway, maybe he’s just working for the farmer, doing some ploughing or something’

‘What’, says grandma, ‘the kingdom of God is like a labourer who finds something that belongs to his boss and then rips it off?  The kingdom of God’s like being sneaky and dishonest?’  Some of the men are looking a bit uncomfortable, at that.

‘What do you reckon?’, says Jesus.

One of the very best films in the 1980s was the French movie ‘Jean de Florette’.  We first meet the main character – Ugolin - after his discharge from the army, when he returns to the village of his birth to live with the old man who is his only surviving relative – Ugolin has the idea of growing tulips, and so they set about it with frightening energy – these two men are poor, their life is incredibly hard and we watch sympathetically as they tend the small plants with care and even love – but tulips are thirsty and Ugolin and his uncle soon realise they don’t have enough water – just when it looks as though their dream is doomed to failure Ugolin stumbles on a natural spring – not on their own land but on the next-door farm that has been inherited by a city slicker played by Gerard Depardieu – determined to get the rights to the water they block up the spring with a bagful of cement and watch their new neighbour breaking his heart and ruining his health carrying in water with his little donkey all through the hot summer to keep his crops watered.  Eventually Depardieu’s character dies, and Ugolin and his uncle, playing the concerned neighbours, buy the precious field at a bargain price – a few blows with a sledgehammer, the water flows again and in the last scene of the movie the tulips are magnificent.

So, is Jesus’ story a positive example of the kingdom, or a negative one?  An example of what God’s kingdom is, or of what it isn’t?  Does Jesus really mean that disciples need to be on the lookout for where God’s grace is breaking into the world – and that when we see it the normal rules just don’t apply?  Nothing else matters, this isn’t the time to be concerned with the niceties.  Just grab the grace and get to heaven!  Or, is it a negative example?  Is the whole point that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are opened up for everyone to share?  That springs are meant to flow, not to be blocked up with cement.  If God’s kingdom is about inclusiveness and forgiveness and radical hospitality – where does that leave us when we unexpectedly stumble over God’s blessings in our lives?  Are they for us, or are they for sharing?  One thing this story tells us for sure is that God’s kingdom is a wild card, when it breaks in on our world, everything that we thought was fixed and settled is on the move again.

So Jesus says, ‘I’ll tell you another one’.

’Oh’, they say.  ‘Alright’.

‘God’s kingdom is like a farmer who deliberately plants a mustard seed in his field – not the domesticated sort, not Keen’s mustard but wild mustard - just about the most pernicious, noxious weed that ever haunted an ancient farmer’s nightmares – God’s kingdom is like somebody who goes out the back and plants dandelions in the lawn, and they spring up healthy and strong, and the snails come and have a field day.

‘Oh’, they say.  ‘We don’t get it.’

‘Well try this one.  God’s kingdom is like a woman making bread.  She starts with three kilograms of flour and she only puts a tiny bit of yeast in but it works its way through the whole lump of dough.’

‘Well, we get that one.  That’s easy – just a little bit of God’s grace, or God’s forgiveness or whatever, turns a whole lump of uselessness into a nice big fluffy loaf of bread.’

Small turns into big.  You think the kingdom of God is powerless, you think it’s so small you can’t see it at all, but it turns everything upside down.  Tiny mustard seed – massive tree right in the middle of the paddock.  Couple of teaspoons of yeast – bread rises up twice or three times its size.  God’s grace is transformational – when you catch a glimpse of it – when you see just for a moment where there is some love in a situation that is unlovely, when you catch a glimpse of hope in a situation that you thought was hopeless, and you recognise that as God’s kingdom breaking in – then just watch because something you thought was set in concrete is about to get broken open and transformed into what God always intended it to be like.

Or is it about the mess?  Is it about disorder?  Why else does Jesus say God’s kingdom is like insider trading and sharp practices?  That God’s kingdom is like planting dandelions in your lawn?  And then we notice that this is the only place in the whole of the Bible where yeast seems to be getting a good rap.  Everywhere else in the whole Bible, even when Jesus talks about it – yeast represents rottenness and contamination.  Remember, this is before the days of freeze dry Tandora yeast in little packets, natural yeast is a sort of mould that blows in on the wind and bubbles up and produces nasty smells.  Bread is supposed to stay good and flat like the bread of the Passover that reminds the Jews of how God brought them out of Egypt.  You put a little bit of this messy bubbling yeast in your good flour and it contaminates the lot.  It upsets the apple cart.  You thought you knew what you were getting.  Proper buffalo grass lawn.  Proper lavash bread.  But in comes the wild card, something unexpected, and you get a backyard full of waist-high dandelion, you get a high-rise loaf that – well, actually it smells rather good, but it’s not what you expected.

That’s what God’s kingdom is like.  Like an infection you can never quite get rid of, like an outbreak of weeds you can’t control.  Like an infestation you never could have planned and certainly didn’t want that turns out to be unkillable, and it gets into all your well-laid plans and changes everything in ways you can’t predict.  I wonder – is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Take Leah, for example.  Jacob, of course, didn’t want to, not for a moment.  Our Bible translation that we read from in church puts it too kindly, Leah, we read this morning, had lovely eyes.  Well, the actual Hebrew word is raq, which translates better as ‘weak’.  This girl is short-sighted, like the girl we all remember from grade three who wore glasses so thick they looked like the bottoms of coke bottles.  Jacob didn’t want her, he’d fallen head over heels for Rachel and here his wily uncle Laban has outsmarted him.  Well, let’s not feel too sorry for Jacob, the con-man who’s just been outsmarted at his own game.  But spare a thought for Leah.  Destined to go through life with everything looking fuzzy (it was long before glasses were invented).  The wife of a husband who didn’t love her, and the daughter of a father who palmed her off as a practical joke.  The patron saint of losers, or if she isn’t, she ought to be.

And yet?  It’s through Leah, the unlovely and unloved wife that God’s promises and God’s blessings come true.  Leah turns out to be the mother of ten of Jacob’s sons, the great-great grandmother of David and great-great-great-great grandmother, more or less, of Jesus.  And the spores of yeast have floated in through the broken window.

You see, there’s nothing holy about the kingdom of God, if by ‘holy’ we think we mean uncontaminated, set apart, clean and special and reserved for Sunday best.  The kingdom of God – according to the scruffy story-teller wandering around the fishing villages and the farms of Galilee – is busy springing up right in the middle of the most suspect corners of our private lives and forcing its way up like a weed through the cracks of our failures and secret regrets.  So tangled up with our own mixed motives and so hidden in the ordinariness of our mundane lives that we don’t even see it.  The kingdom of heaven is hidden because it’s right there in plain view, in the last place we’d expect to find it.  [Catherine and Chris, when you’re baptised this morning – don’t expect it comes with a winning lottery ticket and a guarantee of a parking place when you want one, or even for everything all of a sudden to make sense.  Just expect to be surprised every now and again, expect moments of grace right in amongst the mess.  Expect to be transformed in ways you can’t possibly expect.  Does that make any sense?]

‘Well?’, the people say.  Is that it, then?  These are your best stories?’

‘Yes, that’s it’, Jesus tells them.  ‘Did you understand them?’

‘Oh yes’, they assure him.  ‘Absolutely’.

And the people go back to their nets, and to their babies and their wheat-fields, shaking their heads and saying to one another, ‘Many of this man’s stories have a great moral lesson and make a good point, but not these ones’.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pentecost 10 - weeds in the wheat

This week we continue with Matthews series of Jesus’ pithy stories that we call parables.  Like the good editor that he is, Matthew weaves them together so seamlessly that each story seems to grow out of the one we’ve just finished – and this week’s story of the weeds gets a very similar treatment to the story we heard last week about the not-so-bright sower who reaps a bumper crop.  But it’s got a very different emphasis, and a very different point.  Where last week the emphasis was on inclusion and surprising abundance, this week we hear the disturbing news that all is not quite right in God’s empire.  God isn’t the only sower.  There is a secret enemy at work.

You can imagine how this story would go over with the peasant farmers in the villages of Galilee.  Weeds are the bane of every farmer’s life – when I was working on the wheatbins as a young university student I quickly discovered that some farms had a major doublegee problem – we had sample books with coloured photographs of every known sort of foreign seed that might contaminate a load of wheat.  Most of the farms in our district produced good clean ‘A’ grade wheat, but I quickly got to know which trucks needed to be checked a bit more carefully and – just once – I had to reject a whole truckload which forced the farmer to drive an extra 40 miles to another wheatbin that could accept his load as ‘B’ grade wheat.  My commentary tells me the weed in question in Jesus’ story was probably darnel – a poisonous plant so closely related to wheat that you can’t tell them apart until the heads mature.  Jesus’ listeners would shudder at that – for ancient farmers without pesticides the only way to deal with weeds was literally to separate them by hand when the harvest was brought in – and I bet it would not have been unheard of for feuding farmers to do a spot of late-night sowing in one another’s fields.

This story resonates with anyone who has ever listened with fascinated half-belief to the latest conspiracy theory.  There’s a sense in which we need to know there’s somebody responsible for what goes wrong, we need to know it’s not just blind chance, we need to create images of who the enemy is – it’s a mild form of paranoia that paradoxically helps us to feel secure.  It’s as though the universe seems more predictable when we divide it into ‘them’ and ‘us’.  When I was a university student you used to hear that the CIA was behind everything.  Nowadays you’re more likely to hear about Islamic jihad movements, greenhouse gas emitters, 4WD owners or people who use sprinklers on their lawns when it’s not their day of the week.  Of course some of the enemies are real, some of the paranoia is justified.  But when it gets too simplified, too black and white, our fearfulness can tip over into prejudice.  Remember the abuse that ordinary Muslim folk copped here in Australia, in the aftermath of September 11, or even more so just after the 2002 Bali bombings?  An enemy did this, we know that all too well.  But are we so good at telling who the enemy is?

But, right here is the surprising thing about today’s parable, and it shocks the farmer’s servants just as much as it shocks anybody who finds it out for themselves, first-hand.  ‘What do you mean, God, an enemy did this?  Aren’t you supposed to be in control?  The tsunami wasn’t your idea?  Well, whose was it, then?  Who’s running the show if you aren’t?’  The brilliant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in the Nazi death camps weeks before the end of World War 2, wrote that we can’t believe any longer in an omnipotent and powerful God who could deal with evil but for some reason decides not to – what we need to believe in is a God who is powerless and vulnerable in our world, a God who continually gets pushed aside, an irrelevant God who always ends up on a cross.  A God who is persistently for us and with us, who foolishly chooses to share our vulnerability and to suffer with us.  That’s the sort of God we have, if God is like the farmer in the parable of the weeds. 

The problem of the weeds is the perennial problem for people who believe in God.  It seems to have been the problem for Matthew’s struggling community of Jewish Christians at the end of the first century, and it’s the problem for us as we look around the world we live in, and as we look around even inside the church, and we see conflict and hurtfulness, competitiveness, isolation and greed – we see all this and more right where human beings are trying to live out of their best intentions and their most noble motives.  People who aren’t at all religious are often pleased to point out the irony that the world’s religions - which are all based on some appreciation of the spirituality and the value of human life - are also responsible for some of the grossest, most misguided and violent human behaviour.  Political ideologies maybe come a close second.  But the point is well made – right alongside the very best that human beings are capable of flourishes the very worst that we can do.  The weeds are growing right alongside the wheat.

The weediness that particularly concerned Matthew’s community was the problem of purity.  Who was going to be regarded as belonging and who wasn’t?  Did you have to keep to the Jewish food laws?  Did male converts have to be circumcised?  Maybe the problem of weediness for the Christian community in the 21st century is not so far removed.  Who’s in and who’s out?  What about people who belong to non-Christian faiths, or to the large number of people in our Western society who claim to have no faith at all?  Are they included in the circle of God’s love?  What about people inside the Church who challenge the traditional models of family life, what about gay people?  Should homosexual Christians have full communicant membership of the church, should they be allowed to hold teaching positions in the church?  What about people who don’t hold to the same beliefs about God that I have always held on to?  Does God reject them if they don’t believe the right things about God?  And the sad thing is that, all down through the ages, the Church has said the same thing to God: should we be pulling out the weeds, God? 

But the parable seems to suggesting we shouldn’t.  That’s not the same thing as saying that we should avoid confrontation or that we shouldn’t resist evil – but it does mean that we should always be inclusive.  ‘Never write people off’, is what Jesus is saying here.  ‘Leave the weediness of other people to God’  And because this story follows straight after the story of the sower we also hear him saying, ‘don’t worry!  It’s still going to be a bumper crop’.  Well, but how’s that?  If God isn’t as much in control as we’ve always wanted to believe, how can we be so sure all this is going to come out right? 

The great psychologist, Carl Jung, would have loved this story.  You see, Jung believed that we each have a part of the unconscious that he called the Shadow, the part of ourselves where we push all the things that we don’t want to know about, things like unexamined greed, selfishness and inappropriate desire.  Things that our conscious minds have learned are not acceptable.  But Jung says they’re there all the time, that we spend a good deal of energy pretending that they’re not, pushing the lid back on them – and that what human maturity is about, is learning to integrate our conscious selves with the other parts of ourselves that we’re normally unconscious of - in other words, Jung suggests that both light and shadow are equally at home within us, woven together into the very stuff of being human – or as Jesus’ parable suggests, that the weeds and the wheat are entwined at the very level of their roots – and that is the exact level at which God works on us. 

God is at work in your weediness!  That’s right!  Just think about today’s Old Testament story.  We’ve been hearing about Jacob for a couple of weeks now – and a worse candidate for God’s preferential treatment could hardly be suggested.  Already we’ve found out he’s a cheat and a liar and a thief, having ripped off his brother’s inheritance and the paternal blessing Jacob is on the run from his brother’s understandable desire to get even.  And yet - it’s right here at the lowest point of Jacob’s life that God blesses him and promises to be his constant companion.  God’s sense of justice, or even of what’s possible, is different from ours, it seems.  And it’s going to be a long road for Jacob – first he has to get beaten at his own game, he’s going to have to come to a painful understanding of what he looks like through his brother’s eyes, he’s going to have to wrestle with his own Shadow before he finally learns to extend and receive the hand of forgiveness.  God works in and through ratbags like Jacob, like me, and maybe even like you.  That’s the point.

Listen! Jesus tells his perplexed hearers.  The kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants a tiny mustard seed in his back paddock and it grows into a whopping big tree.  Only in fairy tales, mate.  In real life you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Can you?


Saturday, July 05, 2008

Pentecost 8A

I’m married to a woman with a quirky sense of humour.  A sense of humour that’s so deep you sometimes don’t know you’ve been had until days later, when she sighs deeply and explains, as if to a small child, ‘that was a joke, Evan’.  As Alison will freely admit, she cracks herself up.

Like the time a few years ago when I got a phone call from a young man named “Bob” who told me he and his friends were keen to join our youth group.  ‘At last’, I thought – ‘a customer!’ – and told him all about the good times he and his mates could have in our church hall on a Friday evening – Alison says she felt so sorry for me then she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me – though that didn’t stop her having a good laugh later when she confessed that she was “Bob”.

This is the woman who sent her sister and her new husband a pair of personalised coffee mugs as a wedding present – except their names are Chris and Gavin – not “Barbara” and “Walter”.  Or who decided, one year, to buy silly birthday presents for the whole family from a mail order catalogue – my brother-in-law is still scratching his head about the wind-up flashlight.  My other brother-in-law got the last laugh – he found his strap on spiked lawn aerator shoes so useful he’s still using them, years later.

The point is, with humour, you either get it or you don’t.  If you have to explain why this sort of stuff is funny, then it isn’t any more.  If you over-analyse it, you miss the point.  I’ve learned to just go with the flow.

Jesus, in our Gospel story today, sounds just a bit exasperated.  We’ve come in to the story a bit late, just after the point where John the Baptist, having been arrested for telling King Herod off, chained up and destined to lose his head any day now - John, who had spent his career warning everybody to repent quick smart, and who told people Jesus was God’s Messiah who was supposed to come crashing in at the end of all things with the fire and judgement of God in his hands – right at the end of his life John gets the collywobbles and wonders whether he has backed the wrong horse.  Jesus isn’t behaving the right way!  John, the stern denouncer of other people’s sins, the prophet who lived out in the desert in smelly animal skins and ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey – John just doesn’t get a Jesus who refuses to tell people off, who eats and drinks with ratbags and scoundrels, a so-called prophet who emphasises not the judgement of God but the priority of God for human freedom and joy.  So John manages to smuggle a message out of jail, ‘are you really the one?’, he asks.  ‘Or, did I get it wrong?’

And then there’s the bit that today’s reading leaves out in the very middle – always the bits the lectionary writers avoid that turn out to be the most telling! – Jesus starts having a few failures.  After sending the disciples out on a solo mission he goes on a little reconnoitre of his own – but the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum – Jesus own hometown – don’t want to know.  They don’t get the point.  Jesus does start talking about judgement here, in fact Jesus gets very cranky indeed - and why?  These aren’t famous fleshpots of ancient Galilee, just minor Jewish villages that probably didn’t really deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah in the punishment stakes.  They just didn’t get the point.

And so Jesus wonders out loud about ‘this generation’ who don’t seem to be able to read the signs of the times, who don’t seem to know what they even want.  ‘The children’ in this little parable seem to be Jesus and John themselves – one beckoning all the other kids to play party games and the other trying to get them to join in a funeral procession.  ‘Damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ seems to be the gist of it.  John the Baptist was too gloomy for you, his demands for holiness and repentance were too much for you to swallow, then when I come along telling you about the hospitality of God, eating and drinking as though the good times are already here, the time of waiting is over and the party has already started – when I tell you that God’s future is already here because God is already actively involved in the world, transforming human hearts and overturning structures of injustice – then you dismiss me as a party boy.  You tell me I should be more serious.

It’s the exasperated note of a leader who just wants us to lighten up a bit.  In the marvellous Monty Python movie, ‘The Life of Brian’, Jesus is preaching his famous sermon on the mount, but the crowds are really huge and Brian finds himself in a little group over on the next hill.  ‘Blessed are the peace-makers’, Jesus shouts, over in the distance.  ‘What did he say?’, someone says.  ‘Something about cheesemakers?  What’s so special about cheesemakers, I’d like to know?’  ‘You can’t take it too literally’, some know-it-all tells him.  ‘It’s not just about cheesemakers, he really means any purveyor of dairy products’.

Stop over-analysing.  Stop hanging on my every word as though you want to make a religion out of it.  Just watch what I’m doing.  Just watch my priorities, because they are God’s priorities – to set free the ones who are locked in cages of their own selfishness, to give sight to those who can’t see the wood for the trees, to bring new life to people whose hearts are dead to the beauty and joy of God’s creation.  Children get it.  Grown-ups often don’t.  It’s not about the quality of our liturgy, which hymns we sing, it’s not about whether we see ourselves as evangelical, or progressive, or Anglo-Catholic.  It’s about whether we live with hearts that are open, whether we recognise and respond to the God-presence that fills creation and whether we live in a way that brings the compassion of God into the lives of others.

‘Wisdom’, Jesus tells us, ‘is vindicated by her deeds’.  Elsewhere he says the same thing more picturesquely: ‘a tree is known by its fruit’ – or as Samwise Gamgee puts it in ‘Lord of the Rings, ‘fancy is as fancy does’.

Then, when he’s had his grouch, comes the invitation to all of us who are feeling overburdened and overwhelmed.  This is one of the all-time favourite images of the Gospels, an image of sacred rest after four Sundays in a row of hearing about the challenges and costs of discipleship.  ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.

When you really think about it, it’s an odd sort of metaphor.  A yoke is something you put on a beast of burden, a restraint, but something that also serves to spread the load, that makes the task possible  We all wear the yokes of multiple responsibilities and commitments, human beings can’t live without giving their heart to something.  But as St Paul comments in today’s reading, compared to the impossibility of living by rules and regulations, by factions and ‘isms’, the ‘yoke’ that Jesus wants to share with us is experienced as freedom – to love God and neighbour, to learn from Jesus how to live the reality that all creation resonates with the beauty and joy of God.

It sounds naive, at best.  A hippie religion, just have a good time.  Delight in God’s creation, delight in one another.  But Jesus knows what’s just up ahead – he knows he’s going to cop the fury of those who take religion so seriously that they miss the point.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds – wisdom is revealed in miracles of sharing and compassion.  Jesus, who sees himself as following in the best Wisdom traditions of the Hebrew Bible, invites us in like the woman on the street in Proverbs who calls passers-by to share her feast.  It’s an invitation to let our hair down, a call to inclusiveness and lightness of spirit that is the opposite of the sort of religion that interprets scripture as a list of demands and rules.

It’s no accident, I think, that the very next story in Matthew’s gospel is about an argument over what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath.  Is it OK for Jesus’ disciples to pick heads of wheat and eat them? – I think that when Jesus says, ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around’, he’s not just affirming the setting aside of regulations to meet a situation of desperate need - but that it’s actually OK to pluck a few heads of grain just to enjoy the stringy chewing-gum taste and texture of half-chewed wheat while you’re walking along deep in conversation.

It’s about joy – God’s joy that’s expressed in the goodness of creation.  Our joy – not just in some far-off heaven but right here and now, if we’ll allow ourselves to experience it, right in the middle of the busy-ness, the seriousness and sometimes the pain of everyday life.  You’ve just got to get used to God’s sense of humour.