Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pentecost 6A - Gen29.15-28/Mtt 13.44-58

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.

It’s a morality tale that leaves you feeling a bit queasy, because you end up not quite sure whose version of morality you are supposed to be recognising.  Whose side you are supposed to be on.  It’s a story that refuses to tie up the loose ends, and so it leaves you trying to work it out for yourself.  Can anything good come out of behaviour that is morally suspect?  Listen to some of Jesus’ stories for today, and work it out for yourself.

‘This is how God’s kingdom happens, Jesus tells us, ‘it’s like a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field’.  ‘What sort of treasure?’, we ask.  ‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  Old coins maybe.  Maybe someone buried them there when there were foreign armies around.’  ‘Anyway, so the man who finds them 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’.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  Seeing something you want, and gaining it by deceit?  These days, we call this sort of thing insider trading, we send people to jail for behaving like this.  So, the kingdom of God is like being sneaky and dishonest?

Well, maybe Jesus’ story is meant to be an example of what God’s kingdom isn’t.  Maybe the whole point of the story is 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’, we 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’, we 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 mixes in just a teaspoonful of yeast but it works its way through the whole lump of dough.’

Well, we’re pretty sure we get that one.  That one sounds 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 bit 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 Jesus really just telling us it’s about the mess?  That God’s kingdom is about what we generally think of as disorder?  Why else would Jesus tell us 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.

Is this what Jesus is telling us?  That God’s kingdom breaks in most especially where things aren’t neat and tidy?  That God’s kingdom happens in the mess and compromise of everyday life?  Could he be saying that the kingdom of God is 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.  That God’s kingdom can transform us sometimes by working against our obsession for neatness and order and control.  And that it breaks in whenever we choose life, whenever we dare to believe in the future, or in one another.

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.  It’s the wild card, the spores of yeast have floated in through the broken window again.

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 peccadilloes 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.  Resistant to Roundup, unkillable as couch, no respecter of boundaries, of convention or of shallow pretences of religion, God’s kingdom is unstoppable.  Expect to see an outbreak of it in your neighbourhood sometime soon.