8th Sunday after Pentecost
Heart River Lutheran Church
July 26, 2020
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I like butterflies. It’s easy to notice a glorious Monarch butterfly as it glides slowly by, illuminating the light of the sun in the glow of its magnificent wings. And there are a few other butterflies that also get some recognition: Viceroys, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals….
However, there are a whole bunch of white, yellow, and brown butterflies that never even get a passing glance. Nobody knows what they’re called or has any interest in them because they seem so plain, non-descript, and insignificant.
Last year I started paying attention to these “hidden” butterflies and noticed there is stunning beauty in their hidden existence. For example, among brown butterflies, there are several unique species, not just one.
One of them is the Northern Pearly-eye. To me, I never looked long enough or close enough before to see what’s there. It’s stunning. Check it out.
Look at the incredible colors and lines and textures and delicate features on this creature. The dramatic circles on the wings are meant to look like eyes intended to confuse predators. The veins in the wings don’t carry blood or anything. They are air-filled. They simply give structural support to the wings. Northern Pearly-eyes have especially large veins at the base of the wing. These serve as super sensitive sound sensors to alert them to the movement of predators.
The stunning beauty and wonder of these brown butterflies were hidden from me because I simply wasn’t inclined to look at them closely. That’s a theme of today’s Gospel: The hidden nature of the Kingdom of God. It’s worth remembering the brown butterflies when thinking about today’s Gospel reading.
Like last Sunday, this Sunday’s Gospel revolves around a parable… although this Sunday it doesn’t deliver just one, but a whole string of them. And like last Sunday, these parables are a challenge to understand.
All of today’s parables begin with the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” In other words, the purpose of these parables is to show us something of what God is like, how God works, what value his gifts have for us, and so on. That is really true of all of Jesus’ parables. They are all meant to help us understand something about the mysterious heart of God and what it means for us to be his children in this world.
The parables of Christ make a couple things unquestionably clear for us. First, we don’t naturally get… or understand… the Kingdom of God. This is really important for us to admit. Because our desire is to think we do understand the way of God. More frankly, our desire is to think that, of course, God values and sees things the way we do. Even highly trained super pious religious people have a tendency to simply understand the way of God as a reflection of what is important to them. We see this again and again in scripture throughout the Old Testament and in the time of Jesus. We see it clearly up and down through history. We see it clearly in our world and in our society today.
And this brings us to the 2nd clear and important thing about the parables of Christ. They are meant to do deep work in us… instruct us, get inside our hearts and heads and change us… teach us how to see God, ourselves, and our neighbor differently than we are inclined to do.
This is a really big deal. As the people of God, no greater task is laid before us than to let our minds and ourselves be changed and remade by the word and spirit of God, so that God’s kingdom can unfold in us and through us. That’s what the parables are about. That’s what being a Christian is about.
I know I mentioned earlier that Johan and I were reading together a biography of Harriet Tubman. She was an illiterate African American slave who ran away from her owners to freedom. Astonishingly, she went back again and again into the south, under the threat of capture, torture and death, to bring out other slaves. She also served as a spy, and cook, and nurse, and leader of guerilla fighters, and liberator of slaves during the Civil War. She continued to fight for the well-being of blacks after the war and she fought for women’s suffrage.
Well, we finished that book, and now we’re reading another book on the theology of Oscar Romero. Romero was the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador. He was chosen to be archbishop because he was a quiet bookworm. He was apolitical in a country that had become highly and violently politicized. They didn’t want an archbishop that would make waves; they wanted one who would stay within the quiet sphere of doctrine and ritual worship. Romero, however, was transformed and led by the word and spirit of God and became a tireless advocate and voice for the poor of El Salvador. He spoke out and stood against the twisted vision of the Kingdom of God imposed on El Salvador by the privileged Christians of his country and ours. For this reason, he was assassinated while conducting mass at a small chapel in San Salvador in 1980.
In both of these cases the majority church of the time – the Christian people in positions of power and privilege — acted oppressively in the name of God. In Harriet Tubman’s world, the majority church claimed that slavery was ordained by God and upheld by scripture. They claimed that African Americans were happy in their enslaved state. In Romero’s time, the majority church said the poor deserved oppression because they were communists, and God wants us to fight communists. In both cases, Christians failed to understand the Kingdom of God, the truth about scripture, and the truth about the world they lived in because they substituted their own interests for the Kingdom of God, the way they wanted things to be, and declared it to be the will of God. That isn’t just oppression, that is evil.
At the same time, the voices (and much more than that… the very lives) of people like Tubman and Romero bear witness to God’s love and goodness and power to bring light and life out of darkness and death. They show us what the parables of Jesus mean. They show us what the Kingdom of God is like. They show us what it is like and what happens when the Kingdom of God unfolds through the people of God.
The parables of Christ carry a variety of important themes. They show us different aspects or features of the Kingdom of God. Most of today’s parables focus on the hidden and unseen nature of the Kingdom of God and its work. God’s Kingdom… God’s way… is hard for us to see because it is unexpectedly unimpressive in its appearance (like the mustard seed). It’s hard for us to understand how it’s working in our world because it works quietly, hidden, over time (like yeast in bread). It’s hard for us to grasp its value because there are just so many vain and empty, but flashy treasures in our world that scream for our attention.
All of the parables confirm the incomparable value of the Kingdom of God. In other words, they all give assurance that in all of life, nothing is more important, precious, and joy-giving than that the power and spirit of God be active in our lives. This is important because we all have a tendency to think other things are more important: power, wealth, popularity, comfort, security. But the Kingdom of God isn’t the same as any of these things. We need to be sure we don’t shut out the Kingdom of God because we think these other things are more valuable.
The parables also gently remind us that the Kingdom’s work in us, in our communities, and in our world is hidden, quiet, unexpected. This is important because we tend to think God works through big and impressive manifestations of power, but the Kingdom works in small things, in hidden things, in unexpected things. Harriet Tubman was unexpected. Oscar Romero was unexpected.
Romero had a saying that reflected the way he saw the world and the way he led his people: “The Glory of God is the living poor.” These words breathe the life and teachings of Jesus. They echo teachings like the beatitudes (“blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek”) and they echo his parable of the judgment of the nations in which he explains to those who encounter him at judgment that, in life, what they did to the poor and hungry, they did to him.
The parables also promise that the Kingdom of God brings healing, strength, growth, peace, and joy. These are the things we all deeply hunger for even though we often think we’d rather have power, wealth, popularity, comfort, and security. This is why hearing these parables is so important… so that we know to order our lives in such a way that lets the Kingdom of God into our hearts. In the words of the parables, upon finding a treasure in a field, or a pearl of great value, we sell all that we have so that the treasure can be ours. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like.
Like last Sunday, the Gospel lesson today concludes with an unsettling and difficult image: the parable of the dragnet. And like last Sunday, the message of this difficult image seems to be this: All of this mess that is life on earth… the good, the bad, and the ugly… it all belongs to God. He loves and claims it all. It is not for us to mete out God’s judgment, or to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. We just aren’t equipped for that. That is God’s work.
The Kingdom of God takes all of it in, and where the power of God is found to be working in it all is often a mystery and a surprise. (That’s why we shouldn’t try to do the work of God.) In the midst of the mess though, the promise endures: God will bring an end to evil and oppression and abuse, and the pain and weeping and despair these things bring about. That we can rest knowing; but until that day when life is no longer burdened with oppression or want or shattered by violence or loss, we are charged with hearing God’s Word and letting his Kingdom come… into our hearts, into lives, into our world. Amen.