I Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:121-36; Rom 8:26-34; Matthew 13:31-3,44-9
This is the third Sunday on which we have heard Parables from Matthew’s collection. The story last week was about the long-term forbearance of the owner of a field of wheat where weeds were sown to sabotage his crop. The week before that, the story was about the solitary sower, flinging seed hopefully and faithfully across all kinds of soil, losing much, but reaping much more, for a great harvest.
This Sunday, rather than the elaborately explicated stories we have heard, we are given a cluster, not even of stories, but of moments. They are in fact the seeds of stories, not yet fully germinated, flung into our midst. These kernels of narrative will not all yield equally in our varied soil assembled here today. They even appear to be seeds of different species. The uncontrollable but steady growth of mustard and yeast seems to promise stories of slow expansion, calling for patience and trust. The decisive, even reckless, action of those who sell everything to buy a field for its hidden treasure and a pearl for its long-desired luster seems to promise stories of eagle-eyed enterprise, where quickness and clarity are necessary. The patient discrimination of the fishing team, sitting at dawn and sorting their fish, seems to promise a story of partnership and shared discernment, among which accumulated wisdom and practical insight are prized.
Twice now, over the past two Sundays, we have seen what such seeds produce in certain soils. In the hazardous soil of the early Church, at risk because of external persecution and internal dissension, both stories germinated and grew into great allegories. The story of the prodigious bountiful Sower became a story about the fate of the seed, allegorized to account for the early Church’s disappointment over the weakness and instability of her members. The story of the wise landowner with weeds among his wheat became a story about the reservation of judgment to the Last Day, with its anticipated occasion for a vengeful satisfaction and a restoring of good order, when these disappointing weedy members of our community will be pulled out and thrown away. This touching glimpse into our ancestors’ fears and insecurities has been preserved in the Gospel, so we can learn that even the struggles of the Early Church are witnesses to the multiform presence of God’s actions among us to strengthen and encourage the faithful. Their explication of those two stories, out of their anxieties over the imperfections and failures in their midst, becomes itself retained as part of the inspired Word, to show us that God is no less actively involved in interpretation than God is fully involved in revelation.
The parables we heard today, however, carry no interpretation. They wait to be sown onto the soil of our life, to see what fruits of interpretation we will cultivate. There is, then, a freedom that surrounds them, a kind of open space into which they might develop. You have come expecting me, in the short labor-intensive growing season that is a sermon, to cultivate and harvest them for you. And yet, having seen what our ancestors did before us with the stories we heard on the last two Sundays, which casts shadows as deep as any light it might shed, it seems to me that the open space around the stories we have heard today, if we can wait in it, is itself precious. If you take these images home —mustard seed and pearl, yeast hidden in flour and treasure hidden in a field—and plant them in your life, you yourself, as you meditate on them, watering them with your longing, warming them with your attention, will bring them to fruit. God has given you these stories for your encouragement. I only need to caution you and me that we not dry these stories out into a hardened judgment of others. Seeds, of course, are for growth or for nourishment; God forbid we turn our bread into stones.
During this past week, the new Archbishop of Canterbury was chosen and announced: Rowan Williams, currently Archbishop of Wales, who will be consecrated in the spring of next year as the Primate first among equals of the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Williams is a gifted theologian and prolific writer. He was in New York on the day the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists only a few blocks away in the buildings of Trinity Church, Wall Street. He produced a small book of reflections on that event and its aftermath entitled Writing in the Dust. The title has many terrifying meanings: it recalls choking dust-filled air as the Towers collapsed, it admits that attempts to understand the attack and interpret it theologically are written, not in stone, but in something a wind can disperse, and the title confesses our nature, made of dust and returned to dust. But by it, Williams also recalls the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery: surrounded by a vindictive mob demanding accountability and a quick conclusion to a sexual scandal, Jesus stooped to write in the dust, and doing that opened a space and bought some time to prevent a violent and precipitate reaction.
The archbishop recalls his interior stillness, probably the result of shock, as he and others fled from the collapsing towers. There was neither account nor interpretation of the event yet, only an empty internal space that oddly, given its quiet, proved also to be a resource in the panic. He cautions against the desire to close that space up with decisions and explanations. He writes, “perhaps it is when we try to make God useful in crises, … that we take the first steps towards the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment.”
We conscript not only God. In his final chapter, “Against Symbols,” Archbishop Williams says, “recognizing common experience is the exact opposite of using someone else to fit with your agenda….” Christians have, as he says, “used the Jews to think with,” locking them into a space in our theological reasoning that ignores or denies how the Jews themselves understand their own past or current experience. We have been equally adept at deploying cruel images of Muslims to coalesce the components of murky suspect projects such as the Crusades. Nor is the rush to fill the void by converting breathing people into symbols unique to Christians; we find ourselves described and attacked as rapacious demons to our astonishment. When any of us, whatever the faith traditions that ought to guide us to reconciliation and peace, prefer to relate, not to human lives, but, in the Archbishop’s words, to “the symbols that have closed around the flesh and history of human beings,” it is no surprise that this is always the first step towards death, even our own death. People desiccated into pictures become numbers to cut back by bombs—whether worn or dropped or dispatched continents away—not the beloved children of God, but counters in a particularly cruel and sanctimonious calculus.
The Archbishop adds, “Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together. … What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?”
This open moment of silence, in which we wait for meaning with another, is also the waiting of our daily life, where we glimpse no more than the seed of a story we must not enclose in images—whether demon CEO (our new picture of gluttony, lust, and greed) or demon terrorist (our new picture of envy, anger, and pride). When we strive to discriminate between action and agent, so we can condemn and contain behavior, but not persons, we undertake a spiritual self-discipline that opens crucial space around us. It is an even more difficult exercise when we think there is no harm in encasing others in good images, as heroes or lovers, because these are desirable, after all. Yet, the gesture is still to press a mask over a person’s face, so we can use them to think our own thoughts of courage or romance, neither letting them breathe nor letting us see the simple action we ourselves might learn which appeared tender or brave in them. And even so, we are still far from a gentle understanding between Abraham’s far-flung seed, by which Jews, Christians, and Muslims can tell each other the fraternal story of their mutual wounding without recrimination and bitterness.
Now we seem to have come a long way from the disparate grab-bag of parables we started with, but I find the Archbishop’s final question can be brought to work this field. Can we look also at these stories Jesus tells and not transcribe them into jargon that grasps our suffering to enclose the life of others and to justify our actions? Sealing in freshness is not something to do with the Word of God. This is the space Biblical scholars strive to open: to peel away the accretions and interpretations of the early communities who used these stories “to think with” and to return the stories of Jesus to their mystery and power. Don’t misunderstand: do go home and think with them. These stories were told to provoke thought. But beware using them to shut thought down, turning them into allegories that justify our grief, that enclose others, so that the stories seem suddenly to provide terrible Final Solutions.
Now some of you are probably outraged by my evasion of my duty as a preacher to tell you what to think, so I will give you one hint. I hope it is simply a drop of water to moisten these stories into life for you.
If all these are pictures of the Kingdom of Heaven, they are images of life under God’s jurisdiction, expressions of God’s reign, where God, not we, is the glorious actor. So to find ourselves in the Kingdom of Heaven is to learn how to be alert to God’s activity among us and within us. God is the Sower who sows us. God works grace into us as yeast, then kneads us into our communities to leaven them. God finds us each a lustrous pearl for which God gives everything God has. God sits down daily to sort the good from the bad in us. To know this ever-present, multiform, solicitous, loving God is residence in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But now take one step further back with me, because it is not only each single story taken separately that shows us what it is like to live under the Reign of God. The entire collection, with all its disparateness, is the Kingdom of Heaven, where we are free to move from being seed to pearl to yeast, even to becoming sowers and bakers and fishers. All of you—one waits for harvest while another shops for pearls, and others become trees to shelter the birds of the air or are recognized as treasures hidden in fields—all around you this morning, here seated next to you, and up and down streets, across the globe, everywhere, if you can see it, is the Kingdom of Heaven.
And enlarge your vision once more: the Kingdom of Heaven, more than anything else, is like a young Jewish man, who tells stories sitting in a boat held between the open lake and the even more open sky of Galilee, so that his voice can be heard as it carries across the open space of the still water of the lakeshore, speaking to the wounded and weary standing on the shore—you and me and those next to us—who listen to him tell these stories that seem to be about us, but, more than anything else, are about how he sees God in his life and in ours. That open space, that loving attention spanned between us and God which holds us as one, that spacious embrace is the Kingdom of Heaven.
May it become familiar to us, so that, on the day when we are brought into the vastness of God, we will recognize its variety unenclosed, and join in the limitless and unanticipated chorus of praise to the Eternal Source, and the Only-begotten Word, and the Life-giving Spirit, one God, whom we also praise this day, and whom we hope to praise for all eternity.