July 27, 2014

7th Sunday after Pentecost 

One of the most difficult things about believing in God is trying to talk about it. Someone asks you why you believe, or how your life is different because you do, and there are no words that are true enough, right enough, big enough to explain. You rummage around for something to say, but everything sounds either too vague or too pious. You could talk about how your heart feels full to bursting sometimes or about the mysterious sense of kinship you feel with others. You could talk about how even the worst things that happen to you seem to have a blessing hidden in them somewhere, but the truth is that it is impossible to speak directly about holy things. How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?

We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can, that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things, and trusting each other to make the connections. Believing in God is like coming home, we say, like being born again. It is like jumping off the high dive, like getting struck by lightning, like falling in love. We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message.

If you still have your notes from high school English class, you can probably find the section on figures of speech, where this way of talking is called talking in metaphors-talking about one thing by referring to another thing, getting at the meaning of one thing by comparing it to another. Sometimes the comparisons are comfortable and familiar. But other times the comparisons are jarring or startling.

Jesus did it all the time. Throughout the gospels, and in Matthew's gospel in particular, he was always making comparisons. Sinners are like lost sheep, the word of God is like seed sown on different kinds of ground, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast, and God is like the owner of a vineyard. "The kingdom of heaven is like this..." he said over and over again, telling his followers stories about brides and grooms, sheep and shepherds, wheat and tares.

In the passage we have just heard, he launches a volley of such comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he says, like yeast, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea. The images come quickly, one right after another, with no preparation, no explanation, no time for questions and answers. It is not like him to be in such a rush. He is usually a better storyteller than that, gathering his listeners around him and sliding into his tale with one of those time-honored introductions like, "There once was a landowner…" or "There once was a king…" When he does, his followers settle down to listen, knowing that the story will be full of meaning for them, knowing that they had better listen well.

But these five flashes of the kingdom come at us so quickly that there is no time to settle down at all. Jesus zings us with them-one, two, three, four, five-like snapshots, like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast-moving train. The kingdom of heaven is like this and this and this, he says. It is almost as if he does not want us to think too much about them, as if he does not want us to get stuck on any one of them but to be dazzled by the number and variety of the things the kingdom of heaven is like-like this and this and this.

The first two comparisons seem easy enough. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast-nothing much to look at, not very impressive at all, at least not at first; but give either of them something to work on-sow the seed, mix the yeast with flour and the results can be astounding: a tree big enough for birds to nest in, bread enough to feed the family for a month. If the kingdom of heaven is like that, then it is surprising, and potent, and more than meets the eye.

The next pair of comparisons is more difficult. First, the kingdom is like a man who finds buried treasure in a field, covers it back up and sells all that he owns to buy the field. He is a poor man who becomes a rich man through luck. And second, the kingdom is like a merchant who searches for and finds a pearl of great price, selling all that he owns to buy it. He is a rich man who becomes a richer man through skill. But rich or poor, skillful or just plain lucky, each man finds something of great value and sells all that he has to make it his own. Each man finds something that makes everything else he owns trivial by comparison, and he does not think twice about trading it all in. If the kingdom is like that, then it is rare but attainable, for those who are not only willing but eager to pay the price.

The final comparison-of the kingdom of heaven and a fishing net-takes a different tack altogether. Thrown into the sea, the net gathers fish of every kind, good and bad, which are sorted out once the net is full. If the kingdom of heaven is like that, then it is not, in the end, something we find, but something that finds us and hauls us into the light.

It is a lot to digest at one sitting, but the striking thing about all of these images is their essential hiddenness-the mustard seed hidden in the ground, the yeast hidden in the dough, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl hidden among all the other pearls, the net hidden in the depths of the sea. If the kingdom is like these, then it is not something readily apparent to the eye but something that must be searched for, something just below the surface of things waiting there to be discovered and claimed.

Unless, of course, God has resorted to the oldest trick in the book and hidden it in plain view. There is always that possibility, you know-that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look-namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives.

Jesus knew it all along. Why else would he talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fishermen sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things, that our treasure is buried not in some exotic far off place that requires a special map but that "X" marks the spot right here, right now, in all the ordinary people and places and activities of our lives?