This is the message I preached on Sunday, February 17th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.
As we’ve been doing since the New Year, today we continue looking at Matthew’s Gospel, this time by turning from the Sermon on the Mount to another part of Jesus’ teachings, his parables, looking at Matthew 13.
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
These are God’s words for God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we can see and know what God is saying to us through them this day. Amen.
Does anything stand out to you about Jesus’ words?
We are in that time of year when folks get into love stories, aren’t we? Cupid has been about and love is in the air! Maybe you were curled up Thursday night to a Lifetime story or classic romance novel. Maybe you took out a special someone this week either hoping for love to spark or celebrating your own love story with them. Perhaps as a single person like myself you either wished you had a love story to tell or you were glad to not be in the midst of a story that had started out looking alot like love but had become something else entirely. For good or ill — and I hope good for each of you — it’s pretty hard to avoid thinking about love this week.
Today, in our Scripture reflection time, we turn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been studying the last few weeks to his main form of teaching, parables,. Parables are stories Jesus told to teach us about what he called “God’s kingdom” or “heaven’s kingdom”. And though we often don’t realize it, and — goodness knows! — these stories sure don’t appear alot like the ones we see on Lifetime or at the movie theater, there is a real sense in which these stories Jesus tells are, in their own way, all love stories.
You see, in the Bible, love is not just about candles or candy, nor is it only about romance. Sure, those things are great, as far as they go, but love in the Bible is a deeper, stronger, thing that that. Love is in fact where we came from and where we all ultimately are headed. It is God’s love and care for us that births us into this world. It is to God’s love we all are headed on our great homecoming day, whenever that is. And, in that time between, it is that some love that lifts us up and carries us through all of our lives, on days of joy and wonder, as well as on days that are hard and trying. As 1 John tells us, God is love, and we are called to live out and reflect that love in every aspect of our lives.
In a way, all we have been studying so far in the Sermon on the Mount, with its calls for us to be caring for all kinds of people, even enemy and outcast, even those who use and mistreat us, even when that means forgiving them, going the extra mile for them, turning the other cheek, or sharing with others without expectation of “thank you” or a return of the favor — all of this is a picture Jesus has been painting of what God’s love looks like when it is put into action. Speaking of the importance of such love in our life, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Cornel West picked up where King left off by adding, “We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence…” — the very things Jesus calls us to in his Sermon on the Mount! And Dr. West continues, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
In a way, just as the Sermon on the Mount is kind of a roadmap or blueprint for what a life of reflecting God’s love in every corner of our life can look like, so these parables are short stories that picture what love lived out together in a community and love lived out in public looks like: Jesus is showing us what it would be like for a community to change the world by the power of love, by working to tear down every barrier that stands in the way of love, so that here and now we can see love lived out among us as it already is being lived out in heaven. This life-transforming and world-changing love lived out in community together and lived out in public is part of what Jesus means by saying the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God has come near and by teaching us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here on earth as in heaven”.
What do today’s love stories by Jesus teach us about how God changes us and our world through the power of love? And what love lived out in community, and in public, looks like? I think we can learn something from what Jesus looks to in order to tell us how to love, as well as how Jesus says God’s love changes things, and finally how these stories suggest we can respond to God’s work of love within and all around us.
First, notice what Jesus looks to: ordinary everyday life.
Most of you know that a few years ago I was widowed. At first the pain of that was so hard I could never imagine ever thinking of dating or finding love again. Then when I realized that was a possibility, my very nerdy and bookish self decided, first, look at what the experts say! And before I would even try to seriously date, I decided had to read book upon book about dating in the modern world, which (not surprisingly) I discovered had changed alot since my 20s.
Jesus does something different when he paints a picture of how God’s love works in the world. Jesus does not quote hard to decipher Bible verses to explain how God’s kingdom of love breaks forth here and now. He doesn’t quote the experts either, the philosophers or theologians. In his parables Jesus points to everyday life – he talks about women baking bread, he talks about planting seeds, growing plants, and farming. Though for some of us, such things may seem far removed from our daily lives, working at universities, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, construction sites, this likely is not the case for all of us here. And it couldn’t have been less true for his first audience. For them the stories Jesus gives are of what they did every single day.
You know, sometimes we can get the message that our lives here and now – our work with its frustrations and joys, our families with their laughter and fighting, our play and rest – don’t matter. They aren’t the things of Lifetime movies, nor of political arguments, let alone the stuff of fancy theologians, are they? But it is exactly in the midst of those things that Jesus is teaching us to look for and expect to see God’s hand and handiwork, God at work guiding us into how to receive and give, reflect and share God’s love. And any of you who have ever had a marriage or partnership of any real length, let alone raised children or cared for older parents, you know what Jesus knows: it is in how you do the daily and the ordinary in your life that everything piles up, which makes your relationships work smoothly and with grace, struggle, or grind to a clanging halt.
If we will slow down and pay attention to our every day lives, we can find signs of God in each day and each moment. We can see where God is at work, where we and others are reflecting, and point out God’s love in action, and also where love is breaking down in our individual lives, our relationships, our church, our world, and our community. This is part of why I encourage us in worship to pause, be quiet, and pay attention to what God is saying in our lives each Sunday. Each day God is showing up, in each encounter we have, if we learn to pay attention.
Questions for Discussion
What difference does it make to see God as at work in your everyday life?
What are places or people you’ve not expected to see God? What would it look like to look for God there?
What examples do you have of times that you learned lessons about what God wants through paying attention to people, places, or experiences in your everyday life?
Next, these love stories by Jesus suggest that love’s way of changing the world is slow and messy. Love is patient because love takes time.
All three parables are stories of growth and change. A field grows from seed to harvest. A seed grows into a shrub so big all the birds of the air can rest in its branches. A tiny speck of yeast grows, spreading through dough until it can help create 60 lbs of dough. Such growth takes time.
Yet each is messy. They discover weeds are growing alongside the wheat and have to decide whether to risk pulling up wheat alongside weeds by weeding before harvest time, or to risk weeds choking out some of the wheat’s resources in the meantime, possibly damaging the harvest. The yeast the woman does not just mix into but, in the original Greek literally hides within, the dough is not the sweet sanitized packets you buy in a store, but a smelly bubbly mix of old dough that has developed all kinds of bacteria and, though effective for its purpose, would seem very gross to us. And mustard plants kind of got mixed reviews – some people used them for food, but others treated them like pernicious weeds that weren’t good for much. So, messy business indeed!
I am reminded by these stories of seeing the end result of surprising growth that took time while serving in Los Angeles at a historically black church. About once a month one of the older members would bring in bags full of collards, ready to hand them out to anyone who would take them. Folks would tell me “you gotta try some of these collards from Elder Felix’s collard tree”. Now I grew up in the south and if I knew one thing it was that collards don’t grow on trees. They grow just like cabbages, near the ground. Finally I got invited by Felix and Melba to their house and I could not wait until I could ask to see their fabled collard trees. “Sure, I’d be happy to show them to you,” Felix told me, and lo and behold there were enormous, tall, collard plants growing straight up to my neck. Felix explained that he didn’t pull them up out of the ground or cut them down when he harvested his collards, but plucked off a few leaves at a time. With no frost, the things just kept growing. I was seeing decades of growth on his collard plants. And it truly did make collard plants — not that different from mustard in the big scheme of things — which, after years upon years of growth, were tall enough you could imagine birds roosting in their leaves.
Jesus is letting us in on a secret – love doesn’t often come in a neat easy to wrap package and love takes time. Such love can be messy. The messiness of love can lead us to withdraw and not open up, but Jesus would have us know that is not the path to life. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. Yet the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation,” since God is love and heaven is the unrestricted presence of that God who is love. “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” So the way to life means embracing the risks and vulnerabilities, the measures of being open to others through love.
Not only this, but the change God’s love brings doesn’t happen overnight or happen easily. If God shows us as individuals, as families, as partners or spouses, as a church, as friends, as a community, some way we are supposed to be a part of God’s change in this world, making it more like it is in heaven, and making love happen in community or in public, we need patience and understanding. If we open ourselves to others — whether friend or partner, family member or church member, neighbor or someone we are called to serve, even the best relationships with them will be messy and take time. And sometimes God calls us to love, serve, and care for people we don’t naturally find easy, with that commitment to love being how the kingdom breaks out in our midst. Although God could choose to just snap God’s fingers and make it all work out at once, God doesn’t. Love takes time, even God’s love. God works slowly, over time. God spreads changes little by little, person by person, in this love lived in public, love lived in community.
What are changes you feel called to help happen in your community, your church, or family that may take time?
In what ways is it is easy or hard to patient for them?
In what ways can such changes be messy at first?
Finally, the way we get to God’s destination, the way we live out God’s love together, is not by judging but by hospitality and discernment. God’s way of loving in public and loving in community casts a wide net, where everyone, folks from all walks of life, can find a welcome.
Our natural impulse is that of the workers in the farm – let’s pull up what we think are weeds as soon as we see them. Yet their master says, no, make room until things are full grown, because you never know if you might mistake wheat for weeds and pull up something worth saving. Such a slowness to judge and exclude those God brings along our path on this journey of being a people who help change this world to be more as it is in heaven through the slow work of love is key.
Often church folks have pet sins they use as boundary markers to exclude – perhaps it is drinking too much, perhaps it is being divorced, or being gay, or loving Jesus but cussing a bit, or not dressing right – whatever that means! – or having tattoos and piercings. And perhaps we should put sin in quotes, for not all or even most of what I just described is in fact a sin in God’s eyes, is it?, though there are folks ready to call it so and throw the first stone! But perhaps that person you say is just too much this or that is one God has called to be a part of the solution.
And sometimes the people who come off as most opposed to what you feel God calling you to in fact become in the long run your biggest asset in helping love’s long work be done in community and in public , because if you build a relationship with them and you both truly hear each other out, you might find you have more in common than different and become allies.
This is why the other two parables have images of welcome and inclusion. The mustard tree becomes a welcoming spot, where all kinds of birds can take roost. A woman, often kept out of the center of decision making and the life of the community, is brought in by Jesus to be welcomed as an image for God. That woman makes enough dough to bake bread to share with everyone she knows and many she does not yet. And as Irvin Milton, a patriarch in our UCC Conference has often said, you can’t really sit down and eat bread with another person –maybe just eating from the same table but not really dining together with them– and truly remain enemies. There is something about breaking bread that tears down walls and includes. Such is the way of God’s love.
What are groups of people you feel the church sometimes struggles to include? How can we work to include them better?
Do you have an example of someone you did not expect who became a good ally when working to make a good change or make a difference?
Loving God, you created life in us and all around us,
Help us to encounter you in our daily lives, with hearts and and minds open,
Embrace the call you give us there to live love together, to live love in public,