The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12A)
27 July 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, the protector of all who trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119: 121-136
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
Surprisingly, there are quite a lot of things I remember about sixth grade Latin class. Mr Caslon, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy by summer, would tell us “mood goes down” every time one of us failed to conjugate, say, the perfect indicative active of rogo; he would sometimes turn class into a game show—taking for himself the rôle of glad-handing host; and taught us to think of eating a hamburger, and that delicious feeling of “-um” and “-a” as we took a bite, so that we would never forget the neuter singular and plural, nominative and accusative. I also recall that it was Mr. Caslon who taught me the particular Roman distaste for the word rex, king. How to the Roman ear it smacked of the despotic tyranny of the monarchy that preceded the founding of the Republic. How kingship stood in opposition to the notion of justice as embodied by the heroes who died defending liberty. We, too, in America are usually taught to have an innately negative response to kings and kingship. George III—who I later learned to have been a rather decent chap with a keen interest in farming—is vilified in grade school texts as embodying everything that the young American Republic rejected. And inclusive language lectionaries and liturgies seek to replace the word “king” with more politically correct words like “ruler” or “sovereign one.”
But today this troublesome word confronts us in two of our lessons. We heard a story about Solomon, king of Israel, and at the Gospel we heard five statements about the “kingdom of heaven,” about God as king. What are we to do? Instead of trying to think of another way of expressing God’s sovereignty, let’s plunge right in and wrestle with this idea of a king and of kingship.
In the lesson from First Kings, God invites the young Solomon to make a wish. After expressing his gratitude to God and his feelings of being overwhelmed by the job of being king of “a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted,” Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil” (I Kings 3:8-9). God grants Solomon his request, not before, however, expressing pleasure, and perhaps surprise, that the king had not “asked for [himself] a long life or riches, or for the life of [his] enemies, but have asked for ... understanding to discern what is right” (3:11). Clearly, and like the Romans, even God expects that the desire of earthly kings is for longevity, wealth, and victory over enemies. The expected nature of kingship is selfish, greedy, and coercive. Solomon is none of these things. Solomon seeks justice. Solomon seeks to do God’s will. Here, in this text, we are given a real sense that the notion of kingship can be turned on its head and made to serve different, unexpected ends, like the discerning of justice. This is a new model of kingship, a model we shall see is based upon the way in which God is king.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to describe for his disciples the nature of God’s kingship, his rule, his sovereignty over all that is known and all that is unknown. Right away it becomes clear that unlike an earthly kingdom that is a circumscribed geographic area, such as Solomon’s, the Kingdom of God is much bigger. It is a way of talking about who God is, about his very nature and how he works in the world and in history to achieve his purpose—the unity and participation of all creation in his love.
To this end, Jesus describes God’s kingdom using five different images: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, a fishing net. Perhaps the only one of these that we might normally associate with traditional notions of kingship is treasure. As for the rest, those of us who hear the parable today, not to mention those who heard Jesus utter these words, might instead have expected kingship to be compared with armies and other symbols of power rather than with farming supplies, baking needs, people in—heaven forbid, commerce—and fishing tackle. These are the instruments and activities not of the rich and powerful, but of regular people, doing regular jobs in the world. Each of these examples is taken from the course of daily life and is just as apt today as it was when Jesus used them on the provincial fringes of the fledgling Roman Empire. And, as I said two weeks ago when I preached upon the parables as a form of storytelling, the power of these images is that they are taken from the diverse tapestry of the daily activities of regular men and women, not of kings and princes. Indeed, I have a hard time imagining that most of you sitting here this morning have not, at some time, tried to garden, or cook, or go fishing, and (dare I mention it in today’s financial climate) invest your money.
But there is more to it than this. These items and people are not simply static objects. They are dynamic and complex operations like the natural order itself. The kingdom is not just like a mustard seed in a packet from the garden centre, but is like “a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field [and] when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It is not simply like a lump of leaven on the shelf at the Food Emporium, but “yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” It is not like treasure sitting in the bank, but like “treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It is not simply like a merchant, but like one “in search of fine pearls; [who] on finding one pearl of great value ... went out and sold all that he had and bought it.” Finally the kingdom of heaven is not merely like a net packed away in its container, but one that is “ thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
Each item, each person, is something or someone in action in the midst of life. Through this action we come to see the nature of God’s kingdom, God’s sovereignty over us and all creation as purposeful and sheltering like the mustard shrub that grows from the tiny seed and in which the birds nest. It is purposeful and life-giving, like the bubbling yeast in the three measures of flour. It is valuable and worth the highly risky investment of throwing into it the energies and resources of our whole existence, like that hidden treasure. The kingdom is brave and risk taking like the pearl merchant. Ultimately, the Kingdom is open to and in search of all kinds of people, ensnaring the lot of them like the fisherman’s dragnet. The haul from the fisherman’s net, this indiscriminate catch at the hands of the Fisher of Men of all the fish from the sea of life, are the “predestined” of whom Paul speaks (Rom. 8:29-30). Not some few, but all the fish, are caught-up in the Kingdom, in God’s redeeming purpose.
Through the imaginative way of seeing the world in pictures and stories, rather than in abstractions, Jesus’ parables of the kingdom seize hold of our imagination. They place the kingdom of Heaven within the realm of our understanding and suggest that this kingdom is not a far away fairy land, or an impossible ideal that can only be achieved in supernatural ways, or in an afterlife. These parables from the fabric of life as it is lived connect nature to super-nature. They suggest that the kingdom of God is intrinsically like the processes of nature and of the daily lives of women and men everywhere. No artificial illustrations are needed and nature itself can illustrate the ultimate meaning of the universe. Indeed parabolic speaking helps show us the divinity of the natural order. So, then, in many ways the Kingdom is here with us. God’s rule is a present reality, although we also anticipate its fulfillment.
The seeds have been sewn, the leaven has been mixed with the flour, the net has
been cast. God is at work in the world and acted decisively in sending Christ among us,
giving him up to death for us knowing just how imperfect we are, and raising him
again to show us that our imperfections, our sin, are all forgivable and insignificant in
the face of his love. This is what Paul means when he wrote to the Romans: “If God is
for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for
all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” The kingdom is indeed
here and we are called to respond to it, nest in it, bubble-up like the bread dough,
accept being caught in God’s net, and take the risk of the merchant to orient our lives
to God’s work in the world.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Saint Mary Magdalene, 22 July 2008
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume.