Year A — The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)

Commentary for July 24, 2011

Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 29:15-28
Ah, the trickster is tricked! We’ve been following Jacob’s progress with some interest, as he is destined to carry the covenant promise from the LORD for Israel. He came from the womb “pulling his brother’s leg” and has made his way through most of his life by the wit of his mind, rather than the sweat of his brow.

Now, he meets his first match — his elder uncle (and prospective father-in-law,) Laban. Great evidence here to be careful about making lifetime commitments when in the heat of love, or perhaps any other strong emotion! Jacob is duped into giving up seven years of “hard labor” in order to marry his true love’s sister. After he learns of the fateful switch, he is more than a bit miffed (yeah, how do you think Esau felt that day you “bought” his birthright for the soup, huh?)

He soon concludes a bargain to add another seven years of labor and get what he wanted the first time…and learns a life lesson about “do unto others” in the process. We’re not done with Jacob yet; he has one more “match” that he must endure, with an even greater opponent than Laban. Just how far his wits will carry him remains to be seen.

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
This psalm reminds us that God is still at work, even when the details of our daily lives seem to offer an interruption. God’s promise to Abraham endured his own faltering detours; Isaac, though a man of few words and unfortunately tricked into derailing the covenant blessing to the wrong son, is still part of God’s plan. And, even the trickster Jacob is ultimately used to impart God’s blessing to a nation and to the world. Good stuff, here!

Psalm 128
What greater blessing can there be in life than to be able to see one’s children’s children? Though this is not required for a faithful and fruitful life (as not all follow the path of bearing and rearing children,) it is a notable blessing, nonetheless. 
1 Kings 3:5-12
I am of the age that I remember my children watching a TV show on the Nickelodeon network when it was new to cable television. The network still serves an audience of children, but also reaches many adults with its “Nick at Nite” and “TV Land” programs, offering reruns of popular shows from years past (long past, in some instances!)

One of the favorite shows in the early days of Nick was “What Would You Do?” Host Marc Summers polled audience members about their prognostication of probable outcomes to pre-set scenarios showed on videotape. There were also various and sundry weird, gross, and outrageous stunts performed by cast members and audience members. It was all in good clean fun, right?

The point of my rambling is that when I read the choice laid before Solomon, I can’t help but wonder, “What would I do in the same situation?” If I was asked by God to choose the one thing that I wanted to receive from the Almighty, I wonder if I would respond as did the ancient king, or would my choice be more like that of Jim Carrey when granted omnipotence by Morgan Freeman? (catch a clip of Bruce Almighty here)

Maybe the stakes aren’t as high for us as they were for Solomon or Bruce…but what do we do with our everyday requests before God?

Psalm 119:129-136
The continuous reading of Psalm 119 has highlighted numerous characteristics of God’s words to us. I like verse 130, with its images of light and understanding. 

My colleague (Bubba #1) tells the story of the time when, as a young seminarian, he supplied for a rural parish, bringing forth his best exegetical effort for the dozen or so people gathered to hear him. After the service, the matriarch of the church placed her seal of approval upon his effort by acknowledging, “I like your preaching; you’re just like us — simple!”

Romans 8:26-39
I don’t know what else to say, other than that on some days, I really need to trust the words of the apostle here. I rely on that Spirit who prays when I “do not know how to pray” and when I find my own sighing to be “too deep for words.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Everybody has some kind of idea about heaven, even if they don’t believe in it or they call it by some other name. Jesus talked a good bit about the kingdom of heaven, though his words weren’t nearly as eschatological as ours tend to be. He seemed to be fixed a little more on the “here and now” than on the great “bye and bye.” I suppose it’s actually some of both though, isn’t it?

At any rate, we have five (or six) rapid-fire analogies to ponder in our consideration of Jesus’ view of heaven. A seed, some yeast, a field, a pearl and a net full of fish. All very earthy (except the net and the fish, I guess.) They suggest immediacy, purpose, worth, effort, variety — what else? What do Jesus’ words concerning “heaven” mean to you?

As usual, Dr. Chilton ponders and challenges in the related sermon, below.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Jesus has talked a great deal about farming in our recent Gospel lessons..
My friend Mark is a city boy through and through. He called me the last time these lessons came up and told me he simply COULD NOT deal with any more Bible stories about farming. I advised him to preach on Paul.

Understanding what Jesus is getting at in all these short parables about the Kingdom of heaven is not easy, even for an old farm boy like me. I get the farming side, but like the disciples, I don’t always get the spiritual side.

It’s important to remember that Jesus in not talking about farming, and he’s not talking about Heaven with a capital H, the beautiful city with streets of Gold where we go when we die, the eternal destiny of our souls.

Jesus is talking about the divine activity of God in the world NOW, in the midst of our ordinary earthbound existence. He is talking about the hidden holiness lurking about in the mundane monotony of our daily lives.

In this Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of heaven is, at one and the same time, a very present reality in the world and also very difficult to discern and locate in the world.

In particular we are reminded the Kingdom of heaven is not something we create; it is rather a treasure that God has already created and given to us and that when we find it (or more correctly) when it finds us, we are called to give ourselves to it completely.

Our lesson today consists of six analogies starting with the phrase “THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE.” And, these six analogies come in three sets of two that are similar to each other. This is called parallelism and is typical of Hebrew thought and poetry.

The first set is the mustard seed becoming a large tree and the yeast acting on flour and water to make bread.

The second set is the treasure found in a field and a pearl of great value found in a shop.

The third set is the net of every kind of fish and a homeowner showing off his stuff.

Let’s look first at the Mustard Seed and the Yeast. They are about how the work of God is often slow and subtle; not fast and flashy.

They also teach us that, unless you know the whole story, you won’t even notice what God is doing. And, this is most important; often times the one who plants the seed is not around to see it grow.
Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, tells a true story about a turtle:

“Some people I know once found a snapping turtle crossing a road in New Jersey. Snapping turtles are normally ugly . . . This turtle was even uglier than most: it was grossly deformed due to a plastic bottle cap, a ring about an inch-and-a-half in diameter that it had accidentally acquired as a hatchling. . . The ring had fit around its midsection like a belt back then, but now, nearly a foot long, weighing 9 pounds, the animal was corseted by the ring so that it looked like a figure 8.

My friends realized that if they left the turtle in its current state, it would die. . . So they snipped the ring, and . . .nothing happened. Nothing.

EXCEPT ONE THING. At that moment the turtle had a future. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into normal proportions, maybe decades.” (p.98)

Here’s the Kingdom Point: anyone finding that turtle in the future would not be able to tell that a good thing was at work in it, that it was moving from deformity to wholeness, from pain to health, from death to life. All they would be able to see is an ugly guitar-shaped turtle.

So it is with the Kingdom of heaven. Its work in the world is often hidden from our eyes, but Jesus assures us that the Kingdom IS here and it IS working, like a seed beneath the soil or yeast in bread dough.

The second set is the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great value. The point here is not so much the surprise of finding the valuable items, but the whole-hearted response of the farmhand and the pearl merchant to their good fortune.

The farmhand stumbled upon his treasure, the pearl merchant searched long and hard for his, but both gave up everything to possess the prize.

Some people go through life never giving God a second thought and then suddenly, they find themselves overwhelmed by the presence of God in their lives.

Others spend years diligently searching, praying, thinking about the meaning of life and eternity, unable to feel God fully; and then they find it, or rather It finds them.

Either way, the important thing is that both the farmer and the merchant give away everything they have in response to the new treasure in their lives.

The famous Ryman Auditorium was the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. It began as a church, built around 1900 as a preaching place for the then famous evangelist Sam Jones.

The story is told that Jones was holding a month long revival there once, and it turned into what the Methodists used to call a “quittin’ meeting;” during which people confessed their sins and swore off things like drinking and smoking and running around and the like.

Jones called upon one ultra-pious lady in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said; “I ain’t been doing nothing and I’m going to quit that too!”

These two parables, about a treasure in the field and a pearl of great price, are a call to us to “quit doing nothin’” in response to the great treasure of the Gospel, the Kingdom of heaven. We are called to give up all else in order to have this beautiful thing as a part of our lives.

The third set of parables, the fish in the net and the homeowner showing off the old and the new, remind us of the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of heaven. People of every kind and every time are a part of God’s Kingdom.

Will Willimon, in his book Pastor, tells this personal story:

Early in my ministry . . . a couple sat in the hospital room waiting. . .The Doctor appeared shortly after I arrived and said to the new parents, “You have a new baby boy. But there are some problems. Your child has been born with Down Syndrome. Your baby also has a minor and correctable respiratory condition. My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The couple seemed confused by what the doctor told them “If the condition can be corrected, then we want it corrected. . . .”

“Is it fair for you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?” said the doctor.

At the mention of the word “suffering,” it was as if the doctor finally began speaking the woman’s language. “Our children have had every advantage in the world. They have never really known suffering, never had the opportunity to know it. I don’t know if God’s hand is in this or not, but I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will be just fine. When you think about it, this is really a great opportunity.”

The doctor looked confused. He abruptly departed, with me following him out into the hall, “Reverend, I hope you can talk some sense into them.” (P.99)

What the doctor did not understand was that the couple were already being reasonable. By the standards of the Kingdom of heaven, what they wanted to do made perfect sense. In the Kingdom, all lives are valuable treasures to be honored and cared for and accepted as gifts from God. In the Kingdom, all sorts of fish, all kinds of treasures are present and welcome and valued.

A church I served once had a significant number of minority members. Our Vacation Bible School was held at night and one evening parents and teachers were standing around in the gathering darkness, enjoying the cool of the evening while the children were out in the side yard playing. They were boys and girls, black and white, ages 3 to 13.

They were playing a game called “Ghosts in the Graveyard” a version of hide-and-seek. I stood on the church stoop and watched and listened. What I saw was joy and what I heard was laughter.

What is the Kingdom of heaven like? Maybe it’s like a game of Hide-and-Seek in the dark. When you really can’t tell who’s who, differences cease to matter. Surprises are around every corner, activity is going on whether you see it or not, and it really doesn’t matter who’s looking for whom; for the games the thing, the joy comes because of the Good News that everyone gets found in the end.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A — The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)

  1. I really appreciate your insistence week after week on the immanence of the Kingdom–even when it is hidden. We are called to both look for and to be signs of the Kingdom.

  2. Thank you, Delmer. Absolutely wonderful. Just happened to recognize your name on the Text This Week web site.I was a participant in the Mid-South Colleague Covenant Forum a few years back in Memphis.

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