Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 26 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11,45c; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

After the two longer parables of the last two weeks, this week’s Gospel reading is a bit of a scattershot of kingdom parables, indeed mostly not even full parables but more or less vivid similes. They’re not all trying to make the same point—and there’s something attractive in that, a bit of a kaleidoscope of kingdom visions, even if they were not originally meant to be grouped together.

We begin with the strangest farming procedure yet, a gardener who deliberately plants his field full of invasive weeds. Because that’s what mustard was—a weed, an invasive species taking up room better used by other plants (and a plant which, by the way, does not in anything like the real world grow into a giant among shrubs), and not only that, but a weed which had, for the Jewish community, a slight taint of ritual uncleanliness, a plant which had to be kept separated from other plants. One commentator suggests that a modern story might start with a man deliberately sowing dandelion seed in his garden, and being delighted by the amazingly rapid growth which results, up to and including a giant dandelion tree in which birds build their nests.

This is strange enough, but Jesus then goes on to another and even more outrageous comparison, though we’re unlikely to recognize it as such immediately—he compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast. This would have been, in his cultural context, weird, even shocking. Yeast, for a Jew, was dubious at best, even when in use, and it had to be eliminated from the kitchen environment entirely every year at Passover. In fact, this is the one and only favourable reference to yeast in the entire New Testament, where it’s normally used to signify corruption or contamination. But here it stands, strangely, inappropriately, for the kingdom. The kingdom, a tiny infiltrator, mustard, yeast, sneaking in and contaminating its environment. Change and ferment and entanglement, the disruption of stability. The unclean, the unwanted, the invasive kingdom.

And at the same time, a kingdom, a condition of existence, of such beauty and wonder that, if we have once glimpsed it, we will find no sacrifice too great. A pearl, a buried treasure. A hidden way of being which is worth all that we have and all that we are, for which we will relinquish all other desires, not grimly or dutifully, but out of the amazing joy of finding that which is right, that which we have always most deeply, most secretly, longed for.

And, finally, a kingdom of diversity, a net full of all kinds of fish mixed up together (although the Matthew editor, apparently struck dumb by the sheer peculiarity of the other sayings, stages a bit of a resurgence here to suggest eternal fiery punishment for the bad fish). And we, training ourselves for this kingdom, must learn to sort through it all, mixed metaphors and everything, discerning, finding what is valuable, old things and new, in the wild mustard forests.

The shadows and flashes and inbreaking of the kingdom are all around us, even now, the little invasive shoots of hope. We are seeing, still going on, a remarkable uprising for racial justice, but it grows out of many years of organizing work by Black Lives Matter and other grassroots groups, the slow infiltration of the mustard and the yeast. Or think about all the unofficial mutual aid networks which have grown up in the shadow of the pandemic, all the people cooking and sewing for neighbours and strangers, biking around the city with deliveries, bringing cases of water and tubes of polysporin to the homeless encampments, and the people in those encampments who are watching out for each other, keeping track of who is in need of extra support, trading strategies.

And even smaller, all of the people who started making or simply wearing masks even before the official advice came round to this, most of them doing so in the full awareness that a mask is not, first and foremost, about protecting yourself, but about protecting all the people around you—that it is a gesture of compassion and empathy, of care for the other, love ironically taking the form of distance and obscurity, but love nonetheless. We are not nearly out of the woods yet. But insofar as case numbers in Toronto have been in a steady decline, it is because of all the ordinary people making daily decisions, washing their hands, taking care, choosing to renounce, for short or long times, the physical presence of people they love, and all because of love.

The kingdom breaks in all the time, in small unofficial kindnesses, in pointless acts of art and beauty, in all our unlikely treasures. The kingdom lives in anything that can tell a different story than our society tells us, a story which is not about winners and losers, or the accumulation of stuff to try to soothe our souls, or the relentless measuring of all things by their economic value—but a story about a farmer deliberately planting his field with weeds which grow into improbable trees filled with singing birds. The kingdom is odd and unexpected and out of place, and maybe unwanted to begin with. But it is what we long for, it is where we have always been meant to live.

Paul finally manages to hit upon something like that, in today’s passage from Romans. We’ve heard him, for the past several weeks, tying himself up in knots about sin and law and guilt and desire, worrying about willing the good and yet doing wrong, trying to get out of his own self and finding that the attempts ties him up further and further in the coils of ego. And then, as he sometimes, just sometimes, manages to do, he stages one of his great, improbable, amazing escapes.

Because everything he has been saying up to this point? It doesn’t matter. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter because God is on our side, no matter what. And if God is for us, no one can be against us. All our small or large failures, all our wretchedness and loss, all the ways we wish we could be better, all our guilt and all our fear—it is all swamped by that one amazing fact. We are loved beyond measure and for no reason at all, and nothing can get in the way of that.

“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is one of the most powerful sentences in scripture. It is an embattled victory over despair. It is the last of the sentences which is traditionally read or sung as a body is brought into the church at the funeral service, and it carries all that tradition with it, the acknowledgement of death, of the powers, of illness and suffering and grief—and the hope that still stands. On the fields of pandemic sickness. In the streets of protest. The hope which queer Christians have held in the face of rejection by the church itself. The hope which we proclaim, which we must proclaim, when those we have loved most go into the great silence. The hope which is the impossible dandelion tree, the dubious sustaining bread, the pearl, the treasure. Not even we ourselves can separate ourselves from love, finally, for God is with us even if we are not with our own selves. So even when the treasure seems buried beyond recovery, even when the bread fails to rise and the seeds seem to produce nothing, the kingdom is going on, and we are held within it.