Sermon for May 19, 2019
Texts: Psalm 126; 1 Corinthians 3:6-9; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45
Sermon: "Prepare To Be Surprised"
Our God is in all the big things around us -- the expansive sky, the towering trees, the swollen river that overflows its banks, and the massive sun that provides spectacular views for us if we are on hand to see it set every afternoon behind the flat land of Louisiana.
But our God also is in the tiny things of our life -- the lily in the field; the tiny sparrow whose life and death God counts; and the very hairs on our heads that God knows intimately.
Little things matter.
Little things are surprisingly important to God. Little things give Jesus the images to reveal God's mighty power, God's patience, God's all-inclusiveness -- both of people (God loves and calls ALL people to his holy realm); and of creatures and creation -- God creates tiny seeds and vast deserts. God is everywhere, like the yeast in dough working wonders of expansion while remaining hidden from sight.
Prepare to be surprised! That is one lesson of the parables that I can guarantee important for us to learn. Prepare to be surprised!
Take the tiny mustard seed or just a little bit of yeast. What can Jesus mean as he tells these strange little stories?
The Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer loved and worshiped the God of the small and intimate things of life and that same God, who created and still creates the cosmic and the extraordinary.
Bonhoeffer lived and served as a pastor in Germany during the time of the Nazi rise to power. He watched people in the churches get into the pulpit and preach sermons on Sundays about resisting Nazi power; but during the rest of the week, those same preachers were silent about the poisonous propaganda being disseminated in their nation and beyond by the Nazi regime.
God's true word worked like yeast within Bonhoeffer's life, like seed hidden but ready to invade the landscape of Nazi cruelty.
Bonhoeffer revolted. He spoke. He told God's truth. And for it, he lost his life; he was imprisoned and murdered by Nazi soldiers.
How blessed we are to have some of Bonhoeffer's strong words to guide the churches today. They are as surprising and beautiful today, as inspiring as they were when he wrote them eighty years ago. One of his bold treatises fits perfectly with the short parables we read from Matthew this morning.
Bonhoeffer spent countless hours considering the nature of grace. Grace, he says, is a gift and a treasure. But, he discovered, there is cheap grace; and there is costly grace. Only costly grace matters; only costly grace bears fruit.
He says, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
"Costly grace is treasure hidden in the field," Bonhoeffer says. "For the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy -- for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."
Bonhoeffer says, "Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which one must knock. And I would add, as Jesus tells us -- when Jesus is the one at the door knocking, he urges us to open that door.
And when grace flows down freely, when the good people of God's church get together and seek, ask, and knock -- look out. God's will is taking root and beginning to grow, and we cannot imagine how big or how stunning the results may be.
God's work may start with a tiny seed. But that seed has all the power of the great Creator of the universe behind it. The plans we make here in our church must begin with tiny seeds, but God's power will transform those seeds and cause them to grow if only we seek his will and follow it faithfully.
What is the kingdom of God like, Jesus asked his followers that day long ago? The answers thankfully for us today are recorded in the gospel story.
Jesus answers that question about the kingdom in familiar and yet in surprising ways. The familiar is that he speaks of ordinary things. There is nothing complicated about a mustard seed or a woman making bread. But as you dig deeply into these parables -- these riddles that Jesus loved to use in his teaching ministry -- you find imaginative, profound meaning. You are surprised.
Let's hear it again. Matthew says:
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but 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. He told them another parable: "The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
Yes, Jesus uses ordinary images and familiar truths in these parables. But notice that Jesus, describing what the kingdom of God is like now, as he tells the story; now, as we today are hearing the story. He is not describing heaven in some future time. Jesus is talking about ways people right then and there -- and for us, right here and now -- can respond to God's call to kingdom building.
The parable is not an ordinary story. Jesus was the Master storyteller, but the parables are not illustrative but rather inspiring. They tease our minds, seeking to inspire us to new understanding of what may seem an old message.
The kingdom of heaven on earth begins small, with the life and ministry of one man, Jesus the Christ, in one small part of the world many years ago. But like the tiny seed, the kingdom grows as God wills it and the kingdom will become huge in the world as a result of God's action.
There are seven or eight parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, where our text this morning is found. Last week, we studied the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The week before that, our text centered on the Parable of the Sower.
Listeners in Jesus' day might have been surprised to hear Jesus compare the kingdom of God to any of these things.
Take the mustard seed. The mustard seed was considered a pest. It was so tiny that it usually was hidden from sight and mixed in with the other seed unintentionally. The person who sowed seed containing the mustard seed might find the mustard bush surprisingly growing amid other neatly planted crops.
We have to wonder then. Could Jesus have been pointing his listeners, pointing us, toward another idea -- that is, that growth that occurs in the kingdom can come in unexpected and even unsettling ways?
Growth is not always orderly. God does like to surprise us!
Consider Abraham, the faith father of all of us. No one was more surprised by God than Abraham. God tells Abraham: I will give you descendants numbering more than the grains of sand on the shore, more than the stars in the heavens.
What a great story about the surprising ways of God! There is none other quite so dramatic or so crucial to understanding God's desire for the world to be healed and reconciled to him.
This ordinary nomad, Abraham, living in a lonely and desolate place, up in years, is a surprising choice for God to choose as patriarch of the chosen people.
When Abraham's wife Sarah prepared a small feast for the divine representatives of God who visited their nomadic dwelling, she, like the woman in the parable, took three measures of flour -- about fifty pounds -- to make the bread: much bread, much hospitality, much welcome for such an occasion, although she did not know that she was welcoming angels.
In his parables, Jesus reveals the God who surprises. The seeds you sow may be hidden ones. The shrub you plant may become a huge tree. But it may not happen in the way that you expect. Prepare for the unexpected.
We cannot make a seed. We cannot make a tree. But we can seek God; sow seeds of love, hospitality, and kindness. We can ask God for grace to live in accord with his holy will for us. We can live into that grace with hearts for others.
Through the parables, we hear lessons of patience, of bold action, of surprising results. We learn that God uses tiny things to fulfill his big plans. We learn that Jesus may have invaded the earth, may be subverting the world to his own purposes -- kingdom making, that is.
God of the tiny things and God of the big things -- in all ways knows how to surprise us into action, expand our horizons, give us visions of a church that is like God's world -- inclusive, loving toward those who have been shunned and forgotten.
You can do extraordinary things for the kingdom when you go out into the unpredictable future and try new ways of serving God.
Who knows where that might lead? Prepare to be surprised. Let go of your heart; let it go as you imagine the kingdom Jesus describes for us, one where love rules all relationships, where forgiveness comes naturally, where hospitality is gracious and generous as the loaves of bread made from fifty pounds of flour.
God's grace empowers his church. God's grace empowers each one of us. No, it is not cheap to give up what we sometimes are called to release; it is not easy to live a life that requires us to give up some of our old ways and give in to God's way.
Yes, it is costly.
Please ponder this week: Have you let God surprise you lately? How did you respond? What will you do? Who will hear of God's love and welcome from you?