Proper 12A Sermon (2002)

Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52;
Rom. 8:26-39; 1 Kings 3:5-12


What is the tiny seed that grows into a huge tree, per the Parable of the Mustard Seed? I think that the most common answer among Christians these days would be faith. Faith in Christ is that tiny seed which has grown into a huge tree today. With one billion people around this world claiming the Christian faith, that’s been quite a blossoming.

Yet we proclaim that Christ in whom we have faith as the Prince of Peace. With one billion people claiming the Christian faith, has our world become a more peaceful place? Has this faith born fruit if we cannot see a more peaceful world? I think that is why the church is now on the decline in many of its most traditional places, don’t you? Many modern people in this country look around and don’t see a changed world, when it comes to peace. In Europe, the church is dying after a century which saw two devastating wars on its soil. Here, in America, too, we are seeing the effects of a culture which no longer puts the church in a place. Many congregations struggle to survive.

I’d like to begin with an illustration of what I take to be the tiniest of seeds growing into a huge tree and bearing fruit, something beyond just a claim to Christian faith. This illustration is, because it has happened over two thousand years time, one we don’t ordinarily realize or recognize. It begins by trying to comprehend how “handicapped” people were treated in the time of Jesus. The Gospels give us many examples of how they were shunned, or made to be beggars, excluded from mainstream society. But there is perhaps no better example than that of John 9. Here’s the first several verses:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:1-3)

Do you see? It was assumed that such a handicapped person must have deserved such a malady as a punishment from God. Jesus absolutely denies such a connection between a handicap and a punishing God. He came to reveal a God of grace and proceeds to heal the blind man.

We Christians have taken nearly two thousand years to finally understand this passage, but in recent years we have moved to treat people who are differently abled very differently, haven’t we? We go out of our way to help compensate for the different abilities in order to find them a full place in society, no longer just on the margins. This is a huge and significant change. And I believe it’s an example of how the tiniest seed grows into a large tree.

But what is that tiniest seed of the Gospel in the first place? My answer is concern for victims. In the cross of Christ we are confronted with one unjustly killed, and that is finally blossoming into a wider concern for those who are unjustly shunned, or neglected, or killed. And why has it taken so long to finally bear fruit? Because it is still something we don’t want to see about ourselves that we tend to found our societies on the backs of those whom we leave out. The last thirty years has been about those folks: people of color, women, handicapped people, gays and lesbians, people who formerly were left out of full participation.

Jesus begins the task of helping us to finally hear and see and understand by using parables. We’ve been reading Matthew 13 the last three weeks, a chapter all about the parables of Jesus. I’ve provided a handout that literally cuts and pastes the whole chapter to sort of map out where we’ve been. The first two weeks we basically dealt with one longer parable each time, first the Parable of the Sower and then the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds.

As we finish Matthew chapter 13 this week, we finish with a whole flurry of short little parables, which can be more difficult to sort out as they fly at us in rapid-fire fashion. What I would like to do today is to slow for just a minute or two and see if we can’t figure out not just these little parables, but what Jesus has been trying to do with all these parables, in the first place.

That’s something else you might want to notice on your ‘map’ of Matthew 13. I’ve lightly X’d out the three sections of this chapter which we didn’t read at all. I X’d them out not so much to ignore them, but really to call attention to them as parts we skipped — and, as a matter fact, the parts that perhaps reveal the most about what Jesus was trying to do with all these parables, in the first place.

How might we characterize these three missing portions:

  • Summarize each one as about how the parables meet resistance.
  • Chapter 12 and the next story in chapter 14; also about Jesus’ message meeting resistance.

So how might we characterize them? That Jesus’ message about the coming of God’s kingdom meets resistance. And there’s almost an element of this for which Jesus expects this resistance, so he’s going to throw it for a loop — maybe a bit like ju-jitzu, or judo, where you use the resistance coming at you to throw it for loop. Jesus uses some of our typical, age-old language and thought categories and then throws a twist in there that might help us to finally start seeing and understanding these things in new categories. As he says at the end, scribes of the kingdom must learn to work with the old and the new. Much of what Jesus is offering us, I think, is our old ways of thinking about things turned inside-out and/or upside-down. And at the middle of this chapter Matthew tells us that Jesus’ parables can finally help us to see things that have been hidden from us since the foundation of the world.

Last week and today, I am suggesting that this thing hidden from us is how much our human way of running a society depends on scapegoats, on people we blame and so ostracize, expel, neglect, or even kill. Finally, it wasn’t just parables. Jesus lived it. He let himself be treated as a scapegoat. That’s what happened to Jesus on the cross. The leaders of Jesus’ own society found him guilty and had him executed.

But there’s millions of ways in which we human beings divide ourselves up and pit ourselves against those whom we think are bad. We think we know wheat from weeds and that we are qualified to get rid of the weeds. Adam and Eve fell for that right from the beginning the foundation of our world. The serpent convinced them that they could know good from evil. They immediately starting blaming one another. God told them that the consequences of this would be death, so who’s the first to die in the Bible? Not Adam or Eve. No it was their son Abel, and it wasn’t by natural causes. No, his brother Cain took all those swirling accusations and pinned them on his brother, and he killed him.

Last week’s parable challenges us to not succumb to that temptation and think we can know good from evil, the wheat from the weeds, and weed things out ourselves. If we look at today’s gospel on our ‘map’, we see that it begins with the parable which immediately follows the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. This makes things even stranger if you get the ju-jitzu move that Jesus introduces here.

  • Summarize parable with its twist of someone intentionally sowing a weed into the field. Let me suggest what this means: God sows Jesus into this world as one we judge to be a weed. Jesus lets himself be judged as a weed.
  • It starts out so small! But it will become huge. It starts with Jesus alone on the cross, rejected and abandoned. Today, it has grown into a concern for victims that has us reaching out.
  • Check out Matthew 25, parable of the Sheep and Goats, the last parable in Matthew.

It starts out small and grows into Good News, a treasure worth giving up everything else to get. Why? Because our old way relies on a false God who likes to punish people, a false God who justifies the ways in which we punish each other. And in Jesus Christ we meet a God of forgiveness and grace and love. We meet him here again this morning as he hosts us in the meal of forgiveness and grace, the meal of peace for this world.

The mustard seed is growing into a huge tree, but not just of faith by itself, but in faith bearing the fruit of peace for this world, as we learn to live by forgiveness and grace in reaching out to those whom we formerly ignored or shunned. We bear the fruit of love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 24 & 28, 2002

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