You Never Know: a sermon

Sermon preached at St. Bartholomew’s Church

by the Reverend Matthew John Moretz

11 am, July 30, 2017

Pentecost 8, Proper 12, Year A

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

You really just had to be there.” How many of you have said this after trying to share a funny moment you had, or share some hilarious scene in a show you saw, yet as hard as you try, nobody laughs? Your face lights up. You remember vividly the silly look, or the turn of phrase. But, all that delight doesn’t translate. All you do is create an awkward moment for everyone around you. It can be cringe-worthy. And try as you might, you give up, moving on to the next topic, trying to salvage the situation by saying  “You really just had to be there.”

I’ve said those words more times than I can count. I’ve felt the ache in my heart after missing the mark. And so, as I try to convey the Gospel reading for you today, I risk more cringe. For it is chock full of Jesus’ parables, these quirky riddles that were delightful in their time, but that humor is practically lost to us in ours. Jesus was good at what he did. He didn’t just say what he thought. He told jokes. He spun worlds out of thin air, made of familiar stuff, but twisted just so, so that you’d be knocked off-kilter. Surprised. Puzzled. Intrigued. His flights of fancy would have had them all leaning forward in great interest, perhaps with a chuckle, or perhaps with a scoff.

Jesus’ tales, his elusive parables, they were a kind of theological edu-tainment. But not the kind of entertainment that comes and goes. The kind that people keep sharing, keep marveling at for generations. The kind that is cast wide, burrows in, and plants a seed in the soul, plants a seed in civilization, and takes root.

Jesus had this knack of taking old images, that everybody knew, and playing with them. There was something the old prophet Ezekiel said about God’s kingdom on earth. He said that God would take a sprig from the lofty top of a grand cedar tree. And God would take that young twig and plant it on the summit of the highest mountain in Israel. And on that mountain, that sprig would grow into a noble cedar, with great boughs, full of winged creatures of every kind perching upon them, a great congregation. And all the trees of the field would bend to look up to the highest tree around, the tree of trees. They would see how the high trees have been brought low, and the low tree has been brought high. They would see that sprig tower above them in glory and know the Lord’s power and might! The great cedar testifies to a great Lord!

But what does Jesus say that would have had the crowds in thoughtful stitches? “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…not a stately cedar…it is like a shrubbery! A mustard shrub. It’s not much in stature, it may be a weed (mustard), but look at how hearty it is. And look at how much it grew from that tiny seed. Here is where Jesus starts to stretch things. It’s just like the cedar isn’t it? Look, just like the cedar, birds can make their nests there! Behold the power and might of God the shrub! Again, you really just had to be there.

But, if we don’t hear the humor, what we do hear from Jesus, especially from the array of his riddles that we have heard today, is that God does not move in expected ways. We may think we know who God is. But, even to the faithful, God is a surprise!

What does it do to us if we really and truly hear what Jesus is saying to us about God? That God starts in the tiniest of seeds and the tiniest of microbes, yeast? That God’s value is hard to see, like buried treasure under the earth of an everyday field, or a single, brilliant, fantastically-rare pearl in a whole bag of them? That God is like a needle in a haystack? A black cat in a coal factory? A polar bear in a snowstorm? Like finding, in a field of clover, one with 4 leaves. Like finding out where’s Waldo. What does it do to us if we know that God like that? Potent and precious, there all along, yet hidden and hard to find.

I think if we knew this, we’d stop and listen. We’d slow our breath and look as deep as we could. Jesus’ riddles bring home that God could be right in front of our face, and we could miss the moment! Given that somewhat dreadful thought, we would marshall our prayers so that we might perceive what is under the surface of this world, so, as our Collect this morning pleaded, “that we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.”

I know that this holy elusiveness is not the common sense out there. We would much rather have certainty in our faith. And there are plenty of leaders and guides who are ready and willing to provide that, to play to our yearning to have order and control, not only over our world, but God’s world. Over earth and heaven! Most of us, if we really get down to it, would prefer the perfect objective morality, the perfect platform, the purest sense of right and wrong, and the inner status that comes with it. With all that we can know who the good guys are and the bad guys are. And we can then give just rewards to the sheep and just punishments to the goats. Root out the weeds that choke us all. Save the world from darkness! It doesn’t sound that bad. The trouble is, this is not the message of Christ and his holy riddles. This is not heaven or earth, but a creation of our own making, graven in our image, leading us into the dark, rather than out of it.

Some of the greatest folly comes from projecting our certainties not only onto God, but onto our neighbor. And that certainty has led to some of the most tragic abuses. Casting out others in the name of righteousness. Even killing others in the name of justice.

Can we not see that the same elusiveness of God is present in every human being? Can we not see that no one can know where our hearts will be pulled one day to the next? We can’t even time the market, how do you think you can make the call as to where a person, in all their fathomless mystery, is going to end up? Can we not see the folly in our judgment?

Well, in the main, we haven’t seen that. And here’s where Jesus’ riddles call us out of that blindness. As he said, don’t separate the sheep from the goats, they’re all mixed together and moving too fast, you’re going to make a grave mistake, leave that to God. Don’t pull out the weeds of the field (from the parable last week) they look just like wheat, and you’ll ruin the good wheat in the process, ripping out what you never intended to. Let God figure it out, when all is said and done. And in today’s riddle, there is a net, a holy net trawled by angels, and it is picking up fish of every kind. It’s a grand net. We’ve all been swept up in it somehow, haven’t we? But it is not our job, fellow fish, to kick people out of that net because their a bad fish. Leave it to the angels at the end of time to sort things out, after all is said and done.

These parables, these riddles, lead us on the path to wisdom. To a table of solid food for grown-ups. To a paradoxical uncertain maturity in faith, to knowing what you don’t know. And leaving the rest to God.

If you don’t, if you cling to your certainty about who is good and who is evil and let that be your guiding star, or if you keep your God in a lovely box cordoned off, safe and distant from the changes and chances of every person who has breath, every person whose destiny has yet to be established, well, if you can do make all those calls, who needs God? And in this hubris, you risk not only blinding yourself to the broad, merciful work of God, but blinding others by harm you’ll do and the example you will set. It is tragically possible to seek to do God’s bidding, to seek to do the right thing, yet, instead, become a stumbling block on the path to God, an obstacle to the right thing.

How can we expect to be on the hook for all this if Jesus was so circumspect? Is it really fair? Well, Jesus wasn’t always circumspect. He didn’t always speak in riddles. One time he came out and said the heart of the matter. Said it plain as sandpaper: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” That’s a wide vision of how love should act. The true vision. Because, as he goes on, there’s a wideness to God’s mercy. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” You can’t tell who is who. Don’t even try.

Just because God is God and we are not, this doesn’t mean we are powerless. We can’t share in the power of God’s knowledge, but we can share in the power of God’s mercy. We share in that power when we love as God loves, with that wide net. So, like the Sower who planted you here, cast the seed of your compassion and goodness everywhere you can. As one who has been caught by that heavenly trawler, cast a wide net with your love. Hold your judgements. Be patient. Wait.

You never know what you’ll catch. You never know what will spring up.

You never know. Don’t let that stop you.