Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Simple Song

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 27, 2008

Year A: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 128
(Romans 8:26-39)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

A Simple Song

Today’s gospel lesson brings us to the end of the series of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the sower. Last week we heard the parable of the weeds and the wheat. And this morning we just heard a quick series of shorter parables. I have to admit, I nearly laughed when I imagined this scene. Imagine Jesus running through all of these parables and then he turns to the crowd and asks, “Have you understood all this?”

Can’t you imagine the people in the crowd blinking nervously and instead of admitting their confusion, they nod and smile and say “Yes” to Jesus. And probably their next thought was, “I hope he doesn’t call on me and ask me to explain what these parables mean!”

In the parables Jesus is trying to teach about the Kingdom of God – or as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven. But the truth is the parables – although seemingly simple - are not so easy to understand. When you think about it, teaching through parables is an interesting way to teach, isn’t it? In my experience, most teachers are mostly concerned that their students clearly understand the subject being taught. And so, naturally enough, teachers try – not always successfully – to be as clear as possible.

One of the reasons that Jesus is such a great teacher – and so dangerous to those in power – is that he challenges his followers to think on their own. Even today, how bold and dangerous to challenge people to think for themselves! Jesus’ teaching is seemingly simple, but not always clear-cut or obvious. People have spent the past two-thousand years coming up with interpretations of these parables. All across the church I am sure preachers are in pulpits today preaching wildly different sermons on these parables.

In his parables, Jesus uses everyday, simple things – such as seeds and leaven – to offer metaphors for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…the kingdom of heaven is like yeast…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea…

Over and over, Jesus uses these everyday, simple images to describe what the kingdom of God - the kingdom of heaven - is like.

Most of you know that on Wednesday evenings this summer a bunch of us have been meeting to watch and discuss a video series called “Saving Jesus.” It’s been a very stimulating and fun experience. Anyway, this past Wednesday in our “Saving Jesus” discussion group we talked about the Kingdom of God – and just what Jesus and his early followers understood that term to mean – and just what we understand the kingdom to be. One of the theologians in the video suggested that Jesus had to use metaphors to describe the kingdom because even he couldn’t see the kingdom clearly. Jesus knew what the kingdom was like – but not precisely what the kingdom is.

That sounds reasonable to me. I think, though, that even if Jesus had a clearer image of the kingdom, human language – the human brain – can only go so far in understanding the eternal and the ultimate. And so the best we can do is grasp that somehow the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the kingdom is like yeast.

And, I’d also suggest that Jesus used these earthy metaphors to describe the kingdom of heaven because he wanted us to get our heads out of the clouds. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus tried to describe is not the afterlife. If we look at the New Testament carefully, we find that Jesus doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the afterlife. Jesus mentions the afterlife, but it’s not his main interest. And, so, clearly, for Jesus the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven does not equal life after death.

Instead, for Jesus the kingdom of heaven is a transformation of this world – right here, right now. The kingdom is a transformation that begins with Jesus two thousand years ago and continues with us right here, right now. One of the people in the video powerfully described the kingdom of God as a world where we love other people’s children as much as we love our own.

And the earthy metaphors used by Jesus point us to the fact that the kingdom - this transformation of right here right now begins in very small, simple ways. The transformation of right here right now begins with something as small as a mustard seed and as simple as yeast.

In these parables Jesus says look the kingdom of heaven is beginning all around us – right here, right now in countless small, simple moments that have the potential to grow into something grand and magnificent.

But - we need to pay attention to the simple things. We need eyes to see and ears to hear the transformation that’s underway.

And I think you and I in the early 21st Century are at a distinct disadvantage compared to Jesus’ original followers back in the First Century. You and I are bombarded by so many images and by so much noise; we can become blind and deaf to the kingdom of God that is being unveiled all around us. Our spiritual senses can become dull and so we can’t see or feel the tiny mustard seeds.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been haunted by the animated movie that’s out right now, WALL-E. Have any of you seen it? I usually don’t like to include movies in sermons because you know if people haven’t seen it they sometimes tune out or there’s the risk of spoiling the movie by giving too much away.

But, I’ll take a chance and make an exception for WALL-E. The premise of the movie is that there has been an environmental catastrophe on earth. Because of pollution the planet has become uninhabitable – a bleak, dusty wasteland filled with all the garbage we’ve left behind. The only activity we see on the planet is one little robot – WALL-E – who is essentially a trash compacter on wheels. The robot spends its day scooping up garbage, compacting it, and piling it in soaring towers of trash. It’s a depressing sight. But, it turns out WALL-E the trash-hauling robot has somehow transcended his programming. This little robot has begun collecting items he finds in the trash that capture his imagination – seemingly simple things like a Rubik’s cube, and most especially a videotape of the movie Hello Dolly that he watches over and over. Again and again he watches the men and women in the movie dancing and singing, holding hands. He imitates their dancing. And most of all WALL-E yearns for the simple feeling of holding another’s hand.

Meanwhile what’s left of humanity is living on a giant spaceship, devouring vast amounts of junk food, their eyes fixated on TV and computer screens, interested only in their own comfort, paying no attention to one another or to the beautiful wonders of space just outside their windows.

Go see the movie to find out what happens next.

In some ways the movie seems like a modern parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a robot realizing that life is about the simple feeling of holding another’s hand – that small, simple gesture of love that we know can be so powerful and mean so much. The kingdom of heaven is like yearning for love.

The God’s kingdom is found in these ordinary, extraordinary moments – these simple acts and gestures. That’s what the kingdom of God is like… The transformation of right here, right now begins with these simple acts of love.

Thinking about simple acts and gestures reminds me of “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I think Dr. Anne has used it during services a couple of times over the years. It’s a piece that I love very much. Anyway, the lyric goes:
“Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.”

And today’s Old Testament lesson about Jacob and Rachel gives us a wonderfully touching example of a simple thing that grows into something magnificent. If you were here two weeks ago, you might remember that I was a little tough on Jacob, even calling him a “fink” because of how he treated his brother Esau and tricked his father Isaac. I still stand by that, and in this morning’s passage Jacob gets the tables turned on him in this strange little story of Jacob being tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister, Leah.

But the passage is not really about trickery. The passage is about the love that Jacob had for Rachel - this simple feeling of love. As the Bible says, “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

The kingdom of God is like a man who loves a woman so much that he works as an indentured servant for seven years and yet it feels like just a few days.

For the past few Sundays we’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parables, telling his first followers and telling us what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus is not describing heaven. Instead he is offering us a taste of the transformation of the world that begins with simple acts of love. Jesus is offering us metaphors for a world where we love other people’s children as much as we love our own. Jesus is teaching us about a transformation that can happen right here right now with us – with simple acts of love.
“Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.”