“Haystacks: Autumn” Jean-François Millet (ca. 1874). Public Domain.
Matthew 15.10-20, 21-28 New Revised Standard Version
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13 He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15 But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16 Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24 He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26 He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27 She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28 Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15.10-20, 21-28 New Revised Standard Version
Our gospel reading this morning deals with prejudice. The writer, E.B. White, tells us tongue-in-cheek that,
“Prejudice is a great time-saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”
The poet Maya Angelou says with more seriousness that:
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
And the 20th century Evangelist Billy Graham says that:
“Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.”
What are we to do, then, when a woman, a foreign woman, approaches Jesus with a great need and responds by calling her a dog, and ethnic slur in his culture? Hmmm. Let’s back up a little bit.
Jesus has been arguing with religious leaders for most of chapter 15 in the gospel of Matthew. They have thrown shade his way because his disciples do not follow certain religious norms, precisely, that they do not wash their hands before eating.
And while not following these religious norms might be disgusting (I’m sure that after the encounter Jesus pulled his disciples aside and said, “folks, don’t be gross. Just wash your hands before you eat please”). Jesus moves the conversation in a different direction as he talks about how folks treat one another.
“Isn’t how we treat one another more important for faith than these little rituals? Isn’t how we treat our parents in their old age more important than our mealtime routine?” He says at the beginning of the chapter. “Aren’t the words and actions that flow out of us more important than following particular dietary restrictions.” He argues in verses 10 through 20.
Apparently, this conversation wasn't working for the religious leaders and perhaps sensing that he and his troupe were no longer welcome, he fled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, an area north of Galilee – an area considered outside and gentile – or not worshipers of the God of Israel. And in this outside land, a woman calls to Jesus for help. She has a very sick daughter. Jesus ignores her. But she persists. And she continues to cry out. And the disciples step in and try to get Jesus to send her away. And Jesus tries to blow her off, saying, “Sorry, I’m only here for my people.” But she persists. And she falls at Jesus' feet. And he says, “It’s not right to take the food from the children and give it to the dogs.” Jesus’ people being the children and the outsiders, this woman and others in this region being the dogs in this analogy. But she persists. And says, “even the dogs get crumbs that fall from the table.” And Jesus declares that her faith is great and heals her daughter from afar.
“Prejudice is a great time saver.” Said E.B. White. “You can form opinions without having to get the facts.” We know what relations between 1st century Jews, especially 1st century Jews from Galilee like Jesus and Canaanites or Syro-Phoenicians, were not good. 1st Century Galilean Jews lived in the country. They were often poor. People from the regions of Tyre and Sidon were city folks. Some, at least, were very wealthy. 1st Century Galilean Jews were day laborers and farmers. Folks from Tyre and Sidon were merchants and dye makers. 1st Century Galileans worshiped the ancient God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Folks from Tyre and Sidon were Greek – they believed in and worshiped many gods. Gentiles like these were despised. They were city folks that worshipped the wrong God. By calling them Canaanites, Matthew draws the reader’s memory toward the Hebrew Bible – where the Canaanites were the enemies of God’s people. In fact, for the purpose of our story, some have argued that this woman is an outsider in three ways: She is not a Jew, she is not from Israel, and she is a woman. And as is so often the case, with outsiders, she is shushed and shooed, interrupted, and asked to leave. She is told that her needs are not important. And still, she persists. She fights for her daughter through indifference, excuses, and prejudice. Indifference, excuses, and prejudice from our Lord no less.
Some scholars have called this passage one of the great scandalous passages of Jesus. He certainly doesn’t come off well. Some have said that Jesus here, has been caught with his compassion down. And here – his prejudice, those ways of talking about “those” people growing up, the way people in his town referred to gentiles as “dogs” when he was little, the times he was told to stay away from Tyre or Sidon when he was a boy – all of this is showing.
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
And yet, something changes. This woman changed Jesus. For in this experience, Jesus encountered not a stereotype but a fellow human being that longed for healing, longed for hope, and had faith that healing was possible. Jesus grew that day. And the tent, God’s tent that holds all God’s people, got bigger that day.
So, who are we? Where do we enter this story? Are we the woman? Is our homework this morning to persist? To continue to pray to a God that too often feels silent when we call out for our daughters and sons, our parents or friends, or our nation that struggles to name our deep prejudice or acknowledge racial inequalities? If so, let us persist. Let us continue to call out to a God that is able where we are not able. And let us not grow weary of keeping our prayers, writing our representatives, and supporting those organizations that confront hate.
Are we Jesus in this story, realizing that we need to get woke? That all of us, even the author of our faith, carry prejudice because it’s been woven into the very fabric of our nation, communities, and families of origin. And that, to be like Jesus, we must confront those prejudices within ourselves because, "Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart." If so, let us grow. It is difficult to wrap our heads around an issue like white privilege, challenge our prejudices, or even acknowledge that we carry prejudice with us in the first place. But, because Jesus is our model, we must become aware of those places inside us where we hate. And we must allow ourselves to be changed.
I wonder if we might also be the religious leaders from our story. They are the deeply religious that hear Jesus’ provocative words about genuinely caring for others. These words make us uncomfortable, and we are too fragile to feel uncomfortable these days, so instead of allowing real change to take place to take place in our communities and in us, we focus on the incidentals, like the best ways to wash our hands or what foods to avoid. If this is us, let us not chase away a Christ whose words are sometimes difficult and challenging. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is difficult, and it goes against our tribal wiring. We will be called to be vulnerable and might even make mistakes. But the love Jesus calls us to practice is worth every bit of our energy.
This gospel story is a deeply human one, and if I’m honest, I feel closer to the Jesus in this one than the lessons that include heavenly beings and personal devils. Jesus has good words about virtuous living but struggles to live by those words. He resists when challenged, a few times even, but has a moment when he gains insight into how God has woven all of humanity together. And then he does the most good he can. I aspire to be this type of Jesus, who has the humility to grow and learn from other people with other lived experiences of God’s grace.
Anything is possible with God. We know this to be true. Let us be persistent. Let us grow and let us focus on the things that matter most. For God’s tent is bigger than we think, and there is plenty of room for everyone.
“The Calm Sea” by Gustave Courbet (1869). Public Domain.
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version One of the pleasures of this summer has been finding a great swimming hole not too far from our house in Starksboro. It is usually not busy and is both safe and challenging for our children. On those especially hot days this year, it’s been the place to go to cool off.
For many, swimming during hot summer days is a valued childhood memory. I was in elementary school when my mother would take me with my brother and three cousins and to a nearby camp for lessons. I remember the strong smell of an over-chlorinated pool, and I remember hanging on the side of the pool and learning how to kick. A year or two later and I remember diving for rings at the bottom of the pool. While I did not become a great swimmer in those few years of lessons, but I did learn how to swim.
Today, some of us aren’t huge fans of swimming, but find being close to water restorative. I think water is a marvel and awesome to be near. When Leah and I lived close to the ocean, we would go out during storms to watch waves hit the beach. Several years ago, I had a friend whose husband received a bad diagnosis. They moved to the coast for the summer, right on the water in a quiet part of Maine while undergoing treatment. She believed that the being that close to the ebb and flow of the world – the constant sway of the ocean water, the smell of the fresh ocean air, had a hand in his treatment being successful.
Personally, I’d rather be near the water than in the water or floating above it. I’ve never felt that confident outside a swimming pool and have a touch of anxiety now whenever I am on a boat. In this way, I guess I resonate with today’s gospel reading takes place on the water and in the water. It deals with a range of essential tenets of our faith, like the unique nature of Jesus of Nazareth, fear, and comfort, and having faith in Jesus to call us out and save us. But I think we need to spend a few minutes on what water meant to people in first-century Palestine.
Imagine that you are a native Galilean living at the time of Jesus. You can’t read, but most people around you can’t read either. Maybe you are likely a day laborer, working with stone or in the fields. Perhaps you make goods like clothing or tents, or you might be a baker, kneading dough and tending the village oven.
Most likely, you are afraid of open water. You remember your stories. In the beginning, the Spirit of God swept over the waters, what Genesis calls the “face of the deep.” In this story, God created the world out of the chaos of the deep, making land, plants, animals, humans, and the like. But the open water is still considered a place of chaos. Unlike your cultural neighbors, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Cretans, your people stayed away from the water, except those daring fishers who paddled around the Sea of Galilee. But even they would only go as far as they could see the coast.
Likely you did not know how to swim. Nobles perhaps were taught, likely by someone from another part of the world. Maybe fishers learned the basics. But you would have been a land lover, one who enjoyed the sight of the Sea of Galilee but had no interest in getting out there. If you were a disciple of Jesus, and he told you to take a boat over to the other side of the lake, out of sight of the coast, your anxiety level just when up, even if you’ve been fishing these waters all your life.
Our gospel text this morning picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus shares an incredible meal with thousands of people. It’s a meal that challenges the murderous feast of Herod Antipas and expresses the kingdom of God where people receive what they need in community.
Of course, Jesus is still grieving the loss of his cousin John, and while he dismisses the crowds, he sends his disciples ahead of him in a boat. They have more work to do in Gennesaret, on the other side of the lake. It appears that Jesus is still looking for some time to be alone, to grieve perhaps, to consider all that happened that day, and to pray.
Meanwhile, on the sea of Galilee, a storm hits, and the disciples are thrown about in their boat. Remember, water is scary. Maybe Peter and Andrew and James and John were okay out there. They were fishermen after all and had seen this before. But the others? The land-loving day laborers, a tax collector, a doctor, and a few makers from Galilee? They would have been in a panic. So, as our story goes, Jesus walks out to them, and in their stressed-out minds, they think it is a ghost. But, as Jesus says many times during the gospels, he replies, “Do not be afraid; take heart, it’s me.”
Peter’s not entirely sure it’s Jesus, so he asks that if it is him, that he be able to come out of the boat and walk with him. And he does for a little while until he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. When I was little, I remember hearing this story in church and thinking about the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The Coyote would often be tricked into running off a cliff, but he wouldn’t fall until he noticed that he had run off the cliff. Is that what’s happening here?
As Peter begins to sink, he calls out to Jesus. And Jesus saves him. And Jesus says something about “You of little faith,” which we often interpret as Peter’s lack of faith until we realize that Peter was the only one to leave the boat, and Jesus talks about having little faith like faith the size of a mustard seed as a positive thing. Once everyone is in the boat, including Jesus, the storm calms, and the disciples worship Jesus, calling him the Son of God.
I’ve sat through many sermons on this passage. And for those of you who have as well, many a preacher's refrain is, “If we only keep our eyes on Jesus, we can do miraculous things.” Sometimes it’s put negatively, “We struggle in life when we take our eyes off Jesus.” But I think that there’s more to it than a simple call to faith or a dangerous way of describing why we face struggles. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience that would have a similar background to these native Galileans. They also saw water as something primordial, something chaotic and dangerous. Psalm 69 is a great hymn that uses the imagery of drifting out at sea to describe life’s peril:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God… But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me… For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds. Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
Perhaps, we can relate to this feeling. There are times in our lives, or maybe during this pandemic when we’ve felt like we’re drifting, treading water, and wondering if we’ll see land again. Perhaps we’re even getting a little tired, and we’ve become worried that we’ll sink. This is how one ancient Psalmist described the feelings of being overwhelmed and entering into a new territory of uncertainty, anxiety, and danger. And yet, the lament doesn’t end without hope. God hears the needy and doesn’t forget them. And because of this, even the sea, which is causing all this trouble, praises God.
Back in our gospel, we often focus on Peter and what type of faith he expressed in the story. He has enough to step out and surf with Jesus but loses it at some point when he’s standing on the water. Recently, theologian Mitzi Smith argued that his lack of faith happened in the boat when he asked, “Jesus, if it’s really you, let me come out.” Perhaps, Smith argues, Peter should have stayed in the boat with the other disciples because that is where disciples belong. And especially Peter, the skilled fisherman. When he left the boat to surf with Jesus, the boat lost one of its best leaders, one who had real experience handling storms on the water. Sometimes, faith is seeing the boat for what it is, a shared experience and opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God. But Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join everyone in the boat. In this light, maybe we need to leave the walking on water to Jesus because our role is to stay in the boat and work together, to support one another with our gifts and wait on the miracles of God.
One of my greatest temptations during the ongoing pandemic is to forgo my own faith community. These are the clergy groups and valued relationships with fellow colleagues that I learn from and support – my fellow shipmates. Like others, I often struggle with the technology needed to remain connected and feel that our video chats, texting, and email threads are poor stand-ins for being with others in person. Like some, I’ve taken to more time in personal prayer, and study, seeking out more quiet time alone.
Our faith has a long history of folks that try to go it alone, to retreat to the hermitage of personal spirituality and study, who find something valuable in being alone with God, a few good books, and some work to do. Maybe there will be a time for all of us when we are ready to venture out of the boat and go surfing with Jesus – to develop that connection to the divine that pulls us out of the constraints of this life and into something only the mystics of our faith have begun to describe.
But right now, we probably need all hands on deck. Every person on board in a faith community is essential, especially during this stormy time. We need the faith, talents, and experiences of one another to keep the ship afloat and weather the storm of this pandemic so we can reach our destination. Communication is harder right now, but we do have tools. Connection feels different these days, but it is still possible to feel connected to one another. Community feels lost right now, but it really isn’t, it’s too much of a necessary thing to really go away.
May God give us patience enough to stay in this boat together. May God be gracious with is when we struggle to stay afloat. And may Jesus not take too long in reaching us.
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by Jacopo Robusti, ca 1545-50
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version 13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."
16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."
17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version
Try to imagine yourself in our gospel scene.
You heard the news about Jesus and his disciples when you were at the market this morning. Jesus of Nazareth is in the area, teaching, and healing. He had come back to his hometown of Nazareth just down the road after all these years, and do you know what they did? They ran him off. “Oh well,” someone standing next to you says, “A prophet is never welcome in their hometown.” I guess that seems about right, you think.
But you’ve heard that Jesus is a pretty incredible teacher. You don’t know about the healing stuff. There have been many charlatans in these parts coming through with different tinctures and cure-alls. They all seem to fall flat, in your opinion. But you’ve heard good things about this Jesus and his teachings.
“And you heard about that wild prophet John,” one of the vendors piped up. “Herod Antipas threw himself a feast for his birthday, and he invited all those other wealthy rulers and governors. And there, on his birthday, he had John beheaded. Can you imagine? I knew he didn’t like the guy, but he could have just left him in prison.” You sigh. These things happen, you think. Dissenters always seem to meet an end like this.
“They were cousins, you know,” The man continued.
“Who?” You ask.
“John and Jesus were cousins. I think they were close, both prophets and all. Several of John’s followers began following Jesus after John was arrested.”
“Yeah, they were close, I think,” said the vendor’s assistant. “My cousin just got in from fishing, and he said he just saw Jesus in a boat, sitting in the middle of the lake by himself. He must be really torn up.”
You are curious. You’d like to hear what Jesus has to say. You’d like to see if he can heal people. You would like to listen to him speak. Will he speak out against Herod Antipas? Will he lead a rebellion to avenge his cousin? There are already a lot of people on the road and at the market from out of town.
You decide to walk toward the water, and as you get closer, you see even more people. They are gathering at the water’s edge in a cove off the beaten path. Some are calling out to Jesus. His followers are doing their best to manage the crowds.
You can see a faint silhouette of a solitary man in a small boat out on the lake. But as folks continue to gather, a massive crowd for this deserted place, you see that he begins to row back to shore.
His disciples have to hold back the crowds, so he has a place to land his boat. And they are pressing in. There are sick people here. And injured people. And starving people and curious people. There are dangerous looking people, and there are your neighbors. There are people from foreign lands and people of all ages, the very young and the very old. And there, at the shore, Jesus gets out of the boat and begins to heal people. You can’t really find the words for what you are seeing. It just seemed like everyone who came to Jesus received the healing they needed the most. Sometimes it came in the form of kind words, other times a compassionate touch.
And you sat down and watched all of this happen. For hours, you sat there, watching, listening, until it was getting dark. Around dinner time, Jesus’ followers, those closest to him, pulled him aside. They looked nervous. They showed him some food. He said something that bewildered them. They just looked at one another in confusion. So, Jesus asks the crowds in groups. When all were sitting and quiet, he took the food that the disciples had brought him, some bread and some fish, and he gave thanks to God for it, and he blessed it. He then divided it among the disciples, and they began to pass it around.
Now you didn’t have much to eat with you—a few dried fish and some bread that you picked up from the market earlier that day. But you notice something happening. As the disciples walk around the seated crowd, folks are pulling food out of their bags. Now, not everyone brought something, but the people who did, shared it with those who did not. And if a group had extra, they gave it to the disciples to pass along if a group did not have enough to go around. As the disciples get to your group, you break your loaf of bread and put it in one of their baskets, and you share the rest with the people sitting in your group. During dinner, your group talked about Jesus. Some had been following him all through Galilee. Others spoke about losing John, and you couldn’t help but think about how this meal was probably so different than the feast at Herod’s Birthday. His meal celebrated himself. There were only a select few. It was lavish, and someone was murdered at it. This meal was held because of a common need. There were several thousand at it, most poor folks. It was simple but filling, and people were healed at it.
As folks finished eating, the disciples placed baskets with extra food at the front for people to take home if they needed it. The disciples rowed away in the boat, and Jesus said his goodbye to the crowds.
I don’t know if this is how the story happened. It doesn’t really say. But the story is important. It’s shared in all four gospels and was a favorite of the early church. Some early communion liturgies retell this story. The story is simple enough.
Jesus is grieved by the news that this cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas, the regional governor. He tries to get some personal time away by rowing out to the middle of the lake, but the crowds call out to him. Moved by compassion, he comes ashore and heals the sick. As evening approaches, the disciples worry about feeding everyone. They ask Jesus to release the crowds, but he says that they’ll figure it out. They worry that they do not have enough. But Jesus seats the crowd and blesses what they have, and somehow, everyone eats and is full, and there is some left over.
There are many reasons why this story is one of the most celebrated gospels' stories. It speaks to Jesus’ compassion toward others. It highlights Jesus’ ability to heal. One of its themes is abundance. And it stands against Herod’s banquet. In Jesus’ world, the Kingdom of Heaven, the poor are not exploited but have what they need. It’s a message that runs against how the kingdoms of this world work, where the wealthy dine extravagantly and harm people with impunity.
But I want to focus for a few minutes on the role of the disciples. Jesus’ disciples are more involved in the action of the story In Matthew’s gospel, than in other gospels. They are the ones that bring the initial gift of fish and bread to Jesus. They are the ones that pass out the food. And they are concerned that they will not have enough. After all, how will a few fish and a few loaves of bread feed thousands? Yet, miraculously, for no matter how we think it happened, it is a truly miraculous story, everyone had more than enough.
I wonder when we face the needs of the world, we, as a church or as individuals, respond like the disciples, saying, “We don’t have enough.” How can we meet the needs when the needs are so great? It makes it seem like the few things we do have, a few fish and five loaves, a few hours and five bucks, can’t even put a dent in the problems. Sometimes, because we feel the need is too great, we don’t offer our own meager gifts, but instead, ask that the need be sent away, out of sight for others to handle.
Yet, for us, for people of faith, what we have is important. And those few hours and those five bucks are blessed by God. They are made holy. And they are added to the gifts of others.
When it was still possible to visit folks in the hospital at UVM, I always walked back to my car through the second floor because there was an excellent quote on the wall. It read, “Individually we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
The way I imagine this story shows that people can be an ocean – a force of compassion and generosity. It may take prompting, and it may require inspiration and modeling. But people can be an ocean. And oceans are mighty.
Our work is not to cure the world of all its ills. It’s to participate in the movement of healing and generosity. When we hear the word movement, think waves. Waves of healing. Waves of compassion. Waves of Thoughtfulness. Waves of generosity. Because of us, and countless others, doing our part to lift the tide.
May the God of abundance and generosity bless how we give to make this world better, especially now during these uncertain times.
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 New Revised Standard Version
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.’
33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
As many of you know, the pandemic we are all experiencing is the result of an outbreak of a specific strain of coronavirus called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. As far as viruses go, COVID-19 is considered a large-sized virus, approximately 120 nanometers or 1/200th of an inch in diameter. The virus is thought to be natural and has an animal origin. At some point in 2019, the virus crossed over to humans for the first time, making it a novel, or new virus. The earliest recorded human infection happened in the Hubei province of China at the end of November 2019. Because of its novel nature, we humans do not have pre-existing defenses in our bodies to COVID-19 that help us identify and fend off the infection. This makes the virus more contagious and more dangerous than the common cold or seasonal flu.
At the end of July, there were over 16 million recorded cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and nearly 650,000 have died as the result of the disease. Meanwhile, our lives have changed dramatically, all because of a virus, 1/200th of an inch in size.
Today’s gospel lesson might ask us to consider what other things, more positive, transformative things, might have their origins in what seemed little, insignificant, novel, or new.
Today we are wrapping up an important section in Matthew where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven through parables. In previous weeks we’ve explored the context of this section. Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd of farmers, day laborers, fishermen, and domestic workers in a rural area. John the Baptist has been arrested, and his followers are in the crowd, possibly hoping that Jesus is some type of guerrilla leader that can help them break John out of prison. Meanwhile, Jesus is now gathering large crowds of disenfranchised people, so religious and political leaders are watching him.
Jesus must tread carefully, proclaiming a message of hope while disarming those in the crowd who are looking for a revolutionary leader. And he has to do this while showing those in power that he isn’t a threat, at least not yet.
So Jesus begins telling stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. I like how the Biblical Scholar F. Scott Spencer describes Matthew’s therm "Kingdom of Heaven":
“In Matthew, ‘heaven’ stands for ‘God’ (as in the English idiom, ‘heaven help us’), and ‘kingdom’ represents the orbit of God’s dynamic activity.
It’s fair to say then, that whenever Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, he is describing the principles, work, and culture of God’s radical building plan for a better world.
The parables in today’s lesson give us additional insight into what’s being built.
The parable of the mustard seed speaks to the inconsequential beginnings of God’s activity, it’s incredible growth, and its ability to be inclusive, sheltering many different “birds of the air.” We might think about the real place Galilee and Jerusalem held at the time of Jesus in the broader world of the Roman Empire. It was a backwater, a place you didn’t go to visit. The originator of this movement was a peasant from Galilee with questionable paternity and a habit of sneaking away to be alone. This doesn’t sound like the origin of great things.
The parable of the yeast sounds similar and might even hit home. During the pandemic, with so many folks at home and with a little more time on their hands, many have taken to breadmaking, especially experimenting with sourdough. In fact, Vermont’s King Arthur Flour Company has seen sales skyrocket by 2,000 percent in 2020. I’ve been in the grocery store many times now when there is a limit on how much flour one can buy, or there’s no flour at all. There’s something really cool in being able to make bread out of a little flour and water and the natural yeast floating in the air.
We might even come to the same conclusion in this short parable as we did with the mustard seed, that something incredible can come out of something small and unassuming. But understanding the unit of measurement is vital in the story. Three measures of flour come out to about 110 pounds, making enough bread for 150 people. This parable does not describe the regular practice of making bread for one’s family. This parable describes God’s activity as providing for the wider community.
And there are other parables too, that describe the quirky and beneficial nature of God’s dynamic activity in the world. The parables of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl describe the precious nature of God’s alternative way. Searching is necessary, but upon finding it, folks are willing to make sacrifices to hold on to the world God is bringing about.
In startling ways, it’s odd to read these parables, Jesus’ imaginative, subversive illustrations of God’s new way, against the backdrop of 2020. Along with the pandemic, we’ve seen aspects of humanity at its worst: the killing of unarmed people of color, the hoarding of resources, corruption, our government using violence against peaceful protestors, an escalating cold war with China, and the incredible, unequal ways this pandemic affects the world’s poorest.
And yet, there are stories of neighbors getting to know neighbors for the first time.
And other stories about communities banding together to organize volunteers, mutual support, and endeavors like our Little Free Pantry.
And we’ve seen positive changes as the result of protests that have led to the band of chokeholds in several major cities, the passing of a Hate Crime Law in Georgia, and the expansion of hate crime laws in the state of Virginia. Meanwhile, companies, institutions, and organizations are examining their own bias and reviewing their hiring processes, changing recruitment procedures, and making antiracism a part of leadership training.
The pandemic wasn’t put in this world by a god that wanted to teach us valuable life lessons at the expense of all this suffering and loss. But our God has a way of bringing about good things even in times like these, when all seems lost, twisted, gloomy, and confusing. Out of our present crisis, little conversations have created real change, little free pantries have provided lasting hunger relief in our communities, and the atrocity of an unjust death has brought about a better world.
I’m thankful that God has this pesky way of reminding us that good is still being done, even when the world seems pretty awful. God’s dynamic activity in this world is always at work to create an inclusive, non-violent society, and that work doesn’t stop because of some pandemic.
There is enough light and good in this world, even now. We may have to search for it. It may look tiny and inconsequential. Likely it will require some sacrifice. But we will find that that light and good is more precious than anything else in this world. And it will be enough to get us through these difficult times.
May God guide you in your search. May God grow goodness in this world. And may we all find comfort and solace in our God, who transforms death into life, violence into peace and hate into love for the goodness of all creation.