Kaleidoscopes and the Kingdom

July 29, 2017 Sermon by The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson

Proper 12A-2

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Kaleidoscopes.  I remember these toys from my childhood; do you?  It was fun to hold one and look into the light, to delight in the beautiful colors and shapes and patterns.  With just a little twist or turn, I would see something entirely new, something I had never seen before.

Today Matthew offers us a kaleidoscope in his grouping of five parables of God’s kingdom.  He fires them in rapid succession, and each one gives a new twist or turn.  The kingdom of heaven is like…a mustard seed…like yeast…like a treasure hidden in a field…like a pearl of great value…like a fishnet let down into the sea.  Taking things from ordinary, everyday life, Jesus offers five new glimpses into the holy.  He engages our imaginations as he invites us to probe the mystery of the reign of God.  We wonder what it will look like, how we might look for it, where we might look for it and even whether we should look for it at all.  The parables invite us to ponder what the shapes and patterns of God’s kingdom will be…or already are.  They call us to examine our role and responsibility in the kingdom and in the spread of the kingdom.  Each parable sheds a little more light on something we can’t completely describe, something we can’t fully know.

For the past two weeks Jesus has been teaching in parables.  He has taken the stuff of the people’s everyday lives – farmers sowing seeds and weeds growing up alongside the wheat – to tell them about the reign of God.  The disciples have seemed puzzled by this teaching method, and so for these first two parables Jesus has offered them an explanation.  In the portion of the passage that we skipped over, Jesus tells the crowds that in order to fulfill scripture, he will only teach in parables, that he will proclaim that which has been hidden from the foundation of the world.  For today’s parables, there are no explanations.

We are left to our own devices, to our own pondering and imagining.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into the greatest of shrubs, large enough that birds can find shelter in its branches.  The kingdom of God is like yeast that the homemaker mixed with three measures of flour, and all of it was leavened.  The mustard seed and the yeast, paired together, seem to suggest both the hidden-ness and the amazing abundance of God’s kingdom.  Both start small.  Both begin their growth in such a way that we can’t see it at first.  In both parables Jesus exaggerates the outcome.  My guess is he exaggerates to drive home the point that God’s harvest is abundant beyond our wildest imaginings.  The mustard seed is indeed very small, and it does grow into a bush – just not a bush large enough that we might mistake it for a tree.  I haven’t seen them lately (but then I haven’t been looking for them) but when I was growing up, many of us wore a necklace with a clear capsule containing one small mustard seed.  It was a symbol, I think, for our faith that begins very small and yet can grow and bear an amazingly large harvest.

The small amount of yeast the woman added to her bread dough was enough to leaven the entire batch.  Three measures of flour didn’t mean anything to me.  I assumed it meant maybe three cups.  But no, three measures of flour is about fifty pounds of flour, enough to feed a hundred people.  If we turn the kaleidoscope of this parable of abundance just a bit, it seems to look ahead to the feeding of the multitudes with just a small amount of bread.  And a turn backwards of the kaleidoscope shows us the story of Abraham asking Sarah to prepare the same amount of flour – three measures – for their three heavenly visitors.  Theirs was a very generous gift of hospitality.  And a turn still further ahead, and we see in our kaleidoscopes the heavenly bread upon which we will feast in just a few minutes.  Yet another turn of the kaleidoscope takes us in an entirely different direction.  I can see a young boy who was contemplating this parable of the yeast.  He made the observation that “Once you put the yeast into the flour, you cannot take it out.”  Once God’s kingdom begins to take root within us, we cannot take it out and we cannot stop its action on us.

Likely you remember Randy Pausch who died nine years ago.  He was the professor at Carnegie Mellon University whose final talk to his students, known as the Last Lecture, made him famous.  When he spoke, about 400 students, faculty, and friends assembled.  He was 47 and had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  His goal in sharing his approach to the dying process was that his three young children might later value the videotape of the talk.  His life lessons could be summed up in two points: 1) love those you are with and show them you love them and 2) follow your dreams by being kind, earnest, and honest, by working hard and realizing that the brick walls in life are there to separate those who really want to do something from those who only say they want to.  Another lesson I gleaned from his talk was his ability to face his death and to live each of his remaining days as fully and joyfully as he could.  “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.  I’m dying, and I’m having fun.”

What Professor Pausch did began in a very small way.  He initially spoke to a relatively small audience, and his actual intended audience was his three young children.  And yet, his message spread far beyond his wildest imaginings.  I happen to know about him – and now you do, too (though I suspect many of you did already) because someone forwarded me an e-mail with the link to his Last Lecture.  More than 6 million people have viewed highlights, if not the entire lecture.  He appeared on Oprah.  2.8 million copies of a bestseller he never intended to write are now in print.  The smallest seed has branched out and provided shelter for many who are facing death.  Randy’s experience of holy living and holy dying will feed many times the one family he hoped to console.

The hidden treasure and the pearl of great price: are a pair of parables about finding something of great value, about buying and selling.  Both speak of giving up everything for the one prize.  Both involve a gamble, but one is a very risky venture by a person of little means.  The other is a more calculated risk by a person of some means.  One treasure is found by pure accident; the other is found in the process of diligent and informed searching.  The pearl merchant knows her stuff.  She’s been in the business for years.  She knows that size and color and luster matter.  And when she finds THE pearl, she knows it.  A person stumbles on a treasure which has been hidden in a field.  (That was the first century’s version of our safe deposit boxes!)  It seems this individual wasn’t looking for a treasure; he just happened upon it.  He re-buried it, hiding it from others, and went and sold everything he had in order to buy the property where the treasure was buried.  Like the pearl merchant who sold everything she had, it cost this man everything he had to buy that field.  Was it worth it?  As it turns out, it was.

I’d like to give the kaleidoscope a few turns on this parable of the pearl of great price.  I wonder what those pearls are in our lives.  What in your life is so valuable that you would be willing to give up everything you have in order to keep it?  For some, it might be the next promotion at work.  For others, it would be finally getting your research published.  For a couple who have been through a host of fertility treatments, it is the blue bundle sleeping in the next room, definitely worth all they’ve been through.  For others it might be a home you’ve spent your fortune obtaining and your lifetime fixing up.  Those answers are all tempting for me, but if I must narrow it to one thing that would be my family – a husband, four children, and ten grandchildren – all of them amazing and delightful human beings – most of the time.  We all have our moments!  If Jesus did offer an explanation of this parable, I don’t think any of these choices would be his answer.  A few weeks ago, I wondered with some trepidation whether I put as much of myself into tending my spiritual garden as I put into tending my flower garden.  I think that might be the pearl of great value: our relationship with God.  Am I willing to let go of everything I have and put that first?  Like the treasure buried in the field, I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.  It is pure gift.  Will I value it for all it is worth – above and before all else?  That is a tall order.

Jesus doesn’t give us a definitive answer to the treasure or the pearl’s identity.  That’s one of the beauties of the parables – they aren’t all spelled out for us.  They invite our continued pondering.  So, as we look at the pearl, I’d like to give our kaleidoscopes a new twist.  What if we – you and I – each were to consider ourselves the pearl of great value?  What new light would that shed on God’s kingdom?  We recall that we are God’s beloved.  As God spoke to Jesus at his Baptism, so God speaks to us, “You are my beloved son.  You are my beloved daughter.  With you I am well pleased.”

Speaking to a group of people long before he became the bishop of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw urged each one to think of himself, to think of herself as a pearl of great value, hidden in this world.  Consider yourself the precious pearl for which God was willing to pay the ultimate price.  So precious are we in the eyes of God, Bishop Shaw said, that we really ought to take time each day to allow God to thank us for what we have done for God today.  Can we really allow ourselves to do that, to really believe we are that precious to God?  It will take some practice, but I’m going to try.  Accepting and receiving God’s love are central to our faith.  And we are precious in God’s eyes.  If we can believe that – even just a little bit – we can trust the growth of our faith to the God who loves us, the God who came to live among us and the God who gave up life for us.

Keep your kaleidoscopes handy.  Keep holding these parables up to the light.  Keep turning them and twisting them in new directions.  Listen for God’s call in and through your discoveries.  You are God’s beloved.  You have faith at least as big as a mustard seed, and with the power of God working in you, that is not only enough, it is an abundance.  The kingdom of God is within you this very day.  Amen.


The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Herndon, VA

July 29, 2017