Sunday Worship July 26 - Hidden Treasure
26 July 2020, Christ Mountain Top, Online, during COVID-19
Praying the Scripture, Psalm 105.1-6
Kids, Genesis 29.15-30
Message, Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
This week’s theme:
Several months ago, I had one of those vivid and memorable dreams. That’s not particularly common for me. And this particular dream was about a friend of mine I have not seen in seven years. In my dream, Dave was fishing. Though he loves to fish, and is a professional in fresh water fisheries and water ecology on contract for the federal government, we’ve never fished together. In my dream, Dave was fishing, and he caught a fish as big as he is, and he's a big boy. He could barely wrap his arms around this fish in a bear hug.
It was so vivid, and it featured a friend I’ve probably never dreamed about before, so I gave him a call. I didn’t get an answer but heard back a couple weeks later. I told him the dream and he chuckled at the image. He has certainly caught his share of big ones. But when I called him, he was doing an environmental study on the smallest fish in America, now endangered and living only in a couple lakes in very rural Alabama. He had no cell reception, and it took a couple weeks to get back to me.
We had a chance to catch up a little personally, and he told me about changes in his parents’ health. We’ve been in touch a little bit since then. Both of his parents were on staff with me in the last church I served, and they were part of Jesse’s support team in our last congregation. Dave’s mom died around the same time Robin did.
When I think of today’s Scripture texts from the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) and from the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, they have an almost dream-like quality. They are full of colorful characters, unexpected elements, and extravagant imagery. They require imagination and, if we sit with them a while, invite us into a riddle without offering the answer. If you’re like me, when someone poses a riddle, I assume I won’t get it and ask for the answer. Robin always refuses the answer. She insists on having several minutes – an eternity for me – to throw out possible answers to even the simplest children’s riddle.
In Matthew 13.35 (LEB), Jesus says,
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden since the creation.”
The quote is from Psalm 77.2, in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation). “I will open my mouth and speak in parables; I will utter riddles (problemata) from the beginning” (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 132). So, get ready for some riddles today!
Wow! How about that Jacob story, huh? You can’t completely overlook that Laban, Jacob’s uncle, pulls a fast one on him, switching out sisters under the veil. You can’t gloss over the fact that women were bought and sold in marriage. Obviously, that kind of marriage couldn’t be about love, because you can’t buy love (Song of Songs 8.7). You can’t ignore the fact that we’re talking about kissin’ cousins. You can’t miss that Jacob is married to sisters, but only loves one of them. You know that kind of rivalry is great for family dinner. Again, wow! And he is willing to work 14 years to get the woman of his dreams. Truly, what do you value most and what are you willing to do to get it?
If you are looking for examples of healthy family relationships and personal integrity among these ancient fathers and mothers of Israel, you’ll have to look really hard. But, if you want to find faith, it’s there in abundance. Fortunately, faith does not require moral perfection. Even more fortunately, God seems to delight in choosing rascals and trouble-makers like Jacob.
And then we’ve got this grab-bag of parables of Jesus, most of them (except the drag net which resembles the weeds among the wheat from last week) without explanations, problems without answers, riddles without solutions. I love that. Both modern scholars and ancient fathers interpret these stories in many different ways. Some of these stories I have preached several times and no two times alike. They are full of colorful characters, unexpected elements, and extravagant imagery. They require imagination and, if we sit with them a while, invite us into a riddle without offering the answer.
The merchant and the pearl … Some say God is the merchant and God’s people – the church and Israel – are worth God giving up everything. Or, any person can be the merchant, looking for the wrong thing, for fine pearls. When we encounter what is even better, a pearl beyond price, we have the opportunity to give up everything to gain the kingdom, an opportunity to become a disciple. So, the pearl is God or the pearl is the kingdom? And there are other interpretations as well, just of this one curious story.
Colorful characters … the merchant. The merchant? The Greek word for merchant is emporos from which we get “empire” (see Levine, 142-144). Jesus didn’t seem to be much of a fan of empire, oppression, the selling of people and land, the exploitation of nations and economies. Jesus kicked merchants out of the temple. The man who finds a treasure in a field. What? So, instead of taking the treasure, he hides it and buys the field, never telling the original owner of the field what he has found. Seems like someone with whom I’d not like to do business.
Unexpected elements … So, you sell everything, everything? In the ancient world, everything would include your family members, your house, your land … anything that would actually provide your basic needs. And, the woman with the leaven (not yeast in little packets but more like sourdough starter), the woman with the leaven literally “hides” the leaven in the flour. The Greek word for “hide” here is enkrypto, from which we get encrypt and cryptology. So, what’s with all the secret agent stuff? And why is it that secret and hidden things seem meant to be revealed?
Extravagant imagery … A mustard seed becomes a tree? Scholars argue over what Jesus is referring to when he talks about mustard – from the noxious weed in a wheat field, to a garden herb, to a large shrub. But there is no mustard tree in existence anywhere in the world, now or ever. And the three measures of flour? That is forty to sixty pounds, yes, pounds, of flour (Levine)! How many people are you baking for?
This is what I meant when I said these stories have an almost dream-like quality, that these stories require imagination, and that they invite us into a riddle without offering the answer.
Have you found one thing that is so precious to you that you could never put a price on it, so important that you would do anything for it? That dream girl for whom you would work for fourteen years? That pearl that is worth selling off everything else in your life? That buried treasure that is worth defrauding someone else to get? Do you have a relationship that makes it worth it to go to anger management or counseling? Do you have a calling that is so great that it cannot be denied, no matter the pain it brings? Paul writes that the goal of history is for “God to be all in all.” Have you found your “all in all”? What is your pearl?
Have you found the boundary between your own effort and your need to trust? Have you learned when it is time to take your hands off the process and let it happen naturally? Once you have hidden the leaven in the flour, you can’t keep working it or you will prevent the bread from rising. Once you have planted the seed in the ground, you can’t dig it up daily to check on its welfare. That’s a tough one for our inner control freak, and for parenting in general, but there are times when our need to control only does damage to our larger priorities. We are part of a bigger process in the work of God and our role is limited (Levine, 182). It is quite a riddle to discover and embrace our role and leave the rest in the hands of God or others. Amy-Jill Levine writes, “Don’t ask ‘when’ the kingdom comes or ‘where’ it is. The when is in its own good time – as long as it takes for seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate, in the world” (182).
Like the small amount of leaven that transforms sixty pounds of flour and the small mustard seed that becomes a “tree,” how have you seen small things have great impact? Or, to use another side of the same coin, where have you witnessed hidden things, secret things, encrypted into the larger world in ways that make things new? Is it two days spent painting a bathroom building at the local park? Is it the greeting and departure kiss, practiced every day over decades? Is it an evening walk with the dog? Is it the phone call with dad or mom? Is it planting a garden or baking bread? Is it responding to what we can only recognize, in hindsight, as a prompting of the Spirit of God to do something simple for someone, something simple that ends up a profound blessing?
[By the way, when speaking of codes, my spy dad taught me an unbreakable code and I am going to make a short video on that so that anyone can learn it. It is a fun exercise for kids and adults alike.]
“I will open my mouth and speak in parables; I will utter riddles from the beginning”
· Have you found your “pearl”? What is it? How did you change your life because of it?
· Have you found the boundary between your own effort and your need to trust? How is this made real in your parenting, in your workplace, in looking for work, in dealing with addiction, whatever big deal you face?
· What small things in your life have the biggest impact? Which of those are positive ones that you want to nurture?