July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“Searching for Treasure”

Five and a half parables – that’s what we find in the Gospel passage assigned for this day in the Revised Common Lectionary. Five and a half very short stories that Jesus told to his disciples to help them understand something about the kingdom of heaven.

Now, don’t be confused by the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” In one of the other Gospels, it would have been called the “kingdom of God.” And in modern non-gendered language we might call it the “reign of God.” When Jesus says “kingdom of heaven” he is not talking about what things will be like for us after we die. He’s talking about the here and now, the new world that began in his life and ministry, and that is growing wherever people follow him with their lives and begin to live according to his love and mercy.

He’s not saying that this is what things will be like for you later. He’s saying that this is possible now… if you look for it, and search it out, and work with him in making it happen.

The parables indicate that the kingdom of heaven can sometimes seem somewhat hidden, and that may certainly resonate with our own experience. Often when we think about the world in which we live today, we can become overwhelmed by the hatred and evil that constantly seem to prevail.

I am thinking about a situation happening in Istanbul right now, in which a large number of secular journalists have been jailed, facing charges that could keep them imprisoned for up to 43 years. In a joint statement, several international observers, including Reporters without Borders, called for the release of all 17 defendants, saying the case amounted to a “politically motivated effort to criminalize journalism”.

Or we might think about many developments happening south of the border in the United States… things like this week’s targeting of transgender people, with the President’s sudden announcement on Twitter that they will not be allowed to serve in the military.

Or perhaps closer to home… how about an event from right here in Regina, in which an Indigenous person was mistreated by staff in a Canadian Tire store?

Free speech being curtailed, minority groups being discriminated against, racism alive and well in our own community… And besides these sorts of wider issues, many of us are dealing with other challenges in our personal and family lives, and very often brokenness in some of our relationships.

Those who first heard these parables from Jesus must have had their own issues as well – whether lack of food security, or land security, or the hard reality of living under foreign rule. But Jesus preached to them a message of hope and possibility… because even though the kingdom of heaven may seem hidden, it is nonetheless real, and present, and full of potential for growth.

Jesus said it’s like a mustard seed. It looks like a tiny little thing, but when it is planted, and watered, it grows! It grows into a tree large enough to provide a resting place for the birds!

Jesus said it’s like yeast that a woman mixes in with her flour. Again, the yeast seems small and insignificant, but when it is kneaded into the dough, it releases its power to make that bread rise!

Jesus said it’s like treasure hidden in a field. Someone finds the treasure, covers it up, and goes and sells all that he has so that he can buy that field and get that precious treasure!

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. It seems small, insignificant, and hidden. But it is there, and it is growing, and it is powerful, and it is precious!

It reminds me of something we witnessed on the news back some years ago when there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon. While the bombs were exploding, and people were injured, and fear and chaos were all around, we would have expected to see everyone running away. But many people were seen to be running back towards the source of the blasts to provide help and assistance to their neighbours.

At that time, a quote was shared from Fred Rogers (you know, the Presbyterian minister and host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood). He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

When we remember to look, even in times of trouble, then we will have the opportunity to see the kingdom of heaven springing up on earth.

But did you notice, in that third parable about the treasure in the field, that the person who discovered the treasure had to do something in order to get it. If he wanted that treasure, he had to go and sell everything he had, so that he could buy the field and get the treasure.

In his case, the treasure seems to have come as a surprise to him, but in the next parable the merchant is in SEARCH of fine pearls. When he finds one very precious pearl, he also goes out and sells everything so that he can buy it.

These two parables seem to convey the idea that discovering the kingdom of heaven (the world as it should be) will require something from us. It is not just a spectator activity in which we sit back and watch God transforming the world into a place of peace and love and joy. But we have to invest ourselves in the work of searching out and embracing what is good and right and true.

Even the first two parables hint at that investment of our time and energy towards making the world that God intends for us. Someone has to plant that mustard seed, and water it until it grows up into a tree. And a woman (or perhaps even a man) needs to add the yeast to the dough and knead it in long enough for it to do its work.

The fifth parable reminds us that good and bad will continue to be mixed up together for a while. The world in which we live is like a catch of fish in a net – with some fish that are good for eating, and others that need to be thrown away.

Our lives are like that, aren’t they? Like the good fish, we have glimpses of the kingdom when we witness or participate in acts of kindness, goodness, or reconciliation.

I witnessed one this week when I attended the 4th Annual Memorial Walk for the students who died at the Regina Indian Industrial School run by our Presbyterian Church. Although some terrible mistakes were made many years ago, including the fact that so many students died and were buried without appropriate markers to acknowledge their lives and honour their memories, they are being remembered and honoured today.

It was good to see over a hundred people come together on Wednesday, from the Indigenous communities, from the city and provincial government, and from the Presbyterian and United Churches. The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Rev. Peter Bush was present, and offered a confession on behalf of the church. And there was a reason to celebrate another good step in making right a terrible wrong, as the announcement was made that the cemetery has been designated as a Provincial Heritage Site.

It was a beautiful glimpse of the world as it should be, of different groups of people coming together and working together, and steps towards reconciliation taking place. But as the parable tells us, the good fish are mixed up in the net with the bad fish. Even as words of hope and joy were shared, there was the recognition that we have such a long, long way to go in terms of our reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada and in our community.

But Jesus’ parable tells us that, ultimately, God is going to sort things out. At the end of the age, the good will be gathered up, and the world will become what God intended it to be. Just like we pray in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday… “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

Okay, that’s five parables, and it’s hot in here, so perhaps you’re hoping I will wrap this up. There’s only a little half parable left. But it’s actually the one that really stood out to me when I began to study this passage a few weeks ago.

Jesus says, “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.”

Now, don’t get put off by the use of the word “scribe.” So often in the Gospels, the scribes are seen negatively, along with the Pharisees who view religion legalistically and miss the point of Jesus’ new way of love and grace.

But the scribes here are people “trained for the kingdom of heaven.” They are people who have been learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They are disciples.

I must say that as a Minister of Word and Sacraments, who has received special training for this work of ministry, I feel like this little parable is speaking especially to me. It is a reminder to me about what my job is as a preacher and a pastor… to search out and share both old things and new things from the treasure that is God’s Word. I need to look for wisdom in the Scriptures and for God at work in the church and in the world. And I need to point to it, and celebrate it, and rejoice in it.

But it’s not as simple as just searching out treasures and sharing them, because I can’t forget that in parables 3 and 4, the people who found the treasure had to give up everything to get it.

I read a commentary on this text that included a careful word study of the Greek. Where many English translations say that the scribes are to “bring out” old and new things, he says that a more accurate translation would be that we are to “cast out” or “throw away” old and new things. We are called to divest ourselves of all the things that get in the way of our embracing the gospel, just like the people in the parables sold everything to obtain the treasure and the pearl.

Now, in terms of physical stuff, I am well aware… after moving our household from Saskatoon to Regina this week, I am well aware of how much Nick and I are holding on to… about 12,000 pounds of stuff, with a big portion of that being books.

And we learned from the mover that when their company is estimating the weight of a family’s belongings, they often look at what their things weighed the last time they moved, and then they add a thousand pounds for every year in between!

There is no doubt that an unhealthy attachment to our things and a desire to acquire more and more can be a distraction from our purpose as disciples. But there are other things that we may need to cast off or throw away also… Perhaps a life goal or priority that takes precedence over our faith commitment; or a grudge or old conflict that hinders good relationships, especially within the family of the church; or a desire for recognition or praise for the good things we do that keeps us doing them for all the wrong reasons.

These are things that we do not cast off once, but we do so again and again throughout our lives of faith, as we draw close to God, seek God’s will, and recommit ourselves to participating in building the kingdom of heaven on earth.

As we do so, we hold on to the hope that Jesus gives us in today’s parables… that the seed will grow into a tree, and the yeast will raise the whole loaf, the treasure will be ours, and God will gather up all that is good at the end of time into the fullness of God’s reign.