Pastor Michael Frye:
I can remember as a child being taken by my grandfather to the county fair.
It was my first trip to the fair, so everything was so exciting; almost surreal.
At one point my grandfather stopped at a booth where, if you could throw a ring around a bottle, you could win your choice of a prize.
Well, he did it on the first try, and he said to me, “Michael, you choose a prize.”
There were so many neat things-–stuffed animals, toy fire engines and cars, and statues of horses and other animals.
I was overwhelmed by the choices, so much so, that my grandfather and the vendor were fast losing patience with me.
Eventually, I chose the firetruck, but I spent the whole rest of the time at the fair wondering if I had made the right choice.
Have you ever faced a dilemma similar to that?
Well, something like that confronted me as I read the Gospel lesson for the first time this week.
There are a total of five parables… five… each one worthy of an entire sermon in and of itself.
Let’s see, that would take anywhere from sixty to eighty minutes.
Don’t worry, I have neither the inclination nor the stamina to do that.
However, upon further examination of each parable, I began to see why Matthew included them in this one passage.
There is a common thread which runs through each one; that being Jesus’ words, “the kingdom of heaven is like.…”
Another similarity is that in each of the kingdom parables Jesus uses stories that depict things to which everyone who was listening could relate.
Consider the parable of the mustard seed.
I know that there are number of you in this room who could point out that, although the mustard seed is quite small, it grows into more of a bush than a tree.
And, you would be correct.
However, theologian William Barclay points out that in Palestine the mustard seed produces a somewhat different result, and it can grow as tall as twelve feet (very much like a tree).
The birds would flock to the bush-like tree in order to collect and eat the tiny black seeds that sprouted among the leaves.
Everyone listening would have known that.
Barclay also observed that in Old Testament times empires that conquered other nations would also depict themselves in artwork as a great tree with birds of many colors and types resting in its branches to symbolize their captured masses.
So, Jesus’ point is clear–the kingdom of heaven starts from the most modest beginnings, but in the end many nations will be gathered together.
You can imagine that Jesus’ small band of disciples must have been overwhelmed at times by the vastness of the known world and the almost insurmountable task that lay before them.
But in this parable, Jesus was saying both to his disciples, and to us today, that we must not be discouraged in our call to service in Christ’s name.
God’s expectation of us remains the same, regardless of our numbers:
With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our impact and witness on God’s behalf will reap a monumental harvest for his Kingdom.
We only have to believe and remain faithful to our call.
And, lest we feel incapable of fulfilling God’s call to serve him, Jesus gave us the parable of the the leaven, or yeast. Of course, in today’s world one can go to the store and buy packaged yeast in order to make bread rise, but things were different back then.
One had to set aside a small amount of dough from last baking bread and allow it to ferment until its next use.
Most of us know that if one bakes bread without yeast, the result would be a flatter bread, like the matzo that is used for Passover.
But it is hard to beat a freshly baked leavened bread with its tantalizing aroma and taste.
Again, we are dealing with a similar theme as the last parable comparing something common, with which people would be aware, to the Kingdom of God.
The whole point of this parable is the transforming power of the leaven.
The use of the leaven transforms the dough into something it would not otherwise be; and the Kingdom of God transforms life for the believer.
William Barclay identifies four specific transformations that have occurred over the years through Christian witness and service.
Christ and Christianity transformed life for women.
In Biblical times Jewish males would begin their morning prayers with the words:
“I thank you God that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”
Greek and Roman women weren’t treated much better.
Jesus was quite clear in his own ministry that women were to be treated with dignity and respect.
Their faithfulness to his mission was just as important to Jesus as that of his male disciples.
In the early development of the Christian Church, women such as Lydia and Priscilla played key leadership roles.
It wasn’t until a few centuries later that patriarchal attitudes began to once again diminish the role of women in church leadership positions.
Christ and Christianity transformed life for the weak and the ill.
In those years the sick, the lame, the blind, and the poor were considered to be a nuisance and an abomination.
But throughout the development of the church there arose such ministries as homes for the blind, medical dispensaries, and hospitals.
Today, as we at St. Mark’s well know, most congregations are actively involved in social and community outreach to the disenfranchised, the grieving and the ill.
Christ and Christianity transformed life for the aging.
Most of society at that time considered that the aged, who were too old for work, were to be discarded or ignored.
Christianity was the first religion to acknowledge that there was more value in human beings than just doing work.
There was dignity and wisdom to be revered in the older population.
Christ and Christianity also transformed life for children.
Like women and older people, children were tolerated but not seen as too important until they became of age to be productive.
Widows and divorced women had a very difficult time providing for their children, and they were often homeless.
Children had a high probability of dying before they really began to live.
Christians today make every effort to encourage, teach, support, and include children in our faith communities.
Both the parable of the treasure hidden in a field and the parable of the precious pearl teach us that it is worth any sacrifice to enter the kingdom of God.
Any banks that may have existed in those days were for the rich.
Average and poor people actually did bury their precious possessions in the ground, especially when they were threatened with natural disasters or war.
They would certainly have understood Jesus’ message.
And pearls of any type in those days were considered to be so precious that people would go into debt, if necessary to possess a precious one.
Is it a stretch to believe that one would make any sacrifice necessary to possess the most precious possession of all–a place in the Kingdom of God?
One great truth remains for faithful disciples of Christ:
however the Kingdom of God is revealed to us, whether it is like a flash of lightning, or it comes at the end of a long search, it is worth all that we are and all that we have to accept it.
The final parable changes things up a bit, although the parable of the great catch of fish would certainly have been the most recognizable image for the disciples, most of whom fished for a living.
There were two types of nets used in the time of Jesus.
The first was the casting-net.
It was a hand net cast from the shore on a long cord, one end of which was tied around the arm of the fisherman.
It had leaded weights on each of its corners that would drop the net over the fish.
He would patiently wait on the shoreline for a school of fish to come swimming nearby and then cast his net out to draw what he could in to the shore.
The second type was the trawl or drag-net.
This is the one Jesus was referring to in this parable.
It was a larger square net that had ropes tied to each corner.
It also head lead weights around the edges so the fish would be trapped inside as the net was pulled toward the boat.
The method, however, drew in anything that was in the path of the net as it was drawn in; so the fishermen had to drag the net ashore and separate out the fish that they wanted from less desirable fish and other creatures that may have come along for the ride.
If we apply this parable to the Church of Christ, we must surmise that the Church is bound to be a diverse gathering of all kinds of people.
Now, we have come to realize that over the years there have been at least two views of the Church: exclusive and inclusive.
The exclusive view surmises that the Church is for good people who are fully committed to God and to the work of the church; people who are wary of worldly ways and are in favor of a more pious and righteous path.
On the surface, this view seems quite attractive and forthright.
But it is not the view espoused by Christ in the New Testament.
First of all, who is to determine who is good and who is not?
Who is committed to Christ and who is not? The only judge known to the Christian faith is God, and God alone.
The inclusive view is that the Church must be open to all and that, like the drag-net, it is bound to be a mixture of humanity:
The good, the bad, the happy, and the sad.
So, what about the separation of the good fish from the bad fish; the sheep from the goats; and so forth?
That task is God’s, and God’s alone.
And the time and place for that judgement to occur is known only to God.
Therefore, we cast the net; we invite; we welcome; we gather in all who will come; and we leave it to the Holy Spirit to change hearts and minds; to create unity and love within the diverse community of believers; and to inspire faithfulness, service, and devotion to our Lord and our God.
Can you even begin to imagine the witness that kind of fellowship of faith would portray to the rest of the world?
Let us remain faithful to the words of St. Paul in our Epistle for today:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.
In Christ Jesus our Lord.”