Proper 12a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
Many things can be said, and many things have been said about God. God is good; God is loving; God is our creator, our redeemer and our sanctifier. But one thing is certain: however much we may say about God, however much we may believe about God, we will always be left at the end of our speech, falling speechless before the indescribable majesty of the greatness and glory of God. And what is true of God’s incomprehensible being is also true of God’s generous giving and doing. Just as we cannot describe all that God is, so to we can never come to the end of the goodness that God has done for us. Our God is the God of Always More. As Saint Paul so beautifully put it in his letter to the Ephesians, “God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Such is the overflow of God’s richness, the generosity of God’s outpoured love for us and for all that God has made.
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I want to turn this morning from our focus on the story of the patriarchs that has formed our readings from Genesis over the last weeks. I’m not entirely sure how edifying to our theme would be the tale of Laban’s “bait and switch” with his daughters Leah and Rachel — and the fourteen years that Jacob had to work in order to win his beloved, and her sister and their maids into the bargain! Surely this fits in with the theme of abundance, but not quite in the way I’d like to address it, so we’ll let the story of Four Brides for One Brother rest for another time!
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So let’s turn to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul is someone who knows the amazing power and the extent of God’s grace, and he speaks of it often. Today’s passage is no exception. Not only does God answer our prayers, but God sends his Spirit to help us to pray! How amazing is that! God, through the Spirit, prays for us! When we have worn out our voices with singing and reached the end of our praise, when sorrow has wounded our hearts, when pain, disappointment and doubt have blunted the edge of our faith, God himself, through the Spirit, reaches out to us and into us, penetrating the depths of our hearts and interceding there with sighs too deep for words. For our God is the God of Always More, and even in prayer God does what we in our unworthiness dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask. God prays for us when we can not or dare not pray to him, for our God is the God of Abundance, the God of Always More.
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There is no way around it! That is, technically, what “incomprehensible” means — God is too big to encompass, to grasp, to contain. And our Gospel today brings this message home, in the five parables that form the reading. Both the image of the pearl that is worth as much as the jeweler’s whole stock in trade, and of the catch of fish so full that the fishermen can afford to be picky about the ones they want to keep and throw the other ones away, both of those capture this notion of abundance. But I’d like to focus on the other two parables, leaving in the middle that one about the treasure hidden in the field. I want to turn to the other from those mercantile parables — to the ones in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to leaven.
Let me note that these two parables are among the most widely misunderstood of all of Jesus’ sayings. So let me, as Ricky Ricardo would say to Lucy, “’Splain them.” The problem is that people want to trim these astounding images down; they want to find rational explanations for them. They don’t want to face that these parables are not just about the growth of the kingdom under the power of God, but the truly stupendous and amazing growth of the kingdom of God to exceed all expectations— God is the God of Always More.
First, let’s look at that mustard seed. Now I can guarantee you, you can plant mustard seeds as much as you want, but they are never going to grow into trees that birds can build nests in. The average mustard bush grows to be about three feet tall. Unless a bird has very low ambitions, you are not going to find birds building nests two feet off the ground. Jesus knows that, and so do the people to whom he tells this parable. The problem is, most of us don’t. We don’t grow mustard, we buy it in little jars. If he were simply talking about how an ordinary plant grows and spreads, and wanted to talk about one that starts small and grows big he would talk about the cedars of Lebanon, much as we might talk about little acorns growing into mighty oak trees. As they used to say when I was in grade school, Even the mighty oak was once a nut like you!
But Jesus isn’t talking about something little becoming big naturally; he isn’t talking about natural growth at all, for instance, how an acorn becomes a mighty oak: he is talking about supernatural growth, a miracle. Hear — if you have ears to hear — hear it the way Jesus meant it: The kingdom of God is as if a man took a tiny mustard seed, knowing it to be a mustard seed, planting it expecting it to grow into a mustard bush about three feet high; and instead, up popped a tree as tall as a house, a mighty tree that birds could nest in. Jesus wants us to know that we are not in the world of ordinary agriculture, but a miraculous world, the world of God’s Always More — this is more like Jack and the Beanstalk than it is about Coleman’s Mustard; Jesus wants us to be surprised. God is the God of always more.
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The same is true with that yeast and flour. Now, this passage is so badly misunderstood that the translators of the Bible that we use in worship have even changed the language to suit their misunderstanding. They talk about this as if it is just ordinary baking, and say that the woman “mixed” the yeast in with three measures of flour: and so, the picture in your mind is of a woman with three cups of flour making bread. But what Matthew’s Gospel actually says is that the woman “hid” the yeast in the flour — just like that other parable, the hidden treasure in the field. She hid the yeast in the flour. The Greek word is related to our modern word “encrypt” — she “encrypted” the yeast — this is yeast that, for whatever reason, the woman wanted to hide! Perhaps some nosey neighbor had been sneaking into her kitchen and she was just protecting her property — who knows? But this is not about ordinary household baking.
And the reason we know this is even clearer when we realize that a “measure” of flour isn’t the measure that you might use to bake a loaf of bread. The “measures” in this passage — the three measures — aren’t cups, — three of which might go to make a loaf of bread. This is the ancient Hebrew seah, three of which make an ephah. You know how in your Bibles in the front how they always have those tables of measures so you can see, like we have of how many cups make a quart — well three seahs make an ephah. And what’s an ephah? A bushel! This is forty-three pounds of flour that this woman hides her yeast in. This is not an ordinary scene of a woman at her kitchen table making Johnnycake — even enough for a parish supper; this is not a tame and homely message about how yeast just works its way through an ordinary loaf. No, what we have here is the story of a woman who for some reason decides to hide her yeast — but she chooses to hide it in the flour-bin: the worst possible place where you could possibly think of hiding your yeast! In short, this is not a scene from “Julia Child” — this is a scene from “I Love Lucy”! This is not about baking a loaf of bread, this is about coming home into your kitchen to discover that the pantry door has exploded and there is a giant mass of dough pouring out and filling the entire kitchen! This is a message about how the kingdom of God spreads — it is that the kingdom of God bursts forth, even if you try to hide it. The Word of God will not be suppressed, because our God is the God of Always More.
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As we prayed in our collect at the beginning of this liturgy, we asked God to increase and multiply his mercy upon us. We need have no doubts that God will. Our God is the God of increase and multiplication. Our God is the God who gives not only wisdom but life and abundance and victory. Our God is not only the God to whom we pray, but who prays for us and with us, who does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Our God is not simply the ruler of a kingdom that spreads and grows, but of a kingdom that cannot be contained, that will not be limited, that will reach to the ends of space and time, bursting through all boundaries built up by fear or hate, or selfishness, by despair or lack of imagination. Our God is the God of Always More, and we will never know the end of his greatness, his might, his majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.