July 26, 2020

Pentecost 8A

Planting Kingdom Seeds

GOSPEL

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore 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.” Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

 

SERMON

Trapped in an oppressive, violent and dysfunctional social order in which the wealthy and the powerful made victims of ordinary people with the greatest impunity, the audience who gathered around Jesus was so very eager to hear about another possibility.  Jesus offered, as His alternative to the status quo. what He referred to again and again as the Kingdom of God. 

 

Jesus used stories, parables and the witness of His life to make this awesome mystery reasonably accessible and within our reach.  In this morning’s gospel Jesus offers a few metaphors to help us grasp with our minds and hearts this Kingdom, otherwise shrouded in mystery.    

 

He says that the Kingdom is characterized by certain diminutive qualities. Though it is the greatest reality, it appears small, even as tiny as a mustard seed.  It can also be as invisible, indistinguishable or hidden, but very much a part of the mix, as yeast in a measure of flour.  In spite of these diminutive qualities, it is like valuable treasure or a fine pearl having more worth than anything else to which we may be inclined to assign value.  So valuable that it is worth our all, and even our very lives. 

 

Have you ever had someone thank you for something you’ve completely forgotten? A family member, a friend or an acquaintance reminds you about something you said or did, that made a real difference in their life. You may have long since forgotten the moment. But the other person hasn’t. It turns out the forgotten gesture or chance remark you made, was exactly what was needed. It was the right word of comfort, the best advice, and the most appropriate and timely show of support.   The other person has treasured it for years and has finally found the opportunity to tell you so. You never had the slightest idea, of course, not until you heard about it, years later. But that tiny action of yours turned out to have made a big difference in someone else’s world.

 

If this kind of thing has happened to you, you also know that it is a very moving experience, one that both humbles you and makes you feel both grateful, and good about yourself, at the same time – something so small becoming something so big.

 

In early 2017, after the city of Kingston voted to identify as a sanctuary city, this congregation voted unanimously to identify as a sanctuary church.  When we did, we had little clarity as to what that would actually involve or what risks that might entail.  A tiny seed was planted in faith, in hope and from a place of compassion and love, and a bit of yeast was added to a measure of flour.

 

In the past three years we have watched as that tiny action has turned out to have made a big difference in the lives of so many of our neighbors.  Through the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, we have aligned ourselves and worked together with many other faith communities, with those of no identified religious faith, with other community-based organizational partners, and with the hundreds of volunteers who have surfaced, to provide a network of care and support, and the material and financial means to do so, for hundreds of families in Ulster County.  

 

Many of you as individuals have made yourselves a part of this effort.   Together, we have moved out of silos that would have otherwise contained us, kept us apart, and possibly more self-absorbed.  We did this by forging strong relationships with both our allies in the wider community, and those we have sought to serve.  

 

In recent months we have stepped up our response efforts, in the face of the current health crisis, that has had and will continue to have a more devastating impact on the lives of the most vulnerable among us.  

 

We do this to ensure that children and their families are clothed and fed, have access to medical care, are able to remain in their homes, and are afforded essential transportation. 

 

We have done these things even as the White House and the Senate majority disgracefully and to their unmitigated shame, continue to drag their feet, play political games, and default on their responsibility to be out front and ahead, in securing the essentials of life and safety both for citizens and for our guests.   

 

Our efforts say no to forces of division and a resounding yes to the bonds of our shared humanity.  What do we want?  Justice!  When do we want it?  Now!

 

It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, so that the birds of the air can come and make nests in its branches. It is like a man who took and sowed seed in his field, and the earth produced of itself, first the grain and then the ear and then the full blade in the ear.

 

These two little parables that the Gospel offers us this morning are slightly different, but they both make their point with the image of seed. 

 

One is about the contrast between the insignificant act of sowing seed and the significance of the resulting process of growth that eventually yields a harvest.  The other is about the contrast between a gigantic shrub and the tiny seed that produced it. Both of them are teaching that in the Kingdom. More comes out than we put in.  More happens than we made happen.

 

This seed of the Kingdom, which produces far beyond expectations, is not so much the great deeds people may do once or twice in their lives.  I don’t know about you, but I am still waiting hopefully and expectantly for my first. The real seed of the Kingdom is the mustard seed: the tiniest words, the most apparently inefficient pieces of witness, the small actions of every day.

 

You could almost say that from the point of view of the Kingdom, whatever we do, sows a seed either for God or against His will.  The choices we make and the actions we take: when we speak up against racist, sexist or homophobic jokes or remarks; when we volunteer in some charitable effort, like the shop and deliver program, or put ourselves on the line by showing up for rallies for racial justice, or working to insure that as many vote as are eligible.  These choices matter.

 

The choices we make to put aside our own ego’s need to have power over anyone else, and instead cultivate compassion, understanding, and cooperation.  

 

The choices we make to cease all violence, all cooperation with violence, whatever the good or noble cause with which violence may be associated to make it acceptable and reputable, and instead promote dialogue, empathy, acceptance, forgiveness and peace.  

 

The choices we make to bring an end to our own oppression of others, and instead foster open-mindedness, a willingness to encounter what is new, and an appreciation for difference.  

 

All these things sow a seed, both in our life and in other lives.

 

“Scatter seed upon the ground… and the earth produces of itself,” says Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. The sowing of even those tiniest seeds begins a process over which we just don’t have control. Oh, we can step in and wreck it by over-watering, or maybe help out a little by getting the right fertilizer in the soil. But the growth does seem to come of itself.

 

In fact, if we try to control the result, we ruin the process. If you give someone a piece of advice and then call them every three days to ask if they are following it yet, you’ll kill the growth. 

 

Ultimately, we have to trust the seeds that are sown in our own lives, just as we trust the seeds we may sow for others. We have to trust the Word of God to grow in our hearts, the sacraments to have their effect in us, the daily efforts of fidelity to Christ to change us little by little.

 

Of course, this won’t work if we don’t: read and study the sacred texts, come to the sacraments, and try to serve Christ wherever we are. The process has to start somewhere. But once we have stepped into that process, once the seeds are sown, God will take care of the process. The growth will happen at the right pace, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.

 

God invites us in this morning’s Gospel to learn how to let seeds grow, both in our lives and in the lives of those around us, without trying to control the process. In fact, perhaps a further invitation is to live without even fretting all that much about whether we are sowing, enough seed, or the right kind, or in the right place.

 

As God’s children, we can live our lives, not worrying about progress and control and results, but simply referring all those concerns to him. 

 

“We make it our aim to please him,” says the Apostle Paul. This has all kinds of results — none of which we’re guaranteed of getting to see. One will be the effect on other people, the positive seeds we will be privileged to sow from time to time. We won’t always know about these, but they may turn out to have been very great. And the other result that will come from living our lives as in God’s sight will be the effect on ourselves, as we mature in faith. The seeds that have been sown in our own lives will keep growing too.

 

We may or may not perceive that growth; we may or may not know what we have done for others. But we will know that we are making it our aim to please God in all things and certainly in the little things that are so possible and doable for us. When we do that, the Kingdom takes care of itself. 

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

July 26, 2020