Illuminating the Manuscript

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Illuminating the Manuscript

Every life is a collection of stories, and you write your narrative. Jesus used many stories—parables—in his teaching. Interpreting the parables is up to the hearer, and it is also interpreted by the scribes who recorded and retold the parable, To some degree, we are all scribes in the kingdom of heaven. In this world of division, how might we write more loving stories?

 

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in their 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. [Again,] the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy they go and sell all that they have, and they buy that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all that they 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. [Jesus asked them’] 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 head of a household who brings out of their treasure what is new and what is old.”

 

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Full Text of Sermon

 

Make Heaven Great Again

Recently, people claim that wearing a mask destroys their freedom, but according Jesus’ Way of selfless love, how better could we care for one another than by trying to keep one another safe? If Jesus can lay down his life, you can wear a mask. I worry we don’t know what freedom is.

Current-day fundamentalist Christians want “religious liberty” or special rights to exclude and discriminate against people they don’t like and then blame it on Jesus. They have used this euphemistic liberty to deny healthcare, subject LGBT people to conversion therapy and just basically stay in God’s way. That not even how the freedom in Christ works. Read the manual.

Today we’re talking about finding freedom through the parables of Jesus. Parables are not meant to be easily understood, and why should they be? They describe the kingdom of heaven, a non-geographic, fleeting union with God. It is not a state where we may claim residence. It is not a final destination. Although Jesus’ listeners were hoping for the kingdom of heaven to scuttle the Roman Empire, it will never arrive in an unmarked chariot, like up in Portland, but instead it will come in little ways, ways that seem pointless and weak. It will die and be buried, and it will live again.

Matthew 13:31 assumes what Jesus has been teaching us already: the kingdom of heaven is here already, and that means right now, we can be free. Right now, we can enjoy spiritual union with one another and with God. This untapped resource for addressing the ills of separation is described in five parables, each one a Fast Pass to the heavenly kingdom, and you don’t have to wait in line to die to experience it! It’s among us and within us (Luke 17:21), t free to anyone, and nothing can interfere with it.

 

Prayer for Illumination

Spirit of Christ,

Open our ears, and let us hear you,

Open our eyes, and let us really see,

Open our minds,

and let us encounter your kingdom. Amen.

 

Improvised Interpretations

Matthew tells us that without parables Jesus taught us nothing. These incomplete illustrations call open-minded people into an alternative way of living. Parables never end with “the moral of the story.” Parables are little vignettes the crowd might identify with, on-ramps to the Jesus Way of living, sacred conversation starters.

Let’s try it. Welcome to my online gameshow, Jazz Parables. I call it Jazz because we are all improvising the answers. I’ll ask you a question, and then you can answer them on your own or,  if you’re feeling especially loving, answer on social media. Tag me. I want to read it.

Ready? Let’s play Jazz Parables. First question.

  • How is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? Deceptively small, but it grows and becomes a home for the birds of the air.
  • How is the kingdom of heaven like yeast? An ingredient that may appear to be similar to the other ingredients but transforms the loaf of bread.
  • How is the kingdom of heaven is like a buried treasure? We search for it at great costs.
  • How is the kingdom of heaven like a merchant who invests everything in the Pearl of Great Price? Oh, I love that one!
  • How is the kingdom of heaven (God’s realm, the dominion of love) like a fishing net tossed indiscriminately into the sea? Answer this one on your own. You’ve got this.

 

All This?

After this quick fire round of parables, master pedagogue Jesus checks in with his listeners. “Are you getting this? Have you understood all this?”

Finally the answer,“Yes?” that might be better expressed through emoji.

At first, I laughed out loud at that yes. Nobody can answer yes to understanding “all this.” In the King James, they answer, “Yea, Lord.” When we think we understand all this, our faith becomes useless and dangerous if we are too pleased with ourselves.

Since Jesus is training us as scribes for the kingdom of heaven, could he be asking a more specific question? “Do you understand how I’m teaching you? Do you hear me calling you to a lifelong journey?” The whole book hinges on humanity’s free will. That’s why the answer must be yes.

Like the angels and the net-casters in today’s passage, we haul in the catch, keep what is useable, and toss what isn’t. Finally, Jesus arrives at verse 52.

Therefore, every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings out of their treasure what is new and what is old.

 

Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven

In the Bible, scribes are the professionally literate. Not only did scribes write in several languages, they also had to learn about the topic they were copying, such as law, politics or religion. Lou and I have a professional sign-language interpreter friend who had to study anatomy in order to offer ASL for medical students. He was a kind of scribe. Since copying something over and over is one way to learn it, the religious scribe was sometimes as influential as the rabbi.[1] Jesus rejects that way of learning spirituality and religion. It can’t be all head learning, copying and repetition. That’s why the scribes and Pharisees opposed Jesus. He openly challenged their unearned privilege. Jesus taught spiritual union over idolatrous tradition, and in turn, they framed him as an enemy of the state and of God.

Jesus is God’s audacious union with humanity. Jesus is God with skin. Humans are obsessed with skin and what people look like. This comes from a mistaken quest for private perfection. In the Presbyterian tradition, one of our historic creeds, The Second Helvetic Confession of1561 declares

“…images are forbidden by the law and the prophets (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). [Christ himself] denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16).”[2]

 

Imaging & Imagining

Among us and within us, the kingdom of heaven. The Book of Order[3] says no pictures of Jesus? Note to self: never invite the Helvetic Confession into the sanctuary. And what about this?
Warner Sallman’s 1940 oil painting “The Head of Christ” is believed to be the most reproduced religious work of art. It’s been copied a billion times, if you include lamps, clocks and calendars.[4]

 

A few of the women at the church objected to his beard and long hair. It was 1970. The author(s)[5] of the Second Helvetic Confession knew that people get hung up on appearances and can make idols out of anything. I needed some new parables, so I asked Facebook: “What does your Jesus look like?” And I posted an icon of a Black Jesus.

  • Virginia answered “The visual depiction of Jesus can have a profound impact on the viewer. I heard a former coworker announce with absolute certainty that Jesus was white because she had seen his picture on the wall in Sunday School.”
  • Fran agreed with the Second Helvetic Confession, replying: “I hear Jesus saying, ‘c’mon folks, did you hear what I was trying to tell you? Who cares what I looked like? Get busy doing what I showed you how to do and you won’t notice what I—or any you are going about serving […and…] loving looks like.”
  • Georg echoed: “I never thought about it…Middle-eastern type curly long hair kind of guy…”
  • Many agreed that of course he had brown skin, was middle eastern and that there are no white people in the Bible.
  • Mother Lynn “Color him…a rainbow reflection you could grove and rap with about claiming your power. Definitely fit in with those of us who tripped the light fantastic and dropped in for the Summer of Love in 1967.”
  • Elder Hyatt wrote: “Jesus looks like a surfer dude (perfect shoulder length bob, ringlets with blonde highlights from sun). His facial hair is manly, but not thick or long. You know it could be bushy if he didn’t groom so well…lives at the beach, wears aged-leather sandals [and a] hemp robe to protect his skin from dangerous sun rays. He pulls his hair up in a man-bun…”
  • Carola wrote: “The one I do know: when Jesus comes back, it’s going to be as a woman. The Suffering Servant. No one else suffers as much on this earth.”
  • More than a few referenced the Christmas carol “Some Children See Him” by Wilha Huston and Rev. Alfred Burt from 1951. We sing it at Calvary on Christmas Eve. It’s beautiful[6] and offers a message of universalism. Am I too critical when I point out that white baby Jesus comes first in this carol, and that we never get to Black baby Jesus, but we do acknowledge bronzed and brown, which, in 1951 was kind of forward thinking.

I learned so much from my Facebook scribes. As all of us engage with social justice and so-called cancel culture, we cannot ignore words like these of Emily McFarlan:

to say that Jesus is not white — is to say that Jesus identifies with the oppressed and that the experience of marginalized people is not foreign to God, but that God is on the side of those who, in Matthew 25, Jesus refers to as ‘the least of these.’[7]

 

The way we treat one another and the ways we choose to run our society must be grounded in our deepest understanding of the Jesus story and his love. Modern French philosopher Charles Péguy wrote “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”[8] Yes, and following Jesus can lead us past all the political dead ends and into something eternal.That’s why Jesus needs you to be a scribe for the kingdom at hand, to experience Divine union with God and neighbor, to practice an alternative way of loving that creates a better future[9] and true freedom.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] [1]Warren Carter, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, Matthew 13:51 footnote.
[2] The Second Helvetic Confession, Book of Order, https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2016.pdf
[3] The authoritative rule book of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is the BoO, The Book of Order, the church’s “constitution” and historical creeds (confessions) are contained therein.
[4] Newsweek Staff, “Have You Seen This Man?” in Newsweek, June 23, 2007, accessed online at <https://www.newsweek.com/have-you-seen-man-102285> (July 16, 2020)
[5] Taking up the mantle of Protestant Reformer Heinrich Zwingli (whose image hangs quite ironically in our chapel), Heinrich Bullinger finished the Second Helvetic (aka “Swiss”) Confession in Zurich.
[6] Some Children See Him performed by James Taylor, YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s49gEmTlOTk>  lyrics in comments section
[7] <https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/06/25/how-an-iconic-painting-jesus-white-man-was-distributed-around-world/>
[8] Notre Jeunesse, 1909
[9] Warren Carter, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, Matthew 13:51 footnote.