Worthless as a desert (with oil under it)

Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 for Pentecost +7 A, July 27, 2014

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

by James B. Janknegt
by James B. Janknegt


He put before them 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.”GS long ago

Worthless as a desert (with oil under it)

Someone told me of the old days of Gulf Shores when it was a sleepy little town with little vacation cottages before there was even a grocery store.  They said you could buy property pretty cheaply.  Farmers did not want it; you could not grow anything on the sandy soil.   That was then.  Now every acre its worth a fortune.

That story reminded me of a speech made in the US Arabiacongress around the time of the First World War in which a representative asked what interest we could possibly have in Arabia, since it was only a worthless, sandy desert.  How different the deserts look to day with their oil derricks dotting the landscape.

Unintended Consequences

But it is complicated.  Who is all that desert land valuable to?  The House of Saud came to power in what we now call Saudi Arabia and allowed American oil companies to explore and drill for oil.  As our need for oil increased, so did our relationship with the Saudi’s.  Those sandy deserts became hugely valuable to both of us.  We needed the oil, and the Saudi’s got rich.

Should we be happy?  A dependable supply of oil has made us happy for years, but there have been other consequences too.  The house of Saud came to power only with the help of the armies of Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, founder of the radical version of Islam called Wahhabism.

With piles of our petrol dollars flowing to Saudi Arabia, there has been plenty of cash available for themSaudi oil rig to sponsor schools for strict Whahhabist style radical Islam all over the Middle East.  This is the form of Islam followed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and, more recently, the ISIS terrorists who are now on the move in Syria and Iraq.

By the way, ISIS has just last week expelled Christians out of Mosul in Iraq on pain of death.  Most of us probably had no idea that there were Christian communities in Iraq since the 300’s AD, complete with churches, monasteries, and thriving Christian communities.   Well, no more.

So, the dollars we spend at the gas pump have ultimately enabled the most radical form of Islam to prosper and have filled the pockets of our worst enemies.  Now how do we estimate the worth of all those sandy deserts?

People concerned about the environment, as all Christians should be, also raise the issue of what it means that we have been burning all of that oil all of these years.  There are layers of reasons why the worth of those deserts is rather complex.

Kingdom Joy – or Not?Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 5.05.34 PM

This is exactly the kind of complexity about value that Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God (which Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven).  What is the  kingdom like?  It’s hugely valuable, like stumbling onto buried treasure; like a pearl merchant, fulfilling a life-long quest, finding what he had been seeking and recognizing its value.

For the people who see the treasure as treasure, and the pearl’s unequaled value, it is worth everything.  They risk everything, sell everything, and feel unqualified joy.

Kingdom Joy for Some

This is the experience of those who have gotten the message: that the God that Jesus came to show us is really God, here and now.  The message is that God can be imagined as a loving Heavenly Father who is for us, not against us; who is with us, every moment, in every experience of our lives.

The message of the kingdom is that God cares when we suffer and in fact suffers with us.  That God knows we need daily bread, and supplies it.  That God hears our cries and knows the longings of our hearts, and that our alienation can be reconciled, our sins forgiven, and our joy made complete.  This is of inestimable value!

The message of the kingdom is that the powers of this world are not ultimate.  The Caesar’s, the Herod’s, the Pilate’s who oversee systems of oppression and injustice are not going to be around forever.  Neither will the people exploiting the peasants, seizing their land, driving them into debt-slavery win.

The message of the kingdom is that God hears the cries of the poor.  There will be a day of reckoning.Kudzu

So, to people who fight against the kingdom, the value looks different.  It looks like kudzu weed that spreads out over everything and cannot be controlled.  That’s what the mustard plant did in gardens in Jesus’ day.  It was a weed in the days before Round-Up.  Was the spread of the kingdom good news or bad news?  It depends on who you asked: whether you held the plow or the whip.

The kingdom was like leaven that a lady put into flour.  It takes time, like leaven does, but it’s unstoppable once it gets going.  And the result is bread; three measures of flour is enough to make bread for one hundred people.

And yes, God can be imagined as the lady who got the process started.  This too is part of the reason for the joy of those who understand the message of the Kingdom: that God is the God of women and men, and the hierarchies of gender have no place in the Kingdom.Kneeding bread

This is great news to women, even if it is a bitter pill to us men of privilege – but the kingdom is like that all the way down.  Gender hierarchies are gone, status hierarchies are gone, income hierarchies are gone, ethnic hierarchies are gone in a kingdom in which:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 2:28)

This is great news!  At least to some.  Maybe not to all.  The whole idea that God loves everyone, without preference and without exception is fantastic news to those who thought they were unloved, but a tragedy to those who thought they were special cases, and worse news to those who live as if there is no God at all, observing their crimes.

So, the value of the kingdom looks different to different people.  For some, it is the greatest treasure in the world, to know and love God, and to be a part of God’s new family.  It is worth risking everything for.  It is the cause of joy and celebration.  It is satisfying like a quest that finds its object and a meal of homemade bread, shared with 99 others.

The Mysteriousness of the Kingdom

But there is something mysterious about this kingdom: it is hidden in plain sight.    The treasure is buried in a field.  The pearl has to be searched for.  It grows and spreads like mustard seed weeds multiply, but you do not see it grow on any single day.  It spreads invisibly like leaven in dough.

This too, is like the kingdom.  It spreads beneath the radar.  It does not need armies with weapons, bugles and banners.  There is no big white horse at the head of a public parade.

Rather, the unstoppable kingdom spreads quietly through quiet acts of love and mercy.  It spreads through cups of cold water given to the thirsty.  It spreads and grows by acts of compassion to the elderly and the grieving.  The kingdom advances by decisions to forgive instead of seeking vengeance and by generous giving that flows from compassion.  The kingdom rises up like a tree when there are people working for justice on behalf of people oppressed.

The kingdom spreads through people who show up to a church work day so that we can prepare to host Arts Camps and VBS.  The kingdom grows when we gather to sing and reflect on scripture and encourage each other’s faith on Sunday mornings.  The kingdom grows quietly when we welcome strangers as friends.

Odd Combination of Old and NewOld and New

And there is another wrinkle to consider about the kingdom.  It is also

“like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  

The old is what we are already familiar and comfortable with.  The old is the covenant promise to bless Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, and through them to become a blessing for the whole world.  The old is the promise to have a king on David’s throne whose kingdom would be worldwide and forever.  That much is as comfortable as an old sweatshirt on a January evening.

But the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom is like the one who brings out of his treasure what is new as well.   What is new is less familiar, and less comfortable.  It is new to imagine Jews and Greeks at a common table together, the circumcised with the uncircumcised – unthinkable in the past, but now a reality in the kingdom.

It was not possible to imagine being OK with women as leaders in times past, but the kingdom is a new age; the end of the old age has come.

There was a time – in fact a long time – when the very idea that there could be a world without slavery was inconceivable.  But, though it took 1900 years, finally no Christian can imagine a world that tolerates owning human beings as property.

The Newness and its Difficulties We Face

Right now, we are living in times that are painful times for some, and times of great joy for others.  We are trying to come to terms with new issues that do not seem at all comfortable, but rather difficult.

Our Presbyterian Church just met in General Assembly. The assembly  is comprise of commissioners who are: one pastor and one lay person from each Presbytery in our country.  These people – not a governing body like a congress or a court, but these people from congregations all across our country overwhelmingly voted to do two things:

GA 2014
GA 2014

They voted to allow Presbyterian clergy to have permission to marry gay couples in states where it is permitted by law, if they feel it is appropriate to do so.

And they voted to propose and amendment to our constitution, our Book of Order, defining marriage as between “two persons, traditionally a man and a woman,” but not anymore limited to mixed gender couples.

I am aware that there are deeply held feelings about this issue and I have great respect for everyone I know who is engaged in this issue.

As you all probably know, there are members of our congregation who have gay adult children.  It is almost certain that all of us know people who are gay, and probably most of us have gay relatives somewhere in our families.

We know these people.  We know that they are not predators or people of debauchery. And yet, even knowing people, who are just like us in every way other than their sexual orientation, some of us still have strong feelings about the definition of marriage.  We have longstanding experiences of the the world as it has been, and no wish to see it change.

Others, however, have known first hand the pain and suffering undergone by gay people who have been bullied, shunned, and shamed for something they could no more choose than the color of their eyes.

So, we are left with this question: is this a case of a scribe, trained to see things in the kingdom, brining out new as well as old treasures?  Or is this a case of the church abandoning its treasure altogether?   Let me say again, I am aware that there are deeply held beliefs and strong feelings on both sides of this question.

Probably you all know that I am personally in favor of these changes.  I do see them as part of the great trajectory in scripture of welcoming the stranger and removing barriers to full inclusion.  But I am also aware that people I dearly love think differently, including people in my own family.

Hope for Unity

I do have great hope for our church that we can see ourselves as a family.  No two spouses agree on everything, but a marriage is based on a union far deeper than total agreement.  In fact our unity, as a church, is rooted in baptism into Christ.  We are all members of one body.  We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

My prayer for us is that we can remain open to each other.  My belief is that through staying in conversation with each other, we will all be able to respect one another, even those with whom we differ.

My commitment is to believing that you hold your opinions with deep integrity and  my hope is that you will believe that I do as well.

So, please hear this call: let us be who we are.  We are people of the kingdom.  We are people who have discovered the treasure.  We are people willing to risk everything on the unlikely and often hidden idea that there is such a thing as love in this world, that working for justice is not in vain, and that God is here, and God is good, and that God is for us.   And let us be people of the kingdom together, united in Christ, praying, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And let us get on with doing quiet, hidden, unstoppable kingdom things: loving, forgiving, and working for the healing and reconciliation of the world.




2 thoughts on “Worthless as a desert (with oil under it)

  1. I very much appreciated your sermon, and realize the difficult position you have taken; the points of “values” you described, and the “unrest & change” within in churches and countries. May God guide and protect us all. AC

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