Featured Sermon: Treasures from Our Tradition
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, July 27, 2014
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in [a] field…the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour…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: 31-32, 52)
I’m especially excited about preaching today because this morning’s lessons are full of treasures from our tradition that can help us find our way today. This morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew gives us a wealth of parables, images Jesus used to help us get glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. These parables point us to the reign of the Living God who is served by people with a living and lively faith.
Along with that wealth of parables, we have a very rich passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans full of comforting images and words — the Spirit interceding for us with “sighs too deep for words”, the assurance that “all things work together for good for those who love God”, and Paul’s firm conviction that nothing — absolutely nothing —“will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But let’s begin today a footnote of sorts about our first lesson from Genesis, a footnote or comment I feel obligated to include given our Gospel lesson. The Gospel parables remind us that our faith is alive and that the church’s treasure lies in honoring what is old while embracing the new things that our living and abundantly creative God brings into being in all times and places.
In this week’s chapter of the story of Jacob, we witness his steadfast love for Rachel and his perseverance as he works for her father Laban seven years so he can marry her. Then when Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, Jacob serves seven years again. Most of us here this morning know at least something of the story of Jacob. The story, like others, is so familiar that we barely hear it.
But I wonder what this chunk of Scripture says to people with little connection to our tradition who might find themselves for some reason or another in a church hearing this story for the first time. Rachel and Leah are bargaining chips. They will marry whomever their father chooses whenever he chooses, and his choice will depend on what payment he can get for them. Two other women are in this story: Laban gives his maid Zilpah to Leah, and if this reading continued one more verse to verse 29, we would find Laban giving his maid Bilhah to Rachel. Zilpah and Bilhah become important to the story when Leah and Rachel have trouble conceiving children and give Zilpah and Bilhah to Jacob to bear children for him. Thus, the twelve “sons of Jacob”, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, have four different mothers, none of whom had much say about their own lives. Our unchurched visitor hears all of this and then hears us respond “Thanks be to God”, and usually nothing else is said about the passage unless it’s something about Jacob and his situation.
We almost always ignore the reality of the lives of women in such stories. After all, that was the way things were done in that time and place, we say. But in ignoring it, we treat our tradition as if it were dead. We say that Scripture is too dead to make any difference today, that the stories don’t really change anything. No wonder some people see organized religion as dead or dying when we treat it that way ourselves sometimes! And if we never mention the situation of the women in the story, we miss an opportunity to bring something new out of the treasure of our tradition.
UNICEF has a poster that’s been shared on the internet recently, a photo of a girl from some non-western nation with the words “Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” This is a reminder we still need in the 21st century. There are still people in the world — and not just in other countries, by the way — who see nothing wrong with all this subordination of women to men. And that’s why we in the church have an obligation to both treasure and critique our tradition. We have a moral obligation to be clear about our belief that God’s family includes everyone, no exceptions. We need to make this clear not only to visitors, but to ourselves. We need to make certain that our boys and girls grow up knowing they are of equal worth. Our tradition is a living tradition, and our God is a living God. The stories we read are important, the way we tell them to our children is important, and the language we use for God and humankind in our liturgy and in our teaching is important. These may seem like small things, but small things done with integrity and faithfulness can do great things for God’s kingdom.
Jesus talks about small things in today’s parables: the tiny mustard seed that grows into such a big bush that it’s more like a tree, the little bit of yeast that raises up three measures of flour. Neither a mustard seed nor a single grain of yeast look like much of anything; if you dropped one on the floor, you’d be hard put to see it or pick it up. But even though they look like a tiny bit of nothing, they are full of life. If we take the time to notice, there’s a lot of wonder in the sprouting of any seed, and a lot of wonder in watching yeast work. If the seed isn’t viable or the yeast has sat on the shelf too long, neither is good for anything. But when they are full of life ready for the right growing conditions, they do wondrous things.
When we feel too small as individuals, as a parish, or as a church to further the growth of God’s kingdom and to serve as a catalyst for good in the world, we can remember the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. We don’t have to understand how the mustard seed grows or how the yeast produces the carbon dioxide bubbles that make the bread rise, and we don’t have to understand how God can use us to do God’s work. Our work is to be viable, to be alive, so that God can use us however and wherever God needs us.
And so something like simply seeing and acknowledging the patriarchy embedded in our tradition can be a seed that grows into a church that may someday use inclusive and expansive language in our prayer book and hymnal, that may someday not allow any representative of the church to belittle women, and that may someday be a nurturing and empowering place for all of our children, no exceptions.
As some of you know, my ministry is focused on environmental stewardship. I got into this ministry when I heard the Presiding Bishop challenge a group of us deacons meeting in Seattle to get to work on the environmental degradation that underlies so much of our more traditional areas of diaconal work: the world’s hunger, diseases, and poverty. With global warming and its evil twin of ocean acidification accelerating, and with a lack of political will in the US and some other big nations to do anything big enough to change that, it would be easy to feel hopeless. I do sometimes feel deep grief as I learn about what is unfolding as a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge the size of the problem and to make the systemic changes we need to make, but I seldom feel truly hopeless, partly because of this parable. I don’t think God will or can make everything magically get better, but I do think the efforts of a few relatively small institutions (including faith communities), of individual people from around the world, and of leaders of smaller nations that know they will suffer first and worst from global warming can open the way for the unfolding of a new sort of hope that we can’t even envision. Some of that hope lies in knowing that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us even when we are unable to pray, when the only prayer possible is the Spirit’s “sighs too deep for words”.
And some of that hope lies in having lived long enough to witness the results of prayer and the truth of these parables in other situations. Our son Andrew has an internship in Alexandria, Virginia, this summer, and Gary and I went to see him over the 4th of July. That weekend we took a water taxi over to the National Mall. One of our first stops was the Martin Luther King memorial, which is breathtaking. Something about the statue of Dr. King and the selection of quotations from his speeches and sermons that run along a long wall behind the statue brought home not only what he and others accomplished in the civil rights movement, but how great the odds were against them. These were people who lacked political power but who had the power of a living faith. And that made all the difference. They and their faith were the yeast that changed everything.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women to be ordained as Episcopal priests. General Convention had not yet authorized the ordination of women in 1974, but this small group of women seeking ordination and bishops who thought the custom of an exclusively male priesthood was contrary to the Gospel took this first step that resulted not only in General Convention affirming and authorizing the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976 but eventually led to the ordination of women to the episcopate and led to other changes in our culture and customs that have resulted from men and women sharing leadership. Before graduating from college in 1973, I did some discernment around a long-time pull towards ordination, something that was very confusing because the vocational diaconate had not yet been revived and women were not being ordained as priests. In the course of deciding whether to go to graduate school or seminary, I talked with priests — all male, of course — who thought the ordination of women to the priesthood anytime soon was a long shot. And compared to the power structure of the church in 1973, this small group of women and the men who supported them seemed pretty powerless. But the mustard seeds grew and the uncustomary ordination of eleven became the customary ordination of many.
Good things can grow from small beginnings. We don’t know how the seeds grow, exactly what makes the yeast work, or exactly how any struggle for what is good and right and just will unfold. But we do know from a couple of today’s other parables what it takes to be viable, to have a lively faith within us that God can use. What gives us life is fixing our hearts on Christ. If we recognize our opportunity to follow Jesus as a pearl of great value or a buried treasure for which we would give anything and everything, we will fix our hearts on serving Christ. Faithful discipleship in worship, action, and study keeps our faith viable, full of life that God can use for bigger things than we can ask or imagine.
My sisters and brothers, there is violence here at home and in battlegrounds all over the world to be stopped. There are girls who aren’t allowed to go to school, men and women who can’t find work that pays enough to feed their families, and refugees who cannot find a safe place where they will be welcomed. And there is an unstable climate around the world that drives people from their homes with floods, high winds, and wildfires, that spreads diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and that changes rainfall patterns and growing seasons so that people have difficulty growing food in some places where people used to survive by subsistence farming. The good news in the midst of all of this is that we are not too small for God to use us to transform this brokenness into the life-giving wholeness of the reign of God.
Ours is not a dead tradition. Ours is a living faith that points us to serve the Living God. And, as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Thanks be to God, the source of all genuine hope and power! Amen.