We live in an age of instant gratification. We can see any number of films or programmes on the TV simply by selecting what’s being broadcast live or by calling something up on Amazon, Virgin or Netflix. We can order food to be delivered to our doors, we no longer even have to get out of our cars in order to eat as many fast food chains now have a drive through option. A few years ago no one used the Internet to shop now, thanks to Amazon, we can have things delivered to us the day after we order it – in London Amazon are now piloting same day deliveries. We used to write a letter and await a response, now we send an email and can get very anxious if there isn’t an immediate reply. We once had phones in the hallways of our homes (I’ve no idea why they were put there) now we carry a phone around with us. We don’t like waiting, we want instant gratification.
Of course this is the spirit of the age, instant credit, instant results, instant response – §we even know who wins (or doesn’t win) a General Election just as the polls close before a vote has been cast. This spirit of the age can affect the Church – we tend to want things to happen at speed. Church hierarchies often want instant answers, sudden growth and quick fixes to complex problems. I don’t blame them – faced with decline, more churches than ministers, and lack of funds anything that offers a quick solution is attractive. Yet Jesus’ parables today seem to offer a different vision.
What’s in common with all the examples
In today’s reading we hear of a mustard seed which though small grows into a large tree, yeast, which though small makes the whole loaf rise, a thief buying a field to get hidden treasure, and a net working under the water. At first these all seem different, disparate ideas, put together in a sermon by Jesus or those who edited the sources to create Matthew’s Gospel. But there is something in common with all of them – the work goes unseen.
We don’t see the seed grow in the dark, germinating, forming into something new, bursting forth from its skin, putting shoots up and roots down. We don’t see yeast work, we may make bread and put the kneaded dough aside somewhere warm and come back when it’s risen but we don’t sit and watch it rise. The treasure is hidden in the field, the net is full but we don’t watch to see the fish caught in it. Like women’s work throughout history each of these examples are about hidden things. Growth happening in the dark, slowly and imperceptibly until the time is right.
Being unseen, however, is not the only thing that these parables have in common. There is something dodgy, subversive, disreputable going on. A mustard tree – or shrub – is untidy, it’s not an oak or cedar or pine, but a rather untidy bush. Yeast is a sign of corruption and decay – after all Jewish women clean their house of this, necessary evil, at Passover when all traces of leaven need to be cleaned away and unleavened bread is eaten. The thief buys the field to do the lawful owner out of what is rightfully hers, and nets are not good news for the fish!
We think of the Church as being respectable. In London Westminster Abbey is situated next to the Houses of Parliament; it’s interesting that Holyrood met, at first, in the Assembly Rooms of the Church of Scotland. The Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and appoints a High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland. Church and state are entwined in ways which are not always useful, healthy or, crucially, consistent with the subversive values of the Gospel.
These things still exist in our age but are hidden
So Jesus seems to be saying the Kingdom of God is subversive, is like the things that are hidden and surprises us. How does that work for us now – in an age where mustard comes in a glass jar or plastic bottle, where nets are things most people haven’t seen, where fields with buried treasure seem in short supply and where very few of us make our own bread – unless we use a machine to do the hard work for us.
I was called last Thursday by a friend whom I met 10 years ago. She came to my church at the end of her tether – an asylum seeker who had been refused by the court who thought she could be returned to Azerbijan – despite being from Uganda – a clerical mistake but there was little to laugh at in Prossy’s life at the time. She’d been beaten and raped by the police in Uganda, her family were preparing to kill her for bringing shame on them and she managed to escape, pay and agent, get here and claim asylum. She is one of the bravest women I know. Now she is a British citizen, works for the Red Cross and his hoping to adopt a child. She struggles, however, to believe in God after what happened to her. But Prossy’s hidden life – working with other asylum seekers and refugees, hosting a homeless refugee and wanting to offer love to an unwanted child speaks to me of the Kingdom where much happens in secret. Her faith, such as it is, isn’t respectable, middle class or nice, but real, gritty and soaked in the pain of life.
Or maybe the kingdom is like my two Muslim friends who came to my induction, couldn’t get in as the service had started, somehow found there was a side door, rang the bell and got in to experience their first ever Christian service of worship – which, by the way, they found rather moving.
Or maybe the Kingdom is like the wife who cares for her husband with dementia, quietly, without fuss, but day, after day, shows the love promised long ago in those vows, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
The kingdom, for Jesus, isn’t some esoteric reality up on cloud 9; it’s not pie in the sky, but as close as the next mustard seed or loaf of bread. It’s as close as simple acts of love, as close as incredible, but unseen, bravery, as near as the wonder at experiencing God in a different away.
Jesus’ parables envision God in every nook and cranny of everyday life – from kneading dough, ploughing fields, finding unexpected treasure. §Maybe now we’d say the kingdom is found in unexpected wonder, determined love and service, and unlooked for bravery that stands up to tyranny and ensures that love wins.
This is all counter the values of our world which wants instant fixes, commodities, gratification. Desmond Tutu, in the mist of apartheid said:
When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.”
The kingdom is not to be found with the powerful but on the edge, in acts of love and service which happen in the quiet warmth of God’s love. Just like the seed growing in the dark, the Kingdom of God is often where we least expect to find it. Will you pray with me?
you give us gifts
and make them grow
in the hidden places of our hearts,
though our faith is small as mustard seeds,
make it grow to your glory,
and the flouring of your Kingdom,
through Christ, our Lord,