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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Social Services Sunday

A Sermon for Social Services Sunday 2011

Sunday's Gospel

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." -Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

One of the things I really want to begin with today is to say a special 'thank you' to all of you who are here to represent social service agencies: thank you for being here today and thank you for all you do in our community. In a very practical sense, by the work you do, you are the heart and soul of our community; were it not for you, something in our society would die; something in us would die: I do not exaggerate when I say that. What you do is vital for our existence as a humane and civilized society. But I also want to say something more than that, something you may not think or dream of: you show us the seeds of what Jesus called ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’.

Are there ever moments when you wonder why you do the work you do and how you can carry on? It could be so easy to become overwhelmed by the problems, the intractable issues, and the people who appear stuck. Never enough money, never enough resources: confronted by massive needs, heart-breaking situations – how do you manage? We speak of compassion fatigue; of burn-out; something that can happen not because people don't care, but because they do care and yet have to survive themselves and be able to function in difficult circumstances. And yet what you do strangely resembles what Jesus called the seeds of The Kingdom of Heaven.

When I read this gospel I am struck by what a defiant and subversive text it is. There is Jesus wandering Galilee with a few followers, preaching an extraordinary message of hope and transformation about the Kingdom of Heaven - and it's not really sinking in; it's not being taken up. It may be that it is even being mocked by his opponents and critics. What does Jesus do? He tells this parable of the Kingdom of Heaven - and which seems against all the odds and the least likely thing to happen, and yet, he says, happen it does.

He fires out a volley of quick comparisons. The Kingdom is like mustard seed, like yeast, like hidden treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast out in the sea. The kingdom is like this, and this, and this – a strange confusing medley of images that we are given no time to make much sense of.

· The first pair of comparisons – the seed and the yeast – is not too hard to make some sense of. We know that if you place a seed into the ground, or mix yeast into some flour – things happen; there are results; and they can be surprising: a tree large enough for birds to roost in; enough bread for a family for a week or two. So if the kingdom of heaven is like that – then it is surprising, and potent and much more than meets the eye.

· The other comparisons (treasure in a field, a marvellous pearl) are more difficult: a poor man becomes rich through luck; a rich man becomes richer by selling everything to get this superb pearl. Each man, whether poor or rich, lucky or skilful, gives up everything he has to attain the marvellous thing he has discovered. Now, if the kingdom is like that, then when you stumble across it – everything else seems trivial and no price is too great.

· The net cast into the sea is different again – it grabs everything, and all that will one day be sorted out – but if the kingdom of heaven is like that, then it is not in the end something we find, but something that finds us and draws us up into the light.

In all of these images for the kingdom the one constant factor is the hiddenness of the kingdom: the seed hidden in the ground; the yeast hidden in the dough; the treasure hidden in the field; the pearl hidden among many other pearls; the net hidden in the depths of the sea.

If the kingdom is like these – then it is never immediately apparent to the eye but must be looked for, it is always below the surface of things waiting to be discovered, claimed, and celebrated.

In a way this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Our imagination feeds off legends of such hidden treasures: we sometimes hear of the winning lottery ticket claimed by a poor family; of the rare painting found in a car boot sale; or maybe of the map found in an old book – pointing the way to the riches of the lost pyramid or King Solomon’s mines.

But where is the Kingdom of Heaven concealed for us? Where is our mustard seed, our pearl or treasure? Is it perhaps that God has concealed the kingdom in plain sight – in the last place we would think to look? Like the rare stamp in an envelope stuffed with used stamps for the Board of Missions fundraiser? Like the silver spoon rattling in the cutlery drawer amidst the stainless? Is the kingdom of heaven mixed in with the humdrum of our ordinary working days: buried amidst the tasks, the routines, the phone-calls, the incessant meetings, the demands and the weariness?

Is the Kingdom closer than we think? The seeds, the signs, the moments – are more diverse than we may imagine. Think about it! A family is suddenly transformed. Someone bowed down by despair at last begins to hope. A child in a heart-breaking situation is finally wrapped in loving arms and begins to smile. Someone realizes they no longer need the props of violence, alcohol or drugs. There is that flicker of response in the grandmother lost in Alzheimer’s. The unemployed man is employed and regains his self-respect. A weary worker at the supermarket checkout responds to a friendly word or smile. Someone picks up the neighbours mail or offers a cup of tea? Are these signs of the kingdom?

Why else would Jesus speak of the Kingdom and use such ordinary things as seeds, yeast, field, pearl and the sea if not to direct our attention to this world and to what we do in it and where we should look for the will and rule and presence of God?

Here, in this earth, is where the seeds of the kingdom are sown and the treasure they yield is the only one worth having.

In the work you do – you help us catch glimpses of the Kingdom.

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