This is my sermon at Chatsworth UCC this past Sunday.
Reading: Matthew 13:44-52
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.
Sermon: All you need is love
It can be difficult to take much in the Gospels, or even many things in the bible for that matter, strictly literal, when even Jesus didn’t do that much of the time. He either told a story or a parable or some other antidote, or couch it in metaphor, to create imagery and symbolism. Abraham Lincoln did many of the same things when he wanted to get his point across, but didn’t want to give a straight answer, or to be pinned down with any kind of literal statement. Again, it was always in a fashion to get his listeners to think about what was being said, rather than just hearing the words without thinking, and to often internalize the parable, to find meaning in their own life experiences and internalize it…making it their own in a way.
I have found this with so many of the parables of Jesus and have also found those parallels in my own life, bringing greater significance to the parable, making it personal if you will. I do believe this was much of what Jesus hoped to achieve by this process.
These three readings are similar with others, such as when Jesus talked about the corrupting nation in our more conservative world with the highly disruptive nature of the mustard seed growing into a tree, or of the yeast being added secretly into the flower. Both of these examples indicate how unconventional, radical and wild God,..and heaven can be.
Once again, in these readings, Jesus stays with the parables, and again sets examples of what the kindom of heaven is all about. Our very nature sets so high a store upon it, or at least should, that we will go to any lengths to achieve it. It is a treasure so great we are willing to part with all we have to obtain it….or we should be. But heaven does not seem to be for everybody, as the last parable indicated. Some make it, like the good fish pulled up in the nets. Some are not so good a fish, and are picked out of the catch and cast into the fire to burn. But does Jesus mean this literally? He’s comparing us all to fish mind you, and he has done this before when calling upon James, John and Peter to become fishers for humanity.
No. Like all his parables, metaphor is used to represent one thing for another. We are not fish, nor wheat of even weeds, but people, and it is not a real net that will be cast, but the word of God through Christ that will be heard and believed and accepted, or rejected and ignored.
But what is that word? What is so important in humanity that Jesus would be born, that God would walk amongst us through Jesus, to experience humanity, and finally give up earthly life to share in our own fate in total empathy and community? That word is Love. In fact, that has always been the word. As God so loved the world……and the Bible is full of such references, for God’s unconditional love of all creation, and the great efforts in scripture to get us all to understand this, and what’s more, to love each other as well.
Love is also that connection we have with others, in harmony and peace, fellowship and family. It is what creates community and relationships. But love can also be misplaced, where we can love others, but receive no love in return, even if we think we are. But even in such a case, as the second great commandment tells us, we are still to love, even those we find difficult to love. It is easy to love those who love us back, but a great challenge to love those who do not, to show respect when none is given, to give compassion where none is returned. It can be painful at times, and can even seem like a betrayal of sorts, especially if we believed those we loved have loved us back, only to discover they never did.
God may also feel this as well. In fact, the story of the Prodigal Child is a prime example of that rejection of all God is to us and for us, to demand our share and to turn our backs and walk away. But in the end, we find that what we had in God’s love is more important than we realized, but have so much pride we find it difficult to come back to God and beg forgiveness. So few it seems realize that God is always there, waiting with arms outstretched, hoping for our return. There is no condemnation or guilt trips…there is only love.
But what do we do about those who are so hard to love? How do we then love when we find those we love do not love us, or even fear or hate us? The answer is simple to say, and terribly hard to do, but we are called to do it anyway. We forgive. We forgive them, and we forgive ourselves. We forgive them just as the loving parent forgave the Prodigal child. We take the high ground, if you will. We can also be the good fish at the same time, those prized and saved, or that excellent pearl, or the buried treasure. We remain worthy of life, even when we are not loved by those who might find trouble even loving themselves.
This was a hard learned lesson for me, and one that took a lot of soul searching as well. I had always loved my family, from my parents and brother to my aunts, uncles and cousins. I would do anything for them, and all they had to do was ask. After all, that is what family was all about, or so I thought. But my family, my relatives, also knew my secret from an early age, since my father had told them, so I was also that skeleton in the closet, the one they didn’t really talk about, and secretly feared.
I never knew this. I did not know the festering sore that was deep in the family mind, that cancer they could never forgive, or forget. But for 30 years, life just continued on, until my ex and I separated, and suddenly, that skeleton in the closet was no longer in the closet. Old fears came to the surface, and they closed ranks, shutting me out. It was another 15 years before the truth all came out.
The sadness to this story is this…all those years that I was unaware, but they lived in this hate, fear and dread, it hurt nobody but them. I was untouched. When I was older, it still did more harm to them than me, since now I had options and opportunities well beyond the relatives to create family, which I did. I never really suffered for their hate. And yet, through it all, I still loved them all, and I think lived the happier life for it all.
We are given a choice in life. We can love, as God commands us to love, and in that love, find joy, happiness and peace. We can find fellowship, relationships and community that are giving and warm. I have that. But we can also reject love, or withhold it from others. We can hold grudges and anger and resentment, which often never really impacts the object of our ire, and in doing so make ourselves miserable inside, sullen, depressed and alone. We can find ourselves cut off from people who might otherwise strive to love us, in spite of ourselves. This I could not do. But family meant more to me than it did to them, but in the end, I was left with no family to love, only miserable individuals, so I had to walk away to find my own peace and joy.
I never stopped caring or worrying or loving, I just had to do it from a distance. They never stopped resenting or hating or fearing me, for whatever reasons they had manufactured, and there was nothing I could do to change that.
They had trouble understanding what God calls us to do. They could not set aside their own self interests for those of God. Still, I will never believe they are the weeds to be burned, or the bad fish to be destroyed. I still feel that God loves them even more than I could, and much more than they could love me. That is also what forgiveness is all about. To forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others. We ask this of God every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.
You see, love is that great pearl, to want to possess we will give up everything to have. Love is that great treasure in the field. Love is those good fish. No greater treasure is there than love. It is what brings us together, into community, relationships, friendships, marriage. It is what causes us to sacrifice something of ourselves for the sake of the others in our lives knowing they will to the same for us, or have done it, and will do it again, just because.
This is what the Gospels are all about as well. Gospel. God Speak. Good News. That is what it means. To hear the good news God speaks to us through Christ Jesus on how much God loves us as we are, how we are to live in harmony with God and all of creation, and how we are forgiven in that love.
But being forgiven has a price. This is also part of the third parable. There are always consequences for our actions, both here and beyond. The beggar Lazarus and the indifferent rich man is such an example of what could happen to those who turn a blind eye to the suffering of others around them. The story of the fish, or the wheat, is what happens when we also neglect our responsibility to others, to place selfish desires ahead of God. Matthew 25’s warning to all nations illustrates this. What we do the least of God’s children we also have done to God. After all, we are all God’s children, and as such, a bit of God is also within us, that spark of the divine.
It is not for us to speak as God, or to judge as God would judge though, for that is only for God. But we are to be merciful as God shows mercy, compassionate as God is compassionate, forgiving of others as God is forgiving of us. This is what the Gospels are all about. They are not about how God hates this group or that group, just because some human being says so. They do not know God if this is their claim, nor do they speak any kind of truth. To paraphrase the Bible, they would speak with the tongue of a viper.
Seek the Pearl and treasure it, for that Pearl is God’s love for us. Do everything you can to obtain that buried treasure, for that also is God’s love for us, and through that love we will know heaven. Be the good fish caught in the net, those who are willing and ready to hear the word, to live the word, to embrace the word so that all who see and hear you will understand your love. For the kingdom of heaven is, above all things, love.