July 30, 2023. The 9th Sunday after Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year AFB; Proper 12; Genesis 29:15-28; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


            Several years ago, Bishop Stephen Lane introduced congregations in the Diocese of Maine to a practice called, “Living Local: Joining God in the Neighborhood.” The idea was for a team of parishioners to commit themselves to deep listening practices in their neighborhood and in the parish. We were to sit together, listen to a specific passage of Scripture which was Luke 10:1-10, pair up and practice listening to our partner. This passage describes Jesus sending the disciples out to towns and villages two-by-two and preach, teach, heal and pronounce that the Kingdom of God is here.

In our training, we paired up and took turns to listen to our partner closely, deeply so that we could share what they had to say about Luke 10:1-10.

            As the St. Paul’s Living Local team began this practice, so did our Vestry. The Vestry has been doing it for the first 35 minutes or so of our monthly meetings for about 8 years.  We’ve learned to cherish this time at Vestry because we listen deeply to each other and then share.

            Sometimes we struggle with a passage. Sometimes, in the very same passage, like the Gospel lesson for today, there is something to rejoice in – the Kingdom of Heaven is like a little mustard seed that grows into a shrub, then a tree where birds gather and live. The Vestry LOVED that part of the passage!

David Treadwell our Vestry Clerk, loved it so much that he went home and wrote a story, a reflection on it as it related to his very diverse family and their recent visit and emailed it to us all that very night! When diversity is a struggle in our country and even in families, David wrote about his family’s diversity, “like a mustard seed,” is the Kingdom of God – from diversity to joy in unity like the mustard seed.

Now, in that same passage was the troubling “hellfire, weeping and gnashing of teeth” severe judgment. Surely, the Kingdom of God is not something, as one scholar writes, “…something to scare the hell out of the faithful.”

            Finally, at Vestry, we all decided this was part of the Gospel passage, that we would like to reject it. The Vestry was unanimous, though I don’t think the vote was recorded in the minutes!

This is what I think. I think that Jesus wants his followers to look for the Kingdom of Heaven everywhere in our lives and not be terrified by horrifying images of judgment. I think Jesus wants us to look for and find evidence of God’s transformation even in the most unlikely places of our lives – in the nooks and crannies where we would never expect God’s kingdom to be found– places like the mustard seed.

You know, the mustard seed when it grew, was considered an ugly weed but grew into a great tree. And yeast, that is in the air is a very small organism, one small thing that can be used in bread, but it also participates in decomposing organic material. From the smallest, most insignificant thing, God is at work in it. God joins in the smallest of things and transforms them. “What is ultimately of value to God and God’s realm, others would deem as junk.” The Kingdom of Heaven is LIKE THAT!

            This is all inspiring and moving – that the least and most disgusting things could be agents of God’s transformation and renewal in our lives. THAT’S the gospel message today.

So, what do we do with the “hellfire and weeping and gnashing of teeth?” Maybe what the people of God do is to face those difficult texts and share our disgust and discomfort with them. In doing so, we are listening to each other react to scripture and that deepens our relationship with each other and with God.

There is another troubling passage we heard today. It’s from the Old Testament. What do we do with the misbehavior of Laban from the reading this morning? Laban is a cheater and double-crosser. What do we say about Laban’s objectifying his daughters, Leah and Rachel and using them to manipulate Jacob? What do we say about Laban breaking his promise to “give” Rachel to Jacob after he worked for her for seven years?  

In no way are we to regard these passages as acceptable for behavior as people of God. Instead, these passages are to alert us to the truth that the writers of these stories are “telling on themselves.” Nothing is cleaned up to make them look favorable. There is nothing sanitized about these stories. Laban is a scoundrel and a liar.

We read the Sunday lectionary together in worship as modern people and we sometimes are offended by the passages. Still, some of the stories from scripture are not so far from stories of horror that we might hear today or even experience in our own lives. Off the top of my head, I think of the gun violence we witnessed in Sandy Hook and Uvalde.

I recently watched a Netflix movie called, “The Bombardment.” It is a Danish film that tells the World War II story of the Roman Catholic French School in Copenhagen mistakenly bombed by the British who were sent to bomb the large Nazi headquarters nearby. It’s a heartbreaking story:16 nuns and teachers were killed. 67 children were killed. After watching the film, I concluded that we need witnesses to tell the stories the tragedies of the world. We need to hear the terrible stories, honor the victims and join God in transforming the world into a better place.

            As a body of Christ, this parish engages mightily with difficult lessons of scripture. Sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes it doesn’t help us see God. Most times it bears witness to very human stories. And ALL the time God is shining a light on love, grace and mercy everywhere, even in the “nooks and crannies” of our lives.

I been wondering as I ponder these passages; I wonder what passages God will give us next to wrestle with?

I also wonder how, as a faith community will we listen to what God is up to and then bear witness to God’s realm right now?