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Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon from July 24, 2011 + Ordinary Time, Sunday 17 (A)

“God’s Subversive Beauty”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

Texts: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39; Psalm 119:129-136

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have a war with dandelions. I hate them in my yard, I want them gone. There is a boulevard and a center island to the north of our house, however, which fill with dandelions in the spring, and send their seeds all over my yard. It’s pretty much an endless struggle.

And yet, to a child, a dandelion is worthy of a mother’s bouquet, honorable enough, beautiful enough, to be picked with care, clutched in grubby fists, and presented with the gravitas of a lover giving a dozen roses.

How can this be the same plant? Is it as simple as gardening wits have long said, that a weed is by definition a plant in the wrong place? Is beauty dependent upon location? Or point of view? Human beings are obsessed with beauty, and the glamor industry makes a fortune on that obsession. But the converse is that humans seemingly have little time for that which we deem unbeautiful. A pastor friend of mine has a side business where she brings animals to children’s parties, animals which might be considered “ugly” – snakes, tarantulas, that sort of thing – and a big part of her presentation is to help her listeners see beauty in all of God’s creation, not just the things we normally consider “cute.” My friend, no surprise, is not a fan of Roundup, either.

Jesus is playing around with this human tendency in his parables. Last week we heard a parable about weeds in among wheat. Then the weeds were bad. Now we hear about a mustard plant, which, unless you work for Grey Poupon or French’s, is normally considered a weed. Yet in Jesus’ parable it’s the star. Even more, he also likens the reign of God to things we do normally consider beautiful – hidden treasure, and an amazing pearl. He talks about the kingdom as if it is something we should long for, pant for, to use the words of our psalmist today.

But here’s the thing. There’s something important about Jesus lifting up a weed as a metaphor for God’s grace. And even his image of God the great troller, dragging a net through water and pulling up all kinds of things. The grace and love of God are truly beautiful – but they call us to move beyond a superficial sense of beauty to understand what God really means by it. And if we do that, we might just understand what this great treasure is after all.

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Jesus invites us to look at the world through the eyes of God.

In this first parable, the mustard seed is not what it seems at first, not a chosen plant, a planned planting. The only way mustard seeds would have been planted by a farmer in Jesus’ day is if they were part of the bag of seeds he was sowing. This is very different from the image of weeds in last week’s parable, where an enemy planted them. Here, it’s like when we buy a bag of grass seed and look for the percentages of weed seeds in the bag. Even the finest grass seed cannot guarantee 100% of the seeds are not weeds.

So in the farmer’s grain seeds are these little mustard seeds – and they grow in the midst of the good stuff. You can see them in our farm fields today, tall, weedy things with bright yellow flowers. But here’s the deal: Jesus lifts up that weed, that unasked-for visitor, and says – look how it grows and eventually provides shelter for birds. “Do you see that?” he says. “That’s what God’s kingdom is like.”

So is Jesus suggesting that God messes around with our sense of beauty, worth, order?

We like – or at least I’ve gone on record as saying I do – orderly fields, straight cornrows. Gardens with neatly tied tomato plants, and weed-free walkways. That’s beautiful. A world where it all makes sense, and all things are good.

But God says – maybe some of those other things are worthy, too. Maybe I can do something with things you consider unworthy. Maybe you don’t really understand what I think is beautiful.

The parable of the dragnet plays with this image, too. English translators are not helpful on this one – they always seem to need to add a word to verse 47. What it says in Greek is this: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught of every kind.”

Not “caught fish of every kind.” Just “caught of every kind.” And think about it – a net cast into a lake or sea is going to catch more than fish – tin cans, discarded tires, old boots, driftwood, even weeds. And the real point of the parable: only the net owner can truly know what is good and what is not.

Looking for a white elephant gift for an exchange I was a part of, I once came across a book of crafts made from everyday objects. On the cover was a photo of a truly hideous lamp made by driving a rod through an old army boot – that pretty much sums up the artistic effort needed. “Make use of Grandpa’s army boot,” the caption proclaimed. “Create a beautiful keepsake!”

But what if that’s exactly what God is about?

Jesus is talking about the subversive activities of God – taking a weed and making something of it. Finding an old boot and using it. See, the thing about most human standards of beauty is that most of us don’t feel we fit them. In fact, all of us are imperfect, disabled, flawed, broken. (If that’s a surprise to anyone here, I’m sorry to break it to you, but there it is.)

But Jesus tells us here that God looks at us – old boots, rusty cans, pieces of driftwood, or weeds that are making disorder in the world – God looks and us and says, “I can do something with that. I can do something with you – and it will be beautiful.”

And here’s the twist of these parables: those in the net cannot make judgments on the worth of others in the net. Only the true Fisherman can. Those planting the field don’t get to decide what is weed and what is not. Only the true Farmer can. Because we don’t know what God thinks, how God values, we don’t get to make the call. We don’t get to be the judge. Because things we think are weeds, or trash, God thinks are treasures and beautiful.

And that subversive tendency of God becomes the only reason for us to have hope.

And here’s where Paul helps us today, Paul who tells us what God is about. God searches, knows, intercedes, and loves.

This marvelous section comes at the end of a long four-chapter part of this letter where Paul is working through the problem of human sin and the joy of God’s love.

God searches our hearts, Paul says today – God’s the one who truly knows us. So that means that when God says we are beautiful, or others are beautiful, it really counts, it matters – because God truly knows.

And God even intercedes for us, Paul says – in the mystery of the Trinity, both the Holy Spirit, who is with us always now and knows us intimately, and the Son, who lived among us, intercede with the Father on our behalf. Not only are we valued and considered worthy, we are known and understood by God.

And consistent throughout these four chapters, as in today’s section, is Paul’s confident belief that God’s love transcends all our unworthiness – sin, brokenness, ugliness – and claims us forever. Valued and worthy, known and understood by God, we are actually loved. And there is nothing, Paul says, nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Not life. Note even death. Because God, who has searched us and knows us, has said we are beautiful.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. Because that’s what God has been saying since the dawn of time. There’s something interesting about the word “tov” in Hebrew – translated “good” most often. There’s a deep aesthetic sense to this word – in fact, dominant to this word is the idea of “pleasant, fair, agreeable to the senses.” Beautiful, we might say.

Which means that Genesis 1 declares again and again that when God created – light, water, plants, animals, people – again and again God said, “this is beautiful.” Isn’t that amazing? God from the beginning found delight in this creation. And said it was beautiful. It is beautiful.

So should we be surprised that God says the same about weeds and things others throw out? God the creator loves beauty, and makes beauty. And when God says “it is beautiful,” it is beautiful.

This is the treasure, the pearl – because once we’ve found this is true, nothing else will satisfy our needs.

Once we know that God has said we are beautiful, worthy, there is nothing else that will satisfy our deepest longing. And we never want to be apart from this.

When we hear beautiful music praising God, see beautiful art depicting God’s handiwork, are blessed by beautiful people who love us in God’s name, gather in a beautiful place and pray to the God who loves us, we are touched by this beautiful grace of God.

In many ways, this is why we seek beauty in all its forms in our worship – because it brings us closest to what we have known and experienced from God’s love. And it reminds us of what God thinks of us, of the love Paul says cannot be taken from us. Being fed by Word and Sacrament, surrounded by our song and our prayer, with the presence of each other as God’s gifts of grace, this is where we know more than anywhere else that God’s subversive love has deemed us worthy, is making something of us, is seeing us as beautiful.

But remember the twist to these parables, too: when it comes to others, God’s the one who calls things beautiful. It’s easy to rejoice that we are loved by God and seek to withhold that from others because they don’t seem worthy to us. That tendency of human nature is one Jesus is trying to prod and open up for us.

And it’s interesting that he uses a word about the dragnet that we actually know in a different context. The verb translated “caught” is the same verb that gives us the English word “synagogue” – so the dragnet isn’t catching as much as “bringing together of every kind.”

You see? That’s God’s whole plan – “let’s bring together of every kind, and I’ll do something with that.” It’s why we know we’re welcome and loved. And it’s our call to action with regard to the world.

You never really know how great it is that God doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a weed, until you realize your own weediness.

The treasure of God’s kingdom is that all of us – weeds, trash, discards – are beautiful and useful to God.

Let us ask God to empower our grace and welcome, that this place is a place where all such people feel welcomed and loved as we have, and even more, beautiful and loved.

That’s the way God wants it. That’s the way God sees it. And thank God for that.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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