A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.’ A card bearing this passage, also from the Gospel of Matthew, was in my mother’s belongings. Growing up I always remember her wearing this little pendant – with a mustard seed enclosed. And she always used to quote this passage of scripture to me whenever I touched the pendant. My mother died the Saturday after I was ordained deacon, and my brother kindly brought this pendant over from the U.S. for me to have.
So you can imagine today’s passage holds special personal significance. Jesus has been asked what the kingdom of God is like – and he answers with a number of rather obscure parables. He then turns to his companions and asks whether they understood. You get the impression from the context, there is a bit of doubt cast over whether their answer in the affirmative, that, yes, they have understood, was indeed the truth – or was it one of those situations in which no one wanted to admit being the one who didn’t get the joke. So all laugh as if they understand.
These parables are given in order that we stop to think, that we not just believe we have the immediate answer to anything – that we take the time to contemplate what it is Jesus is trying to tell us.
The humble mustard seed provides today’s first example of what the kingdom of God is like – a small, seemingly insignificant bit of a seed has the capacity to grow into a bush capable of providing food, oil, shelter for the birds of the air and shade for the weary traveller. Such plants are used in deserts to bind the soil, enrich it and allow precious water to collect – all from a tiny speck.
Some of the best books I read are the ones that involve an amount of struggle – not because they are a difficult read. But rather the difficulty lies in that each page holds some wisdom that I just have to read over again, and then sit for a while blown away. One such book is ‘Exclusion & Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf, a Croat, now resident in the U.S. and a professor of theology. He introduces the book with a story about forgiveness. You see, when he was exploring writing this book, he wanted to examine whether God’s love, God’s kingdom, is exclusive to a specific group – or whether God’s love embraces all. When he was first presenting his ideas he was questioned by another theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, whether he could truly embrace a Cetnik. He describes how in the winter of 1993, Serbian fighters, the Cetnik, were the cause of untold suffering, violence and horrific deaths in his homeland of Croatia. This introduced a new and difficult dimension into his writing, and a steely determination. He looked around him and saw that violence, evidence of the terrible suffering we put each other through every day, in every land, was all around him. Could we find a way of embracing one another? Could God truly include all in his loving embrace.
One of the more difficult chapters is on forgiveness and forgetting. Forgiveness is held up as the prize, that which we aspire to when we have been hurt, and hold out to another as an act of charity. We sometimes use it to beat one another with, to instil guilt with, we use it manipulate one another – I have forgiven you, so you must be good now, you must be the way I want you to be. William Young writes about forgiveness in his book ‘The Shack’ as the moment we remove our hands from the throats of someone else and stop choking them.
But what of the moment just following that forgiveness? What happens then? What happens when we stop choking one another? How do we go on living alongside those who have hurt us? This is the quandary in places like Croatia – when it is the neighbour with whom you shared your bread, whose child you looked after, who helped you in your garden – who suddenly turns and rapes, and steals and kills. Even if you can come to a point of forgiveness, and this is hard enough, how do you go on living with them? How do you face them each day?
And this is where our parables come in. What is the hidden treasure? What is that pearl of great price – that someone would sell all they had in order to acquire it? There is a movement in the U.S. which some call the new Gnostic movement. Alongside the Bible they study a text called ‘The Course in Miracles’ – a rather complicated and obscure text about which I have many doubts. But the gist of much of what it is trying to say is that everything we do comes from one of two emotions – and only one of those emotions is real. These two emotions are Love and Fear. From where do our actions flow? Are they from Love or are they from Fear? This theory would contend that when people do bad things, they are acting out of fear – when there is really nothing to fear, except of course fear itself. So how fearful would you have to be in order to steal, to rape or to murder? How fearful do you have to be to feel you have to obtain intimacy by force, to steal, to murder in order to survive – that the lust for power is really stemming from a fear of death? The greater the sin the greater is the fear. That amount of fear would be unbearable.
Of course this doesn’t excuse the sin, it doesn’t excuse harming anyone else. But it does give pause for thought, some insight into how a loving God would be so concerned for his wayward children. A loving Father would perceive the deep, deep-seated fear behind the actions of a tyrant.
There is a scene in the Mahabharatta, a Hindu text, in which the hero Udishterrah visits heaven and finds his enemies there, enemies who had raped his wife, killed his sons, killed his family – he finds they are there already, enjoying all that heaven has to offer. He is told to embrace them, but he cannot. He then asks to see his family and he is taken to the depths of Hell, where he decides to stay in order to be with his family. It is his inability to forgive that places him there, alongside his family who can only see the sins of others.
When all is done, the sin has been committed, there is nothing else left, in that moment in darkness and dust – when the dead cannot be brought back to life, the scars of injury cannot be healed, the pain of memory cannot be taken away. What can you do? You can remove your hands from the throat – but then you are left facing one another. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure worth giving all you have to acquire – the abundant Grace of God to forgive. In that forgiveness a transformation takes place. It doesn’t mean the transgression never happened – it doesn’t remove the scars or the pain. But it does transform them into a mark of beauty, a priceless treasure in the heart. One single moment of forgiveness, and forgetfulness, is the mustard seed that moves mountains, that wipes every tear from the eye and makes all things new. Forgiveness is the yeast that grows in the heart, spreads its leaven and provides bread of the Spirit for a whole community.
Memory is what causes revenge to be taken, revenge for sins real and for sins perceived, for everyday offensive slights, for acts of terror, or killing someone because they are different. Those who have known their death to be suddenly imminent in the midst of violence or tragedy, fly immediately past forgiveness and even forgetfulness. What matters in their last moments has not been laying hands on throats, but rather the love they hold for family and friends. Of the phone calls that take place, the messages are of one thing only. I love you. I want you to know I love you. This is all that matters. This is what God wants for us; to know that we are loved and to love one another in return. This is the pearl, this is the treasure for which we may be asked to pay a great price, this is the yeast that leavens the heart, this is the mustard seed that moves mountains.