Monday, July 25, 2011

smelling the Bible: parables of mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl, net

On Sunday I was guest preaching. The lectionary texts were the parables of mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl and net in Matthew 13. As part of the sermon, I decided to explore a more multi-sensory approach to the Bible and deliberately tried to engage the senses, especially the sense of smell. (For more on smelling the Bible, see here). For those interested in how the senses might be engaged in a sermon

I’d like to invite us today to smell the Bible. To take a good sniff and to begin to imagine together what the gospel reading might smell like.

This might not be your normal approach to the Bible, or to Christian faith, so let me explain.

Your local community, the streets around this church, mean a lot to me and my family. You see, the Taylor family moved from New Zealand to Adelaide at the start of last year, to work at Uniting College. And the first place we lived, for our first 3 weeks in Adelaide, was here, in this suburb of Bel Air.

So our first Aussie smells, our first scent of Adelaide, was here. So close you eyes and take a sniff. What words would you use to describe the smell of this Bel air community?

In my first 3 weeks, I got a bit of eucalyptus on the nose. And it was summer and in drought. So there was hot earth smell when I went for a run. And usually the smell of barbeques in the evening.

Am I missing anything? As you smell the Belair community, what are you scenting? (audience response)

I ask this because smell is really important to us being human. Often the last of our senses to go.

Let me read something from a favourite book, Sense Making Faith Body Spirit Journey: Particular smells are intimately connected to who we are as human beings …[T]here are particular smells which become deeply embedded in our memories … who can forget ever forget the distinctive smell of a newly-bathed baby? … We each have a smell ….The smell of familiar places can be reassuring for we all know what home smells like … In looking after others, we instantly detect and react to alarming smells of sickness .. Doctors often ask their patients if anything about their body smells different or unusual .. The intimacy of love comes with its own set of special smells which are reinforced by closeness.” (44, 45, 46)

I invite you to think about the scent of person you love. To close your eyes and think about how you would recognise them by smell alone?

And with your eyes still closed, I invite you to to think about the smell of this church? How would you recognise Bel Air Uniting by smell alone?

And so a prayer. It’s in your order of service. Bringing together this sense of smell – in the Belair community, in a person we love, in this church.

Lord God, You walk in all our memories
You know where we have been
What we have said, known and felt
Come to us in the scent we remember
The time when we walked with you
And know that we walk with you still. Amen

And a second prayer. Because smells are not only good. They can also be bad. When we get sick our bodies smell. When our community gets sick, it can smell.

Lord God, In the stink of rubbish tips where people make a living
In the stench of grave where people search for their dead
In the foul odour of disease where people are suffering
You are there. You are the fresh air.
Help us to make lives for the scavengers of rubbish
Help us to bring justice for the unknown dead
Help us to nurse and heal the diseased.
Help us to bring your fresh new life to the world. Amen

Today’s reading is an invitation to smell. It’s a passage about the ordinary things of life. The scent of mustard seed. Yeast. Buried treasure. Pearls.

And the parables conclude with a summary statement – Matthew 13 verse 52: the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

So I want to run through each parable. And after each to pause and ask the question. What do you smell? Is there the scent of something new? Or is there a scent of something old?

mustard seed
31“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 3Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

And in your envelope you should have a mustard seed. You might like to get it out and feel how small it is.

When it grows it becomes a plant. About the size of adult. If there’s lots of rain, about the size of an adult, with their arm outstretched.

There are bigger trees in Israel. Like, for example, the cedars of lebanon. That would actually house more birds.

But mustard plants grow wild. All up around Galilee and northwards towards Lebanon and to the west along the coastal plain of Israel, if you drive today, they just grow.

And they grow fast. A tiny seed grew to great height in a few weeks time;  it is a success story. 
According to archaeologists, the plants who provide excellent cover for the ground nesting partridges that are native in Galilee.  Farmers sometimes get so angry with how good the mustard bush is for birds, that they’d go and and try and destroy all nests. 
So this tiniest of seeds, grows wild, grows fast, grows to host the birds of the air.

Hence the photo on your order of service, sparrows flying in and out of the mustard patch and perching in the upper branches where they were visible.  So this parable is about God. That no matter how small, the things of God are still real and active, still growing. That in time, God’s time, all will be well that is well.

So the invitation to smell this parable of the mustard seed.

What smells new? What smells old? (audience response)

Then there’s the yeast
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

And again, in envelope you should have some yeast. Small. Yet you put it into bread and the bread starts to rise. To grow. It grows fast. Over a couple of hours, the bread rises.

In our house, we make our own bread and my partner, Lynne immediately noted how strange this parable is.

Sixty pounds. That’s about 30 kilos of flour.

That’s about enough bread for 100 people. So there’s yeast for a lot of bread here. Quite a party really.

Some of us might start to think of other places in the Bible where there is feasts and festivity. An abundance of friends coming over. And that smell.

What is it. What might smell new in this parable of the yeast? What might smell old? (audience response)

The parable of the mustard seed and the yeast. Both parables focus on God. How God is real and active. Causes growth. Often in wild, unexpected places. Often in overflowing, abundant spaces.

The next two parables, the treasure and the pearl – focus on us.

We know that from verse 36 – Then [Jesus] left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him. Then he said …

treasure and pearl
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

So again, in your envelope, you should have a pearl. And some “treasure”.

I live at Seacliff and every Monday there is a man out on the beach with his metal detector. Just like this parable. Looking for treasure.

It was even more likely in Jesus time, when people often used to hide their money, bury their treasure.

“The picture is of a [person] who walks across a field and discovers what no one else has seen.”

Which then raises a nice little ethical question.

If you found treasure, do you tell the owner of the field? Or should it be finders keepers, losers weepers?

Which might make for a good tutorial case study for an ethics class at Uniting College.

But for the hearers, the first century world of rural Jewish farmers, in a culture which tends to bury their money, to discover treasure in a field, perhaps of a previous owner, now long gone, this is a parable not only about God, but about us.

About how much we’d be willing to give if we stumbled across God’s Kingdom?

These are parables that invite us to look at ourselves. To ask what are we willing to give for the sake of investing in our spiritual life. What sacrifices might we be willing to make for a fresh expression, whether in Christchurch, or here in Belair? How much might we be willing to invest in order to throw a Welcome to Australia party for a 100 new migrants in the Bel Air community?

Time to smell. As we think about this parable – treasure and the pearl, what might smell new? What might smell old? (audience response)

Conclusion. Which leaves the net.
47 “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.

A parable doesn’t play well in today’s contemporary PC-tolerant culture. A parable which definitely doesn’t smell well – all those dead fish.

But a parable which superbly captures the 4 parables that go prior. That God is doing something new. Good fish.

Which the old – bad fish – won’t always like.

Such is the Kingdom of God. In the smell of wild mustard, the aroma of fresh baked bread, of soil freshly turned, of fragrant pearls.

Unexpected. Abundant. Surprising. Excessive.

Total gift. None of us can force a seed to grow. Or make yeast. None of us deserve buried treasure or found pearls.

And in the face of such gifts, we consider our human response. When we find gift, stumble across treasure, when we catch the scent of God’s Kingdom, what would we do.

Would we give our all. All of their time. And effort. And energy.

Be a good fish?
Or a dead fish. Do nothing. Let the Kingdom stink on by?

When you came in you should have got an order of service. On the order, half of you will have a picture of a google map. Of Bel Air. Of this community. Other half will have a picture. Of the church. Bel Air Uniting.

I invite you to take a minute in silent reflection. If you have a map of the community, to reflect on what does it mean for you to go walking in this Bel air community, nose up, sniffing for the scent of God’s Kingdom, gift of mustard and yeast?

If you have a map of the church, to reflect on what does it mean for you to enter this place, looking for treasure, attentive to the pearl of God’s Kingdom in the pew beside us?

And for all of us, when we find what we are smelling for, what we are looking for, what then are we willing to give?

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight, O God.

Posted by steve at 05:12 PM

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