26 July 2020

Pentecost 8: Parables, protests, and the imagination

Bible Passage: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

It was tempting to preach on one parable out of this morning’s smorgasbord of parables, and in fact I had one in mind that I did a fair amount of research and reflection on.

Today’s gospel reminds me of the sower—Jesus is scattering the parables of the kingdom like the sower scatters seeds. Mustard seed, and pearls, and treasure, and yeast…Cannot take one parable; need to take them all in order to apprehend the kingdom.

Need to allow it all to be messy. And massive.

I hope that if you take a look at all the things that are happening in the world, you can feel the presence of the Kingdom of God in all of its messy and even—occasionally—disturbing ways. Look out your window. Take a careful look at your garden or people walking past your house or people you see on the bus. We talk about how “the church has left the building” during this time of pandemic, but God has not gone anywhere. God and God’s kingdom are everywhere.

Think about these parables of the kingdom and look at what’s happening in our city:

  • The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a huge tree.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a mom upset about how protesters are being treated, who invites her friends to join her to link arms to defend young Black lives. There was one, then forty, then a thousand.
  • The Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny bit of yeast a woman hid in a huge amount of flour. Soon the dough was everywhere.
  • The Kingdom of Heaven is like a fight for justice infusing the hearts and minds of a whole expansive community that doesn’t seem to end, a movement for justice perpetuating itself like sourdough starter.
  • God’s reign is the pearl of great price, the kingdom, the beloved community. It is the mutual aid you see if you walk around Lownsdale park downtown, people feeding each other and checking in with each other and providing everything anyone might need while they are fighting for justice and dignity.
  • The Kingdom is like a net that catches fish of every kind: grandmothers, rabbis, priests, teenagers, anarchists, pacifists, lawyers, reporters, poets and prophets…sorted at the end of the age…like wheat and weeds; we don’t do the sorting; we just keep showing up.

What does this have to do with us? Well, Portland is getting national and international attention for the tireless work done by protesters and many, many others as the whitest city in America fighting for justice and dignity for people of color.

The other way that this has to do with us is that I believe that the Kingdom of God is revealed through imagination. We see this in the extravagant scattering of seed we heard about a few weeks ago in the parable of the sower, and we see it in this extravagant “scattering of parables” in today’s gospel.

Earlier this year I discovered Rebecca Solnit, who is a brilliant writer, historian, and activist. I read a book of hers called “Hope in the Dark.” (I’ll put the information in the comments later today.) I want to share what she has to say about imagination—I’m going to read a fairly long quote:

“…the most foundational change of all, the one from which all else issues, is hardest to track…change arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations. It means that symbolic and cultural acts have real political power.”

[Jesus knew this, right? This is why one of his last acts was to share bread and wine with his disciples and say: “do this in remembrance of me.”]

“…the changes that count take place not merely onstage as action but in the minds of those who are again and again pictured only as audience or bystanders. The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden—which is to say that revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution.” [1]

I think it’s important, when we read about the Kingdom of God and about Jesus’ teachings, to reflect on this connection between the Kingdom, imagination, and revolution. Jesus came to start a revolution that no one expected; not a rebellion against the Roman Empire and certainly not a rebellion against the established religion of the day. He came to start a revolution in our imaginations. This is what this crazy scattering of Kingdom images is about.

I think it is part of our human condition that most of us like things to be fairly straightforward and linear. Jesus isn’t like that, and the Kingdom of God isn’t like that. I don’t know how many of you saw the 1988 movie, the “Last Temptation of Christ” …Harvey Keitel plays Judas and it’s a fascinating interpretation: he is Jesus’ best friend and he is frustrated that Jesus won’t bring about the revolution Judas expects. There’s a great scene just before Palm Sunday when Judas sits next to him and says “do it! Go ahead, now’s your time. Do it!” In the film, Judas’ betrayal is born of his disappointment in Jesus’ having different a different revolution in mind.

I came into this parish with many plans and ideas for the kind of growth and development I know many of you want, and for which my position was funded. I actually had a timeline of things I was going to do. None of you have ever seen it, because Covid had other plans. And it’s probably more realistic, more like life in the Kingdom of God Jesus talks about in today’s parables, not to have plans and agenda in the times in which we live. Several people have asked me: “What’s your plan?” It changes all the time. It’s hard to describe. The best I can do is to say that my plan is to scatter seeds of the Kingdom of God with wild abandon.


[1] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Haymarket Books, 2016 (first published 2004), p 26-27