Sermon: Nothing better to do
Nothing Better to Do
Text: Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 7-30-2017)
Words are elusive and slippery as eels. Ask any poet. It is one thing to speak of being attentive. It is quite another thing to capture the reality of being attentive in words. The poet, Mary Oliver gives it an admirable try in the opening of her poem, “Mockingbirds”:
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons of their song
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
Mary Oliver gives sage advice for anyone trying to pay attention to the words of Jesus: “I had nothing better to do than listen.” Read the Gospels. Notice how few people in the crowds and how few of his daily companions are attentive listeners. They have much better things to do “than listen.” They have “getting Jesus straightened out or kicked out” to do and that is why they have a tough time listening. They do not listen in attentively; they listen with an agenda, just waiting for their turn to talk.
Some wait for Jesus to say the wrong thing so they can trap him in his own words. Some produce a coin with a picture of Caesar on it and ask Jesus, “Who are we to follow, Caesar or God?” Just try to get that answer right! Some call him a rule breaker when he speaks words of healing to a man possessed by demons. Some chastise him with accusatory words when he not only speaks kindly of but eats in the house of a known sinner.
Many people in the Gospels have anything “better to do” than to listen to Jesus. Maybe that is why Jesus tells such a wide variety of stories to try to get people’s attention. He does not describe life in God’s world in a single story, but with an onslaught of parables, analogy-like, more than simile, hard to define, but nonetheless, Jesus stories that point to the mystery and wonder of living in God’s world.
Keeping good company with many of the Gospel characters, the first reaction of most people to parables today is to explain them away, to reduce them to easy to understand morality tales, to tell you what the Parable of the Prodigal Son “means,” to highlight the moral of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Not so quick, though. If you think words are slippery, just try grabbing hold of a parable.
I would argue that a better approach to wrestling with the parables of Jesus is contained in the attentive poetic words of Mary Oliver, “I had nothing better to do than listen.” God’s world is like a mustard seed. Off I go to research mustard seeds, only to learn that they are not a desirable seed at all and that they hardly grow into cedar of Lebanon trees, but that the mustard plant takes over the garden like a kind of virus as it grows into an unsightly bush that birds pass on their way to more majestic habitations. This is hardly the great, hospitable tree that Jesus describes in this parable. So, Jesus, just what are you talking about?!
Jesus does not take a breath before he says God’s world is like yeast. Again, I am off to research yeast, only to learn that Jesus is not hosting a cooking show here. In Scripture, yeast is akin to rust or like the mustard plant, a virus that takes over our computer operating system. Yeast corrupts what is in place. God’s world is like yeast?! Say what, Jesus?
Fast forward just a few verses and Jesus talks about God’s world is like buried treasure. Now, that is more like it, Jesus. I get finding a buried treasure. Read the parable again, though. It is not a story about someone finding buried treasure after a careful, methodical search, but about someone stumbling upon it in sheer luck and then immediately hiding it so no one else will find it. God’s world is like that?! Come on, Jesus, tell us an easy one!
Okay, says Jesus, God’s world is like the wealthy merchant in search of a priceless pearl and when he spots it out of a large collection of pearls, he sells all his assets and buys it, so he can have the only pearl worth owning. Now, that is more like it, Jesus. God’s world is all about each of us being on a spiritual quest to find God and when we do, we give up everything else to dance, skip, jump into God’s delightful presence.
Easy enough, right? But, wait a minute. Jesus, you just said that God’s world is like a buried treasure that we are not looking for at all, but stumble upon like a root on the path that we never notice. So, is God’s world something we seek with single-minded intensity or is it something that we stumble upon while walking this world in the dark?
Jesus is not finished. He goes on to say that God’s world is like a net full of stinking fish of every kind. In God’s world, our job is to fish and it is God’s job to sort out the fish. So, somehow, we are supposed to be open and welcoming of even the seemingly most useless, smelly fish and worry little about the company we keep. Come on, Jesus!
Then after telling this non-stop series of parables, the funniest question and answer sequence in Scripture follows. At the conclusion of this great and sometimes conflicting compilation of parables, Jesus asks his followers, “Have you understood all this?” And, without a second’s pause, they answer, “Yes.” They follow the age old wisdom, “When in doubt, at least look like you understand.” Matthew does not say, but if ever Jesus doubled over in laughter, it has to be at the end of chapter 13.
“I had nothing better to do than listen.” The few folks who actually pay attention to Jesus in the Gospels, who watch him, who listen to him, find themselves getting off their mats and walking, find themselves joining him in Paradise, and find themselves walking about in a whole new world.
“I had nothing better to do than listen.” What if God’s world is like a mustard seed, a seemingly unnoticeable, even undesirable seed, hidden in the hand full of seed that grows into something totally unexpected. What if God is invading the real world even now, the world that we preachers declare is largely devoid of God? What if God actually specializes in the unexpected and excels in the unanticipated? How can we Presbyterians do things decently and in order, when God does not behave that way?
What if God’s world is like a huge lump of yeast that is corrosive and corrupting the world as we know it? What if, as Tom Long suggests, “when its covert fermentation is accomplished, the bland flour of the world will have been transformed into the joyous bread of life” (Matthew, p. 154)? How can we staid and stoic Presbyterians trust that God is at work, even in us, in such abundant and disruptive ways?
What if God’s world is like hidden treasure that you and I trip over? What if, more often than not, we fall into God’s world precisely when we are looking for any other location, even when we doubt its very existence?
What if God’s world is like an invaluable pearl that a wealthy merchant finds, sells all she has, and then buys, because that is the only thing that makes any real sense in life? What if, no matter we stumble upon it or find it after an all-out search, that you and I walk into God’s world in absolute delight because to live in any other world is a total waste of our time?
What if God’s world is like a net full of stinking fish of every variety? What
if “everyone is welcome to come along for the ride?” What if “the job of sifting the serious from the frivolous, the authentic from the fraudulent, is left to the angels?” What if “the fish that would, at first glance, have hastily been thrown back will, in time, turn out to be the best catch of the day?” (quotes from Tom Long in Matthew, p. 158).
Words are so elusive, so slippery. What words do you choose to describe God’s world? A mustard seed, a computer virus, a lump of yeast, a treasure chest in the attic, a fine pearl, a great catch of fish, wheat and weeds, and the list goes on?
So, let me ask you the same question that Jesus asked of his followers: “Have you understood all this?” If your first instinct is to say, “yes,” “well, mostly,” “sort of,” “I think so,” then fight it off. Instead, let these parables marinate for a while as you and I heed the poet’s advice, “I had nothing better to do than listen.”