“The kingdom of heaven is like…” How would you end that sentence?
It reminds me of a primary school lesson on similes and metaphors – ‘give 4 ways to end this sentence…’
And I know from experience that if you gave that task to a group of 7 years olds you would get some nice, predictable answers…’The kingdom of heaven is like angels singing’…or ‘a summer’s day’.
You would get some answers suggesting the authors were in a parallel lesson, if not a parallel universe – usually involving dinosaurs or sharks…
And then you’d get some that really made you stop and think.
And that, after all, is the point of parables. It’s easy to forget – because they are so familiar, or because they weren’t written for 21st century Leeds– but the point of parables is to put surprising things side by side in a way that provokes our imagination.
According to some of my books, parables…
“do not teach, direct or answer – rather they confront and tease”
“raise questions, unsettle the complacent and challenge the hearer to reflection”
“are open ended invitations waiting for a response”
I’d like to use these ideas to help us think about parables and baptism today.
Parables invite a response…perhaps I should ask for yours. But since I’ve had a fortnight’s head start, I’ll give you my thoughts – and you can give me yours over coffee later…
Perhaps to get the most from today’s parables we need to know something of their context. For Jesus’ audience mustard was a weed, an invasive plant – a bit like Japanese Knotweed – its seeds so tiny they were often planted accidently with crops – then grew into large shrubs – taking up valuable space.
In Jesus’ time yeast was not a predictable thing in a packet – it was on a lump of mouldy bread that needed keeping long enough to act on the next lot of flour, but not long enough to poison everyone.
Parables confront and tease…Jesus uses every day, almost worthless things to challenge our pictures of kingdoms and of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like Japanese knotweed? The kingdom of heaven is like mouldy bread?
If he meant to unsettle the complacent, could Jesus be reminding us that the true nature of things is not obvious? That we need to live with eyes open, looking for the kingdom of heaven in surprising places?
Is our vision of the kingdom of God one of deliberate planting in neat rows…with predictable and recognisable results? Do we want it to keep to the boundaries we set – perhaps with God staying comfortably in church?
Does comparing God’s kingdom to a fast growing weed or unpredictable wild yeast remind us there is something invasive and unpredictable about that Kingdom? Are we prepared for it to pop up in our family lives, at work, in our leisure time?
Perhaps it reminds us that although we should plan carefully, and prayerfully, ways to spread the kingdom of God in Whitkirk and Colton…we should be ready for our initiatives to work in surprising ways…we should be ready to recognise and follow what God does with our ideas.
Take Faithbook for example…It’s been a wonderful space for the developing or renewing of faith – but not necessarily for the people we originally had in mind. So perhaps we need to think afresh about whom we might invite to September’s Faithbook.
Parables challenge us to reflect…
Reflecting on mustard seeds producing shrubs big enough to shelter birds, and a tiny bit of yeast affecting a huge measure of flour…I noticed how in both these cases their end is in their beginning.
The beginning – that tiny seed, or clump of yeast – already contains and generates the outcome. The parable mentions nothing about how, about the process, just that a tiny, very ordinary thing has the potential to grow into something great.
And this challenges us to keep stepping out in faith – planning yes – but trusting that with God small beginnings can grow into huge trees.
And this idea of the end being in the beginning is surely one of the reasons we will baptise Darcy today. She is not able yet to profess her faith for herself – but she is a beautiful bundle of potential.
Already she gladdens our hearts with her smiles and her chatter. Already as part of our Messy Church, Play and Praise and 10am congregations she reminds us that we are one family in Christ.
We trust that if we start her on a journey, God will take her to places we cannot yet imagine. She is a sign of the kingdom of God growing unpredictably and wonderfully into the future. She is also a challenge to us…her parents, godparents and church family, to dare to speak of and celebrate the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus’ parables.
And of course we also baptise Darcy because we believe the Kingdom of God is like hidden treasure…like a pearl of great price – worth more than everything else we have…and we want her to share in that.
Parables confront and tease…are we ready to recognise the Kingdom of God in unexpected places…are we ready to try something new…are we ready to invite a perhaps unlikely person to something at church?
Parables are open-ended invitations waiting for a response…what will ours be?
And if all this seems a little unsettling – we do all this in God’s name. And we are reminded by St Paul that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen