Paying Attention to the Right Things

072620 Pentecost 8 

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

America’s short attention span has been a subject of discussion for many years. A school shooting is front page news for about 10 days and is then relegated to page 2 or 5 or 10. A financial crisis brought about by inadequate regulation of financial institutions brings about changes in regulatory policy until the public is no longer paying attention to it. Then the government and banks remove the regulations. An oil spill destroys natural habitats in Alaska and the Gulf, companies are fined, and protections are put in place. As memory fades, the protections are weakened, and the fines are reduced.

We’re still in the Coronavirus and George Floyd moment, so we don’t know how many permanent changes will be implemented because of simultaneous crises. And we don’t know how soon or whether the world will forget and move on. But as people of faith, now is the time to think about that, even if it’s overwhelming. There’s a psychological burden to living with them. That’s why we block out the tragedy of another child kidnapped, abused, and murdered because it’s too much to handle. We distract ourselves with Netflix to calm our nerves about simultaneous racial tensions, health crises, and financial threats, for a few hours. We must be gracious with selective amnesia amid so many crises at once.

Nevertheless, permanent amnesia is not healthy. A community that is indifferent to and illiterate about the past will misunderstand, misread, and misconstrue the present. In response to Israel’s tendency to forget, today’s Psalm invites people to remember history in a way that empowers them: Keep your eyes open to God; watch for God’s works; be alert for signs of God’s presence. Remember the marvels God has done, the wonders performed, and the judgments pronounced. It’s important for churches, individuals, and nations to remember their history, and realize there are different versions to choose from. 

After the section we read today, the Psalm presents a version of history that gives content to the invitation to remember. From the promise to Sarah and Abraham, to liberation from slavery under Moses, to entering the Promised Land, the Psalm recounts Israel’s history to remind people of God’s faithfulness. Walter Brueggemann calls this Psalm an ‘exuberant remembrance’, crucial in the biblical community, and ours, since both communities suffer from systemic amnesia, knowing little of their history, and lacking the patience, language, and energy to receive and appropriate the past.  

We have many opportunities to hear different versions of the same realities these days. Statistics about the number of cases and deaths from COVID are reported every day. But, wildly different interpretations of those numbers are expressed. The dangers of kids returning to school are clear. But people disagree about their importance as they discuss the dangers of not returning to school. What matters most when we must decide between two or more options? We can answer that question clearly in retrospect. But in the moment of decision, it’s not always easy. Today’s Psalm issues an invitation; the parables offer perspectives that can help us decide. 

It may be easier this year to understand these parables about the big impact of small things like mustard seeds, invisible things like yeast, hidden things like treasure, and valuable things like pearls. Coronavirus is a small, invisible, hidden thing that is making a huge impact on our world. How should we view it?

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, an enemy sowed weed among the wheat that a farmer had sown in his garden. Right after that parable, Jesus tells the story of the Mustard Seed. This time the farmer himself sows weed into his field. Jesus is adapting a riddle told earlier by the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel used a cedar tree instead of a mustard plant. Jesus changed the cedar tree to a mustard plant – a shrub or weed!  Is Jesus saying that this what God did in Jesus? Was Jesus sown into this world as one who willingly let himself be treated as a weed so that we might see the deadliness of thinking we know good from evil and be God’s servants to weed out evil? Is the parable also a reminder that we tend to ignore small things because they don’t seem as important as large things when the truth is, they are? In God’s rule, small things should not be discounted

The parable of the yeast describes the reign of God as something hidden that nevertheless has a huge impact on the flour. Jesus’ audience would have considered leaven unclean and corrupting; the scriptures often used “unleavened” as a metaphor for the Holy. For a community that celebrated Passover every year, the immediate reference for leaven would have been God’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, when people ate unleavened bread because they were in a hurry. Today we might get the same impact from saying: “God’s reign is like a virus that doesn’t always show symptoms but can nevertheless infect a whole community.” That image is as offensive to us as the parable was to Jesus’ first listeners. Remember, Jesus is talking about how God’s reign grows. In the Roman Empire, the yeast had to corrupt life under Rome’s imperial rule – an oppressive political, socioeconomic, and religious form of control for all but Roman citizens. By corrupting it, it also transformed it.

Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, ate with tax collectors and sinners, urged mercy, promoted access to shared resources and created alternative households. All of that corrupted the empire’s status quo by replacing an unjust hierarchical system that furthered the interests of some at the expense of others, with just and egalitarian relationships that served everyone. If a society is sick, part of the path to wholeness for its inhabitants is to inject corrupt elements into the system to reveal its disease. People need to see how the system is making them sicker. Is the Coronavirus opening our eyes to see the sickness in our society? 

Next are two parables about selling everything to get something of value. God’s reign is a matter of discernment – a choice between many possibilities, and the determination to place our greatest value with God and, by extension, with what God desires for creation. In Jesus’ parable, the man doesn’t buy the field and the woman doesn’t buy the pearl to hoard them, but to promote the common good. It is up to each of us to make that choice to find our highest value in God – to live in such a way that we help carry out God’s will for all of creation. Sister Dianne Bergant wrote that the reign of God is “the realization of knowing that we belong to God, that we’re cherished and cared for, that we have been called to commit ourselves to the noblest values of the human heart. It is the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight draws us into the future. It feeds our hungers; it satisfies our thirsts; it piques our curiosity. It fulfills our deepest desires and our fondest hopes.”

Both the Psalmist and Jesus teach us to focus on the right things when we are discerning the moment. The Psalmist urges us to practice gratitude and praise to help us focus. As we remember, we learn with Israel that life’s truth consists not in security, power and achievement, but in miracles remembered, promises trusted, and futures given beyond our own invention. We reread our past and future and are liberated for a different present. We also need a personal connection with our history that resonates with the memory that is literally in the cells of our bodies. The Psalmist reminds Israel that they are offspring of Abraham and Sarah, children of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. They carry their DNA, so their ancestors’ history is in their bodies. Likewise, the DNA of our ancestors is part of our history. It lies inside us; in the stories our bodies tell us from memories locked in the cells of our bodies. We don’t just repeat the story because it is our people’s story. It is our story. It’s in our DNA. In a few minutes we will do a practice that helps evoke that wholeness by reminding us that we all have masculine and feminine inside us. That’s important after the lecture Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave congress last week.

Friends, Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, and warns us that our saltiness can lose its flavor. We must constantly listen to Jesus’ perspective when we look at the world around us, so we pay attention to the right things.

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