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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 17, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Unconventional wisdom’

Our readings today deal in unconventional wisdom. In our Genesis reading we hear another story of Jacob. Jacob is someone who struggles with issues to do with social norms, especially the conventions around social status relating to birth order. He lives in an era where it is conventional, and therefore believed to be good and right and divinely sanctioned, for the firstborn to inherit all the family privileges and the younger siblings to receive very little. Previous to today’s reading Jacob employs underhand trickery to reverse the order and receive the rights that would otherwise have fallen to his older brother, Esau. In today’s story, Jacob gets some of his own back when he is tricked into marrying the older Leah rather than the younger woman of his dreams, Rachel. In this case, the trickery is employed in the cause of maintaining social customs, rather than inverting them, but it is still an illustration of Jacob’s struggle with the system.

We would search the Scriptures in vain looking for evidence of God condemning Jacob’s struggle or even his swindles. God is willing to be identified as the God of Jacob; the God of Jacob the swindler, the God of Jacob who fought to invert the socially accepted natural order. This is not a God who sides with the conventional, endorsed privileges of the firstborn few, but a God who champions those who buck the systems that disenfranchise many.

Our Gospel also points to social disruption. It is a strange little collection of parables. The first compares the reign of heaven, or culture of God, to a tree growing from a mustard seed. Mustard seeds do not grow to be trees as such. At best they grow to be shrubs, no taller than me. In Mark’s more overtly comical version of the parable, the shrub provides not branches but shade for many birds. So the comparison that Jesus is making is not to something small that can be expected to grow into something big and mighty, but to something small that breaks out beyond what’s expected – in other words, to something small that overturns – or, at least overshadows – expectations.

And then there is the parable of the hidden yeast, or, as one paraphrase has it, the parable of the hidden vodka – a provocative image lest we forget that in the Scriptures yeast symbolises something corrupt or morally dubious. Elsewhere, Matthew writes of the “yeast of the Pharisees”. Jesus is warning that the growth of the culture of God might not only be as pervasive as yeast in measures of flour, but that it might well be regarded as morally shady as spiking the punch at a party.

Of course, rabbis and scholars have long debated the ethics of concealing a treasure found in someone else’s field. Jesus, it would seem, delighted in planting within his parables morally shady figures. (I think of hip-hop artists – Slim Shady, for instance – as storytellers who do something comparable.)

As followers of Jesus, then, we need to look suspiciously on all accepted and socially endorsed hierarchies. And we need to note that there are layers and layers of these.

The Jacob stories clearly raise questions about the hierarchy that prioritises the interests of the firstborn over those of younger siblings. To us, the blatant prioritising of the interests of men over those of women is grating and offensive, yet for many generations of hearers, it went unnoticed. The women were simply possessions exchanged among the men, and that was simply the way things were and supposedly the way they had always been. Jesus teaches us to keep questioning these things.

Any time a group is assumed to be less important, is ignored, shamed or labeled a scapegoat, Jesus calls us to ask questions, to dare to rethink the possibilities, to ask whether the call to love all without reserve might be a call to rethink the diminished status of one group or another.

For example, why assume the need to cater for children in the context of a worship service oriented primarily to the desires of adults? What would happen if we began to think about it the other way around?

And it’s never simply about inverting in favour of one group and against another. It goes beyond that. Once we’ve begun to think about things inversely, how might we get the two interest groups to dialogue with one another so that a completely new perspective might emerge, a perspective whereby younger and older alike are valued and a new kindom is made visible in practice?

There are implications for dominant and scapegoated religious and ethnic communities; dominant and derided living arrangements, financial investments, and dietary habits; dominant and marginal readings of Scripture; dominant and marginalised political and economic traditions, sexual identities, and so on.

The kindom of heaven, the culture of God, can seem threatening to those who are benefiting from the way things are and the way they have always been, but if we have the courage to surrender ourselves to it, it is never a net loss. Yes, we might lose some privileges, but the gains in peace, hope, joy, love and grace will far outweigh the losses. We worship a God whose upending of social conventions and niceties is not confined by the limits of our imaginations.

Perhaps, in a heavily patriarchal society, in a conventional kingdom, the story of Jacob the second son and thus second-class subject/citizen, reveals the treasure of a heart set against the patriarchal system – a restless and a mischievous heart set on friendship, set on kinship beyond the rule of fathers and unjust rule-makers. Of course, that would be but a glimpse of the kindom. In an old homily based on these same texts, I said it’s friendship – trust, empathy, intimacy, loyalty, common concerns for justice and peace – the capacity for kinship with Christ and all – toward which God draws us as a fisher draws a net filled with all kinds of fish. It’s friendship – real presence with each other in the world – that marks us as a people transformed, as souls participating in the love of God.

“Have you understood all this?” “Yes,” they answered. To this Jesus replied, “Every religious scholar who has become a student of the kindom of heaven is like the head of a household who can bring from the storeroom both the new and the old.”

After a period of silence, let us share the glimpses of the kindom, new and old, we have perceived. Let us place our “pearls” near the Cross, as signs of a real treasure in our world and in our lives. … Amen.

(Based on homily by Nathan Nettleton.)