If I close my eyes and let my imagination wander, I can see and hear Jesus delivering these lines: fast, funny and unsettling, to the gathered crowd. So, you think God’s Kingdom is about power, and triumph – the restoration of God’s people under the rule of a Messiah? Well, I tell you the kingdom of heaven is like – a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field…..small, hidden and unclean.
Jesus parables were punchy and provocative aimed at waking people up and helping them see. In terms of the currency of the world, the parables do not make a whole lot of sense – either to Jesus’ audience or to us. In the parables we hear today, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is not revealed in the big displays of power or reputation or wealth but rather in the small and in the hidden and in the seemingly insignificant. By implication, what we may think of as success or where we may think we will find happiness bears little relation to what Jesus was teaching or how he was living. We may have sensed something of this through the pandemic as we began to revaluate what mattered and what was important.
The first two parables take as their image the everyday stuff of things – seed and yeast and the impact they have beyond their smallness. The last two, treasure and pearls, evoke the joy of this kingdom, which will be like nothing we have experienced – change the direction in which you look for meaning and happiness and new vistas will open. This is the God of the everyday whose kingdom is revealed in changes of attitude and behaviour; whose invitation is to love – ourselves and our neighbour and where forgiveness may just be the pearl of great price.
I find Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom stretches and pulls in all sorts of directions – as I yearn for a different world and try to grasp and pin down something that is so elusive and slippery. The outlines may be clear- the shape of what this kingdom looks like, but the path less so. How does social and personal change connect? Which comes first? How do we discover what matters; how can we expand our circle of empathy so that we too can see the face of God in the refugee, the homeless? Can we resist the allure of worldly success and comfortable reputation and the need to protect our own security? All the things that we take for granted and assume are just the way things are and should be, Jesus pushes to one side. Even at this stage Jesus’ teaching was rejected as we discover a few verses later as we read that back in his hometown those who heard him were offended, scandalised.
We know people in our communities who have been or are being so faithful and attentive to the needs of someone in their family or else a friend, that God’s love is revealed through them; this too I think is what Jesus was naming when speaking of the Kingdom of God as showing in surprising places.
Last week the whole family went to Switzerland for the funeral of Beatrice’s brother in law, Janko. We first met some 25 years ago at our wedding and since then our paths have overlapped in several ways – not least in having both married into a wonderful Swiss family! He was a Priest in the Swiss Reformed Church (like the C of E, their national Church, but probably a bit more Protestant) and we began our time as ministers pretty much at that same time. Janko and his wife Jacquelin lived in Wengen, where he was Priest to this and other mountain communities and Jacqueline a teacher in the school and Church; they raised their two children in this beautiful Alpen community with a view of the glacial Silberhorn and the imposing Jungfrau. The Eiger hides around the corner.
Janko loved his family and his work. He loved the outdoors – walking, cycling and skiing and would happily find his way to remote and far flung places in the course of his ministry. He connected easily with people, perhaps especially those not in the Church (although with those too), he leant to yodel
and sing in the village choir, visited men and women in prison, took his squeeze box to old people’s homes and sang old Swiss songs with them and made an extraordinary film with a teenage youth group preparing for confirmation retelling the parable of the Good Samaritan through the eyes of a drunk in a ditch. We enjoyed sharing tales of ministry together.
About 13 years ago Janko began to lose his balance in public places and fall over. When these falls became more regular, he had it checked out and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Shocking as it was, in the early stages together the family were able to manage the impact and to continue as best they could. As the years went by Janko became less and less physically able; first his legs were unable to support him and he was confined to a wheelchair and then his arms were too weak to feed himself. He became totally dependent on others for his physical needs – not least the devoted attention love and care given him by Jacqueline.
But his mind remained fine. He continued to work part time – to lead services, take funerals and marriages; if once he would go to visit people, now people would come to his house to speak and talk with him. While he had always loved the mountain landscapes and the weather, now his relationship was more contemplative than active as he looked out from the constraints of his chair. I lift my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, says the Psalmist, and so said Janko. While he was no longer able to do so many of the things that had brought him life in his younger years, new things evolved, not least in his relationship with God. In his vulnerability, he became more open and therefore to some extent more available to people; in his weakness he revealed the strength of God’s love and people responded to that.
Through his illness Janko revealed God’s glory as his relationship with God deepened, as his community continued to support him and the family and as he was so lovingly cared for by his wife. That is not for a moment to say that all this was easy for any of them – there are dark and difficult times in the past and yet to come – but through the darkness, God’s light and love shone through and will continue to shine through. I know that many people have shared and are sharing that experience.
We both love Bob Dylan and Janko had chosen Forever Young to be played at his funeral; the service ended with two friends, one a cellist the other a singer / pianist playing this song which begins with the words:
May God bless and keep you always.
Revd Jonathan Morris