Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
You’ve heard of United States Representative, civil rights leader, and conscience of the Congress, the late John Lewis, and of Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on March 7, 1965 which lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No doubt you will have also heard of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott which occurred ten years before on December 5, 1955 that gave rise to the American civil rights movement.
But today, I want to tell you a less familiar story from 12 years before in 1942, about the church, racial reconciliation, and the struggle for justice in Americus, Georgia, a town less than 200 miles from Selma and Montgomery. It’s the story of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia farm where blacks and whites lived together and held property in common in what Jordan called an experiment in Christian community. It was fire-bombed, shot at, and boycotted by its Christian neighbors. The great civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he and other leaders had known about Koinonia farm but never visited because if was considered too dangerous.
Clarence Jordan was a white man. He looked like Marcus Welby and Atticus Finch rolled into one if they had been an agriculturalist and bible scholar rather than a doctor and a lawyer. His home-spun translation of the New Testament is called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He was and is the spiritual father of Habitat for Humanity. Koinonia farm still exists to this day and its work continues.
One day, a neighbor and a deacon from the local Baptist church who led the effort to have Clarence expelled from the congregation for living with black people, drove out to the farm a few days after the vote filled with remorse for what he’d done. He couldn’t sleep for hearing that old hymn play over and over in his head, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, he confessed. He knew that he had been there. In fact, he had led the effort. He told Clarence he planned to resign from the church too. Clarence told him no. It was alright. He didn’t have to do that. “Instead,” he said, “I want you to go back to church and so live as to get kicked out.”
What might happen if we were to so live the gospel? How many places might we be kicked out of? Clarence Jordan’s advice to his neighbor and brother in Christ is a yard stick any of us can use to take the measure of our faith and a good starting point from which to pick up the thread connecting the five parables of Jesus that Matthew presented us with today.
Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The treasures of our tradition are familiar, reliable, trustworthy, and wise. Yet also, by definition, they cannot be enough to tell us always what to do. What is most loving? Where does the Spirit lead? We must furnish the final answer. It’s up to you to decide.
Matthew shows us what it means to live as a person of faith serving the God of our ancestors who is always, already, working within each situation with crazy abundance sowing seeds of grace everywhere hidden in plain sight.
Like some display of fireworks, these five parables seem to point in every direction at once. Each is a work of art. Evocative, memorable, captivating, the meaning of a parable is difficult to put into words. Jesus apparently taught in parables. There is nothing like them in the Hebrew bible. The word means “something cast aside.” They are like something you only just see from the corner of your eye.
Jesus’ parables lead us somewhere new in our understanding. Their content is drawn from everyday life. Parables address themselves to people both inside and outside religion, people of faith and of no faith, to everyone confronting the same basic questions of life.
Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a noxious weed giving shelter to flocking birds.’ The kingdom of heaven is like leavening yeast –which you’ll be surprised to know likely made our ancestors in faith scrunch their mouths into yuck-faces. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you’d be willing to steal for. And also, the kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl you’d give literally everything to possess. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is an incredibly diverse community—like Koinonia farm—in which angels are working to sift out the bad and to keep the good.
The parables of Jesus turn us upside down and inside out. Pieced together, they form a treasure map. An ‘X’ marks the spot. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow the way of the cross. Like the cross, the parables of Jesus, point us toward the kingdom of heaven that is already here but hidden. Our search for treasure most likely leads, not to exotic lands, but next door, or across the street, into the next cubicle, or into conversation with a stranger. It may cause us so to live as to get ourselves kicked out of many fine respectable places.
Clarence Jordan believed “the principal problem of modern Christians was that they wanted God to conform to their agenda—to bless their endeavors and goals. Clarence said that was backwards. God has an agenda and wants God’s people to learn what it is and to become active participants in that agenda.” (Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John.)
If ever there was a Christian who lived on the road mapped out by the gospel it was St. Paul. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition greeted him in nearly every city he visited (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5). The book of Acts records at least eight murder attempts on Paul’s life. In Paul’s own words, he compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and even, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Therefore we have confidence in Paul’s life-tested assurance that nothing, “[not] death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Perhaps the most important word in all the parables is the first one: ‘Listen’. Hear now what God is saying so that the strength to endure may take hold in you, so that joy in God’s presence may shield you, and the abundant blessings of grace may fill you to overflowing with all the ordinary, wonderful treasures God has hidden around you.