Caves, Barns, Kitchens and Fields
July 24, 2011
I picture it like this: Jesus and his friends are walking along and Jesus is teaching as he walks. The friends crowd around asking questions. “What is this Kingdom of God like? It sure doesn’t sound like the any kingdom we’re familiar with, especially the kingdom of Rome.” Jesus starts rolling out a series of comparisons.
One of my favorite preachers, Scott Hoezee, refers to this lectionary passage as Jesus on a simile binge. The Kingdom of God is like: a mustard seed, a bit of yeast in flour, a pearl, treasure hidden in a field, good fish hiding among of catch of bad fish. Jesus is on a roll for sure, and his obliging disciples encourage him by saying, “oh yes, we understand!” I doubt that, but maybe the everyday images were at least something to which they could relate. And maybe they really did understand at least for the moment. When things got tough, though, the understanding turned to bitter disappointment. The kingdom looked more hidden, than one that had arrived with Jesus.
At first blush these images do seem clear enough. The problem is the comparison of something so ordinary and everyday as a woman baking bread, to the actions of God in the world. And then there is a puzzling reversal of values depicted here. Mustard weed was not popular among the farmers of those days, nor is it popular now. It didn’t take many weed seeds hidden among the good seeds to mess up a nicely sown field crop. Leaven, or yeast, was sneaky stuff that could get into everything, if you weren’t careful.
Then Jesus tosses to the waiting audience the images of things hidden: treasure, the pearl and the fish. In each of those the good is hidden among the not so good and they make themselves known in unexpected ways and to unexpected people like a plowman, and a merchant, and a fisherman.
Truly Jesus is, as always, talking about the puzzling in-breaking of God’s world and God’s will in ways that do not sit with our expectations. That makes it easy for us to walk right past the kingdom and never know it’s there. As Scott Hoezee says, Jesus always made clear that the kingdom of God was going to save the world by virtue of its being different from the powerful earthly kingdoms in which people currently lived…and in which we live now. In other words, Jesus is “teaching one of the most remarkable truths that emerges from the gospel: namely, the unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God.”  This kingdom is not where we would look for it given our own instincts –left our own devices. And there is another dimension to which Jesus alludes in these parables…things don’t happen according to a human schedule or in accordance to human history. The kingdom comes when, and where, the kingdom comes.
This past week we went to see an amazing movie called “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Back in 1994 a team of 3 cave explorers were searching for caves in a remote mountainous region of southern France. The sides of the hills are sheer limestone rock faces. Of course many caves exist there, and in some there have been found drawings done by prehistoric peoples. The oldest drawings that had been discovered prior to 1994 were about 18,000 years old. These explorers were convinced there were others, and much older in terms of human traces. The way they search for these hidden caves is by walking along the rocky overhangs with their face close to the wall. A puff of wind felt on the cheek signals an updraft from a hidden cave below.
An updraft of wind was felt and they began searching for the entrance. Many thousands of years ago a rock slide had sealed off the entrance to the cave and eventually they made their way in. What they found astonished them. In chamber after chamber were magnificent drawings. These weren’t child-like scrawlings. What they saw before them was the work of accomplished artists– capable of depicting on the rough cave walls magnificent drawings of stone age animals…horses, cave lions, bison, ibex. The drawings were sophisticated in form and expression, conveying grace, power and motion. Perfectly preserved in the rock slide, the drawings of Chauvet cave have been dated to 30,000 to 35,000 years ago. The most stunning part of the whole thing to my mind, was that the carbon-dating on the various drawings places their creation 5000 years apart. It’s hard enough for us to consider what is going to happen next week in this world let alone 5000 years from now.
There has to be an intersection of the human and divine in that cave. It staggers the mind to consider that 35,000 years ago Paleolithic man or woman was inspired to give artistic expression to the world around them. The sacred was clearly present tens of thousands of years prior to the establishment of religion as we know it. The arc of human history is long, but the arm of God is even longer.
Another story of discovery is this: In the 15th century Andrew Rublev, painted his icon of Christ as part of a tier of altar paintings he made for a church in the Russian city of Zvenigorod. In the centuries of upheaval following, the painting was long lost. In 1918, an art restorer was in a barn near the cathedral in which the painting was originally installed. As he turned over the steps leading into the barn, he gasped with amazement at what he found. Staring up at him was the face of Christ, painted by Rublev.
Henri Nouwen writes movingly of this icon: “I can well quite imagine how deeply Vasili Kirikov must have been moved when he first saw the face of Christ staring up at him in the barn. To me, this holy face expresses the depth of God’s immense compassion in the midst of our increasingly violent world. Through long centuries of destruction and war…the incarnate Word has spoken of God’s mercy…reminded us of the image in which we were made…” Nouwen sees in this tale of loss and rediscovery a warning and reassurance. Christ is warning us of our own willful disregard of God’s intention for this world, and at the same time expressing a conviction that God’s love is stronger than our worst inclinations. Love and beauty can be suppressed, hidden for years, but ultimately will prevail.
In caves, barns, kitchens, fields– God is at work and we can walk right by and never know it. We need the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hope to believe.
Jesus says that the kingdom of God not only looks small, and is hidden, it can disappear completely the way a seed gets buried in the soil. You can hardly even see it once it’s dropped in the soil. The same is true of yeast once it’s buried in the flour. But it’s there and nothing can eradicate it. The yeast and the seed begin their work independent of our expectations. And further, we might say that it happens in fits and starts. The bread starts rising and then it falls and the housewife thinks that all is lost. But there is more yeast in the flour and the next loaf may tell a different story. One seed sprouts and seems to take hold, the plant may even flourish for a while but eventually it dies. There is another seed waiting for the light of day, a mustard shrub for tomorrow. So it is with the kingdom of God.
There is a Chinese proverb that says all the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today. Well, the seeds of the kingdom were sown long ago and we await its full flowering.
I suppose that if God had wanted the kingdom to come in a different way, God would have done just that. Jesus speaks to the puzzling truth that the kingdom is hidden and right under our noses. The Kingdom is coming and the kingdom is here. We know that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We also know that the arc of human history is long, but the arm of God is even longer.