Readings for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12 Year A)
This sermon was preached by Fr. Daniel London at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on July 30, 2017, after the Memorial Service for parishioner Sydney K (July 27).
In the Gospels, there is one subject that Jesus loves to talk about more than anything else. Does anyone what it is? A close second is the subject of money, but more than anything else, Jesus loves to teach and preach about the kingdom of God. We see this in our Gospel reading this morning in which Jesus tells several parables about the kingdom of heaven, which is a more Jewish way of talking about the kingdom of God (since Jewish people generally try to avoid using the name God lest they use it in vain). The kingdom of God is a deeply Jewish concept that is described in delicious detail all throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The kingdom is not described as some abstract pie in the sky, but rather as an extravagant party here on this earth, overflowing with the finest food and wine. The prophet Isaiah describes this kingdom when he says, “the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich [fatty] food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). This is what the Reign of God looks like on earth. The Hebrew prophets use imagery that we would more likely expect in a song by Jimmy Buffett, whom I have been listening to ever since Thursday, when I learned that our sister Sydney Kennedy was a fan. For Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, the kingdom of God is really not too unlike an everlasting “Margaritaville” where everyone can enjoy “cheeseburgers in paradise,” and where the cheeseburgers are miraculously kosher.
Following in this tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus also uses this imagery of overflowing abundance to describe the Reign of God. He says, “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Now when we hear “three measures of flour” we might think of three cups, but three measures (sata tria in Greek) is actually 144 cups! That amount of flour would produce about 52 loaves of bread, each weighing about a pound and a half; that would be more than enough for 400 cheeseburgers. So once again, we’re talking about a lot of delicious food. Jesus also compares the kingdom to a net full of every kind of fish and then to a tiny mustard seed which grows into a great shrub and tree. In Matthew, Jesus seems to be very generous in calling the mustard plant a “tree” because it’s actually a relatively small plant, but the culinary and medicinal benefits of the mustard plant and seed are enormous; and for our friend Jimmy Buffett, they are the perfect addition to his experience of heaven on earth. He sings, “Cheeseburger in paradise / medium rare with mustard ‘be nice / heaven on earth with an onion slice.” Now please understand that I am not trying to cheapen the profound words of our Lord Jesus Christ by comparing them to Jimmy Buffett songs or to denigrate the kingdom of God by comparing it to a “Margaritaville”; rather, I am trying to bring out the Bible’s very concrete and earthy descriptions of the kingdom of God as an extravagant party here in this world, overflowing with delicious food, wine and abundant excess. After all, Jesus launched his ministry and message about the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth by bringing more wine to a party.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is [also] like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Now when it comes to comparing biblical descriptions of the kingdom of God to Jimmy Buffett songs, here is the icing on the cake. When I looked at this parable in the original Greek, I learned that the Greek word for “pearl” is actually the word margarita. (I bet Sydney would have loved that). The parable certainly takes on a different flavor and texture if we hear Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is like someone who sells all that he has to buy that one “margarita” of great value. In this case, the kingdom of God can indeed be like “someone wasting away in Margaritaville.”
Now although this is certainly an amusing coincidence, it is also more than that. For us, hearing the word “margarita” instead of “pearl” may actually help us understand and appreciate how Jesus’s first listeners and Matthew’s first readers may have understood this parable. At the time Jesus was teaching, there were at least a couple popular stories in the air about excessively wealthy people taking a pearl worth about the equivalent of several million dollars and then dissolving it in vinegar and then drinking the residue. According to one story, Cleopatra did this in order to prove to her lover Marc Antony that she could consume several million dollars in one single banquet. Another story, written by a Latin satirist named Horace of the first century BCE, describes a man taking a fine pearl earring from someone’s ear, dissolving it in vinegar “with the apparent intention of swallowing a million [dollars] in [one] lump.” The storyteller asks, “How is he any saner than if he were to throw that sum into a swift river or sewer?” It is not unlikely that these stories of multi-million-dollar margaritas or stories like them were in the back of the minds of Jesus’s first listeners and Matthew’s first readers; stories of conspicuous consumption, of people wasting away their wealth in order to parade their prestige, of people throwing away their money in order to shame and outshine their neighbors.
The kingdom of God is indeed a kingdom of abundant excess, but it is not abundant excess for the sake of status and prestige, to trump up one’s own personal wealth and fortune. For Jesus, that would be ultimately equivalent to throwing one’s money down the sewer. That is why, after his series of parables about this kingdom of abundance, Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” Surprisingly, the people answer yes. They seem to understand that the kingdom of God is about sharing the abundance and generously giving it away to those in need. Jesus concludes by saying, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of God is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Once again, the original Greek is helpful here. The word translated as “brings out” is the Greek verb ekballo, which means to “forcefully cast out.” It is actually the same verb used in the Gospels for casting out demons. As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine explains, “For Matthew, one does not store up in the treasury or the treasure; one ‘casts out’ (ekballo) from it.” Citizens of the kingdom of God freely and even forcefully give away their wealth and abundance to those in need. They understand the paradox of the Gospel: if we store up abundance and wealth purely for ourselves, we end up wasting it; but if we waste it on others, we spread it and let it propagate and grow like yeast leavening bread. It is by giving our abundance away freely that God makes us part of the answer to the very prayer Christ taught us to pray when he said, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
And that is what the church is really all about: bringing the kingdom of God to earth: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the sick; spreading God’s overflowing abundance everywhere we can; making God’s love tangible, freely casting out from our own treasures what is new and what is old. Here at Church of the Redeemer we are doing just that in very practical ways. In the winter, we gave away hundreds of our old winter coats to help keep others warm and now we are gathering new school supplies to give to low-income families in San Rafael. Several months ago, we packed more than 10,000 meals which were shipped in a container totaling 285,120 meals which fed thousands of families in Turkey and Syria. And next week, we will learn how we can help spread God’s kingdom on earth by partnering with one of the largest hunger relief and development organizations in the country called “Food for the Poor.” And we continue to spread the abundance of God’s kingdom by supporting the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy and serving meals to the hungry and homeless in San Rafael; as well as by simply handing out Safeway gift cards to people living on the streets as some of us are doing. If you’re interested in doing this, ask me about it after the service.
The former Marin Interfaith Street Chaplain, Paul Gaffney, used to talk about a theology of waste. He always loved the idea of there being too much food at the Tuesday Night meals for the hungry because he understood that excess as an expression of the Reign of God on earth, inviting guests to bring the surplus to their friends on the streets.
This morning, the parables of Jesus call us to help bring the Reign of God on earth by being wasteful with our wealth and abundance; not wasteful in the sense of conspicuous consumption, but wasteful in the sense of being extravagant and prodigal in our generosity to those in need. I think our friend Jimmy Buffett, who loved to “waste away” would understand this. He said that in his relationships with friends and loved ones he discovered “treasure more valuable than gold.” I think he would understand that the entire purpose of wealth is to nourish and cultivate those treasured relationships of love with our family, friends and neighbors and all those in need. That is, in fact, what money is for. Jesus, who preached about money almost as much he preached about the kingdom of God, makes that very clear. That is the message of the parable of the pearl of great price (or the “margarita” of great price). All of our money, wealth and abundance has been given to us by God so that we can cast it out freely to others in order to build up the beloved community, in order to make God’s love tangible to a love-starved world and to be part of the answer to the prayer we pray every day, that God’s abundant kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so. Amen.
 http://breadmonk.com/my-bread-blog/three-measures-of-flour, accessed July 29, 2017.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.119-21; Horace, Sermons 2.3.239-242. Also see B. Ullman, “Cleopatra’s Pearls,” Classical Journal 52.5 (1957):193-201, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/journals/CJ/52/5/Cleopatras_Pearls*.html, as cited in Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 295.
 Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 134.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 142 – 143.
 The fourth-century poet and theologian Ephrem the Syrian (306 – 373) did not compare the pearl to a margarita but he did describe himself drinking of the pearl when he wrote, “On a certain day a pearl did I take up, my brethren; I saw in it mysteries pertaining to the Kingdom; Semblances and types of the Majesty; It became a fountain, and I drank out of it mysteries of the Son” (1.1, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 1886 – 1900. 14 vols. Reprint. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994, 13:293)