(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)
Following John Shelby Spong’s premise in his book Biblical Literalism, that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically from Shavuot (Pentecost), to Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur over the last three weeks. The next major festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar is Sukkoth (also known as Booths or Tabernacles). It was an eight-day harvest festival beginning five days after Yom Kippur, and was the most anticipated and joyous festival of the Jewish year.
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In addition to the harvest-oriented material in Matthew 13, we hear the echoes of the rituals and traditions of Sukkoth in our own Palm Sunday celebration. In Jesus’ time, Sukkoth began with a procession around Jerusalem and into the Temple. In their right hands Jews would carry a lulab – a bundle of leafy willow, palm and myrtle branches tied together. And in their left hand they would carry a box with sweet-smelling leaves and flowers and citron fruit zest. As they paraded around the town, they chanted Psalm 118 which included (what we think of as Palm Sunday phrases) “Hosanna! Save us, we beseech you! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The Hebrew scriptures also dictate that Jewish families build a temporary shelter next to, or close to, their house for the eight days of the festival. This booth is to remind them of their ancestors who were essentially homeless nomads following Moses for 40 years in the desert. At least one night of the festival a meal is to be served in the booth.
The harvest stories (the sower, the weeds and wheat, and the mustard seed) and Kingdom of Heaven vignettes (the Kingdom of heaven is like leavened bread, a treasure in a field and a pearl of great price) in Matthew 13 correlate to the days that Sukkoth was celebrated in the synagogue.
It seems that Matthew essentially transformed the harvest festival – a celebration of food for the body – into a celebration of food for the soul- that which celebrates our deepest hunger. The message of Jesus was so important it needed to be shared! The parable of the sower was about planting the message of Jesus in “good soil” so that it would bear fruit. And the parable of the mustard seed recognized the reality of how small they were as a movement, but foreseeing it growing into something huge.
Almost two thousand years later, that tiny mustard seed of a movement has clearly grown and thrived. So, let’s turn our attention to the treasure and the pearl of great price… the value of Jesus’ message. How often do any of us actually consider the value that Jesus’ teachings and life have for each of us?
I spent a few days in Phoenix this week with my brother, Gary, trying to help my dad work through some issues and begin thinking about the future. The night before we came home Gary and I sat in the hotel bar to debrief. At one point he looked at me and said, “I don’t like your God.” Really? What about my God is it that you don’t like? Because I probably don’t like it either. He thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t expect life to be easy, but your God doesn’t seem to be helping us any…”
It seems to me that people are confused about what the treasure of knowing God is. You see, the value of knowing God – not merely believing, but knowing – is to understand that God is not a magic genie, but a deep abiding presence that changes everything.
What Jesus taught and lived is that knowing God has nothing to do with following rules, or believing the right things. Knowing God doesn’t mean reading the Bible, going to church, and giving to charity. You can do all those things without truly knowing the Divine. Knowing God means discovering that the secret to life, fulfillment and wholeness is, and has always been, within us. Knowing God means experiencing the Oneness Jesus talked about – “I am in God and God is in me” – and that Oneness is experienced as unbounded love. Not believing in unbounded, unconditional love, but knowing it, being it, living it.
When we reach that place, we move beyond our fears and insecurities to a place of compassion, courage and justice. We move beyond our judgments and grudges to inclusiveness and forgiveness. Our egos move aside and stop ruling our actions. This is a treasure beyond measure and a pearl beyond price. Why? Can you imagine what this world would look like if everyone could live in this place of pure unbounded love? There would be no war, no greed, no prejudice, no hunger, no poverty, no hatred, jealousy or pride. There would be no condemning or judging, envy or shame. To learn to live this way is priceless, because when we all meet in that place there is peace, there is care for all, and we find value in ourselves and in each other. That is “way”Jesus wanted us to find in our spiritual lives… KNOW God… then we don’t need rules or parables or belief structures.
Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “Perhaps we need to confront the possibility that Christianity has not failed, as our critics constantly assert: the reality, I believe, is that Christianity has never been understood and thus has never really been tried.”