Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church
1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
“Have you understood this?”
Acclaimed British-American author, Simon Winchester, has written best-sellers about everything under the sun from oceans to mad professors to volcanoes to the vestiges of the British Empire. One of my favourite writers, Winchester is incredibly knowledgeable on a number of subjects as well as being an exceptional stylist. His latest book is called the Perfectionists. And no, it is not a study of so-called obsessive-compulsive individuals who must get everything just right -- except perhaps tangentially.
In the Perfectionists, rather, Winchester considers our modern era’s need for and pursuit of ever greater precision in measurement, engineering, and science. Our world today could simply not exist without such perfection, he maintains. For instance, if components of a jet engine -- if anyone remembers flying -- are off by as much as a fraction of a hair’s breadth, the airplane could well crash. His book tells the story of how we got to such precision.
We live, in other words, in a scientific age which values certainties. We yearn for yes or no; right or wrong. At some level, even churches must depend upon accurate budget forecasts and balance sheets as well as accurate head-counts each Sunday morning. How else can we tell how we are doing in bringing about the Kingdom if even at the material level…? Doing the numbers is a set part of each Chaplaincy Council meeting here in Budapest and probably at congregations across the Diocese. Everyone after all needs good data to be able to do good work.
Even in matters of faith, we often yearn for precision and definitive answers. Is such-and-such a sin, we might well ask… Are the teachings of the Church perfect and precise for all times and circumstances, as some theologians contend… On the other hand, should we change long-held beliefs and practices, given new information? Such questions are of course important to Christians of every age and era. We all want answers. We all want clarity. If theologians and ecclesiastics could only be as precise and exact as Winchester’s engineers.
But faith never just is. You cannot put Jesus and his teachings on a slide and slip them under the microscope. And, no matter how powerful or perfect your telescope, you will never catch a glimpse of God in an off-moment relaxing out there on Alpha Centauri. The perfection to which our Lord and his Gospel calls us is of a completely different order. Jesus in fact never quite tells us what that perfection is. He never quite tells what the Kingdom of God is -- how many square kilometres it encompasses; what are its latitude and longitude coordinates.
But as in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord again and again seems to tell us only what the Kingdom is like. Never precisely what it is. And, while this can be disconcerting for some, it is an important part of Jesus’ method and teaching. He turns to simile and metaphor in other words – parables – because no other language or speech can begin to hold or describe the Kingdom of God and its meaning.
For, the Kingdom does not work the way logic and mathematics work. Indeed, its growth and dynamism would give new meaning to the word exponential. Yet a super-computer will not help you calculate it, find it, or understand it. Ten to the millionth does not even begin to encompass the power of the Kingdom of God.
It is this Kingdom and its power at work in each of us which Jesus describes with his similes and parables. Immeasurable, unpredictable – often messy by the standards of an engineer. Flying across oceans and continents in precision-engineered airplanes will not bring you closer to the Kingdom. Peer down from above and look as hard as you like, and lacking spiritual vision you will not see the Spirit at work on earth. Yet it is there.
The kingdom is by turns as small and worthless as a mustard seed yet as valuable as a fine pearl; as invisible as yeast in dough or treasure hidden in a field; yet at the same time as fiery as a furnace and as inescapable as a dragnet. It is by turns new and old, near and far, young and ancient. It is at the heart of each of us yet belongs to none of us. We too are perhaps like the Kingdom. But we are not the Kingdom. Yet from this elusive nothing – this wisp -- comes all the richness and glory of knowing God and possessing his love – a wealth even Solomon sought and treasured, as we learned in our first Reading today from the First Book of Kings.
Only the images conjured by parable and story can begin to do the Kingdom justice and bring its perfection and value to light. “Have you understood this?” asks Jesus of his disciples – and us -- at the end of today’s passage. Yet, in spite of the disciples quick and confident yes, the more honest answer to our Lord’s question is of course, no, probably not. We still struggle to understand. And alas, Jesus and his Kingdom do not figure at all in Winchester’s book about the Perfectionists.
Yet, it is precisely -- if I may use that word -- this Kingdom which is at work in each of us and without which we simply could not exist, without which not even airplanes would be possible. For, we too are like the Mustard Seed; like the yeast; like the treasure; like the very Kingdom of God in our potential to grow and love and bring about God’s plan for salvation and peace. In this, at least, we too can become perfectionists, even if we never make it into Winchester’s book.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs