Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Giving all glory and honour to God.
So what are we going to say about these things? That’s the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church that is one of our readings today, but he could be talking about our three selections from the Bible. What are we going to say?
Paul continues, if God is for us, who is against us? Who will condemn us? In Paul’s letter these words are meant to be reassuring, comforting, because he answers these questions. But in our lives, when we ask, who is against us, who will condemn us, we don’t always get these calming, soothing responses. Sometimes we know who it is who is against us, and we can name them, or we know that it’s a whole society. And we feel condemned.
In our first reading, we’re continuing last week’s story of Jacob, on the run from his brother. Jacob finds his uncle, Laban, and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, and works for Laban seven years so he can marry her. But Jacob, who is on the run in the first place because he fooled his father into giving him his brother’s inheritance, is fooled himself – tricked by Laban into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. And he works another seven years so he can marry Rachel too. Men could have more than one wife back then.
The writer of this book of the Bible states that Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Rachel is the hot one Jacob and all the other guys fall for when they see her. Leah is pawned off by her father because she isn’t pretty; the writer says that she has lovely eyes – which sounds like the words of someone trying to be kind. The only way for her to get a husband is to trick a man into marriage. Jacob marries her because he has to, but the story makes it plain that he doesn’t love her.
Who is against Leah? Who will condemn her? The people around her who judged her by the beauty standards of her society, in a story that is set nearly 40 centuries in the past, and things haven’t changed much since then. Magazines and movies and TV shows and websites still favour the Rachels over the Leahs. And we want to be Rachels, because who wants to be a Leah, unloved and unwanted? So we go beyond just using makeup and hair styling, and turn to cosmetic surgery and even extreme dieting or steroids as we try to look like supermodels and beauty queens and muscle men. There is an epidemic of unhealthy weight loss and anorexia among teenage girls because society gives them the message that they will be unattractive unless they are thin.
I’m interested in this as I have a disability. When our society looks at disability, it focuses on what one can’t do; the idea is that the body or mind aren’t working properly. This thinking leads to labels being given to people with disabilities, descriptions like cripple, handicapped, retarded. And these labels convey with them the idea that people with disabilities are worth less than able-bodied people. It’s only a short step from saying that people with disabilities have a problem, to saying that they are a problem. Advocates for people with disabilities call this thinking ableism, a set of stereotypes like racism and sexism.
And I need to add ageism here, as beauty in our culture means youth. Just as people with disabilities are given the message that they are worth less and are a problem, society gives the same idea to seniors, that the hair and skin and ability and health of elderly people are less than ideal.
It’s hard to be labeled crip, loser, geek, ugly. We may hope that these labels stop after high school, but they last as we go through life, particularly in this Internet age when anonymous people comment viciously on anything they find online. We may be saddled with the names and insults heaped onto anyone who has a disability or whose face or hair or body type or clothing, or speech or mannerisms or sexuality, isn’t what our culture considers fashionable and good-looking and normal.
Our world judges by superficial standards just as much as, and probably more than, the world of Leah, Rachel and Jacob. Our culture may pay lip service to everyone being equal no matter what they look like, but it tends to put down authenticity and and degrade anyone who doesn’t look like the ideal. The singer Pink has a song on the radio, called Perfect, and sings about how her critics don’t like her jeans and don’t get her hair, yet she does it too to other people, all the time. We know how we make snap judgments based on appearance.
Yet, in fact, sisters and brothers, we are all Leahs. It is impossible for us to meet the criteria of our fashion and beauty-obsessed culture 100 percent of the time. We can’t all be celebrities, and they can’t measure up to their media images continually either. The perfect people we are compared to, forever young, athletic, beautiful, sexualized, exist only in the imaginations of the media and advertisers. All of us - no matter how young or old we are or what we look like - all of us know at some point in our lives, maybe most of our lives, what it is like to be labeled, criticized, degraded, unwanted, to feel that we are worth less.
Paul writes to another church, the one in Corinth, and tells them, brothers and sisters, by ordinary human standards not many of you were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. He could have said, not many of you were Rachels. Most of you, maybe all of you, were Leahs. And Paul continues, but God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God chose what the world considers unattractive to shame the beautiful. God chose what the world considers to be nothing to reduce what is considered to be something, to nothing.
Into this world of superficiality and unachievable standards comes Jesus with his good news. In five little stories this morning he talks about the realm of God, where God’s love and justice and peace break into our world of shallowness and selfishness. Yet God’s realm is like something that is considered like nothing, worthless: a mustard seed. Yeast. So common in the time of Jesus they weren’t worth thinking about. Or so the society of the time, and our society today, would think. But God chooses what seems insignificant, and ordinary, to shame what the world considers famous and beautiful.
Jesus talks about the mustard seed, thought in his time to be the tiniest of seeds. Yet from that miniscule seed come mustard plants that become shrubs eight to ten feet tall. The contrast would have been obvious to his listeners. Tiny seed, huge plant.
Jesus is saying that the greatest things have the least auspicious beginnings. What is ordinary, looked down upon, dismissed by society, brings God’s realm.
A little seed becomes a tree. A few grains of yeast cause a whole loaf of bread to rise. God comes in human form as a crying baby, Jesus, born in an unimportant place in a backwater of the Roman Empire. Jesus, who always identified with anyone suffering and shut out by society, is telling us that small things count, as we sang in our hymn; small things count as big things in God’s mind.
God does not judge as we and the world judge. God has different ways to measure beauty. God sees potential where we write off ugliness and disability and old age. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.
Brothers and sisters, God sees each one of us as unique treasures. To God we are pearls, pearls of great price. It doesn’t matter to God what we look like, whether we are graceful like Rachel or the best anyone can say of us is that we have lovely eyes like Leah. It doesn’t matter to God what labels people attach to us. We are pearls, and God will search for us, and find us, and sell everything to buy us. And God has done that, as Paul tells the Romans: God gave up Jesus, God’s Son, for us all. Pink sings in her song, if you ever, ever feel like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me, and that could be what God is whispering to us.
If God is for us, who is against us? Who will condemn us? Well, lots of people may try condemning us for our looks or our ability or our background or our beliefs. But Jesus helps us discover our value as unique creations of God. When we feel beaten down by criticism, when we feel small, then we can remember that small things count. We count in God’s mind. We may feel as Paul describes, quoting Scripture, as if we are being put to death all day long, treated like animals for slaughter. Yet Paul continues to tell the Roman church, and us: But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor present things nor future things, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor any other thing that is created, can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.