Even if you’re not a sports fan, the film Moneyball is a wonderful exploration of how to find actual value when it’s hard to see at first.
Moneyball is the true story of how the Oakland A’s, one of major league baseball’s most cash-strapped teams, reinvented themselves after having lost all their best players to rich teams that could pay them much more. The team’s general manager, Billy Beane, realizes that he simply can’t compete with those rich teams by doing things the way they do them, so he decides to find a new way. He brings a new staff member named Peter Brand on board who is an expert at sabermetrics, a complex statistical analysis system that measures player performance fundamentally differently from how everyone in baseball has traditionally done it. “We’ll find the value of players that nobody else can see,” Peter tells Billy as they begin their work; “People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws: age, appearance, personality…[sabermetrics] cuts straight through that… I believe that there’s a championship team of…people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”
And that’s what they do; they put together a team of players that the rest of baseball considers a bunch of rejects, has-beens, and never-will-bes, and they end up not only going to the playoffs, but setting a league record by winning 20 games in a row. All because they were able to realize that the high-value players they needed to win were there for the asking, hidden in plain sight. Nobody else recognized them, because they were looking for something else, expecting something different, something big and bright and shiny.
The parables we heard in our gospel lesson are all about finding value in unexpected places. One of the basic rules of parables is that they upend our expectations, reverse where we expect to find value. And so when Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of heaven in these parables, we have to remember that the crowd was probably expecting something very different.
No, no, they were probably saying to themselves as Jesus talked; the kingdom of heaven is like a massive city with huge walls and streets paved with gold, not like…a seed that turns into a tree. It’s like a huge sword that a great warrior astride a charging warhorse wields against a fearsome army, not like…a bit of yeast that a woman kneads into the dough for making bread. I mean, come on; yeast? Yeast is a fungus, for heaven’s sake. Can fungus change the world?
Well…yes, actually. In 1928, a scientist named Alexander Fleming left his workstation a bit untidy when he left for a month’s vacation with his family. When he returned, he discovered one of his bacterial samples had been left open and was now contaminated by a fungus growing on it after a month’s exposure. If he had been like most people, he would have seen a rather nasty sample and tossed it in the trash. But instead he examined it, and he noticed that the bacteria near the fungus had been destroyed, while the bacteria further away continued to thrive. He identified it as a kind of fungus that was both unremarkable and well-known, but in looking closely he discovered that it produced a substance that killed a whole range of bacteria that cause diseases.
If you don’t know already, he ended up calling that substance penicillin, after the fungus group it came from, and of course, once it was commercialized, it has saved the lives of literally millions of people all over the world. All because he bothered to notice that something unusual was going on in that lab sample of fungus, something that had been hidden in plain sight.
Perhaps the most important thing about both yeast and mustard seeds, though, is not just that they seem very small to make such an impact; it’s that they actively change their surroundings long before we are able to see any visible sign of that activity. The seed is placed in the ground, the yeast is mixed into the dough, and they disappear from view. And you can’t tell when the seed begins to grow, or when the chemical reaction with the yeast begins. But just because you can’t see what’s happening doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. It’s just hidden below the surface, already sprouting or bubbling up.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus is telling us. God is already at work in things just below the surface of what we can see, transforming the world from the inside out. And so we can be sure it’s happening, even when we can’t see it.
That is a good thing to remember after a week like this past one. The week began with arguably the biggest coordinated political assassination campaign in U.S. history; the fact that it failed to kill anyone doesn’t take away from the unprecedented scope and horrifying boldness of it. Then a white supremacist in Louisville targeted a black church and spent fifteen minutes trying to enter it before giving up and proceeding to a nearby Walmart, where he murdered two black people. Then we had the horrifying attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue right here in Pennsylvania just yesterday, when another white supremacist entered during services, yelled “all Jews must die,” and opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle, killing eleven people in their house of worship.
How are we supposed to respond to something like that? Where should we even start?
Well, one good place to start is making clear that white supremacy is incompatible with both the witness of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ. I assume that nobody here disagrees with that, much less enough people for it to be controversial to say. But since most white supremacists in the U.S. claim to be Christians, and most terror attacks in the United States (including the ones in Louisville and Pittsburgh this week) are carried out by white supremacists, it’s important to say that clearly. Because it is clear.
As we heard in our readings just last week, from the very beginning, in the Creation story itself, Scripture tells us that “God created humanity in God’s image; in the image of God, God created them.” Later, when God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments, the Second Commandment outlaws the creation of any image of God for worship: nothing that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. That’s because God has already provided an image of God: human beings themselves. Only human beings bear the image of God, and all human beings bear the image of God. White supremacy, then, is a rejection of God’s first and most universal gift to humanity; it is a rejection of the basic theological meaning of humanity itself. And that belief cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, much less to claim victories.
But what can we actually do about it, realistically? I’m reminded of an editorial I read a few years ago after a spate of particularly terrible violence in the Middle East. The author was struggling with the same problem that I think most of us have had this week: what are we supposed to do in the face of all this violence, all this hate? What even can we do? What could possibly make a difference. It is hard to know what to do,” he said, “but even within this dark day, we need to continue to insist on the possibility of peace — and to have that start with ourselves. If all I can do today is pray for peace…and refuse to accept that hate is natural, that will be a start. If I can pray for the people…and try not to be swept into a rage calling for revenge, if I can make myself open to being an instrument of peace, then that will be a start.”
That might not seem like much, at first. In the midst of all that violence and anger and terror and hate, we should…pray? We want something more than that: something concrete, something significant, something that we can do that will make a visible difference, something that will really change this world. Praying for peace is just not a realistic response. But that’s a good thing, because being realistic is the last thing God or the world needs from us right now.
Realistically, there’s nothing that you or I can do about this rising tide of bigotry and hate in our country at all. But realistically, a bunch of pacifists could not have driven the British Empire out of India. Realistically, the Montgomery Bus Boycott should have never succeeded being led by an untested 26 year old pastor for over a year. Realistically, apartheid South Africa should have ended in a race war.
Realistically, human beings are not very good at evaluating what is realistic, at what is effective, at what is possible, at what is valuable.
In this case, the value of praying for peace is not in its capacity to convince God to get to work, if we just do it long enough or strong enough or often enough to get God’s attention. The value of praying for peace is that it keeps us from being too realistic. It helps convince us of what we’re supposed to already know: that God is already at work in the midst of all this somehow, even if we can’t see it yet.
And it helps us to keep looking for where that is: where the treasure of God’s kingdom is lying hidden, waiting for us to discover it; where the seeds are starting to grow under the earth, where the yeast is starting to leaven the mixture under the surface. We know it’s there; we know God’s at work there, hiding in plain sight, even if we haven’t recognized it yet. Because that’s where God always is; that’s what God always does.
If there’s any question about that, just look to Jesus himself. A friend of mine likes to say that Jesus Christ is everything that human beings are capable of knowing of God. And in Christ, God came to us not as a great warrior from one of the power centers of the world, but as a wandering peasant from a backwater hamlet, hiding in plain sight: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, crossing boundary after boundary to befriend sinners and outcasts; the yeast in the dough transforming the world from the inside out, until all of it is finally raised up.
And finally, the value of praying for peace is that it is a start, not an end. Prayers in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States have become controversial in recent years because they are frequently offered in place of meaningful action: “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this senseless tragedy,” goes the cliché.
But that is a fundamental misunderstanding or even misrepresentation of what prayer is and how it works. In prayer, we do not seek to align God’s will and action with ours; rather, we seek to align our will and action with God’s; with what God always cares about, and to join in with what God is already doing and has called us to do.
That is the answer to the question, what can we do? And that answer is frequently completely unrealistic: praying for peace in the face of deeply committed and powerful forces of hatred and violence; loving our neighbors by standing with those who are being targeted by such evil forces, not simply expressing our best wishes; and loving God by loving this world in all its beauty and tragedy, loving it because God loves it so much that he gave his only Son to die for it.
God loves this world so much that God will not let it stay like this, but is constantly at work in it, transforming it everywhere we look, perhaps most especially when we can’t see anything yet, because that’s where God is needed the most. Which means it’s where we are needed the most, too, as the Body of Christ: our hands as Christ’s hands, taking the yeast of God’s kingdom and beginning to knead it into the towering mixture, with purpose and with patience, trusting in its power to change everything. It may not seem like much at first; but a little goes a long way. That’s how it always has been; that’s how it will be until the kingdom comes and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven. And that’s how it is, right here and right now.
So let’s get to work; there is a lot of mixing to do, but we have been given all we need for the whole mixture to rise.