Saturday, February 16, 2019

“The Surprising Kingdom” - February 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 13:24-43

In our world, bigger is so often seen as better.  We want laser lights and smoke.  We want fireworks.  We want marching bands.  We are attracted to things that are larger than life.

You may have noticed that they don’t market the 8 oz. Small Sip.  They push the 44 oz. Big Gulp.  You will find TV shows devoted to 1 pound burgers with four slices of cheese, 6 slices of bacon, pulled pork and a fried egg on top.  You don’t find shows devoted to finding the perfect 3 oz. soyburger.

Would you rather have a slow dial-up internet connection or a blazing fast fiber optic connection?  If you somehow won a free car, would you choose the 3 cylinder, 74 horsepower Mitsubishi Mirage or the 520 horsepower Porsche 911 turbo?  Would you rather have a 5’8” starting center on your basketball team or a 6’11” center?  (I mention that because my dad was a 5’8” high school center). 

Despite the phenomenon of tiny houses, most folks, given the choice, would rather have a 4 bedroom home with a 2 car garage, a fireplace and a nice deck than a 1 bedroom efficiency apartment. 

This morning, we move ahead in the gospel of Matthew to chapter 13.  Unlike much of the Sermon on the Mount, which we looked at these past few weeks, the bulk of Jesus’ teaching is found in parables.  He teaches by telling stories.  Our reading today includes three of these parables, and it is striking how small and everyday these stories are.  They are not flashy and over the top.  These are not Big Gulp stories.  These are simple and rather homely stories Jesus tells to describe the kingdom of God.  These are stories for an agricultural community familiar with planting and cultivation and growing crops.   

The kingdom is like a field that has both wheat and weeds.  The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  The kingdom is like some yeast mixed into dough.
Now, understand that Jesus taught pre-PowerPoint.  Pre-Instagram.  Pre-internet meme.  Lots of people are visual learners, but one way to teach visually – and maybe the best way available in Jesus’ day – was through telling stories that allow the listener to create a picture in one’s mind, in one’s imagination.  Jesus’ parables create imagery that the hearer can reflect on and chew on, and generally supply the conclusion for oneself.

The way that Jesus piles on stories, one after another, does leave it to the hearers – that would be us – to make sense of it all.  In this instance, there is an explanation given for one of the parables, but that is unusual – and in fact, some scholars think that this may have been included by the early church as a way to better make sense of it.

This morning, we have read these three parables – similar and yet each unique – and the question for us is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”

First, the kingdom of heaven – or the way of God, or maybe God’s Neighborhood - is like somebody who sowed good seed in the field, but then in the middle of the night somebody snuck in and spread some bad seed.  And when it all germinated, there were weeds as well as wheat growing in the field.  The field workers ask if they ought to pull up the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you would risk pulling up some of the good stuff at the same time.  Just wait till harvest and then we’ll sort it out.”

It is a terrible idea, of course.  It is completely the opposite of what you would actually want to do.  I don’t have large scale farming experience but I do know that your garden does a lot better when you control the weeds.  In fact, if you don’t control the weeds, by the end of the summer you might not even be able to find your peppers and tomatoes for all of the weeds.

Jesus describes a terrible plan for farming.  To follow Jesus’ advice, to just let the weeds grow till you’re ready to pick the corn or gather in the beans, is asking for all kinds of trouble.  Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad says,

These parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming.  But come to think of it, would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost?  Jesus’ parables that seem so simple and ordinary don’t really make good sense at all.  Not to people who make their living by farming!  Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God?  Or was he simply a bad farmer?
Jesus’ real subject, of course, is not farming.  And while this may be a poor farming strategy, it is an excellent storytelling strategy, because people would remember this crazy farmer. 

In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad.  There are weeds among the wheat.  That is painfully obvious.  The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”

Life can be messy.  There are weeds and there is wheat, even in the Church.  Power struggles and jealousy and gossip and hypocrisy and self-righteousness are found even in the Church.  There are weeds in the garden.  But part of our problem is that we can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds.

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  That word, tare, refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact even farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures.  It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic.  It won’t kill you, but it will make you sick.  You don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

Now we might be tempted to think of this in terms of people.  That person is wheat and that one is a tare, a weed.  And I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally we think of ourselves as the wheat and others, whoever they may be, as the weeds.  But that is way too easy.  We are all both saints and sinners.  We all have wheat and weed within us.  And while Jesus speaks of fire, fire is so often a symbol of purification in the scriptures.  It might be our lives that need purifying. 

This parable counsels patience, and it speaks of God’s patience towards us.  In God’s kingdom, there will be accountability, but God is patient and forgiving toward us.  And here’s the thing: sometimes, what appears to us to be a weed is actually wheat.  What appears to be useless is actually a beautiful flower. 

Chris Brundage, a pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic, who was 96.  Vic had no children.  Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life.  He knew that Vic’s wife had died several years earlier, and that some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.

He also knew that, as a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career.  Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform.  He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life. 

Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral.  But 200 showed up.  The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs.  People came from neighboring states.

Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral?  The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people.  His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol -- who would have guessed that he would make such a difference in his life? 

We might recall our own history as Baptists.  Early on, we were considered the weeds, the unwanted undesirables, of the colonies.  Baptist Roger Williams fled from Massachusetts and established Rhode Island as a “refuge for persons distressed of conscience.”  Which meant that Rhode Island was where the religious misfits of the day – Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers - could live in peace. 

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  Rather, it is about the way we think of others, and it is about leaving final judgments to God.

Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.   So small you can hardly see it.  Just a little seed – unimpressive and unremarkable.  But it grows into – what? – a mustard bush.  Even all grown up, it is still not very impressive. 

If Jesus really wanted to emphasize how something so small and insignificant becomes so great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?  But no, he tells about a little seed growing into a decent-sized shrub.  I know that the text says that is becomes the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a tree, but this was either hyperbole or possibly sarcasm on Jesus’ part – because a mustard bush just isn’t that great.

A mustard shrub is actually considered a weed.  For Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?

Mustard can reach up to 9 or 10 feet in height, but still – it would seem to be kind of a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads and grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed.  Just a little bit goes a long way, and it can grow and grow.  Well, that is true, and that is part of what he is saying here – the kingdom may be small, but it will grow into something great.  But the tone and feel of what Jesus is saying is much more than that.

This is not a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is invasive, shocking, scandalous, and a nuisance – but also relentless and unstoppable and abundant.

The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  On the contrary, the work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as weak and insignificant alongside the powers that shape the world and call the shots.  Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded – in fact, it is more often detested. 

Jesus sees the kingdom of God, or the empire of God, as being completely unlike the Roman Empire which ran that part of the world.  The kingdom of God has no status at all to it.  It is not powerful or dominant, but it is pervasive.  It is persistent.  It takes over.  It cannot be stopped.

And then Jesus threw out another parable for his followers to chew on.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.

I don’t do much baking.  I make pizza dough more than anything.  But that is absolutely the way yeast works.  Just a little yeast goes a long way, and it makes the whole loaf rise.  A while back I had some yeast that was past date.  I thought it was probably OK and used it, but that turned out to be a poor decision.  The dough would not rise and the pizza crust was terrible.

It takes just a little bit of yeast – but that little bit is so important.  The whole loaf rises or falls, if you will, on the yeast.

OK, that is all well and good.  The kingdom of God is like yeast that leavens the whole loaf.  Something small that has a great effect.  Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns his followers to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.”  Yeast was not kosher – so at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  “The kingdom is like an unclean and unkosher symbol of corruption.”  That sounds a little different.

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is scandalous and surprising.  The kingdom is not what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may be unexpected.  God’s work may come about in ways we would not have predicted.  The kingdom may even be hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed. 

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, says:

the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.  

Life can be hard, as we well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that in this crazy, mixed up world in which goodness and evil, in which joy and misery, in which hope and despair can exist side by side – wheat and weeds, all mixed together - God is nevertheless at work, often in surprising and unnoticed and even subversive ways.  Like yeast working in dough, like an insignificant weed that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

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