Saturday, February 11, 2023

“The Surprising Kingdom” - February 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 13:24-43

I’ve had some really good teachers over the years – in seminary, in college, in high school.  The ones I remember the most, whether it was Mr. Kirkman in high school chemistry or Dr. Beckman in college or Bill Leonard or Henlee Barnette in seminary, told stories – about the subject at hand or just about life.  They used humor and were engaging and encouraged you to think for yourself.

Telling stories seemed to be Jesus’ preferred method of teaching.  Lots of people are visual learners, and one way to teach visually was through sharing stories that allow the listener to create a picture in one’s mind, in one’s imagination.  And Jesus really couldn’t use PowerPoint slides or make a TikTok, right?  

Jesus teaches primarily through parables that a person can think about and chew on and supply the conclusion or determine the meaning for oneself.  That is not always easy.  I talked to somebody this week who said they were reading through the New Testament and they found some of Jesus’ parables indecipherable.  Well, that was pretty well the experience of his earliest followers.  And the way that he piles on stories, one after another, leaves it to the hearers – that would be us – to make sense of it all.  

Because we have to sit with the parables for awhile and think about them, we have some skin in the game, so to speak.  If we really chew on these stories, we will be invested in what they have to say to us.  It is a great teaching strategy.  

In this morning’s reading, we have 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, Jesus says that the kingdom is like somebody who sowed good seed in the field, but then found that there were weeds growing along with the wheat.  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 ridiculous approach, of course.  It is the opposite of what you would actually want to do.  Most of us know from experience that if you don’t control the weeds in your garden, 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.  This would be a recipe for disaster.  Is Jesus just a terrible farmer, or is he trying to make a point?

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?”

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  The tare refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact 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 can make you sick.  You definitely don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

We might be tempted to think of the wheat and the weeds as people.  That person is wheat and this person over here is 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.  How many of you read this and think of yourself as the wheat?  Of course.  And we wonder what to do about those weeds.

But that is way too easy.  We all have wheat and weed within us.  If this represents people, I think we are both.  We are all capable of great things and terrible things.  For me, it is not helpful to think of these people as wheat and those people as weeds.  Our world has got into all kinds of trouble with that kind of thinking.  This just leads us to demonize those who are different or with whom we disagree.  

It might be more helpful to think of the wheat and weeds being mixed up – in our world, in our community, in our church, even within ourselves.  It is all a mixed bag.  Martin Luther said that a Christian is both saint and sinner.

So this parable counsels patience.  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.  We can’t always make that determination.  

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.  Vic’s wife had died several years earlier, and 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 more than 200 people 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 – he would have looked like a weed.  

We might recall our own history as Baptists.  Early on, we were considered among the weeds of the colonies.  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.  Were they wheat or weeds?  The answer is probably yes.

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  It’s not about doing nothing,  Rather, I think it has something to say about the way we think of others, and maybe the potential of each person.  It asks for humility, and it is about leaving judgment to God.

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

We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into this impressive shrub, that we don’t catch what is going on.  If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something small and insignificant becomes great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?  But no, a little seed grows into a decent-sized shrub.  I know that the text says that is becomes the greatest of all shrubs, but this was either hyperbole or maybe sarcasm on Jesus’ part – because it just isn’t.

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?  This seems like a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It refuses to die.  It grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

This is not simply a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is surprising and relentless and in the end unstoppable.  

The kingdom of heaven is not like the biggest tree in the forest.  It may not look all that impressive.  It may be seen as insignificant alongside the powers that shape the world and call the shots.  

The kingdom of heaven is completely unlike the kingdom of Rome, which ran that part of the world.  The kingdom of heaven is not powerful or dominant.  Signing up for the kingdom is not about glory and honor.  

But the kingdom of God is persistent.  And it becomes pervasive.  Even the principalities and powers of this world cannot stop it.  And in the long run it will outlast those kingdoms built on dominance and oppression and violence.

And then Jesus throws out one more 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.  That’s it, that’s the whole parable.  Just a simple little observation.

I don’t do a lot of baking.  I make pizza dough more than anything.  But that is absolutely the way yeast works.  Just a little yeast goes a long way.  I had some yeast that was past the due date on the package.  I thought it was probably OK and went ahead and used it.  That was a big mistake.  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.  The work of God may be something that seems small but has a great effect.  A little like the mustard seed, maybe.  

Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.  Yeast was not kosher – so at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so, yet again, this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  “The kingdom is like an unclean and unkosher symbol of corruption.”  That puts it in a somewhat different light.

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is surprising and may even be seen as scandalous.  It’s not always 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 seem hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed.  

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, 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.   

Let me say a brief word about the end of this passage.  It says that Jesus taught only in parables, to proclaim what had been hidden.  But then he turns around and explains the first parable, of the wheat and the weeds, to the disciples.  Jesus hardly ever does this and it doesn’t seem his style.  And it is almost over-explained, with each character, each part of the story representing something very specific.  Many scholars think that this is more the explanation that Matthew, writing 40+ years after Jesus’ death, gave for the sake of his readers in the early church.  This explanation ends with the weeds being burned.

It is easy to think of the weeds being burned as the evil people going to hell and the wheat being gathered as the good people going to heaven.  And you can interpret it that way, a lot of people have.  

But for me, that is way too easy.  And again, it easy to categorize individuals as wheat or weeds, good or bad.  We all have both wheat and weeds within us.  Fire is also a symbol of purifying, of refining.  You can do what you want with this, but I like the image of God working in our lives, refining and purifying so that we are more like Christ, more about love and hope and peace and justice and compassion, more like wheat and less like weeds.

What are we to make of these parables, taken together?  What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of heaven?

Life can be hard, as many of us 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, God is nevertheless at work – often in surprising and unnoticed and maybe even shocking and subversive ways.  

Like yeast working in dough, like wheat and weeds growing alongside one another, like an insignificant mustard plant that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is near us and among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

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