Sunday, July 30, 2017
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
When I was growing up in Nebraska, we used to have this huge garden out behind our house. My dad had very carefully laid out all of the beds and lined them with 2x4s, so there was space for corn and carrots, pumpkins and peppers, sunflowers, tomatoes, and so on. My personal favorite was the strawberry patch. I remember going down to gather strawberries with my mom in the summertime; we’d each take a one-gallon ice cream bucket to fill up, and somehow when we made it back to the house, my bucket was always only half full. Very mysterious. But the really mysterious thing about the strawberry patch was that every year, it somehow got a little bigger. First it started creeping into the pumpkin patch, and then it started gradually taking over the green beans, and before too long, over a third of the garden was being invaded by strawberries!
I thought about those strawberries as I was reading the gospel text for today. Strawberry seeds aren’t much bigger than mustard seeds. And like mustard seeds, they have the capacity to grow and spread over pretty big areas.
But I was curious to know more about mustard and mustard seeds, so I did a little research. And I learned a lot of interesting stuff. I learned that the mustard plant Jesus was talking about is most likely brassica nigra – black mustard – which is actually considered an invasive weed in many parts of the US. True to the parable, it starts from a tiny seed, but like my family’s strawberry patch, it grows up quickly and spreads and starts popping up in places you don’t expect it to be. When Jesus used the example of sowing mustard seeds to talk about the kingdom of heaven, it was probably really surprising to his hearers. They wouldn’t think of sowing something as wild and unruly as a mustard seed in their neatly laid rows of wheat and cotton and grapes. Just what kind of a kingdom was Jesus talking about anyway?
If you take a closer look at some of the other parables Jesus shares in this text, things just keep getting weirder and weirder. Yeast, or leaven, didn’t have a very positive association in most of the scriptures. It wasn’t yeast like we think of yeast – like those little packets of dry yeast – instead, it was more like sourdough. Unused bread dough was left out to ferment, which could be tricky – and dangerous: if you didn’t leave it out long enough, it wouldn’t work to leaven your bread, but if you left it out for too long, it could give you food poisoning and kill you. So it’s not that surprising that leaven was usually used as an analogy for corruption.
As for the guy who joyfully buys the field with the treasure in it, think about it for a second: whose field was that before he bought it, and what was this guy doing wandering around with a shovel and digging in other people’s fields?? And even the parable about the merchant who buys the pearl would have been off-putting to Jesus’ original hearers. Merchants had a reputation kind of like the shady payday loan providers of their day: they weren’t someone most people considered trustworthy, let alone someone they should be imitating.
In fact, the deeper you dig into these parables, the more you begin to see that they are not quite what they seem to be on the surface. These are not nice stories. They are not polite stories. Jesus is confronting us with the reality of the kingdom in a way that is meant to make us a little uncomfortable. If we think of our religious traditions and beliefs and practices a little bit like those neatly ordered garden beds that my dad so carefully laid out, then it seems to me like Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven a little bit like those strawberries – it may start in one place, but it strays outside the boundaries that we have set, whether we meant to or not, and it doesn’t always play by the rules that we expect it to.
So just what kind of kingdom of heaven are we dealing with??
Well, we know now that it’s a kingdom that defies our expectations, a kingdom that crosses borders and transgresses boundaries.
But we learn from the parable of the mustard seed that it’s not a kingdom that comes in with a fanfare and a grand entrance. It comes in through the smallest and most unremarkable of things – a loaf of bread, a bowl of water, a newborn child. It isn’t defined by beautiful buildings and impeccably orchestrated ministry, but by open hearts filled with devotion to our neighbors.
We learn from the parable of the leaven that even a little bit goes a long way. God may have hosts in heaven, but God doesn’t need them to spread this kingdom. A little leaven leavens the whole batch, as the saying goes, transforming ordinary flour into something new – the bread that we break here together at this table. When we live out our call to be the body of Christ, we transform the world around us into bread that is blessed and shared, little slices of the kingdom of heaven.
We learn from the parable of the hidden treasure that this kingdom is often hidden in plain sight. We have to go looking for it in places that we wouldn’t think to go, crossing over into the lives of people whose hearts hold treasure we have yet to discover. This kingdom invites us into a divine treasure hunt, and it promises us that when we do find treasure, it will also bring us great joy.
We learn from the parable of the pearl of great value that this kingdom is worth searching for. Its value outweighs all other things that we hold most dear. It doesn’t necessarily demand that we sell all our earthly possessions to obtain it, but it does ask us to consider what our priorities are in the light of the kingdom of heaven.
And we learn from the parable of the net that all are caught up in this kingdom. All of us, all parts of us, the good parts, the bad parts, and the just plain fishy parts are caught up together. All are welcome in this kingdom.
Making sure that all are welcome in this kingdom is work that requires us to step outside of our comfort zones. It requires us to step outside the walls of our beautiful buildings, and even to step outside of our ideas of what the kingdom is or should be. It means living with the expectation of finding strawberries and mustard bushes popping up in unlikely places. And as I say all this, believe me, I am keenly aware of the plans I have been making for this year. I have ideas and goals and schedules for what I want this year to look like, but I’m sure it won’t be too long until I find my green beans overrun with strawberries.
And at the end of the day, that’s some of the best news of all. The kingdom of heaven isn’t completely reliant on us to decide where to plant and where to draw up the boundaries. We certainly have a part to play in this work of cosmic gardening, and it is important that we play it. But ultimately, we are participating in God’s great work of salvation. We are helping, little by little, seed by seed, to transform this world into the kingdom of heaven. So grab your one-gallon ice cream buckets, folks; and let’s go find some strawberries!