As followers of Christ we live in two worlds superimposed upon each other. We are very much in and of this world—this challenging, deeply troubling and troubled world that appears to be tearing itself apart out of greed, fear, selfishness, and lust for power. It is hard not to be consumed by this world, especially now with our nation in such political and social turmoil. As I began work on this sermon, Wordsworth’s lines came to mind:
“The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;--
Little we see in Nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
Wordsworth was railing against industrial-revolution England, decrying the loss of connection with and deep appreciation for nature. “For this, for everything, we are out of tune,” he laments. And then, he ironically cries, “Great God, I’d rather be a Pagan!” to better appreciate the wonders of the natural world with which his society has lost touch.
Those lines of Wordsworth’s seem as timely today as they were two hundred or so years ago. We, too, “lay waste our powers” in getting and spending. And the damage we have done to our earth in doing so is probably irreversible. Wordsworth wants us to open our eyes to the world, beyond our getting and spending and making. But, whereas, he cries out in frustration, “I’d rather be a Pagan,” Jesus calls us to open our eyes and hearts to the other world among us that is the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God. Because we don’t just live in this world, we also live in God’s realm.
When this world is too much with us, we need to go back to teachings like we have today, these parables of the kingdom, that remind us that this is not the only world we live in. We are also members of the kingdom of heaven, the realm that Jesus inaugurated when he became incarnate and lived among us. Matthew calls it “the kingdom of heaven.” Mark and Luke call it “the kingdom of God.” It is that ultimate reality where God’s righteousness reigns over all, where love overcomes evil and life overcomes death. That other world, that reign of God, seems so distant, nothing more than a pipe-dream, a world that is far off in the hazy future. Yet, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven has come near; it is at hand.”[i] It is not just a glorious promise for the end of times, it is here among us. Every time we say the Lord’s prayer, we pray for God’s reign to be realized among us. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I wonder when we say those words every Sunday, and perhaps for some of us, many times throughout the week, if we really pay attention to what we are asking. Of course, none of us fully understands what it will mean or look like for God’s will to be done on earth, for God’s realm to be complete. When we pray “thy kingdom come,” it is a revolutionary prayer, a prayer that this world, and our lives will be upended, because the kingdom of God has very little in common with the kingdom of this world. On the one hand, we might fervently pray for that, especially now when the world and the fate of the earth itself seem so precarious. But we give the kingdom short shrift if we do not take seriously how it will upend us. Think of Jesus turning the tables in the temple, but on a cosmic scale. The kingdom is not tame. It does not fit neatly into our current world’s values and our lifestyles. Neither are Jesus’ parables tame, nice little illustrations—they were meant to surprise and shock his hearers. As one commentator writes, they are “the disruptive vehicles of a new vision of how things are, a vision that challenges our secure world.”[ii] So much time has gone by, and they have become so familiar, that we have to really look at them to recover their shock value.
For instance, the parable of the mustard seed. This has often been interpreted in a way that reduces it to a platitude—“Chin up! Don’t worry if you start out small, or feel insignificant, look at the mustard seed! God can do great things from just the smallest seeds!” Now, all of that is, in fact, true, but it waters down what Jesus meant. Jesus was speaking these parables in the midst of his conflict with the religious leaders, and his rejection by his community—that’s what these kingdom parables are sandwiched between. In the previous chapter, the Pharisees have chided him for plucking grains of wheat on the Sabbath so he and his disciples could eat, and they’ve accused him of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath. They have already started to conspire against him and plot to destroy him.[iii] And at the very end of this chapter, after the parables, we have the story of Jesus going to preach in the synagogue in his home town, Nazareth, and being rejected by his own people. Jesus speaks of the lines he is drawing between those who believe him and those who don’t. His teaching is riling things up. The religious leaders and his own community don’t believe he can possibly be from God. He is talking about God’s kingdom in ways that do not at all fit into their idea of God’s rule. They are looking for something grand and glorious, a military victory, the triumph of the people of Israel, a powerful, worldly kingdom. That is what they have been waiting for.
And instead, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” An insignificant seed. One of the smallest. Jesus uses hyperbole here, as he often does in his parables. There are smaller seeds, and though the mustard bush is large, larger perhaps than something you would expect to grow from that tiny seed, it is not the greatest of shrubs, and it doesn’t grow into a tree. But Jesus exaggerates to drive his point home. The kingdom of heaven isn’t a thunderbolt from on high, it’s not like a mighty cedar or oak. Jesus hasn’t come on a white charger with a vast army behind him to overthrow this world. The kingdom of heaven is like something as insignificant and small and common as a mustard seed. But don’t write off that mustard seed. It will grow into a fruitful, large shrub, big enough to shelter the birds.
Think of all the things we tend to write off, oblivious to the fact that they may be seeds of the kingdom, seeds that God can transform into fruitful, thriving plants. A small kindness might lead to fruit we cannot even imagine; or the faithful, unsung encouragement of a teacher may nurture a student who grows up to cure Alzheimers, or finally finds a way to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, or solves any number of the world’s troubles. Or, perhaps, providing safe shelter at night to a small group of men in our Church House basement will help them turn their lives around so they may bear fruit in ways we can’t imagine. Jesus’ message here is that the seeds of the kingdom are found in actions, movements and people we might not think twice about; in seeds of kindness, compassion, service, sacrifice and love that grow and bear fruit in ways we cannot begin to foretell. Jesus himself illustrates this parable: God’s kingdom was in a simple rabbi from a backwater town in Galilee who planted seeds for the kingdom to grow through an unlikely band of followers—ordinary, working class, simple folk—people no one would have expected to change the world. Part of the message here is that God IS at work, the kingdom is among us, even though we might not notice it or pay it much heed. God is at work, and the kingdom will grow to fruition.
The parable of the woman leavening the bread has a similar message. Again, Jesus makes his point in a very simple, ordinary image—a woman making bread. But it’s not so ordinary when we take a closer look at it. In other places in scripture, leaven has negative connotations—it’s a symbol of corruption in Jewish tradition.[iv] No leavened bread may be offered to God or included with a sacrifice.[v] Jesus himself warns his disciples a little later in Matthew: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”[vi] But here, Jesus tells the disciples the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, hidden in a great quantity of flour. We don’t get that connotation of “hidden” in this translation—but the Greek doesn’t just say the woman mixed in the yeast, it says she hid it. There’s almost something sneaky, something subversive about it. And three measures of flour is a huge quantity—this will make enough bread for a feast of a hundred. Jesus is taking this image that his hearers would interpret negatively and is upending it—the kingdom of heaven is like yeast God is hiding that is going to transform everything. So, watch out! Again, it’s like Jesus’ own ministry and teachings—for the religious leaders, Jesus and his teachings were like yeast, dangerous, corrupting, transforming their pure unleavened bread into something that would rise beyond their control.
If we open our eyes, perhaps we, too, will see the yeast God is hiding in the world around us; leavening that we might at first find threatening. But if we look deeper, and are willing to sacrifice some of our tightly held ideas of how things should be, we will see that God is indeed at work. God’s kingdom, as New Testament scholar and theologian Tom Wright says, has nothing to do with privilege or pride—what the world values. Rather, belonging to the kingdom means “reflecting and embodying the love and glory of God.”[vii] And if that calling doesn’t upend us, then we are not being honest with ourselves. Belonging to the kingdom doesn’t mean making a name for ourselves in our chosen profession, it doesn’t mean taking advantage of every privilege we have and seeking more—heedless of the fact that others do not experience that privilege; it doesn’t mean making security against every worldly threat—real or imagined—our priority; and it doesn’t mean putting up walls to keep the other out. Belonging to the kingdom means reflecting the love of God, in everything we say and do.
These two parables of the mustard seed and the yeast teach us something about what God’s kingdom is like. The next two in today’s reading teach us how we are to respond. Wholly. Giving everything, we are to possess it. In the parable about the hidden treasure, the farmer finds it unexpectedly, realizes what he’s stumbled on, and in joy sells everything he has to buy the field with the buried treasure. In the next parable, the merchant is seeking the treasure, his job is to find fine pearls, and when he finds a pearl of great value, he, too, sells everything to buy it. Whether we stumble upon the kingdom unexpectedly or seek it diligently, when we find it, Jesus tells us our response is to give everything to possess it. And if THAT teaching doesn’t upend us, then, again, we are not really listening. Whether we have wealth or are scraping by, whether we have an MBA or a high school diploma, whether we have a successful career, are retired, or are seeking work, God calls us to respond to the kingdom with everything. That is our purpose on earth. To live in this world as members of the other world. How we do that is something we spend our entire lives working out. It’s not something we put off for the future, but something we wrestle with and embrace each and every day—by opening our eyes to the signs of God’s kingdom around us, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, by asking ourselves, “How am I responding to God’s kingdom today? Am I giving everything to possess it? My time, my work, my resources, the way I raise my family or interact with the people around me, or serve my church and my neighbors?”
Being members of God’s kingdom completely changes, upends everything. It is disruptive, disturbing. But it is also what truly gives our lives meaning—it is the treasure beyond any worldly treasure. I told Eric my sermon title earlier in the week, and he said, “Yeah. That works. And at the end you can say, ‘if you’re upended by the kingdom, you’ll end up in the kingdom.’” Thank you, Eric! I invite, encourage, and exhort you to let yourselves be upended. Look with fresh eyes every day for signs of God’s kingdom growing, let your preconceived notions of success and worth be challenged, and ask God every day to take and use everything you have for the sake of the kingdom. This world IS “too much with us” as Wordsworth lamented. This world is desperate for our wholehearted embrace of God’s world.
[i] Matthew 4:17. This verse can be translated both ways: “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (NRSV), or “is at hand” (KJV and RSV).
[ii] M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 300.
[iii] Matt. 12:1-14.
[iv] Boring, p. 309.
[v] Ex. 23:18, Lev. 2:11 and others.
[vi] Matt. 16:6
[vii] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 172.