Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kingdom Weeds...

OK, I confess... I posted this yesterday, knowing it wasn't really a completed sermon, but not knowing what to do with it. In the past, I've winged it from the pulpit, and I guess I've done OK.

This time, my friend Dr. Greg Brown came to my rescue. I am blessed to have many smart, spiritually insightful friends, including Dr. Brown, who can take a mess I've made and help me translate it into a sermon.

Kinda like Jesus does here with mustard seeds and yeast, huh?

I am also indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into today's Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-52
He 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, “Yes.” I find that just a little hard to believe, don't you? I mean, we go from last week's reading, where Jesus took the time to explain one parable, in detail, just so everyone knew precisely what he meant by sowing and seeds and ground... and here we are with five short, rapid-fire parables, and everybody understands completely.

I guess I'd have an easier time believing that everyone understood everything Jesus was saying here if it weren't for the pages and pages of scholarly commentary on different aspects of these parables. I try to resist that kind of thing, because if we understand parables as tales told in the moment to a specific group of individuals for the purpose of making a point, then dissecting each word at length misses the point. But I digress.

You may have noticed that our readings from the Lectionary, especially when it comes to the Gospel, sometimes tend to jump around a bit, skipping verses here and there. In this case, I think we miss something ery important in the missing verses. We don't see to whm and where Jesus is saying these things. What I mean is this: Jesus speaks of mustard seeds and yeast to the crowd in general. As far as we know, he's still on that boat just off the lakeshore where he told the Parable of the Sower. He goes into a house with his disciples and speaks of hidden treasures, found pearls, and rejected fish to his them alone. It is Jesus' disciples, not the crowd at large, who Jesus asks, “Do you understand?”

Good thing, too, because what Jesus said to the crowd about yeast and seeds might have taken them a minute to digest.

Yeah, mustard seeds are teensy, but they sure do grow up big; and it doesn't take a lot of yeast to make bread rise... but wait a minute! Why on earth, with so many possible metaphors available to Jesus, would he pick those? I mean, for just one example, Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with the pomegranate. Pomegranate seeds are small, but the trees get big enough for birds to nest.

But no, Jesus specifically chose mustard seeds and yeast. Was he trying to offend the crowd?


Mustard for the first-century Judeans wasn't the wonderful condiment we know today. It was a pungent, pervasive weed. And in proposing that someone intentionally sowed a mustard seed, not only was Jesus suggesting that someone planted a weed in their own field, on purpose, he was in effect advocating an act that was, at the very least, problematic to the faithful Jew. Richard Swanson says, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life.”

Furthermore, yeast, or leaven, was seen as a symbol of things unclean and corrupting. The Old Testament is filled with these kinds of references, and the New Testament repeats this view of leaven as a metaphor for moral corruption – the one rotten apple in the barrel – as well.

It's easy to miss these things in our day and time. I like leavened bread, and I really like mustard, too. So with the popularity of mustard and wonderful, yeasty bread, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and – just perhaps – we miss the power of what Jesus is saying.

Kathryn Matthews Huey observes that “...our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't 'give offense,' would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?”

So, sure, maybe Jesus was either purposely offending people, and maybe he didn't care whether he caused an affront to their delicate sensibilities anyway...

Or maybe... maybe...

During this period of his ministry, Jesus is preaching in the towns of Galilee. He's a long way from the Temple, and probably not terribly close to any Roman garrisons. So it is most likely that Jesus isn't speaking to the powerful Romans, or to the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather, in that boat off the lakeshore, he is speaking to a people oppressed on all sides.

The Roman Empire was a massive juggernaut, bringing its bloody form of “peace” to nearly every corner of the known world. When Rome conquered, the lucky ones were merely subjugated and taxed; more than once the Romans had completely obliterated whole societies, destroying cities and selling those they did not murder outright into slavery. The only people the “pax Romana” benefited were the Romans; to everyone else, the Roman Eagle represented harsh oppression. Talk as they would of the former glory of Israel under King David, it was easy to see one's self as small, insignificant, as utterly worthless as a tiny mustard seed.

Then there were the demands of Judaism – never mind the constant pressure to pay the Temple tax and to come up with the required animals and grain and what-not for the sacrifices, no one – no one – could be expected to live up to the reams of minutiae required to be properly holy. More than eighty percent of Judeans lived a subsistence existence, barely enough food to keep them alive, constantly hungry, and constantly aware that they were not good enough, not holy enough, not pure enough, for God. They were as cast out as the leaven at Passover – reviled, forgotten, worthless.

So perhaps, just perhaps, one of the things Jesus is saying to the crowd is that the Kingdom of God is more like them than it is like the powerful Temple elite or the all-too-holy Scribes and Pharisees. Maybe the Kingdom of God isn't so much about power as it is about pervasiveness – like a weed, growing anywhere and everywhere; like yeast, multiplying and spreading and growing and thriving.

No, a mustard tree doesn't look anything like the cedars used to build the Temple, it doesn't at all resemble the columns of Roman architecture... but birds find a home in its branches, and even those who have been oppressed and forgotten by society can find a home in the Kingdom of God.

That was true when Jesus said it, and it remains true today.

And that is dangerous. And offensive. And being dangerous and offensive isn't something that Western Christianity is used to.

Maybe it's time to change all of that.

In its earliest years, Christianity was known as a religion of women and slaves. In Rome, Christians would sneak out in the night and rescue abandoned babies, left to die on the steps of the Forum. Not all of them, probably, and not every night, but it made a difference to the ones they were able to save, didn't it? Now, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Christians, waving signs and hurling insults at children who surrendered at our southern border to try and escape certain death in Central America.

In its earliest years, Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to bow their knee to Caesar. Now, we require that a politician give lip service to God before they can be elected. The facade of faith trumps competence in far too many elections.

Is this the measure of Christian faith?

Who cares for the homeless, the forgotten? Who tells the person contemplating suicide that there is hope? Who comforts the sick, who visits the imprisoned? Who becomes the family to one who has been kicked out of their home because of their orientation? Whose heart is broken by suffering, and who resolves to use whatever means are available to alleviate that suffering?

I know who it should be.

I know it should be us, the church.

I know this because time and again throughout Scripture, and particularly here, in Jesus' choice to use despised, misunderstood, and rejected things as examples, Jesus is saying this: The Kingdom of God isn't like the empires you're used to. It doesn't look like Rome, nor does it look like the Temple.

The Kingdom of God looks like you. It looks like me. And it looks like every marginalized and forgotten person everywhere, whether in downtown Birmingham or in Gaza or in Mozul or Detroit. These are the people of the Kingdom.

Maybe we look like mustard seeds – worthless weeds, worthy only for the trashbin. Maybe we look like yeast – others see us as sinful merely because we exist.

The kingdom will grow from those who have been made to feel unworthy, the scorned, the abused. Jesus says to these "insignificant" ones, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. You are not worthless and neither are people you may see as "seedier" than you. It is from these – women and slaves, the despised and rejected of that society – I will build a Kingdom for all who dare come, a kingdom so large that there truly will be room for all.

Alleluia, Amen.

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