Romans 8:26-39 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 24, 2011
What is the kingdom of heaven? Jesus gave metaphors as examples to help people understand what it might be like. These are metaphors we are familiar with, having heard them many times over the years. I find, though, that no matter how often I hear them or read them, I usually see something fresh in them each time. That is the beauty of a metaphor, that it is a living thing rather than something that just sits there pointing to one specific meaning. As we follow Jesus through the biblical accounts as well as in our everyday lives, we become increasingly aware of the fact that we cannot pin him down very easily. Most of the things he was trying to convey to his followers during his lifetime were concepts that had many levels of meaning. You could read them at face value if you wanted to, but if you opened your mind to other, more subtle possibilities, you could often find treasure hidden there. This is often true in our lives as well. When we approach a situation and only see what is obvious and on the surface, then we miss out on some aspects that might illuminate a whole new way of seeing things. Sometimes, when we probe a bit deeper, we are able to find the proverbial silver lining in a dark gray cloud of a difficult situation, and other times we discover that there are some thorns in the rose garden that we missed on first observation.
The mustard seed took on new meaning for me this reading as it made me think about the invasive garlic mustard plants that I am attempting to purge from my garden. That plant is tenacious! When we were in West Virginia visiting Sarah this May, we participated in a mustard pull in the National Forest. It was there that I learned at least a part of the reason why I was not having any luck getting rid of the plants. It seems that the first year plants look very different from the second year plants. I had been focusing solely on the second year plants with their white flower stalks, and so had missed the thousands of small first year plants setting their roots deep into my garden’s rich soil. Mustard is hard to get rid of once it establishes itself in an area. So, what might this mean in terms of what Jesus was saying about mustard seed representing the kingdom of God? Maybe it has to do with the fact that once God touches our lives and warms our hearts, we want to maintain that relationship for good? Maybe it has something to do with the possibility that the kingdom of God is more present and prevalent in our world than we might think?
This is certainly a comforting thought in light of the news, such as that which assaulted us this week, of the horrific shootings that took place in Norway. We need to know that God’s kingdom has a foothold in our world despite evidence to the contrary. We need to know that God’s kingdom of peace and justice, of hope and love, is tenacious enough to withstand the insanity, chaos and terror that can crop up now and then in human society. And, along with the more traditional way of understanding this metaphor, we need to know that the smallest seed of the kingdom can take root in the soil that is right under our feet, and yield a tree large enough for birds to nest there. In other words, God’s kingdom is not just some small thing that would be barely noticed amidst the craziness of current events, but rather is a large force-for-good that anyone with eyes could see and appreciate. God is here now at the heart of what is happening all around us. God is present with us in difficult times that test our nerves and our hearts. God is even establishing the kingdom of heaven among us, seed by small almost-imperceptible seed.
The description of yeast as a stand-in for the kingdom of God is another great example of Jesus’ attempt to bring his message home to folks in terms they could understand. Everyone who makes bread (and that used to be far more people than do it today, that is for sure!) knows the amazing power of yeast. They know that just a little bit of the stuff goes a long, long way in a bowl of flour and water with the necessary touch of sugar. As I read the scripture this time, I also thought about the fact that yeast had a special significance to a Jewish audience which I had not considered before. A Jewish crowd would be familiar with the historic time of exile when their ancestors did not have enough time to let the bread rise, but had to make due with unleavened bread when they escaped Egypt and made their way across the desert. They lived without leavened bread for 40 years! Yeast, to them, was a precious commodity and represented having the luxury of time to settle into a place and establish a home and a hearth. When Jesus spoke of that small grain of yeast having the ability to make a whole loaf or two of bread rise, the people might have known that he was also talking about the act of creating a home. Creating a home, a place of welcome and hospitality, is a high value in many cultures. When I traveled through England way back when I was a college student, a friend and I were invited for tea by an Indian man. When we arrived, the man’s wife brought out delicious tea laced with cream and honey as well as plate after plate of tasty snacks. After a little while the food that they brought out grew stranger and stranger, as if they were searching their cupboards for something to feed the hungry Americans. It was tricky trying to figure out how to stop the flow of food, which came despite the fact that we said we had had enough, that we were full. Finally we realized that because we kept eating what they brought out, (which we thought was polite and proper to do), they kept bringing out more food. We had to refuse to eat what they set in front of us. Only then did they believe that we were really and truly full. Only then did they stop bringing out more food. I felt very uncomfortable at this point of realization. I wanted to let our hosts know how appreciative we were, but was glaringly aware of how differently our two cultures expressed themselves, and was not sure my way of saying “thanks” was adequate to the rare hospitality that we enjoyed.
Jesus’ metaphors for heaven probably held layer upon layer of meaning for the people to whom Jesus told this parable and the others that we read. Given the differences in our cultural understandings, it is quite possible that we miss the nuances and underlying messages in many of Jesus’ teachings. It is also possible that we catch some meanings that were not seen or heard back in the day when he first shared them. The main lesson we carry away from Jesus’ particular style of teaching, with story and parable, with metaphor and with his own life example, is that God is present with us always and everywhere. The kingdom of heaven is also here with us, often hidden in plain sight, in the common and ordinary aspects of everyday life such as the bread we break and the landscape through which we walk. Sometimes this is readily apparent to us, especially when things are going well and we feel at one with the world; but sometimes it is very difficult to see even the smallest sign of God’s hand, such as when tragedy strikes or human violence escalates to a level that makes no sense at all. This is when we need to seek out something to center us, some kind of foundation to hold onto so that we are not swayed by the circumstances of this world. This is precisely when we need to find that unexpected pearl buried out in the dirt of the meadow, and hold onto it for dear life. God alone can save us from the sometime-insanity of this world. We need to find the kingdom that is here, and live in and according to God’s reality even though we are surrounded by something quite different. As we live today as if God’s kingdom were the most compelling reality, then we shape ourselves and the world around us for the time in the future when the kingdom becomes ever more solid and real; a time when God’s kingdom has “come on earth as it is in heaven.”
God, we want so very much to live in your kingdom. We want to live in accord with your desires for your people and for this earth. Help us to hold fast to this vision, even when life seemingly contradicts it. Guide us into a future in which our lives are ever more integrated with you. Amen.