Text: Matthew 13, Romans 8
Earlier this week, I came across the story of a man who had not been to church in a while. He had stopped going because he thought that it placed too many restrictions on what he could or could not do. So, he began to live a life of fast living, working hard, playing hard, eating, drinking, carrying on, not settling down. At one point, someone tried to get him to go back to church and give it another chance. But our friend would have none of it. Soon, his life took a turn for the worse, and much like the prodigal son found himself with not much in the way or money or possessions. All his friends that he had when living the high life were now nowhere to be found. The man himself didn’t think he was worth that much at this point and didn’t consider himself particularly loved or wanted. Eventually however, after a bit of internal agonizing, he was persuaded to try church one more time. So he showed up a little late, thinking he could just sneak into the back pew. It turns out our friend arrived during the Confession and he heard, “We have done things that we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.” The man smiled to himself and said, “Oh good! It looks like I’ve come to the right place. These are my kind of people!”
In some parishes, today would be called “Mustard Seed Sunday,” given the parables we just heard. Some parishes even try to make it a bit of a gimmick. I know one priest who always keeps some mustard seeds on hand for when this lesson comes up in the calendar. I am sure that more than a fair share of Sunday Schools keep some in stock for just such an occasion. And then we can’t forget the practical joker on the altar guild who happens to bring a jar of Grey Poupon into the sacristy to get blessed on this day. Usually when we talk of the mustard seed “gimmick,” our intention is to use something tangible to describe how something very small can turn into something really big, or to illustrate just how much faith one needs to move to a mountain. But taking today’s parables in context along with the rest that are here, it shows us how the Kingdom of God catches us all by surprise. It’s unpredictable. It challenges us to think beyond the things we normally expect.
As we return to Jesus’ parables this week, we find that they are rather simple affairs about ordinary things like plants, seeds, farming and fishing. By contrast, quite a few stories meant to teach a moral lesson that are told in other cultures use kings, queens, nobles, generals, or even talking animals as their main character. In our own faith tradition, we have scores of hymns and contemporary pieces which talk about Jesus enthroned in heaven, which, of course is a right good and joyful thing, always and everywhere! But one focus of the Gospel is to tell how Jesus came down from heaven … down to earth if you will. And in much the same way, Jesus tells HIS stories in a very down to earth way … to use ordinary people like you and me doing very ordinary things to show what the Kingdom of God is like.
Now the very interesting part of these very short parables is that mustard seeds and leaven are things which people normally do not want. Mustard seeds and Leaven during the time when Jesus lived were things that were meant to get rid of as quickly as possible. A mustard seed, you see, is very tiny. It is so small that it is very easy to get mixed in with all of the good seed that was used to grow crops. It’s not until it starts to take root and sprout that the farmer realizes what he has on his hands. To the farmer, mustard bushes are nothing more than weeds or trash. The next parable talks about leaven. Leaven is basically spoiled bread or yeast. Yeast is the thing which causes bread to rise, but also causes dead bodies to rot and to swell. If anyone found yeast in their household, they would get rid of that as quickly as they would the mustard bush! In fact, for Passover, people were required the comb their houses to make sure there was no leaven inside because if there were, the house would be considered dirty.
We also find Jesus talking about a merchant or a shopkeeper or a small business owner, who, once again is something people stayed away from. This may be a bit of a stretch for us to put our heads around because we lift up small business owners as paragons of American virtue, but at the time the Gospel was being told and written down, merchants ranked up there with used-car salesmen and tax collectors in popularity.
Now, notice what happens when Jesus talks about these things in relation to the Kingdom of God. A bush that is thought of as trash becomes a tree that is used for safety and comfort for a family of birds. It literally becomes a tree of life. Corrupted and spoiled bread added to flour and meal in just the right amount becomes dough for bread that can feed thousands of people. A merchant whose only goal is to make a profit literally puts himself out of business by selling everything he has when he finds a treasure worth keeping.
In what ways has the Kingdom of God showed up in your life? For myself, I was having a rather hectic week at work and at one point on Thursday afternoon, my mind started to spin, and I began to feel a bit overwhelmed with everything that had to get done by the time the week was over. Then I remembered the carton of ice cream in the office refrigerator and two bowls later, I was convinced that everything was going to be OK! Sure enough, the week was ended on a successful note. So for me, I discovered the Kingdom of God in two bowls of ice cream!
Now the point of that story was not so much to get a chuckle, but to show how we are able to have an encounter with God with very ordinary, simple things. When Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of God, he does not point to himself, but to the world around him. They show God at work in every nook and cranny of human life … kneading dough, plowing fields, and sometimes … eating ice cream. Jesus constantly tells us what the Kingdom of God is like, but he never quite explains directly what it is. It’s a mystery! Something we know about, something we know when we see it or experience it, but difficult to put into words.
The greatest and most exciting thing about the Kingdom of Heaven is that it’s hidden. It sneaks up on you. Like the mustard seed hidden among the rest of the crops until it starts to take root and grow and surprises us. When a farmer goes to plant a crop, the farmer totally expects neat orderly rows. In our minds, the Kingdom of God is more like corn or soybeans and not mustard seeds. It’s more like those well-tended rows and boxes of beautiful flowers all pristine and fresh and vibrant. What goes into the ground comes out of the ground, everything having a place and everything in its place. Many times, we want our lives and our church to be like that. Predictable, all in neat little rows. But when the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, it hides among everything you normally expect. It waits. And then it shows up out of nowhere. Like a single pearl of great beauty hidden among the rest. Like the tastiest piece of fish hidden in the middle of the catch.
It’s that moment when you walk in during the Confession and realize you’re in the right place after all. It’s that casual remark someone says to you that puts things in perspective. The Kingdom of God is everywhere. Working within us, through us, all around us.
Even when things seem at their lowest, when we may have gone our own way and gotten into some tough situations, or when the world threatens to keep beating you down and you just can’t get ahead. That’s OK because they Kingdom is still here and still at work in spite of ourselves. Maybe there are things you regret saying or doing. Maybe you haven’t prayed in so long you’ve forgotten how or don’t know where to begin. The Good News is that even if we are faithless, God is faithful. The Good News is even when we don’t know how to pray, St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that the Holy Spirit helps us and communicates to God our deepest longings. It helps us to know that yes, there is a God who loves us, who knows us, and nothing will ever separate us from that. The Good News is all things work together for those who love God.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is hidden among the corn and the soybeans. It is the grace that is baked into the bread. It is the tree that springs up out of nowhere offering shelter and comfort and refuses to conform to the little boxes and rows the world tries to stuff us into. That same Spirit that moves us to pray even when we don’t know how inspires everyday people like you and me to do extraordinary things. It inspires and draws gifts we don’t even know we have, just like with this particular lady who grew up in the Jim Crow south and moved her to write things like this:
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours–your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree…
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply