By The Rev. Sherry Deets
7 Pentecost – July 27, 2014
This week’s passage presents us with a series of parables that evoke distinct elements of God’s kingdom. The first two parables are about the surprising presence, even invasiveness, of God’s reality and reign, while the second set leans more in the direction of the extreme surprise and delight we experience when we discover, even stumble upon, the peace and joy of the kingdom. The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.
I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve fallen prey to the temptation to read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” It makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – blossoming into something much grander. Until you realize, however, that neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, dreaded by farmers the way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, crabgrass, or bindweed. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Likewise, yeast was a contaminant and almost always represents the pernicious nature of sin when mentioned in the Bible.
Why, then, compare the kingdom of God to a pernicious weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking over a host. And might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every corner of our lives? How might we regard routine invitations to read the Bible, pray, and come to Sunday worship if we thought these things might lead to our lives being infiltrated, changed, and taken over by God’s reality and rule?
We might imagine that these parables will do – and therefore mean – several things. Perhaps to some people they may function as something of an evangelical warning: Be careful. People who have been infected by the gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged, and sharing their faith with the people around them. Perhaps to others, though, these parables will serve as a much-needed word of encouragement: Hang in there! God’s new reality is closer than you think, already seeping into your life even though you can’t always feel it. To others still, these parables will come as a profound promise: No matter what it may look like, God’s kingdom will prevail. And so in the face of war, we claim God’s peace. When confronted with illness, we look to God’s eternal healing. When faced with hate, we proclaim love. Why? Because the kingdom is coming and before you know it will transform everything.
The Kingdom of God is like . . . Jesus taught in parables that are not always so easy to understand. But in each one of these the surprise comes from God. God causes the tiny mustard seed to grow into a huge tree; God uses the little bit of leaven to cause the loaf to rise. God has buried treasure where least expected, worth enough to sell everything for in order to buy that field and the pearl great enough to give all that one has to purchase such a wonderful pearl. God keeps adding fish to the net. Each parable has a surprise.
What I want to suggest is that God has not given us exclusive responsibility for all that is to be done. And it seems like there is a lot to be done, especially if you listened to the news this past few weeks. Wars are escalating. In the first parable, Jesus does not use the illustration of an acorn becoming a giant oak tree or a seed becoming one of the great cedars of Lebanon, with which his audience would have been acquainted. Instead, it is a tiny seed that becomes a common shrub, just a step above a weed. In the second parable the dough is not turned into yeast–but the dough is influenced by the yeast, so that the dough is different from what it was. Our vision is a world without war, but perhaps all we can do is bind up the wounds of one or two victims; our vision is for a world without hunger, but perhaps all we can do is share canned goods through a food distribution center; our vision is a world free from ignorance, but perhaps all we can do is teach one person to read. In all those lesser activities God’s Kingdom is present, the mustard seed is planted, and the yeast is changing the situation of one person from hopelessness to hope.
What Jesus seems to be saying here is that the Kingdom of God may be found in the mundane and ordinary as readily as in the spectacular. The famous scientist George Washington Carver called his busy laboratory, “God’s Little Workshop.” The name was indicative of the humility of this man who prayed for God’s guidance in discovering the uses of what was then an unimportant crop, the peanut. He once shared that he had prayed the following prayer: “Dear Mr. Creator, tell me why the universe was made.” “Ask something more in keeping with that little mind of yours,” the Lord replied. “Dear Mr. Creator, what was mankind made for?” Again the Lord said, “You ask too much. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent.” So Carver tried again. “Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?” “That’s better,” the Lord said, and from that day Mr. Carver developed over 300 uses for the peanut. He found treasure in something that was part of his everyday experience.
By age 29, Millard Fuller was a millionaire with an estate-type home, a vacation retreat, two speedboats, a luxury automobile, and shares in three cattle ranches. One day Millard’s wife left him, taking their two small children. “I don’t feel I have a husband,” she said. “You’re always working and thinking about making money.” In the aftermath of his wife’s departure, Millard began to reflect on the meaning of his life. He had his first million at the age of 29; he had already set his next goal–to have ten million by the time he was 39. But when his wife, Linda, left him, he woke up to how much his “success” had cost him. He asked Linda for a chance to reconcile, which she granted. To get away from things for a while, they went to visit a project called “Koinonia Farms” near Americus, Georgia. They stayed there for a month, helping to replace dilapidated shacks and shanties of poor people. They had found a purpose.
The Fullers sold most of their possessions and founded a corporation to help poor people build houses for themselves and others. The Fullers then took their plan to Africa where they oversaw the building of 114 homes. They called their new-found mission “Habitat for Humanity.” Included among their carpenters have been Jimmie and Rosalyn Carter. The Fullers’ program has now placed houses for the poor in several hundred communities in this country, including ours, and more than 25 nations around the world. Of their new-found purpose Millard says: “I don’t believe we’re saved by how many houses we put up. I don’t believe that we’re saved by how many poor people we feed. I know that we’re saved by . . . Jesus and by the grace of God . . . What matters is our response to what God has done. We believe that ‘Habitat for Humanity’ is one response, one manifestation of what God has done for us in Christ.”
The Kingdom of God starts out small, but its influence grows; we discover it in ordinary things, but eventually we come to know that it is worth more than anything else. When we decide to become followers of Jesus Christ, we become citizens of a new country. We become residents of the Kingdom of God. Amen.
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