By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
July 24, 2011
In a series of parables in this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells those committed to him about the kingdom of heaven. With vivid word pictures, he shows them, and us, that the kingdom of heaven is indeed “at hand” or among us. He shows them that the kingdom is there for them, and us, to seek. He shows them, and us, that the kingdom is seeking us.
A well-known approach to this piece of scripture is to focus on the dramatic growth of the mustard seed—a tiny and remarkable seed from which can grow, in practically no time at all, a fifteen-foot tree, or shrub, really, big and leafy enough to provide shade and habitat for birds in a hot Middle Eastern climate.
But this parable offers another piece of wisdom as well — since it includes a string of parables referring evocatively to things that are hidden—the yeast hidden in the flour; the treasure hidden in a field; the one fine pearl hidden amid shovelfuls of ordinary pearls; the net full of fish in which the good fish are hidden amid the rest of the catch. Mustard seeds are hidden too. Almost weightless and growing into weeds that sprout up wild, they would not often have been deliberately sown in the neat rows of a farmer’s field.
And that yeast that leavened 3 measures of flour – enough, by the way, to feed at least 100 people – it is interesting to note that yeast at the time, in that tradition, was a symbol of corruption and impurity. Imagine the surprise in Jesus’ parable of corrupt leaven creating bread to feed so many in God’s kingdom.
And in that tradition, the farmer would consider the mustard plant a weed. So mustard seeds—lying undetected in a big sack of some other kind of seed—are finally thrown onto the waiting soil in the same handful as that other, more dominant seed; no one suspects for an instant that any plant other than the one that is planned will sprout and grow up. A mustard tree is not what is expected, but no one notices the seed. It is hard to see, hard to keep an eye on, but it has a way of mixing with what is more noticeable. At the end of the day, as it germinates and sprouts and grows, its final result radically reorients what is expected.
Maybe those disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” because maybe they would assume that the planting and cultivation of such a kingdom is more orderly and predictable, laid out in neat rows. The kingdom of heaven is like soybeans, or like beautiful rows of lavender or cotton or grapes. What goes in is what is planned, and is altogether similar to what grows up.
However, when the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, maybe that suggests that nicely bounded rows of expected crops are forever being invaded and overturned by an in-breaking that is finally unexpected. Mustard seeds just hide there in the sack of other seeds or in the hand of an unsuspecting sower. In the same way, maybe a deeper meaning is hiding within this homely little parable.
More often than not, we want to draw clear, unarguable boundaries around the kingdom of heaven. In the church, we want to be able to define what fits within it and what does not. So naturally, there are important formulaic things that we say. We have Scripture. We have creeds. We have liturgy. We have tradition. We have convictions about baptism. We have boundaries—nice neat rows of carefully tended doctrine and practice.
Then, just to keep us honest, and just when we are least expecting it, we also have the voice of God whispering in our ear—pushing us beyond our boundaries, forcing us to discern whether they are in fact our boundaries, or God’s boundaries. In this sense, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed’ – a tiny little symbol of how God is forever invading our orderly sense of things. It just hides there—in the sack, in the hand, in the church, in the mind of God—like a mustard seed, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a pearl of great value hidden amid the rest, like the tasty fish hidden amid the whole catch.
Sometime in the early 1980’s, back when apartheid was very strong and there was no outward sign that it would end soon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interviewed on public television. Tutu said this very curious thing: “When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.”
The kingdom of heaven, like the mustard seed, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and our boundaries and creates out of it all something new—the “better of the deal”. Hidden within what we think we see so clearly, it is subversive and grows up in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed and redeemed by our surprising, invasive God.
The dominion of God may take hold in hidden and unexpected ways. God continues to surprise us. God comes to the little baby who is not old enough to understand and makes that child God’s own child through baptism. God comes to us with a word of forgiveness when we confess our sins. God comes to us on a mission trip or in times of loneliness or sickness, worry or pain. God can use ordinary times or special times, to come near. When we least expect God to act, God comes showering blessings. We should not be discouraged when things go wrong, but realize that God is working out a plan of love and care for us. God has great treasures laid up for us; the greatest is the Kingdom of Heaven.
A short story:
Another person has just arrived at the portals of heaven. A voice asks, “What is the password? Speak it and you may enter.” Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved?”
“No,” replies the voice.
“The just shall live by faith?”
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus?”
“Those sayings are true,” the voice answered, “But they are not the password for which I listen.”
“Well, then, I give up,” replied the person.
“That’s it! Come right in.”
The Kingdom of God is a free gift given to those who know they cannot make it on their own and must rely upon God’s grace. God’s surprise comforts us when it looks as though evil will triumph. Judgment is also justice. Along with weeping and gnashing of teeth will come shouts of joy and thanksgiving! That is God’s final surprise –– eternal life. Amen.
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