Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;
13:32 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.”
13:33 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.”
13:44 “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.
13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;
13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;
13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous
13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
13:51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
13:52 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.”
“Have you understood all of this? “ Jesus said.
They answered, “yes.” We don’t know if it was an affirmative yes! Or maybe a tentatively uttered… yes?
It’s rather counter-intuitive, you would think that Jesus would want everyone to know, up front, what they were getting into….what this kingdom of Heaven was all about. After all, he had committed his life to it and was willing to die for it, you would think he would have had the first century equivalent to graphs and charts. You know, the number of people within the demographic of Palestine that would be effected by the Kingdom, the number of people that would join up, diversity statistics, giving units, etc. Some kind of investment forecast for how the kingdom would pay off in the long run. How else can we do church growth without such aids?
Instead, it’s just the opposite. Jesus says before and during this series of parables, comparison stories about what the kingdom of Heaven is like, that the meaning of the way of life that he would die for is not apparent but hidden.
Hidden. Hid. Buried.
“It is difficult for us to understand Jesus, he does not work around a philosophy of progress.” (Richard Rohr, “Jesus Plan for a New World” p. 41) We have been raised to orient our lives and worldview around progress and goals. And so we are loaded with expectation from the word go, if we cannot measure our output, we often are left puzzled about how things are going in our lives and in our religious world. (Richard Rohr, “Jesus Plan for a New World” p. 41)
Yet, Jesus doesn’t give us this, instead, he walks around in this Kingdom which is his very life and creates a new world order, a new reality for us to follow him into. He states clearly that he has come to do a new thing that is not like the old thing, it is a different way of thinking about power and authority and love.
He reveals where true power lies and points us there to find it, it is within, hidden, and when believed, it is revealed in us and in the world.
The stories are the path.
But we feel so powerless. What kind of power is he talking about, how do we access it and if it’s hidden, how do we find it?
The mustard seed.
The mustard seed is known in the ancient, Mediterranean world as having medicinal qualities but it is also a plant that is to be avoided if you want to cultivate other plants because it tends to take over a garden, kind of like our kudzu, it grows fast and wild of its own accord and takes over, it is a weed that cannot be stopped.
So, the kingdom of Heaven is like this weed, this seed, it is therapeutic but it cannot be stopped. It is like a virus that spreads. Things like unconditional love, non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope, these things are like something that grows stubbornly in the heart and becomes a healing balm for the world.
Of course, it is not without opposition. Jesus points out that the birds of the air will come and partake of the seeds of that stubborn mustard seed weed as it grows and grows to the size of a large bush. We all know we don’t want birds in our garden, they ruin the yield of our good plants. But the kingdom is going to grow despite opposition, that is the message, because it is a different kind of power than what seems to dominate the world. Even the birds will spread the healing seeds of the kingdom. Things are different than they seem, that is the hidden message of the kingdom. (Richard Rohr, “Jesus Plan for a New World” p. 41,42)
The old world order into which Jesus appears is one of corruption, even religious corruption. 90% of the people were poor, Palestine was built around a peasant society, its sole source of income was subsistence farming by peasant landholders. Jesus was speaking to a people who were struggling to have any surplus income left over to take care of themselves and their families after high taxation, fees required by the government to produce food, kind of like today’s monopoly industries setting impossible standards for the private farmer and on and on. We might think of it kind of like our version of the sharecropper, a system that still exists even in America. They were, in many ways, what we would call an “occupied” people, most of their freedoms were simply dominated by a nearly impossible system.
How can we understand such a world? In America, we have our problems, but it is nothing like what we see in the rest of the world. We live in a confusing time. The massive gap between freedom and outright despair exists in front of our eyes. We feel powerless to change it, our church life is diminishing in America, too. Our work lives leave us exhausted, we do well just to do the maintenance of our own lives.
Yet, Jesus has the audacity to invite us into rest, into a different kind of freedom. He says, in the midst of our despair, confusion, fatigue and guilt, he says to us, you can live in this reality now, this new kind of order, follow me, my yoke is easy and my burden is light, this way of life cannot be compromised by a deceptive and corrupt system, for it grows in the midst of it and transforms because its true power is harnessed to God. His next parable gets at the heart of this….
The kingdom is like yeast in the bread, it works of its own accord, those of us who have made bread understand this miracle as the bread rises to three or four times its original size. The yeast works of its own power, hidden in the dough, until there is more than enough yield.
It is like a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price, the prize fish that no one ever thought they would catch, it is all given, not earned or bought or sold.
Sometimes these parables leave us scratching our heads, just like those disciples and followers who might have said “yes, we understand” when what they really meant was, “no, we have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
Jesus also said that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through eye of a needle. It’s no joke. It is simply hard to let go of all that we know.
The kingdom is about the realm where we learn to love without conditions or certain outcomes. We learn to drop our ideas of success and measurement and we let go of control and a new type of power grows in us that is not of us, but of God.
It’s a paradox that we feel so powerless even as we are grasping desperately for power to control our world. We are so disenfranchised in our world today because there’s so much hate. Hate is like the humidity in the air, it just makes it hard to breathe, hard to move about, it’s thick. Hate is what makes us feel like we can’t change anything, it paralyzes us and leads us to despair. Yet, if we learn to let go and surrender to a higher love, we see that there is real power in this kingdom stuff, in the seed of it which is love, because only this kind of love has the ability to abolish hate, which is where all these violent actions in the world come from. Love is the most powerful force in the universe, it is even stronger than the grave, our Scriptures tell us; it’s the mustard seed, the yeast in the bread, the treasure in the field, the pearl, the big fish. Once you’ve experienced it, it changes you from the inside out, like the yeast in the bread, it has a power of its own, and you begin to see the world differently, you begin to rise in the power of love.
And yet, even in the midst of our chaotic world, if you’re looking for evidence of the Kingdom of Heaven, it can be found, anywhere love rules in such a way as to promote gentleness, kindness, compassion, patience, virtue, forgiveness, honesty, these are the fruits of love and God is love (1 John 4:8)
The kingdom often happens in insignificant places, kind of like that nasty little mustard weed growing in cracks of the broken sidewalks in the undesirable neighborhoods.
Let me give you an example right here among us.
Under one roof, one church roof with a regular average attendance of about 35 -45 people, much evidence of this kingdom abides.
At West Nashville UMC, we house and partner with agencies that do the work of the kingdom. All Christian, faith based agencies, these three non-profits feed, house, clothe, employ, educate and re-settle the strangers, the homeless, the poor, the children and families of prisoners.
Want numbers? Our ministry footprint in the community, if you were to run one organization that paid for all of this, would cost around $450,000 per year.
160 people receive fresh produce and canned goods each Saturday, including many children and families through the pantry. Many of these people receive assistance with finding housing, social security cards, food stamps, household goods and supplies, medical assistance and other needs through the large partnering and volunteer programs. (The Little Pantry That Could)
25 children and youth from families of refugees throughout the world receive education, computer skills training and more through the Nations outreach program this summer. Hundreds of refugees will receive job training, citizenship classes, resettlement assistance, and much more through the Nations refugee program. Youth groups from churches all over the US will connect with the program through mission trips and a few of them each year will decide to do something different with their lives.
Each week, youth who are the children of incarcerated parents will be engaged in a counseling and skill set building program through Reconciliation Family Center. Prisoners will go through a 4-month course before they are released designed to give them psychological coaching for re-entering the world and becoming valuable citizens again. And much more.
Through our own church’s feeding program, we give away hot meals to about 30-60 people once a week and with that provide a haven of hope and a place where relationships of trust can be built.
Under one roof, with one small church and limited resources, we provide a large shelter for the evidence of the kingdom of heaven at work. To the world we are somewhat hidden, and yet, it doesn’t matter because we are not in charge of our present and our future. It is God who does the work in us and through us and causes us to believe, again and again, that this work is not only necessary but vital in our community; that we are vital because of it.
I write this not to boast, but to tell you that it is possible with little resources to do big, big work for the kingdom of Heaven if only you make a decision to do it and you are willing to let go of your preconceived notions of what it should look like and enter in to what it is. If only you are willing to let go of precious control and enter in.
Jesus said, simply, follow me and you will see wonder, you will experience love like you’ve never known it before. He did not say riches, wealth, fame, importance, even success as we view it.
He was trying to tell us that the treasures we find in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of the heart, the soul, which is more real than this nightmare we seem to be living in, those treasures, once you find them, once they have seized you in the gut, are more valuable than anything you could possibly imagine. We who have given our lives to this kingdom and have been moved by this truth, this love, have discovered a power that enables us to do immeasurably more than we could ever perceive or imagine. (Eph. 3:20)
In much of our church culture and in our very lives we fail to thrive because we fail to seek that which is truly the kingdom. Perhaps it is something we have longed for but never really known, living on the mere vapor of the spirit at work in the world.
There is a fuller life ahead if you embrace it and walk towards it.
I am simply to here to invite you into it, to say, “come and follow Jesus.”
Take some risk, come and be a part of what God is doing in the world.
God does not ask you for your ability, only your availability and your willingness to let go of the things that bind you.
Into this world we say come and find a life boat, come and find rest, come and find purpose, come and find love. We, the church, came into being for times like these, we are what the pope called the “triage hospital on the front lines of the world’s pain.”
We are those scribes Jesus was talking about who have been specially trained for this purpose. It is time for us to reach into our treasure and give it to God, trusting that something new can grow from something old.
You are probably familiar with friendship bread. The idea is that the dough has been passed along from friend to friend for so long that the original starter dough is still a part of each loaf. It’s a beautiful concept. The church is like this friendship bread, we grow and grow from an original seed, the same truth is passed along and it grows and rises and creates more treasure for more people. We just keep passing it along, tending it for a time and then giving it away to grow and to be what is needed for the present day.
I want to leave you with a question today, you may have an answer or it may take some time to ponder. If you were to write your own story about what the kingdom of heaven is like, what would it be?