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The kingdom of heaven is insidious

1 Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.

2 Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.

As a chaplain at St. Patrick’s Day School in Washington DC, I worshipped with, taught, and had fun with about 525 young people ranging in age from 4 through 14 years. Some of the children belonged to families who attended the Episcopal Church, some were Catholic in their tradition, some Muslim, some Buddhist, some were Hindu, and some were Jewish. But many children had no faith background. So their introduction to the Source of Life, who I call God, was in weekly chapels where we sang and prayed and talked about how much God loved each one of them without condition—no exceptions. They also had the chance to work on service projects that let them live out the love they had been given by sharing it with others.

One of my colleagues, a popular teacher, was one of those “None of the above” people who enjoyed asking me questions about my beliefs and my practices.  We had a wonderful back and forth interaction. He asked pointed, sometimes, personal questions. I tried not to be shoved off balance so that I could answer him with thoughtfulness and honesty. In my first week, he sat down beside me at lunch and after sharing a few pleasantries, he looked at me and said, “Do you really believe all that stuff you talk about in Chapel?” I told him that I really did. That I had been given early in my life a glimpse of what God’s love looks like and though I had found different ways to talk about what I believed, I was hooked. That in my life, I had found that God’s love and presence was one thing I could count on to help me through all the ups and downs of being alive. It gave me definition and it gave me direction.

He remained unquestionably agnostic about what I had to say, but still as a deeply curious person, we had good conversations and I was grateful that he helped me think through and articulate my ideas about God. Meanwhile, every week, he and his two children came to chapel—listening to stories about God’s people, praying for the world, and singing songs that lifted up God’s goodness.

I had been there a couple of years when he laughingly mentioned one day that on the drive to school that morning, his two children had engaged in an animated conversation about God in the back seat. They were second and fourth graders. Though their family had not stoked their interest in faith, his children had found language and a connection to something that spoke to deep longings. They were exploring a link to something larger than themselves that embraced them as infinitely delightful and gave them some ideas for how to flourish in this life. As he turned to walk away, he shook his head and said, “This Christianity, its insidious.”

Throughout the Gospels and in Matthew’s Gospel in particular, Jesus taught through parables. I love parables. These earthy stories with a heavenly meaning start with the here and now, the up close and personal, to help us catch sight of eternal life. I also love the way parables make us think. It has been said that you cannot tell people the truth; you can only put them in a position where they can discover the truth for themselves. (This may come in handy for our times!) That is what a parable does. Parables don’t argue for truth itself, but they show that what is true about God and about ourselves might be discovered as we wrestle, resist, and are pulled into the truth. And the nice thing about a parable, as opposed to an argument which seeks to win, is that a parable never puts anybody down.  It just opens a portal for a different way of viewing.

So many of us have heard these parables told and preached on so many times, they may have lost their ability to surprise and open. But let’s give it a go.

Today we hear that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. This seed is quite small as Jesus tells us, yet when it is sown in the field and it begins to grow, it becomes a great shrub, eventually providing a place for all the birds to find shelter. The next parable tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. This yeast is not the kind found in the red packet in the grocery store refrigerated section, rather it is sourdough starter. We hear that a woman took and mixed it in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Many times this is the end of the story. We can be tempted to hear these parables as if they are proverbs: “big things sometimes have small beginnings.” This is good. It is sometimes true. But a parable isn’t a simple lesson. It isn’t a story that has a moral. A parable is a realm you step into that, now disoriented, your senses altered, you see and hear afresh. It’s meant to cause you some confusion and some discomfort so that you are wakened out of your couch-prone-viewing spot and have to sit up, look closer, and pay attention.

The mustard seed is not just small, it is an invasive weed. Though it starts out as barely perceptible, once it is in the soil it takes over. Like mint or kudzu or crabgrass or bindweed, it intertwines with other plants until mustard takes over and it is the all in all. Everything, everywhere will be mustard, mustard, mustard. It is subversive. It is insidious!

The man who “sowed” that single mustard seed may have had no idea that his land would soon be thick with invasive plants. Maybe he thought he could keep the mustard contained. But the reign of heaven is like the metamorphosis of a cultivated field into a wild and leafy bird sanctuary. Once the reign of heaven takes root it will do its thing. The neighbors might snicker about what you did to your field. But soon they will receive a few seeds—or two—or fifty—when the wind blows them onto their land.

The next parable concerns yeast or leaven. The term for “yeast” (zume in Greek) refers to sour dough starter. In the parable, the woman does not “mix’ the leaven into the flour, she “hides” it. The Greek term enkrypto means that she is literally doing something in secret. But in placing this starter in the flour, its results will eventually come to light. What is being hidden is only hidden so that it can come forth in the revelation that the original has been transformed. It is subversive. It is insidious!

And she is not hiding it in a couple of cups of flour. Three measures of flour equal about 40 to 60 pounds. The dough would be far too much for one woman to knead on her own and the yield would be far too much for one person to consume. Reminding us of the prodigious amount of good wine produced by Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana, the image of the amount of flour is one of extravagant abundance. The kingdom of heaven is like sourdough starter hidden in an overwhelming amount of flour that can create more than a year’s worth of bread.

Why then does Matthew have Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed that takes over and sour dough starter that when hidden infiltrates a mixture that results in an enormous yield? Perhaps because both mustard seed and yeast have a way of spreading beyond anything you imagined, infiltrating a system and taking over. Both symbolize the radical generosity of God that is available to everyone. Both are part of the good world God gives us. Like the sun that insists on shining, the seed insists on growing to be used by anyone who finds the plant. Like the vast amount of bread the woman bakes, the mustard plant provides for more than a single individual can use.

Tiny seeds, hidden leaven, woman’s work: had it been left to me, this might not have been how I would have described the single most powerful, meaningful, and joyful reality in the universe! But it is one way Jesus described it.

And this also means that if we take our cues from Matthew 13, then it is clear that both our kingdom living and our kingdom witness will involve quiet, grace filled, acts of love, and compassion, noticing, and accompanying. With God’s help, we can be a part of kingdom-bringing by planting seeds, hiding leaven—stealthy, barely perceptible things that in God’s good time can grow into the most contagious and loving force the world has ever known.

The kingdom of heaven is like this. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that was planted by a child’s question about feeding the hungry and grew into a community garden that provides beautiful vegetables for hundreds of people and welcomes all to come and be nurtured.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that sees the need for school supplies for some children that when “hidden” in a good source results in the whole leavened batch exploding with great generosity and joy.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed being planted in young people inviting them to become acolytes, to develop their full leadership as members of a community of faith and seeing that seed spread to encompass those young people with love and gratitude.

The kingdom of heaven has a strange power of proliferation. The kingdom of heaven is about a love that simply cannot be rooted out. It is subversive. It is insidious.

Once you have truly been seen and lifted up as a beloved child, you cannot go back to believing that you are unworthy or undeserving of love.

Once you have experienced a deep kindness, you cannot turn your back on the needs of others.

This is the word that Christ not only spoke but also lived daily. This is the word that Christ not only proclaimed but unleashed.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough teach us that despite all obstacles, despite all indications to the contrary, God’s realm of love, justice, and peace will ultimately prevail in our hearts and in our actions. We are part of the kingdom movement.

In the face of exclusion and disrespect, we claim God’s eternal welcome.

When confronted with suffering, we look to God’s eternal healing.

When challenged with hate and division, we proclaim love—generous, abundant love—no exceptions.

Let us be about sowing and infusing. Let us be about turning hearts toward the dream that God intends.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand and it is at work transforming everything.

 

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