(To read the text, go here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Matthew+13:31-52&vnum=yes&version=nrsv)
I love Jesus’ disciples; they’re so full of bluster and bombast, but generally are clueless boneheads. Today and the two previous Sundays, our gospel lessons have come from Matthew 13, in which Teacher Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of heaven, what it’s like to live when God truly is in charge of our lives and creation. At the end, he asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they nod their heads, “Yes!” I imagine them saying, “Sure, Jesus, got it! Of course we understand; totally, no problem!” And then, as they move out toward toward the next town, I see them in clusters of two or three whispering, “Do you really understand?” and one or another confesses, “Not a clue; I have no idea. Maybe, but I’m not sure.”
If they understand, I’m envious. I’m not sure I always do. Even if they do have a clue, there’s always more to understand, another thing to see; which is like going deeper into Christ. I was in a discipleship accountability group in which we agreed to particular practices, one of which was to be kind and considerate to everyone we met. That was easy, except when driving my car. Then I saw there was more to learn and new challenges to face in that arena. Jesus says to love your neighbor; I’m good with that but then there’s my rude neighbor, my neighbor of color, my gay neighbor, that immigrant, those Muslims, that nutcase who doesn’t share my politics, my enemy. That’s when discipleship is more than we first thought, right?
Jesus’ parables are like that; they open up new worlds, offer new insights and always challenge what we think we understand. In Emily Dickinson’s words, parables “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” They’re like a diamond that reflects light differently from different angles; no one by itself is enough, but each one points to a different aspect of what it means to live in God; each is a creative sketch of life that really is life.
So Jesus tells us that God’s Realm is a treasure that is both found unexpectedly, and a pearl to be sought after fiercely. It’s an unexpected and surprising gift, stumbled upon: the light comes on and we realize, oh, this is what it looks like.
At a downtown church, both homeless folks and church members with suburban homes gather at a wintry midweek evening worship service when a guy comes in off the street without shoes. Nice folks scurry around the building looking for, but not finding any shoes for the poor guy, until another homeless guy comes in, sees the situation, gives away his shoes, and simply says, “I’ve got another pair at the shelter.” All those folks with so many shoes in their walk-in closets; and suddenly the blind see.
And it’s something to seek fiercely. If I want to run a 10K, I can’t just think about it; if I want to lose weight, I have to change my eating habits. Both quests are good; a greater one is to find life in Christ, and that also takes more than wishful thinking: constant and regular disciplines of prayer, silence, worship, serving the poor, feasting on God’s Word regularly and faithfully, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: these are markers on the Way to where the priceless treasure of Christ can be found. Life in God: surprising gift? wholehearted quest? Yes.
Truth be told, I’d like my faith more cut and dry, simple and undemanding with less mystery, offered by a laid back Jesus who doesn’t ask much or cause any trouble or indigestion. But Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he was nice, but because he was a threat and a challenge. If we listen to his parables and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” we probably don’t understand them. In reality they’re subversive, scandalous, outrageous, and call into question things we take for granted and cherish a lot, because that’s how we survive in the world. So we think.
So with the parables we hear today. We tame the mustard seed parable with pithy phrases, “From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow;” “Good things come in small packages.” That’s true, for sure. But what if Jesus said God’s Realm is like Kudzu? Kudzu: that awful weed we thought would help us control erosion, but took on a life of its own and is beyond our control; a pain, not a blessing. That was mustard in Jesus’ world; a tiny seed growing to take over a field.
But here’s a mystery: we think Kudzu’s terrible, but the Chinese treasure it as an essential herb good for food and for healing. And that’s God’s Realm: beyond our control. No matter how hard we try it won’t go away; at times it’s unsettling but also the essential source of healing we need and crave. Jesus says that Realm runs wild with mercy and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice or peace, and he promises it will overrun the landscape of all creation for good: even us.
Now here’s the odd thing in Jesus’ parable: mustard doesn’t grow into something all that great. Birds do nest in it; it grows to six or eight feet, but that’s no tree; it’s a bush. Elsewhere in the Bible cedar trees symbolize mighty and powerful empires where birds come to make nests. Compared to a cedar, a mustard bush is a joke.
But maybe it’s God’s last laugh about what we think matters. Maybe God’s Kingdom is marked by great humility and service; the truly powerful and mighty kneel down to wash feet and forgive, or show mercy and offer compassion. What an odd Realm Jesus invites us to inhabit as our true home, now and always.
Then there’s that baker woman. She seems safe, friendly, homey. But think again: bread rises and is transformed into something marvelous by being pummeled and kneaded. My life isn’t easy when God’s strong hands lay hold; new life arises as I surrender, am worked on and pounded, humbled and formed and shaped crosswise into the image and likeness of Christ. But it’s a joyful thing to be touched by God’s hands to rise anew full of life, delightful to behold. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
Three measures of leaven would produce an enormous amount of bread, enough to feed 100 or more people. It’s beyond expectations, extravagant, more than enough; apparently God is an open-handed, generous host, holding nothing back and ready to provide for all who are hungry for something real and eternal. God’s banquet serves up heaping helpings of that bread of life that changes everything: mercy and kindness and grace and acceptance and forgiveness. God welcomes us to sit and be at home there even here, even now. People hunger for such things.
William and Mary students are very competitive, the brightest and best; and that can be a heavy burden if you think you’re loved for your achievements and not yourself. I often shared with them words from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who left a teaching position at Harvard to live as a companion for a special needs adult in the L’Arche community. He’d written, “There is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests'” (Life of the Beloved). Nouwen had heard that voice, rising up against the many voices that tell us otherwise; it transformed him as he went a new Way with Christ. William and Mary students who heard those words also heard that voice with wonder and joy on their faces as they realized God offered them such a gift, too.
I’m comforted by Jesus’ word that that life-bringing leaven is often hidden, doing its work unnoticed, mysteriously, quietly and not in plain view. But I saw it here a few weeks when a solitary woman at this church noticed I was a stranger in the crowd, sought me out spoke and acted with true hospitality that is not seen nearly enough in congregations; and I was grateful.
Could such Kingdom-leaven hospitality work a different miracle? Next month in Charlottesville, white surpremacists will again gather. My bishop has asked United Methodist clergy to join in non-violent protest, and I think a colleague has a crazy wise way to go one more step. She suggests that Kingdom-bold clergy offer free food and drink to the Unite the Right group, to engage in conversation with them, to listen deeply, to humbly challenge in love when possible, and offer to pray with and for them. In that heated place of controversy and conflict, who knows what might arise from such leaven hidden among Christ’s followers that day; and wouldn’t it be worth everything to glimpse God’s Kingdom there?
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.