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Whose Kingdom is it Anyway? Mustard Seeds and Yeast

Matthew 13.31-33

Overseeding season is right around the corner.

For those of you who do or have done your own yardwork, you probably know what I mean. Here in Kansas, the fall is the best time to plant new grass, or overseed your lawn and add more strong healthy grass to crowd out the crabgrass and clover and dandelions. So, I and many of you will truck over to Ace and look at the bags of grass seed to figure out which to buy. I have learned the hard way that you have to read the labels. Not all grass is the same, and some grows better in some yards. So I always flip over the bag and look at the little label, the tag that suggests what percentage of grass seed is in the bag: “74% creeping red fescue, 12% Kentucky bluegrass, etc.” Then, I always look at the bottom line. It says something like “inert matter, other crop seeds, and weed seed.” This number tells you how much stuff is in there that is not Kentucky bluegrass or creeping red fescue, but is instead stuff that you don’t want in your yard. Again, I have learned the hard way that if that number is not low enough, then when you do all this work to overseed your lawn, what you might be doing is sowing a bunch of weeds with it. You want to make sure that the percentage of weed seed in the bag is next to nothing, or you are just creating more headache for yourself next spring and summer.

Why do I tell you this? It is a helpful thing to remember when we read Jesus parables today. Today’s reading is short—just a few verses—and the parables are more extended metaphors than they are stories. Jesus continues his theme, talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. And he returns to the wheelhouse of seed metaphors. He has already talked about the sower and the wheat and the weeds, and now he talks about the mustard seed and leaven, in what feels like the logical conclusion. You have sowed the seed, separated out the weeds and the wheat, now it is time to bake some bread. It’s time to take that wheat and add in the yeast and create a feast! Jesus, who knew that he was talking to farmers and old women whose job it was to bake the bread, tells these parables in which God is like a farmer or an old woman baking bread. Kingdom, he said, is a lot closer than you think, and much like what you see every day. After 2,000 years, these metaphors seem a little quaint and domesticated. We are used to using words like leaven and mustard seed in very “churchy” ways—we associate them with Jesus’ parables more than with what they originally meant. But Jesus’ original audience would have heard these parables very differently than we do.

First, when the farmers in the crowd that day heard the words “mustard seed,” they would not have had good connotations. Mustard was a junk tree. Think about hackberries here in Kansas…trees that spring up and are the devil to kill. Or if you have spent much time in the south, you know about kudzu. Originally brought from Asia to serve as groundcover, it has taken over the South, growing quickly and invasively. Many a story has been told of someone noticing one leaf of kudzu when they left for vacation, and when they returned they couldn’t find their car from the kudzu. When farmers heard mustard seed, they heard kudzu, or hackberries, or dandelions, or crabgrass. They knew that those danged mustard seeds were so small that they would get in the seed bag with the good wheat and when you went out to plant, you would end up planting mustard seed along with it. And before long, you would have this invasive, bushy mess, crowding out your good wheat, serving as a good hiding place for the birds who flew out and ate the crop! When Jesus said, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed,” his original hearers would have done a double take…”say again?”

The same thing would have happened when he used the word “leaven.” Again, to our ears, yeast or leaven sounds like a great thing…how many of you have a bag of Fleischmann’s sitting in the cabinet right now? But the original hearers would have been much more ambiguous. Leaven was considered necessary for making bread, but it was notoriously tricky. You created leaven by letting old bread spoil, letting it get moldy. But you had to let it spoil the right amount…too little and it was useless, and too much and it be dangerous. Leaven had a reputation for being evil or unclean. Remember all the regulations against mold in Leviticus? Remember all the work that had to be done to remove leaven and leavened bread from the house for Passover? Only unleavened bread would do. In the same way that the farmers would have groaned when Jesus mentioned mustard seed, all of the women and bread-bakers would have groaned when Jesus said that the Kingdom was like leaven.

So what on earth did Jesus mean here? Why was he comparing the Kingdom to these annoyances, these headaches? I think that what Jesus might have been up to was to try and describe the subversiveness of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is this subversive thing. It gets in the way of business as usual. It disrupts the kingdoms of this world. It is like an invasive agent against the brokenness of the world that dehumanizes and tears down and destroys God’s children. Jesus is saying “what if the Kingdom of Heaven were like kudzu? And that is a good thing?” What if the Kingdom was this tiny seed that got into the bag of good seed? Or like a tiny bit of leaven that goes a long way…just a scrap is enough to bake bread for a hundred people, according to the amount of flour Jesus refers to in the parable? What if the Kingdom was like this thing that was tiny and invasive and subversive and disruptive and what if that is what God had in mind all along?

As I have said before, when Jesus used the word “Kingdom,” he was implying a new reign, a “standing-up-against” the kingdoms of the world which are already in place. Jesus used this language that was intentionally uncomfortable, metaphors of things that were intentionally annoying, created emotional reactions that were intentionally rankling, because he knew that the Kingdom that he preached would be all of those things—uncomfortable, annoying, rankling—to the ways that the world already worked. In short, preached Jesus, God is in the business of spoiling the kingdoms of this world.

Let me suggest that God is still in that business.

The question that we have to ask ourselves is this: “Are we a part of the spoiling? Or are we a part of what is getting spoiled?” And I think the answer is “yes.” Let me suggest that there are things of this world, things that we have grown up with, and things that we find normal and OK and even good and holy, that God is busy at work disrupting. Spoiling. Subverting. Sneaking junk tree seeds into what we think is good wheat seed. Working unclean mold into our flour. In a surprising twist to last week’s parable, Jesus says sometimes God is the one who sneaks in the middle of the night and plants the weeds. Because when the crop that is being grown is diseased, is destructive, is caustic, and no one can see it, then the only Godly thing to do is disrupt it.

We have these beloved institutions, these beloved traditions, these beloved systems and structures that we think are good and right and holy, but in comes God and says, “we’ve got to spoil this mess!”

I quoted Lee Camp from his book Scandalous Witness a couple of weeks ago, and he has something more to say here. What Camp suggests is what he calls “percipient cultural discernment.” We are to be percipient—perceiving—Kingdom people who discern where God is spoiling the brokenness of the world, including our own favorite parts of the brokenness that we don’t want to let go of! Camp suggests that to be percipient means we pick and choose. Some things we will celebrate—such as art and music and poetry and programs that help the community. Some things we will outright reject—such as objectification of women and children, or overmilitarized violence, or racist structures that dehumanize God’s children. Some things we will work to transform, and here he talks about things like media and free exchange of goods—things that can be good and right and valuable, or can be subverted by greed and lust for power and control. And finally, sometimes we as Christians do our own culture-making, and he points to the traditions of Christian hospitals and universities and institutions that have through the centuries valued learning and scientific exploration and shared wisdom.

Now, being percipient cultural discerners requires some hard work. It means we are reading our Bibles a lot, trying to center and re-center ourselves on the stories and principles of Kingdom, of Gospel, of grace. It means asking for advice: prayer that asks the Holy Spirit to take away our love for the brokenness of the culture around us, and counsel of other Christians who are trying to figure all of this out with us. We read the Bible in community. We pray in community. And coronavirus doesn’t slow that down. Even in the midst of pandemic, we do this hard work. We Zoom with our Sunday school class, talk about these ideas with the Two-way, connect with groups who are talking about race that are bubbling up around the church. All of this is part of this process of percipient cultural discernment. Of asking “what is God subverting here? What might we learn of the invasiveness of the Kingdom?”

Jesus seemed to have this hard work in mind, at the end of Matthew 13. Jesus has told all of these parables: the Sower, the Wheat and Weeds, the Mustard Seed, the Yeast—and many more along the way. But at the end of them all, he says this: “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.”

He uses this phrase I love—”a scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.” A scribe in those days was a trained and learned expert, and Jesus uses the word to apply to one who is trained and learned in the ways of Kingdom. A scholar of the Kingdom of heaven. And this scholar, says Jesus, is trained to see all of the values of the Kingdom. Adam Hamilton likes to say that we in the church are not conservative or progressive, but that we see the value of conserving some things, and progressing away from others. We “bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old.”

I’ve gone back to some familiar hymns and I picked this one before I knew where the sermon was going. But then I opened the hymnal and looked again and saw some words that say some powerful things about Kingdom and our role in that Kingdom. In the song that we sang just a few moments ago, there was some incredible theology about what it means to be percipient cultural discerners…what it means to be scribes trained for the kingdom:

Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free

Open my ears, that I may hear
Voices of truth thou sendest clear;
And while the wavenotes fall on my ear
Everything false will disappear

Open my mouth, and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with thy children thus to share

Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my heart, illumine me, Spirit divine!

May that be our prayer and our hope today.

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