Matthew 13 is almost smack dab in the middle of the Gospel. We have made our way through the Magi and Joseph, the Sermon on the Mount, and the mission in Jesus’ home region of Galilee. We haven’t yet made it to the Triumphal Entry, the Temple teaching of Passion Week, Crucifixion, Resurrection. Smack dab in the middle of the Gospel, in the heart of Matthew, stands the Kingdom. In this chapter, what some scholars call a “didactic discourse,” Jesus teaches his followers about the meaning of the Kingdom. He does it mainly through the use of parables. Depending on how you count them, there are nine.
In the next few weeks, we are going to tackle three or four of them. You see, if Jesus’ followers had a hard time understanding what the Kingdom was all about while he was standing there telling them, imagine how hard it is for us, 2,000 years later. We are still trying to figure out what Jesus meant by the Kingdom, and what it means for us today. So, over these next several weeks, we are going to explore these concepts and these parables. We begin today with the Parable of the Sower. What does this passage and this story teach us about the Kingdom and about our world today?
First, the Kingdom is political. When Jesus uses this language, it absolutely had a political bent. Even the word “kingdom” is a political designation. If we were today to talk about a “heavenly president,” do you think that folks wouldn’t think that we weren’t talking about politics? But I would suggest that what Jesus was doing is not political in the sense that we usually mean, referring to American partisan political wrangling. I mean, when I said the word, I think I could hear your groaning from here. That’s the last word that we want to use to describe anything in the Bible or anything from our faith, right? Left vs. Right. Conservative vs. Progressive. MSNBC vs. Fox. Mitch vs. Nancy. Trump vs. Joe. Vs. Vs. Vs. Vs. Fight Fight Fight Fight Fight. Let’s all hope that the Kingdom of Heaven does not look like that!
But let me tweak the definition a little bit. And to do it, I want to use a definition from a book from Lee Camp, Scandalous Witness, that we discussed in the Earthworks Purple group last week. Camp suggests that Christianity is “a politic.” We don’t often use the word in that way, so let me read Camp’s description to flesh it out:
by politic I mean an all-encompassing manner of communal life that grapples with all the questions the classical art of politics has always asked: How do we live together? How do we deal with offenses? How do we deal with money? How do we deal with enemies and violence? How do we arrange marriage and families and social structures? How is authority meditated, employed, ordered? How do we rightfully order passions and appetites?…Where is human history headed? What does it mean to be human? And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice, and the peace of God?
Doesn’t that sound much more meaningful and hopeful and important to talk about than just about anything that we see in cable news political coverage? That is the kind of stuff that Jesus seems like he is trying to address, in all of his preaching, including here in Matthew 13. I’ll bet you missed the first verse or two here, because I did. As Jesus begins this discourse, it says, “he left the house.” Sounds simple, right? But for Matthew, who is all about physical descriptions and mountains and metaphorical space, this is important. He left the house, specifically the house where his mother and brothers are standing outside wanting him to come home and stop all this foolishness (remember that story?). When Chapter 13 opens, he is leaving the establishment of his birth community, his birth family, and the status quo that he was raised under, and creating a new community. A new communion. He physically gets on a boat, and sails out far enough for everyone to see him, and he spiritually calls this new family together. To define for them what this new politic will look like.
Maybe this is heresy on the 4th of July weekend, but I think that we are similarly called to leave the house of our expectations and our American politics and our way of life here in the good old US of A, to live under these new rules…this new politic that Jesus sets out. Camp says it clearly: “the United States is not the hope of the World.” As Christians, that should not be a provocative statement. We can love this country, while at the same time finding it fundamentally flawed next to the hope of the Kingdom politic that Jesus presents. That is the hope of the world. An alternative community. But so many of us don’t want to leave the house, our institutions of choice, our partisan ideologies, the safety of people like us. We want to stay in the house instead of joining Jesus on the beach, in this new Kingdom and new politic. The Kingdom is political, but not in the way we think.
There is a second thing that the passage teaches us about the Kingdom: the Kingdom of Heaven bats .250. Anyone excited about baseball season? Yes, and no, and nervous and hopeful and doubtful that it will actually happen, and perhaps frustrated that it took so much fighting over money in order to make it happen. For you baseball fans, you know what I am talking about. A batter who hits .250 gets a hit exactly one out of every four times she or he goes to the plate. If you aren’t a baseball fan, you should know that is actually not as bad as it sounds. It’s not great. It isn’t going to win you the MVP. But the best batters in history only hit around .400.
Once Jesus leaves the house and goes out on the lake, look again at his story. A sower goes out to sow…and he fails 3 times out of 4! He bats .250! Some of the seed falls on the path and gets eaten by birds (like some of my grass seed.) Some of the seed grows up quickly, but doesn’t have good roots and dries up and withers (like some of my marigolds). Some of the seeds fell into the thorns and weeds and got choked out (like a few of my columbine). The sower’s seeds fail 3 times out of 4!
So what does it mean if the Kingdom of Heaven bats .250? I think part of the lesson is this: failure is a part of the game. Failure is inherent to this politic. Again, since I am already a heretic on the Fourth of July weekend, I’ll keep it up—we Americans don’t like failure. We don’t abide by it well. That’s the idea behind American exceptionalism, sometimes called triumphalism. We are the best and the brightest and the most powerful and we win the most medals in the Olympics. But that is not the same politic of Jesus, who showed us what true life was like through…death. Failure. Failure is inherent. Real risk is required. We stumble around and we mess it up, and we have messy conversations and messy disagreements, and set big, hairy, audacious goals, and we even try things that might not work. That in fact don’t work. As Matthew wrote this Gospel, his church was getting beat up, figuratively and physically. Failure was part of the game. It is part of the game of the church. We don’t always succeed. We don’t always get it right. The world of success and achievement and best and the brightest…that isn’t the life that Jesus calls us to. Maybe that is why he used the metaphor of the seed…this thing that has to die before it can bring life.
Jesus proclaims that in the ideal of the Kingdom, the best we can pull off is to bat .250!
But then here is the third thing that I want to point out: The Kingdom of Heaven is like Glenallen Hill. Most of you probably have no idea who that is. Continuing with the baseball metaphor, Glenallen Hill was a journeyman baseball player, who played for the Cubs for a while. He was a .250 hitter…actually a few points better. But Cubs fans know his name mostly for one reason: in the year 2000, he hit a home run. Wrigley has seen plenty of home runs land in the stands. Fairly often, a home run will actually leave the ballpark, over the fence beyond the stands. Very rarely, a home run will leave the ballpark, and actually go far enough to hit one of the buildings across the street. In 2000, Glenallen Hill hit a home run that landed on the roof of one of those buildings, several stories high. Many think it was the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley Field.
My point is this: Glenallen Hill only got a hit 1 out of 4 times he came to the plate. But when he got one, watch it go! In other words, The Kingdom rewards this risk with prodigious abundance! Three of four of the seeds fail, but then one out of four! Some of the seeds fall in the good soil, and go deep into the earth, and they grow like crazy (like my mint! Anyone want any mint? Come on over and grab some!) Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold. And if you know grains you know that this is the case…one stalk from one seed can produce this abundance.
That is the hope that we must cling to as Christians. That is what the Kingdom is all about. Not our broken political system. Not the flawed and false promises of American triumphalism. But the abundance of the Kingdom of Christ. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn’t just talking about the “sweet by and by.” Life after this life. He was talking about this inbreaking of abundance in this world. “The Kingdom is among you.” Here. Not out there. Not one day. But breaking in, here and now, with abundance. The Two-way folks got it right last week. They said we have to look for the abundance of generosity, understanding, grace, forgiveness. They told these stories of that abundance breaking into their lives…
- Showing their kids and grandkids what that abundance looks like…
- Living with a roommate, who sees that abundance by the way we live…
- Changing the system of our family—like Nancy talked about a couple of weeks ago—by living out this abundance
That’s when the abundance of the Kingdom breaks into our world, and explodes. Thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. Once more back to Camp:
there is no guaranteed method to do church without the risk of grave failure. But this does not mean we have been left without gifts and promises… Out of such promises and gifts we need not fall prey, then, to despair, even though the failings of the church are so grave. Just as we must not, living between the times, fall prey to ideological political partisanship, so must we not fall prey to idealizing the church. But such a realism leaves us then with a more solid grounding—that this is not an easy calling, risk free, guaranteed to be faithful. But we have been promised that we would not be left alone, not be left friendless, and not be left without daily graces.
That is the hope, the abundance before us! Like the Creator in the beginning, hovering over the waters and speaking the world into existence. Like the Spirit at Pentecost, our works get magnified. Like the death and failure and ending of Christ…becoming the life and hope and Easter Resurrection. That is what abundance looks like! Thirty. Sixty. A hundredfold exploding like a patch of mint in good soil. May we live out of that abundance, out of that ethic, that politic, that Kingdom life. Today and in the days ahead.