November 23, 2014
Christ the King Sunday
“God’s Amazing Harvest”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;
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.”
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.”
In 1999 there was a piece of art short-listed for the Turner prize, which is given out at the Tate Gallery in Londoun to a British visual artist under the age of 50.
The work was by artist Tracey Emin entitled “My Bed” and it was literally her bed, with dirty, rumpled sheets, pillows, tights and a towel—all stained. With alongside it vodka bottles, slippers, underwear, empty cigarette packets, other trash, and a white fluffy toy.
The bed was presented in the state that Emin claimed it had been when she said she had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression.
It was a media sensation. The piece sold for £150,000 to a gallery, and then in July of this year was auctioned off for £2.2 million.
Those who saw it were inspired by its honesty and its frank authenticity and the vulnerability of the artist. Others were offended, disturbed and disgusted by it. But it left no one indifferent.
This is how parables work. The story centers around an ordinary object or event or scene – the farm or a field or a wedding or a flock of sheep or a woman baking bread. Something as familiar to our scenery as our own bed.
But we come to find as the tale unfolds that this story is not so familiar or predictable, and not so easily understood. Matthew calls Jesus’ stories, “parables,” which comes from a Greek word meaning “something cast beside,” meaning that the story is not just a story, there is a deeper meaning that we need to search for; there is a truth beneath the surface. The meaning is “sub-versive.”
And it is not as simple as decoding the story – parables are intended to hit us at the level of art or poetry or music. Parables don’t describe the kingdom of God as much as they actually evoke some image of God’s in-breaking reality in our lives.
One scholar gives this explanation of parables: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor . . .drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
These two parables can illicit hope and inspiration, or offense – but they do not leave us indifferent.
So we hear this first parable about the mustard seed, not literally the smallest seed, but we get the point.
God’s kingdom is like something seemingly insignificant, so much so that we might doubt that it has any power at all – just as we might doubt a baby in a manger, a king on a donkey, God’s son dead on a cross, or a tiny band of persecuted men and women who called themselves a church; just like when everything seems like darkness and despair, and evil is winning, we might doubt that light would break in and God would come.
God’s kingdom defies logic, turns expectations upside down. How could such a small seed ever hope to be big enough to hold a flock of flapping, squawking birds?
God’s kingdom is built on the belief that small things matter and have power.
At the continuing education event I just attended one of the presenters pointed out that if you look at the great movements of our time, the great inventions, the great companies, they all began in the same way – “we had a conversation.”
WATTS began with, “we had a conversation” and the conversation was about a couple people who had died on the streets during the winter from exposure. Great things have mustard-seed-sized beginnings.
Every year as we prepare for our summer mission trip with our youth and adults, we talk about the reason why we do these trips, which cost us time and money and energy. Why would we do this, when it is such a short period of time to accomplish anything of value? We might compare the experience to a mustard seed.
We go because we believe that this is how God’s kingdom comes, with small acts of love that send ripples out into the world.
We read the story of the yeast and think about all the times it has felt like God was far away, maybe even hidden from view.
We looked around us, we watched the news, we felt our pain and wondered if God was there at all. And it was hard to pray and even harder to believe.
But all along God’s kingdom was there, hidden in so much flour that we couldn’t even tell that anything was happening – but something was happening – hearts were changing, our hearts were changing.
We couldn’t see it but God’s kingdom was there all along.
The kingdom of God is like those times when you are so lost and you pray and you pray and nothing seems to change, and you have almost given up hope, and then you feel it – a little bit of joy, a glimmer of peace.
God’s kingdom is like a speck of yeast, so tiny and insignificant and hidden in enough flour to make bread for 150 people – and yet by the Grace of God, the yeast works its way all the way through.
This kind of truth can change our lives – we are not insignificant, what God is doing is not insignificant, each small act of discipleship is not insignificant. Small things matter.
Or perhaps, instead, we could read these parables and be offended as the first hearers would have likely been.
Mustard was a weed, pernicious and difficult to root out – it could take over a whole field, crowd out the cash crop, and make your farming life miserable.
I remember when I was young, when we planted the Morning Glories in our backyard. We thought they would be beautiful with their brilliant blue flowers and tame vines. And for years afterward we cursed under our breathes as we ripped out those vines that would have suffocated lilac plants and rose bushes.
We found morning glories everywhere, in the vegetable garden, in the grass, in the compost, in many places we did not want them.
The kingdom of God is like that?
Invasive, over-reaching, and you can’t get rid of it even if you want to.
The kingdom of God is like a stink bug who traveled to the East Coast of the United States on a cargo ship from Japan. It took over, damaged the orchards, got into our homes, and we just couldn’t get rid of it.
Yeast was a pollutant, always viewed in a negative light in the Jewish tradition as something corruptive. Make bread with no leavening, no yeast – it was easier to work with and easier to travel with. We have been warned of the yeast of the Pharisees. This yeast is not a good thing.
And while our NRSV Bible translates the Greek as the yeast was “mixed” into the flour, perhaps by the woman kneading the dough, the Greek word is actually “hidden.” It is not there because the woman put it there.
God’s kingdom is like this unpleasant, irritating additive that has sullied a lot of really good flour that was going to make bread for 150 hungry people to eat.
God’s kingdom is like that? Like something we might rather keep out of our lives?
The kingdom of God is like a bacterium that comes to live on a beautiful cut of meat, at first it is impossible to see, but eventually the whole thing stinks to high heaven.
It’s just offensive. Yet even in its offensiveness the parables tell us that God’s kingdom cannot be thwarted – it grows and moves like an invasive weed. God’s kingdom is not our creation – it springs up in expected places and sometimes in spite of us.
However we read these parables, something unstoppable is happening. In C.S Lewis’s The Chronicle of Narnia’s first book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the four children enter the world of Narnia, it is under the spell of the wicked queen – she has made it always winter and never Christmas. In other words, it is a place without hope or joy. But there are rumors, among those who hold out hope — they whisper that Aslan, the true king of Narnia, is on the move, even though we haven’t even seen him yet.
In these parables we are reminded that Christ is on the move, so we watch for signs of the kingdom, with the hope that even if we can’t always see it, that it is there, and that small things do indeed matter.