Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sermon, Proper 12A, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The kingdom of heaven is like . . . and with that, Jesus is off and running. Five times Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . ." What is the kingdom of heaven like?

Well . . . it's like noxious weeds that take over the land its like yeast that affects a whole batch of wheat; it's like an unexpected surprise; it's like the most valuable item you can find; and it's like a dragnet looking to pull in people of every kind.

These short parables do a couple of things. First, they underscore hte here and now. They don't proclaim what the kingdom will be like in its final form. They don't look ahead to a new, golden age of sugar and spice and everything nice. What they do is to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like right now. They tell us that the kingdom of heaven is invading the world and is changing the landscape. They tell us that not only is the kingdom of heaven imminent, but that it is present.

The second thing these parables do is show us how subversive the kingdom of heaven is. They are subversive in the fact that the kingdom of heaven take what we see as traditional roles, or proper behavior, or traditional values, or correct order and subverts it and turns our idea of propriety on its head. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is not like a perfectly manicured lawn, or a church where only the men are in charge and only the right kinds of people are allowed in. The kingdom of heaven is much more expansive, inclusive and penetrating than that.

Let me focus on the first two of these five kingdom parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sows. it is the smallest of seeds yet grows up to be the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree where all the birds come and nest.

In point of fact, the mustard seed neither is the smallest of seeds, nor does it grow into a tree. It may not be "factual," but the truth of this parable is that, even though people see the kingdom a small and insignificant, it will grow into something so large that all people will come and make their homes in it.

If I were to retell this parable, I'd say that the kingdom of heaven is like knapweed, a noxious weed that proliferates rapidly and takes over all the land. We are all familiar with knapweed and how it seems to be taking over Montana. This is the kingdom of heaven. It starts small, but soon spreads wherever it can get a foothold, and it messes up our perfectly manicured yards and fields. And, I've heard, where there are sheep, the weed spreads faster.

In the parable of the mustard seed, the plant eventually takes over and all the birds of the air come to nest there. The kingdom of heaven will eventually draw all people in and offer all people a home. In my updated version, all the sheep feed on the weed and do their part to spread it around. The kingdom of heaven nourishes us so that we can go out and spread the news, thereby doing our part to help it continue to take over.

And then there's the parable of the yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like yest that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavend. In today's world, we hear this parable and think, "Oooh, the kingdom of heaven is like a nice, warm loaf of newly baked bread; what could be better than that?" But we fail to see how subversive this statement really is.

First, let's take a look at the three measures. One source says that three measures comes to about 50 pounds of flour. And if I've read my table of dry measures correctly, three measures comes out to be almost ten bushels. That's a lot of flour. Not only is it a lot of flour, but this amount hearkens back to when Abraham met the three visitors at the oaks of Mamre and instructed Sarah to make cakes using three measures. The implication here is that this amount is suitable for a large party, maybe even a heavenly banquet. So it's not simply a few loaves of bread, but a banquet where all are invited.

Another aspect about this parable is that yeast, or leaven, was used in a negative light. Remember, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Yeast in Jesus' day was like our bad apple. And even today Orthodox Jews will clean out their houses of all yeast at Passover time. Add to this that holy bread, the bread of the temple and the bread of the Passover, was unleavened bread. So what Jesus is saying here is that the kingdom of heaven takes that which is bad and unholy, that which we consider wicked, and makes it a vital part of the kingdom of heaven.

The third aspect of this parable is that it is a woman who does the mixing. Women, remember, are ritually unclean members of society most of the time. Women are property for men to own. Women aren't considered second-class citizesn, they are considered possessions. That's not to say that they don't carry a certain amount of power around the home, but when we are talking about the greater society in general, and the religious society in particular, to allow a woman to be a part of it is simply unheard of. And yet, the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who mixes yeast with three measures of flour.

This is no sweet parable of mom baking fresh bread for the family. This is a parable that turns things upside down and inside out by saying that the kingdom of heaven welcomes those we consider outsiders, those we consider unclean and those we consider sinners to a great heavenly banquet where there is food for all. The kingdom of heaven offers radical and inclusive hospitality to those we deem unworthy.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? The kingdom of heaven is more radical, more welcoming and more inclusive than we can imagine. The kingdom of heaven will toss all our ideas of rightness and holiness and normalcy out the window. The kingdom of heaven is here; and to participate in it, all we have to do is invite and welcome and include those people we deem as noxious to society or those we see as outsiders unworthy to participate in the banquet.


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