The Kingdom of God is Like a Subversive Force
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52. The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Leaven. Focus on how God comes to us like a weed that needs no human help, yet changes and transforms us.
In a remarkable little book called How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J.L. Austin makes the claim that contrary to conventional wisdom, words don’t simply describe things, they actually make things happen. When two people say, “I do” in the context of a marriage ceremony; they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it.
Or when someone says, “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon our bodies. Therefore we ultimately know what a words means not from what it says, but from what it does. For example: Is the sentence “close the door,” an invitation to greater privacy or an annoyed command. You don’t know until you feel the force of the words as they act upon you.
I find this description of words very helpful when it comes to understanding the impact of Jesus’ words on the people who heard them. Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we claim and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive ways God continues to change lives to this day.
There is a tendency to read these parables of Jesus like mini proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings, or don’t judge based on its size.” Makes sense on one level but then it also completely misses the mark of what Jesus was talking about when you realize that in Jesus’ world neither a mustard seed or yeast was viewed positively.
Mustard was a weed, dreaded by farmers the way a gardener dreads crabgrass or bindweed. It starts out small but before long it takes over your whole field or yard. And the same with yeast, which was viewed as a contaminant in the Bible and was almost always used as an example of how sin works.
So why does Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed or to a contaminant? Because both the mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagine, infiltrating a system and taking over its host.
What could be less significant that a baby in a manger or Israel, a vassal of mighty Rome? What could be less promising than a cross or a small church in Hackensack? You’d expect to find the kingdom in cathedrals and mega-churches, but these parables suggest that the kingdom is to be found in the humblest places among the most unlikely of people. And over the past two thousands years we have seen the proof. Today the Roman Empire is only found in history books, but people sing Jesus’ praises all over the world.
These parables were not meant to be reassuring and familiar, they were meant to be disturbing and challenging. To the farmer the mustard seed is the equivalent of our crabgrass today. To the woman with the dough the leaven is the thing to be avoided at all cost. Yeast is a difficult thing, it oozes and bubbles and collapses, it’s hard to handle when you need to be ready to move quickly as the Jews did out of Egypt.
And the amount that she uses in our parable is enough to feed 100 people. How do you pack that quickly as you are trying to escape Pharaoh?
The people who first heard Jesus’ parables didn’t hear them as homey or comforting proverbs, but as subversive statements, for Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is invasive, unstoppable, a nuisance, uncontrollable, a kingdom that can set father against son, and mother against daughter. If leaven is a symbol of corruption; who are the leaven in society? The very people to whom Jesus is speaking. To the Pharisees, the scribes, the wealthy and powerful, the plebs are the tacky mix-ins you’d rather avoid but you can’t because someone is needed to was the steps, plough the fields, dig the sewers and build Herod’s grand temple in Jerusalem.
And in telling these parables Jesus is saying to everyone I’m here to tell you that in God’s society things are turned upside down, and there is hope and possibility for the leavening lumps. Those who are considered unclean, the dregs of society, are the very ones amongst whom the kingdom comes, which is shocking stuff.
God’s empire unlike Rome’s empire is pervasive and subversive rather than dominant. It’s like a pungent weed that takes over everything. It’s not mighty or majestic, yet it cannot be domesticated. It’s universal in scope – fish of every kind are caught and you have to sift through them to find the very best. It doesn’t just happen sometimes you have to search for it like a merchant intent on finding only the best pearls. It’s risky too and people are doing amazing things to be part of it – like selling all that they have to buy a field for heaven’s sake.
So let’s hear these parables anew, after all the gospel is Good News. The kingdom of heaven is like one grape with mold on it in the bag bought at the supermarket. Left in the light the mold grows and the next day every grape in the bag is moldy.
The kingdom of heaven is like a slot machine. Many come and gamble their money and leave with nothing. Then comes a woman with her last coin. She hits the buttons, the dials spin, and the cherries all fall in a row, the lights flash and the music plays, and out pour so many coins she can’t carry them all.
The kingdom of heaven is like a bee. It stings and can kill some people, but the land of milk and honey wouldn’t have any honey without it.
What Jesus does in these parables is to take objects and thoughts in common use and make them signs of the kingdom, refusing to domesticate them, and looking for that determined hopefulness that turns the commonplace into the language of heaven and dares to talk of heaven in the language of earth. You want to grow towards God then grow like a weed. Grow in all directions.
In a sense it’s a miracle that the mustard seed makes it all, but it does and it thrives. And the response of the pearl hunter and field buyer tells us that we don’t make grace happen we just respond to it when we see it, feel it, sense it.
It’s a wonderful thing as I look back over my life, that I really didn’t make much happen. When I tried too hard I tended to make a mess of things. I’ve been at my best, when I have simply allowed life to unfold and surprise me, and then responded to its grace in gratitude and in giving. Why? Because God’s kingdom is always coming and before I even knew it was transforming everything including me. Amen