As I move through the ordination process, I have been given the opportunity to preach a few times at some local churches, including my home church, College Hill UMC (CHUM) in Wichita. I’ll be sharing the text of my sermons here. I am scheduled to preach December 28th, and I will share that sermon here afterwards.
Today’s sermon was preached July 27, at Burden UMC, in Burden KS.
Last year, I worked for a time in the Oklahoma Legislature, in the House of Representatives. And in the House, there is a Representative named Richard Morissette. He represented south OKC, and he is term-limited out after this year. His office was two doors down from mine. Richard is from New Hampshire, and has a real strong New England accent, a booming voice, and being a lawyer and politician, he uses that booming New England voice of his loudly and often.
And colorfully. When he stood up to debate in the legislature, it was worth it to stop and watch. No matter this issue, Rep. Morissette would get fired up and pretty soon would be hollering and yelling and putting on quite a good show in the chamber.
And nothing got Rep. Morissette riled up like the Eastern Red Cedar.
How many here know what the Eastern Red Cedar is?
Well, the ERC is a tree that is not native to Oklahoma. It’s invasive, pushing out other, resident trees, and it is also a big time allergen. It’s pollen is terrible and I don’t know whether Rep. Morissette was actually allergic to it or just knew people that were or what, but he hated ERC and it was his driving goal during his twelve years in the legislature to eradicate it from Oklahoma.
Every session, you could count on numerous bills concerning ERC, and news conferences about it, and photo ops out looking at the creeping infestation.
So imagine if I walked up to Rep. Morissette, and said to him one day, “Sir, the kingdom of heaven is like the Eastern Red Cedar.”
I imagine he wouldn’t have liked that too much.
He probably would have looked at me like I was nuts for comparing something so longed for and great to something he considers so foul and obnoxious. He probably would have used that booming New England voice of his to colorfully inform me what he thought of my statement.
I imagine this is kind of the same reaction Jesus got when one day he declared, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” and “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”
Now obviously, in the world we live in, mustard seeds and yeast aren’t bad things. In fact, there are few things I enjoy more than a sandwich on big yeasty bread with some mustard. I don’t think anyone would think I’m crazy for eating that.
But in his typical fashion, Jesus found some things that were considered dirty and bad and forbidden in first century Palestine, and used them to describe God’s plan for the world in a thought provoking way.
And then, just a few verses later, he turns around and describes the kingdom of heaven like a pearl, or a great treasure, or a net full of fish.
Always keeping us on our toes, isn’t he?
In today’s Gospel, we see five parables of Jesus that describe the varied nature of the kingdom of heaven. And in these five stories, Jesus tells us the kingdom is something small, and precious, and secretive and contaminating and beautiful and just. And this is a just a small sampling of the kingdom. Time and again in his ministry, Jesus attempts to describe the kingdom to his followers. He uses numerous parables and sayings and examples to get them to understand, to see. And he tells us these things not to fill us with longing. He leaves us these examples with the intention that we make this world like that world, the one he tells us about. Like he taught us to pray: “The kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” right?
So the first parable we read today is the parable of the mustard seed. In ancient Israel, the mustard plant was not something you grew in your backyard vegetable garden. Jewish law forbade the domesticated growing of mustard, because it was so invasive. From just one little bitty tiny seed, a huge bush would grow, and this bush would take over entire garden plots, choking out the good vegetables and herbs growing there. And since yellow mustard wasn’t invented until the Enlightenment period in France, mustard plants had very little use for the Jewish people. About the only thing it was good for was crushing and rubbing on a sick person’s chest like Vicks vapor rub.
Traditionally, if the kingdom of God was going to be compared to a plant, it was usually compared to the Cedars of Lebanon. Undoubtedly Jesus knew the passage from Ezekiel 17:22-24, where the coming kingdom is described to the exiled Jews:
“Says the Lord God: ‘I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out….On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird…And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.’”
A great towering, majestic cedar, looming above all the other trees and bushes, where all the birds can come nest. Sounds much more kingdom-like.
But Jesus turns that all on its head. Instead, he tells us that the kingdom is like a bush, a weed even. And in this bush will all the birds make their nest.
Next, Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. As if it isn’t bad enough that he just invoked mustard, now he is comparing it to something that Jewish law forbade from even being present in a home during the holiest time of the year: Passover.
We all know about Passover and the story of unleavened bread: the Jewish people fled Egypt so quickly they didn’t even have time to let the yeast in their bread rise, but instead ate unleavened bread. And from then on, according to Jewish law, yeast was forbidden from use during the holy week.
And we’ve all seen yeast. It’s tiny, nearly invisible. And when it is used in bread, it’s hidden in the dough. And yet it pervades the entire loaf. It contaminates the dough, and although impossible to see, it’s results in the end are undeniable.
From these two examples, we can see the nature of the kingdom that Jesus is beginning to illustrate. Though at first small, unassuming, secretive, unnoticeable even, the kingdom is pervasive and unstoppable. It spreads and invades and grows and chokes out all other desires and priorities and wants.
So next, Jesus moves on and tells us the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and then hid again. Then that person goes and sells all that he has and uses the proceeds to buy that field, and with it, the treasure hidden inside.
The fourth parable is almost identical, and identifies that kingdom as like someone who finds a pearl of great value, and so sells everything he owns and buys this priceless pearl.
So we begin to see the second nature of the kingdom. We have moved from the cosmic nature of the kingdom described by the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast to a more personal nature, where we encounter the kingdom in our lives. After secretly and quietly growing into something pervasive, the kingdom becomes irresistible. And as we encounter the kingdom personally, after searching and finding it, or maybe encountering it without knowing, we discover it to be joyous. We discover that we are willing to sacrifice all else to possess it, that we feel a wholehearted commitment and are completely wiling to disrupt our daily lives and priorities in service to the kingdom.
We become like the disciples Jesus called early in the book of Matthew, who drop everything they are doing, who give up their friends and families and livelihoods, to simply follow Jesus and experience the kingdom.
And also, we find that we are called to be like the rich young man, who asks Jesus what he should do to inherit the kingdom. And just like the subjects of these parables, Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give away the proceeds, and then he will experience the kingdom. The rich young man is unwilling. But the protagonists of these two parables follow through, and experience the joy of the kingdom. They illustrate the key point here: no cost is too great for the kingdom of heaven. It is priceless beyond all else, and should be willing to give up all else for it.
So now, after building the nature of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses a final parable to illustrate just what this priceless kingdom looks like, what it is exactly we are searching for.
He says the kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches fish of all kind; and after it is hauled up, the fish are sorted and the bad are thrown back and the good are kept.
The story, and the message here, are almost identical to the parable immediately preceding these five, the parable of the weeds and the wheat. In each, the kingdom is compared to the sorting of the good from the bad from a single source. What Jesus is describing here is God’s justice. The kingdom of heaven is inseparable from the idea of God’s justice.
And the key here is that it is in fact God’s justice. Not out own. The justice we practice can only begin to scratch the surface of the justice God practices. Because our perspective is limited. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, the servants offer to sort the weeds out from the wheat, but the landowner tells them no.
It is the same with us. We want to pass judgment, to speculate about what is and isn’t welcome in God’s kingdom, about who will and won’t be there. But that isn’t our place. We don’t know the hearts of others, we don’t know their place and situation. We are only subject to God’s justice, not the deliverers of it. We don’t know which are weeds, and which are wheat. We can’t tell the bad fish from the good. We can only do our best to bring along all of the fish, all of the weeds and the wheat, with love and mercy and compassion and open arms.
So from something small and invisible yet powerful, the kingdom is built into something irresistible and priceless, something we would do anything to possess, because God’s vision of the kingdom, God’s justice, is something we long for and feel deep within us. We know it when we experience it, and we want all to experience it with us. And, like mustard seeds or yeast, it’s not always what we expect it to be, or even what we think it is right for it to be.
Here’s another good one for us, one I wrote: the kingdom of heaven is like skunk spray. Once you get hit with it, you just can’t seem to get it off.
When we listen to the teachings of Jesus, when we do something that invokes the kingdom, when we experience that irresistible pull to the example that Jesus lived, we can’t get it off anymore. We can’t shake it. And we want it even more. We want to share it. We want to make it happen. We want to come here on Sundays and help our church to facilitate the kingdom on earth.
I regularly read the blog of Christian writer Zach Hoag, and one of his signature ideas to think about is “kingdom business and empire business.” He means the two as in opposition to one another, and says that churches can engage in one or the other, but not both. And there is only one that is identified with the teachings of Jesus.
We as a church, as a denomination, as Christians all over the world, are called to kingdom business, to reject empire business. We are to keep Jesus in our sights and follow his example. We are to, as the prophet Micah said, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly,” in all that we do. We are to bless the poor, and those who mourn, and the meek, and the hungry, and the merciful and the peacemakers. That’s kingdom business. We are to reject the business of empire, the focus on bottom lines and and dogma and rigidity at the expense of justice and mercy and love. We are to help sow that mustard seed, to kneed in that yeast, so that the kingdom will become pervasive through us and become irresistible to all who experience and God’s justice will “Roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”
It’s not the easy, comfortable path the world wants the church to stay on. It will put us at odds with the systems and governments of the world, and set us apart from all others. But Jesus calls us to it, calls us to bring the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. He calls us to bring the kingdom among us, not to wait, but to do it now! May we all feel the call to give up all and seize the kingdom. May it be so. Amen.