Sermon: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 27, 2014

1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 119:129–136
Romans 8:26–39
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

Today’s Gospel lesson is a flurry of little parables, one after another, some only a
line or two long. Rather than a composed portrait, it’s like a collage of the
kingdom of heaven. Over here a depiction of a long hard search for the grace of God resulting in a treasure beyond anything ever imagined. In that corner, we find ourselves tripping over a rock and falling, surprised, into God’s gracious hands. Signs of God’s reign are all around us—over our heads and under the sea and in our food and buried beneath the very ground we walk on.

When looking for signs of God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s power, we don’t need to seek out things that seem holy. One of Jesus’ little parables compares the kingdom to a tiny bit of yeast in dough that causes it to rise. Besides being tiny and unimpressive, many of Jesus’ listeners would have associated yeast with UNHOLINESS. Devout Jews, at Passover and other holy times, get rid of every little bit of yeast in their homes. Only unleavened bread is acceptable for the religious holidays. But this very unholy leaven is what Jesus says the kingdom is like—probably because it takes so very little to make a whole lot of flour rise.
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a stained glass window, or a gold chalice, or a beam of iridescent light.” Instead he speaks of ordinary things, little things mostly, things that no one would consider comparing to the kingdom of God. Like yeast in bread.

According to this collage of the kingdom, if we choose to look for God in the garden, we may skip the roses or irises and instead look for the weeds. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. Besides being a little tiny, tiny seed, mustard (as many green thumbs know) is a weed that will take over a garden. Think of kudzu, the non-native plant that seems to be overrunning everything in the south. Mustard is like that—even one little seed can wreak havoc in a cultivated field, ruin a great crop.

I dug a little bit into what people in Jesus’ time knew about mustard. In 79 AD, roughly around the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written and just a few decades after Jesus’ death, Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, wrote this about the weed in question: “Mustard…with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. But on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed, when it falls, germinates at once.”I think it’s helpful to know that Jesus offers as an example of the Kingdom of God a plant that is useful for healing. How long did doctors rely on mustard plasters as part of their treatments for patients with respiratory illnesses? As the church, we are called to be a resting place for the weary, and also to be a place where those who are wounded, gasping for life and breath, can come for healing.

And I don’t think we can ignore the part about mustard being easily germinated, quick to spread, and enhanced by transplanting. Our call to be like mustard is a call to find nurture in the rich soil of God’s word and in the sacraments, but also to be cautious about sinking too deeply into one spot. The power of the mustard is enhanced when it is spread. We need to go outside our comfort zone, to be in places where our presence is unexpected and perhaps annoying. Being a weed means we will be noticeably different from the cultivated plants in our field.

Faithful followers of Christ are called to be counter-cultural and radical and sneaky. We are called to claim loudly that God’s interest is in the poor and those who are at risk. We are called to be not just peace-lovers but peacemakers. Jesus wants us to wreak havoc in systems of oppression and domination that are in the fields around us.

Jesus is asking his followers not simply to regularly gather for prayer in the synagogue and to look after one another, but to spread out in dangerous ways–to needle the government, to contradict oppressive religious teachings, to advocate for refugee children to have their due process rights preserved and for all people to have a living wage and access to education, safety, and food. Mustard seeds are not innocuous–they grow into plants that are hazardous to the status quo around them.

But how can the Church do that, as Jesus’ faithful followers numerically dwindle in this country every year? How can a few caring people combat powerful lobbyists and Super PACs and corruption and institutional racism and all the other huge fields of darkness around us? How on earth can we make a dent in such pervasive fields of evil? We are only tiny little seeds–mustard seeds are miniscule–like poppy seeds, or sesame seeds. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems and the tininess of our faith, our budget, our influence. We shrink back from God’s call to be mustard because it seems so silly and small. How disappointing is it to think that sometimes we’re even failures as weeds?

All of this would be beyond hopeless if we didn’t have the privilege of turning again and again to what Paul writes in his letter to the Romans–that if God is for us, who can be against us? If Christ Jesus won’t condemn us, does it matter who else talks smack about us? Ok, yeah, we’re weeds, and sometimes we’re even scared to be that, but God likes us. God LOVES us! God who is able to to withstand and rise above anything, including death and sin, will find a way to make even our failures work out for the good of the kingdom. African American churches are fond of saying “God can make a way out of no way”—which is to say, God can bring something good even out of weeds who are disasters in their
callings to be weeds.

What a gift! What a blessing to be reminded that when we encounter angels and demons, heights and depths, things in the past and things in the future, God is in the middle of it all, working for good, even though we may not understand how. We don’t have to be as wise as Solomon. Our calling is to provide hospitality, welcome, rest, and healing to those around us. And God’s love will always sustain us in that calling, even when we don’t believe that.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Nothing we have done or left undone can separate us from God’s love. Nothing we will do or fail to do will separate us from God’s love. We are invited to live fully and abundantly, knowing that God’s love under girds and upholds absolutely everything. We don’t even have to pray properly. The Holy Spirit is praying for us with words we don’t know, begging for God’s mercy in metaphors that would make no sense to us, even if we did know the words. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

So, released from the need to be perfect and respectable, let us join together to be the spicy mustard church together. Let us seek ways to provide healing, rest, and a little pizzazz to our community, secure in the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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