Last week we talked about the crowds on the hillside-5, 10, 15, maybe 20000 gathered to hear what he had to say and witness a miracle. Do you ever wonder if the crowds were disappointed with Jesus using simple language and everyday examples in his teaching. Jesus tells one more parable about seeds and plants, followed by stories of baking bread, plowing a field, and fishing. Yes, he did throw in one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are as ordinary as a mustard bush. No stories about kings or princes are contained in those parables of the kingdom. No military generals or revolutionary leaders are described to please Simon the Zealot or his friend, Judas. Do you suppose they felt let down?
What about us-are we content with visions of heaven that include mustard bushes and housework. When we are describing the Eternal One, donít we use the term "Lord" or "King" rather than farmer or baker woman? A lot of contemporary Christian music uses "imperial theology" (Christianity wins). We sing about "enthroning" Jesus, raising him up and exalting him in the highest heaven.
However, the stories Jesus tells of his kingdom and of that heaven are down to earth, literally. They are common stories about ordinary people---a tenant farmer, a housewife, fishermen---doing everyday things. This is hardly an exalted vision of Godís realm.
We may be tempted to Ďdress it upí in more dramatic ways. To what would you compare the Kingdom of Heaven? It is like finding the technology stock you bought in the 1980s for $50 and suddenly realizing you are a millionaire. It is like the owner of DeBeers diamonds finally finding the perfect gem and selling a billion dollar empire just to acquire that one gigantic Ďdiamond in the roughí with outstanding potential. It is like the crack addict waking up with a clear head and being now free to choose a new life. But Jesus doesnít dress it up in ways the average person wonít experience.
Do you suppose that is the point-As Christians, we are called to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of the divine and human in the person of Jesus Christ. In his parables, Jesus puts that incarnational focus not on himself but on the world around him. "The kingdom of God is like" the most common things in human life-small seeds that grow big plants, yeast that leavens dough, ploughing the Ďback 50,í and sorting the Ďtrashí fish from the prized ones. Like Jesus himself, this everyday world embodies the sacred meeting of the divine and human, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
According to Matthew, the first thing Jesus does when he comes out of the wilderness after his time of temptation is to proclaim, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." He demonstrates that nearness every time he heals someone, reaches out to the outcasts, respects women, or cares for the poor. He also demonstrates that nearness through these kingdom parables we heard this morning.
For Jesus, Godís realm is not some esoteric kingdom in the sweet by and by, but as close as the next mustard bush or loaf of bread. That nearness, far more than the threat of eternal glory, is the basis for his call to belief. Of the five parables, only the last one includes anything about judgment at the end and gnashing of teeth. The rest of these powerful stories envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from kneading dough to plowing fields. Jesus transforms life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see heaven close at hand.
Jesus does not use the seven wonders of the world to envision Godís kingdom. He does not even use a stately cedar of Lebanon, but a lowly mustard plant. Its seed is a symbol of the tiniest thing, and the plant it produces is a trash tree---or more accurately, a trash bush, no matter how tall it gets. Mustards are the Giant Hogweed of our day-taking over rural landscapes with deep roots and invasive growth. How is that for an image of Godís realm.
Then there is the leaven for 100 loaves of bread, where (in the Jewish tradition) yeast is a symbol of corruption and impurity. In Jesusí parable, though, yeast becomes the agent of the miraculous growth of Godís kingdom. If God can use mustard seed and corrupt leaven to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with you.
Abundance from the smallest of things, miraculous transformations from the trash bush to tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed the multitudes. Godís kingdom is like that, according to Jesus.
Then we have the two parables telling of people who gladly give up everything for that treasure. The extravagant response of the tenant farmer and the pearl merchant is matched only by the extravagant mustard bush and loaves of bread of the preceding parables.
A woman finds a valuable pearl in an obscure shop. The merchant says he will give it to the woman in exchange for everything she has. Wanting badly to own the pearl, she writes a cheque for several thousand dollars, emptying her savings and chequing accounts. The merchant asks, "What about your house?" The woman signs over the deed. "What about your two cars?" She signs them both over to him. "What about your boat and your vacation home? Your stocks and bonds, retirement funds, and life insurance?" The woman transfers all of these to the merchant.
Then the merchant says, "Now the pearl is yours." The woman is delighted! She turns to leave, but the merchant stops her, saying, "Here is all that you have given me to purchase the pearl; I am giving all these things to you. They still belong to me, but I will let you have full use of them for as long as you live. The only thing I ask is, whenever possible, share my houses, my cars, and my other wealth with those I send your way."
The woman is overcome with joy. "Of course, thank you!" "Remember," says the merchant, "you may use these things as if they are your own, but on occasion, I will ask you to share them or even give them away to others."
Of course, the paradox is that a kingdom worth the price of the great pearl or the hidden treasure is not made of silver or gold, but of bushes and bread. Would you give up all you have for a crop of giant hogweed?
No simple moral fables, Jesusí parables underscore our responsibility to choose Godís way. Jesusí parables puts the realm of God versus that of the evil one, choose, "will you be good fish or bad fish?" Jesus does not let us off the hook.
There was a man who would routinely take a bucket of shrimp to the end of the pier and feed the sea gulls. He would say thank you to the gulls as he did this. What a strange thing to do you might say. He was an inventor and an aviator in both World Wars, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker who regarded the sea gull as the beginning of events that saved his life while drifting 24 days after a plane crash into the Pacific. In October of 1942 the US held its breath when word came that Eddie Rickenbackerís B-17 Flying Fortress had run out of gas and gone down at sea. For three awful weeks he and his nine-member crew barely survived on three small rafts lost in the far Pacific. They battled storms. They ran out of provisions. Sharks would ram their rafts. When asked how they were able to endure that experience, he said, "They prayed."
For days they drifted helplessly under the scorching tropic sun. The heat, the hunger, the exhaustion, brought Rickenbacker and his young, inexperienced crew to the breaking point. But Eddie prayed.
As the story is told, there was one person, James Whittaker who was an unbeliever. Experiencing a plane crash and facing death didnít change his unbelief. And there was another fellow, John Bartak, a crew member who did nothing but read his Bible after their crash. This irritated Whittaker. But it was one morning after a Bible reading that a seagull landed on Captain Rickenbackerís head. At that moment Jim Whittaker became a believer.
Rickenbacker grabbed the sea gull and that day he and his crew had food. Not only did they have food for that day, they cut the intestines of the bird into strips of flesh so that they had bait for several more days for the two fishhooks they had. Then came their first rainstorm, and suddenly they had fresh water. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed by that lone sea gull, hundreds of miles from land.
That makes sense to me. Youíre out at sea about to starve, hundreds of miles from shore, and a plain old seagull, just like the ones we curse about pooping on our cars, drops right in their lap. Here these men had given their all. To bring about the future kingdom we are called to give all that we have, here in the present. And when we do so Jesus says, "we will be amazed at the fruit that will be provided to us."
The series of parables before us this morning challenge us to a daily awareness of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking in all around us. A New York professor of urban ministry said this, "The Kingdom of God comes in inches, and we must learn to celebrate every small glimpse we can find." Then he would talk about finding the Kingdom in every unemployed person that found a job, every addict who got sober, every poor child who stayed in school and got an education, every hungry person who found the means to provide sustenance. These are the mustard seeds of hope that surround us.