The Surprising Kingdom of Heaven

The text for this sermon is Matthew 13:31-33.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Just a tiny little thing. You can’t hardly see it, but once it takes root in our garden, it becomes a big, thick spread out bush. Unexpectedly, this tiny seed creates a space for birds to build a nest and live abundantly.
In fact, few farmers in Jesus’ day planted mustard seeds. Instead they treated it like a weed, getting rid of it whenever they saw it. A few years back I fired my lawn care company and decided to do it myself. I couldn’t do it any worse, right? You know what happened, a little bit of crabgrass in the corner of the yard took over my entire lawn. This is not what a good looking yard in Pickerington looks like. In Southern Florida though, this is what all the lawns look like. I got to thinking, it is green after all, and takes a lot less care and costs a lot less money. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a little piece of crabgrass that takes over a yard surprising the homeowner because he never knew that is exactly what he needed all along.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny bit of yeast that is hidden in three measures of flour by a baker. That tiny bit of yeast turned fifty pounds of flour and water from a wet, heavy mess to something light, fluffy and ready to bake. The baker made enough bread to feed 150 people, not just a little but abundantly.
In fact, Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to use yeast as a metaphor. Yeast showed up in scripture and in teachings by rabbis as evidence of the power of corruption. Just a little bit of yeast changes everything. Kind of the one bad apple ruins the whole bushel metaphor. Jesus isn’t using yeast as a bad apple metaphor though. He is suggesting that we can be surprised by just how good and delicious a little change can be. A good jug of cider begins with one bad apple.
My wife makes big pots of soup in the winter nearly every weekend. In those that start with chicken or turkey, she puts a few spoonfuls of horseradish after they are cooked. Now, I wouldn’t use horseradish to clean my shoes let alone spice up my food. I can’t hardly stand to open a jar of the stuff. However, when it is dolloped in a huge pot of chicken noodle soup, it gives it a zest, and a zing that is delicious. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a vat of soup that the sly wife hid a spoonful of horseradish and when her husband ate it he declared it was the best bowl of soup he had ever had.
Usually when we talk about these two parables, we emphasize the slow but steady and positive change of a mustard seed transforming into a tree or yeast transforming flat dough into fluffy dough. Great things come from little beginnings. Don’t judge the potential of something based on the size it begins. Congregations see themselves in this parable all of the time. We might not be big, but all we need is a mustard seed of faith and watch out what God can do. The church can even sound triumphant when they talk about these parables. Paul planted a few churches along the Mediterranean and before you know it, 2000 years later, a billion Christians in the world. Just a little mustard seed in Corinth, is all it took.
Not judging something by its current size might be wise words to live by, but not the point being made by Jesus in these parables. His focus was not on the plodding growth of a seed or the invasive ability of yeast. His focus was on the surprise. A little seed can overtake your garden, giving you something beautiful you never expected. A little bit of yeast can make fifty pounds of flour puff up into enough delicious dough to feed 150 hungry men. Jesus was comparing God’s promised Kingdom not to something grand and glorious but to an obstinate weed and a corrupting bacteria. Yet, that weed and bacteria overtake and transform wherever they are planted and hidden creating something wonderful from what had been something predictable.
Weeds overtake gardens when you don’t notice them or you underestimate their ability. Yeast works invisibly on the flour changing it so it can become bread. The surprise is because you didn’t know this was going to be the result. Remember the baker hid the yeast in the flour. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this too. God is at work in our world in exactly those moments when we think God has taken a cigarette break and not paying any attention at all.
Where is God in the midst of tragedy? Where is God when my spouse dies? The Kingdom of Heaven is working within our world in surprising ways that might be hidden if you aren’t paying attention. The Kingdom of Heaven can be seen in the weeds that prepared and served the funeral dinner, the yeast that sent cards of condolences, the branches that enveloped her in the grief group, the risen worship on All Saints Sunday.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a first year teacher that was assigned a failing classroom and by the end of the year all the students had passed their standardized test. How could one teacher make that kind of difference? The Kingdom of Heaven is like the funeral of an 80 year old bachelor who had lived in the same apartment for sixty years and at his funeral 500 people attended. Who knew this quiet guy had intersected with all of those lives? The Kingdom of Heaven is like Mel Tillis who stuttered all of his life and became a beloved country singer. How could his source of frusration become his greatest gift? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a former atheist, a former promiscuous alcoholic, with tattoos covering her six foot lanky frame and a mouth that seems unable to avoid cursing every third word becoming the most popular Lutheran pastor in America today for her radical ideas on what the Kingdom of Heaven might look like.
Right when we think we got God figured out, God surprises us with something we never expected. Trust God who planted a weed on the edge of the lawn of the Roman Empire and changed all of creation. Trust God that introduced a little yeast in the religious establishment that preached law, judgment and death and gave them a new song of grace, forgiveness and life. From the weeds and the yeast of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven surrounds us today in great and unexpected ways.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a dying church that fought closing their doors for years then one day trusted the resurrection and let death happen. They sold their property and used the money to go on a mad spending spree, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars joyfully away to ministries around them. The Kingdom of Heaven is the woman with Job like losses that catch your breath when you hear them. She joins a congregation in the midst of her grief and because of her generous spirit, her willingness to be vulnerable and honest in her pain, her smile and grace becomes a source not of pity, but inspiration and healing for others. The Kingdom of Heaven is the former client of a food pantry when she was a young single mother in need who ends up running a food pantry forty years later returning the smiles, grace and support she relied upon once herself. We can’t make this stuff up. The Kingdom of Heaven changes everything, maybe not in ways we expect, but always in ways that bring abundance and life to the creation. Amen

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