7.27.14 Sermon Kingdom of G-D
Rev. Ellen Jennings
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Excerpt from Practice Resurrection, Wendell Berry
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” what?
“What is the kingdom of heaven like?” wondered the crowds who followed Jesus two thousand years ago. “The kingdom of heaven (or “of God,” as Mark’s gospel calls it) is like…”
Is like. Which, as you may remember from 7th grade English, indicates a simile, or “phrase that uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make unexpected, or even unlikely, comparisons.”
“The Kingdom of God is like…”
How would you answer the question? What is the Kingdom of God like? Anyone?
Well, if I had been asked (without first having heard these parables), I might have answered, “Love,” or the “Body of Christ,” or “Ultimate Compassion” or some other acceptable but allegorical phrase. Most likely, I would not have compared God’s Kingdom with a couple of lowly objects from the natural world! And yet, Jesus completely grounds his message in physical reality. From the Kingdom of God language itself—which is not only a direct challenge to the Kingdom or basileia of Rome, but a troubling choice of words for the people who were being oppressed by Rome—to the unexpected comparisons of mustard and yeast, Jesus uses real life structures and objects to talk about that which is beyond words. And this would have beenquiet shocking to the ears that heard it 2000 years ago (perhaps to ours as well). For, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes in The Seeds of Heaven:
How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?
Well, it can’t. They can’t. We can’t. I mean; human beings can’t speak definitively about God. Our language can’t capture the reality of heaven. And our words most certainly cannot describe that which is beyond all words!
But we need them anyway. We need words. We’re human, so using language is what we do; it’s one of the primary wayswe connect with our world. The problem is, words are limiting, and when we limit that which is beyond words to the words themselves, we begin to shut ourselves in, to reduce possibilities, to make our world a smaller (if more manageable) place.
The challenging truth is that God, or the concept of God, cannot be captured (or tamed!) by any word. This is why, in Judaism, “God” or the great “I Am,” or “Holy of Holies,” or “Mystery of the World” is often referred to with the letters “G-D,” indicating that the concept of God is beyond our ability to capture in language. In other words, “God” as a word no more defines the reality of God than “Heaven” as a word defines the Realm or Kingdom of God. As the Tao Te Ching proclaims, “The Tao which is named is no longer the Tao.” Meaning that once we think we’ve captured and named God, we’ve most definitely limited God’s limitless reality. For G-D is neither capture-able nor definable, and can most certainly not be tamed with words!
And this, I believe, is why Jesus taught in parables. For, while God may be un-definable, she is not unknowable… Not at all. It’s just a different kind of knowing—distinct from our usual “left brain” analytical quest for knowledge. Rather, it’s parabolic knowing, described by Rev. Sue Clemmer Steiner in this week’s Christian Century as follows:
As I enter [the] parables of Jesus, I remind myself to stay in a right-brained mode, to laugh at incongruities, to refuse to allegorize. I remind myself to approach the parables as playfully as possible, with a receptive spirit.
“Playful.” Wow— that even sounds kind of fun! Or at least different, unusual, counter to our usual way of looking at the world… As Frederick Buechner writes:
… though we have approached these parables reverentially all these many years and have heard them expounded as grave and reverent vehicles of holy truth, I suspect that many if not all of them were originally not grave at all but were antic, comic, often more than just a little shocking.
I agree! And we’ll explore some of these incongruities in just a moment. But, first, I’d like to talk a bit more about words, which are both dangerous and essential if we wish to connect with or even parabolically approach the Kingdom of God.
As I suggested earlier, it’s important not to conflate any word with the object, activity or idea to which that word points. Words may reference but they donot, ultimately, define, and they shouldnot limit. That being said, words are evocative, and they do participate in creating reality.
As philosopher J.L. Austin claims in his book, How to Do Things with Words, contrary to conventional wisdom, words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. Rev. David Lose clarifies:
[For instance] When two persons 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. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does. Is the sentence, “Close the door,” for example, an earnest invitation to greater privacy or an annoyed command to shut out a draft? You don’t know until you feel the force of those words act upon you. (…in the Meanwhile, 7/21/14)
And this, my friends, is precisely the power of a parable. For, in Rev. Lose’s words:
Parables don’t describe the kingdom of God as much as they actually evoke some element of God’s in-breaking reign and reality in our lives. And so [we] feel in our bones what in means when God gets involved in our life and in the world.
Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. Sometimes, the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickinson advised, “tell the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises…
With that in mind, let’s listen to the words of this morning’s parables again:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. (Matt. 13:31-33)
Mustard. Yeast. What is it we are supposed to learn, to “feel in our bones,” to experience about God’s Kingdom from these unlikely little comparisons?
Well, before I attempt to answer those questions, let me first offer a warning: do not domesticate them. For the temptation has always been to make them comfortable—to turn these parables into lovely little allegories about great things having small beginnings or not judging something based on its size. And, in fact, it’s rather easy to turn both mustard and yeast into something tame and easily understood. I mean, our culture prefers leavened or yeast bread, so for us the symbol of yeast and its connotation of home baking is comforting, even homey. And, of course, mustard, with its connection to hot dogs, is almost as American (hence, familiar) as apple pie!
But since when was Jesus about “home” or “comfort?” I mean, he was about healing, no question. But I can’t think of one instance when his aim was to make the crowds he was teaching more comfortable, as in “all right with the status quo.” No, Jesus challenged. His words were not just evocative but provocative. He pushed people to their limits, made them consider things in new ways, argued with his own beloved religious tradition, and, ultimately, got himself killed.
So, though we might see the mustard story as sweet, I can assure you this was not Jesus’ intention. In fact, his 1st century audience would have heard this story (and the one about the yeast) and been shocked: What?! The kingdom of heaven is like… a wild pernicious weed that no one in their right mind would ever plant?! What?! The kingdom of heaven is like… a substance that has been used throughout biblical history as a synonym for impurity?! What?!
But that’s Jesus: proclaiming the unexpected, making unlikely comparisons. I mean he could have compared the Kingdom of G-D with unleavened bread, a symbol of Jewish religious purity. Just as he could have compared it with the Cedars of Lebanon, that classic religious symbol of strength and durable power. But, no. Because all this would have done is confirm our definition of who “God” is. All this would have done is solidify our rote religious understanding of the divine.
So Jesus shakes things up. Makes us uncertain. Evokesdifferent emotions. Tells things slant. As Rev. Lose writes:
Mustard was a weed, dreaded by farmers the way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, crabgrass, or bindweed. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, yeast was a contaminant and almost always represents the pernicious nature of sin when mentioned in the Bible.
Why, then, compare the kingdom of God to a pernicious weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking over a host. Might God’s kingdom be like that— far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every corner of our lives?
God’s Kingdom: taking over. Not in the dominating and oppressive manner of worldly empire; rather, in the spreading, infiltrating way of weeds or yeast.
And that’s frightening! Or, at least, it frightens me. What would it mean to allow God really to “take over”our lives? What would it mean to let the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, slanted, evocative world of the parable open our ears and eyes? What would it mean to say “yes,” when Jesus asks if we understand?
Be careful how you answer, for as David Lose writes:
People who have been infected by the gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged, and sharing their faith with the people around them.
Or as this morning’s reading from Wendell Berry urged:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
In other words, go a little nuts! Or, at least, what the dominant culture might consider a little nuts…
How might that look? Well, what do you think the kingdom of heaven looks like…? What do we think the kingdom of heaven looks like? What crazy, invasive, pernicious, upsetting, discomforting, wild, holy, simile is waiting to overtake us? What is growing in our midst? What are we called to do? Where are we prepared to go?
As I asked our staff two weeks ago when we met for our annual retreat, “what is one risk you’d be willing to take this year?” Because it’s only in risking that we chance changing the world, creating the Kingdom of G-D, living out the message Jesus risked his life to preach.
So—what are wewilling to risk? Our wealth? Our station? Our pride? Are we willing to give up a little comfort, a little security, so that others can have more? Are we willing to ask forgiveness of someone we’ve hurt? Are we willing to make reparations with that person—in other words, do something to make it right? Are we willing to let go of even one prejudice that we carry? Are we willing to see everyone as being just as precious and deserving of the good things in life as we are? Are we willing to give up even one activity, action or addiction that stands between us and those we love? Are we willing to open our hearts to those we don’t love?
These are all risks. They’re hard. They’re uncomfortable. They’re not appealing. And they are Kingdom. They are the Kingdom of G-D right here in our midst, made manifest by us, by the actions and attitudes we choose to embrace.
God’s Kingdom is not an easy place. It’s unexpected, perhaps even, at first, offensive. But, oh my friends, it is where we are called to be—by a God who is also unexpected: unexpected, extraordinary, and, at the same time, completely present and at home. For the Kingdom of Heaven is home. It is where we are meant to live. As Sharron R. Blezard writes:
The kingdom of heaven is like you and me, ordinary sinners/saints, when the Spirit shines through us to part the clouds and mists of this beautiful, broken world.
With or without words. World without end. Amen.