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"The Kingdom of God is Like?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 30, 2017

posted Jul 31, 2017, 1:07 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

The meals at my favorite restaurant begin with an amuse bouche, some special, small course meant to amuse the palate.  I’m always amazed at how small the chef can make these bites.  Tiny slices, just bits of food, yet packed with flavor, in combinations I’d never imagine; some small strange thing, like pickled sesame seeds on smoked quail tongue garnished with saffron-infused dust.


I try to make these things at home.  But I find it hard to cut my vegetables small enough.  Chopped. Diced.  Minced.  What is the knife cut smaller than minced?  Atomized?


Well this Sunday we get Jesus’ verbal equivalent of amuse bouche: finely cut, flavor packed parables.  One might wonder if Matthew, having come to the end of one chapter in the Gospel, decided to just throw these parables together, taking all the random things Jesus once said, serving up theological leftovers, a melange of meaning.


These parables seem so different from each other.  From verse to verse the theme changes constantly.  First a mustard seed, then some yeast; a man who buys a field and then one who buys a pearl; did I mention the fish?  But recently, as I savored these words from Jesus, I began to notice all the ways these random parables strung together.  


Of course, these five parables get linked together by the use of the common phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  But I want to be clear: this isn’t the same as Jesus just talking about heaven.  Jesus doesn’t use these parables to help us imagine “what’s next.”  These parables do not address what happens once we die.


Instead, the kingdom of heaven contrasts with Empire of Rome; or we could hear it as a contrast to “how the world works.”  Jesus used these parables to help us imagine how God acts in the world.  Instead of describing what happens after we die, Jesus looked at the here and now to give a sense of God’s alternative to the way the world worked.  So perhaps we ought not translated the Greek phrase as “the kingdom of God is like…”  A better paraphrase, one that gets to the heart of Jesus’ real-world concerns, would be, “God’s politics are like…”  Or, perhaps, “God works like…”  For Jesus wanted us to imagine how God worked in the world, not sometime in the future, but now, among us.


If I could assign homework this morning, it would be for each of us to imagine our own parables, our own explanations, of how God works in the world.  How would you complete the sentence, “The kingdom of God is like…”


Jesus’ five examples of how to describe God’s politics repeat a number of themes we might not expect.  For each of these parables tell of God’s hidden work, through suspicious characters, who bring about amazing transformations.  I want to look closely at a few of these themes in these heavenly amuse bouche.  


Most famously, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed.  We often remember it as the small little seed that grew into a mighty shrub.  And culturally we talk about “mustard seeds,” those small actions that engender profound change.


But Jesus meant something more than “great things come in small packages.”  Nor did Jesus suggest we develop the spiritual equivalent of a Napoleon complex.  


The metaphor is more insidious.  While I love mustard, farmers in Jesus’ day considered it an invasive plant, a nuisance, and a weed.  We might compare it to the garlic mustard spreading through Milwaukee’s parks and choking out native species.  


People often overlooked the small seed of the mustard plant.  Overlooked, hidden, the seed germinated into a problem: a sturdy shrub whose roots and branches had infiltrated the field.  The forgotten seed grew into a bush big enough to support birds.


I know we normally focus on the small-becoming-big message of the parable, but I don’t want you to miss this theme of hiddenness, which comes out in almost all of this parables.   Thus, in the last parable, Jesus spoke of an amazing catch of fish.  But the fishermen had to separate them because the good fish were hidden among the bad ones.  


So it’s not just that the mustard seed was small, but that it was overlooked, hidden in plain sight.  Jesus wanted us to know God works in hidden ways, creating change out of sight, until we realized the overlooked seed became a sturdy bush.  


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Recently, in all the coverage of the healthcare law, I read a profile of Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.  He votes nearly the complete opposite of my instincts on almost every issue.  But what caught my attention was a story about him and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.  The congresswoman was shot and nearly killed.  About a year later, bearing her wounds, she came to Washington to hear President Obama deliver the State of the Union address.  Members of the president’s party routinely stand to applaud.  But the congresswoman had trouble standing.  So Jeff Flake, who sat with his friend, kept helping her stand.  Which meant that he was the only Republican standing for ovations for Obama.


His gesture of decency, hidden amid the contention of partisan fights, might just be an insidious seed of God.  What hidden signs of God’s work do you find growing in the world?  


Jesus not only used metaphors of hiding, but also some strange characters to tell us of the kingdom of God.  He said God works like yeast.  We don’t view yeast negatively; it gives us beer and brat buns, foods we love in Milwaukee.  But to Jesus’ audience, yeast represented something more suspicious and even dangerous.  


Yes of course people used yeast to make bread.  But every year Jews cleaned out their houses to get rid of the yeast.  This tradition developed for many reasons, among them the association of yeast with corruption, decay, and death.  As people in Jesus’ day saw it, yeast corrupted flour.  They made a connection between the yeast which fermented dough and the bacteria which decayed a body.  And as a result, most preachers in Jesus’ day used yeast as a symbol of corruption and decay, the secret pollutant which spread unexpectedly until it spoiled the whole batch.         


We get a sense of this negative association with yeast if we read Jesus’ words in the Greek.  There the woman took yeast, hid it in the flour, until the whole sack was leavened.  (There’s that theme of hiddenness again).  The woman hid the yeast; was this just a creative way to say she kneaded the dough?  Or was there something mischievous in the woman hiding the yeast in the flour?


And so Jesus told this parable: God works like a woman taking corrupting yeast and adding it surreptitiously to the flour until it infects the whole batch.   


But this theme of suspicious characters doesn’t just concern the woman and her yeast.  Think of the man who “discovers” money in a field and then goes to buy the field.  Hmm; there’s something not quite right about this story.  The man dug in someone else’s field.  He served as a hired hand - digging, hoeing, planting, doing all the grunt work of farming.  And as he tilled someone else’s field, he uncovered a hoard of treasure buried in the ground.  What did he do?  He hid the money (hiddenness again).  And then he went to the owner of the field, keeping his find secret, and bought the field.  By rights, that hoard of money really belonged to the original owner of the field.  But the hired hand kept it secret.  There’s a word for this: fraud.  The employee defrauded the owner of the field.


If we wanted to put this into modern terms, Jesus said God works like an employee who uses insider information for his own gain.  


These parables don’t sound flattering.  God works like polluting, corrupting yeast hidden in your food.  Or God works like a man defrauding his boss.


Why did Jesus tell these stories?  Why did he want us to imagine the kingdom of God as a subversive and even illegal act?  


I’m not saying that you ought to go out and defraud your employers.  But what would it do to our spirituality to start looking for God to work in our lives in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with unexpected results?

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Protests erupted in South Carolina after Dylan Roof committed an act of terrorism against Mother Emmanuel AME Church.  As Bree Newsome thought about the attack, and the on-going legacy of white supremacy, her thoughts turned to the Confederate Battle Flag flying outside the state capitol building since the 1960’s.  She and other activists decided to take it down.  Their plan called for a white man - James Ian Tyson - to help her over the fence and then she would climb the pole to tear down the battle flag.  By working together, they wanted to symbolize the way whites and blacks can work together to dismantle racism.  And, as Bree said later, to reject the power of fear.  As she explained, “I refuse to be ruled by fear.  How can America be free and be ruled by fear?  How can anyone be?”


Newsome and Tyson clearly broke the law.  Trespassing.  Ignoring commands of police officers.  Desecrating a flag.  Criminals.  And so the police threatened to use a taser on Bree Newsome, who had climbed high up the pole.  They only stopped because Tyson - who was white like the officers - wrapped his hands around the pole.  “Hurt her and you hurt me.”  


Law-breakers; and didn’t the power of God work through them?


Lastly, these parables point to tremendous change.  Small seeds become big bushes.  A little yeast changes the whole pot.  But perhaps none capture this more than the merchant who sells everything to buy the pearl of great price.


Merchants, people who bought and sold goods in the market, didn’t generate much social respect in Jesus’ day.  Shifty, dishonest.  So once again, we have a suspicious character.  Jesus described this merchant finding a “pearl of great price,” which he esteemed so much that he sold everything he owned in order to buy it.  But think about this for a moment.  If a merchant liquidates all his merchandise, in order to buy the one thing he’ll never sell, then he’s gone out of business.  Jesus spoke of the power of God to completely transform someone.


Where do you see the power of God utterly changing people?


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The other day I heard about the small, rural town of Silverton, OR.  As they say: it’s East of Portland by about 40 miles and 40 years.  But the town elected the nation’s first transgender mayor, Stu Rasmussen, in 2008.  It didn’t take long for protesters from Westboro Baptist Church to arrive with their hateful signs.  The protesters held signs with ugly messages of hate.  And the good-ole boys in their pickup trucks thought to themselves, “You can’t say that about our mayor.” So people from the town showed up to hold a counter protest.  Someone thought the men ought to wear dresses and the women men’s cloths.  One of the cross-dressing counter-protesting guys said later, “At first I felt weird in a dress but then more and more people showed up, people I thought would never do it.”  I think the power of God looks like cross-dressing cowboys out to support their small-town transgender mayor.  


These five parables of Jesus - these five spiritual amuse bouche stories - speak to the way God works in the world: hidden, unexpected, and transformative.  How do you experience that power of God?  I see it this way: The kingdom of heaven is like a politician helping a friend applaud his opposition.  The kingdom of heaven is like a person who breaks the law to do something right.  The kingdom of heaven is like a good-old-boy wearing a dress to defend his transgender mayor.  Alleluia and Amen.



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