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Posted on Aug 1, 2017

The Subversive Kingdom – Sermon for July 30, 2017

The Subversive Kingdom

July 30, 2017, Proper 12A

Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Sermon by Sarah Brock


The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net.

Have you understood all this? .

Are you sure??

Given their track record, I have to wonder if the disciples truly understood what Jesus was trying to tell them with these parables. But they at least had the advantage of context. Jesus fires off a series of similes here to connect with individuals from a variety of backgrounds: farmers, women, land owners, merchants, fishermen. He uses language and circumstances that were integral to the everyday lives of his audience. And, each model he presents offers a small taste of God’s kingdom.

Unlike the disciples, we have the significant disadvantage of distance in time, in place, and in language; making it even more challenging to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us with these models.

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.

These first two parables are often paired together because they have so much in common. Both indicate a small, humble beginning that transforms into something of great size and hospitality.

The mustard seed is the tiniest seed that grows into a tree that welcomes the birds to nest. The yeast is mixed in with flour, unnoticed until it reacts and grows into enough leavened dough to feed over a hundred people. But, these parables are not only about the power or impact of the smallest members.

The mustard tree begins life resembling a weed more than anything else and grows into a relatively small, bush-like tree often as wide as it is tall with a crooked trunk. This is no tall, strong cedar, representing power and majesty. Jesus could hardly have chosen a more scandalous tree to represent the Kingdom.

The yeast in the second parable is also not quite what is heard by our modern ears. Like me, those of you who are bakers probably buy your yeast in tidy little packets or jars from the grocery store. However, this is not what Jesus is referring to here. The leaven Jesus is talking about was a fermenting bit of dough saved over then hidden and kneaded into flour to make bread. Leaven, with its secretly penetrating and diffusive power is most frequently used as a negative symbol of corruption and sin.

Both the mustard tree and the yeast offer models of a kingdom with small, unexpected, and subversive beginnings. Offering the comfort that God’s kingdom is taking root even if you can’t always perceive it. But, also a reminder of the discomfort in the unconventional, unexpected, and even controversial ways in which the Kingdom brings about life and justice.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Like the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast, these two also have a great deal in common in that they both speak to the value of God’s Kingdom. But again, there is a subversive element threading through these models.

There is the ethical question implicitly embedded in the timeline of the parable of the treasure. Buying a field where you’ve already stumbled upon buried treasure- who does that treasure really belong to? The previous or new owner of the land? Jesus seems to be offering an analogy not only of the immense value and joy of the kingdom of heaven, but also of humanity’s ownership (or lack thereof) of the kingdom.

Then, in contrast to the unexpected and unintentional discovery of the treasure, Jesus continues by comparing the Kingdom to a merchant carefully seeking out one individual pearl. Effectively highlighting the roles of humanity and God in bringing about the Kingdom; continuing to turn worldly ideas of possession and human power upside down.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into the baskets but threw out the bad.

Jesus finishes with one final reminder of divine providence and lack of human control and power over God’s Kingdom.

Have you understood all this? .
Are you sure?

Even with a deeper look into the context and nuances of these parables, they are still only models to help us wrap our heads around a complex, somewhat abstract event. And, as much as they help us to understand and communicate what is beyond words, models still have limitations in conveying the fullness of their subjects.

Love is an open door.
Love is blind.
Love is a battlefield.

But, do any of these models really do justice to what it truly is to love and be loved?

Grief is like the ocean.
Grief is a passage not a place to stay.
Grief is like a snowflake.

But, do any of these really name what it is to lose something or someone we don’t know how to live without?

A topographical map doesn’t touch the feeling of looking out at the vast expanse below from the top of a mountain after an exhausting hike. Or the sense of smallness and powerlessness of walking through a narrow canyon while only a thin strip of sky peaks through above.

We long so much for the comfort and safety of understanding, that we fail to look for the subversive aspects of the models we rely on and we fail to look for the ways in which they fall short.

It’s easier and safer to picture a grand American Elm, growing tall and strong on our street in Boston. A packet of active yeast from the grocery store down the street is tidy and manageable. But, in looking for the Elm, we may miss the beginnings of a mustard tree. That little packet of yeast doesn’t carry the same history and power for feeding people as the starter dough that’s been passed from kitchen to kitchen. We just might miss being caught in that net if we’re too busy deciding for ourselves who does and does not belong.

This week I have a two part challenge for you and for myself. First, what parables would you tell a friend or neighbor to talk about the kingdom of heaven? Second, what are the models that you hang your faith on? It might be a model for who God is, how you understand the Trinity, how you you explain sin or suffering, or any number of starting points. I mean look at how many parables Jesus tells throughout the Gospels! Take a moment to sit with these models. What are the challenging or subversive bits that are hiding beneath the tidily packaged surface?

Have you understood all this? .
Are you sure?

May you find a home among the branches and nourishment in the bread.
May you find treasure hidden in the field and redemption by the Merchant. May you be caught up in the net.
May you answer ‘yes.’