Inside the Mustard Seed and More

8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

31[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;32it 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.”
33He told them another parable: “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.”
44“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.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  -Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I grew up reading the Magic School Bus books and later watching the animated PBS show based on the books. If you’re not familiar with this children’s series, it’s about the beloved and sometimes a little wacky science teacher, Ms. Frizzle, and her magic school bus. Rather than simply reading about science, or even doing experiments about science, they go on field trips to experience science. The members of her class, some excited some reluctant, board what looks like an ordinary school bus but they are quickly transported into some pretty incredible situations. These are no ordinary field trips. The bus takes them inside the human body, into outer space, to the ocean floor, and even back in time to visit the dinosaurs. They experience the beating of the heart from the inside, the thrill and terror of walking among the dinosaurs, the wonder of outer space and the dangers it presents. It’s of course a fun way for kids to learn science through an imaginative story.

I’d like to suggest that we follow Jesus on a bit of a magic-school-bus-like adventure today as we explore the parables he lays out about the kingdom of heaven. Because faith, like science, is often learned best when it has an experiential component. Too often I think we read these parables as if we are outside of them, as if they are a lesson to be learned or an instruction to be followed. We forget that when Jesus describes the kingdom we are part of that realm, we are inside what Jesus is describing. Now don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to get up or do anything, just to join me in using your imaginations. If it helps your imagination, feel free to close your eyes from time to time.

Jesus put before them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. What is it like to start inside the seed, dry and small, packed tightly, dormant, waiting. And to be planted in rich soil, where the warmth of sun and moisture of rain begin to awaken you. The dormant seed all around you begins to shake and shutter and before long bursts open and growth begins, cells dividing around you. You, from the midst of the seed, are launched out, expanding, growing. You find yourself pushed deeper down as all around you the roots begin to provide strength and protection. You find yourself pushed up into the world seeking new life. The energy of the plant is pulsing around you, growing, expanding. At some point you become aware that this life and energy around you has grown into something that is not only alive within, but sheltering life without as birds make their nests in the branches. That’s what it’s like to be in the kingdom of heaven.

And Jesus put before them another parable. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with a giant barrel of flour. What is it like, again to begin dry and dusty, amidst many separate grains, each its own tiny piece of what is about to happen. But soon as the dough is mixed the grains join together such that they are forever united into a single whole. As the dough is kneaded, you feel the yanking and pushing and squeezing and pulling. It is a rough experience, but as it happens the dough around you becomes more cohesive. It all still feels too close around you, but soon, with just the slightest bit of warmth, things begin to expand. What was dry and dusty is alive and breathing. Air pockets form and suddenly there is more and more room to move and live and breathe. This is the kingdom of heaven.

And another: The kingdom of heaven is like a buried treasure. What is it like to be inside the chest filled with riches of every kind? But for what seems like forever, no one knows your great value. You are passed over again and again. Until suddenly you are discovered, you are known fully for who you are, just as you are. And you are not only known now inside and out, but seeing your great value, someone has given everything up for you, now known and treasured forever. This is the kingdom of heaven.

And another: The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. What is it like to be on such a quest? Perhaps sailing on the open seas from port to port, longing for home but spurred on by the desire to find that one thing you seek. One adventure after another, some terrifying, some delightful. The tossing of the waves and the smell of the salty sea day after day, never sure what the next day will bring – hardship or discovery, and always the longing for what you know but have not yet seen. Until the day that you lay eyes on it and it consumes all that you are because it is what you have been seeking since before you can remember. This is the kingdom of heaven.

And one more: The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. What is it like to be the net, thrown out into open water, splashing through the surface and floating, waiting, until first one and then another is caught. Before long you can feel all around you the straining of the fibers of the net. The sinews squeeze and strain around you with the weight of the catch. The abundance is so great that you feel the net ready to burst open with it, barely able to contain what it holds. That’s the kingdom of heaven.

Or at least that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how Jesus tries to open our imaginations to the expansive kingdom, no magic school bus required. Because there simply isn’t much use in talking about the kingdom of heaven from the outside, because these parables keep reminding us over and over again that the kingdom of heaven is widely inclusive and already growing up around us. From within the kingdom we are freed to experience God’s surprises hidden in the everyday and bursting forth in unexpected form without warning. From within the kingdom we are freed to experience the seemingly endless waiting and hoping, the pushing and pulling and tugging, the wild ride on the way as all held within that grand kingdom by a God who enters it with us and loves us through it. Christ has welcomed you inside the world he is trying to describe, and as perplexing and mysterious as it sometimes is, it is a wonderful, beautiful, grace-filled place to be.

-Pastor Steven Wilco