Sermon: July 24, 2011, “…like a mustard seed?”

“…like a mustard seed?”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-47

1 Kings 3:5-12

Rev. Stacy Swain


            “Tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven” they say.  Jesus pauses for a moment, considering. What could he say?  How could he possibly put it into words?   For there is really no adequate way to talk about God.  Try as we may, there will always be more to God than words can hold.  The whole point, after all, is that God is to be encountered, discovered, to experience not to be described.

             And the irony, of course, is that it is of Jesus they are asking this question.  There right before them in flesh and blood is the manifestation of what the kingdom of heaven looks like.  It is Jesus — living in the fullness of God’s love; feeding those who are hungry; healing those who are sick, befriending those who are lonely, touching their pain and awakening them God’s promise of abundant life.   Walking with Jesus that day they are already dwelling in the kingdom of heaven and yet for some reason, they do not see it.  It is hidden from them.  That in itself is something to think about.  But first let us pray.


            “What is the Kingdom of Heaven like,” they ask.  And so he begins to speak in parables.  “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.”  Now the thing you know about parables is that they are not straight talk.  They say it slant as Eugene Peterson likes to say.   They are not just to be listened to but instead require engagement, encounter.  Parables ask us to look through the words into the hiddenness of meaning.   Encounter the parable today and one teaching may come into view.  Read the same parable tomorrow and something else may crystallize.  What do you hear?

              For me, having just returned from Africa and the richness of that experience, I hear in these parables, two qualities of the kingdom of Heaven that I find to be particularly provocative. 

               The first is its hiddenness.  The Kingdom of Heaven is hidden, tucked away inside a mustard seed, buried in a field, laying waiting in a handful of yeast.  But this is a strange kind of hiddenness.  It is a hiddenness in plain view.  For the mustard seed and yeast are nothing extraordinary.  There is nothing special about a field.  Mustard and yeast would be commonly found in people’s houses and fields surrounded every village.  Nothing special about that and yet Jesus seems to say that seeded amidst the common ordinary things of our day is the kingdom of heaven.   Barbara Brown Taylor in her book “Seeds of Heaven” writes God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives.

             But, if the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden amidst the ordinariness of our days, how do we know when we may be encountering the kingdom?  How do we know when we have found the treasure in the field, or that pricey pearl?  How do we discern the divine in our days? 

             And this is where the second quality of the kingdom comes in, expansiveness.  The mustard seed is tiny and one may not expect much from such a small seed but within it lies vastness. So too is the divine.  The divine is leaven that expands the moment into something more, more abundant more full of promise.   Step into a kingdom moments and be caught up and participate in a vastness that inspires reverence.   Expansiveness is the signature of the divine. Have you experienced such a moment?  A moment of revelation?  Of beauty?  Of the keen sense that something more is going on that on the surface of things? 

             The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, Jesus says throughout the Gospel.  If this is true.  If life is seeded with divine possibility when any moment may be the one that gives way to the hidden fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, then at least for me, life becomes a lot more interesting, requiring a disposition of open hearted curiosity and a certain keenness of vision. 

            The trouble is, I at least, find it very hard to maintain this kind of open hearted curiosity and keenness of vision in the day to day of my life.  I too quickly can become like those who followed Jesus that day, standing face to face with the Holy and not even being able to recognize it.  For, it’s hard to hold onto the expectation and wonder.  Routine breeds a familiarity that becomes numbing.  It’s hard to see that the weekly trip to the grocery store could possibly be seeded with the kingdom of heaven.  That the trip could yield anything more than a staggering charge and the tedious task of hauling heavy bags up the front stairs. Or that weeding the garden could turn up anything more than mosquito bites and dirt encrusted nails. 

             If the familiar had started to cast a numbing muteness over my senses, my two weeks in Zambia shook them back to full alertness.  And for that alone, I am so deeply grateful. In Zambia, my hearing sharpened as I tried to track sounds and languages I had never heard before.  Tonga and Nyanja.  When I stepped out of my room into the predawn every morning I always took an extra deep breath just to smell the air.  It smelled so different — cool with a distant trace of a smoky acidity.  And every day brought a new sight.  Children and women sitting by the road, hammering large chunks of rock into pieces to sell as gravel.  A man riding a bike down the road with an enormous wooden framed bed somehow strapped on the back.  Or baskets of dried caterpillars in the market, a delicacy from the northern part of the country.  

             And in the freshness and alertness that comes with reawaked senses, I seemed to stumble on dozens of kingdom moments, pearls of great price. 

            One time it happened when I stood in the middle of the school room in M’Tendere.  The desks which were benches attached to a table where three or four kids could sit at once, had been pushed together to form two long tables on either side of the room and all the children were seated.  The room was uncharacteristically quiet.  In fact all the children were absolutely silent.  The reason being is that one by one, plates of food were being set down before each of the children.  They waiting for all to be served, waiting for the prayer I was to lead to be said before they began lifting the food to their mouths. 

             And the waiting must have been so hard, for these children were hungry.  So hungry.  We were told that most of these children, these extremely vulnerable children lived on only one meal a day.  And since the money had not arrived to support the feeding program at the school, since there had been no food to serve the children at the school for months now, who knew when some of these children last ate?

               In learning this, our group decided to use some of the trip money to bring food out to the schools that day and it was this food that was now being set down before the children.

             And then it happened, for a split second as the food was set down before each child, I caught a glimpse of it.  I caught a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.  I could see children who were no longer hungry.  I could see enough for everyone, where eyes were bright and minds were sharp.  Where the children no longer fell asleep during class or looked vacant focusing more on the pain in their belly than the chalk on the board.  The kingdom of Heaven in its expansive abundance was at hand, I saw the possibility it unfolded and was in awe.

             It happened again when I hugged Loveness goodbye.  Loveness is one of the women who participates in the sewing cooperative that is a part of the M’Tendere family support home.  She is a quiet woman letting others take the lead but there is a strength and steadiness about her. Perhaps that strength came from harsh reality of raising her own five children to then loose so many of them to HIV infection.  Perhaps the strength was born out of the necessity of having to take in 7 of her grandchildren, made orphans by their parents’ death, and raise them as her own.  All of this, on her own, since she, herself was widowed back in 1994 surviving on what she could earn through sales from the cooperative sewing project at the family support home.  You will have a chance to see the things that Loveness and others made, we brought many home. 

            I saw Loveness quite a bit during the time we spent at the school, But when I hugged her goodbye that last day, and looked her in the eyes, the moment and my heart with it expanded, and I caught a glimpse of a deepening friendship not just between Loveness and me but between this church and the M’Tendere family support home community. 

             I could see in the reverence of that moment the truth of the words from the Gospel John, Jesus prayer for all of us, that we are one just as Jesus and God are one.  That we belong to each other in love and care and that distance, culture, language, economic disparity, none of this has any power to separate or divide.  As I held her hand I knew this to be true. 

             I believe that it in these kind of kingdom moments, God is extendinga hand to us.  To say yes to a fuller and richer relationship with God and with the world.  But, there is one more quality about the kingdom that can make an encounter with the divine really rather unsettling and full of challenge.  The mustard seed when sown does not grow into a neat tree but more of a thicket.  It is a wild weed that goes where it wants.  Look up the mustard plant on any agricultural website and you’ll find words of caution and advice on how to manage this wild and invasive plant.  And for anyone who has ever made bread, who has gone out and run an errand forgetting you have bread rising, come  back hours later and you will find a big gooey, sticky mess;  dough oozing down the side of the bowl, flowing into the crevasses of the counter.

               There is this wild and undomesticated quality to the kingdom of Heaven, full of Power and potential. To catch a glimpse of kingdom moments can be unnerving.  To accept their invitation can be scary.  Where could our relationship with the people of the M’tendere community lead?  Will be get in over our heads?  Will it be too much?  After all look at the poor fool who found treasure hidden in a field,  he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Or the merchant who finds one pearl of great value, and then goes and sold all that he had and bought it.  Kinda of unnerving and scary stuff this kingdom of God.

             I think that is why God was so pleased when of all of the things Solomon could have asked of God that day, Solomon asked understanding to discern what is right.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Life seeded with encounters with the divine that in a heart beat can give way to wild and unimaginable possibility.   But it takes a wise and discerning heart to be able to discern what is good and right.  It takes a gathered community to talk and pray about how we are to engage these kingdom moments these opportunities that have been opened to us not just in Zambia, or in Nicaragua but right here in our own back yard.  Right here in the ordinariness of our daily lives. 

             And so in the days that come, may we recommit ourselves to enlived senses.  May we be alert hiddenness of the kingdom that you can be assured is seeded right here in plain view.  May kingdom moments open for us catching us up in an expansiveness of communion and possibility.  And may we share these moments with one another, bringing them into the life of this church so that they may be like yeast among us giving rise to overflowing abundance and reverence filled possibility.

 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.  ….  Amen