Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 24, 2011

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31  He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;   32  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."   33  He 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."

One of my favorite memories of my now second to oldest niece, Ellianna, was watching her go do for naps or for a goodnight’s rest when she was a toddler.  Now, Ellianna has always been a pretty strong-willed person, and she, not unlike other toddlers, was not exactly crazy about going to sleep.  It was just too much fun to be awake, I suppose.  As a result, there were very few people who could actually get her down, and I was certainly not one of them, not so great with the discipline, this one.  My father, on the other hand, was more than game for this little battle of wills.  In spite of her young protests to the contrary, her flailing about and her crying, my father would simply out last Ellianna.  Once she was placed in his arms, there was no way that she would not up end asleep, in spite of herself.  That old question, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, was answered in their battle.  Which ever one of those is named “grandpa” wins.  The irony being, of course, that after a time at this process, once she was told that it was in fact time to go to sleep, she would actually call for my father, knowing that sleep-time had to begin with grandpa.
What my niece ran into is, in some small sense, a similar reality that we confront today in our readings; a will so forceful, a power so benevolent, that we can try all we to stop it, but ultimately those efforts will only delay the inevitable.   And what is so wonderful, so ironic is that, like a child who does not recognize the necessity of sleep, the fact that we fail to recognize the value of this gift will not keep it from working on us.  For the gift comes to us in ways we could never expect or anticipate, but it does indeed come, even cloaked in smallness and insignificance. Look if you will, at the parables which Jesus puts in front of us.  The kingdom of heaven is a like a mustard seed, like some yeast.   When we hear “yeast,” it is easy enough to think in terms of something we would buy from the supermarket, but there were no Kings Soopers or Safeways in first century Palestine.  No, what Jesus is talking about is literally tearing some mold off of old bread to work into the flower. In other places in Scripture, yeast is used as a negative illustration, like when Jesus warns against the “yeast of the Pharisees.”  Similarly, the mustard seed would quite literally be the smallest object that an eye could comprehend.  To say that this small seed, which produces a shrub, will be the place in which all birds come to find rest, well that is to suggest that something totally outrageous is going on here.  It would be like ascribing to one of those shrubs out on the portico the same grandeur with which we speak of an ancient and dignified redwood tree.  Yes, the kingdom of heaven, then, is like mold that, once mixed with flower, will help to create enough bread for all to eat. Or the kingdom of God is like that annoying bush that just keeps growing until it is big enough to host all the birds of the air.
And if this shocks our piety a little bit, if this upsets our conventions of how God should appear in the world, if this all seems a bit too disrespectful a way for Jesus to talk about the Kingdom of God, well, that is understandable, and it is also instructive as to what it means to be a human created in the image of a God that we were born resisting.  For, it seems to me that part of our rejection of this vision of the kingdom is that we would like to protect God from the mundane realities of our lives, thinking that they could not possibly be significant enough for the Creator of the Cosmos to be concerned with. This is not just a self-esteem issue or something of the like.  Instead, I think it runs a bit deeper.  What we have here is the primordial fear that God simply cannot be this good, this caring, this loving.  Yes, this fear that once God catches a glimpse of us as we actually are, any chance we might have had of being loved by this God is over and done with. We shrink away from the fear of God observing us in our smallness, in our weakness, in our sin.  How could God possibly love me when I am riddled with anxiety and doubt, when I cannot even find the words to acknowledge Him, much less praise Him?  But if it is the case that God’s will to make us his own is indeed as determined as mold amongst flower, then we might just have to repent of our fear and our belief that we must do something super-human to get God’s attention, to in fact earn this God’s love.  I mean, really, a God whose kingdom comes in the smallness of a mustard seed, or in the earthy stink of rotting bread?  We cannot possibly imagine that God would be like this, for the god we project is one whom we meet outside of the smallness of our everyday activities.
The realization, however, only brings us deeper into this love of God in Christ that pervades the even the smallest and most mundane details of our lives.  For this is yet another truth by which we are apprehended.  Not only does God’s love show up in the smallness of a mustard seed, indeed the everyday realities of yeast, in the fear and the doubt, in the worry and the rush, but this love is more relentless, more determined than even a willful grandfather putting to sleep his stubborn grandchild.  For this is love is found not in some distant and detached world that has no connection to our daily lives, but rather this love, this kingdom, will be found on the cross, right in the midst of human striving and fear.  Oh, we can do our best to outlast and out-will this love, to fight it so that we remain in some illusory state of control over our destinies, to shout all our arguments about why it must not be so, but in the end those efforts are indeed hopeless.  For as determined as yeast is to make bread rise, as determined as a mustard seed is to grow and grow and grow, indeed, so determined is Christ to get to you.  Determined enough, in fact, to go before you through the darkened hallways of death, pain and God-forsakenness, so that the eternal joy of His love might shine even there.  Yes, for as dear St. Paul writes, there is nothing, no force in heaven or on earth that will keep this love from you.  Not fear, not doubt, not poverty, not poor health, not even our own need to be correct about where this God will show up in the world or our frustration at how deeply this God loves us and the world, for there is nothing more relentless than divine love, a reality well captured by the Gerhard Frost poem, “Love Cheats,” shared with me by my friend and colleague, John Pederson.  Frost writes:
“ I remember my mouthy  days,
my dazzling debates
with mom and dad. 

Like a winner,
confidently I’d argue,
condescendingly I’d instruct,
tolerantly I’d repeat,
patiently I’d wait,
until, without a moment’s warning,
one of them would say, ‘You know, we love you!’ 

‘Foul!’ I’d yearn to cry,
and I’d want out.  They’d struck so hard-
and below the belt. 

Love cheats. 
It always does;
there’s no defense.”

So, then, like a child in your grandfather’s arms, go ahead and rest in this God, for there really is no defense against His love.  In Jesus’ name, amen.  

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