Sunday, March 12, 2023

God's Power: The Power and Possibility of God's Reign

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.

“The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’

“‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.

“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’

“But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”’”

He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke:

I’ll speak in parables;
        I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.

Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus replied, “The one who plants the good seed is the Human One. The field is the world. And the good seeds are the followers of the kingdom. But the weeds are the followers of the evil one. The enemy who planted them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the present age. The harvesters are the angels. Just as people gather weeds and burn them in the fire, so it will be at the end of the present age. The Human One will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that cause people to fall away and all people who sin. He will throw them into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Those who have ears should hear.” --Matthew 13:24-43 (CEB)

I’d like to begin this morning by considering how we hear things. Specifically, depending on who we are or where we are, how we hear things may change. Context. Everything is about context.

Here’s an example. “Throw the book at someone.” Now, if I were a schoolteacher and I heard one of my students say that they were going to throw the book at someone, how might I hear this? How might I respond?

On the other hand, if I were in a courtroom, sitting at a defense table, and I heard the judge talk about throwing the book at someone, how might I hear that? How might I respond?

Today, we have these three parables about the reign of God. The basic meaning of the root of the word, parable, is hidden. Often, the message Jesus is trying to tell is hidden. Mysterious. He even says that in our text when he quotes Isaiah: I speak in parables. I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world. Some consider parables to be subversive speech. That Jesus used scenes from everyday life to expose the contradiction between the actual situation of his hearers and the teachings of God’s justice. When I was in Sunday School, I was taught that a parable was an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” (Whatever that means!) However you want to consider them, parables are complicated. And, today, we have three of them: the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The parable of the mustard seed. The parable of the yeast. We don’t often hear them read altogether, yet that is exactly how they are placed in this thirteenth chapter of Matthew. One right after the other. Jesus moves from one parable to the next and, immediately, to the third. So, what does this mean? And what is he, through these parables, trying to say?

Again, I would suggest to you that context matters.

For example, if you were one of Jesus’ actual followers, you were likely a member of the bottom tier of society. By Jesus’ day, Israel had become part of the Roman Empire with the top tier of society, the elite of his day - including the ruler, the ruling class, those who did the empire’s bidding, priests, and, perhaps a few merchants - the elite whose primary focus was to maintain the status quo and plunder the wealth of the bottom tier of society, which included the peasants and farmers. So, from the viewpoint of the bottom tier of society, you would immediately get that something wasn’t quite right about these parables. What farmer, after all, would allow the weeds to remain beside the wheat? Or who would even want the mustard seed to grow - because it was considered an invasive plant that could do damage to good crops? Or who would mix yeast into the amount of flour identified in our text - an amount that, once baked into bread, would be the equivalent of 150 loves? Enough to feed an entire village. 

If you were one of Jesus’ listeners, you would begin to understand the upside-down nature of God’s reign. And, then, perhaps you would begin to question the nature of your world. Parables as subversive texts? Perhaps so.

Or consider if you were part of the audience to whom Matthew was writing in this gospel. The first parable might have been understood by your community as the reign of God in the world. That the separation from Israel is now complete and that you are part of the church beginning the Gentile mission. The world is now your field of endeavor, an opportunity for you, as part of Matthew’s community, to begin to bear fruit. 

Or consider if you were a follower of Origen, a third century early church father, who wrote that the parable of the wheat and the weeds was really about what was inside us. Or, to put it in a Lutheran framework - the wheat being the saint in us and that weeds being the sinner in us. 

Context matters. Where you are and who you are as you are reading these parables change their meaning. Which may be a little unsettling. Perhaps so.

But there are a few key understandings that, no matter who you are, where you are, or what time frame in which you are reading these parables, there are a few things we can notice universally about them. 

First. Notice in the parable of the wheat and the weeds who sows the seeds and who controls the reaping process. It’s neither you nor I.  But God.

Second. Notice in the parable of the mustard seed, the subversive nature of God’s reign. Notice, again, who plants the seed so small that it’s almost invisible, but that, through nurturing and care, grows into something large and beautiful that serves others, whether it's the birds of the air or the least among us. It all begins, once, again with God. 

Third. Notice that the parable of the yeast is really not about the yeast at all. It’s about the amount of flour that, along with such a small cake of yeast, can make so. Much. Bread. Such abundance that it can only be shared. An abundance that comes from God. And God alone.

This is what the reign of God looks like. Planted by God and leading to such great abundance, yet with a reminder that it is, once again, God and God alone who will create and grow and, ultimately, be the final arbiter of God’s justice. It is a reign initiated by Jesus, who affirms that it is both a present reality and a future hope. A now, but not yet. A reign that, like pregnancy, is mysterious, miraculous, comes with pain and urgency, and gives new life. A reign that pervades and transforms everything it encounters. A reign that, though we cannot see it fully now, has as its hallmarks, hospitality, generosity, and abundance.

So, whether you are part of Grace & Glory considering what the future may bring. Or whether you are a member of Third on the cusp of something bread new, may we all remember and hold fast to the truth that the reign of God is one of power and possibilities. And that we are called to come alongside and share. 

May we have ears to hear. Amen.

Preached Sunday, February 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 13:24-43; Psalm 84:1-7

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