Reflection on the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today Matthew’s Gospel presents three parables. The kingdom of God is like a farmer who had planted his field with good seed, but an enemy had come in and sown weeds that were sprouting alongside the grain. The kingdom of God is like yeast acting on three measures of flour. And the kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree attracting birds to its branches. The kingdom Jesus preaches is not a mustard seed, not a field where bad seed has been sown with the good, is not a huge bowl of flour leavened by yeast. Parables are story fragments that leave those who hear the parable to fill in the blanks and ultimately discover where the likeness lies. And quite often the likeness found, the meaning discovered, is surprising. Or troubling. Or challenging.
Some years ago, at the Bridge Community, I planted a bunch of crocus bulbs in front of the house. I waited patiently all winter for spring to come and the bulbs to sprout. Spring came. Nothing happened. That spring, instead of enjoying delightful little purple blooms, I learned what happens if you plant the bubs upside down. Perhaps Jesus would have woven a parable around that!
This section of Matthew’s Gospel comes at a point where Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities is intensifying. Jesus turns, I think, to teaching in parables — hoping that his words will fall on the fertile ground of open hearts — and burst them open. It also seems to be a tactic to avoid direct confrontation with the religious leaders who refused to see themselves in the stories. And he wants his disciples, and us, to plumb their depth and discover for themselves what happens when one plants crocus bulbs upside down. The bulbs didn’t sprout that first spring, but by the next most had managed to somehow right themselves and begin poking out of the spring earth and flower in the snow.
As I read and reflected on these three little parables, they pounded loudly in my heart. That old saying “where you stand determines what you see” keeps flashing in my mind like weather warnings running on ticker tape across a tv screen. These three parables speak to us today with unique intensity and urgency. They remind us that now, in the midst of worldwide pandemic, hunger, economic collapse, exploding racial tension and struggle, environmental disaster, and social and political unrest, the kingdom of God, God’s loving vision for all creation, is emerging. The vision of God for all of creation — like wheat growing in a field of weeds, like three measures of flour rising to feed 100, like a mustard seed growing as home for the birds of the air — is emerging within and among us even as the virus curve rises and seems to carry with it massive social upheaval The work that parables give us is learning to see. Learning to hear. Learning to be about transformation. Because for us, like both the disciples of Jesus’ time and the religious authorities, the emerging kingdom is perhaps not quite the kingdom we expected to see or wanted to welcome.
We literally woke up one morning in March to find, by the end of the day, that the world was no longer the world we knew.
That’s exactly what happened to the landowner in the first parable. The landowner has planted his field with good seed but now has a field where the weeds are growing side-by-side with the wheat — and, as is the nature of weeds, are threatening to take over.
So where do we see God’s dream for us — for all of creation — what Jesus calls” the kingdom of God” — emerging, growing even where surrounded by invasive weeds?Where do we see God’s dream in ourselves, in our own
weediness,” in our imperfect communities and our broken world — or do we only see the weeds?
I find it compelling that the kingdom Jesus preaches — the kingdom of the beatitudes — isn’t the wheat somehow overcoming the weeds or the workers going out in the field to pull up the weeds. The kingdom isn’t tied to a battle against the weeds. The kingdom is the landowner who allows the weeds to continue to grow until the harvest. He chooses not to risk the life of a single nourishing grain by having his servants pull up the weeds.
The question for us is why does he do that? I imagine other farmers would have thought him odd at best and crazy at worst. Rather the response Cody got when he went looking for crabgrass seed. Jesus tells his disciples that God, the master of the field, is patient with both the weeds and the grain —perhaps a caution to all of us who would judge the weeds too quickly. We need to remember the crabgrass. And we need to remember that each blade of wheat matters.
How do we respond, in our hearts if not our actions, when we see crowded beaches or political rallies without masks or social distance or COVID parties on the news — the infected and uninfected (the seed and weeds) crowded together as cases spike? How do we respond when violent prone agitators are introduced into worldwide peaceful protests for police reform and racial justice? How do we respond to our own brokenness? Do we choose to kill off the weeds at all cost or gently tend the grain?
It wasn’t only toilet paper that disappeared from store shelves as the pandemic spread across the county — yeast did as well. A yeast shortage. I tried to buy yeast online after finding out that grocery stores were out. It took more than eight weeks to get any. I’m glad I wasn’t looking for toilet paper.
The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into three measures of flour. I love the smell of yeast acting on a bowl of flour. I love how the flour rises softly in the bowl. I love the smell of baking bread. It fills my head with comforting memories of my grandmother baking bread in an old black coal oven.
These days I have different images of yeast. Some that don’t comfort. I see presidential tweets as yeast leavening a fragile society into false security, racial hatred, division, violence, anger. I see photoshopped campaign ads insidiously legitimizing — yeasting — outright lies and innuendos. I see inaccurate information misleading increasing numbers of people. I see government acting as the leaven to politicize and weaponize the pandemic. I see violence and rage yeasting more violence and rage.
We have been surrounded by that yeast — forces from all side competing to leaven us. But lifegiving yeast — yeast to make human heart food — also surrounds us — people yeasting one another — whose care for others encourages and empowers others to help, to have courage, to hang in. The tears of so many is leaven — we are all in this together. Food banks, musicians and puppeteers on their balconies, neighbors acting as neighbors, first responders, medical personnel, courageous majors and governors — kids — they are the leaven bringing forth the kingdom. The murder of George Floyd has been strong yeast.
And so we come to the tiny mustard seed. We tend to think of mustard as the yellow wildflower that grows in abundance here in Kentucky. Think instead of the mustard seeds of Africa and other parts of the world that grow into sturdy 16-foot trees. Their growth is sure and steady — slow for sure — but slow and steady. As the tree grows it welcomes the birds of the air.
The seed becomes a community of welcome. A safe refuge. A home. Migrants specifically welcome. It celebrates its place in creation in peace and in service. The image of the kingdom of God.
We come together today hoping to see the contours of the kingdom, to find hope in weedy times. We come to be leaven the kingdom. We come together to plant mustard seeds.