August 6, 2023
Finding God in Weird Places
Throughout his ministry, Jesus used a lot of metaphors to talk about the kingdom of God. In today’s reading, he refers to the Kingdom of God as a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. I don’t know if Jesus told all of these parables back to back like it is in the reading or if the writer of Matthew connect them together himself, but these various images of the Kingdom of God shows that the Kingdom of God can be found in many forms and in many places, sometimes it even comes in unlikely forms and in unlikely places.
Take for example, the mustard seed. The mustard seed creates a plant that can become a weed. It grows quick and is pervasive, very quickly taking over an entire area – taking space and nutrients from the plants around it. As one description of mustard seed puts it, “Mustard is a tiny seed with a lot of spunk. It will grow just about anywhere, is rarely bothered by pests, and is prolific to boot.”
Yeast can be viewed in a similar way. When you mix yeast into the flour, it affects all the flour it comes into contact with, transforming the dough into something it wasn’t before it came in contact with the yeast.
Jesus is saying two things with these metaphors. 1) The Kingdom of God effects everything that is comes into contact with and changes it into something different and new 2) The kingdom of God is in everything, even in the most unlikely places, like among the weeds, in a piece of leavened bread, or among people on the streets.
I’ve seen the kingdom of God in some unlikely places. One of those places is inside the prisons. Some of the state prisons have gardening programs and the inmate plants vegetable and flower gardens throughout the prison grounds. They plant everything from pansies and petunias to sunflowers. Some of the flower stalks grow as large as you and I. The plants and flowers change the environment of the prison grounds from bleak and dreary to bright and colorful. Many staff and inmates feel that the flowers bring a calmer and more positive atmosphere to the prison.
The inmates also plant Morning Glory, which is a vine and like the mustard seed is prolific and grows everywhere. As vines do, the Morning Glory grows up to the top of the fences in the prison covering the fences so that you couldn’t see through them. One day, the Correctional Officers told the inmates that the plants couldn’t block the visibility of the fence and that the inmates would have to tear all the Moring Glory down. Disappointed, the inmates tore down the all the Morning Glory; however, there was a section that was too high for them to reach. So it stayed on the fence, but it was detached from any root system it needed. That piece of Morning Glory continued to live and stay green for days, perhaps weeks afterward. Even the flowers that had bloomed on that piece of the vine remain alive for several days after. I don’t really remember how long the plant survived, but it was long enough that whenever the inmates walked by that section of fence, they would see that Morning Glory still alive despite the efforts to tear it down.
That small plant spoke volumes to the inmate. It showed them that life exists even when death is around them. It represented the presence of a higher power, a presence greater than themselves, the prison staff and even the prison itself. They saw God’s presence in that small, flowering vine. This is how the inmates interpreted the survival of that small piece of plant.
That Morning Glory reminds me of the mustard seed in Jesus parable. It grew out of control in a way that made it interfere with the normal functioning of the prison, but its presence, especially that little piece high up on the fence, showed the inmates and perhaps some of the prison staff that God was present even there in the prison, a place that is often so negative and dark that it is hard to imagine God being present at all. But there is was. That one small reminder that God is with us no matter where we are. Like the mustard seed, a small thing can have a big impact.
Jesus uses these metaphors to show people that God is present in the common things that we encounter in our every daily life. A plant that is also a weed, a treasure hidden in a field, a single mother struggling to make ends meet, a person living in prison or on the street whose brokenness reflects the face of Christ, and in each and every one of us. God is present no matter what anyone experienced in life and what their life circumstances are. These are all the unlikely places where we encounter the Kingdom of God.
These metaphor are also strange and unexpected. They are meant to jar us out of our conventional wisdom and look at the world in a different way. One of the blogs I like to read is called The Walking Dreamer written by Allen Brehm, a Presbyterian minister. In one of his blog posts, Brehm says, God’s realm of justice, peace and freedom in this world is something unexpected. It works contrary to our expectations. Conventional wisdom says that using humility, self-sacrifice and mercy to transform the whole world isn’t the way the world works. In our world money talks. Might makes right. Nice guys finish last. Those who lay down their lives for others become doormats. Humility means weakness. Mercy means being taken advantage of. In a world that works like that, Jesus’ vision of a new realm that would bring justice, peace and freedom seems ludicrous.
Even those who identify themselves as disciples of Jesus often adopt the means of this world to “force” theirs issue. Not content to just continue sowing Gospel seeds, waiting patiently for the harvest, leaving the outcome vulnerable to circumstance, with no guarantees but the promise of faith and hope, many who call themselves Christian take the shortcuts that they see working in this world. They try to guarantee the success of God’s realm by shrewd calculation and slick marketing. They try to ensure the success of their Gospel seeds by any means, including manipulation and deceit. But what they miss is the truth that you cannot promote the justice, peace and freedom of God’s realm by methods that are unjust and unpeaceful and unfree. You may find some success by those means, but it will not be God’s realm that you are promoting. It will much more likely be something of your own devising.
In the midst of all this, Jesus’ strange parables remain as an encouragement to those who will wait in faith and hope. Just like presence of the Morning Glory, the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough suggest that, despite all obstacles, God’s realm of justice, peace and freedom is here; it is real among us now. These parables point to the promise that one day God’s realm will define all of life in this world. As unlikely as that may sound, Jesus was no fool. I think he knew that his message about God’s realm was unlikely at best—as unlikely as the success of weeds and leaven—and at worst it came off as ludicrous. The “kingdom” that he brought to the people who were looking for it was something different entirely from what they were expecting. What I’ve learned in life is that sometimes something unexpected can be more satisfying than anything we could have imagined. When and where and how we least expect it, God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s freedom break out in this world in unlikely ways and unlikely places.