Complete this sentence for me. “You aren’t a real ________ until ________.”
Experience truly is the grand teacher, isn’t it? You may think you understand something, or know what something is about, or have studied something enough that you believe you understand everything about it, and then BAM! You have some experience and you get a whole new level of appreciation!
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a series of parables about the Kingdom, and we kind of think of them as somehow all relating to one another. We often approach Matthew 13 as if it is a cumulative teaching experience. By that I mean by unpacking each and every one of these parables we somehow get a deeper, better understanding of the Kingdom of God.
This approach however also makes us scratch our head a bit. Which is true, that the Kingdom is like a Pearl, or like a Mustard seed? Is it valuable beyond measure, or a weed? What are you trying to say to us Jesus?
A better way to approach Matthew 13 might be to see it as a collection of impressions or sayings that are meant to impact people who know that experience.
Parables that describe the Kingdom of God it in terms of agriculture are meant for those accustomed to working with the soil, and so they will be readily understood by farmers, but perhaps not so much by bakers or fishermen, and so Jesus tells a parable from their particular world.
Bakers know about leavening.
Fishermen know about nets and fish.
Shepherds know about “setting the table” – the nature of invasive plants like mustard that must be cleared out of fields.
Jesus is therefore telling a succession of parables that are all designed to hit a particular audience, much the same way your own sharing this morning may have “hit” some of with a similar experience that was familiar to you, and experience you have had, while others not so much.
And, above all of that, there is one particular experience that all of these parables speak to of which we are just now becoming aware.
They are spoken into an age of Empire.
We may not have been able to hear these parables correctly before, but it is becoming increasingly easier to understand them in the post 9/11 world, as we undeniably live into our own “age of empire.”
The United States is an Empire, make no mistake about that.
Previously we were able to deceive ourselves with the narrative of being a “scrappy young country,” or one powerful nation among many in the world.
But all of that faded away with the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11.
For good or for ill we are now perceived as an Empire by various parts of the world and being considered an Empire is always a mixed bag of experience.
On the one hand, Empire brings stability and a certain level of peace and prosperity. Trade flows freely, conflict is minimized, and the one with the biggest military, holds sway over any lesser adversaries.
But Empire also brings with it the imposition of an outside will upon others, influence and the preference of a privileged culture over the indigenous culture.
Empire sets what will be the standards and norms by which others will be required to live, and that (no matter how benevolent) often ends up feeling oppressive and offensive.
So it was that the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day imposed its peace upon Judea. It was true, there were no conquering armies, no longer contested territories, or petty squabbles with the neighboring nations.
Rome kept the peace, and it kept order.
The only “cost” of that was subversion of the local culture. Roman currency replaced the local coinage, weights and measures. Roman ideas influenced daily life. Roman laws demanded attention and took precedent over existing local customs, traditions of dealing with things, and courts.
All this was done as you watched your country being mined of its own natural and economic resources. Wealth was extracted to support the Empire, and preserve the stature of leaders within the larger Empire.
If you are living in the Empire and enjoying its benefits, (among those to whom the wealth is flowing,) all you can see is how much of a benefit this is. “Why are people ungrateful? See what we provide for them?”
If, however you are a part of the Empire from which the wealth is being extracted and whose culture is being altered, all you can see is how oppressive and intolerable things are becoming for you.
You begin to look for ways to resist, and really there are only two options open to you.
You can resist Empire by force.
Indeed you find that in the scriptures. There were many who ignited hopes, looking for a new king, or general, or a messiah like King David of old, arising from the Galilee, and from the fringes… zealots and insurrectionist and would-be messiahs who would be able to throw off the Roman oppression.
You see that in the Gospels, and Empire knows what do with such threats. It crushes them by force. Empire deals swiftly and harshly with insurrectionists.
It crucifies them.
But there is another way to subvert Empire, and this is what we see Jesus speak of in these parables, and what is revealed in Jesus’ ministry.
You can infest Empire with ideas that subvert it.
You can change Empire from within, undo it without raising a sword or firing a shot.
It’s important that as you hear these parables, you begin to hear them from the context of living under Empire, and what you can do in the midst of that reality.
“The Kingdom of God is like Mustard seed that someone sowed in his field….”
Mustard is an invasive plant, and no one “sows: it. One usually spends one’s whole life trying to get rid of it.
It takes over.
It grows without cultivation.
It takes over fields so that birds begin nesting, finding shelter in the tangled mess where once crops were being harvested for Caesar. The vulnerable find a place of safety hiding in it.
Look again at what Jesus does with his teaching.
You can infect an Empire that runs on profit and return with a message of not worrying about tomorrow. “Consider the lilies…”
You can infect an Empire that depends upon fear and intimidation with messages of love and confidence. “Do not be afraid… Do not worry… Do not be anxious…”
You can infect an Empire that is bent on meting out retributive justice by proclaiming a message of turning the other cheek, and letting God do the sorting of the righteous and the unrighteous in God’s time.
You can infest the thoughts of an Empire that is obsessed with station in life, position and privilege by proclaiming the concepts of all being welcome, and equal. You can bring into question who is of value, and who is worthy of concern and attention by healing the outcast, and showing regard for the lame, the widow, the child. You can tell stories about caring for the neighbor like the Good Samaritan.
Who is proving to be “neighbor?” Go and do likewise!
You can infect a world that likes its order with ideas of the first being last, and the last being first, and those who lose their life gain it, and those who try desperately to cling to their own comfort and life ending up losing it.
This is what these parables of the Kingdom reveal to us. They are about how the Kingdom works in the midst of an Empire that you cannot oppose outright but that you can transform from within, and it looks very much like an infestation that Empire can’t weed out.
Is that how it works still? Yes! And this is the good news in all of this.
I find a lot of people feeling pretty powerless these days.
We watch the machinations of the government, hear about executive orders signed, watch as our Senators and Congressional representatives debate things that seem to leave out concerns for the individual in favor of what would be good for the “bottom line,” – pass or attempt to pass legislation that seems to favor the people who pull the strings of Empire and forget about the citizen.
We write our legislators, send our words of displeasure, or encouragement, or calls for change, and it all quite frankly seems like a hopeless or worthless effort.
Who listens to me?
I cannot impose or demand of the rich or the powerful.
I cannot catch the ear of the president or the eye of the Governor.
What can I do?
I can do the work of the Kingdom.
I can cling to this promise Jesus makes that Empires can be undone by infestation, and people can be transformed from within, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst all those gathered in the big net of this world which will one day be sorted out.
You and I, we can sow seeds and hide yeast and lock away resources in ways that frustrate the rich and powerful, and call into question the very values that Empire assumes until the Kingdom of God slowly infiltrates and changes everything.
This is slow work, to be sure, but this is our calling.
This is the good news.
Injustices do not last.
Rulers hold sway for but a brief time.
The Kingdom that God brings finds its way into everything, and will transform the places where it gets a foothold.
This is a word of hope to those who find themselves living in the shadow of Empire.