The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Most of you know that I was born and raised in Wyoming. If you drive across the high desert parts of Wyoming—like the entire length of I-80 through the southern part of the state, you’ll probably notice three things: first, the wind. I’m not sure there is ever a day that the wind isn’t blowing there to some extent. Second, you’ll probably notice antelope. My dad calls them prairie rats. They’re kind of a cross between a deer and a goat. There are herds of them everywhere on the plains.
And the third thing is sagebrush. There are hardly any trees on the high desert. It’s too dry. There’s not enough water. But sagebrush is everywhere. It’s a scrubby little bush with a strong scent of camphor. It keeps a lot of its leaves in the brutally cold winters and flowers in the summer. It usually doesn’t grow very tall unless it happens to find itself in the area of a decent water source. But just because it’s not tall doesn’t mean it’s not thriving. Sagebrush sucks in whatever tiny amount of water is in the ground through its roots, and it also grabs water floating in the humidity of the air, however little that is, through its leaves. Sagebrush is a hardy little plant that has adapted to the harshness of its environment.
But maybe you wouldn’t notice it. I usually don’t. The thing about sagebrush is, even though it’s everywhere in those dusty, windy parts of Wyoming, Nevada, eastern Washington, it’s still really easy to overlook. It’s not a pretty bush. It’s not ugly, either, it’s just…there.
Kind of like the bush a mustard seed grows into. The seed that the kingdom of heaven is like grows into a bush, Jesus says: hardy, scrappy, easy to ignore if you’re not looking for it. It might grow a few feet or, as Jesus says, it might become “the greatest of shrubs that becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” But still, we’re not talking about a beautiful oak or the infamous cedars of Lebanon.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a teeny, tiny seed that might grow into a grand shrub or, if it really thrives, a shrubby looking tree.
A Zen Buddhist master, Rinzai, once said, “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”
It makes me wonder if Jesus was a bit Zen himself. His parables are a bit like Buddhist koans, the most famous of which might be, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I read recently that “The effort to ‘solve’ a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level.”
Take, for example, the question, “What is the ocean?” It’s one thing to describe it to someone and it’s another to have the edge of the ocean lapping over your feet while you’re standing on a beach, and it’s another to be stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. What I mean to say is, a koan means to get you out of your head, out of finding the “correct” answer, and into another space beyond rightness and wrongness, beyond judgment and into actually experiencing reality.
I think that’s what Jesus is trying to do with parables. The word parable derives from the Greek: “para” which means “beside” and “bole” which means “to throw.” A parable is meant to throw two seemingly unrelated things beside each other—the kingdom of heaven and a mustard seed—to derive meaning that we can’t get by approaching those things in a purely intellectual way. A parable is meant to get us out of some single-minded way of understanding and into the actual experience of the kingdom of heaven.
Which gets us back to Zen master Rinzai: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.” In all the parables we heard today, Jesus throws the kingdom of heaven beside a mustard seed, yeast, treasure in a field, fish in nets. The sacred, he’s telling us, is revealed in the ordinary. And sometimes the ordinary—the sagebrush, the mustard shrub—is easy to overlook, even when it’s all around us.
It’s also easy to overlook the mustard seed in ourselves, our ability to grow the kingdom of heaven where we are. Well, I guess it’s more like the yeast, actually.
Yeast is what gives food more kick. It reacts with glucose to make bread fluffy and smell good when it’s baking. To create alcohol in wine and beer. And it doesn’t take much. The woman in the parable used enough yeast—three measures—to bake bread for twice the people here in church today—including our Zoomers.
But the thing with yeast is, it doesn’t work right away. Depending on the bread, it can take an hour or two. Depending on the wine, it usually takes two or three weeks for the yeast to ferment—and then the aging after that, of course. Depending on the beer, it can take up to two months for the yeast to ferment. You have to give it time. You have to wait before you can see or taste the results.
A post on tumblr, of all places, has stuck with me. It said, “When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present really thinks that they can radically change the future by doing something small.”
Do any of us think that we’re the yeast? That the smallest ways we interact with the world can create the kingdom of heaven? Maybe not right away but for the generations to come. But maybe also right away. Right now. In this moment. Even if only you know you did it, and it brought you peace, brought you joy, brought you a sliver of the kingdom for a split second.
I think it’s sometimes easier to think that the kingdom of heaven is ending all war. Stopping climate change. Creating a world where everyone has the food, water, and shelter that they need not only to survive but thrive.
And Jesus isn’t saying it’s not those things. But what I think Jesus is saying is that those grand things happen when we start paying attention to the ordinary things around us—noticing the beauty, the hardiness, the ingenuity of ants marching along a crack in the sidewalk, a toddler who has just learned how to open the cabinets, sagebrush growing out of the dry desert ground.
Those grand things happen when we start making them happen at the smallest, individual level. Every time we choose to be curious instead of argumentative when there’s tension in a situation, every local city meeting about public safety we choose to attend, every time we take an extra second or two to be kind.
The kingdom of heaven is like you pausing to notice it all around you, to build it moment by moment by moment. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Right now. All the time.