Out of Control

By Jennifer Strawbridge

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. These are words from our epistle this morning.

Within this morning’s gospel, Jesus seems to answer a simple question: What is the kingdom of heaven like? Except, for such a simple question, Jesus certainly has a lot of answers. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure in a field, like a special pearl, like a giant net in the sea. And it’s not obvious how the images in this rapid-fire telling of parables are connected. In fact, it appears that Jesus is having a bit of trouble describing the kingdom of heaven.

Now, if we are honest, part of this trouble begins when we realize Jesus isn’t answering the questions we might have about heaven and God’s reign, and frankly we’d prefer some concrete answers from Jesus: what will it look like? Who will be welcome and who will not? Will we have bodies in this kingdom? Will we be free from pain and anxiety? Will our pets be waiting for us?

And for the crowds gathered around Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, the only gospel to give us this lengthy set of kingdom parables, they too wanted some concrete answers: will it replace the Romans? Will there be justice and mercy? Will we be free from oppression? And is Jesus the king of this kingdom?

In a way, Jesus does answer our questions about how powerful and lasting the kingdom of God would be, but we have to sit with his words for a bit before we can see it, and we have to recognize that this kingdom is not just something far away in the future, but is breaking in around us now. For what Jesus says in these parables and the images they set before us is that the kingdom of heaven, the breaking in of God to our lives, is invasive, overwhelming, unstoppable, and surprising.

Let’s think for a moment about the first two parables, in which we are faced with everyday occurrences of gardening and baking. The kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows into what we picture as a beautiful tree. Or the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which makes bread rise and gives it the fluffiness and texture we so love. And we easily fall prey to the temptation to read these parables as really nice stories about how big things can have little beginnings, small things leading to greatness, or that we shouldn’t judge something based on its size. Superficially, this makes sense, until we realize that neither mustard seeds nor yeast were viewed with great enthusiasm by gardeners or bakers in Jesus’ time.

In fact, some kinds of mustard seed produced not grand trees but shrubs, and not just shrubs but invasive shrubs. Think about the ground elder whose presence takes over your garden or bind weed or nettles and how they multiply uncontrollably and how much you dislike them, and that’s the invasive kind of mustard seed. It starts out small, as Jesus tells us, but before long it can take over a field, crowd out other plants, and be completely out of our control.

And so too with yeast, if you think about it. Once added to the dough, it cannot be removed, but multiplies uncontrolled. For some in the first century, yeast was a contaminant that polluted the mix. Elsewhere in Scripture, yeast is compared with the destructive and invasive nature of sin. So what do we do with the fact that Jesus is not comparing the kingdom of God to a rose bush or a delicious loaf of bread, but is comparing the kingdom of God to an uncontrollable invasive shrub and pollutant?

For now, these images are jarring, which is, I think, exactly Jesus’ point. The kingdom of God is like an invasive weed, the kingdom of God is like out-of-control yeast, the kingdom of God is something that is beyond our imagination and our control, and like yeast and mustard plants, it infiltrates our world and it is far more potent than we can imagine and ready to invade, whether we look for it or not.

Now this is both good news and difficult news for us. The good news is that God’s kingdom, God’s love, is so pervasive that from it we cannot be separated. In the words of Paul this morning from Romans, neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor height nor depth nor anything in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God’s love, God’s kingdom, is that pervasive. God’s love is that out of control.

But the difficult news is that God’s love, God’s kingdom, is this out of control. And not just out of control, but out of our control. God’s kingdom will grow and spread despite our greatest anxieties and biggest doubts. And we might spend inordinate time fighting against the places God is taking us in our lives, but such a response won’t prevent God from working in and amongst us, won’t prevent God from loving us despite our better judgment, won’t prevent God from trying to move us out of our self-centered worlds to recognize the depth and breadth of God’s love, God’s kingdom, God’s fullness of life.

These parables remind us that we can all too easily get stuck on the reality that God’s kingdom is not as we expect it. We expect a beautiful tree, we expect perfectly risen bread. And what we get instead is an out-of-control weed that takes over and a batch of yeast that pollutes the bread. And this is where we have a choice in what we do with this parable. We can panic. We can worry that we are not in control. We can try our best to kill this invasion of the kingdom and to react against the direction God is leading us. But as the parable is clear, God’s love will push and elbow its way into our lives, even if we think we know better. God’s love will catch us off-guard, even when we aren’t looking for it.

Many places of theological training in the United States have a tradition affectionately called a chapel prank, which is something each year group of students do at some point in their training to liven up the daily worship. Some are creative, most are pretty mild, involving things like vestment colors and rival football teams, but one told by our dean is particularly memorable and a story I probably tell far too often. 

Our dean’s theological college had a wonderful reredos or wall of statues behind the altar, and this particular year’s group thought it would be a good idea to string an invisible wire from the back of the chapel to these statues. On the wire, they attached a papier-mâché dove. The plan was that the dove would be released at exactly the right moment in the Eucharistic Prayer so that it would glide down the wire and hover, ever so gently, over the altar at the moment the Holy Spirit was invoked. What the students didn’t account for was the speed the dove would pick up on its journey to the altar. And so instead of hovering gently, the dove sailed over the head of a rather startled priest, crashed into the statues, and shattered into pieces.

And this is an excellent description of the way God’s kingdom breaks into our lives, when suddenly we discern God in our midst as very real and very present. We like to think of God’s love as something gentle and mild, and perhaps it is, for some of us some of the time, but more often than not, we actually aren’t looking for God to invade our neatly controlled worlds, and thus it can feel like God has crashed into us when ultimately, God has been with us all along. 

And what this story also tells us, what these parables also tell us, is that the good news of God’s kingdom can feel threatening before it is comforting. God’s presence in our lives is not partial. The gospel makes a claim on our whole life, not just parts of it. It invades our whole world, not just our words or our Sundays. And it taints the reality we have grown to accept, the reality that we are somehow in control.

And this is good news. It is good news because it warns us that we might do crazy things when this love invades our lives. We might share all we have with others, we might stand up for others in our school or work, we might look out for the underprivileged, we might be more aware of how we share our faith not only through our words but through our actions.

This gospel is good news, as well as it is an encouragement to those of us in the midst of struggle that God’s kingdom, God’s love, is closer than we might imagine, seeping in our lives even if we can’t always feel it. And this gospel is a promise that no matter how messy our world might be, no matter how stuck within ourselves and our issues we might feel, God’s kingdom will prevail. God’s love will endure. For we know with the apostle Paul that nothing, nothing, can separate us from this invasive, polluting, uncontrollable love.

The Rev. Dr. Canon Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford University and G.B. Caird Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College.


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