"Dandelions in the Kingdom of Heaven"

Every spring, all over suburban North America, people can be seen kneeling outside on their fresh green lawns. Whole neighbourhoods seem to take part. They are not worshipping God in some newly invented festival of faith. They are busy getting rid of the dandelions – the scourge of the homeowner. What will the neighbours think, if even one little yellow flower is found? Will there be complaints about the fluffy seed heads that pop up, and might contaminate other lawns? Is there a by- law in the township that demands clearance of these noxious weeds? To my mind, this is an unfortunate predicament. You see, I admire the dandelion. I’m not criticizing those who want them gone, those who wish to present a beautiful background to their home. But for centuries, this little flower was not a weed, but a very useful plant. It was often grown in herb gardens, for medicinal purposes. Every part of it is useful. The roots can be steeped – covered with boiling water for a number of hours – as a tea, or roasted to make a coffee – like drink. Like many other plant roots, they offer several prebiotics that help with digestion. The leaves contain iron, calcium magnesium and potassium. Young leaves are great in salads, older ones can be sautéed or boiled and topped with butter and garlic, or put into a creamed soup. The flowers have numerous uses: they contain beta carotene and antioxidants. They can be made into jelly, or left to go to puffy seeds, to the delight of little children, who can blow them away as they make a wish. And of course, the best thing is, you can use them to make wine! The only part we don’t use is the stems. But some little creatures like them. We had a long haired guinea pig, aptly named Rapunzel, and in the spring, we would pick her a bouquet of dandelions. She would take each one and work up the stem, almost like slurping spaghetti, whistling in joy. When she got to the end, the flower would be stuck on her face, and she would spit it out. Dandelions are tenacious. They will sneak through cracks in the sidewalk, waving their cheerful heads to herald the coming of warm weather. Go ahead and dig them up. But they will only come back, part of God’s persistent creation. Today we have a wonderful collection of little parables, and they challenge us to look at the world from a different perspective. What a different view of life Matthew offers us. Out of respect and admiration for these short, pithy and very wise sayings, I am only dealing with the first one today. Three years ago – (Scott always seems to go on summer holidays and ask me to do this Sunday) – I preached on the parable of the net, and when I looked at the lectionary readings for today, I thought “Oh no, not again!” But then I thought, if I preach every three years on this one section in Matthew, I have enough material to last for another ten summers! The power of Scripture is with us for a lifetime. Matthew doesn’t talk about dandelions, he talks about another weed – the wild mustard plant. In that time, it would have been a crime to purposely plant mustard seeds, which would take over valuable space for important food crops. But Matthew sees something else here. He stands on his head and sees the world through God’s eyes. And that is when we open our own eyes, and our hearts, to this vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. He presents us with an alternate world, in which things are not what they seem and certainly not what we expect. Surprise! First of all, someone has dared to sow weeds – we get a lot of that in the summer readings. Most of the time, that “someone” is evil, working against God’s purpose. But here, Matthew is portraying the sower as an instrument of God, helping to bring the Kingdom closer to our lives. He tells us that this is such a tiny seed, with such great potential. It will grow into the greatest of shrubs, and become a tree, supporting birds in their nests. Now, truth be told, no self-respecting bird would put a nest in a mustard bush. But Matthew is asking us to contemplate something else: what are the possibilities in all the seeds we plant, what are the possibilities in each of us? The seed grows invisibly, underground. What’s going on, as it develops? He contrasts the tiny seed to the enormous shrub: think of what is going on, in our lives, in the lives of our newborn children, watch as they grow, and change and learn and make mistakes and rejoice. Think of all the things you have done in your life and how God has been with you to guide, to comfort, to help you on the right paths. No matter how young or old you are, you will always be growing in grace. The seed carries with it the certainly of life, the continuity of creation. Finally, we are told that all this takes time. Growth does not happen in an instant, like some powder that you mix with milk to get pudding. We are encouraged to wait with confidence in God’s plan, to gently nurture, to have patience, and respect, and to believe in the intentionality of the coming of the Kingdom. This parable begins by celebrating small things – like the children’s song we just sang. Last week I had occasion to look up references to the United Church of Canada. One of the articles referred me to Wikipedia, which I usually don’t use as my first reference. It was divided into decades, and the first thing it mentioned was the number of members in the church, then went on to describe some of the events in that decade. If you look at it from the point of view of population, we seem to be decreasing. If you look at it from the point of view of what we have done, we are often in the forefront of social change, making everyone stand on their heads, so maybe we are increasing in our power to bring in the Kingdom. Statistics can often be used to shape our concepts, but sometimes they are not the whole picture. Sharon Blezzard, who was a very wise teacher and minister, said: “..Don’t spend your time weeping wailing and gnashing your teeth about how the church is dying, and how people don’t care, and how hard you’re trying to do church right, or whatever reason or rationalization you can conjure. Just take to heart the final verse and remember you’ve been trained for the kingdom of heaven, you are rich in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and you have Jesus’ teaching guide in the gospels…The kingdom of Heaven is like you and me, , ordinary sinner/saints, when the Spirit shines through us to part the clouds and mists of this beautiful, broken world”. (Sharon Blezzard, Stewardship of Life Institute. Do You Really Get It? July 21, 2014) The parable tells us that we need to stop looking at the numbers as the only measure of our usefulness, and concentrate on the actions and results. It is faith that will keep us going. Look at the big picture, and be part of the image of God. This parable offers us a whole realm of possibilities in which to bring about the Kingdom in our own lives, our own society our own time. Sometimes, if we contemplate the dandelions in the lawn, or think about the wild mustard bush sucking nourishment from the soil that is needed for growing food, we see only the negative. Reading or hearing the news each day, I get discouraged. I guess most of you do too. The world seems to be literally going to hell in a handbasket – not much good is evident, and evil abounds. That’s when I have to remind myself that bad news sells, and good news - well, sometimes it’s on the sports page. But there’s another thing that we need to remember. Sometimes, somewhere, weeds are useful. What do we uproot that we should be caring for? Every day, there is news about the homeless, the addicts, the elderly who can’t care for themselves and are a drain on the pension system. The refugees, crossing borders illegally, the people dying at sea on crowded boats. Too often, they are regarded as weeds, taking up valuable real estate, invading our comfortable neighbourhoods, costing money that should be used for our benefit, because we worked hard to get where we are, and they don’t seem to have any evident use at all. So we tear town the tent cities in the parks, we build border walls, and increase the guards, we make laws that restrict who can come into the country. Who would be useful because of their occupation or training? Who would just cost us money with no foreseeable return? And where are we going to put all these people, and how will we feed them? What does God see? And how do we help God to reverse the direction of suspicion and hate that seems so prevalent? I think the Kingdom is all around us, hidden from sight because we are too concerned about the state of our pristine gardens, or the comfort of our present life. Each person, each soul, is useful to God. People are not disposable. The promises of God are right in front of us, but sometimes we walk right by and lose the opportunity to shine. You don’t have to reverse the world, just pick one small thing and do it well. At the end of these little parables, Jesus asks “Have you understood all of this?” and the people answer “Yes!”. I wonder what they did as they walked home. Did they talk about what Jesus had said? Did they go off to find a snack and a beer? Did they resolve to find ways to change? Did they hug their children and see a new world? Did they smell the flowers, offer prayers of thanksgiving for the rich soil and blossoming fields? Did they invite a stranger to dinner? Parables are disturbing little stories, all dressed up to look like tales of ordinary life. Of course, we understand them. But only from the limited view we have of the kingdom that sits waiting, in the shadows, for us to grow in faith, in grace, in love and understanding and acceptance. They invade our spirits like weeds, growing to impossible size, stretching our souls. They spread our faith beyond anything we could imagine, and the Kingdom becomes larger and clearer. David Lose says” “Be careful . People who have been infected by the Gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or in the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged and sharing their faith with the people around them….Hang in there! God’s new reality is closer than you think, already seeping into your life even though you can’t always feel it….The Kingdom is coming and before you know it will transform everything.” (David Lose Parables that do things posted in Dear Preacher July 21, 2014.) In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a popular contest, usually on the radio: People, mostly housewives, were invited to write, in twenty five words or less, a slogan to be used for various soap companies, with a small prize if they won. “Just complete the sentence: We use sudsy wudsy soap flakes because….” So, this week, write your own parable. In twenty five words or less OK, the parable of the mustard seed is forty eight words, so you have some leeway! “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” There is no monetary reward, but maybe your Spirit will be lifted and your eyes behold a new and exciting world. May it be so. Amen