Texts: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a rock star biologist, but if there is then E.O. Wilson is one. Wilson is retired now. He’s hook-nosed and in his 90s. But he remains one of the world’s leading experts on ants. Wilson spent his career teaching biology at Harvard, doing field research, writing books, and winning a slew of awards. E.O. (or Ed) Wilson is a fierce advocate for protecting and mapping the full diversity of life on earth.
When many of us look at the ground we see a flat, uninteresting surface. When E.O Wilson looks at the ground he sees a three-dimensional, little known habit for living creatures. For him, soil is a virtual jungle where ants and millipedes are giants. He likes to tell people that in a single gram of soil there are more than 10 billion living organisms, most of them are bacteria. Many of them are species that haven’t even been named yet. Wilson tells anyone who will listen that a biologist exploring microbiology, the study of very small life forms, is like an explorer venturing out into the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat. For instance, we know of 60,000 different species of fungi, but it’s likely that more than 1.5 million species of fungi exist.
I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating. There is so much we don’t know about our world. Especially when it comes to microorganisms. That might not seem like a big deal, except that there is much more fungi and bacteria on the earth (by mass) than there is animal life (roughly 5X more).
This might seem like more of a warmup to a biology talk than a sermon, but think about the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel. We were listening in on Jesus’ teaching and we heard him compare the kingdom of heaven to a few different things.
Jesus was a populist, and he insisted on communicating to people in terms that just about everyone could understand. He used metaphors from everyday life to explain serious concepts. Sometimes he would extend these metaphors into stories, which we call parables.
In the passage we read today, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, yeast, treasure buried in a field, a rare pearl, and a fisherman’s catch. He uses all these metaphors to explain a different aspect of the kingdom of heaven.
Now, remember, the “kingdom of heaven” was the way Jesus spoke about God making things right. For the people Jesus spoke to and ate with, the “kingdom of heaven” meant justice that was complete and fair. It meant an end to arbitrary and selfish rule by whomever was strongest. The “kingdom of heaven” referred to the opening up of things so that everyone could flourish. And it meant that they would have the freedom to worship God according to the fullness of their understanding.
Think about your own hopes. Think about the things in the world that just don’t seem right. Think about those things that are unfair. Think about the way that evil seems to prosper.
Making allowances for the fact that our sense of goodness can sometimes be a bit self-serving, we all know that somewhere out there is a horizon we sense more than see. That horizon is God’s intent for each of us and our neighbours to flourish. It’s the place where the potential of our children is realized. It’s the place where our vulnerability is met with care. It’s the place where trust is met with truth. We’re sensing the kingdom of heaven—a reality where God’s truth and love is the rule of the game.
Jesus says that seeking that horizon is worth it. It’s worth it like an investment of pennies for dollars, a field for a treasure, an oyster for pearl. The kingdom is not a hobby, but an all-encompassing obsession.
But how will this come about? It may well be that out frustration with the little war lords of the world is keen enough that we have to problem seeking and praying for something else. But how will it come about?
This is where the metaphor of “kingdom” basically undoes itself. Kingdoms come into being through power and borders and threats and taxes and unearned privilege. Jesus turns the metaphor of “kingdom” inside out by saying God’s will for the world comes into being like the growth of a small seed or bubbling of yeast.
Here is where that old biologist comes into play. Yeast is a fungus. Or more accurately, if we’re talking about the wild yeast that leavens bread, yeast is a collection of fungi and bacteria. Yeast is probably the oldest form of life that humans harnessed. It blows in the wind, clings to our hands, sits on stones, and collects in clay vessels. We can’t see yeast with our naked eyes.
The people of the first century wouldn’t have known much about yeast. They wouldn’t have known the difference between a fungus and a bacterium. But what they did know was that there was some little something that gave their bread lightness and air. They knew it didn’t take much.
So the “kingdom of heaven” doesn’t come into being the way a kingdom usually does. Jesus says it comes into being the way a woman might add a bit of leaven to a mixture of crushed wheat, water and oil. The kingdom didn’t come into being through tactics, negotiation or intimidation. It came into being through smallness and mystery.
Here is where I think Jesus’ metaphor is so very reassuring. Yeast is smaller than the eye can see, but it isn’t rare. It’s all over the place. Nobody in the ancient world needed to order yeast online or buy it at the local market. It wasn’t something that only rich people could afford. It wasn’t something that only the healthy could access. Yeast was not scarce. It was everywhere.
That’s what I want us to take with us this week. The goodness that God intends for the world isn’t scarce. It doesn’t have to be dispensed from some central location. It can’t be killed off.
When we are discouraged by the state of the world—even by the state of our little corner of it—we can be encouraged by the knowledge that God’s leaven is there. It’s under our feet and blowing through air. There’s more of it, much more of it, than we might think.