Mustard, Yeast, and the Foundation of the World

November 2, 2014                                                                    Matthew 13:31-35

One of the things you get well acquainted with as soon as you start preaching from the parables of Jesus, is that everyone who knows anything about scripture, theology, church, Christianity…pretty much anything you read related to one of these parables, they’re all quick to say something like “The word “Parable” is really just another way to say “story””.

I’ve said it myself, probably pretty often, I remember Shirley Showalter made a similar statement last week when she was here…and it’s not an inaccurate statement.

In a sense, a parable is a story.

That’s true.

So when was the last time you told your children a bedtime parable?

Or when was the last time you were out with your friends, having a good time, and suddenly someone burst out “you guys, wait till I tell you this parable about what happened to me today!”

If you were to do that, you’d probably get some strange looks.

All Parables are stories…but not all stories are parables.

That’s why we do have two different words…even though they mean something similar, there is a difference between them.

The difference I see between the two is this:

Stories are meant to entertain us, or to relay some information, or build relationships, or build a sense of identity…there are a hundred reasons we tell stories, and there are a hundred reasons that we all love hearing a good story.

As Shirley talked about last week, the stories we tell connect us to our past, they root us in a tradition, and they can allow us to own memories, such as her father’s passing away, that we weren’t able to experience first hand.

Stories can help us build a sense of identity and purpose.

Stories can help us escape…If you’ve ever sat down and watched a show or a movie you really like at the end of a long day…you’re ‘escaping’ for a time, into a different world, right?

Stories are powerful things.

They’re like nourishment for us.

They’re like food for the mind and the soul.

You could say a story is like applesauce. 🙂 It goes pretty good with just about anything else that’s on your plate. 🙂

Parables, on the other hand, they’re more than stories.

I can remember when I was little, sometimes I would get sick, and sometimes my mom would slip a pill into some applesauce and get me to eat it.

Depending on what the pill was, and depending on my condition, she would either grind it up and put it in to mask the flavor, or she’d just keep it whole, and the applesauce would just make it easier for me to swallow.

(I hated swallowing pills as a kid).

I knew the pill was there, in one form or another…but the applesauce helped me swallow the medicine that I might otherwise spit out.

Once I had it down, the medicine would begin to work on me. The applesauce was the vehicle, not the cure.

These parables are like that applesauce mixture.

They pack more of a punch than traditional stories, and the way they do it, is that the full impact of them won’t be felt until after you swallow the whole dose.

By that point, it’s too late. You can’t unlearn or unhear the point Jesus makes.

So this morning, we’re looking at two parables.

In the first, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed.

Not just any mustard seed.

It’s like a particular kind of mustard seed.

A mustard seed that someone chooses to take, and plant in their field.

This isn’t the case with all mustard seeds, because the nature of the plant, apparently, is to take over.

Once Mustard was planted in the first century, it was pretty hard to get rid of. So for the most part, they would let it grow wild.

I think of dandelions…once they reach a certain point, you can’t really contain them, right? every puff of wind carries the seeds to a new location, and if you try to dig them out at that point, your own movement just plants more dandelion seeds.

I say all that just to say that Mustard had a mixed reputation in the first century.

It was a productive plant…there were a lot of uses for mustard in their culture, from flavoring food to dying fabric…but it wasn’t always welcome.

It was fast growing, and because of the nature of the seeds being as small as they are…they would fall to the ground, and they would start to grow, according to Pliny the Elder, almost as soon as they hit the soil.

So, it grew mostly in the wild.

Not many people would plant it as a crop, because it grew so readily elsewhere.

But, in this particular parable, it’s been intentionally planted by the landowner, not unlike the wheat we heard about last week.

The guy chooses to grow some mustard, just as we must choose the Kingdom in order to enjoy the fullness of it.

The Kingdom of Heaven, just like the field of mustard, will not be chosen by all…some will welcome the Kingdom, others will resent it, but noone will be able to stop its growth.

Likewise, in the next parable Jesus tells, he compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast.

And this is where it gets really interesting. (at least for me).

It gets interesting, because Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, establishing the Messianic Age, which was his mission, and one reason he had such a following…he was talking about this manly mission…this warrior type mentality…and he goes on to compare the kingdom he came to establish, to yeast…which at the time was a kind of impurity.

In another sermon a long time ago, I talked about the method of “catching” the yeast that they would have used…do you remember that?

They wouldn’t have had yeast like we do…yeast you buy in the store and add a tablespoon to make a couple loaves of bread.

The yeast they would have known was pretty much old, leftover, fermenting dough.

And we all know fermentation is basically the process of rotting.

Yeast itself was (and is) an unclean thing.

It’s a bacteria (correction; it’s actually a fungus) 🙂

So comparing the magnificent, pure Kingdom of Heaven with a piece of old, rotting dough…that’s got some shock value in itself.

But he goes on to describe the very womanly work of making bread.

The kingdom is like yeast that a woman takes and mixes into three measures of flour.

What’s that…three measures?

Three cups?

Three pints?

We think we get it…it’s like a woman who wants to feed her family, so she makes yeasted bread, and the yeast grows and does its thing and her family can enjoy a nice home-cooked meal, and that’s what the kingdom is like.

Right?

Three measures…or, if we would take the measurements they used back then and translate them into our own understanding, we’re talking a little over a bushel of flour.

Now, this is something I’m not sure you can fully appreciate unless you’ve ever mixed bread dough by hand.

A bushel of flour is a lot of flour.

The commentary I was using estimated it to be something like 144 cups of flour.

That’s enough flour, according to him, to make over 50 1 and a half pound loaves of bread, which aren’t small loaves.

This woman doesn’t just want to feed her family, if indeed she had a family to feed.

Rather, she wants to feed the village.

And she was going to do this without a Kitchen Aid Mixer.

She’s ambitious, to say the least.

And she wants to provide bread far beyond the scope of her immediate realm of influence.

Just like the birds will enjoy the fertile nesting ground provided by the mustard, so the village will enjoy the fruits of this woman’s labor.

That’s like the Kingdom of Heaven. Its benefits stretch far beyond what’s to be expected, and it’s ushered in in unexpected, sometimes even unwelcome ways.

Who would have thought that the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Heaven would undergo crucifixion as his inauguration?

Who would have planned to wrap the saving power of God within the folds of impoverished infant flesh?

Who works in these hidden, mysterious ways?

Only a God who sees the potential for growth, shelter, and goodness even in a mustard seed. Only a God who honors the hard work and determination of a woman who seeks to feed the village by the sweat of her brow.

Jesus comes to proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. That is, there are no secrets before God Almighty, who takes the long view of history, who sees eternity at once, you know?

With God, the mustard seed is as the mustard plant.

The yeast is as the bread it leavens.

So when it comes to the realm of free will and human choice, our choices and actions today, they have eternal consequences!

The full kernel of what we do, what we say, how we interact…the full plants contained within our choices…they aren’t visible to the human eye because we’re confined to the present moment.

We can hope to plan for the future, but as we all know, there are no guarantees that life will go according to our plans.

God sees the potential wrapped up in the seeds we sow, so to speak.

So what is hidden from us, from the foundation of the world, God sees.

And the Kingdom of Heaven…we see it in part, God sees it in full.

There are no secrets with God.

There is only fullness.

We can hide from each other.

We can even hide from ourselves.

But Jesus isn’t interested in playing hide and seek.

He knows exactly where we are, where we’re heading, and he beckons us to follow him anyways.

The choice is ours…whether we want to plant this invasive seed in our lives or not.

The choice is ours…whether we will roll up our sleeves to help mix some dough, or stand outside and ridicule the woman for attempting such an ambitious dream.

What’s it going to be?

Kingdom building is a daily, tending process.

It requires humility, patience, and plenty of grace.

But the harvest is huge…fruits of the spirit galore.

Would you pray with me as I close?

God who’s kingdom we seek, forgive us for the seeds of malice, arrogance, and pride that we so generously scatter.

Help us to cling to the promise; the fullness of life that you have given all who seek you, know you, and love you. Bear fruit through us, God, you Patient Gardener, you Ambitious Baker.

And then may we be willing to be broken to feed your world the good news of your great love.

Amen.

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