"The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven" (Sermon for 13 June 2010)

Text: Matthew 13:31-34 

Here we are in our summer sermon series, looking at the Parables of Jesus. We’re going to hit the ones we could tell from memory and the ones we’re not sure we’ve ever heard before. We’re going to look at the big ones and, like this week, the small ones. 

To begin, we’ve been saying that stories are very important to us as human beings. They have a role in defining us, in teaching us, and shaping our future actions. They are what we share when we get together and what we blog about and put as our Facebook status updates. They’re what we can’t wait to get on the phone and share with our parents…or our children…or our friends. And, every day, if we pay attention, there are more stories to be told.

One of my favorite stories from the past ten years at Girdwood Chapel is the story of the move from our church from the property up near Jack Sprat’s restaurant down to our present location. It was in late May of 2003. The church had been put on the back of a flat-bed truck the day before and had been rachetted down. And then, on a beautiful evening, we had a crew walk behind the church to follow it to its new location, just about where the sanctuary is on our new construction. There were about 87 of us that day. And, in the back of my old Toyota pickup truck, we took rocks from the old location to raise up an "Ebenezer" (1 Samuel 7:7-12) at our new location…a stone monument to the continuing blessing of our God. That Ebenezer’s been moved a few times, but we hope to get it up once we’re done moving machinery around.

Lanice _____ and Sali ____ played guitar so we could sing and follow our building to the new site. Our Bishop, Ed Paup, and Superintendent, Rachel Lieder Simeon, were there as well to celebrate.

It was funny that, as the church made its way down Davos Avenue, it began to pick up speed and our leisurely walk became a jog. Bishop Paup would go on to thank us for allowing him to walk with us, but he had no idea he’d be winded when we got to the stopping place. While sharing pictures in many a presentation afterwards, I would say, “It’s amazing how fast a church can go when it’s going downhill!”

There was an innocence to that time, before the nuts and bolts of construction and work teams and permits and financial cost. But it was a start to a dream that has carried us through today.

And, it’s a good story.
And so, since stories are so integral to our learning and our being, it’s no wonder that Jesus used stories in his teaching. We call them parables. They are stories or illustrations that have a point to make. They are teaching moments that can then be used to teach us.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the Parable of the Sower. Last week we looked at the Rich Man and Lazarus. Today we move to the Kingdom of God with two very brief parables from Mathew: The Mustard Seed and the Leaven.

Let me read these again, this time from The New Living Translation (Matthew 13:31-34):
Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.

Now, the parable of the Mustard Seed occurs in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The parable of the Leaven appears just in Matthew and Luke. This is a different form a parable than we’ve looked at so far. There really is no story here. There is no plot. They are similitudes . They are analogies . They compare the mustard seed and the leaven to the present and future Kingdom of God. It’s a comparison.

In order to enter into this Mustard Seed parable we need to understand a little bit of the cultural reference. In our own culture, we know that HYPERBOLE IS THE BEST THING EVER. Hyperbole is a rhetorical device whereby we make a point through exaggeration. And so, if I want to say that the Bible is heavy, I might use hyperbole and say: “THIS BIBLE WEIGHS A TON!”  Or, if I’m trying to say that my three year old twins can’t can’t seem to focus on anything, I might say, “THEY HAVE THE ATTENTION SPAN OF A GNAT.” Hyperbole can be fun and entertaining:
  • I’ve been waiting for you FOREVER.
  • That kid is as strong AS AN OX.
  • That person has a brain the SIZE OF A PEA.
Now, none of these are literally true. No, you did not wait, “FOREVER.” No, you are not “STARVING” but are merely hungry. The kid may be strong, but we’re probably not in “OX” territory and it is unlikely that the person has a brain the size of a PEA. But they are fun and they are descriptive. We know what’s meant by them.

So, what does it mean that Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a Mustard Seed? Well, back in “the day” – the Jewish, Greco-Roman Day of Jesus – mustard seeds were known, proverbially, for their small size. They were small, about one millimeter in diameter. But the orchid and cypress had smaller seeds. And while Matthew mentions the size of the plant, it’s good to know that we’re talking about 10 feet tall here. Yes it could have birds in it. Yes it did grow quickly. But there were taller plants and trees around.

I think the key here is, there was a common knowledge about the mustard seed..., “IT GROWS PRETTY TALL FROM A VERY SMALL SEED.”

Throughout history, this parable has taken on some different meanings. Some have viewed it in light of the whole church…which started small in a little corner of Palestine and then would spread and triumph over all other religions. But, I’m not sure that’s what Jesus would have had in mind as he’s preaching away.

It seems that, more appropriately, we really need to focus on what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God here. It begins small…insignificant…easy to miss if you’re not looking at it, but will come to fruition through the person and work of Jesus. 

Says Kline Snograss in Stories with Intent – the “big” book on parables I purchased to help me through this summer:

Whatever else is debated, this parable pictures the presence of the kingdom in Jesus’ own ministry, even if others do not recognize it, and Jesus’ expectation of the certain full revelation of the kingdom to come. (Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 222)
We need to realize that the Hebrews were expecting the Kingdom of Heaven to come in with power and might.   The "Messiah" they were waiting for was going to be mighty, and awesome, and scary.  When the Messiah comes into the world as Jesus Christ, we talk about how funny it is that it’s not in a palace but a stable with dirty animals around. The people he traveled with were stunned that he hung out with tax collectors and sinners and reached out to the poor and oppressed…like a commoner.  At Girdwood Chapel, over the years, as we’ve talked  of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem we talk about the irony of it happening on the back of donkey. We believe the Son of God came to earth and died on a cross beside criminals.

This didn't make sense to those who were expecting a very different kind of Messiah.  It is, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-19, foolishness.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
As Christians we believe that the Kingdom of Heaven was present in the person of a poor carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth.  That brings us to that Greek word, AUTOBASILEIA, “KINGDOM IN PERSON” that we occasionally mention here.   And even though, in the grand scheme of things in his day and age, he seemed to be utterly insignificant, with each leper healed, each sin forgiven, each parable spoken, each person transformed from wayward wanderer to faithful follower, those around him experienced the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

It is, in fact, like that mustard seed. It starts out small. You know, it’s so small that you might miss it.  People around Jesus did.  But it grows and grows. And we know that we’ll see it reach its full growth when the Kingdom of Heaven is eternally realized in our midst.

As Jesus said in that verse from Luke 17:21 which was read earlier, after the ten lepers are healed… “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Or, as Jesus says in the beginning of Mark’s account, after his time in the wilderness, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14) 

This Mustard Seed Parable was a word to his listeners. “If you pay attention here, you will come to realize that these works, these words, in fact this person among you…is a sign that the Kingdom of Heaven is here, right under your noses.”  As Peterson says in his The Message translation in John 1:14:
The Word became flesh and blood,
      and moved into the neighborhood.
   We saw the glory with our own eyes,
      the one-of-a-kind glory,
      like Father, like Son,
   Generous inside and out,
      true from start to finish.
And it’s not just for the original hearers.  It's a word to us as well. If we pay attention here, we will come to realize that, every person healed…every act of love done in the name of Jesus…every divine inspiration or teaching…every act of community and communion…is a sign that the Kingdom of God is here...that God has "moved into the neighborhood."

Every cookie handed out, every box of organic vegetables picked up, every kid who learns something at Vacation Bible School, every hymn sung with praise to God…is a sign that the Kingdom of Heaven is here. It changes how we look at the work of God in the world and changes how we look at the seemingly insignificant acts we do as we try to live faithfully in this world in this present age. We are Kingdom kids. And we’re about Kingdom work. All in the name of the King. And it grows into the tallest of all shrubs!

Now the Parable of the Leaven goes hand in hand with the Parable of the Mustard Seed. And whereas the Mustard Seed emphasizes the seeming insignificance of the Kingdom that has come in Jesus, the Leaven gets at the what’s in store. Once the Leaven is in the dough, it’s going to multiply and it’s going to grow and it will not be stopped.   That little work done by Jesus to the woman at the well, to the ten lepers who were healed, to the woman accused of adultery...what he did with the Scribes and Pharisees, with his Disciples...when he was in the Temple, on the Mount, in the Garden, on the Cross…that work is gonna’ grow.  What happened in a small Middle Eastern country 2000 years ago would have bearing on the entire universe.

God is in the business of leavning – magnifying – lifting up – multiplying – that which seems unimportant. 

Friends, we sit here in Girdwood, Alaska. We have kids playing baseball or soccer. We’re going to plant some flowers with folks from Sustainable Girdwood this afternoon and try to get up some netting to keep our community garden free of moose. We have work teams coming next week to help us get into our building...the one we moved for 7 years ago.  We have folks driving a dangerous highway every day to get to work and back home. We have tourists showing up for a night at our hotel. We have coffee shops where community happens. We have people who care about each other mixed in with people we hardly know. We have mountains and streams and bike rides and people still skiing in the snow. Fishing season’s starting up. We’re in the midst of another fund drive for the building fund…we’re used to them.  It's a beautiful place.  We love it.  It is our "ordinary."

And, in this "ordinary," every little act we can do which springs from the spirit of God, is going to grow…somehow. It’s our way of participating in the inbreaking of the great kingdom of God.  How will God bring in his kingdom through you today? It’s never insignificant when you participate in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Picture of mustard seed from Flickr user, zoyachubby.