Proper 12, A
Early one weekend morning, a man was trying to decide if he really wanted to wake up yet. He was gazing out his window and sipping that first cup of coffee when he was startled at the sound of the telephone. He answered the phone. It turned out to be his neighbor, a prim and proper sort of woman, calling in some distress. Please, she asked, can you come and help me?” Still shaking the sleep from his brain, the gentleman asked, “What’s wrong?” Still a bit kerfuffled, the sweet old neighbor replied, “Well, I have opened a new jigsaw puzzle, and I am looking at all these pieces. I cannot imagine how to begin putting the puzzle together. The neighbor asked, “What is the puzzle supposed to be?” “The picture on the box is a rooster.” Being a good neighbor the gentleman replied, “I’ll come over and see what I can do to help.” He went over to his neighbor’s house. He saw the box and all the pieces spread out on the table. He suggested, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Let’s just stop and take a deep breath. Let’s sit down at the table here and have a cup of hot tea. After we relax a moment, we will put all these cornflakes back in the box.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, like a merchant, like a net.
And the world of the parables is like a box of cornflakes.
We think it contains puzzles we should solve, neat pat answers that make a pretty, orderly picture when we’re done. Really it contains spiritual food that must be masticated and swallowed and digested and processed to become nourishment for our souls. St. Teresa of Avila said “One Word of God’s will contain within itself a thousand mysteries.” Sometimes we need to take in a cleansing breath, let out a sigh too deep for words and live the mystery.
Mustard seeds. They are small. Really quite small. Not quite the botanical champions of the miniscule that Jesus suggests, but you’d need tiny tweezers and good magnifying glass to be pick them back out of soil. Mustard shrubs on the other hand, can grow to 15 feet, making them giants in the shrub world. They do not begin to compare to the mighty cedars or oaks with which Jesus’s followers would have been quite familiar, but they nonetheless make pretty impressive strides from their diminutive beginnings.
Yeast. Added to flour and water, even a tiny portion will make the dough grow beyond the bounds of the bowl of the unaware baker. Steve Kelsey tells the story of his friend Judy. One day, Judy decided to bake bread. She took out the recipe and carefully gathered all the ingredients it called for. Unfortunately, as she carefully worked her way through the recipe, instead of adding one cake of yeast to the mix as required, she added one whole box of yeast. Allow the dough to double, said the recipe Judy’s dough doubled and quadrupled and sextupled. She added more flour, maybe to try to drown out that yeast?-and it kept growing and growing. She added more water, and it kept growing. “She tried cutting the mound of dough in half, pounding it, caressing it, covering it, pleading with it-and it kept growing and growing and growing. Finally, in desperation, Judy went out and buried the huge lump of dough in her front yard, came back inside, and sat down in the living room to watch TV. Within an hour, her father came bursting through the front door screaming: “THERE’S SOMETHING GROWING IN OUR FRONT YARD!!!” (Steve Kelsey, Sermons That Work)
Much has been made of the concept of great things from small beginnings with these parables, and rightfully so. These are some pretty impressive growth stories. Dominican writer and scholar Barbara Reid says, “Parables turn the world upside down by challenging presumptions, reversing expectations, and proposing a different view of life with God.” Impressive as the growth might be, growing from something small into something large hardly challenges our presumptions or reverses our expectations. Our kids or grandkids shock us with their rapid growth, but it is a shock we anticipate experiencing.
Let’s talk about mustard. To us it’s a condiment, lovely on corned beef and rye. To 1st century Palestine it a pernicious weed. No farmer planted that mustard on purpose. It fell among the good seeds. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who died in 79AD, had this to say about mustard, “Mustard grows entirely wild…When it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” It would have been the Palestinian equivalent of the South’s kudzu vines, taking over vast tracts of land, crowding out the established crops.
And yeast? For us an indispensable ingredient in our bread heavy diets. To observant Jews, to Jesus’s followers, it represented the essence of corruption, pollution. It was that from which the house must be purified before Holy Days.
The mustard seed, too small to be extracted from the ground, germinating almost instantly, becomes one, indivisible from the world into which it falls, attracting new life.
The yeast – Once that Divine Baker Woman mixes yeast with the the stuff of the dough, with the water and the flour, they become one. You cannot separate the yeast from the rest of the dough. They grow and change together, transformed by their own interaction.
In the 1980’s, when apartheid was still going strong, Bishop Desmond Tutu said “when the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’, and when we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal”.
“The kingdom of heaven, like the mustard seed, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and our boundaries and creates out of it all something new – ”the better of the deal.” Hidden within what we think we see so clearly, it is subversive and grows up in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed and redeemed by our surprising, invasive God.” Theodore J. Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word.
The Divine Baker Woman has unalterably blended the yeast of the kingdom into the life of the world until we are changing and growing, suffused and inalterably transfigured by its loving leaven. The kingdom of God is before us, behind us, around us, within us; – For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We can sit back and contemplate the puzzle, the mystery that is life in God, or we can greedily gobble down the divine cornflakes of life, absorbing the spiritual nutrients and celebrating the nourishment that transforms our souls and our lives. Bon appetit!