Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 13:18-21 The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
The Parable of the Yeast
And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
There is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel by Mary Doria Russell called The Sparrow. It is a book about humanity and science and religious faith and, also, aliens. If you aren’t inclined to enjoy books about sentient, singing aliens or people building a spaceship out of an asteroid, I would encourage you to read it for what it says about humanity, and, particularly, how it talks about intuition. When I think about intuition, as I have learned what it means, people usually use it in a context that makes it sound almost like a magical gift. If you have good intuition, your brain or heart or stomach has a keen ability to sense the truth about something. And, it often seems to me that intuition is something you either have or not. At least it did before I read The Sparrow.
In the book, there is an astronomer named Jimmy. One of his jobs is to pay attention to signals a large satellite in Puerto Rico picked up. He is one of the people who decides if a signal is from something in space or from something on earth. There is another character in the book, Sofia Mendes, who has been hired by a company to see if she can write a computer program that can do what Jimmy does. Think of it like someone figuring out how to mechanize weaving, so that a machine does most of the work instead of a person... except, in this case, the work is astronomy and analyzing sound waves. Most of the time, the signals Jimmy is interpreting are easily recognized to be from earth. Any astronomer, with enough experience with the equipment, could figure it out. But, then this one signal came in and it was different.
Since I’ve already told you that there are aliens, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by tell you that Jimmy figured out that this signal was from a sentient life-form on another planet. More importantly, Jimmy figured out that it was a song sent all the way here, across four lightyears, from a solar system called Alpha Centauri. As Jimmy explained how he figured out that it was an actual transmission from other beings and specifically music, Sofia began to realize that what led Jimmy to this correct revelation wasn’t simply his training in astronomy.
When explaining himself, he said “The signal just looked like music to me.” Jimmy’s academic training plus his experience with the quirks of his scientific equipment plus musical training he’d had as a kid plus some work he done as a high schooler on old musical recordings combined with an experience of hearing two other characters sing together the night before to give him this epiphany. Sofia asked if another astronomer could have come to the same conclusion. He said, maybe? What he did wasn’t magic. Somebody else might have figured it out eventually. But, he also admitted that if someone else realized it was music, they might think it was from earth and not keep working on it long enough to realize that it wasn’t. That moment confirmed for Sofia that she couldn’t create a program that would have made this discovery. This discovery was possible because of Jimmy’s intuition. And, she couldn’t program intuition.
In The Sparrow, intuition is a skill, not a gift. Jimmy has intuition because he has learned how to connect all the pieces of his training and his life experience into knowledge that he knows is sound enough to trust. And at this vital moment, each little part of who he is... a pianist, a scientist, a man who is falling for a woman with a lovely voice... combined into this little voice in his brain that said “this transmission is a song.” His world, maybe the whole world, would never be the same after that. Sofia, for all her competence and hard work, could not download all of the pieces of his life into a computer. She could not repeat digitally what his mind had done organically. His intuition was honed and tended to in a way that computers can’t reproduce.
I remembered this story about Jimmy’s intuition as I read today’s scripture from Luke and this description of the kindom of God as being like a tiny mustard seed and the even smaller yeast that causes dough to rise. You never know what the small thing, be it the weird high school job or the moments of shared song, will give rise to in your life. The portion of Luke that today’s reading is taken from is from the part of the story leading up Jesus entering into Jerusalem. Dr. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on this text, says that these stories from the time on the way to the city are experiences meant to prepare the disciples, and we, the readers, for what will happen in Jerusalem and what will happen at the tomb. Every little bit of this story, every experience, no matter how small, will become part of the intuition that allows the disciples, and us, to interpret Jesus’ trial, death, and, eventually, the resurrection.
Dr. Craddock describes the parables this way: “Both (the planter and the baker) perform small acts that have expansive consequences.” Planting and baking are skills, honed over time and experience. Not every seed planted grows and not every bread mixed rises. But, the more you train... the more you practice... the more you observe... the more likely you are to trust yourself to take the right action, at the right moment, to help something grow. Craddock thinks this is how Jesus was training his followers to take heart that, even in terrible days that were ahead, “God was still at work.” And, that they were working with the Holy Spirit in ways that they might not even see, in acts so small they might miss them, but nevertheless, whose impact will ripple out and affect life and creation far beyond their present time and place.
Think about the things that are mustard seeds and yeast in your own life... the experiences that have grown into the life of faith that you are cultivating at this moment. Remember them and take heart. In times of confusion and fear, all these little parts of you, can come together with the Holy Spirt and guide you to great insight and right action. You might not discover aliens but you might be surprised by some other kind of new life growing forth in your midst. You are the only one who can take what you carry inside of you and use it for good. As Rev. Jayne Davis says, “And the world needs to see how God is reflected through you, the real you.” What is the kindom of God like? The very littlest bit being put to good use.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Lent V," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Mary Doria Rusell, The Sparrow (New York: Ballentine Books, 1996)
Images used: Mustard seed image: Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash; Mustard plant: Photo by ross tek on Unsplash; Dry yeast: Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash; Dough: Photo by Claudia Stucki on Unsplash.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.