Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
The Parable of the Yeast
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
The Use of Parables
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’
Somewhere on the internet this week, I saw a video where two people are hiking next to a field full of tall yellow flowers. One of them says “Look at these beautiful flowers.” The other one immediately pipes in, saying “that’s actually super invasive.” I wish I could remember where I saw it so I could tell you who made the video. They are talking about shortpod mustard, a beautiful plant that grows bountifully in lots of places it's not supposed to be, including my yard.
Jesus was a good teacher. He knew that people can learn new ideas more easily if the new ideas are connected to something familiar. If you’re preaching to a bunch of farmers and people who cooked their own food, you might compare your new idea to some aspect of farming or baking that they are very familiar with. In her commentary on today’s text, Jennifer Kaalund says, “These literary devices are effective ways for giving color, life, and meaning to concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.” Jesus was also a challenging teacher. Just because he was teaching using images that were immediately familiar to the hearers, that doesn’t mean that his teaching will be easy or that the meaning will be immediately clear. Today’s reading, which includes parables about mustard plants and yeast or leaven, are two parables that are familiar but also complex.
Our yard and the field some random instagrammer was walking through are not the only places where mustard grows. In his commentary on the text, David Lose says that when we read “mustard” here, we shouldn’t think of yellow spread we put on hamburgers or the delicious greens we eat with porkchops. Instead, we should think of an invasive plant that will take over your whole garden. It takes up all the space and nutrients that the vegetables you want to grow to eat actually need. And, I’ve learned that it can outcompete native wildflowers, too, making it hard for them to have the space and nutrients they need to propagate. And, remember those birds that can nest in the mustard? Do we really want a lot of birds in our gardens? No. Most of us don’t. We construct all manner of scarecrows and clanging pie pan contraptions to keep them out.
In the translation we heard today, the next parable says that the Reign of God is like “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” In his commentary on this text, Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman clarifies that the “yeast” referenced here isn’t a nice and “tidy little packet” of yeast like we use. Jesus is actually talking about something called “leaven,” which is, and I quote, “a rotting, molding lump of bread.” Ew. Though, to be fair, that’s kind of how you got yeast at the time... you hoped to capture the yeast that was naturally in the air and on stuff like old bread or maybe pine needles. And, he argues that she’s not mixing it in the flour so much as hiding it. And three measures of flour is enough to make an amount of bread big enough to feed a hundred people. Hoffman also argues that leaven is often understood to be a pollutant, something that made food unfit to eat, and is regularly used as a metaphor for sin.
For those keeping score: It appears that Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is a weed that takes over your whole field and, also, like something moldy being hidden in your food. How do we feel about a vision of the empire of heaven as a place where that which is unwelcome and unclean has found a home? Because that kind of seems like what is happening here. This isn’t just a couple parables about big things starting from little things. The pests and pollutants in these parables are describing to us the presence of God being uniquely suited to spreading quickly and taking up residence in every nook and cranny of anywhere where there is space.
Through these stories, though, the pests and pollutants are redeemed. Weeds become shelter. Birds, instead of thieves, are evidence of life and abundance. The enormous pile of flour is actually given the ability to rise, and, when mixed with other ingredients and heat, to nourish many people. David Lose puts it this way: “Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every corner of our lives?” Mark Hoffman also invites us to consider these parables to be telling us that God’s reign will grow in unexpected and possibly scandalous ways. Hoffman argues, that especially for the early church that was trying to explain how Jesus could have been the Messiah and also murdered like a common criminal by Rome, it was vital to pass along this tradition of Jesus’ teaching that showed that Divinity and the unwanted and unwelcome could abide in the same space.
Jesus is clear that he has come to share was has been hidden. Like the woman with the leaven, he knows exactly what is in the flour. He also knows that parables, like yeast that takes time to grow or mustard that is spreading, root by root, seed by seed, are not a kind of teaching that is clear at first listen. Like the pine needle soda we mixed up before the sermon, it might need to sit for a little while to be ready. Like the bread that will rise and the seed that will grow, God’s reign of love and justice will make itself known. I pray that we will have eyes to see it as clearly as the yellow blooms lining our fields. (Though, if you have mustard growing in your yard, go ahead and pull it up... it’s not supposed to be here anyway).
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
I learned about pine needle soda from Alexis Nicole Nelson (@blackforager on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cl9ydeOjg-Y/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==) She also mentioned this recipe from Ms. She and Mr. He: https://msshiandmrhe.com/pine-needle-soda/
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/07/pentecost-7a-parables-that-do-things/
Invasive of the Week: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cs9OfFVtj97/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=983
Jennifer T. Kaalund: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17/commentary-on-matthew-1331-33-44-52-4
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.