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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
With this passage, we are in the middle of a chapter in the gospel of Matthew that is
filled with parables. Jesus often told these parables to explain the inexplicable– using things
and scenes from everyday life to make comparisons to what he was teaching about. All these
parables are about the Dominion of Heaven, or The Kingdom of God. And they use images that
were familiar to those listening, and are familiar to us as well.
For example – we probably have all had some experience of sowing seeds, and having
something grow. What comes to my mind when I hear the parable about the mustard seed is
remembering when I was growing up, how my parents used to love gardening. My father built a
cinder block enclosure near to the garden, so we could compost all our vegetable scraps, to help
nourish the soil for the next summer. We would sometimes get unexpected crops growing right
on top of the compost – especially when seeds were mixed in with the vegetable scraps. So we
would have tomatoes growing in our garden, where we expected them, but also beautiful tomato
plants growing on our compost heap!
We all probably have an image that comes to mind when we think of a baker mixing
yeast into flour and making bread. What I think of is that when my two daughters were young, I
used to baby-sit for two girls one day a week. They would be at our house for dinner, and once
we made homemade pizza together. They all loved it, and it soon became a tradition that they
wanted every time they came. We would make the dough, and then carefully cover it and put
it in a warm place to rise. They were fascinated with its’ growing in size, and loved punching
down the dough, and then seeing it rise up again. And the pizza tasted especially good to them,
probably because of all their involvement in the making of it.
I don’t have a lot of experience with the things in the other parables, with buying fields
of treasure, casting nets for fishing, or purchasing pearls. I do, however, love knowing how
pearls are made. They’re formed inside oyster shells, in the soft inner lining. It happens when
a foreign substance, like a piece of sand, slips into the shell, and irritates that inner layer. The
oyster produces a substance called nacre to coat that irritant, and it keeps forming around it
until it eventually forms the pearl. I think it’s pretty amazing that something we consider as
valuable and beautiful as a pearl is actually made because the oyster needed to protect itself from
In all these parables, Jesus says “This is what the Dominion of Heaven is like.” What
did that mean for his followers, and what might that mean for us? One thing it means is that
we need to be looking for glimpses of the Dominion of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, as it’s
sometimes translated, in the little things. I would imagine that in your own lives, you have seen
glimpses of this Dominion, of God’s love in action. Think back on your week – where did you
see these little glimpses? Maybe you saw a struggling person being helped, a sorrowful person
being consoled, a marginalized person being treated respectfully. And you have probably also
offered these glimpses to others with what you’ve said or done. Part of this parable is not only
giving us a picture of the Dominion of Heaven, but it is also calling us to participate in bringing
it about. In thinking about the mustard seed, or as I think about those tomato seeds, the parable
tells me that when we sow seeds of God’s love and mercy into this world, we might find fruits
of it growing in unexpected places. When we think about the leaven that the bakerwoman put in
the dough, we are reminded that when we work the yeast of compassion and forgiveness into the
mixture of our lives, of our world, we raise people up. The story of the pearl says that when we
cause irritation with our calling for justice and generosity, for acceptance and mercy, we might
just be creating something beautiful for the Dominion of Heaven here on earth.
The seed, the yeast particle, the grain of sand that becomes the pearl, they are all tiny and
hidden when they do their work. This suggests that we may need to look in hidden places for the
realm of God in our world. We may have to look hard to discover glimpses of it. I tried a little
the other day, by looking through the newspaper. Buried among stories of violence, death, and
corruption, here are some of the titles and stories I found that might point to the Kingdom of God
being in our midst: One was: “Triathlon pair’s winning friendship” – the story about a girl named
Rachel who is making a way for her best friend Ethan, who has cerebral palsy and autism, to
compete in an area triathlon. Another story was called “A big hand for hope” – about hundreds
of bicyclists making a four day 328 mile journey through Ohio to raise money for the American
Cancer Society. And then there was a story about Brandon Chrostowski, an offender who had
been in jail, but was given a chance by a merciful judge to train and work with a local chef
instead of going back to jail. Brandon has founded a culinary re-entry institute for those leaving
prison to re-enter society through culinary arts by working in his restaurant, Edwins.1
These are not the big headline stories, but they are stories that offer glimpses of hope,
seeds and yeast and precious pearls of the dominion of God being strewn in our world. We can
look at these stories as beautiful images of the way the reign of God works. The smallest seeds
of kindness, tiniest grains of love that we sow can have a huge effect. They can help create a
world where people, like those birds nesting in the mustard shrub, are sheltered and welcomed.
After telling these parables, Jesus asked his followers "Have you understood all this?"
and they answered, "Yes." And we too would be inclined to answer this question in the same
way. Sure – we get it! But actually, it’s not that simple with parables - they are never that
straight forward. They are meant to surprise us, to puzzle us, to make us think more deeply. So
what else could these images be telling us about God and the Kingdom?
First of all, Jesus could have used the image of seeds growing without referring to
mustard shrubs. Why didn’t he use the image of the majestic Cedars of Lebanon that people
would have recognized from their scriptures, or even use the image of, say, wheat, which was
a much needed and desirable plant. Instead, he talked about a mustard seed, which no one who
knew anything about farming would sow into their fields, because it was an undesirable weed.
And the yeast parable presents some challenges in understanding as well. The baker
woman of Jesus’ time did not go to the store to buy the convenient date-stamped Red Star yeast
package that we have today. When she made bread, if she wanted to leaven it, she had to use
an old piece of bread dough that had been placed in a warm, dark, moist spot and had grown
mold on it. This is what was then mixed into the new dough to make it rise. And for the Jews,
it was actually unleavened bread that was considered holy. When they purified their household,
they had to take out anything leavened and discard it. Leaven, or yeast, was actually seen as a
corrupting agent, as something rotten that would spoil everything, not as something good that
could raise things up. So now what do these images of a wild weed – the mustard seed - and
a corrupting agent – the yeast - have to say about the Kingdom of Heaven? Why are these
parables in the gospel of Matthew?
This gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, for a church
in transition. The community was undergoing a transformation from a predominantly Jewish-
Christian church to an increasingly Gentile church. This led to tensions among the people in
the community, requiring Jewish-Christians to re-evaluate their beliefs, to be more flexible with
their laws, to be more inclusive with the Gentiles and their customs. These parables challenged
the early church community, and they also challenge us today. Jesus calls his followers to
see a valuable crop in what others might call weeds, to see potential for growth concealed in
those whom others would call corrupt. When Jesus dined and associated with tax collectors,
prostitutes, and other outcasts, he showed that those rejected by society were worthy of his
companionship, his forgiveness, and his healing love.
When Jesus talks about the mustard seed growing into a bush where all kinds of birds
make their nests, this might sound beautiful and idyllic. When we talk about being a church
welcoming all kinds of people to come and join, to make their nests, as it were, this sounds great
too. But what happens when we really call for a world where are all welcome, where all have a
place they can nest, they can call their home? What happens when all who nest on this earth are
called to live in harmony? The reality, unfortunately, is not so idyllic.
Writer Nancy Rockwell has a blog called “bite in the apple.” In her post about this
parable, she writes about how it calls us to include and love the littlest, and the most vulnerable.
She writes “Three boys in Israel were killed, just for spite, a few weeks ago. . . . and then four
Palestinian little boys were bombed on a beach, in an Israeli military operation. Collateral
damage is the military term for this. It will be years before we know what all this has really cost
the Gaza, and the nations of the world.
And here on our own border, some 57,000 children have arrived without parents or
passports or permission to enter. The furor crescendos. They are seen as an economic threat
by many, as the enemy by some, as a humanitarian crisis by some. . . .All around the earth,
migration is streaming people and cultures together, bringing the southern hemisphere into the
north, . . . The hand of God is in this. And not a single story or teaching of Jesus, about the
kingdom or God’s love, comes to my mind that would let us say Go Away.”2
These parables that Jesus tells encourage us, and also challenge us. They call us to sow
small seeds of love, of peace and justice wherever we can, even when we feel overwhelmed by
the enormity of hate, war and injustice in our world. The harvest of our sowing may remain
hidden from us, but God will grow the seeds we sow, and use them to transform the world.
May we take heart and hope in these parables. And we ask that God may hear our
prayers, and our songs, that they might also plant seeds of hope and grow peace in our world in
God’s time. May what we do, and say, and sing change our hearts, so that we might change the
hearts of others, and of the world, one small piece at a time. Amen.
(Amanda Powell to play and sing Yarraba Salaami / Lo Yia Goy – A Palestinian and then
an Israeli song of peace)
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Friday, July 25 edition