July 30, 2017

Pentecost 8   July 30, 2017 (Psalms 126, 78:1-8, 67) Matthew 13:31-35

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Rohi and I have gotten into baking bread and dinner rolls together over the past year… Like the woman in the parable, we mix a good amount of flour, together with just a little yeast dissolved in warm water – adding a touch of salt and sugar – stirring in more water…till the dough becomes a large, sticky, gooey mass, which we knead and fold – messily, hands covered with sticky dough – knead and fold some more…repeating til it feels right, and we set it aside in a large bowl…and wait…

Later, when the dough is fully risen, we shape the rolls, putting them together, eight-to-a-pie-pan, as the bread goes into bread pans…. and…

We really enjoy mixing the ingredients, and kneading dough, and setting it all in the bowl, covered, and placed on a radiator to rise… That’s really all there is for us to do…As the yeast takes over, and does all the real work…

The only hard part for us is waiting, now, for dough to rise…Which takes, usually nearly two hours – which can seem like a really long time, when we’re hungry…Which we’re sure to be, knowing how good the bread will taste… But we also know…the waiting will be worth it…

And we get, I think, what Jesus is saying – about – just a little yeast is enough to turn a few pounds of flour into a much larger batch of dough that rises and rises…And… This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Except, in the parable, the woman mixes her heavenly leaven into a whole lot more flour than Rohi and I have ever used. The three measures of flour this woman uses could be as much as a bushel – 80 to 100 pounds of flour – enough to feed a small village…

This parable’s expansive language suggests mystery and great possibilities. Properly – for we are talking here, after all, about the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom Jesus tells us to seek first – and to pray for until it comes in all it’s fullness, on not just a little part, but all-the- earth-as-it-is-in-heaven…

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Today we’re hearing a pair of closely-related parables from Jesus. Over the past two weeks we’ve heard two longer parables, each involving seeds. This week we have yet another seed parable, but this week in honor of another Jesus saying, we’re letting the last be first. Leaven before mustard seed.

And today’s two parables go together like peas in a pod…And I’ve actually got a little experience also with mustard greens, which I’ve grown in more than one location. I know mustard is one of the easiest crops to grow, and one of the hardiest of vegetables. I’ve harvested it well into November in Vermont and far northern upstate New York. It tastes good; it’s high in vitamin C. And did I remember to say – it’s easy to grow? Put it in the ground and watch it grow.

And yes, mustard seed is proverbially small. Elsewhere, Jesus scolds those who ask for more faith, saying “if you just had faith as large as a mustard seed you could command mountains to jump in the sea and they’d obey.”

Like the small batch of yeast (actually leaven, as yeast wasn’t invented yet) – leaven that makes a huge loaf to rise – now Jesus is speaking also about tiny mustard seeds that grow into large shrubs, big enough for birds to nest in them. There’s different types of mustard plant, some much taller than others. The tallest Mid-Eastern varieties can grow to be nine or ten feet tall. Very large shrubs. And as so often happens, Jesus has a secondary parable going here, too.

In the biblical books of Daniel and Ezekiel tall trees with birds nesting in them symbolize powerful worldly empires and their client states: Babylon, which conquered and exiled Israel is a tall tree in Daniel; while in Ezekiel, a tall tree symbolizes both Egypt, where Israel was in slavery, and also Assyria, which later conquered Israel. In both cases, birds nesting in branches symbolize smaller foreign nations which seek shelter in the branches of a mighty empire.

In biblical narrative, we remember, the high and mighty will always be humbled, while the humble will be lifted up. Indeed Babylon’s mighty empire came crashing down like a tall tree. In Daniel the story is told in dream and parable, as King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon dreams of a tall tree full of birds and animals, and Daniel interprets the dream as about the king, who then, as if on cue, goes out of his mind and ends up eating grass on his knees, like an animal… In Ezekiel (31) the empires of Egypt and Assyria are compared with a very tall cedar, which also crashes down to earth. Kingdoms of this world will never last, is the back-story-message Jesus calls to mind here…in his parable. As he tells us…

The kingdom of heaven, by contrast, is like a humble plant, held in low regard by the world. Yet it grows unstoppably, providing shelter and shade for birds and animals, nourishment for people, flourishing without end. Small is beautiful. The small and humble endure while the mighty and powerful crash and burn, fade and tumble… And the parable still works with only minimal translation.

Mustard is still widely cultivated. One variety is grown for the seed crushed to make the mustard we put on hot dogs and etc; another variety grows into cooking greens such as I’ve grown; yet another variety’s pressed into cooking oil. All types of mustard are useful – yet many regard it as a weed-like-pest– since mustard has a well-deserved reputation for being able to take over a whole field.

And Jesus seems to enjoy straddling the symbolism, and mixing the metaphors, positive and negative. It’s a good plant, it’s a problem plant. Either way we view it – the mustard seed of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, will take over all the field of this world…

And leaven, also, is a mixed metaphor. It’s great stuff for every day use, lifting up all the flour it gets mixed together with. But it’s also notoriously terrible stuff at Passover time – where leaven symbolizes slavery in Egypt, and every Hebrew household to this day is supposed to annually purge away even the tiniest, smallest residues of leaven. And Jesus uses leaven in the parable with probably both images in mind. As he speaks in the original language (as in many translations) of the woman not just mixing, but hiding the leaven in the flour…

Why hidden? There’s nothing in the law of Moses against using leaven for every day use. But there’s a hint of scandalization – as Jesus makes leaven, a banned substance during one of Israel’s highest of holy day festivals–and mustard, a plant regarded as close to a weed – to serve as emblems for the kingdom of heaven…

Which must have ticked off the official religious hierarchy no end… While pleasing, yet also puzzling, those who have been following Jesus – the lame, the blind, the sick, lepers and others considered unclean, prostitutes, tax collectors (collaborators with the hated Roman empire)… Jesus welcomes all. And takes a lot of flak for doing so… And…

Still, he welcomes one and all. For sure, we make Jesus very sad when we do wrong… But Jesus doesn’t wait to start loving and caring for us til we’ve repented and cleaned up our act. No, Jesus loves us and prays for us all the while –  even when we’re giving him terrible heartaches with all our misunderstandings and disregarding of him…

And on the deepest level the scandal of these parables is their radical inclusion of all and everyone, in spite of all and everything… As we consider how–

The mustard seed sown in the field takes over the whole field… And…

The leaven raises all the dough together…And…

At the very least this parable is surely intended to stretch our imaginations to the max, like giant pizza dough stretched out till its spin encircles the earth… As the late Robert Farrar Capon (pronounced “Cay-pun”), Episcopal priest, New York Times food writer, author of three books on the parables, and long-time bread baker, writes, “When Jesus says the whole is leavened, he’s not kidding. The lump stands for the whole world. It is not some elite ball of brioche dough made out of fancy flour by special handling. And it is not some hyper-good-for-you chunk of spiritual fad bread full of soy flour, wheat germ and pure thoughts. It’s just plain, unbaked bread dough, and Jesus postulates enough of it to make it even handle like the plain old world it represents: that is, not easily…”

“And just as the yeast, once it is in the dough… is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, undiscoverable in it, and irretrievable out of it, so is the kingdom of this world…” Capon believes the whole world is infected by the kingdom virus – so the world’s ultimate leavening unto the fullness of the heavenly kingdom is thus fully assured.

And every other day I think he’s got to be right. After all, Jesus does say “for God so loved the world…” Yet, every other day I can’t quite follow all his leaps of faith. Of course I always hope he’s right, even when I’m not at all sure..

But perhaps what he or I or anyone else thinks about this really doesn’t matter so much. After all, the theme of these parables is God’s kingdom–which is something brought about by God’s action alone. Everyone but God is only a very small minor supporting actor in the grand divine drama…

Yet… on the other hand… Aren’t these parables all about the importance of the smallest of seeds… and a small amount of yeast hidden in a much larger amount of flour – being enough to make a truly enormous amount of bread rise… and rise…?

And maybe the kingdom is also like small churches, frail and weak, where God is nonetheless praised and worshiped in spirit and in truth, and where, like birds nesting in branches, many find help and nurture – not just Sunday mornings, but all through the week (including nine twelve-step groups, meeting four and five nights a week in our two parish points of worship)…Maybe the church is also part of the parable… and…

Maybe the kingdom is also a parable of every day people, rising with the yeast of God’s kingdom, often not even knowing what we’re doing… As we share the love of God in ways hidden even from ourselves…Offering silent prayers, words of hope, helping hands extended…Offering many small prayers and works of faith hidden from all but God. God, who seems to like to use us along with little children, and the lowly and disregarded, and others at life’s margins…All of us together like seed, like yeast, serving as humble signs pointing to the kingdom of God…

And it takes patience to wait…for bread to rise…and harvests to ripen… But the more we bake, the more we anticipate the joy of fresh bread straight from the oven, blessed and broken… The more we anticipate the joy of plentiful harvests reaped from the sowing of the smallest of seeds…Birds of the air singing for joy along with us. All creation singing, saying together –

Thanks be to God. Amen.