Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Peter DeGroote, Minister for Administration

 

 

 

Yeast, Seeds and Weeds

Sunday, July 17, 2005

 

 

Matthew 13: 24-33

Rev. Peter DeGroote

Peter returned to Foundry in 2004. Having been a Foundry member from 1980, he was ordained in 1992 and served as a pastor in several churches before being appointed as Minister for Administration. His experience as a Chief Executive Officer of a national investment organization prior to ordination, combined with the lessons of seminary and subsequent pastoral experience, brings us a unique combination to lead our administrative efforts. Charged with building and rebuilding our administrative functions, Peter's current primary focus is on general management, financial administration, church infrastructure, building and contract administration, and the development of our growing communication systems.

 

I first started singing that hymn, “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” about fifteen years ago, maybe a little longer, at Dumbarton United Methodist Church at Affirmation meetings. It was a popular hymn of that group, and it is kind of a thrill to sing it here with the Foundry choir leading us.

 

Over the time, that hymn has come to remind me that there is a gap between what we like to think about God, sometimes what our theology talks about God, and what Jesus seemed to be trying to tell us about God. The gap began to appear in the New Testament. Then it sort of widened as the church became pre-occupied with the problem of trying to explain to the world just who Jesus was, what role Jesus played, what role we expected Jesus to play in the future. That was a necessary and demanding function, but it also had its consequences.

 

One of those consequences is that many of the primary teachings of Jesus are ignored. Instead, we find ourselves preoccupied with ideas that seem more comfortable, sometimes ideas that seem more fashionable.

 

Two illustrations: I am going to talk about two parables: the Parable of the Yeast and the Parable of the Mustard Seed.1 Out of curiosity, I thought I would look into some of those guide books that are available to preachers to help them put together sermons. I suspected this, but I wanted to check to see if on the Sunday on which these parables were scheduled for use in the church what they suggested preaching. Nearly all I consulted suggested preaching Paul. And then, I said, let me check another way. I went and looked at some of those websites that provide us ideas that can be used in children’s sermons. I wanted to see if any of these folks who specialize in children’s sermons gave us some assistance in putting together an introduction to these two parables for young minds. Nada. No help. I congratulated Rev. Vicky between services for going where others have not gone.

 

The irony of this is that many of Paul’s ideas about God and the nature of God’s kingdom seem to be a little different than those that Jesus expressed. Consequently, and because Paul was so influential in laying the foundations for later theologians, we are often overlooking what Jesus is trying to tell us, overlooking the grappling—walking away from the grappling with Jesus’ messages as we try to understand what it is that Paul and later theologians have told us.

 

Now, we are also talking about these two parables in our Wednesday evening Bible Talk. I said in the first service that this wasn’t a recruitment effort, but why not? We dealt with the parable of the sower last week. We are dealing with the parable of the leaven this Wednesday night. And because you can never say enough about any parable, there are ideas in the “Bible Notes” that you can pick up at the front desk or on the website that will also enlarge what I am going to be talking about this morning. And then if you want to talk about them further, you are certainly welcome to join us Wednesday evenings.

 

First, the parable of the leaven: “The kingdom of God is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in 50 pounds of flour until it is all leavened.” It is a gem. It is a diamond, with all sorts of little surfaces off which light shines. One of the problems that we have in dealing with parables is how to shake out all the meanings.

 

One of the methods that we use is to think about it like we would think about a sculpture. When we go to a museum and we look at a sculpture, we seldom just stand and look at it from one place. We walk around it. As we walk, we get different views of the sculpture. As we completely walk around it, sometimes more than once, sometimes going back again and again, all of those impressions, all of those perspectives add up to what we think about that sculpture.

 

So too with a parable; we can walk around it many times. I promise you, you can take any of Jesus’ parables, read it to a group of folks and there are going to any number of perspectives that are expressed as a result of it. Walking around a parable, sometimes walking around it several times, sometimes putting it away and going back later. As we go back later to most of the passages of scripture, we find new things as we have become new beings living with it.

 

But with this Parable of the Leaven, let’s take just a couple of the perspectives we might think about. Some of Jesus’ listeners would have said: “How can you say such a thing? You said God is like a woman, a woman putting leaven in bread. God is like a woman; the actor here is a woman.” Well, that was certainly was an unpopular thing in Jesus’ day. But we know that Jesus used both men and women to illustrate the activity of God. Jesus made it possible for women to hear the message in ways that they could be included, in ways that they would not be marginalized. He also made it possible for men to begin dealing with some thinking that they had never thought before. It is true that in some places it is still unpopular to speak of god in feminine images, but there it is for any follower of Jesus to see, hear, and follow.

 

Others would have laughed, at least in Jesus’ day, over the fifty pounds of flour. A question: How many of you, without the help of a bread machine, have made bread? Well, congratulations, because nobody at the 9:30 service had ever made bread, or admitted to it. I made it once, without a machine. I had somebody who knew how giving me instructions. I found it difficult to work with just two pounds of flour. How about you? But fifty pounds! Think about it another way. That’s 12 gallons of dough that you have to knead yeast into, all at once. That’s why they would have been laughing. This is beyond human capacity. This is even beyond human imagination. There is part of the lesson in that.

 

Jesus is suggesting to us that the scale and the intentions of God’s activity are beyond our imagination, beyond our comprehension, but yet it seems to be something from which we are able to benefit. We also find another symbol here. The amount of bread being made is a symbol of the abundant life that Jesus promised to those who follow his Way, the abundant life that Jesus promised that comes from following Jesus’ teachings. “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly.”

 

Another way to look at parables is to rename them – to live with them for a while and then to say: “Wait a minute. I want to try this parable out with another hypothesis. I want to rename it and see if that works with this parable.” I like to rename this parable: “The Parable of the Energy of God.”

 

Jesus has given us an image of God at work – a picture, by the way, that challenges all of our human expectations. Now, what do I mean by that? The challenge was certainly true for the early church and remains true for us today. Ancient societies spoke and thought of God’s kingdom in the language of empires, kingships, and power. God’s kingdom is a place where God is the ruler. Now think about this parable. That language of royalty, of rule, of power doesn’t help us understand what is meant by God’s kingdom being like the energy released by hiding yeast in dough. There’s a gap there. There is a barrier we cannot cross if we use the same language. That barrier continues to exist because we have traditionally continued to use the language of royalty, the language of power. As long we use that language, it gets in the way of our trying to grapple with what it is that Jesus is trying to tell us about what God is doing.

 

It is risky to draw too many conclusions from a single parable, but let’s draw some. What does Jesus seem to be telling us in this parable of the leaven, or the parable of the Energy of God? First, it tells us that the structure of God’s kingdom seems to be built into creation already. Second, that God is at work in that structure. Third, that energy of God that is at work in creation is what we have to call “mysterious.” It is free. We can’t seem to be able to predict it and we can’t seem to be able to control it. It is Spirit, a “Spirit of restlessness.”2  Fourth, if we do what Jesus tells us to do, if we follow the way of Jesus, we will discover what it means to live in God’s kingdom, to live in harmony with God. Maybe I have stretched that last conclusion a little too for this particular parable. But there is some more information that we get from the second parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

 

There are three versions, Matthew, Mark and Luke all have three different versions, and when the scholars get through working them over and trying to decide what the basic parable was that Jesus told us, it reads like this:

 

“God’s imperial rule is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the ground. Though it is the smallest of seeds, when it has grown up, it is the largest of bushes so that the birds of sky come and roost in its branches.”

 

The contrast between the ideas of imperial rule and a mustard bush are obvious. But let’s move on to some other ideas.

 

If you have ever seen a mustard seed you know it is a small, unpretentious seed that you could easily overlook because the world doesn’t expect much from really small things. But that tiny seed grows into the largest of bushes, not a tree, but bushes.

It has sturdy branches. It provides a place of shelter, a place of safety for the birds.

 

We have a picture, it seems to me, of God having created communities in which people can find places of safety and security and protection if we but follow Jesus. Already created, the formula is there. We can find them. We can find the protection and safety  that the community of the mustard seed provides.

 

When we think about the additional information that Jesus gathered people together in the community and then that Jesus sent them out from community and they came back to celebrate, we have a picture rounded out of the community of God being a safe place, a base for people to go out into the world, but then to come back for relaxation, for recreation, for rest, to recuperate, but most of all to be re-charged by the energy of God.

 

Another image that we get from this Parable of the Mustard Seed has to do with its many flowers. When I was a kid in upstate New York, we had mustard plants that probably came up just a little bit above my knee.  They weren’t real big things. But in the Middle East, the mustard plants would grow into bushes about my height and about be about one-third of that size from one side to the other. They are covered with little yellow flowers that produce literally thousands of seeds on each bush. Those seeds blow where they will on the wind – a great many small flowers producing thousands of seeds. One is inclined to think of our dandelion plants. If you don’t watch out, dandelions will take over; they will cover the landscape; they will be everywhere. Leave those communities of God to grow unhindered and they will change the appearance of the world. But we don’t let that happen. It’s a nuisance. The dandelions are a nuisance. The mustard bushes are a nuisance. Quite frankly, very often the idea of the kingdom of God is a nuisance. A community of God challenging our society is a nuisance.

 

Once more we have an image of Jesus talking in ways that cause us to want to draw some conclusions that are not in harmony with normal, human ideas or popular theological ideas. Those conclusions are similar to those we can draw from the previous parable. One, God’s rule is not like that of a king. Two, God’s rule is not about royal glory. Three, God’s rule seems to be something already built in creation, not something that God still has to do. Four, it seems that God’s rule is something that we can wrap our lives around, something that requires our action, something that represents an energy that we can be plugged into.

 

(There is third parable we hear, about weeds, and there will always be weeds. As I said earlier, we will return to that in August.)

 

There is one more comment about the Parable of the Mustard Seed that I would like to conclude with:

 

The mustard bush is an annual. It is not a perennial. Every year it grows from seed, it sends out thousands of other seeds, and it dies. Again, Jesus seems to be suggesting to us something other than what many later theologians would have us hear. The kingdom of God is not something that God will someday once establish and it will last forever, growing from the same roots, from the same act. It seems to be generational. Each generation must pursue God’s kingdom for itself. Each generation must find its harmony with God on its own terms.  

Now after many years of thinking in other ways, I find this observation comforting. It’s an important insight for me for two reasons. First of all, the idea that God will someday establish a kingdom or some sort of rule on earth that will solve all the problems allows us to ignore those problems, and also to ignore some of the responsibility we have for living the life that Jesus would have us live, thereby creating the communities, sowing the seeds, and sharing the yeast that might help in the solving of those problems.

 

But, my real comfort in this observation is personal. When you’re 65 years old, you often feel like retiring from some things. I am sure that some of you understand that feeling. Now I don’t have any doubt that there is no retirement from trying to live the life that Jesus taught. There is no retirement from the Way of Jesus. But I do know that there are some things I do not have to worry about anymore because I am assured that another generation is going to come along where mine didn’t succeed. It will come along with ideas that mine didn’t think of.

 

The fact is, I can still be a part. I can share some ideas, pass on some seeds, tell the stories, offer a little advice that may or may not be taken. That’s OK.  I have a freedom but not a release from responsibility. I still must be a part of the community. And most of all, I must be sure not to punch down the dough that may be rising around me or digging up mustard plants that have been planted nearby.

 

That means I am still at work, still trying to discover more about how to wrap my life around the energy of God.

 

 

 

 

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[1] While we heard three parables in the reading, this is a two-part sermon; we’ll go back to the third on the first Sunday in August.

[2] This quote is from the hymn sung just before the sermon.