SCRIPTURE – Matthew 13:31-35 – He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
June 17, 2012
It’s only appropriate that we read these two parables from Jesus on this particular Sunday, which is the intersection of two important events in the life of Crestwood. In both of these stories, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to two things – a mustard seed and a thimbleful of yeast – which can have an impact much greater than their size would lead you to believe. If you were around here at all this past week for Vacation Bible School, you know that there were a lot of little things running around this building that sang joyful noise and made holy messes and had faith experiences much bigger than we could even imagine. It’s amazing what God can do with such small things.
But this is not only VBS Sunday. This is also the first of two Sundays this summer when we sent out groups of people on a mission trip. Tomorrow morning a group of 13 middle school students and adult sponsors will head to Lansing, MI, to work at a food bank and a Heifer International ranch. Then, in a few weeks, a group of 12 high school students and sponsors will travel to Pittsburgh to participate in a variety of urban ministries. Those aren’t huge groups. I mean, c’mon, there’s hardly a calloused hand in the bunch, and our workboots still have the tags on them. How much can 25 people really accomplish in just a few days?
A few years ago I led a group of 22 youth and adults to New Orleans to help gut a house damaged by Hurricane Katrina. We were so excited to be going, believing we could really get some quality work done and leave our mark on the Gulf Coast. And then we got there and looked around and the magnitude of the devastation. Mile after mile after mile of destruction. And we thought 22 people were going to make a difference? What could we do that would even begin make a dent? We were overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in the face of the need we saw, how small we felt.
If you’ve ever felt that smallness, these parables are for you. Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds. That may not mean much to us today. Not many of us are growing mustard seed plants in our gardens. That’s because the mustard plant is what one source called “a malignant weed with dangerous takeover properties.” That sounds more like an evil corporation than a plant, and it’s certainly not the kind of flora we would want to put as a centerpiece on our dining room table. And yet, Jesus said, that is what the kingdom of Heaven is like.
And then, as if Jesus hasn’t scandalized his listeners enough, he says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. Do you know what yeast is? It’s a fungi, and I don’t mean it’s the kind of guy you want to party with. It’s a type of fungus with a very specific function. Leigh and I were given a bread maker when we were married. We’ve had that bread maker now for 14 years, and for the three weeks we used it, it was great! I remember putting the ingredients together: first I put in the water, then the butter, then flour and sugar and dry milk. The last thing to go in was the yeast, and I had to be very careful that it didn’t touch the water. I would make a tiny hole in the dry ingredients with my finger and then add just a little yeast. After a few hours of mixing and baking, we would have this wonderful loaf of bread. It was an amazing process. Anyone interested in a gently used fourteen-year-old breadmaker, see me after the service.
This is how the yeast works. When mixed with the flour and butter and milk, the yeast actually eats the sugars in the other ingredients and expels carbon dioxide. These gas bubbles are what cause the dough to rise, and create the pockets of air in the bread that give it a light texture.
So let’s pause to recap. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a malignant weed with dangerous takeover properties and like a gas-expelling fungus that you eat in your sandwich. With a savior like this, who needs enemies! But the point here isn’t that Jesus is trying to put us down. Just the opposite! He’s trying to help us see that if we want to accomplish great things in God’s name, we can’t do it lying around. Like a growing plant, like a baking loaf, like a crucified savior, we have to rise up!
You wouldn’t think a tiny seed would produce a plant in which birds could build nests. You wouldn’t think a pinch of yeast could help create a two-pound loaf of bread. You wouldn’t think a group of volunteers with some Styrofoam, a bunch of cotton and love for children could do much in a week. You wouldn’t think a group of teenagers and a few brave (or insane) adults could make a dent in the incredible need they’ll see. And you wouldn’t think a popular, rabble-rousing rabbi crucified like a common criminal would be remembered a week after his death, much less 2000 years later.
But as Jesus points out in these parables, here’s the problem with that kind of thinking. We tend to think of faith quantitatively, as if our soul is a measuring cup with marks on the outside to let us know where we stand spiritually. “Your soul is only ¼ full – better get to church!” I wonder how many times people have said to themselves during trying times, “If I only had more faith.” Even the disciples turn to Jesus and plead, “Increase our faith!” But how do we determine what’s enough? When everything goes our way? When our prayers are answered the way we think they should be? What’s too little or too much faith? Evaluating our faith that way puts a lot of pressure on us to measure up.
What Jesus tells us in these parables is that faith is not measured quantitatively, but qualitatively. What matters in our faith is not the amount but the disposition. We think if you have a little money you buy a little and if you have a lot of money you can buy a lot. But faith is not like that. Faith is a relationship. Faith is trust in God. Even if we are 99% unsure of God’s presence, 99% full of doubts, 99% convinced that God doesn’t care about us, we still have that one percent, and that’s all God needs. God can work with that to make amazing things happen. We see it over and over again in scripture: Jesus works with two loaves and five fish to feed a crowd. Jesus journeys with 12 followers who swing between moments of faith-based bravado and faithless cowardice. Jesus provides healing for people who say, “I believe, help my unbelief!” None of their measuring cups of faith were full, and neither are ours. But Jesus tells us in these parables it’s not the amount of faith that matters, it’s how you use it.
It’s a good thing, because otherwise, we would be pretty hopeless. We’d have no chance of measuring up. That’s certainly true of our mission trip groups and our VBS workers. None of us are doing what we are doing because we feel particularly equipped or qualified or ready. We don’t do what we do because we think we’re accomplishing world-changing things. I mean, really, who in their right mind would give up a week of their summer vacation to go to another part of the country that’s nowhere near an ocean or anything named “Disney” to sleep on an air mattress in a church gym, spending their days sorting food and working on a ranch? Anybody else want to volunteer? Who does these sorts of things for themselves? Who spends hours hanging tablecloths and inflatable balloons from the ceiling so that kids can have an authentic VBS experience or gives their valuable time making vats of spaghetti to feed our little ones? In the grand scheme, these are such little things. Do they really matter? Can one mustard seed make a difference?
I remember on a mission trip to Kansas City, our first day was spent walking along a street picking up garbage. And I remember hearing a bit of grumbling in our group that evening. We thought we were going to be building houses and making a difference, and we were relegated to picking up trash along the street. But you know what? That trash had to be picked up by someone. It might as well have been us. Someone’s got to hold the ladder so someone else can climb it. Someone’s got to fetch more nails so they can be hammered. It’s easy for us to assume that somebody else will do it. Somebody has to do the small things, because with enough people doing enough small things, big things get accomplished.
That’s what these parables promise us. If we give what we have to offer, no matter how small, God can do the rest. We can slay our Goliaths, we can still our storms, we can be God’s hands and feet, not because of who we are, but because of what God can do through us when we are willing to give God our mustard seed of faith, to trust that even though we don’t feel worthy to build a house or teach a class or say a prayer, to trust that God cares less about the quantity of our faith than the quality of it.
A prayer I heard recently speaks directly to Jesus’ message in this text. It goes something like: “Dear God, I don’t pray for enough faith to move mountains. I can get dynamite and bulldozers to do that. What I need and ask for is enough faith to move me.” There is work to be done. There are children to be fed. There are non-believers to be welcomed. There are wounds to be touched and healed. There are hearts to be softened. Like the mustard plant, like the yeast-inspired bread, like the crucified Christ, may God give us the strength, the courage and the will to rise up.