As Close As A Breath

Sermon from Sunday, July 24, 2011
St. David’s Lutheran Church, Hanover, PA
Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

A tiny seed, a bit of yeast, a grain of sand….What do these three things have in common? Apparently, they reveal to us something about the kingdom of heaven, at least from Jesus’ point of view. “The kingdom of heaven is near.” This is what we hear Jesus say frequently in the gospel of Matthew.  But for the disciples and those listening to Jesus, they had a hard time understanding what he was talking about. They couldn’t figure out where. Where is the kingdom? They were looking for a kingdom far different than Jesus was talking about.

And so Jesus spoke in parables – short stories – to explain what he was talking about. He gave them visual aids through his descriptive stories – stories about seeds, and planting, and soil. Stories that they could relate to, but they – like us – didn’t always understand, even when he told parables. So as the disciples and the crowds gathered under the hot Middle Eastern sun, much like the heat we are experiencing lately only drier, he tried again to explain about the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s gospel we hear five new comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like: a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure buried in a field, a merchant searching for a priceless pearl and a net thrown into the sea to catch fish of every kind. It’s an odd combination of stories because they don’t seem to have anything in common. These parables seem to leave us more confused than before. Some of this is due to the context in which Jesus told these stories.

For example, yeast to us comes in a small neat package that when added to flour and water activates the mixture to rise and form bread. But for the people hearing this story in Jesus’ time, yeast was very different. Yeast – or leaven as it was called back then – was a small portion of bread set aside to spoil. Then a small piece of this was added to the batter to make it rise. If the leaven was not spoiled enough it would not cause the batter to rise and if it was too spoiled it would not only ruin the bread but it could turn poisonous and be fatal. It was considered “unclean” and leaven would be cleaned from the house during Passover where only unleavened bread was eaten. So only a small piece of leaven or yeast was needed to produce nourishing bread – a tiny portion, just like the mustard seed.

The tiny mustard seed grows to over 10 feet high, sometimes almost 15 feet! High enough Jesus said for “the birds of the air to make nest in its branches.” Again, for the people in Jesus’ time this mustard seed that was said to grow like a tree had a very different meaning than it does for us today. You see, a mustard seed grows more like a shrub and actually is …well, a weed, a weed that no respecting farmer would want in his or her garden. They wouldn’t intentionally plant it because it would take over everything! It would grow so tall that it would overrun the rest of the crop. So if the tiny mustard seeds go into the garden and grow, they would be pulled out right away. But Jesus talks about someone deliberately planting these mustard seeds – these mustard weeds. Why would anyone do such a thing?
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard weed…it doesn’t make any sense.

And then Jesus continues with his parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that is hidden in a field or a priceless pearl, both of which people sell all they have to own. And the kingdom is compared to a net that catches all kinds of fish – good and bad. Where is Jesus going with all of this? He gives us quite a lot of different images to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like, but how do you explain something as important and magnificent and divine as that? A seed, a piece of yeast, a grain of sand – so small – so seemingly insignificant. These are odd images and hardly ones that I’d use to explain something so unfathomable as the kingdom of heaven.

So why does Jesus use these odd and ordinary things to explain God’s kingdom? Perhaps because it is the odd and ordinary that make up such a kingdom. The tiny mustard seed grows into a massive weed that overtakes the garden just like God’s kingdom will spread to the ends of the earth – not from extraordinary perfect people, but from ordinary imperfect weeds. Christianity didn’t start by a massive invasion. It began with a group of 12 men – ordinary common fishermen, tax collectors and people who were considered rejects to society much like the mustard weed. And god still uses the weeds of society today  – the poor, the needy, the homeless, the addicted the abandoned, the rejected – to grow the kingdom of heaven. God plants the kingdom of heaven with weeds such as these.

God uses the spoils of society to grow the kingdom. Just like the spoiled leaven or yeast that the woman in the parable today used to make bread. In fact, she used three measures of flour with only one small piece of yeast and three measures would be enough to feed a multitude. A spoiled piece of bread produced life nourishing bread.

Sometimes it feels like our life is ruined. Our dreams have gone stale. Our hopes are rotting and we feel as useless as a moldy piece of bread. But that piece of moldy bread is not useless. We have been set aside by God to grow the kingdom. It is the spoils of our life that produce our capacity for compassion, for understanding, for patience and for love. God is hidden in the spoiled places of our lives.

The struggles, hardships and irritations that cause us pain are the very substances that produce the greatest treasures, just like the priceless pearl. A pearl is formed when a small piece of sand irritates the inside of a clamshell. The clam produces substances to deal with the irritation and this wrestling produces the pearl. When we prayerfully wrestle with the irritations in our lives, pearls of wisdom are formed. Blessings are born.

So what do a tiny seed, a small piece of yeast and a grain of sand have in common? Though they are small, they have the capacity to produce greatness – greatness hidden in adversity. We may see a weed, but God sees a tree of life. We may see a rotting piece of yeast, but God sees bread for the world. We may see a life shattered and broken, but God sees a vessel of grace. We may see a homeless bum on the street, but God sees a precious child of God. We may see an addict, but God sees a life of promise. We may see a handicap, but God sees a channel for prayer. We may see a tiny baby in a dirty manger, but God sees the Hope of humanity. We may see an innocent man hanging on a cross as failure, but God sees a Savior redeeming the world, bringing forth the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is near. It is as near as a tiny seed. It is as near as a piece of yeast. It is as near as a grain of sand. The kingdom of heaven is here among us in the risen Christ, the Word made flesh. In Christ, the Divine has been revealed. The kingdom of heaven is as close as the breath of the Spirit that lives within each one of us. Amen.


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