Updated: Oct 1
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Seventh Month, 2020 Speaker: Brian Young Scripture: Matthew 13:31–33 (34–35), Ezekiel 17:22–24 Good morning, Friends! Matthew 13:31–5, NRSV: 31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Some years ago when Stephanie and I lived in Chicago, for a few years running she had a plot in a community garden in our neighborhood. Like most Chicagoans, we lived in an apartment building, where there was little room for gardening—we a had a window box or two, but that was about it. So she needed some nearby ground in which to grow tomatoes and peppers and a few other things. One year, the bed that she was assigned needed extensive prep work, for a previous gardener had planted mint at one point. Some of you probably know what this means. Mint is one of those useful plants that you’ll see in a lot of gardens—but you need to tend it carefully, because if you turn your back on it, it will own you. It spreads by sending out runners above ground, and under the ground the rhizomes send up new shoots by the dozens. It grows so thick that it crowds out just about everything else. And it will get everywhere. A lot of people keep it under control by growing it in containers. And in the garden that Stephanie was working, it was indeed in a container—but that was an eight-foot by four-foot raised bed! Stephanie had been given half that space, and if I remember correctly, the mint had planted in the other half, probably all the way down at the other end, but had spread throughout. There wasn’t anyone tending that other half of the box, so it seemed like the best thing would be to get rid of as much of it as we could. I’ve read some gardening advice that says, “oh, mint roots are shallow, and it isn’t hard to pull,” but that was not my experience. It took multiple sessions to get all those thickly-packed shoots out, that spring. Persistent stuff. I’ve never encountered it in a garden, but I think that mustard has some things in common with mint. It’s a useful plant, cultivated for millennia, but you have to watch it. It doesn’t spread the same way that mint does, but as Jesus says in the parable, its seed is very fine and small—this is the part of the plant that is harvested as a spice and flavoring. But if you don’t get all of that seed, the remnant will be taken in the wind, spreading hither and yon—and in many places in the US, the kind of mustard that we’re talking about here is classified as an invasive plant—a weed. But here in Jesus’ parable, the mustard seed is planted by someone who knows what he is doing. He takes one seed, and plants it, and lets it grow. And it grows, and grows. It becomes, not just a really big shrub, but a tree, so large that birds to come and build their nests in its branches. If you have today’s bulletin, that’s the mature product that you see in the artwork on the bulletin cover.
I have to wonder about those birds of the air—one thing we can observe is that we’re
probably meant to think of multiple kinds of birds on those branches. As a birder, I want to
know specifically what species they are, but of course Jesus isn’t going to satisfy my curiosity there.
But commentators do find that this parable was likely inspired by some of the words of
the prophet Ezekiel, from a section of chapter 17 where the prophet was also spinning
parables. In the first part of that chapter, Ezekiel tells a story of two eagles, a cedar tree and a vine; the eagles symbolize the great empires of Babylon and Egypt. The cedar and the vine are the rulers of Judah, the Jewish kingdom which had been conquered by Babylon, and which was hoping in the power of Egypt against their conquerors. Ezekiel says that Judah’s king will perish, because he has broken his covenant with Babylon, and that Egypt will not help him. But then he goes on to say that God will plant another cedar tree—a symbol of the restoration of the exiled people of Judah—and this is where the birds come in:
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
In order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
(Ezekiel 17:22–24, NRSV)
So possibly Jesus was thinking of “Under it every kind of bird will live/ in the shade of
its branches will nest/ winged creatures of every kind” when he spoke of the birds of the air coming to live in the branches of that overgrown mustard plant. In Ezekiel and also in
Matthew, those various birds seem to symbolize the nations of the earth that will come to live under God’s reign when it is fully established. It’s not just one chosen species of bird that will come—it’s winged creatures of every kind; all peoples, every tribe and nation and tongue.
Now for Ezekiel, the place that all the birds come home to roost is a cedar on a high
mountain of Israel, which is probably a metaphor for Mount Zion, the holy place of Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t situate the reign of God in the same way—instead, it’s a lowly mustard shrub rather than a noble cedar, and a run-of-the-mill garden rather than a lofty mountain. But there’s more than the birds that unites these two passages.
Note what Ezekiel says in 17:24—speaking God’s words, he says, “I bring low the high
tree, I make high the low tree/ I dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Under God’s rule—what some folks like to call God’s empire—the high are made low and the low are made high. Those who have much, the green trees, are dried up, and the dry trees who have nothing are given much. And we don’t have to read very much of the Gospels before we remember that this was a core part of Jesus’ message. Even before Jesus’ birth, his mother praised God and sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly/ he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52–53). In more than one place, Jesus told his followers that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 19:30, 20:16; Mk 10:31, Lk 13:30). This theme of reversal is all through Jesus’ ministry, and is expressed most profoundly in the resurrection. And it is implicit in these two parables that we read today, which after all tell us that the glorious reign of God is like unto some very small, humble, commonplace things.
The second parable, of the leaven, or yeast, is perhaps the shortest of all Jesus’
parables. I don’t want to slight it because of that, but here I have just a few observations. Any of you who bake bread know that you don’t need very much leaven—whether it’s yeast or sourdough—to make a lot of flour rise. In a typical dry yeast recipe, the volume of flour is around a hundred times the volume of the leaven. So however much flour the master baker in Jesus’ parable had, she wouldn’t have needed very much yeast. And in fact, this woman is baking a lot of bread; what is translated “three measures” here would have been at least half a bushel of flour, and likely more. One commentator estimates this would have made enough bread for a hundred people! I’m reminded of the abundance that comes in God’s reign; we might imagine that this bread is being made for the great banquet that Jesus speaks of in one of his other parables: another place where the first (the invited guests) become last, and the last (the poor, the lame, the people hanging out on street corners) become first.
But not going too far afield—another thing to note is the verb used for the woman’s
action in combining the yeast with the flour. The translation we read from this morning says, “mixed in,” but others say that she “hid” the yeast. So there is an aspect of secrecy, of unobserved actions, of quiet process to this leavening. An untrained observer watching this skilled baker would not even realize what she is doing, as she kneads and punches and shapes, but that is the kind of slow, steady work that is necessary so that the whole may be leavened.
So what is the reign of God like? First, it starts small, as small and fine as a black
mustard seed, or a teaspoon of yeast. It works in and through small, humble, commonplace things. Some of you may know of Tom Sine, an evangelical author from Seattle, who many years ago wrote a book called The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. Sine has spent years researching the new directions that ministry is taking on the margins of institutional Christianity, in movements like the emerging church and new monasticism. In a more recent book, Sine invites his readers to “become a part of something ‘really really small,’ a quiet conspiracy that is destined to change our lives and God’s world” (The New Conspirators, p. 23). Large budgets and huge numbers are not needed in order to do the work of the reign of God. Tom Sine would have been quite at home on the front porch of Renaissance House, John Fitch’s ministry here on the north side of Richmond that was deeply influenced by the new monastic movement. Any of you who went to one of the Wednesday dinners, or who worked with John or supported him in some way, know there was never a large budget or huge numbers of people. But human lives, and God’s world, were changed because of that small work.
What is the reign of God like? It is also something that is at times hidden, like a seed
growing underground, or yeast working in a lump of resting dough. It spreads by means that we can’t see, and aren’t always aware of. Sometimes it grows like a weed: like mint, it sends runners out along the surface of the ground, and its rhizomes pop up shoots in places we didn’t expect. Or like mustard, its seed lofts into the wind, spreading hither and yon, landing everywhere, and in some places sprouting. We can see this certainly in the centuries-long story of the church, and in the fact of today’s global Christianity, which has more vitality and vision in many of the places where it has come to sprout and grow just in the last hundred years. But I also see it in the lives of individuals; the reign of God grows not just outwardly, but also inwardly, in each of our hearts. As we submit ourselves to the quiet promptings of God’s Spirit, the Light in our consciences, the Inward Christ, God’s reign becomes more fully established in each one of us. And the heart is often the most hidden place on the planet. But I trust that the Inward Christ is at work in that hidden place in each of you, for I know that he is at work in me.
What is the reign of God like? It is also a place of reversal, where the first become last
and the last become first. In God’s empire, the grand, the high and the exalted are upstaged by the small, the humble and the commonplace. Those that our society puts at the center are supplanted by those at the margins, as Christ Jesus calls them in from the highways and byways. We would do well to remember this as we hear the present calls for justice for Black people, and as we look upon the demonstrations taking place in so many parts of our nation. We are in many ways closer to the center, as the world measures it, than we are to the margins. In this season, it is ours to discern how to come alongside those who cry out for justice as they march in the streets. Certainly, some of us have joined in that cry and are already marching; some of us will find other ways to be involved; but we each must do that discernment. As we do, let’s remember that the tree that grows from the mustard seed has space in its branches for all the birds of the air.
What is the reign of God like? Small; hidden; made for those on the margins.
Where do we find the reign of God today? As we wait on the one who brought that
reign into being, let’s listen and feel for its quiet growth within.
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