Mustard and Yeast (Sermon for February 17, 2019)

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A mustard seed is a very small seed. It’s not necessarily the smallest seed in the whole world, but it’s small. And in Jesus’ time and Jesus’ land, it grew wild. It’s not the kind of plant that someone would plant in a well-kept garden, where you want your crops all laid out in nice clean rows.

But a man took a mustard seed and planted it in his garden, and it grew. It grew so big that it became a shrub. And it grew so great that it became a tree. And the birds of the air came and made nests in its branches.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A woman had some yeast. She took it and hid it in some flour. A lot of flour. Like, a lotof flour. Three whole measures; that’s something like 8 dry gallons or 130 cups of flour. And the yeast worked its way through the flour and all of the dough rose.

You see, the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large.

And don’t we love that image?

You all know that before I came here to be your pastor, I was a fundraiser. 

At the end of every year, I would prepare a report for my Board of Directors. I would tell them how much we raised and which funds and projects it went to. I would tell them what the average and median gift sizes were. I would tell them how many donors we had, and how many of them were new, and how many we lost, and how their giving had changed.

And sometimes that report was pretty positive. And sometimes it was pretty negative.

And at the start of every year, my Board of Directors would give me a number: the amount of money I needed to raise. 

And I would know that that number meant that we needed this many donors, and this many new donors, and this average gift size… which meant that we needed this many donors to increase their giving by this much… so I needed to send this many letters and make this many calls and schedule this many events… and so on.

My life was ruled by numbers.

And, I’ll be honest with you, I still keep track of the numbers. I look at our attendance every week, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at giving, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at the number of baptisms and confirmations and new members, and I feel a little bit better about myself when those numbers are higher.

And I know that we have some other people who look at those numbers, who feel better when those numbers are higher.

Numbers mean something. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Bigger numbers are better numbers. 

And it’s nice to think that the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large… because that means that we might start small and get everywhere and grow large.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is also like this:

A farmer sowed some good seed, some wheat, in a field. And while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds in the same field. So when the wheat came up and bore grain, the weeds came up, too. The people who managed the field came to the farmer and asked if they should pull up the weeds. And the farmer said, “No. If you pull up the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat as well. When the time for harvest comes, we will pull up the weeds first and burn them. Then we’ll gather up the wheat and put it in the barn.”

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

The Son of Man has planted good seed in the world: the children of the Kingdom. And the devil has planted bad seed in the world: the children of the evil one. At the end of the age, the angels will come and collect all of the causes of sin in the world and all of the evildoers, and throw them all in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom!

And, as usual, I need to be careful here.

Last week, I told you that, as Christians, we need to be able to judge things and behaviors and systems and institutions. When we can, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is bad.” And, more often, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is better,” or “This is bad; and this is worse.”

But I also told you that, as Christians, we can never judge people. We are not qualified to look at a person and say, “They are good,” or “They are bad.”

And I told you the good news of our faith: that Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption. 

I told you that Christ, whose vision is clear, can see the divine spark, the image of God, in us—even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour—and tend it, and grow it. 

And I cannot believe in the Christ I know—in the Christ who has saved a wretch like me, of all people—and also believe that there are children of the evil one who are destined for the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But it is also true that Christ does not leave things the way they are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is a garden with a mustard tree with birds nesting in its branches. And that garden is different from a garden where there is no mustard tree.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is yeast that has been hidden in three measures—130 cups—of flour, and it works its way through the dough, and all of the dough rises. And that dough is different from dough where there is no yeast.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is someone who has sowed good seed, and who cares for the grain that comes up, and does not even pull up the weeds for fear of harming the grain. It is someone who, when the harvest comes, carefully pulls up the weeds and throws them away, and takes what is good. And that person is different from anyone we know.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: It is a world without sin and without the causes of sin. Which is to say, it is glorious and unimaginable and utterly different from the world we live in.

“Growth for the sake of growth,” said Edward Abbey, “is a cancerous madness.”

And while there are a lot of things that Abbey said that I disagree with, he is right about this. Growth for the sake of growth is pointless. Growth for the sake of growth is dangerous. Growth for the sake of growth is poisonous.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not growing in us and Christ is not working in us to leave us the way that we are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a community, and as a world—to take that divine spark, that image of God, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour, and grow it.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us to transform us.

And, I know, that can be scary. It would be nice to believe that we could just stay the same, only righteous. It would be nice to believe that we could stay exactly as we are, only holy. But we can’t.

You see, God loves us like this:

The world is a field and we are seed that God has planted. And all around us are weeds and nematodes. And God loves us so much that she tends us constantly. And God loves us so much that we she will not pull up a weed or apply nematicides for the fear of hurting us.

And as we grow towards the kingdom, reaching for the light, God tends us and cares for us.

And, someday, we will be grown, bearing the fruits of the spirit. And, when the last of us is ready, God will pull away the weeds, and wipe away the tears, and take us into the kingdom that she has prepared for us since the foundation of the world. And then we will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Not as who we are now, but as who we are in the fullness of the grace of God.

Hallelujah.

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