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Mustard Seeds and Yeast

[Jesus] proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”

He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Matthew 13:31-33

He was born to poor parents into a world where “his kind” were second class, or even third-class citizens. Nothing about his circumstances would have indicated that he was destined for greatness and, no doubt, his parents were the most surprised of all as he grew into the strong, soulful leader he was. He didn’t have all the advantages of good schools and other educational opportunities. He was a student of life, immersed in his family and culture that, in spite of poverty and other difficulties, nurtured his God-given gifts and passions. And that was enough to set him on a path that would take him to places and involve him in movements he could never have foreseen.

Who am I talking about? Is it Jesus? or John Lewis? The answer is “yes.” It’s both…and many others who, in spite of their humble beginnings, have made enduring contributions to the lives of countless individuals and changed the course of history in ways we’re still living into.

And it’s you and me, too. Whether we know it or not, for good or ill, each of our lives makes a difference. And that’s what Jesus is telling us in these parables.

The parables are meant to be ridiculous, by the way, but that’s lost on us. That mustard seed would NEVER have been sown in a field. It’s invasive, a pest. And Jesus’ audience would have known that. They’d have been thinking, and maybe even saying, “Nobody would sow mustard seed, you bonehead.” And that’s how the parable works—through the back door. Jesus knew well the hyperbole he was using. Nobody would intentionally sow mustard seed, but if it winds up in the field, its effect is huge, and not in a good way!

The woman in the second parable incorporates a little yeast into three measures of flour—that’s 40 pounds! Really?! What sane bread baker would do such a thing?! They wouldn’t, of course. But it gets the attention of the listener. I can hear Jesus’ audience laughing at the absurdity of his words. And again, through the back door, he makes a point. Don’t underestimate that little bit of yeast because it has the power to raise all of that flour into an abundance you can’t even imagine!

Here in 2020, we are living in tumultuous times. Our challenges are immense. The pain and suffering is immense. So many of us, myself included, are wrestling with the question “What is mine to do?” The little bit that I can do seems infinitesimal compared to what we face. I’m just one person. And yet….

Jesus was just one person. John Lewis was just one person.

We can choose, like mustard seed, to be a pest—which CAN be a good thing if what we’re doing is drawing attention to the field we’re in rather than to ourselves. We can be civilly and non-violently disobedient. We can protest. But if we’re just about taking over, choking off the life of everything around us, then we are contributing to the pain and anguish and we are not part of a solution.

We can choose to be like yeast—quietly doing what we can do, what we’re created to do, right where we are. Most of us are working in a small part of the dough—our own sphere of influence: family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, faith communities. And that’s not nothing! It’s the foundation for everything else! It was the way Jesus worked! And it was the way John Lewis began.

A very few of us have a larger world that we can affect—like John Lewis, the sharecroppers’ son, now considered to be “the conscience of Congress.” Like Christ, the Jewish tradesman, now the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Nobody could have imagined at the time what those little boys would become.

And we can’t imagine how the little seed or grain of yeast that is us has already and will continue to affect the whole. We need not feel like we have to be another John Lewis or Jesus—that’s already been done. We simply need to discern what is ours to do and do it. To be who God created us to be, be that as faithfully as we can. We may never know how our presence and actions have affected the whole, but we can trust that somehow, by grace, God has used us all together to further God’s Kin-dom in some way.

I’ll conclude with words from John Lewis, who uses a different metaphor here but still illustrates the same point that Jesus is speaking to us today:

You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates…. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.

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