Little things can make a big difference (Sermonsuite). A space shuttle was destroyed because a few small tiles came off as it was headed into space. Another one was destroyed because of a faulty O-ring (Sermonsuite). Think of the pain a tiny splinter of wood causes when it gets under your skin. A microscopic bacteria can reproduce until it’s a raging infection that undoes a joint replacement or sends us to the hospital with pneumonia. And a small pill can make us feel better again. A little love and forgiveness can heal a relationship. Small things, small gestures can make a huge difference in life.
Matthew wrote down these parables of Jesus about 40-50 years after the resurrection. At that time, the first followers of Jesus were living in a world of greed, dishonesty, violence, and sexual promiscuity. And in the midst of all that, these new Christians were trying to live a different way, the way Jesus taught us all to live. They were committed to sharing the good news that transformed their lives with their friends and neighbors. But it was an uphill battle because people don’t like change. Christians were mocked, tortured, and ostracized for their way of living. These new followers of Jesus were such a minority in the 1st century that they wondered if living differently from their neighbors was really helpful in growing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. They wondered if their work of sharing the good news was really bringing God’s kingdom any closer (Barclay 77).
I think we have some things in common with those first Christians. We followers of Jesus are trying to live differently than the rest of the world. As Christians we do our best to be honest and have integrity. We do our best to be loving and to forgive when we are angry instead of pulling out a weapon. We Christians try to manage our money well, to give some back to God and not spend it all on our selfish whims. And we Christians who identify as Brethren try hard to be peacemakers in this world that has less and less peace in it. So we can ask the very same questions Matthew’s readers may have asked. Can the way each one of us lives and treats other people really bring God’s kingdom a little closer? Can we the Mountville Church of the Brethren, a moderately-sized congregation, really help grow the kingdom of God when the problems in our nation and our world are so vast and so complicated?
The first two parables in today’s gospel lesson are Jesus’ answer to those questions. “Here’s what the kingdom of heaven is like,” Jesus said to the crowds who followed him. “It’s like a mustard seed that was planted in a field. That tiny seed grew into a huge bush that became a home for birds. If you’re not into plants or birds, here’s another picture of the kingdom of God. It’s like a bit of leaven that a woman took and mixed in with 10 gallons of flour. The mixture made enough dough to feed 100-150 people” (Boring 309).
Mustard plants are weeds with which a first century farmer had to contend. Mustard is as prolific as dandelions and can easily take over a field of crops. If you recall, I told you that every parable has a surprise or twist in it. So for Jesus’ listeners, there’s no surprise in the fact that a tiny seed grows into a weed that grows uncontrollably. For first century listeners the twist in this parable is that an ordinary weed like a mustard plant grows into a huge tree that provides a safe and secure place for birds to build their homes (Boring 309). Jesus’ parable about something small and insignificant providing the basis for a safe and secure life was shocking to Jesus’ listeners.
In the first century leaven was not yeast as we know it today, but rather leftover dough that had soured. The leaven was the agent that caused bread to rise. If leaven was not sour enough, it was worthless. If leaven was too sour, it could ruin a whole batch of bread and possibly cause food-poisoning. In the first century leaven was often used as a symbol of corruption and contamination. So for Jesus’ listeners there were multiple ripples of surprise in this parable. For one thing, Jesus used leaven in a positive way. And secondly, the woman used far, far more flour in her baking than anyone would expect. People were shocked that a small amount of leaven was enough to cause 10 gallons of flour to rise and produce over 100 loaves of bread. A tiny mustard seed and a small amount of leaven can do powerful things.
“The reign of God may seem like sheer weakness, no more than an insignificant mustard seed” writes Walter Brueggemann. “But take heart. The tiny mustard seed ultimately produces a huge shrub, and God’s reign is like that. Don’t be deceived by its modest beginnings. Its final consummation will be great” (Brueggemann). The parables tell the early Christians and us that even though our efforts seem very small and perhaps insignificant, God can do great things with them.
William Barclay tells the story of a group of people talking about how they can bring Christianity to people who don’t know about it. One African young woman spoke up. “When we want to take Christianity to one of our villages, we don’t send them books. We take one Christian family and plant them in the village. They make the village Christian by living there” (Barclay 77). One person’s living example of Jesus can transform a village, a workplace, a classroom, a neighborhood, or a community.
Every morning when we check the news, we may wonder if and when the kingdom of God will come and end the violence, the greed, the foul language, the dishonesty in our society. We wonder when the kingdom of God will come and relieve the pain in so many people’s lives. The parables tell us that God’s kingdom has come and is visible every time we act as Jesus has taught us to act.
Our granddaughter Naomi doesn’t like any dirt on her anywhere. When they were visiting in July we took them to a playground. Naomi was wearing Crocs which are open-heeled shoes. She walked through some mulch and caught some in her shoe. All of a sudden she stopped and started making a fuss. So we took off her shoe and there was a tiny, little piece of mulch between her foot and the sole of the shoe. It was just a teeny piece, but big enough to be irritating to her. She was so uncomfortable that we had to stop in the middle of the playground and clean her foot and her shoe. She couldn’t go about playing as she wanted with that piece of mulch in her shoe.
We need to be the mulch in the shoes of our neighbors and co-workers. Mulch that nudges people to take off their old shoes and begin to walk on holy ground. We need to be the leaven that infiltrates our communities and makes people rise to the standards of God’s kingdom. By our different way of living we can be the leaven that contaminates, if you will, our society with good news and right living. We need to be the seeds of love, of forgiveness, of peace that can germinate into the kingdom of God. Our example can be the little bit of leaven and the tiny seeds that grow into the kingdom of God.
Jesus doesn’t compare the kingdom of God to unique, hard to find things. He compares it to common, simple things like seeds and bread. So Jesus isn’t asking us to have a massive rollout campaign with celebrities, fancy marketing, and gourmet food to change the world in 30 days. Jesus is asking us to do simple, loving, kind, compassionate things on a consistent basis. Little things like planting seeds of hope. Little things like offering a meal to someone who is sick or who is hungry. Little things like counting to 10 and expressing our anger in a respectful, reasoned way.
Reverend Rex Hunt expressed the little things that can grow God’s kingdom in this way: The kingdom of love is coming because:
somewhere someone is kind when others are unkind,
somewhere someone shares with another in need,
somewhere someone refuses to hate, while others hate,
somewhere someone is patient – and waits in love,
somewhere someone returns good for evil,
somewhere someone serves another, in love,
somewhere someone is calm in a storm,
somewhere someone is loving everybody.
We need to be the someone. Brothers and Sisters, no one else is doing it. We need to be the someone who is kind, who shares generously, who serves, who loves, who welcomes everyone, who refuses to hate and be violent. We need to be the someone who plants the mustard seeds, who is the leaven in the bread, who is the mulch in the shoe. God is depending on us to bring the kingdom to earth.
And even though God wants us to do only little things, it will cost us. It will cost us in popularity, in our pension plan, in our time, in our emotional energy. But Jesus has also told his followers that God’s kingdom is worth the price—any price we have to pay. Why have you heard that a man was walking through a field and discovered a treasure there? He hid the treasure in the field, and then went and liquidated all this assets so he could buy that one field. God’s kingdom is like that. Have you heard of the successful jeweler who had a large inventory of pearls? One day he spied the pearl of all pearls. So he sold all of his other pearls to have that one special pearl. God’s kingdom is the pearl worth paying any price to have.
Benediction: Go and plant a tiny seed of the kingdom of God. Infiltrate your neighborhoods with God’s goodness. Be the tiny piece of mulch in someone’s shoe that moves them to walk on God’s holy ground. May God bless you and keep you as you seek the kingdom of God on earth. May God’s face shine on you and give you peace today and always. Amen.
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Philadelphia:Westminster Press, 1975.
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume
VIII. Nashville:Abingdon, 1991. 89-505.
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; Newsome, James D. Newsome.
Texts for Preaching, Cycle A. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 423.
Hunt, Rev. Rex A. E.
SermonSuite, com. “Sermon Illustration for Proper 12 | Ordinary Time 17, Matthew 13:31-33,
Sheffield, Richard L. “Storytelling.” Preaching the Parables Series IV, Cycle A. Sermon