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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Mustard and Leaven: A Sermon

Mustard and Leaven
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 8, 2010
Gospel of Jesus 2:19-22

The disciples said to Jesus,
“Tell us what Heaven’s imperial rule is like.”

He said to them, “It’s like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant, which becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.”

When speaking of the kingdom, Jesus would say:
“What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 17-18, based on Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-33, and Luke 13:18-20

In Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Year of The Flood, she tells the story of God’s Gardeners. These are folks in the near future whose saints are environmentalists and ecologists. They are a religious community that seeks to live off the grid. Their patron saint is Euell Gibbons, who you might remember was the guy who taught us that nearly everything is edible. God’s Gardeners live off the weeds. They have their own hymnbook. One such hymn is called, O Sing We Now the Holy Weeds:
O sing we now the Holy Weeds
That flourish in the ditch,
For they are for the meek in needs,
They are not for the rich.
God’s Gardeners would have appreciated Jesus’ parables of the Leaven and the Mustard Weed. They are parables of the Empire of God as opposed to the Empire of Caesar or Herod.

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, says this of parables.
“[Jesus] was not crucified for parables but for ways of acting which resulted from the experience of God presented in the parables." p. 32
It wasn't the parables that got him in trouble but that he believed them and acted on them. The subject of the teaching of Jesus was the kingdom of God. What is this? The Greek word is Basileia. How do you translate that? Parable scholar, Brandon Scott, uses the phrase Empire of God.

Brandon Scott, by the way, will be with us in October. He and Arthur Dewey of the Jesus Seminar will lead us in a weekend exploring the parables. I do hope that all of you will be able to participate and to invite your friends and neighbors. I think you will find it rewarding.

Brandon Scott says this about Empire:
"Some will object that empire is too negative when applied to God, especially in the aftermath of Star Wars, and Ronald Reagan's famous remark about the evil empire. But this negative connotation is precisely the point. From the point of view of those oppressed by the Roman Empire, basileia has a negative connotation. Translating the phrase as "empire of God" reminds us implicitly of its opposite.” p. 31
What is Empire?

Empire is not a place but an act, a way of being. The Empire, whether it be Rome in the 1st century or the United States in the 21st century is a way of being in the world. Whether one thinks of military bases in virtually every country in the world as a benevolent gift or a dominant presence depends upon point of view I suppose.

Power and mighty deeds are the way of Empire.

We know how the Empire of Rome acted.

With domination and force.
Military might.
Slave labor.
Crosses.
Torture.

The energy and lifeblood of the many exploited to serve the welfare for the few.
Pretensions to holiness and righteousness.
The Divine Right.

Yet for most, it was the experience of oppression.

What then is the Empire of God?

We discover this through the parables and teachings of Jesus and the way he participated in life. It too is a way of being. It is in the hearing of his parables on Empire of God that we glimpse as to what this way is.

Jesus said:
“What does God's imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.”
The Jesus Seminar gave the Parable of the Leaven the highest number of red votes. In their judgment, the Parable of the Leaven was the most authentic parable of Jesus. It is independently attested in two early sources and it seemed to the scholars that it exemplified the provocative nature of Jesus.

It doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting parable. A woman making bread.

Yet the kingdom is in the details.

The leaven is a symbol of the morally corrupt. The Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians:
Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6-8)
Leaven in the bread is like the proverb, "one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel."

The main sacred feast of the Hebrew people is the Feast of Unleavened Bread:
"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance." Exodus 12:15-17
There is something funny about Jesus saying that the sacred, the realm of God is like moral corruption.

The woman doesn’t just mix the leaven in the flour. She conceals it. It is a particularly subversive word. She is covertly inserting this leaven in the flour.

Think of the phrase in both Matthew and Luke where Jesus says:
"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…"
Paul speaks of
"God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory." (I Corinthians 2:7)
Not everyone is given the inside scoop. Only the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized see the truth for what it is.

The empire of God is hidden in the open. It is right there in your presence but we cannot see it.

Finally the amount of flour is immense. Three measures is about 50 pounds of flour or enough to feed 100 people. This woman is preparing a huge feast.

Also “three measures” is allusion to Abraham and Sarah who entertain the three angels at Mamre when they are told that at the ages of 99 and 100 that they will have a son, Isaac. (Genesis 18:7)

Gideon is visited by the Lord and told that he will raise up an army to defeat the Midianites. Gideon says that he needs a sign that this is person is really an angel of the Lord so he prepares a goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah or three measures of flour. He sets it on a rock before the angel. The angel reaches out his staff and touches the meat and the cakes and fire consumes it like an offering. (Judges 6:19)

Hannah dedicates her son, Samuel, who was a miraculous gift, to the Lord by offering an ephah or three measures of flour. (I Samuel 1:24)

In all three cases, this specific amount, three measures is used as a moment of Epiphany or miracle. It is the amount of flour you prepare for a feast for the Divine. It is a Sacred feast.

The sense conveyed in this parable is that the woman who is hiding leaven in three measures of flour is preparing a Sacred or Divine meal.

Robert Funk writes:
"God's imperial rule inverts the terms of the sacred and the profane." p. 104.
He goes on to say:
"The parable of the Leaven could be seen as…an attack on the temple and the cult, an attack that comports with the displacement of the righteous and pious in Israel with the poor and destitute, the tax collectors and harlots, as Jesus said: "the tax collectors and prostitutes go into God's domain, but you (religious leaders) do not" (Matt. 21:31). P. 103
For whom would this parable be good news? For women. It would give them a major role in the empire of God. For all who are considered leaven in society. Those unable to keep all the purity codes. Those who were considered to be morally corrupt. Those who were the objects of scorn. The poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast.

On the other hand, for those doing well in the Empire of Caesar or Herod, this parable is bad news.

Jesus says in short:
The empire of God is like moral corruption which a woman took and concealed in flour until it was all corrupted. Be leaven.
The Empire of God is also like mustard.
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ Luke 13:18-19
Again, we have an element of the unclean or the improper. Even though mustard has many healing properties, according to the Mishna, planting mustard in a garden was forbidden:
"Not every kind of seed may be sown in a garden, but any kind of vegetable may be sown therein. Mustard and small beans are deemed a kind of seed and large beans a kind of vegetable." p. 38
The problem of the parable is that the mustard seed does not grow into a tree. A four foot shrub is about all you get. If birds nest in it, they are very small birds.

The mustard shrub/tree with birds in the branches is likely a spoof on the idea of Empire as a great and powerful tree. This is from Ezekiel:
Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:
Whom are you like in your greatness?
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
and of great height,
its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place where it was planted,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the field.
So it towered high
above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
and its branches long,
from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the air
made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the animals of the field
gave birth to their young;
and in its shade
all great nations lived. Ezekiel 31:2-6
What is the way to participate in this Empire of God? Not to be a cedar but a mustard weed. Be pervasive. When ripped up there, spring up here. Mustard is an annual. No permanence like a cedar. Each year it grows anew. Be tenacious, pungent.

Be leaven. Corrupt the whole batch of Empire's pretensions. Spoil the barrel from within. Jesus and his disciples were considered corrupting influences. Jesus takes that and claims it proudly.
Yes, we are. We are going to corrupt your children. We are the heretics your mama warned you about.
Jesus learned from closely observing nature. You have to spend time watching peasant women kneading dough and you have to watch a lot of mustard weeds becoming shrubs before you can make parables about them.

Last night I was watching Free Speech TV, which like leaven is a corrupting influence on society. Free speech is like mustard. You can't get rid of it. You poison it with chemicals and dig it up, and before you finish, it springs up behind your back.

Empire doesn't want free speech. Empire doesn't want critical thinking. Empire wants people to stay on message. That is why they force standardized tests on teachers and students. They don't want critical thinkers. They want compliance. They want students to regurgitate answers not ask questions. Empire wants uniformity not creativity.

Last night on Free Speech TV I watched a show called Bioneers. On the program was a spokesperson for the Biomimicry Institute.

The idea here is that the responses to our problems are concealed in the open. If we look at nature, and mimic it, we may find creative answers to our challenges.

This Biomimicry Institute are biologists who have looked through thousands of articles about flora and fauna to discover how they solve life’s problems. Then they invite creative folks from other fields to look at how we might mimic nature to solve our problems.

For example Termites are the pests of God.

They know to build an air-conditioned mound without needing any fossil fuels. Architects are learning how to design buildings by watching how termites design their self-cooling mounds. One built in Zimbabwe uses 90% less energy than a conventional building the same size.


God’s power is whalepower.

The idea here is that a whale’s dexterity is due to the bumps on its flippers. Designers have taken the design of the whale flipper to design wind turbines to increase efficiency.

The Empire of God is run by chimpanzees.

Chimps have spent millions of years finding the rights plants and herbs to treat their illnesses. We can watch them to find the plants that can heal us.

After watching the show, I was thinking that Jesus' parables hinted at biomimicry. He regarded nature as a teacher. He observed life and invited his listeners to consider it and to mimic it. I think his parables were parables to shake us up and to encourage our creativity and to trust and not be afraid or put down our non-conformity.

To wrap it up:

What is the realm of God like? How do we participate in the Empire of God?

Be a weed.
Be a holy, sacred, pungent, healing mustard weed in the midst of Empire’s industrialized petrochemical lawn.

Or…

Be leaven.
Be your corrupting, free-thinking, creative self that subverts all of Empire’s lifeless conformity until the whole thing is subverted by Holy Play.

Amen.
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