Mustard, Yeast, and Kudzu

A Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Romans 8:26-39; St. Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who gives us faith like a mustard seed. Amen.

Small things become big things. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. A little bit of yeast can leaven an entire loaf of bread. Mmmmm. Bread. Especially with some spicy brown mustard and, while we’re at it, a slice of good cheese. Toss the whole thing in the oven to make it toasty and melty. You’re making me hungry, Jesus. Bring on the appetizers of the Kingdom of God.

We understand these parables. Right?

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. But not the small glass jars in the spice rack or the gourmet whole-grain mustards that pack such a sinus-clearing punch. No, the Kingdom is more like the tiny seed that sprouts into a huge shrub and crowds out the rest of the garden, putting down deep roots until you can’t weed it out.

Not a mighty cedar of Lebanon, but a mustard shrub.

The Kingdom of God is like yeast. But not the little dry granules sold in foil-lined envelopes at the grocery store. It’s more like the wild, smelly, funky, acidic, wild starter that keeps strains of yeast alive day after day between loaves of sourdough bread.

Not wheat of the field, but a few spare fungi.

These aren’t tidy, pre-packaged culinary parables for the supermarket era that we’ve come to expect after years of hearing them over and over again. They’re not merely object lessons in small things becoming big things. These stories, like the yeast that leavens enough flour for more than eighty large loaves of bread, are wild and beyond our control.

And that might very well be the point.

Writing in the late first century, the Roman author Pliny the Elder notes of mustard, “when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it….” New Testament scholar Michael Bird says, “Whether wild or cultivated, the mustard tree becomes a malignant weed….” And throughout the rest of the New Testament (even elsewhere in Matthew!), yeast is seen as a source of corruption. Just three chapters after today’s parables, Jesus tells the disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” (The disciples don’t get it immediately, and one of them remarks, “It’s because we didn’t bring any bread.”) Elsewhere, Saint Paul warns, “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast 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 the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

These images, common though they may have been, aren’t exactly putting the best spin on the Kingdom of Heaven; as far as parables go, these aren’t exactly pearls of great price or buried treasure. So what do we make of these less-than-stellar examples of the coming Kingdom?

A few weeks ago, we heard another parable – this one of a sower who scattered seed; some of it fell among the thorns and was choked out. The thorns, I noted, were like that quintessential Southern weed, kudzu.

But parables aren’t allegories where one item represents exactly and only one other thing. They’re short stories that play on common images to illustrate a specific point. Stock characters and items play different parts depending on what the plot demands: sometimes the servant is the hero, sometimes a cruel trickster. Sometimes the farmer saves the day, and other times he is a fool saved only by providence.

In that spirit, then, I suggest that the Kingdom of God might very well be like kudzu, too, which a farmer planted on a hillside. And it grew, day and night, until the entire countryside was lush and green, and the herds ate their fill, but none could uproot it.

This coming Kingdom is wild and beyond our control. It may very well look like an item of little worth, possibly even something to be avoided, to the outsider. We can try to tame it, try to make it fit a specific economic, political, or cultural message, to work it to our own ends, but the Kingdom will overwhelm our every intention. It’s going to require us to get up close and personal with people we would rather ignore: strangers, foreigners, people who don’t look like us, people we consider enemies – not only to get up close and personal with them but to love them as family members! And when someone comes along to destroy this kingdom – to tame it, to uproot it, to cut back its branches – the Kingdom will endure.

From a few yeasty spores, a single small seed, a few inches of vine, the Kingdom grows and spreads and overwhelms. And nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, not even the gates of hell, shall prevail against it. Amen.

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