Strange, Subtle, Shocking, Stupendous!

Matthew 13:31-33

Mustard seeds are small and round—about 1 or 2 mm in diameter. They can be yellowish white or black. They can come from black mustard, brown Indian mustard, or white mustard plants.

seeds.jpegThese seeds are small. They seem insignificant. You could hold one in your hand and in then forget about it.

But something happens when you cook them. Put mustard seeds on a skillet, heat it to medium flame, and watch the drama unfold. The seeds start to pop and jump around almost. The fragrance hits your nose.

Or, you can grind the seeds. When you do that, the seemingly insignificant seeds make you aware of their presence. The smell is strong. And when you add them to a sauce or stir fry, the seeds add flavor depth. Depending on the mustard seeds you cook with, they can add acidity, spice, or nuttiness.

Mustard seeds have been around for a long time. White seeds have been traced to the eastern Mediterranean regions [Greece, Italy, etc.]; brown seeds from the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains [Nepal and India]; and black seeds from the Middle East.

Mustard seeds are good for you. They are an excellent source of selenium and a very good source of omega-3 fatty acids and manganese. They also contain phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and vitamin B1.[1]

These small seeds were mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings in India dating back about 5,000 years ago.

The earliest “mustard” story we know of is also from India—the story of Gautama Buddha, dating back to the 5th Century CE. Buddha told a story about a grieving mother [Kisa Gotami] who had lost her only son. Kisa takes his body to the Buddha to find a cure. The Buddha asks her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family that has never lost a child, husband, parent, or friend. When the mother is unable to find such a house in her village, she realizes death is common to all and she is not alone.[2]

So this little seed is quite famous. Jesus of Nazareth talked about it, too.

But we must do something whenever we read a parable.

We must look for the twist.

What is the shocker in this parable about a mustard seed?
The shocker is that the tiny seed smells pungent.
The shocker is that when add a little bit to a dish, the flavor soars.
The shocker is that when you plant this little seed, it is subtle no more.
The mustard seed itself escaped cultivation around the world.

It now grows wild.

It is wild, subversive, rebellious, and sometimes annoying. Once a mustard plant takes root, it can take over fields and climb over and up hills.

mustardfield.jpegSo Jesus of Nazareth compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed.

This phrase kingdom of heaven was extremely important in Matthew’s Gospel. This same Jesus parable appears in Mark’s Gospel, but in that version, Jesus compares mustard seeds to the kingdom of God.

Does this subtle difference matter? Yes.

Matthew’s Gospel is directed to a Jewish audience. They thought about god or gods differently according to their culture and traditions. Those of the Jewish tradition did not pronounce or say the word or name for god [Elohim]. So heaven is a substitute for that. In Mark [and in Luke], you may see kingdom of God because their audiences were not exclusively Jewish.

Either way, kingdom may not be the best way for us to talk about the mustard seed. Context matters. Today most people in the world do not wish to be ruled by a king or queen. So consider the word reign of heaven rather than kingdom of heaven. The reign of heaven is like a mustard seed.

What is this reign?
It is the expression of the love and mercy of the Creator.

It is the subtle but shocking impact of someone showing compassion to another without any reward in mind or when he/she shows compassion to someone outside of his/her family, social circle, or tribe.

It is the spiciness of standing up for justice and ticking people off who want to maintain the status quo.

It is a kid at school refusing to go along with the crowd to bully someone.
It is an adult at work refusing go along with the crowd to bully someone.

It is people standing with people in times of tragedy, fear, and sadness.
It is refusing to stereotype; It is standing up against prejudice of any kind.

It is living freely and allowing others to germinate, grow, and flourish freely.
It’s the seed that scoffs at Monsanto and its GMO monocultures and grows wild without the chemicals, pesticides, or human help.

It’s hardy on its own.

It’s that kind of seed.

And then there’s yeast.
Like mustard seeds, yeast is inconspicuous and small.

True story—one time I was making bread.
I put the baker’s yeast in the warm water and went off to do something else. The minutes passed, and when I returned to the kitchen, I stared at that bowl of clear water and for the life of me, I could not remember if I put yeast in there or not. In the end, I decided that I had not. So I heated up the water again and put more yeast in it. All of this could have been solved if I simply would have smelled the water in the bowl. But I didn’t. So the yeast was not visible to me at all.

Yeast is a single-celled microorganism; that’s why it’s hard to see!

bacteria.jpegIt is part of the kingdom of Fungi. Yeast organisms exist all around us – in soil, on plants and even in the air.

The main purpose of yeast is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation, which is essential in the making of bread.

The type of yeast most often used to make bread is Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The ancient Egyptians were already making bread and though they may not have scientifically talked about the process in the way we do today, here is the idea:

Yeast feeds on the starches that are present in flour. This produces Co2.
The carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour.
The gluten proteins cause the dough to expand and rise.
But for those who are celiac and cannot eat gluten, never fear.
The yeast can still produce Co2 if you use xanthan gum with gluten-free flour.

The end result, of course, is the incredible smell of baked bread.
And the taste, too!

Okay, so back to the parable [I’m getting hungry]…

Why is the reign of heaven compared to yeast?
Remember to look for the shocker in the parable….

Shocker #1: the Creator [G-d] is a woman.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThat’s right. The Creator is the bread maker and she is a female.

Shouldn’t surprise us, though. There are many female images for the Creator—spanning many cultures and traditions. Sadly, though, we’ve silenced them in favor of narrow, patriarchal worldviews. This is why the Jesus parables are refreshing.

A baker woman god.

She lets the yeast do its thing, of course. The microorganisms eat the flour while the woman leaves them alone. No manipulation there. No additives or preservatives. Just the live bacteria doing its thing.

And like the mustard seed, it smells.

Then, when the yeast has had its time to produce the Co2, she starts kneading the dough. Push, pull, pound, stretch. It’s time and patience. It’s with her bare hands. It’s messy, sticky, and a bit risky. No one really knows what kind of bread that dough will turn into. It’s open-ended. But she continues to knead.

Eventually, she pulls the dough apart and makes two halves. She lets it rest again; she leaves it alone.

The yeast does its thing; the dough expands.

Then the fire of the oven surrounds the dough and it bakes.
Such a small, insignificant, invisible thing that yeast.
But now the bread balloons into something delicious and fulfilling.

And so it is.

Our baker god-mother leaves us to be who we are as we are.

We get the opportunity to mix and connect with all the other microorganisms on this planet, be they humans, animals or plants. If we choose to be our natural selves, we produce bubbles, ripples, waves of love and compassion and mercy that infiltrate hopeless and fearful situations. And the more we join with other yeast and other flour, the more we expand the life-bread wherever we are.

Friends, look for the shocker in the parables of your life.
Things are not as they seem most of the time.

What we’ve been conditioned to see, feel, hear, and think is often not true.

May our spiritual practice be like mustard seeds—humble, spicy, aromatic, unique, and free.

May our spiritual practice lead us to join with others, to connect, to cooperate, and to expand our love and compassion.


[1] Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986. 1986. PMID:15210.

[2] Buddhaghosa – Buddhist legends, Volume 28 (published 1921).

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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