July 30, 2017
William G. Carter
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
It never fails. Say it’s a Sunday morning when we have a baptism. There is a mixed crowd of long-timers and newcomers. The baby is beautiful, the family is all smiles, the Presbyterians are delighted. And then at the door, one of the newcomers says, “Why in the world did you say, ‘We believe in the catholic church?’”
She’s referring to the Apostles’ Creed , of course, and curious why we would say such a thing. With a smile, I usually respond that nobody has a proprietary lock on the word “catholic.” There is Roman Catholic and Polish National Catholic, and people in both camps have assured me that they have little to do with one another. I once had a Russian Orthodox priest tell me that nobody is catholic – much less orthodox – except for the likes of him and those who agree with him. “Really?” I answered. “I though t those evaluations were above our pay grade.”
It reminds me of the old groaner about the guy who is being shown around the heavenly mansion with many rooms. St. Peter takes him by a locked room with no window. They heard loud hymn singing from within, and the man asks St. Peter, “Who’s in there?” “Those are the Baptists,” says Peter, “and they think they are the only ones here.” (Take note it’s a locked room. I’m not sure if it’s locked from the outside or the inside.)
“I believe in the one holy catholic church.” We say that a lot around here, almost every week, but I’m guessing that we really don’t give it much thought. We say “catholic” with a small “c.” We tell the inquisitors that means “universal,” as in “the big church, the complete church, the everywhere church,’ the “one in the Spirit, one in the Lord” church.
Perhaps they’ve been shaped to still fight against the Reformation, as some of us were instructed long ago to keep the battles blazing. If you talk to the Presbyterians in Pittston or Dunmore and ask, “What makes you Presbyterian?” they might very well reply, “We’re not Cat’lic.” Except that Jesus says, “Maybe they are.”
What does it mean to be the catholic church? Or better stated, the church catholic?
All of this arose for me when I heard again the second parable from today’s text. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. A woman mixes it into some flour until the whole thing is leavened.”
On first reading, it’s the phase “the whole thing” that catches the ear. “Holos” is the Greek word for “the whole thing,” the same “holos” which is smack dab in the middle of the word “catholic.” Catholic is “the whole thing,” not just one small part of it, but the whole thing.
And that pushes a bigger question – is the Christian church, or one slice of it, the sum of all God’s activity in the world? To sharpen the question and provide a good answer, we have the words of Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian writer and wit. He says there’s a visible church and an invisible church. Listen:
The visible church is all the people who get together from time to time in God's name. Anybody can find out who they are by going to church to look. The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except God.
Think of them as two circles. The optimist says they are concentric. The cynic says they don't even touch. The realist says they occasionally overlap.
His point is simply that God is at work in the whole world, not merely in the church. And sometimes the church does God’s will . . . and always the church’s prayer is answered, “Thy will be done.” Are you catching what Buechner is throwing? “Catholic” refers to the “whole thing,” to all of God’s activity.
Needless to say, that’s a lot more activity that we can comprehend, which is precisely the one detail in Jesus’ parable. How much flour are we talking about? “Three measures.” Biblically speaking, how much is that? That’s about a bushel of flour, about 128 cups. That’s sixteen five-pound bags. And when you add in the forty-two cups of water to make it come together, you have about a hundred pounds of dough. That’s an enormous amount of flour, enough to bake enough bread to feed a large crowd of people.
And here’s this woman, this kingdom woman, who is working in the yeast in all of that flour. Imagine that!
If you can picture it in your head, you know her work is going to take a while. This is not a rush job, and neither is the work of God. Maybe you have noticed God is in no particular hurry. We pray, we trust Somebody is listening, we trust that our prayers will receive some kind of answer. But if your prayers are anything like my prayers, the most frequent answer is “Wait and see.”
This woman is working an enormous pile of dough. She’s working the whole thing.
The second thing we know, especially if we’ve ever worked with yeast, is that the whole thing is going to rise. Yeast works in secret. You work it in, you leave it alone, and it does its thing. Amy Jill Levine, the Bible scholar, points out that Jesus refers to a certain kind of yeast. It’s a sourdough starter. It ferments the flour. The whole thing bubbles up if you just give it some time.
And that’s the promise of God’s dominion, what Christ calls “the kingdom.” It bubbles up, it grows. It rises in secret, and the whole thing is a mystery.
I recall the descriptions of Christianity in China. In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung came to power and threw out all the Christian missionaries. He set up a secular state and outlawed any Christian activity. During the Cultural Revolution, all religious life was officially banned in China. After Mao’s death and the partial opening up of China, somebody discovered there were over 67 million Christians now in the country – and our missionaries weren’t over there doing the converting. It’s a glimpse of how God’s kingdom will rise.
The whole thing is a mystery. Like that little mustard seed, so small, so inconsequential, so inadequate, such an unlikely metaphor in that previous parable Jesus offers. Yet the little mustard seed grows into an enormous bush, so large that the sparrows come and make their nests there. How does something so small grow to be so large? How does sourdough yeast ferment in secret and enlarge an enormous lump of dough?
The biologists will remind us that yeast itself is a living organism, a single cell living organism. Quite literally, when someone massages in the sourdough starter yeast, they are infusing that lump of flour with life. So it’s no wonder that Jesus invites us to look within the mysteries from the field and the kitchen, and wonder at the quiet, mysterious, life-giving work of God.
And it’s good to keep this clear. Often, we Americans latch onto stories of enormous size and explosive growth, as if bigger is always better. The little corner grocery becomes a massive Wegman’s chain. The guy who built gadgets in the garage creates a worldwide technology business. The living room Bible study becomes a megachurch, and so on. But none of these scenarios equate to the kingdom of heaven, mostly because they are about us and our own efforts.
By contrast, remember what Jesus says about the kingdom. It’s all upside down:
· What is greatness in the kingdom of heaven? To become like a small, trusting child. (Matt. 18:4)
· Who is first in the kingdom of heaven? The last. (Matt. 19:30)
· Who receives the blessings of the kingdom of heaven? The poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and those thirsty for justice. (Matt. 5:3-9)
In God’s kingdom, there is no room for any kind of arrogance, self-promotion, or violence, because it is God’s kingdom. It is God who rules over the kingdom of heaven. And that kingdom is not located on a distant cloud sometime in the afterlife. Rather, it is the very quality of life for which Jesus teaches us to pray: the will of God, on earth as it already is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). This is what grows. This is what rises. Not the accomplishment or the arrogance of humanity, but the rule of God over all life.
The apostle Paul could testify to this. He writes a letter to a church in Rome, full of people he had never met. And he declares on the largest possible screen, “All things work together for God for those who love God.” It’s meant to be. It’s predestined. The kingdom is going to happen.
And it grows, with us or without us. The good seed sprouts up in receptive soil. The good crop lasts among the weeds. Like an otherwise insignificant mustard seed, it digs deep roots and extends wide and hospitable branches. And all of this happens because of God. God make it grow. Or to put it another way, wherever there is growth in love, mercy, and justice, God is there, extending his rule until the final day it is everywhere.
The word for today is catholic. As in “the whole thing.” As in the huge lump of dough where God is already in the kitchen, working in the yeast until it becomes inseparable from the flour.
And I don’t know, really, what all of this means. I doubt there is a lesson here. I certainly don’t have a cute little story to bring it home. All we have is a one sentence parable. It’s a little bitty parable as small as its own mustard seed and it offers a glimpse of a truth much larger than our heads and hearts can comprehend.
Here is that truth, as far as I know it: we are part of something so much greater than we can understand. Call it “the salvation of the world.” Call it “the redemption of the universe.” Call it “the invitation to return to the Garden of Eden.” Call it whatever you can, even though none of our words will ever contain it completely.
Jesus calls it the “kingdom of heaven.” It comes in the assurance that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. Nothing at all. God’s love is already planted like a little bit of yeast in a great big lump of dough. Just wait – everything will rise.
The lady at the back door said, “Why do you say the word ‘catholic’? It’s not your word.” I smiled and said, “It’s not your word, either. It’s God’s word.”
And trust me when I tell you that everything that belongs to God will rise.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.