Short Stories By Jesus: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…
October 8, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
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(Short Stories By Jesus Sermon Series)
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
October 8, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Our children go to a Mandarin Immersion public school in St. Paul. A few weeks back, the principal of our school sent out a frantic email, asking for a family to host an exchange teacher from China. I responded to her request, said we’d be happy to host, and started setting up the guest bedroom. There was an immediate need, we had the ability to do something about it, so we did.
So far, it has been a wonderful adventure, and we expect that it will continue to be an adventure for the next 6 months. You might see Jing Li with us, and I know that you will welcome her to Minnesota and Lake Harriet. Jing has only been in the United States for two weeks, and we are introducing her to American and Midwestern culture. So far, she’s experienced a college football game, hot dogs, cheese curds, Metro Transit buses, Costco, the Mall of America, a Broadway musical sing along right here with the Lake Harriet Players, and a farm. A farm right out of a children’s book, with horses, goats, cows, a 2 hour-old calf, and hay bales. She has also experienced her first cream cheese wontons and fortune cookies. We learned that those two things did NOT originate from China. The kids have already picked out her Halloween costume and told her all about the joys of trick or treating and carving pumpkins.
Along with all of our adventures, we’ve had lots of conversations. Jing does not understand why I drink everything with ice in it. She can’t stand ice, and I have an iced coffee with me at all times. Similarly, I don’t know how she can drink plain milk warmed up in the microwave. Warm milk. Ugh. At supper one night, she said, “Where are your spices?” “Jing. Ketchup. Ketchup is our spice.” She thought I was joking. I wasn’t. “Jing, I will take you to the Asian grocery store so you can get your spices.” She comes from a region of China with very spicy food, and I’m pretty sure everything we cook tastes bland and boring to her.
Together, we are learning about each other’s families and cultural practices.
Jing has had lots of questions for me about my job. Lake Harriet is the first church she has ever been in. She is trying to understand what a church is and what it means to be a pastor. She keeps asking me, “I do not understand. What is this feeling of God?” I’m not sure how to answer her because I’m not quite sure what the question is, and what is getting lost in translation. After countless futile attempts at explaining the “feeling” of God, I said, “Jing. I don’t think I can tell you with words. But I will try to show you the feeling of God.”
She asks questions, I try to answer. I ask questions, she tries to answer. We are learning a lot together. This past Monday, I took the morning off of work to take her to the social security office in downtown Minneapolis, to help her get a social security number, so she could get paid for her work at the school. Since it’s a federal building, we had to go through security and then we squeezed into their relatively small waiting area. It was standing room only, and we waited three hours to have our number called. During that three hour wait, Jing’s parents called from China.
They wanted to know if she was safe. They had heard about the shooting in Las Vegas and didn’t know where Las Vegas was in relation to Minnesota. I showed her where the two places were on a map to help assure her family that she was safe. When she hung up from her conversation with her parents, she said, “Melanie, I do not understand. I do not understand. Why do you have so many guns in America?
Why would this man kill so many people? Why do you let so many people have so many guns? WE do not have this problem. I do not understand.”
“Jing, that is a question I will not be able to answer for you, because there is no good answer. I do not understand it myself. It’s like we are stuck on repeat. The same thing happens over and over again and, under the guise of “freedom”, our continual inaction ensures that it will keep happening again and again.
She kept coming back to this. “I do not understand. Why do you allow this? I do not understand.” I don’t understand, either. WE do not understand. And yet, here we are. Jane, our Communications specialist, contacted me to see how I wanted to respond to the shootings in Las Vegas and, as I stood in the social security office watching each person go through the metal detector to make sure they didn’t have a gun on them, I told her I didn’t want to respond. I could not stomach putting out my “thoughts and prayers” on behalf of the church. Because “thoughts and prayers” – those sacred, holy things that we do as part of our faith and our relationship with God – they’ve been hijacked. They’ve been made profane. They’ve become the small band-aid we put on the severed limbs of communities that are bleeding out and dying right before our eyes because of gun violence. I could not put out “thoughts and prayers” and join in with those who have co-opted these words and made them empty phrases. So instead, I found an image that says, “God weeps.”
That’s all I could say on Monday. I wept. You wept. God wept. It is not the will of God that we would destroy one another. On Monday, I boycotted “thoughts and prayers.”
Christian theologian Miroslav Volf says, “There is something deeply hypocritical
about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.” “It’s analogous to what is going on in the book of James: If a person says to those who are cold and hungry, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? Or, if you look at the story of the Good Samaritan, we can easily imagine that the priest, who walked by a person robbed and left half-dead by the road, prayed as he was passing by. Still, he was a bad priest. The Samaritan was ‘good’ because he did something to help the suffering person.”[i]
Jesuit priest James Martin puts it this way: “If your thoughts and prayers are truly with somebody, it means you are going to do something to help them. Jesus prayed. But he prays and then he acts. We also have to act.”
Prayer and action go together. After a week of giving myself over to deep lamentation, I am reclaiming “thoughts and prayers”. But, I’m reclaiming “thoughts and prayers” in the mode of Jesus, who prayed and then acted. The two go together. If our prayers are not combined with actions, then we participate in making profane what should be sacred and holy.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote in his sermon A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, “Whether we think of or speak to God, whether we act or suffer for God, all is prayer, when we have no other object than God’s love, and the desire of pleasing God”. Wesley talked about acts of mercy and acts of piety and believed all of those “actions” were prayer.
“Acts of piety are things like reading the Bible, going to church, receiving communion. Acts of mercy are things like offering comfort to others and working to change systems that hurt and victimize people.”[ii] For Wesley, acts of both piety and mercy are part of a life of prayer. “In souls filled with love,” Wesley writes, “the desire to please God is a continual prayer.”
All is prayer. Our words. Our actions. If our life of prayer is an effort to please God, then we have to ask ourselves, what, exactly, would please God? What we’re doing to one another right now? I don’t think it’s pleasing to God. Wholeness, love and compassion for one another, working to change systems that hurt people – I think that’s pleasing to God.
When horrible things happen, we grieve, we lament, we walk through our day feeling numb. That’s where we land for a while, but it’s not where we plant ourselves, especially on the brink of despair. These are the times we cannot relinquish our understanding of prayer and action and seeking what pleases God.
The parable we are looking at today is one of Jesus’ shortest parables. It’s about a woman. She hides yeast into a massive amount of dough until all of it rises, and this is what the kingdom of heaven is like…a one sentence parable that I don’t get. Levine is critical of the way this parable has been interpreted by Christians, and I thought she was pretty harsh in her criticism, until I started doing my own research.
Here’s just one common interpretation of this parable within some strands of Christianity. “Physically, leaven is a lump of old dough in a high state of fermentation, or a substance that causes dough to rise (yeast). A natural reason for leaven’s negative symbolism is the idea that fermentation implies a process of corruption. In the Old Testament, it is generally symbolic of sin and evil.”
Okay, I’m following this line of thought. Fermentation implies a process of corruption. I can sort of see that. But, this is what it turns into:
The woman in the parable takes leaven and hides it in the meal (Matthew 13:33). Hence, this woman is surreptitiously placing the leaven of false doctrine in the church. She is an opponent of Christ and infuses His church with corrupting ideas.
The yeast, or leaven, is the moral corruption and false teachings that women hide in the church to corrupt it…beware of women who bake bread and preach. Look out. Because I bake bread. And I preach.
We have a woman, and she does something sneaky. Or. She does something strategic. She hides the leaven in the flour, so that the whole thing is impacted by it.
There are a couple of ways we can look at this. One, is like I just described. She’s sneaky bad. You should be wary of the woman preacher. She might sneak in some moral corruption and spread it all around. You can’t say I didn’t warn you!
Amy-Jill Levine takes a different view. She thinks this parable is about the importance of extravagance and generosity. That the woman hiding leaven in what amounts to 60 pounds of flour suggests that, “We adapt our lives in light of the kingdom and do something that might seem foolish or wasteful to people on the outside.”[iv] Bake more than you need and be ridiculously generous with what you have. Discreetly share it. That sounds like the kingdom of heaven.
She also writes that maybe this parable tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is present at the communal oven of a Galilean village when everyone has enough to eat. It is present, in everything, and it is available to all, from the sourdough starter to the rain and the sunshine. It is something that works its way through our lives, and we realize its import only when we do not have it. To clean out the leaven allows us to make room for the new, to start again, and again to feast.”
I think she’s on to something here. In our current state, generously embedding goodness – mixing it in, to impact the whole community. That, too, sounds like the kingdom of heaven.
But, there is one other interpretation I found that also intrigues me. It’s a combination of the two, really. What if yeast IS a corruption of the flour. What if “The leaven “corrupts” the wheat flour until it pervades all of the bread. Similarly, what if the kingdom involves a leavening process of sorts, a “corrupting” of the people of God through the inclusion of outcasts, which ends up transforming the whole people of God?”[v] Wrap your mind around that for awhile.
Maybe we will be transformed by the leavening of those who are outcasts among us, who transform our experience of abundant love. After a week of feasting on despair, I’m choosing to feast on some leavened bread. We have seen the horrific results of what happens when we spread violence through a community, but we need reminders of the power we have to “corrupt” our community with something other than violence. We can corrupt with love. That sounds strategic!
Here’s what I think that looks like. We have been praying for Laura Stenenga, ever since she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer that had spread to her bones this summer. It spread quickly and turned her life, and the lives of her husband and two daughters Esme and Elsa, upside down. But, her community was “corrupted” with love. Her mail person, in a “secret” sort of way, collected donations and notes from her entire neighborhood on her mail route. You may have seen images on the news of the front of her house, covered in red balloons of love, meant to surprise Laura and let her know how much she was loved, even by strangers. It took a sneaky mail woman to make that happen.
Here’s a picture of their house. That’s the kingdom of heaven!
Laura shared on her Caringbridge website this week that, after three rounds of chemotherapy, there are no signs of breast cancer and no signs of cancer in her bones. She is not “cured” – this is something she will live with and have to treat the rest of her life – but, this is good news, not only for her, but for our community. Your words of support, your actions, your prayers, along with the mail lady who was on a personal mission to spread love, have made an IMPACT! I think bread baking women of the first century have something in common with 21st century mail carriers!
Here’s another example. Before coming here, I served St. Anthony Park UMC in St. Paul, and there was a certain family who worshipped at the church. They were both seminary students at Luther Seminary, and they were from Nagaland. I had to look up Nagaland on a map because I didn’t even know it was the name of a country. Their names were Imli and Sashila Jamir. Their dreams were to get their PhD’s in theology and to return to Nagaland to teach at a Christian Seminary. But, they had another dream, too. They had two daughters, and there was no library in their village for children. They wanted to return home with enough books to build a library for kids. They shared their dream with the congregation, and one of the young women in the church took the challenge on. It became her passion and mission. There was no stopping her.
Frankly, when she came to me with her idea, all I could think about were the logistical reasons it wasn’t going to work…the details that were going to be nearly impossible to overcome, from the cost of shipping containers to storage. But, I kept my mouth shut because this was her God-given mission, and I know when I need to get out of the way for God to work. Over the course of two years, I watched her come up with her plan, figure out all of the logistics, collect books and lead fundraising efforts through the church. Still, I thought to myself that this library was never going to happen.
She was always looking for more space in the church to store more boxes of books that she had collected and, whenever I would go to get something out of a storage area or closet, I would see that she had snuck in a few more book boxes. They were in every nook and cranny of the church. She “corrupted” the whole building with boxes of books, hiding them here, there, and everywhere. Boxes upon boxes of books! This was a woman with a mission!
I moved on to Lake Harriet before I could see the outcome of her efforts, and so I never knew what came of her vision of a library in Nagaland. I assumed that it had come to a screeching halt when the church closed its doors. Imagine my surprise when I got a letter from her in the mail this week, with these three photos.
Nagaland now has a children’s library! And, it’s not some sad, sorry version of a library with broken down old moldy books. No. This is a LIBRARY! A kingdom of heaven library filled with beautiful books for beautiful children. This all happened because of a woman with a heart for children and books – stashed away boxes of materials hidden throughout the church – in order to eventually corrupt a whole community of children with LOVE and knowledge and opportunity. One person. Big impact. She did it! 1st century bread baking women and 21st century subversive librarians…they have some kingdom commonalities, too.
And then there’s this. On Wednesday night, we had our first KidFirst intergenerational worship service. Our GodsKids and Cherub Choir children led the singing and our 4-6th grade explore class led other parts of the service. Jing got to add “worship service” to her list of “firsts” that she has experienced here in America.
After the service, I asked her what she thought and she said, “When the children were singing, I felt full of peace.” And I said, “There’s part of your your answer. What is the feeling of God? It’s that feeling you had when the children sang.” Kids cry and shout and have temper tantrums on a regular basis, but they are sneaky.
When they are not overtly trying the patience of all of us parents and teachers, they are subtly spreading peace and love into our lives. 1st century bread bakers and 21st century children have something in common.
We get to decide what we mix and knead into our communities. Plenty of people are choosing to mix in violence. Or inaction. Or apathy. Or despair. I don’t think that pleases God. The bread baking woman – she pleases God. BE the bread baking woman – for the kingdom of heaven awaits our subversive work.
[i] Powers, Kirsten, Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane, Washington Post, October 3, 2017
[iii] Church of the Great God website, although similar perspectives found in various sources.
[iv] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, HarperOne, 2014, page 136.