Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

When Small is Powerful

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday July 30, 2017, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

Let us pray:
Dear God, as we reflect together on your written word, help us to know more your Living Word. Amen.

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52) has at least 5 parables (some say 6 if you count the last verse). In just 12 verses, we are faced with 5 parables.  

Christ Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” (KOH) because many in his audience had Jewish background, where uttering God’s name was a big ‘No No’. Telling parables was a way of teaching by “using the ordinary to explain the extraordinary.” Thus, Jesus used common things that people were familiar with to teach about the kingdom of God.

The parables seem quite straightforward. But if we consider the time, religious and socio-cultural gaps between Jesus’ time and ours today, we’d realize there is more about the parables than meets the eye. We are 2,000+ years removed from the context of the biblical people to whom these parables were addressed. So it is very important to understand the significance of these ordinary things to the biblical people then, before we try to apply their meaning to ourselves, our context, and our time.

How many of us here have seen a mustard plant or the mustard seed? Someone compared the size of a mustard seed to a sand particle. Jesus said the KOH is like a mustard seed that has been planted, and when it is grown, it would be the greatest of shrubs and could become a tree. Many writers/preachers say that the mustard plant was a grass/weed that farmers dreaded for when it grew, it spread through the field and was too hard to contain. Although it could become 8, 10 or 12 feet tall, it was generally more like a squatty shrub with small leaves, rather than a sturdy tree. 
How many of us here bake? Those who do would know that yeast (leaven) is old, fermented dough that when placed in new dough would make it rise. Only a very small amount of fermented dough is needed to make the new dough rise. Jesus said the KOH is like yeast which, when mixed with flour, would leaven it up, causing the dough to rise and double in size.

The Bible mentions yeast/leaven 22 times in the Old Testament and 17 times in the New Testament, and almost always to represent sin or evil. Jesus had in another occasion warned hearers to guard against “the yeast of the Pharisees” (Mt. 16:12). The Pharisees were religious leaders who thought highly of themselves. Concerned about their purity, they would not want to be near the sick, the dying, or the dead (for fear of contamination). In the Old Testament, yeast was seen as a symbol of contamination, impurity or corruption and it was to be thrown away during holy festivals when only unleavened bread should be eaten. Thus, yeast represents “a little sin” that can wind up destroying the whole body.

So why would Jesus use the mustard seed and yeast to teach about God’s kingdom if they were not positively regarded by biblical people?

Is it because these two – the mustard seed and yeast – exemplify that small is powerful? Many preachers say these two small things are powerful because of their potential to grow; they then connect it to the church, how it started with 12 disciples, then growing into house churches, denominations, and today’s mega-churches. For these preachers, the mustard seed and yeast are small but powerful because of their potential to grow. This means their being powerful is in the “bigness” they would become.

Generally, we people are obsessed with “bigness” – whether we are talking as a church, a government or a business corporation, we tend to think of success through increase in number/size, GDP, or profit and expansion. We tell our children, or students, to “dream big,” putting pressure on them to succeed. We forget that the big dream actually requires many small, important steps. If our children/students do not understand the importance of these small steps, then the big dream can be quite overwhelming.     

I would like to say that these two – the mustard seed and yeast – are powerful right in their being small for I believe there is power in being small. 

After deciding that the title of this sermon would be, “When Small is Powerful,” I searched the internet for similar titles and came across, a website on small powerful initiatives. Its homepage has a picture of ants pushing a big ball of something which could be food, and below it is a quote from the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to change things, try to sleep with a mosquito!” Well, maybe the ants and mosquitos could be modern-day metaphors of something small and detested, but is powerful to impact our life.

My internet search also led me to a book, Small is Powerful: Why the Era of Big Government, Big Business and Big Culture is Over (2016). In this book, author Adam Lent argues that humanity started small and that our faith in big was manufactured in the 1900s by a group of powerful business leaders, politicians and thinkers. The idea has gripped the collective imagination of people throughout the 20th century.

But Adam Lent argues that the notion that vast concentrations of power should reside in the state, in corporations, or the church has failed to create a stable, fairer world. He therefore asserts in Small is Powerful, that ownership, power and resources should be dispersed on a smaller scale, citing examples of small revolutions, small businesses, political and social change by grassroots initiatives, and people making their own decisions about how to live their lives.

The parables of the mustard seed and yeast were parables of hope, flickering it might have been, as the early disciples faced opposition, even persecution. Having the dreaded mustard plant and the detested yeast, as parables of God’s kingdom, shows how God uses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:27). It also shows that when God brings great things through small things, God’s concept of greatness is not as the world defines it. The world may see greatness in being big, strong and majestic – as the splendid cedar tree is often the image of that greatness (Ez. 17:23). But for Jesus, the kingdom of God is symbolized by the growth of a lowly mustard seed into a shrub and the rising of the dough with the yeast mixed in it.

Jesus mentioned that when the mustard plant is bigger or more mature, it may be able to offer shelter to some birds. Since the mustard plant has smaller leaves and not so sturdy branches, this may be possible for smaller birds. The dough, when baked, will feed more people. If 3 scores of flour can feed 150-200 people, how many people can the leavened loaves of bread feed?

Both the mustard seed and yeast will not grow if they are not put in the right environment to grow. The mustard seed has to be buried in the soil and watered regularly. The yeast must be mixed with flour and water, and kneaded regularly. Each needs time for the process of growing, fermenting and permeating to take place.

This is an important reminder for us that our growth in discipleship is not a smooth, clean and quick process. Rather it takes time, can get messy, and will involve many steps – of being buried, immersed in the realities of our community, being involved/engaged with people who may be different, but with whom we need to work and live. We will know if we are growing in our discipleship when we willingly become people for others, serving especially those in need. We will be like the mustard plant/shrub, giving shelter to the birds; and the yeast-laden loaf, feeding the hungry.  
If the parables of the mustard seed and yeast are parables of hope, the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value are parables of joy. These could have been assurances for the disciples who left everything – their families, their work/careers, in order to follow Jesus. For them, following Jesus did not mean a safe and happy ride to fulfillment or joy. It meant risk and sacrifice; uncertainty and insecurity, especially in the face of opposition and persecution. Yet, there was a sense of joy beyond human understanding as a result of their commitment to something greater than themselves. Again, selflessness and other-centeredness are marks of a mature faith and a mature life.

The kingdom of God challenges the world’s understanding of joy. While the world tells us to find joy in wealth, fame, name and looks, the joy in the kingdom of God is based on values that cannot be destroyed or stolen by thieves.

Treasure in heaven or the kingdom of God includes love, justice, righteousness, mercy; humility, generosity, sacrifice, selflessness, loving those who are hard to love, etc. These are values that cannot be bought with money. These are the hidden treasures, the pearls or stones of great value that people are truly longing for to live a worthy life.

Gracious God, help us affirm that small is powerful – that it includes our small steps of growing in our discipleship and faith; and that joy is in finding that the real treasure consists of values in your Kingdom which we need to nurture in our lives. 

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, July 30, 2017

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