Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Silent and Slow - Subverting the Status Quo

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45



When I was young, I was told that the parable of the mustard seed meant that the Kingdom of God starts out really small and gets really big. It meant that we shouldn’t be surprised with what God can do with small things, including our own small efforts.  All of that is true, and it was an appropriate explanation for my age at the time.  But, as younger and older adults, we should know that there is much more to these parables than that.


“The kingdom is like a mustard seed that someone sowed in his field.”  If we were first-century Palestinian farmers, we would hear that differently.  We would hear “the kingdom is like dandelions or kudzu that a famer planted in his field.”  What self-respecting farmer would do that?  Mustard was a weed.  It started out small, but in a little while, it took over.  It was uncontrollable, invasive, undesired.  And the reign of God is like that?   Yes, once it is established, it will reseed itself again and again.  God’s purposes will not be thwarted. 


Jesus says that the mustard seed grows into a tree, but in reality, it only grew to be 2-6 feet tall, more of a shrub than a tree. Trees were a common image for great empires, like Babylon or Rome.  I think his point is that the reign of God is something like an empire, but not exactly. Remember this is the same Messiah Jesus who rode a donkey instead of a war horse into Jerusalem.  The parables are an invitation to see and understand the world differently. Greatness does not always look like we expect it to.  As my New Testament professor, David Garland, wrote, “Jesus’ parable hints that the kingdom is breaking into the world in a disarming, and for many, disenchanting form.  [After all] We do not sing, ‘A mighty mustard bush is our God.’”[1]


The second parable is also short. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”


To understand this one, we need to know that leaven was a common symbol for corruption in the Hebrew scriptures and elsewhere in the New Testament.  “Leaven was produced by keeping back a piece of the previous week’s [uncooked] dough, storing it in suitable conditions and adding juices to promote fermentation.  After several days, the old dough was sufficiently fermented to be used in a large mass of  new dough.  This agent was [loaded] with health hazards.  If it became tainted, it would spread poison to the rest of the dough and that batch could infect the next batch and so on.  For this reason, leaven became a symbol for the infectious power of evil.”[2]  A modern example we might understand more easily is a computer virus, which gets into your hard drive and corrupts all your files.


But wait, is Jesus really comparing the reign of God to a something as bad as a computer virus? To a known symbol for corruption and evil?  Yes, yes, he is.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the woman hides the leaven in the flour.  That’s the verb in the Greek.  It doesn’t say that she kneads it into the flour or mixes it, but hides it. 


She hides it in three measures of flour.  Three measures is a bushel of flour.  That’s 128 cups!  That’s 16 five-pound bags![3]   She is not making her family’s daily bread; she’s making enough to feed 100 people at once.

The parable doesn’t even mention baking the bread, just hiding the leaven, which is kind of like planting the seed and waiting for it to grow. Remember that when the children of Israel left Egypt, they took unleavened bread with them because they didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise.  Leaven implies a time-consuming process. 


Telling these two parables together, Jesus seems to be saying that reign of God is hidden, or unseen for a time, and it is an invasive, sometimes unwelcome force.  It has power to infect, to corrupt, to replicate itself. Just as a mustard shrub is nothing like a towering redwood tree, so different is God’s reign from human empires which dominate and oppress politically, socio-economically and religiously.   And so God’s reign works over time to ferment, to grow, to transform, to subvert the status quo. 


One more point – if leaven is a symbol of corruption; who are the leaven in society?  The very people to whom Jesus is speaking, of course.  To the wealthy, influential and powerful, the common folks are the tacky mix-ins you would rather avoid, but someone has to do the dirty work, like hauling out the garbage and digging sewers.  But Jesus says, that those who are considered the unclean and corrupt, those who others might want to weed out  --  those on the margins, the unwanted and unwelcome, the lost, the last and the least – it is through them that God’s reign will come.[4]


Recently I have been looking and listening for examples of God’s reign at work in hidden places.  Let me share a few:


At various times in history, it has been easy and legal for people from Mexico to cross the border into the USA.  Just as easy as it currently is for Canadians to enter.  In the 1920’s,  a former soldier from the Mexican Revolution crossed with his wife.  The war was over, so he sold his rifle and used that money to move north.  By the time they reached the border, they had nothing left. An American family took them in, fed them, gave them work and befriended them.  That family happened to be Methodists.  So the man and his wife converted to Methodism and the man became a Methodist pastor.  They had a long and effective ministry until they retired and returned to Mexico, leaving most of their adult children in the USA.   At Peace Camp last week, I met two of their grandsons.  One is Sergio.  He has been a Baptist pastor in Mexico for the last 40 years, and now directs the Institute of Faith and Psychology in Mexico City.  Another one is Javier.  He currently serves as pastor of Shalom Baptist Church in Mexico City and as the president of the Mexican Baptist seminary.  He has taught at several universities and seminaries, including one in Paris.  What a seed was planted by those Methodists who opened their homes to two immigrant strangers!


But the mustard plant keeps re-seeding itself, so the story is not done. The 70-year-old Mexican Baptist Seminary, where Javier is president, was started by Baptist missionaries from the USA.  In 1972, it was excommunicated from the Baptist Convention of Mexico.  The official reason was that two years earlier, it had joined an ecumenical group of Protestant seminaries and the Mexican Baptists weren’t ready for the ecumenical movement yet.  Another interpretation is that various Baptists bodies in the USA, who were supporting the work of the seminary, were fighting amongst ourselves and that the seminary became the scapegoat. 


This is a story like the leaven in the dough.  Because after the seminary parted ways with the Convention, the seminary leadership began to ask questions about why they did some of the things they did.  Why did they only sing hymns that had been written in English and translated into Spanish, instead of songs written in Spanish from the beginning?  Why did they use only piano and never guitars in worship?  Why did their pastors always wear an American style suit and a white shirt, setting them apart from the rest of the church members?  One question led to another and set them on a path to transformation, with the result that they became much more effective at sharing the love of Jesus within their own context.  They began to learn the cultures of indigenous communities, which are the Native peoples of Mexico.  In 1991, the seminary joined the World Council of Indigenous People, first living into that identity and then proclaiming the validity of indigenous theologies.  The good news shared with them so many years ago is becoming more and more incarnational, like the yeast that a woman hid in the dough, until ALL of it was leavened.


Kingdom parables don’t happen just in Mexico, of course.  A couple of weeks ago, a young woman named Carrie published an open letter to the pastor who had recently arrived at her parent’s church in the USA.  The first two sermons that the new pastor had delivered had been rejecting of gay and lesbian people which had hurt her parents deeply, because Carrie had only recently shared with them that she is lesbian. 

In Carrie’s letter, she told the new pastor that her parents were leaving and she wanted him to know what he was losing. (Please hear me -- leaving a church is almost never a good solution to a conflict with the pastor. It is always always  better to talk things out.  But Carrie is not leaving; her parents are.  And she feels kind of responsible for their quandary.)  In her letter, she described her parents’ very active engagement in the church’s ministries – as trustees and Stephen’s ministers, on mission trips, teaching Sunday School, etc.   

Carrie says, “We are those church people. We weren’t always that family, but then [the church] let my dad play guitar, and showed up with fried chicken when my uncle died, and quite literally saved my life. The church grew up around us like ivy over a wall. Or maybe, streams of living water in a desert.  I’m not saying all this to brag, but to show you who we are: a family whose life has been shaped and guided by our membership at our church, who have found time and again that our church family is strong where we are weak.  Tell me who sinned, my church or my parents, that I grew up believing that I was loved beyond reason?”[5]


Did you catch that – the seed planted within her long ago, the leaven in her church which steadfastly convinced her of God’s unfathomable love?

Way back in 1995, Jim and I attended Peace Camp for the first time.  One of the few things I remember about it was hearing a man  named Javier talk about the work of the Baptist Seminary in Mexico.  He talked about their concern for the people of Chiapas in southern Mexico.  It was one of the first places where indigenous people were organizing to assert their rights and there was armed conflict.  I remember listening intently, without asking any questions, but I think I was close to tears.  Something must have showed in my face because when his presentation was over, Javier came over to me and said, “You really care about this, don’t you?”

That’s the same Javier who is still the seminary president.  And so I wonder what mustard seed was planted 22 years ago, or perhaps even longer.  How has my life been transformed?  How is my life being transformed by the reign of God in ways I might not even see yet?  How is yours?

Jesus’ stories were about simple, everyday things like seeds, weeds and bread, going fishing or going on a journey. In the midst of ordinary life, God is at work.  Among regular people, even those who might believe that they don’t matter to the rest of the world, the kingdom of God is invading, fermenting, subverting the way things are.  Despite all outward evidence to the contrary, God reigns now. 

Sisters and brothers, remember that greatness does not always look like we expect it to.  Even now, mustard seeds are bearing fruit, leaven is making the entire loaf rise, and God’s justice, God’s peace and God’s freedom are breaking out in unlikely ways and unlikely places.    Let us wait in faith and hope.  Thanks be to God.




[1] David  E. Garland, Reading Matthew:  A Literary and Theological Commentary,  Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys, 2013) pp. 151.

[2] Garland, p. 152.

[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1985), pp 117-118. 

[4] Christopher Burkett at http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/proper-12a.html

[5] https://carriesurbaugh.com/