First United Methodist Church
July 30th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Finding God in Your Lucky Charms
Focus on the Children
Today I brought with me some yeast. The yeast comes in very small packets. It is very small, yet, in our Bible lesson today, Jesus uses yeast to describe what the kingdom of heaven is like. He talks about mustard seeds too, but I didn’t have any of those handy.
Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." What can we learn from the mustard seed? Well, I think we can learn that we are never too small to be important in God's eyes. You and I may be small, but we can help to grow the kingdom of God.
Some of you may not be familiar with yeast. Do you know what happens when you take a tiny amount of yeast and mix it with water and flour, salt and little bit of sugar? The yeast spreads all through that mixture and produces dough that gives you big, soft, fluffy, delicious loaves of bread. The flour and water and sugar and salt just can't do it alone. The yeast has an affect on everything — just from one tiny piece. Jesus said, "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." That is what Jesus wants us to do. He wants us, as part of his kingdom, to change the world around us and make it better.
The ministry of Jesus started very small—twelve men in an obscure corner of Galilee—but it has spread throughout the world. Like a small amount of yeast affects the entire loaf, the disciples of Jesus have affected the entire world. The nature of yeast is to grow and to change whatever it contacts. When we accept Christ, his grace grows in our hearts and changes us from the inside out. As the gospel changes lives, it changes the entire world.
You may be small, but like the mustard seed and the yeast, you are important in the kingdom of heaven.
Father, help us to remember that size is not important in your kingdom. You can use even the smallest one of us to grow the kingdom and bring change to the world around us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
God of surprising love, you have called us to be your treasures, to be those who love and serve you by helping meet the needs of others. Jesus reminded us that we were like mustard seeds that could grow into mighty shelters for those who felt abandoned; that we were like yeast placed in flour which causes the whole dough to rise and to be fruitful for the nourishment of God’s people, that we are also nets, cast into the unknown sea, gathering people for the Lord that they might be healed and saved. You place so much hope and trust in us. Please help us not to fail you. We bring before you this day persons and situations which need your healing love. Today we pray for [names]. Help us to be vehicles of your love for these dear ones. Give us courage and empower us to serve you boldly and joyfully, for it is in the healing love of Christ that we offer this prayer. AMEN.
The Giving Tree is a children's picture book written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. Although it has become one of Silverstein’s best known titles, it has also been described as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.” The book follows the life of an apple tree and a boy who are able to communicate with each other. The “Boy” enjoys playing with the tree during his childhood. He climbs her trunk, swings from her branches, and eats her apples. As the boy grows older, however, he begins to make requests of the tree.
After entering adolescence, the boy wants money; the tree suggests that he pick and sell her apples, which he does. After reaching adulthood, the boy wants a house; the tree suggests he cut her branches to build a house, which he does. After reaching middle age, the boy wants a boat; the tree suggests he cut her trunk to make a boat, which he does, leaving only a stump.
In the final pages, the boy (now an elderly man) wants only "a quiet place to sit and rest," which the stump provides. The story ends with the sentence "And the tree was happy."
I’ve always considered this book to be a wonderful illustration of the Christian ideal of unconditional love. But as I said earlier, the reviews for this book are divided because some people see the relationship between the boy and the tree as positive since the tree gives the boy selfless love; and others view this relationship as negative, stating that the boy takes advantage of the giving nature of the tree. I think both interpretations are valid, and I bring this up because I find quite often that people find fault in Christian ministries and generosity using this very same argument. But I think people struggle with this particular story, because they don’t understand why the tree was happy.
It’s difficult to understand at first why anyone would give all he or she has in order to maintain an ongoing relationship with someone else. We understand giving – in fact, Christians are often seen as generous givers, and people and organizations don’t hesitate to approach us when they need our generosity. And we do give, because it’s in our nature. Jesus actually encourages us to be generous when he says in Matthew 25, “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink…” And of course, I agree that giving is a good thing. I recently read one of John Wesley’s sermons in which he encouraged us to gain all we can, save all we can and give all we can. Wesley believed that people should work to achieve their highest level of success, live simply so that we don’t waste our resources, and then share the resources that are leftover with those who are unable to meet their basic needs. It’s a good method for making sure that we have the ability to take care of others. But the tree gave everything to the Boy, until all she had left to offer was her stump. But the Boy could use that stump for rest. And so the relationship continued…and the tree was happy.
I think sometimes relationships are undervalued. We often measure our happiness by the number of things we have, but our real treasure is in our relationships. In our scripture today, Jesus reminds us that life’s greatest treasure is to be a part of God’s kingdom through our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Our Scripture this morning introduces us to several metaphors about the Kingdom of God. The most interesting part of all of these comparisons is that they are not as straight-forward as we might expect. Here’s what I mean:
· I told the kids that size doesn’t matter in the Kingdom of God. Most of us grew up reading the parable of the mustard seed with this interpretation – big things often have small beginnings – but the truth is that mustard was a weed, uncontrollable, invasive, and undesirable.
· And then there is leaven: contrary to our cultural associations, leaven in the biblical world was a sign of impurity, and kneading it into the flour irreparably tainted the loaves.
· If a person rushes out to buy a field (or a home or a watch, perhaps) because he or she knows that it is worth far more than the seller is aware, while perhaps shrewd, in today’s world, could also be considered dishonest, and once discovered, a person may find himself in court being sued.
· And finally, there is a surprising joyfulness in the one who sells all to buy a precious pearl, though few around the buyer would likely have understood his actions.
That Jesus makes these statements in quick succession suggests two things to me: First, the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom is threatening before it is comforting, because it invites no half measures. The Gospel makes a claim on your whole life, not just part. It invades your whole world and reality and can’t be contained only to your spiritual, Sunday self. Not only that, but it taints the reality we’ve grown to accept, challenges the views we’ve lived by, and again and again calls into question assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.
These parables say a second thing as well: faith is about seeing – seeing something others do not, seeing something that the world does not acknowledge [or even value] and perhaps does not want you to see – and because of that sight we persevere, we act differently, and we invest in a future at which others might scoff. Faith is not simply about accepting doctrines or practices but is instead about a whole-hearted embrace of a promise. Faith, that is, is not about knowledge but about trust, the kind of trust that leads you to act and speak differently, as if you’ve been invited into a secret that not everyone knows.
The central point of these parables is that the Kingdom is more valuable than anything else. It is worth more than anything or anyone else we can know. It is worth more than all the money or possessions that we can accrue. It is even worth more than our most treasured earthly relationship. Usually if something is beyond my ability to afford, I figure out a way to live without it. But God doesn’t want us to walk away from the Kingdom of Heaven. He wants each one of us to possess this “treasure,” and therefore, he gives it to us as a gift.
When Jesus addresses the disciples, he encourages them to embrace the value of God’s empire in contrast to the Roman empire that they presently live in. Its value is so great that it is worth giving up everything of material value in order to possess it. He again reminds them that they live in a community made up of both evil and righteousness, this time using the image of “good and bad fish.” We are not to worry about the bad fish however. God will do the sorting at the end of the age.
What that also means, though, is that we have to live in a world surrounded by both good and evil. As we live our lives, sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances and situations that we may not be comfortable with. Our needs and desires change, but God’s desire for a relationship with us does not. Just as the tree waited for the boy to return, God waits for us also.
Jesus reveals to us a portrait of Kingdom living, and throughout the gospels he challenges us to live in that kingdom using the innate talents and gifts we have been graced with. Today’s readings help us to recognize the value of kingdom living.
Christ invites us into a very intimate and loving relationship in which we are equipped and empowered to obey God’s commandments: to love God and to love others.
Like the tree, God desires a relationship with each one of us. Although the Boy didn’t realize it, his continuing dependence on the tree to sustain him throughout his life made the tree happy. God’s love is greater and more powerful than anything the tree offered the boy. God offers that love to you free of charge.
We never know where we might discover the love of God. I think Jesus is hinting at this when he rattles off so many different metaphors to describe what the Kingdom of God might be like. In these parables, Jesus shows us that God is present everywhere and in everything. We don’t have to search in faraway places. God is staring at us when we eat our breakfast – if we look deep enough, we may find God in our Lucky Charms. Let us pray…
Lord of mustard seeds and yeast, we come to you this day, seeking your Word and will for us. Make us people who care deeply about the well-being of others. Give us courage to be yeast for the rising of hope and peace throughout the world. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Transition to Offering
Invitation to Discipleship
The tree gave everything to the Boy, until all she had left to offer was her stump. But the Boy could use that stump for rest. And so the relationship between the boy and the tree continued…and the tree was happy. Why was the tree happy? Because the boy was provided for.
God calls us to share our resources. In the words of John Wesley: Go out into the world and gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. Go in peace!