Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Can You Make a Difference?

photo by Dana / flickr

I want to read one of Jesus’ parables to you today. It’s a parable about the Kingdom—the Kingdom of God. And embedded in this story are four words that describe what God’s kingdom really is like. Can you find the four words? "And again he said, 'To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'"(Luke 13.20-21)

Have you already picked out the words? They are: Leaven. Hid. Flour. All. 


Funny, this first word: leaven. For most of the time when this word is used in the Bible it refers to something evil and not good. Jesus warns them to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." That leaven spoiled everything. The Pharisees were really the cold water brigade. Whenever things seemed to be going right they would come up and spoil it all. Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and they were furious. More concerned about the law than the man's health. He healed you on the Sabbath? How many steps did you take? Don't you realize that he has broken God's law. They just got out their buckets and poured cold water over the whole thing. Again and again. 

At the end of one sermon I was standing at my customary place at the back door shaking hands. And a  man came by followed with his
photo by Martha Soukup / flickr
wife and daughter. I could tell by the way he looked that he was upset. He was red-faced and angry. He took a bucket and just doused me. This is what he said: "That was the worst sermon I have ever heard. Here are all these students here and you didn't even approach the gospel." They turned and stalked down the steps. The man turned back and yelled: "We won't be back!" I just stood there cold and clammy. The cold water brigade. The Pharisees had it down to an art form. Jesus said beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. For they were always the cold water brigade. Hurting—not helping.

Paul, when he wrote to Corinth, talked about an ugly, ugly word: leaven. He spit it out. "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven ..." And he defines what that kind of leaven is when he talked to Corinth. The leaven of malice and evil, insincerity and falsehood. (I Cor. 5.6-7) Leaven can destroy the whole thing.

 But Jesus takes this word which meant nothing good and dusted it off, polished it with brasso and made it shine. “To whom shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven…” “Leaven?” they asked. Jesus whispered: "Leaven." They thought he had lost his mind. Leaven, they knew was a bad thing.  

That same Sunday I stood shaking hands and another man came by, followed by his daughter and I guess his wife. He could not have been nicer about the sermon. And you know what they said? “Our daughter has been coming here for three years. And this church means so much to her. And she loves your sermons. We just love visiting here.” They didn’t know what the other man had just said. But they were bringing the kind of leaven Jesus was talking about. I needed it and they provided it. I wished I had told them to go on out and meet that other man in the parking lost and compare notes—but I didn’t.

Leaven was small, Jesus said. And the disciples responded, “Well, it couldn’t be very important if it is that small.” And Jesus said, "No. No. You are missing the point and I haven't even started the parable." They did not understand. Small was always unimportant. But how wrong they were. He had already told them the kingdom was like a seed. Tiny and inconsequential. He had already lifted up a little child, with smudges on her face and said, "This is what the kingdom is like." Had they forgotten all that? Had they already forgotten that He took time for the poor and the little people? Had they forgotten how he treated the disenfranchised and the dispossessed? People like tax collectors and nameless women--even prostitutes. He said they all counted. And so he continued. "The kingdom is like leaven." Little. Small. Tiny and very, very unassuming. Leaven can make a difference and so can we.


But let’s look at the second word embedded in this parable. The word is hidden. The word can mean buried or invisible. Leaven can be hidden in the dough of life.

That leaven was yeast that the cook worked into the dough. When the yeast is hidden in the dough it matters. You can't see it working, but it matters. That yeast, that leaven was a penetrating force that made a difference. 
And so he spoke to the disciples and to the church so little and so tottery. It matters what you do. Work it in--that yeast you hold in your hands. Take what you have and knead it into the kingdom. 

How does it work? My wife used to make sour dough bread. She would take the yeast and knead it into the dough. Then she would cover it with a cloth and leave it overnight. The next morning when I used to come down to breakfast there would be this wonderful smell all over the house. And the dough had risen into this huge loaf.

It wouldn't happen without the kneading. Remember this second word, hidden. You roll up your sleeves and mix the yeast into the dough well. If the kneading is not well-done, if the  leaven does not permeate the dough the loaf will be lumpy and flat. But when it is thoroughly kneaded the yeast lightens the dough. It is filled with thousands of tiny pockets of carbon dioxide. And these pockets of gas cause the bread to rise because they expand when they are heated.

Do you see any similarity between that story and our own stories? We bring what we have our time, our talents and our money. knead it into his kingdom's work. Jesus said the leaven makes a difference when we knead it. Hidden, that’s the word. Nobody may not know it but you—but what you do makes a difference.


photo by kyle Strickland / flickr
Now we come to the third word. Flour. This parable talks about three measures of flour. This was a lot of flour. Three measures represented a bushel of flour. Capon says that is 128 cups. That is 16 five pound bags of flour. You then have to add 42 cups of water. And all this makes 101 pounds of dough. And Capon said this was no 95 pound housewife. This was a huge woman--look at those arms. It would take work to pound that much dough to make bread. 

Now what does all this mean? If we do our work and if we do it properly there's going to be enough. Enough to go around. That's the meaning of the 101 pounds of dough. The leaven touched it all. 

And what we have here in the gospel is a strange arithmetic. We hide our gifts and our talents into some cause and we are not poorer. We grow richer, maybe not on the outside, but we grow spiritually. Like the roots of a tree sunk deep into the ground.


Now for the fourth word in the parable. All.  "It was like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." All. This is a great mystery. A miracle. 101 pounds of dough. How many loaves would that make? I am not sure. I cannot count that high.

Remember the story of the loaves and the fishes that on that hillside of five thousand not a single one went away hungry. Not just the deserving, whatever that means. All. The little boy did what he could and God did the rest. All were filled and when they took up what was left over they could hardly carry the baskets to the Master's feet. That’s why we go to Haiti. That’s why we go out from here to build somebody a ramp and hang sheetrock for somebody who can’t afford it. Sometimes paint a house for somebody who cannot do it themselves. Of course Jesus did not feed everybody that was hungry—but he took what the boy brought—and worked a miracle in somebody’s life—-a whole lot of somebody’s. And we can take what we have and make a difference too. That’s what the story means.

I heard Tony Campolo tell this story that a woman in Chesapeake, Virginia told him. There was a school teacher named Miss Jean Thompson. Each September when school started Miss Thompson greeted each new class the same way: “Boys and girls, I love you all the same. I have no favorites.” Of course, it wasn’t exactly the truth. Every teacher has favorites. But she was determined to treat every student alike. 

photo by Sgt.1st Class Jeff Troth / flickr
Teddy Stallard was a boy Miss Thompson just did not like. She had good reasons. He was sullen and slouched down in his seat. When she spoke to him she only got a “yeah” or “nah” from him. His clothes were musty. Britches almost down to his knees. His hair was unkempt. He was unattractive in just about every way. Whenever she graded Teddy’s papers she got a perverse delight out of putting X’s next to the wrong answers. And when she put the “F” at the top of his papers, she always did it with a flair. She should have  known better. Teachers have records, and she had records on Teddy.

First grade: Teddy shows promise with his word and attitude, but poor home situation. 

Second grade: Teddy is a good boy, but he is too serious for a second grade. His mother is terminally ill.

Third grade: Teddy is  becoming withdrawn and detached. His mother died this year.  His father shows no interest.
Fourth grade: Teddy is a troubled child. He needs help. 

Christmas came and the children brought presents to Miss Thompson and piled them on her desk. They crowded around that afternoon as she opened her presents. They were all wrapped in beautiful paper all except Teddy’s. His was wrapped in brown wrapping paper and held together with Scotch tape. She was surprised he even brought a present.

When she tore open his present there fell out a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a half-empty bottle of cheap perfume. The other children began to giggle, but Miss Thompson snapped on the bracelet and put some of the perfume on her wrist and behind her ear. She said: “Isn’t the bracelet lovely, and don’t I smell good.”

At the end of the day when all the other kids had left, Teddy came over to her desk. “Miss Thompson, all day today you smelled just like my mother used to smell. That’s her bracelet you’re wearing. It looks very nice on you. I’m real glad you liked my presents.” After he left she got down on her knees and cried and cried and asked God to forgive her.

The next day the class had a new teacher. Not really. But Miss Thompson was a changed person. She cared in ways the old teacher had not cared. She reached out in ways the old teacher had not. She spent time with children like Teddy. She nurtured and encouraged and helped tutor him and others who needed special attention. By the end of the school year Teddy had caught up with the other children and was ahead of some of them.

He moved away and Miss Thompson forgot about him. Then one day out of the blue there came this letter.

Dear Miss Thompson, I am graduating from high school. I wanted you to be the first to know. Love, Teddy Stallard.

There was no address. But four years later there was another note and it read:

Dear Miss Thompson, I want you to be the first to know. I’m second in my class.  The university has not been easy, but I really liked it. Love, Teddy Stallard.

And four years later there was still another letter.

Dear Miss Thompson, As of today I am Theodore J. Stallard, MD! How about that! I wanted you to be the first to know. I’m going to be married the 27th of July to be exact. I want you to come and I want you to sit where my mother would have sat. You’re the only family I have now. Dad died last year. Love, Teddy Stallard.

And Miss Thompson went to the wedding. And she sat where Teddy’s mother would have sat..because she deserved to be there.

Do you think Jesus might have had Miss Thompson in mind when he gave us this parable: “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” 

I think he did. I really think he did. 

photo by cobalt123 / flickr

Description of flour and dough from Robert Farrar Capon. The Parables of the Kingdom, p.122

Story of Teddy Stallard from Tony Campolo,  Let Me Tell You A Story,  pp.167-169

(This sermon preached at The First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC , May 22, 2016)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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