The Grace of Small Things
Beth Hoffman Faeth July 26, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 13:31–33, 44–51
Jesus presented another parable to the crowds: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Jesus offered still another parable: “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.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a buried treasure found in a field. The ones who discovered it hid it again, and rejoicing at the discovery, went and sold all their possessions and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went back and sold everything else and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, the fishers drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the just and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
* * *
I have come to appreciate the disciples’ presence in the scriptures primarily as comic relief. Often they seem the last to really get what Jesus is talking about, and mostly they seem present to contradict all that Jesus is attempting to teach. While this may be a stretch—the disciples as sketch comics—these days I really need something to make me laugh. How about you? This is how I imagine the scene that Sara read to us earlier:
Jesus is on a roll with the preaching and has assembled a good crowd that did not need to practice social distancing. The disciples take front-row seats. At the beginning of chapter 13 in the gospel of Matthew, we are told that there are so many people following Jesus that he actually gets in to a boat and speaks from the waves of the sea to the assembly gathered on the shoreline. Jesus must have had some pretty good balance. This is where Jesus is for the first two parables in today’s pericope. But then Jesus has had enough of his floating pulpit, so he gets out of the boat and moves to a house, surprised, it seems, to discover that the crowd hasn’t had enough yet and actually follows him inside. In a section of this chapter not included in this week’s lesson, Jesus takes some time to explain a previous parable. He then concludes with the three kingdom parables that were read. (“The kingdom of God is like . . .”) Finally he looks at his disciples, sitting glassy-eyed in the front row, and asks, “Have you understood all this?” And while scripture reports that they dutifully said “Yes!” I do not believe that for a minute. I think, after hearing these puzzling metaphors about inconsequential things really bearing significant outcome they looked at each other with much trepidation and said “Yesss?” while shaking their heads No.
What makes the disciples humorous as well as honest is that they are mirrors of us: progressive Christians trying to understand what Jesus is saying while not really comprehending a word of it, or being the first to argue that Jesus’ proposed scope of equality and justice is impossible—too hard—or even irrelevant. We might even admit that what we really want is to ultimately find comfort in Jesus’ words—thoughts that ease us in the difficulties of our lives rather than illuminating the fact that being a follower of Jesus is challenging . . . especially right now. And when he starts talking in riddles about weeds and seeds and yeast and pearls, what is that supposed to mean?
If someone asked you if you understand the state of the world right now—the racial reckoning, the devastation of the coronavirus, the volatile political situation, the perplexing decisions by elected officials—would you be able to answer, “Yes”? As hard as I try, as much as I read, as present as I attempt to be, I do not understand. I fail to comprehend the hatred and the violence and the polarization and the hurt and the unwillingness of so many to care about others. And so if Jesus looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you understand?” I would so want to say, “Yes”—I am a pleaser after all—and I might begin to nod my head only to say, “No, I do not understand.” The weight of the world is so very heavy, and the burden we feel is great. Jesus is talking about the realm of God, illuminating for us the kingdom of heaven, pointing us towards some kind of existence we are supposed to be able to obtain . . . if only. This kingdom of God that Jesus attempts to explain for us looks and feels very different from our current circumstance. So what on earth are we to do? I have been asking myself that a lot lately.
I think Jesus’ long list of kingdom parables, which may not feel at all relevant, are actually good news. God’s realm is for ordinary, everyday creatures just like us—a farmer, a baker, a fisher, a merchant, a seeker—common lives where people are called to plant and create and keep their eyes open . . . and be ready for the possibilities of joy in what they discover and find. This is what will usher in the kingdom of God—or “kin-dom” as I like to say—that is, the realm of equality and justice and everyone having enough and no one being left behind. This can happen in a field or in a garden or in a kitchen or on a lake. When we do what we are called to do, with faithfulness and purpose, we are working towards the achievement of the kin-dom. There is grace in the small things. There is tremendous possibility in the ordinary. This is what leads to transformation.
Like many of you, I am grieving the death of Rep. John Lewis, and, perhaps like some of you, I have learned more about him in this week since his passing than I was aware of as he lived and breathed. Described by those who loved him as a simple man of great faith, Lewis worked most of his life to call attention to the unjust systems of implicit and explicit racism. I highly recommend the documentary of his life and work called John Lewis: Good Trouble. In this film one can see how consistency and perseverance are the necessary traits of any kind of big change. Dedicated to nonviolent protest, Lewis did day after day, year after year, what we are being beckoned into now. He kept showing up. He kept speaking out. Whether it was to desegregate the lunch counter and public transportation or to assure that everyone had a right to vote, John Lewis was relentless in presence. It is not extraordinary to show up, speak out, stand with. Yet these small things make huge differences. These are the mustard seeds, the yeast, the pearls of systemic change.
“As we participated in protest after protest, sit-in after sit-in, where crowds of uncontrollable angry people swarmed around us yelling and jeering, where we were beaten with billy clubs, lead pipes, trampled by horses, and attacked by dogs, our faith was not dampened, as many people today, looking back on the history, often wonder. It actually grew in power and strength,” Lewis wrote in 2012. “Public support for our work did not decrease because of mob violence and police brutality, it increased. It almost seemed the more the unjust resisted, the more impassioned the call for change.”
Lewis is often referred to as a “civil-rights icon.” Adam Serwer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, says that this is an understatement. Serwer explains that Lewis, along with C. T. Vivian (who died on the same day), Diane Nash and Coretta Scott King are a part of “the Third American Republic, the only one to sincerely pursue the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the first true attempt at interracial democracy in American history . . . .” Serwer writes, “[This] third generation of American leaders elevated the universal truths in Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals meant something. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act remade America into something it had never been, bringing the nation closer to what it fancied itself to be.” Lewis had a vision of God’s kin-dom of which he never let go, even when he knew it would not be achieved in his lifetime. He was a seed planter, a bread baker, a treasure hunter . . . and himself a pearl in a world of oysters.
Perhaps Jesus’ parables about the kin-dom of God are hard to understand, but that does not mean we should stop imagining what God’s realm could be. Like John Lewis, we must create a vision, and then we hold on to that vision while doing all we can to make that vision reality. These kingdom parables of Jesus suggest that God is in every nook and cranny of our daily life—from kneading dough to planting seeds. The possibilities for the kin-dom of God exist in your back yard and mine, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, or the corner of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. It takes a mustard-seed kind of faith and a willingness to put our hands in the dough and knead. But transformation is possible. The kin-dom of God could be reality.
Over and over, John Lewis would say, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just—say something, do something—get in trouble, necessary trouble, good trouble.” He also knew that the change he longed for and the justice he sought would take time—more time than many have patience for. “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.” He also knew that when we do not understand, or when we do not know what to do, or when the weight of the world shatters our strength into a million pieces, we must not give up. “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic,” Lewis encouraged.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that something small and invisible to the eye can be devastating, destructive, deadly. Jesus reminds us that there is also tremendous possibility and extraordinary grace in the minute: a mustard seed; granules of yeast; a pearl; a fish—tiny little things that, in the hands of a dedicated someone, can make a big difference. We do not always need to understand in order to do something—say something. We do not need to change the world alone, we simply must do the next right thing. It is not necessary to have the entire path illuminated, we are invited to just take the next step. People of faith, people of hope . . . believe in the grace of small things. Trust in the power of the ordinary. Do what you feel compelled to do. Love with abandon, get in some good trouble, do not doubt the potential that lies within. Let us usher in the common, spectacular, ordinary, exemplary power of God’s kin‑dom . . . together.
Adam Serwer, “John Lewis Was an American Founder,” The Atlantic, July 18, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/how-john-lewis-founded-third-american-republic/614371/ (accessed July 29, 2020).
John Lewis on movement building in Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (New York: Hachette Books, 2012), 65–66.