“Hidden in Plain Sight”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
31[Jesus] told another parable to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It's the smallest of all seeds. But when it's grown, it's the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches."
33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough."
34Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. 35This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: I'll speak in parables; I'll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.
CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38380-38389). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Do you remember the great fun, especially on a summer’s evening, of playing “Hide and Seek?” The adrenaline rush of finding just the right hiding place and then trying to stay quiet enough so as not to be found? The suspense of stealthily seeking? The squeals of laughter when you were found and then racing the seeker back to home base? So much fun! Think about all the stories you’ve read or seen on the big of little screen about finding hidden treasure. Or even the love of research or discovery as an adult in whatever field you might be in….discovering something new in science, or a new formula as a mathematician, or a new way of constructing an environmental savvy building as an engineer or architect, or new ways of helping a social justice situation, a new client or customer to help, new plot twists as a writer or word pictures as a poet, a new chord progression as a musician. At times when we finally discover what we are looking for, we marvel….well, that was there all along…hidden in plain sight! We just had to look from a different angle, perspective, turn over one more stone – metaphorically or literally.
Parables are wisdom hidden in plain sight by using comparison, setting two unlike things side by side. Jesus used parables all the time to teach the crowds and his disciples. He was steeped in the Hebrew scripture use of mashal, enigmatic language whose meaning was not immediately apparent. It was riddle-like. Language “intended to tease the mind into insight rather than communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.”[i] The mashal of Hebrew scriptures and the parables of Jesus were both meant to conceal and reveal the wisdom and the activity of God.
Now why do Jesus, and the prophets before him, speak to us in this concealing/revealing kind of way? Why don’t you just say what you mean, Jesus? I think wise ones down through the centuries and through all traditions knew that riddles, the odd comparisons of parables, language that teased the mind and heart slow us down as humans. We need to listen as human beings, not just as human doings. We can get so busy accomplishing, building, making, doing whatever needs to be done that we forget to slow down and listen. A well told parable, story, riddle, poetic image slows us down. We must take time to contemplate, to consider the meanings in our heads and let the wisdom sink into our hearts. This is the sacred activity, activity of the Holy, of God. The wisdom of the Divine is not taught so much as experienced.
Jesus tells the crowds, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in the soil. Something hidden happens there in the darkness of the soil. And the seed begins to grow. The seed grows into the largest of plants…as large as a tree and it is shelter for many living creatures.” What happens to that seed hidden in the dark? We know that inside the seed there is the possibility of new life – an embryo plant. With the right amount of water, the seed splits open and begins to grow a root to gather more water and then a sprout to break the surface of the soil so that it can get sunlight and begin the process of photosynthesis. This happens so often, is so much a part of life around us, that we don’t stop to be amazed. But it is amazing! And hidden as it is, seed growth is a small pattern for the holy work of creation. Nothing would survive on earth without this pattern. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
And Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like yeast hidden in flour dough that causes the dough to grow, to double, triple in size, until it can feed more people than we might have ever imagined.” In fact, hidden in Jesus’s parable is an incredible measure, three measures of flour, translated into a bushel in the Common English Bible. That’s a lot of bread…more than one might make in your kitchen just for fun. Jesus wants us to know that God’s activity can so small like yeast, yet it activates so much! We know that yeast is a single-celled microorganism. It is millions of years old. It reproduces by budding, a new cell growing on the first cell and so on and so forth. When we add it to flour and other bread ingredients it starts to feed on the sugars in the ingredients creating the rising action. This action hidden, in bread making, is another small pattern of the holy work of creation. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
If the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, is like a mustard seed or like yeast, then God’s activity in the world is seemingly small and concealed. Yet, mysteriously, through the energy of God’s love, God’s hidden activity grows exponentially and is revealed as powerfully nourishing. Wow! I find this pattern fascinating. It reminds me of fractals, never-ending patterns found repeating in creation. Examples of fractals are the spiral patterns in our fingertips that show up in the galaxies, patterns in ferns that are in tree branches, patterns in river deltas that are in the very structures of our lungs. A fractal is pattern in the micro that is reflected in the macro and vice versa. Thinking metaphorically, each human being made in the image of God would be a fractal of the Holy One. We are not God, but we hold the patterns of God within us. We need to pay attention!
American author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist, Grace Lee Boggs, wrote, “Transform yourself to transform the world.”[ii] This is thinking of change at the fractal level, at a seed level, at the level of yeast. I know that in this faith community we want to transform the world with and through God’s love and justice. Our first step must be allowing our own transformation through God’s love and justice. Are we allowing the nurturing presence of God into our own hearts and souls, as a seed allows in water and sunlight to grow and mature into the plant it is meant to be? Are we allowing the yeast of God’s Spirit to grow within our lives, inspiring exponential growth that keeps us nourished as we keep on keeping on for justice? Just as we slow down to hear parables, we must slow ourselves to attend to the slow work of God inside of us, transforming our fear and greed and false ego and self-esteem that is too low or too high. The Holy One will bring transformation in unexpected ways, if we slow down and pay attention through prayer, spiritual practice, study, service, faithful fellowship.
It’s a spiral process for as we slow down to attend to our own change, we are also a part of systemic change. Automatically, without any organizing or activism – though those activities have their place. Our transformation influences and catalyzes systemic change without us even knowing. adrienne maree brown writes, “As we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of the patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro.”[iii]
How do we work in community, in this faith community, like fractal patterns of God, like the activity of seeds or yeast? Hmmmm…..I don’t have an analytical answer for that. However, I see the patterns. You all volunteer for ministries in our community, from FFH to children’s Sunday school, to youth group, to making cookies and helping to serve them after a memorial service, to being deacons and trustees, to working with immigrants and welcoming low income and international students back to campus with a housewarming give away, to praying for one another. I could go on and on about all the patterns of God’s activity in the world that I see hidden then revealed within our community. It’s happening! And so, I must assume that the transformations of God’s activity in your lives is happening as well. Hidden, precious, intimate, and yet revealed in your faith and faith works. Keep on keeping on!
One more place, one more reveal, I have wondered about is this… a Beloved Community Covenant. Over the years, we have declared through UCC process, through study, discussion, and prayer. Then finally through a vote that we are a Peace with Justice congregation, an Open and Affirming congregation and an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. We strive to live into these declarations. Now the UCC doesn’t have an official process for being a Beloved Community Congregation. But there are UCC churches that have Community Covenants in which they have through discussion, study, prayer, and discernment laid out a covenant saying, “This is how we will relate to one another through God’s love and justice.” Your staff has an official covenant that we remind ourselves of from time to time. In our staff relationships we will 1.) Speak to a colleague and not about, in the case of conflict. 2.) Once a decision is made in staff meeting, we stand shoulder to shoulder in upholding it. 3.) Always assume the best of our colleagues in their intentions and actions.
What if we took to heart that as a faith community, we are a fractal, a pattern of the greater world? We know the stresses and conflicts, the divisiveness of our culture, our world. If the micro can mirror and transform the macro, what if we extended the covenant we make in membership into a Beloved Community Covenant as a pathway to greater transformation within us and within our wider world? What if in taking this to heart, we had a stated Beloved Community Covenant, created through prayer, study, discussion, and consensus, that we refer to when tough times happen and there are disagreements in discernment about our way forward as church? What if we could always go back to this covenant that has come out of the transforming hearts, minds, and lives of beloved individuals, of you? What if this Beloved Community Covenant reminded us that we hold the seeds, the fractals, the microcosm of God’s love and justice within us to be in relationship with one another? How might we be transformed as a faith community and be greater transforming activity in God’s wider world? What might happen if we truly live out the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, the good news of the parables Jesus proclaimed? What if … we succeed in revealing that God’s Beloved Community is here among us and within us and active in the world? What if?
Amen and amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Matthew, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 147.)
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 53.)
[iii] Ibid., 59.