Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Mustard Seed Story And Community Organisers

Ezekiel 17.22-24
Matthew 13.31-34



All Age Version
The story of the enormous turnip is about a tiny seed that grew so big that it was able to feed an old man and his wife, a boy and his sister, a cat and a dog, and even a mouse. The mustard that seed Jesus describes in his story isn’t the sort of mustard we eat in mustard and cress sandwiches. It’s a plant called ‘black mustard’ which starts out as a teeny tiny seed but quickly grows to almost three metres high. Birds can nest in its branches and it grows larger than any other garden plant.

When we turn to the other example, baking bread, a tiny amount of yeast mixed with flour and water makes a loaf that’s three times bigger than all the ingredients on their own.

Actually, in the time of Jesus a baker didn’t use yeast but - more usually - sourdough, which is a quarter or so of yesterday’s bread dough kept overnight in a warm place and then mixed with today’s dough. The sourdough is sometimes called ‘the mother dough’ because it makes the whole mixture rise. One part mother dough and three parts flour and water mixed together make today’s bread.

Jewish people start a new mother dough once a year, because during the festival of unleavened bread they have to remove all the yeast and sourdough from their homes and shops. So every year they get a reminder of how special yeast or sourdough is, and what a big difference it makes to bread.

A couple of weeks ago I went away to find out about a new government project called ‘community organisers’. A community organiser is a person who goes out into their community and starts knocking on doors, to try to find out what people really love about the place where they live and what really concerns them about it. The community organiser has to gather around them a network of 1,500 people who then work together to make the neighbourhood a better place to live. And the other people in the network then encourage their own family and friends to join. From a small beginning - just one person knocking on doors - the movement soon becomes thousands strong.

When people hear about this they think it’s a wonderful new idea. Hundreds of community organisers are being recruited around the country and we’re thinking of having some on the Portobello Estate near here. But actually the idea is thousands of years old. This is what Jesus was thinking about when he told his friends about yeast and mustard seed.

Jesus’ friends are supposed to be like a group of people who meet together for Bible study, prayer and worship and then go out into their community to make a difference.



Version for Grown-Ups
The mustard that Jesus describes in his story isn’t the sort of mustard we eat in mustard and cress sandwiches. It’s a plant called ‘black mustard’ which grows in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. It starts out as a tiny seed but, within a few months, it grows to almost three metres in height, or about nine feet tall. Birds can nest in its branches. It’s larger than any other garden plant of Jesus’ day, though today Japanese Knotweed would surely be bigger and more vigorous.

When we turn to Jesus’ other example, baking bread, an ounce of yeast mixed with a pound of flour and ten fluid ounces of water makes a standard loaf of bread. That’s twenty times more flour than yeast, and with dried yeast the contrast is even more striking, but - of course - without the tiny amount of yeast the bread won’t rise.

Actually, in the time of Jesus a baker didn’t use yeast but - more usually - sourdough, which is a quarter or so of yesterday’s bread dough kept overnight in a warm place and then mixed with today’s dough to make it rise. The first batch of sourdough is called the ‘mother dough’ and it’s made by mixing flour and water and keeping it for up to a week until natural yeasts develop in the dough and give it a distinctive sour taste. Bakers will often keep their mother dough going for years, taking it with them if they have to move from place to place. One part sourdough and three parts flour and water are then mixed together to make today’s batch of bread.

Jewish people start a new mother dough once a year because, during the festival of unleavened bread, they have to remove all the yeast and sourdough from their homes and shops. So every year they get a reminder of how special yeast or sourdough is, and what a big difference it makes to bread.

A couple of weeks ago I went away to an overnight conference to find out about a new government project called ‘Community Organisers’. A community organiser is a person who goes out into their community and starts knocking on doors, to try to find out what people love about the place where they live and also what concerns them about it. The community organiser has to collect the contact details of 1,500 local people and build a network that can be contacted when anything important happens. They also have to gather around them a team of ten volunteers who must help them set up three or four little projects that will help to make the neighbourhood a better place to live.

Then - rather like the disciples being sent out in pairs by Jesus to carry on his work throughout the Land - the volunteers go out and recruit their own family and friends into the network and start getting together a team of volunteers of their own. And all the while the number of people in touch with one another and working together in the network grows and grows. From a small beginning - just one person knocking on doors - the movement becomes thousands strong.

When people hear about this they think it’s an exciting new idea. Hundreds of community organisers are being recruited around the country and we’re thinking of having some in Darnall and also on the Portobello Estate. But actually the idea is thousands of years old. They’re an example of putting into practice Jesus’ teaching about yeast and mustard seed .

This is what the Church is supposed to be like - a group of people meeting together for Bible study, prayer and worship who then go out into their community to make a difference. Just as the community organiser knocks on doors to try to sow the seeds of change we are supposed to go out and sow the Gospel message in words and actions until we bring in the harvest of God’s Kingdom.

Of course, if community organisers take their real inspiration from the stories of Jesus - even when they don’t recognise the connection - so Jesus himself was inspired by earlier stories too. Ezekiel tells how the Lord has promised to take a ‘slip’ - which is just a horticultural term for a  soft stemmed cutting - from the lofty crown of a mighty cedar tree and plant it in the ground on a high mountain, the highest for miles around, where it will slowly grow into a new cedar tree, just as noble as the original, and birds of every kind will be able to roost in it.

The stories of Jesus and Ezekiel, and the modern example of the Community Organisers’ Programme, all remind us that there are two ways of growing and developing a network. One way is for a single pioneer to start from scratch, going out and knocking on doors. Other members of the new network then do the same thing in their turn, going out to extend the network into new territory. That’s the mustard seed approach.

But there is another way of growing a network, and that is to split it in two, or send a part of the network out to form a new group around which different people can coalesce. That’s like taking part of today’s bread dough and keeping it to be tomorrow’s mother dough when you’re making sourdough bread, or like taking a cutting from an established plant to cultivate a new one.

Both ways of engaging in mission demand great courage and perseverance. The first approach requires courage from the individual pioneer who goes out to do cold calling. The second approach requires a willingness to leave the comfort and protection of a large group in order to form a small group that will try to replicate what the original community has already achieved.

As Christians we’re challenged to think about both approaches. The Community Organisers’ Programme demonstrates how, in any case, they are not always so very different. While the community organiser goes out to knock on doors, they are soon encouraged to gather a small group of activists around them, as well as to build a wider network of supporters.

This is how the Methodist Church grew, of course, with travelling and local preachers going out to start new communities in towns and villages which hadn’t been visited before, and then nurturing small groups or classes which could encourage one another and then go on to draw in more people into the Methodist Connexion.

We tend to think of all this activity as ancient history. ‘The world has moved on,’ we tell ourselves. ‘We need to find new ways now of building and developing the network of people who believe and trust in Jesus.’ But if community organisers can still succeed using these tried and tested methods, what does that have to say to us?

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