With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)
There are many stories in the Bible that invite us to wonder about God and the Kingdom or Reign of God. Our readings today are not different. Today we are invited to ponder why God would chose the youngest and smallest of all the sons of Jesse to be king over Israel[i] and why a seed as small as a mustard seed becomes a fitting analogy for the Kingdom of God. Now – choosing David as king I can sort of be ok with because his physical size would, of course, be no indication of how he may lead a people, but the mustard seed as God’s kingdom?
"The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed..."
I don't know about you, but when I thought of mustard seeds the only thing that came to mind was pickling spice. I do not recall ever using mustard seeds on their own, but I have used them in various dishes and when used for making pickles, they give cucumbers the flavor they need to be more than just a tasteless pickle. One website writes - "Without herbs and spices, a pickle would be a bland shadow of the fresh cucumber it started out to be."[ii] Without the mustard seed thus a pickle just isn’t a pickle – and without them soups and stews and meats might lack a depth of flavor because, although small and tiny, mustard seeds are able to flavor an entire dish. Still -- "The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed..."?
Sowing Seeds is a common theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. The Bible teaches us there is a proper time to sow and to harvest. A seed that is planted and nurtured can grow into something amazing. Jesus uses the example of the mustard seed to talk about the reign of God and to illustrate how something very small can become larger and greater over time. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark use the mustard seed as a measure of faith that can move mountain. Even a little faith can do big things. In our reading today, however, there is no talk of faith. Instead we are left wondering ...a mustard seed?
A mustard seed is tiny, and it is difficult to imagine that something benefitting many or even all can grow from something so small – and even something unwanted. See, that is the strange and funny part of this parable. The first hearers of Jesus message would have wondered why Jesus chose a mustard seed, because mustard was more of a weed – an annoying plant that stubbornly sprung up when least expected and in places where it was not wanted; sort of like a Dandelion. Yet, if we delve deeply into scripture we see that this is how God has always been doing things. God sees Mustard seeds and the possibilities that can spring forth form something that is small and seemingly insignificant or even annoying. God sees possibilities where we do not. I mean, let’s be honest, who would, in their right mind, have thought that the answer to all that ails the world and the salvation of all of humankind ought to start with and depend on a small baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. God did.
Right here, almost halfway between Christmas 2017 and Christmas 2018 (the actual midway date is June 24/25, 2018), it is easy to forget just how astounding it is that the small and humble beginning of Christ has led to a worldwide movement that still brings many of us to church every week even more than 2000 years later. Wherever we go, we can usually find a building somewhat like ours – built to have a place of worship and to honor that small baby and the man he became; a place to worship the God that always was and that came to be with us and is with us in our daily, small lives. But God always starts out small, especially new things:
- Ex nihilio - Out of nothing
- Out of a handful of dirt and a breath
- Out of one nomad named Abraham
- Using the smallest and youngest of the sons of Jesse – named David
- Out of a young girl named Mary in Nazareth and a small baby born to that young girl. Born in a stable – Jesus of Nazareth. God with us.
God created and creates out of small. God created and creates out of the weak and vulnerable. God created and creates out of the lowly. God created out of a little town and a girl and the whole world still speaks about it. The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that Christianity may have had a very small and humble beginning and at times it may even have seemed doomed, it nevertheless has grown big and wide, into a worldwide community of believers.
To me this is a hopeful message and sometimes a much-needed reminder, especially in this current day and age, when we look at Pews or bank accounts that do not look as full as they may have been a few years ago, and we wonder if the Church at large as well as local houses of worship like Trinity can survive; when we read or watch the news and learn about 2000 and more children forcibly being taken away from their parents who simply wanted a better future for them[iii]; when statistics tell us that people on minimum wage are not making enough money to rent an apartment anywhere in the United States and yet fair wages for all just aren’t even on the horizon[iv]; when shootings occur in our schools or workplaces and on our streets; when sexism, racism, and homophobia keep so many people from living their lives to the fullest; or when worry or even fear about our own future or that of our children and grandchildren grips us…
…That is when it is a good time to stop and to remember the mighty mustard seed. Yes, the mighty mustard seed.
Did you know that mustard plants contain health-promoting oils that break down into chemicals that, as various studies have shown, can act as anti-inflammatories and that even seem to inhibit cancer growth? Mustard seeds are also an excellent source of selenium, a trace element that is also thought to have an anti-cancer effect[v]. Mustard is a healing herb and the mustard brush, just as Jesus said, can grow big and become home to birds and provide shade to other animals hiding beneath. Not a mighty cedar that towers over everything but a shrub that grows possibly even in the places where we least expect it. It is a small seed that can have a big impact and it yields a plant with many health benefits.
“The reign of God is like a mustard seed….”
If a mustard plant grown from a tiny mustard seed can stop inflammation and pain and cancer growth, then imagine what pain and suffering and societal cancers the reign of God can stop or even cure. And do not doubt that it will. Just as the first parable in our reading told us, “the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” We may not know how, but we can rest assured that growth does take place.
And Paul’s letters call us to respond to God’s gracious, mysterious kingdom work by committing to living lives rooted in Christ’s love. Love, unwavering love, and not might is what transforms us. And love is what we have to offer to the world. Love is what we can offer to flavor the soup of all of creation. The kind of love that was shown to us by the example of the man that the little baby born in Bethlehem grew up to be. He forgave sin, he feed the hungry, he healed the sick, he served by washing the feet of his disciples, and he refused to be silent in the face of injustice and oppression. Jesus was a servant king and we are a servant people and it is the love we have received in Christ, that moves us toward loving the way he did. Let us remember these words from Paul: “For the love of Christ urges us on” and in Christ “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new”[vi].
Where is the Reign of God bearing fruit in your own life?
As UCC pastor and author Rachael Keefe writes, “This mustard seed parable of the tenacity and unpredictability of God’s Realm should guide us in our interactions with our neighbors. Yes, we need to plant seeds with care and nurture the crops of loving kindness. But in other situations where it seems we have no control and there is no hope for new life, we must look for the signs of God’s Realm unfurling it’s tiny, fragile leaves. The seed of God’s Realm could take root with any act of kindness, any effort to reach beyond what is comfortable and known, any tentative welcome of the stranger, or any tender mercy extended to the most vulnerable among us.
All hope is not lost, even in this violent, self-destructive world. The Realm of God is alive and well… Let’s be generous with our compassion, our kindness, our mercy, our patience, and our love. Let’s scatter the seeds everywhere... There’s no knowing exactly where and when the Realm of God will grow strong and blossom with justice, healing, and grace for all of Creation.[vii]
No longer a small mustard seed but a mighty mustard seed, watered with the waters of baptism and fertilized by our participation in the reign of God it grows hope and healing – now and always.
[i] From today’s Hebrew Scripture (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13)
[v] http://www.ijsr.net/archive/v4i8/SUB157340.pdf, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4928060/, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/18/mustard-good-for-you-anti-cancer-healthy
[vi] From today’s Epistle (2 Corinthians 5:6-17)