[As he was teaching in parables, Jesus] also said, “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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
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.
I’ll admit, I’m completely out of my element when it comes to agrarian discussions like the one presented to us by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I come from a long line of farmers and smaller-scale gardeners who have toiled in the careful work of planting vegetables and taking care of farm animals. I suppose that family line will have to be carried on by my cousins, because I don’t have so much as a green thumb.
I remember, as a kid, spending time in the summers at my maternal grandparents’ farm. While there, I spent more time chasing my cousins around the farmhouse or sitting in a corner playing on a portable game system than I did doing anything else. But on occasion, the allure of those forms of entertainment would wane and I would go out into the garden to help my grandmother pull weeds out of the vegetable garden. As a child, it seemed to me to be a futile endeavor. Why bother pulling those weeds out if they’re just going to grow back anyway?
Needless to say, my time weeding in the garden did not ever last long. My grumblings were more annoying than my work was helpful.
I want to point out, though, that my grumblings contained an important truth. Even if you don’t tend the garden, something is going to grow there. It may be grass or clover or another weed, but some seed will find its way into the garden and flourish, even if its at the expense of the thing you wanted to grow there. To quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, “life…finds a way.” Something will flourish, even if its not what you intended.
In the second parable we read, Jesus focuses in on one plant in particular: mustard. It’s a wild crop, not easy to contain. Even still, it’s a desirable plant. I’m told many winemakers allow mustard to grow uninhibited in their vineyards to repel pests, ensure proper moisture in the soil, and, when mulched, provide fertilizer for the vines.
Of course, the most common use of mustard is the use of its seeds as a condiment. Those of you who, like my wife Mallory, could not live without the taste of mustard will be pleased to know that during the days of Jesus, mustard was believed to have multiple health benefits. A 1st century Roman naturalist named Pliny the Elder believed that mustard is “extremely beneficial for health” and is helpful in the treatment of everything from a toothache to tetanus.
The seeds of the mustard plant are small and insignificant, but they’re potent! They’re packed with flavor and potential for vegetative life.
The growth potential of a mustard seed is also significant in comparison to it’s small size. They may not actually be the smallest of all seeds, but they’re pretty close! And just look at how big they can get! Okay, so maybe a mustard plant isn’t as formidable as a mighty cedar, it is but a shrub after all, but even mustard bushes have a grandeur of their own. Especially when they are spread out over a large area.
And, Jesus says, this plant becomes a place where the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. They are not only fruitful in bearing seeds good for food and multiplying, but they also provide shelter for birds.
Last week, as our “Methodist Munchers” group gathered for lunch, I heard all about the ingenuity of birds and their nesting habits: places where we would rather them not build a nest. On our porch, for instance. Or in places where we just wouldn’t expect to find them, like our newspaper box. Birds, it seems, can make their nest wherever they choose.
And if there’s anything we’ve gathered from this parabolic image of the seed, bush, and birds so far, it’s that there’s nothing we can do to stop this natural process. Seeds blossom where they’re planted, even when planted inadvertently. Birds nest wherever they can find shelter. We can involve ourselves in the process and try to encourage or discourage such natural processes, but we can’t stop them.
Jesus uses the tiny mustard seed and it’s extraordinary fruitfulness n this parable to convey a rich truth about life that speaks to all of us.
Mustard seeds are small and insignificant…just like we are. Look around us. We’re surrounded by signs of our smallness! Each of us makes up just a small piece of a greater whole. Each of us are one of 54,000 United Methodists gathering in Western PA this morning for worship, for instance. We’re just one of 300 million people living in the United States of America. We’re one of 7.6 billion people on planet earth. And if we don’t feel as small as a mustard seed yet, just think about how small even our planet looks from space probes that have been sent millions of miles into space.
Our community’s graduates are soon going to understand their smallness in the wider world, if they don’t already. Even fathers, who we also recognize on this day, can only do so much. They can’t, in the end, make decisions for their children. I saw an article recently that tried to reassure parents, saying “it doesn’t really matter what you do, because your kid will turn out fine no matter how you parent them.” I’m not sure that’s true. But it is always tempting to get carried away by our own significance.
But we’re not that significant. We’re just a small seed. Even when fully grown, we might only ever reach six feet in height. Even we, as human beings, won’t end up as tall as the mighty cedars.
Yet, we can be potent. All of us, though we’re small seeds, can grow into someone that flourishes with a purpose. Like a mustard seed, we each bring our unique flavors to the world. Like a mustard plan, we provide some protection, ground cover, for others to thrive.
That is, we’ll flourish like the mustard seed as long as we are planted.
Planted in the identity of a family.
Planted in the shared history and struggles of a community.
Planted in the faith journey of a church.
When we’re planted in a fertile environment, we can thrive. We can have a positive impact on the wider ecosystem, so to speak.
It’s not only true for us as individuals, it’s also true of the church. When we’re deeply planted in a patch of fertile ground, when we connect with our community and its needs, when we provide sanctuary for others, we’ll flourish.
We’ll be able to grow. Maybe only to the size of a mustard plant. Maybe only to what others deem to be an insignificant size. Even still, like a mustard plant, we can flourish where we are.
We too can become, as Jesus says tongue-in-cheek, “the greatest of all shrubs!”
The wonderful, if surprising, thing about Jesus’ image is that it all happens naturally. Seed is scattered and it grows, but we don’t make it happen. As long as the conditions are right, as long as the environment is accommodating, the tiny seed will sprout and, some day, the harvest will come.
It’s not up to us.
But it’s also much bigger than us. Whether we’re talking about our selves or our church, we’re not the only seed and we’re not the only bush. There’s a bigger picture.
Jesus calls it the kingdom of God.
Not the kingdom of Eldersville United Methodist Church.
Not the kingdom of the United Methodist Church.
Not even the kingdom of Christians.
The kingdom of God.
All of this growth, all of this potent fruitfulness, is about who God is and what God is doing.
Friends, we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to fail every once in a while. All the while, we realize that it’s not about us. It’s not dependent on us.
Look at the stories of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark. They fail all the time. They fail to understand, fail to act appropriately, fail to learn the lessons Jesus is teaching them. But from the tiny mustard seed of their faith, the kingdom of God has grown. And it continues to grow in us!
Like the great and mighty mustard seed, we have the potential to flourish when we’re planted. All the while, we trust that God is working all things together for good and that God is bringing the heavenly kingdom, one seed at a time.
God’s work may not always look majestic in our personal life, or even in the life of our church, but God is growing something that is potent, protective, and even curative. For this, the work of God among us, we give thanks! Amen.