3 Pentecost, Proper 6 – June 13, 2021
This morning we’re hearing the parable of the mustard seed. Eugene Peterson, somewhere, has called parables “narrative time bombs” and that is certainly what today’s parables are. They are meant to undermine our assumptions of what we think are the “givens” and even the “realities” that we accept without question and offer us a vision of something different. In Greek “parable” comes from two words: para, meaning “beside,” and ballein, meaning “to throw.” A parable is then throwing one thing (a vision of God’s kingdom) beside another (the world as it is) in order to see what happens. The comparisons are unpredictable – sometimes stark, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, sometimes something to mull over. But because they call into question accepted “truths,” they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.
So, let’s look at our parables today. In the first parable, a gardener scatters seed on the ground, and goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves (or, as Mark puts it, “the earth produces of itself”), and when the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second parable, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.
Both of these parables, are meant to show us what the kingdom of God looks like, but they are actually counter-cultural to the point of sounding ridiculous. As in: they make no sense. But remember, parables are intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we’d take them on our own.
What is the kingdom of God like? And are you sure you really want to know? Because today Jesus is saying: the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds.
I remember in elementary school when we placed a bean seed in a little paper cup filled with soil, put it on the classroom window sill, and then waited and watched. You put a seed in the dark ground and, just like magic it turns into something else: something green, thriving, perhaps even spreading across the ground.
This discontinuous, mysterious nature of the seed is part of what our gospel wants to get at with the parabolic comparison with the Kingdom of God. A seed once planted is a mystery being revealed. It unfolds by its own operation in the soil. Gardeners may sleep and rise, but a seed’s work is automatic. Which is counter cultural. Don’t most gardeners worry about their plants. They make neat little rows in well-manicured beds. They keep a wary eye on the weather. They protect their gardens from birds, rabbits, and deer. From early spring until harvest time, they water, they fertilize, they prune, they weed, and they worry.
But the gardener in Jesus’s parable? Well, Debbie Thomas shares some great thoughts. He sleeps. He doesn’t micro-manage. He doesn’t second-guess. Instead, he enjoys the rest that comes from leaning into a process that is ancient, mysterious, cyclical, and sure. He trusts the seeds. He trusts the soil. He trusts the sun, the shade, the clouds, the rain. Yes, he participates in the process by planting and harvesting. He pays attention to the seasons, and gets to work when the time is ripe. But he never harbors the illusion that he’s in charge; he knows that he’s operating in a realm of mystery.
Which brings us to the soil. According to Jesus’s parable, the kingdom of God is both fertile and hidden, both generous and mysterious. It works its magic underground, deep beneath the surfaces we see and quantify. The soil eventually brings forth abundance, but the process of that bringing forth — all those nitty-gritty details that we long to dissect and master — is hidden from our eyes. If anything, we live in the disconcerting time between the planting and the harvest. We look outside and see nothing but dark earth and fragile shoots. Vast expanses of hope, longing, love, and uncertainty. Deep desire and delicate potential. As Annie Dillard puts it so beautifully, “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.”
I think, perhaps, many of us struggle to trust the soil. The soil where I “plant” my prayers, but then refuse to let them rest and germinate in God’s care.
In Jesus’s second parable, a sower sows a mustard seed in the ground. The joke here is not only that mustard seeds are tiny, but that the people in Jesus’s day didn’t plant mustard seeds. Mustard was a weed — and a noxious, stubborn weed at that. If a first century gardener in Palestine were foolish enough to plant it, it would quickly take over his land, dropping seeds everywhere, and breaking down all barriers of separation between itself and the other plants in the garden. Imagine a gardener today planting dandelions or broom weed. These are commonplace nuisances we try to get rid of, not plants we’d ever cultivate on purpose.
Mustard is not a plant that grows with any stateliness or beauty, either. It’s nothing like a cedar, or a giant sequoia, or even a well-tended rose bush. It grows like a weed, and it looks like one.
So then, just what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy as a tiny, insignificant mustard seed? What does it mean to take an invasive, spindly weed — a plant we’d sooner discard than sow — and make it the very heart, the very structural center, of God’s kingdom? Who and what counts in God’s economy? What is beautiful? Who matters? Where do we see the sacred?
Let’s look at Jesus, the speaker of this parable — Jesus himself — comes to earth as a tiny and forgettable “mustard seed.” A backwater baby born into poverty on the edges of empire. The people who first follow him when he grows up are a bunch of raggedy fishermen and corrupt tax collectors. Clueless, clumsy, timid, and doubtful, I prefer the term misfits. Is it really the case that God’s kingdom rests on people like these? Yes. Absolutely yes. People like these are people like us.
Perhaps one of the messages today is about not discounting the tiny seeds. The gradual unfoldings in our lives. The seemingly insignificant places where the earth shifts, and the “weeds” grow.
The last image in this set of parables is that of nesting birds finding shade in the branches of the mustard plant. It’s a nice image on its surface, but it, too, as it turns out, is a joke: who wants birds taking up residence in their gardens? Birds eat seeds and fruits. They wreak havoc in cornfields. Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.
But Jesus isn’t a scarecrow kind of gardener. Why? Because the kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome. Sheltering the unwanted. Practicing radical inclusion. The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to offer nourishment to everyone. Its primary purpose is hospitality, not productivity.
How many times have we shooed the birds away because we’re so busy policing our gardens? Whose needs, hungers, and hopes have we ignored because our eyes are locked on the ground of our own efforts, intentions, priorities, and plans?
And so, is this the sideways truth of this parable: that the kingdom Jesus proclaims isn’t something we can control. It’s not something we’d even want, at least if we’re even minimally satisfied with the way things are. Instead, the kingdom comes to overturn, to take over, to transform the kingdoms of this world. Which is why Jesus’ preaching and teaching stir things up, both then and now. “Look out, get ready”, Jesus seems to be saying to us, “for here comes the kingdom.”
If we believe that this is how God does things, then what will we do? Well, we will begin to look for the mustard seeds. Look for the first signs of this kingdom with faith and optimism. We won’t be too quick to dismiss the small and insignificant. You will not give up on yourself, on others, on the church, or even on the world just because you see many signs of sin and brokenness. Rather, you will believe in God’s possibilities even if the evidence is as tiny as a mustard seed.
To believe this is to receive the gift of a new perspective. You can do great things for God if you are willing to offer yourself to the one who has planted in you the tiny seeds of love, generosity, mercy, justice and kindness.
The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, began her orphanage with such a vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.” A dream and three pennies represented resources as small as a mustard seed. “Mother Teresa,” her superiors chided gently, “you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies…with three pennies you can’t do anything.” “I know,” she said, smiling, “but with God and three pennies I can do anything.”
Can we lean into this bizarre and laughable kingdom? Can we let go? Can we trust that the God of the tiny seed is also the God of the magnificent harvest? My prayer is that we may we learn to do so. Amen.