"A Humble, Little, Mustard-Seed Sized Potential"
a sermon based on Luke 13: 18-21
The mustard seed is small and round, a tight little package. But, like dynamite, it can pack a real “whallop” when you bite into it: hot & spicy! Mostly we see mustard when it has been ground up, with a bit of vinegar & water added, suitable for spreading on hot dogs and hamburgers. It is potent as a spice, but, as a seed, it is quite insignificant… almost nothing.
So, when Jesus says: “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what should I compare it?” I doubt that anyone around him would have suggested the humble, little, perfectly ordinary, mustard seed! I’ll bet that most of his disciples and the crowd in the synagogue that Sabath day would have thought of bigger and better things than a measly mustard seed!
He went on to compare it with yeast! “It is like leaven (which is yeast) which a woman took and mixed into three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” First, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, then it’s like the yeast that rises in loaf of sourdough?
How about you compare God’s realm to a real kingdom, Jesus!? You know, something with the trappings of royalty and power, like Caesar’s Empire or Herod’s entourage. To what should you compare the kingdom of God? How about a KING!? I mean “DUH!” – Jesus, is that so far-fetched?
It had been traditional to speak of the Messiah – the Son of David, the Anointed One of God – as a royal figure.
God’s Realm was always thought of as something “high and lifted up.” Images of heaven were like the courts of old, with crowns and thrones, with royal servants and messenger-angels at your beck and call, with palaces & officials, with lords & ladies. That was the NORM. That’s what most folks thought of when they heard “Kingdom” of God.
But not in Jesus’ mind. He seems to prefer more humble and ordinary images from life – realistic snapshots from life, grassroots experiences like farming and baking – featuring real people you might meet on the street.
This week the kingdom of God is like a spicy little seed; next Sunday I will talk about the yeast spreading its ferment through the mixture of bread dough. But, think of it – a tiny single grain of mustard seed that’s been sown in a man’s garden; or a pinch of yeast that a woman has added to her bread flour! (?) I mean, how low will Jesus go to make God’s Kingdom “accessible” to the ordinary person?
Thinking about the spreading effect of the yeast (which we’ll talk about in more detail next week), caused me to notice something about the “mustard seed” symbol. It’s not the seed itself that is the Kingdom of God. (!) Here is what Jesus says: “It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” So, the seed was planted in a garden, where it grew, where it changed; where it turned into something else: a shelter for the birds.
Think of it this way: the kingdom of God may be small, ordinary, and as insignificant as a seed at the start… but Jesus does not leave it there. It is the sowing of the seed, the growing of the seed, and the spreading of the mustard sprouts into a bush that eventually (in hyperbole) becomes a tree… that Jesus says is like God’s realm.
The seed is only the potent package that starts the process. It’s not the end point, the goal, the culmination… No! The humble, little, mustard seed represents a great potential when it is planted and allowed to ripen & grow to maturity.
It’s the marvelous “living dynamic” of change & growth -- hard-wired in the seed’s own DNA (as it were) -- adaptation over time -- that parallels the working of God’s Spirit in our lives & in the world.
The Kingdom of God is represented (in this Parable) as the vigorous growth of a simple seed, growing to maturity (so that new seeds are sown by nature), gradually taking over the area, branching out. In other words (if I may put it this way): the point of comparison is not the tiny object itself, but the action. The Kingdom of God is like what happens when a person plants a single grain of mustard-seed in a garden which (in time) may produce a plant as tall as they are.
Of course, it takes more than just a good seed and time. It needs good soil, sufficient water, and the gardener may need to tend the plant by pulling weeds from around it. But the picture Jesus gives us in this Parable also means that the plant was not pulled up, like a weed, nor that it was harvested for mustard greens or for its seeds which would be gound into spices. No, the mustard plant must have been left by the man… to mature and grow to its full size.
So, how is this picture like God’s Kingdom? I suspect that the power-brokers of Judea -- the chief priests and teachers of the Law, the wealthy men & elite ruling families -- may have wanted Jesus to give them a more impressive “high class” metaphor for God’s Realm than a mustard seed -- no matter how big it grew! But I’ll bet that Jesus’ message resonated well with the left-outs and left-overs, the people who felt “too small to count”, too poor to make any mean-ingful contribution to their society… too weary even to lift their hopes! They felt like they were just measly little “mustard-seed sized” folks in a big & busy (perhaps even overpowering) social system.
I don’t know… Maybe some of us are feeling that way about now. We’re surrounded with big problems in the news, big business running the show, and a few “too-big-for-their-britches” politicians sucking all the goodwill out of our society even as they suck out our taxes, tariffs, fees, & fines. How can any of us make a difference? We’re just a handful of ordinary folks, like so many mustard seeds.
Well, the seed may be small, but that is only the raw beginning of a very “potent” process. Jesus reminds the crowd that the size at the beginning has nothing to do with the “potential” of what may come. (!) One never knows the extent of results which a single, small seed may produce in time, if – under the right circumstances – it survives, germinates, grows and matures… as it produces ever-wider branches and begins to regenerate itself in dozens of blossoms and new seed pods. Don’t give up! So much new-ness, and good-ness, and productive-use can come from one small kernel of a beginning!
Here’s an example: Given the historical importance of Jesus, it is remarkable to think of what a “tiny seed” in time, energy, & location his public ministry was. In Matthew, Mark, & Luke’s Gospels, Jesus’ ministry – from his baptism to his crucifixion – lasted only one year. (!) The Gospel of John suggests that it was three years, because Jesus went three times to Jerusalem as John tells it. Even if that larger time frame is correct, three years is still quite brief! (Just think, I’ve been the Minister here at First Church for twice that long!)
The Buddha (Gautama) taught for 45 years after his enlighten-ment... Mohammed for about 20 years. According to Exodus, Moses led his people for 40 years in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. He was laying down God’s Law -- teaching Torah -- for 40 years!
But Jesus’ entire lifetime was less than that… and his actual ministry was very brief. (!) Jesus Christ was like a meteor streaking by, a brilliant light flashing momentarily in the night sky. A potent presence, yes -- packed tight like dynamite! -- or (may we say) like a mustard seed…
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a town in the farmland of Israel’s northern province of Galilee… not unlike us in mostly-rural NorthEast Michigan. We may be the “sunrise side” of the state, but we’re sparsely populated. Jesus grew up roughly 100 miles north of Jerusalem -- twenty miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, and fifteen miles to the West of the Sea of Galilee… where he moved as an adult from Nazareth to Capernaum. Most of the villagers around Jesus would have been farmers & fishermen, with just enough other workers (merchants, carpenters, seamstresses, & other trades) to maintain the town’s economy. Tradition holds that Jesus himself was a tekton -- which means a “hand-laborer” -- perhaps a carpenter.
Growing up in a Jewish home, we may surmise that Jesus attended synagogue school from roughly age 6 to at least 12 or 13 when he made his bar mitzvah. His primer would have been the book of Leviticus, and the Psalms would have been his hymnal. Presumably, Jesus attended religious services locally with his family and went on “pilgrimages” to the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem. From the Gospels, it is apparent that Jesus knew the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible). How remarkable that such a one, a poor almost-peasant boy, when filled with the Spirit of God, made such a lasting & universal impact on humanity to this day! His life was memorable, significant, with a profound impact on Western civilization ever after.
James Allen Francis, in his 1926 book “The Real Jesus” put it like this: “He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He never went to college. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a house. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30 years of age. He never traveled 200 miles from his birth-place. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials than himself. When the tide of public opinion turned against him, his friends ran away. He was arrested and executed like a common criminal. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. …
“Yet it is no exaggeration to say that all the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever set sail, all the rulers that have ever ruled, all the kings that have ever reigned on the earth, all put together, have not affected the life of mankind on earth as much as that one, solitary life.”
From that one tiny spiritual seed, whom we call “Jesus Christ”, a whole lot has grown! That’s the Gospel story in our Bible! That’s the result of Jesus’ on-going living Spirit in our midst and in our lives.
People in his day expected exaltation, majesty, and glory to come to Israel when their Messiah arrived, because (along with salvation from foreign oppressors) conspicuous power & great-ness would be the sign of God’s Reign, God’s Rule, God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ image of “the mustard seed” posed a comic challenge to those expectations of “grandeur.” Their national destiny would be like a common mustard bush, which could grow wild in any field ?
Well, in fact, mustard was everywhere underfoot; the bush was “ubiquitous” in Galilee. It spreads like a weed -- an “invasive” species -- not always welcomed where it took root and spread, because it could easily take over a garden (like “kudzu” in the Deep South). It’s been said that a “weed” is simply a plant that is grouwing where you don’t want it. Well, in Jesus’ rural area, that “weed” was mustard!
John Dominic Crossan suggests that the mustard shrub fits well as an image for Jesus’s community of “nuisances and nobodies” that he collected around himself, who were like unwanted weeds and shrubs of their society.
To select mustard bushes as an image of the movement that Jesus has begun to “plant” in the land, suggests that the “Jesus People” will be a “nuisance” to those who are attepting to cultivate another kind of garden.
Once the mustard seeds are sown, they spread like weeds, causing havoc among the more orderly ranks and rows of a well-tended garden. Jesus sowed just that sort of “confusion” to the well-ordered conventional wisdom of the social and religious norms in his day.
The Church has tried to domesticate Jesus over time, reducing the risk that any wild mustard will grow “out of bounds” or “between the lines” of our well-tended garden. (!) Too many church leaders seem to be hunting for “heresies” they can uproot and throw away.
Mustard spreads indiscriminately under the vines of the vineyard and into the fields of grain. When that happened, mustard bushes threw the Jewish “purity” regulations into turmoil. You see, they taught that it was an “abomination” to plant two different kinds of seeds in one field (Leviticus 19:19; Deut. 22:9). So not only were mustard seeds a nuisance to a farmer, they were seen as a source of uncleanness, impurity; a non-kosher intrusion into the status quo! Jesus is suggesting a “heresy” in this little Parable – an alternative crop to the dominant one. A crop that is invasive… but it succeeds!
I think the parable is about the pesky process of spreading Jesus’ ideas about God & society “under the radar” (so to speak) -- in small ways, unexpected ways,using indiscriminate, common examples of humble extravagance like weeds flourishing underfoot.
Mustard as a metaphor of God’s kingdom is admittedly “small scale.” But if we want God’s values to infiltrate the narrow, closed-minded, power-hungry, exclusivist ranks of our society the way Jesus was doing it in his day – to spread blessings to all people, especially those who are feeling oppressed (or depressed!) by the system that is stacked against them, a royal metaphor like “king-dom” may be less appropriate than a tiny, spicy, lively seed of mustard… that subversive “change agent” that’s right underfoot. But that’s Jesus’ idea of the Church: his community movement in society.
If we want the kingdom of God to take root and spread over all the earth, it will need to be inconspicuous, and yet relentlessly invasive… It will need to be non-threatening, but still a bit tough-skinned… as well as be “dynamic”, growing, responsive to its environment, and thoroughly alive. It seems to me that “a mustard seed planted in a garden” is a good representation of precisely those values! And the result of that effort will be good for others: birds will come to us to find shelter in our branches. Other people are served.
You know, being a mustard-seed-sized church like ours -- a mere 150 members here in Alpena, and only 850,000 world wide in the UCC -- with only humble aspirations (such as to provide a place of worship and service for others… a welcoming place at the table for our gay & lesbian neighbors, a place for thoughtful theological dialog, a friendship group for seniors, all those little “seed-like” ventures we’ve been trying out lately) may not puff us up with pride… or put our name out there on Alpena’s social roster. But so what!
Mustard is admittedly small scale in contrast to the “inflated image” most folks have of themselves, their public Christianity, and their status in society. But Jesus himself had no trouble with small scale beginnings! You see, it is not the size of the start that makes the difference, but the subtle growing process over time that reveals the potential that is in that initial seed. So, don’t give up! Jesus reminds us that there is untapped “potential” in even the smallest seeds underfoot; and (perhaps) especially in those that have been spurned by the dominant society as nothing more than weeds.
We in the UCC may be as ordinary as mustard seed, but the Good News I get from Jesus is that God will use us (just as we are) to grow God’s Kingdom. And that the Holy Spirit in our midst will use whatever efforts we make to spread ourselves toward others, as we grow toward maturity. So, like good seed planted in good soil, let’s give ourselves time… and trust God with the growth. Amen?