17 June 2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Based on St. Mark 4: 26-34
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
For those of us who prefer direct answers, to deal with a situation head on, to lay it all out on the table, Jesus sometimes has a frustrating habit. When asked a question, he would often ask a question in response – or, as in the instance of this morning’s gospel reading, he would answer with a parable. Later in the gospel, St. Mark even tells us that “He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” We don’t often use parables today, and they’re often confused with fables. But, Rev. Anthony Robinson, a UCC leader, explains that parables “aren’t little moral stories or object lessons. Rather they are stories about the way God’s kingdom and logic turn the world’s logic and kingdom upside down.” That is certainly the way the parables Jesus tells today work.
We hear that “a man scatters seed on the ground” but that “the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” What? What kind of farmer is this guy? Any farmer or gardener with any sense, certainly all the farmers or even gardeners in our congregation would understand how their plants sprout and grow, and not just leave it to dumb luck, but tend carefully to them. Yet, here we are told that this is what God’s kingdom is like. Both inside and outside of the Church we often plant metaphorical seeds, often without noticing it. Sometimes they produce grain for harvest, sometimes they don’t. But often times a plant sprouts forth when we least expect it. Teachers impact students they never thought they could reach and hear about it years later. A simple act of kindness turns a person’s life around. We never know when we might be planting a seed. God’s kingdom is as mysterious as that. I am reminded of an incident in my home congregation. I never met Hannelore Mass. But she had been a member of the congregation while living in the U.S. She later returned to her home in Germany, where she passed away a few years ago. Lo and behold, in her will she left the congregation in DC her entire estate, which was completely unexpected. Somehow, somewhere, a seed had been planted and her life had been impacted, and she responded with a gift of gratitude. That is what God’s kingdom is like – unexpected and surprising and mysterious.
In the second, more familiar, parable Jesus tells, he compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a shrub. Really? Is God’s kingdom like a shrub or a tiny seed? Well, Jesus says so. Now I’m no expert on wild mustard, but those who are say that Jesus likely referred to wild black mustard, with a seed the size of 1 or 2mm, and can grow into a plant up to 9 feet tall. So a remarkably small seed can grow into a sizeable plant. This is comforting for those perhaps with a weak faith or those just beginning to believe – that they can grow into strong stalwarts of faith. Or it is good news for our own community of faith that we might be enlargened and strengthened and emboldened. But the size of the mustard seed and its ensuing plant is not the whole point, although illuminating. Mustard has been called a “malignant weed with dangerous takeover properties.” Dr. David Lose helps us to understand why this is so, saying:
The thing about mustard seeds, you see, is that while some varieties were used as spice and others medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least pesky and often somewhat dangerous. Why? Because wild mustard is incredibly hard to control, and once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. That’s why mustard would only occasionally be found in a garden in the ancient world; more likely you would look for it overtaking the side of an open hill or abandoned field. So pick your favorite garden-variety weed – crabgrass, dandelion, wild onion – that’s pretty much what Jesus was comparing the kingdom of God to.
So God’s kingdom is like an annoying shrub? I don’t think that’s entirely what Jesus was getting at, but yes! I think the message Jesus was trying to convey in this parable was about the nature of the kingdom and work of God. Mustard is difficult to control once it takes root, and can potentially take over an entire field. Things may happen with the mustard plant that were unplanned, unexpected, and unanticipated. It may spread to areas you didn’t want it to go. The kingdom of God is like that. Like the mustard seed, once the seed of God’s work and kingdom are planted, it cannot be controlled afterward.
It’s a bit disconcerting to not be able to control the outcome, but after all, how often do we control the outcomes in our lives? We are reminded that it is God’s kingdom, not ours. The ability of the mustard seed to take over even a whole field demonstrates that once God’s work takes root – it can spread rapidly, even into those areas, we really wish it would stay out of. The mustard seed reminds us not only that out of something very small can come a pretty large shrub, but that powerful faith can be the result of a small seed planted, that a mighty church movement can be born out of one little congregation, that God’s kingdom will take charge not just of a small garden but of the whole world.
Often times we try to compartmentalize our faith. It’s like the old adage that says politics and religion aren’t polite dinner conversation (though they often make for the best dinner conversation – in the biased opinion of this lover of politics and religion). Too often we want to limit God to our prayer life or devotion, or worse, one hour on Sundays only. But when Jesus preached about the kingdom of God he didn’t talk about one small corner of our lives – he spoke of our entire lives being completely different, like the mustard plant that has taken over a whole field.
Jesus never intended for us to hide our faith in the walls of a sanctuary. He warned his followers not to boast of their faithfulness, but also not to hide their light under a bushel. In fact, Jesus broke that dinner conversation rule all the time, as it was often around the dinner table, sharing bread and wine with rich and poor alike, that he often engaged in his most powerful ministry. The mustard seed reminds us that God wants to unleash the kingdom in all parts of our lives, in all parts of our world – and that we cannot contain or hold God’s kingdom in one small area of our lives or world.
An Indian proverb says “To the work you are entitled, but not the fruit thereof.” Even if we do like the sower in the first parable, sow a seed, or even in the second parable, plant mustard seeds – even hoping for its wild, expansive growth – we may or may not get what we expected. Who knows if we will see the fruits of our work –the mustard plant coming up across the field, of people coming to faith, lives being renewed and restored. More often than not the seeds we plant will take a long time to germinate. When we least expect it, and many times, after we have taken our leave, God’s kingdom starts sprouting out the ground – and before you know it has taken over. We may not see the fruits or the plants coming up, but in the end the task of faith is not about us – it’s about helping each other and the world live into being God’s kingdom on earth. God will take what we do, and produce wild and revolutionary results. We may not always understand what God is doing with that pesky mustard, but have faith – God is doing new and glorious things, each and every day.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.
Wikipedia, “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Mustard_Seed
 David Lose, “Mission Possible,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=597