Sunday, July 24, 2011

The outrageous idea that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

My sermon today is based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52:

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Seeds, yeast, nets: ordinary things are where you will find the Kingdom of God.

Last weekend, a good many of us from St. Paul’s went to Shrine Mont for our annual parish retreat.
For those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful place – and there are some – Shrine Mont is an old Episcopal retreat center up the Shenandoah Valley, nestled up against the mountains within hiking distance of the border with West Virginia.

We had a great time relaxing and visiting, and some of us took part in workshops ranging from poetry to yoga.

The kids caught fish, got muddy, and roasted marshmallows. We played softball and forgot to keep score.

And some enjoyed doing nothing at all.

Believe it or not, one of the things I love the most about going to Shrine Mont is – going to Shrine Mont. I love the drive north in the Shenandoah Valley. I enjoy getting out onto the open road and seeing the farms and fields.

The sky seems just a little bigger over there than it does over here.

Seeing the neat rows of corn and grain got me thinking about the parables of Jesus we’ve been hearing the last several Sundays. Most of these stories of late are about seeds.

Last week we heard about the seeds getting mixed up together and growing in a big tangled knot.
Or another story was about the farmer tossing seeds on rocky ground, or into the thorn bushes, or on good soil or bad.

If you conclude that Jesus had an inordinate fondness for seeds you would be right.

The seed story today – the one about a tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty bush – is probably the most familiar of all the seed stories.

Maybe too familiar?

What an odd thing to compare the Kingdom of God to seeds, and to the plants and weeds that grow from them. Religious people in the time of Jesus would have been shocked by these stories.

They would expect a holy man like Jesus to give them grandiose religious images like a majestic cedar tree or a marble temple or God riding on a Chariot of Fire.

They would not expect to hear God’s kingdom compared to seeds and weeds.

And they certainly would not expect to hear that God’s kingdom is like a mustard bush. I can safely guess that many of those who first heard this story from Jesus would have been mightily offended.
Why? Because a mustard bush is a scourge of the grain fields.

To get the full impact of this parable, it may help you to know something about mustard.
In our time, we consider mustard a delightful condiment, and we cultivate it as an herb. Not so in the time of Jesus.

Mustard was considered a weed, and farmers dreaded it when mustard sprouted in their fields. Mustard weeds could grow the size of a house, and when they did, mustard would take over the neatly cultivated rows of grain.

So when Jesus says the mustard seed grows into a mighty plant with birds nesting in it, he is talking about a shrub considered by many as an unrespectable weed.

Indeed, biblical scholars will tell you that the mustard seed parable is something of an ancient inside joke.
Jesus is making fun of the Temple priests who indeed describe the Temple in the grandiose imagery of mighty cedars of Lebanon so large that birds nest in it.

Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God will grow not like a grandiose cedar, but more like a mustard weed from tiny ordinary seeds – seeds that no one usually thinks are useful or important.

The Kingdom of God is mighty, but not the way the Temple priests think.

The kingdom won’t be orderly growing in neat rows. God’s Kingdom is entwined with all the other plants of the field, and nothing will stop these plants from growing. And then this parable gets worse for high-and-might Temple priests.

They must have wondered what kind of farmer would throw seeds everywhere, or mixes all the seeds together with wheat and mustard and thorns and put them on rocky ground and loamy ground?

Farmers don’t do that.

Farmers grow things in need rows and they do their best to keep the weeds out. Seeds are valuable, and farmers don’t waste them, and certainly don’t mix them together in the fields.

But the farmer of the parable does exactly that – and that is precisely the point Jesus is making with these stories.

The farmer – the God of abundance – has so many seeds, and so many kinds of seeds, that the farmer is not afraid to toss as many around as possible, and get them all jumbled up.

I am absolutely convinced Jesus wants us to go one more step with this: Everyone is included in this great holy mix of seeds that is God’s kingdom, especially people who are considered outcasts like the weeds.

The lowly and unwashed may look like weeds to the world, but to God they are mighty. The meek and the humble of heart shall inherit the earth.

And the sower of these seeds?

The sower is not stingy. The sower has an overabundance of seeds and plants them with abandon.
There is a challenge to us in this. We are being pushed to plant God’s seeds, and plant them extravagantly, on good ground and thorny ground, rocky ground and loamy ground.

We won’t know what will grow until we plant – and what comes of these seeds may not be as we expect. Be ready to be surprised and delighted.

The weeds may be just as beautiful as the orchids, more beautiful than we might ever have imagined.
This summer, and always, watch for the Kingdom of God in the small things and in the unexpected places in your life, in the places you go and the people you meet. What small seed have you and I overlooked? What looks at first glance like a weed that is really a gorgeous mustard plant?

Let these seeds grow in your life – cultivate them in your heart – and may the harvest of your soul be plentiful always. Amen.


Anonymous said...

I believe the mustard seed parable is not an "inside joke", nor is the sower tossing the seed in random. The parable states that it is spilled out. Also, it may be true that it is considered a weed, but Jesus was not using it as a punch line. The mustard seed is the smallest seed but yet it grows to great size; this was a parable describing that just a little faith has the ability to mature into a wonderful relationship with God. Without the proper foundation (soil and strong roots), it cannot grow.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Anonymous -- that is one way to hear the seed parables (you are mixing them together, but that's OK). The fun thing about the mustard seed growing into a bush is that it really is making fun of the pomposity of the Temple and pointing out that the Kingdom of God will grow like a weed -- unpredictably. And, yes, it shows Jesus had a sense of humor. Not sure why you don't like inside jokes, but enjoy it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Good sir,
I did not mean to offend, and I am ashamed. I did not read the entire message, but it is understood now. Patience IS a virtue. God bless! Anonymous