Have you ever decided to do a small job and have it get bigger and bigger until it became a major project? That happened to me some years ago after my Grandma Greenlee (my Methodist grandma) passed away. My mom knew I like to cook, so she gave me Grandma’s recipe box. It held an assortment of newspaper clippings, recipe cards, notes jotted on the backs of envelopes and bridge tallies, and so on. As I sorted through them, memories started flooding in: of Grandma’s friends whose names were written on the recipes, like Blodwin of “Blodwin’s Silly Sallies.” Times when Grandma had made a dish for a special occasion, like her chicken curry for my 16th birthday party. Family traditions, like her caramels for Christmas.
I decided those recipes were too special to keep to myself, so I thought, “I’ll just type them up so my family can have them, too.” And then I thought maybe I should organize them somehow, and then I thought I could put them in a little booklet. My little job of going through Grandma’s recipe box grew and grew until I ended up with a cookbook of Grandma’s recipes, which I gave to her children, and her grandchildren, and her great-grand-children. That’s how things often go: a small seed of an idea beginning grows into something much bigger than we expect, and we find ourselves in the midst of a growing season.
Small things leading to big results is an image Jesus often used to teach about the kingdom of God. A treasure buried in a field leads to the purchase of the entire field (Mt 13:44). A tiny bit of yeast leavens an enormous quantity of flour (Mt 13:33). A narrow gate leads to fullness of life. One sheep, one coin, one son lead to great joy. In our parables for today, Jesus speaks of tiny seeds which grow into something great.
In our passage, we find Jesus speaking privately to his disciples. He had been preaching to the crowds, which had grown so large he had to preach to them from a boat. The subject of his sermon had been the parable of seeds falling on various types of ground. Afterwards, Jesus and his disciples—the twelve and others—were enjoying some time apart from the crowds. The disciples had asked him to explain the parable he had just told the crowd. Jesus explained it to them, and then he continued with the two parables we have in our passage.
In the first story, Jesus says of the kingdom of God: Imagine a farmer throwing seed on the ground. In the days and nights that follow, the seed sprouts, and grows, and becomes fruitful all on its own. The farmer doesn’t know how this happens, but he does know that when the grain is ripe, it’s time to get out there and harvest it.
In the second story, we know what kind of seed gets planted: mustard seed. Tiny mustard seeds. This seed exceeds all expectations. It grows into a shrub—a huge shrub, bigger than any other shrub, and it puts forth large, leafy branches that provide a shady place for the birds to nest.
As I studied this passage, I learned a fair amount about mustard plants, and what I learned made me wonder why Jesus would choose this plant to describe the kingdom of God. His choice might have caused some raised eyebrows among his listeners as well. In Palestine, mustard was not a plant anyone would have sown on purpose. It had some uses, but mainly it was a weed—one that competes with food crops, just like wild mustard does here in Ohio. In fact, wild mustard is on Ohio’s list of twenty-one prohibited noxious weeds, and the law says that if you find wild mustard on your property, you have to get rid of it, because it grows so fast and is so invasive. The wild mustard can get pretty tall and bushy, but it doesn’t have large branches. Birds might be able to hide in it, but the branches aren’t strong enough to build nests in.
As the parable says, the seeds are tiny—about an eighth of an inch, not actually the smallest seed on the planet, but smaller than any Jesus’ listeners would have planted in their gardens. The plants produce a huge number of seeds—thousands per plant. But here’s the most interesting fact about mustard seeds that I learned: mustard seeds can live in the ground for up to seventy-five years before they sprout and bear fruit.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made that Jesus would choose this plant as an image of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is one which will grow and spread until it crowds out whatever it is growing alongside it. Because of this, many may see as a noxious weed, one that they would like to rip out by the roots, because it challenges the status quo. God’s kingdom bigger than anyone could imagine, where even the defenseless and poor are welcome. It is a kingdom that is present in seed-form now but not yet fully grown, hard to see but waiting for that day when it will spring to life and grow in ways that exceed all our expectations, until the day of harvest.
That’s a message we need to hear today. That’s a message the world needs to hear. We are the lucky ones, because we are attuned to finding the shoots that are already emerging from the darkness. We are blessed to be those shoots as we serve our neighbors. But, you have to admit that for many people, in this country and in much of the world, there is precious little evidence that the kingdom of God has drawn near.
When some of our most highly placed leaders claim the name of Jesus and then act in ways that directly contradict all that Jesus taught and lived out, it’s hard to see the kingdom of God. When Scripture is used to justify unjustifiable and cruel acts, it’s hard to see the kingdom of God. When truth-telling and kindness and acceptance are replaced by lies and vitriol and selfishness, it’s hard to see the kingdom of God. When members of our own denomination become more absorbed with defending their stands on issues of human sexuality than with feeding the hungry, providing clean water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger, it can be pretty hard to see where the kingdom of God has taken root.
On this Father’s Day, we could ask the children whose mothers and fathers were taken away from them in Sandusky by ICE agents a couple weeks ago how near the kingdom of God seems to them. Let me read to you from the letter our District Superintendent sent out: “The U.S. Immigration Service raid resulted in the detainment of 114 workers, and left many children, including infants and toddlers, without one or both of their parents. The childcare providers who cared for the children while their parents were at work are now finding themselves caring for these children for an undetermined length of time. Many of the childcare providers are unable to access the child’s belongings and are in desperate need of basic items (like diapers and formula and food and clothing) . . . There are also reports of older children suddenly becoming financially responsible for multiple younger siblings, including paying for rent, utilities, and providing meals.” I imagine it’s pretty hard for those children, and those who are caring for them, to see the kingdom of God around them right now.
But there is hope in the parables Jesus told his disciples and which we read today. First of all, we have hope in the fact that while we may see little that we can identify as the kingdom, the seeds have already been planted. We are living in a time of “now” and “not yet.” The seeds of the kingdom were planted in Jesus’ incarnation, when God came in human form and brought the kingdom near to us. Like those mustard seeds that last for years as they lay undetected in the soil, God’s kingdom is here, right now, whether we see it or not. Although the fullness of God’s kingdom has not yet been realized, we live in the sure and certain hope that it will be, although we do not know the day or the hour.
We have hope in the fact that the kingdom of God cannot be rooted out by those who reject Jesus’ teachings, either in word or in deed, just as pulling up a mustard plant cannot eliminate the thousands of seeds that it has already spread. God’s kingdom will grow. The seeds which were planted in this world with Jesus’ incarnation are still in the ground, and they will bear fruit.
We have hope in the fact that the kingdom of God will crowd out all the other powers in this world. God’s kingdom of love and compassion and mercy and justice will overcome the assumed kingdoms of those whose desire is for power and wealth and privilege that they haven’t earned but see as their right, because they were born in the right place at the right time to the right parents.
We have hope that the kingdom of God welcomes all, not just the rich and the powerful and the well-connected, but all people. I think there’s a reason that Jesus chose a shrub to describe God’s kingdom rather than a towering tree. Trees were often used as symbols of powerful kingdoms in ancient times; think of Ezekiel describing Assyria as a cedar of Lebanon. But God’s kingdom doesn’t reach only toward the sky, to those with wealth and power. It reaches down low, to give welcome and shelter to those nearest the ground.
The hope we have is good news for us and the world. But here is the better news. We can be signs of how God’s kingdom is present here today. Every loving gesture we make, every act of service we undertake, every time we speak and act in Christ-like ways, we show a skeptical world that God’s kingdom is present. Every time we insist that all people be treated as God’s beloved creatures, we show that the kingdom that offers shelter and welcome is growing. When we stand against the powers of this world, both with our letters and calls to our elected representatives and by our acts of compassion towards those the powerful disregard, we show that the kingdom of God is spreading.
As we mature in our faith—as we continue to be perfected in love—more seeds of the kingdom are sown. When we witness with someone who is searching for God, when we show God’s love to a child, when in Christian love we offer welcome to someone who is very different from us, seeds of the kingdom fall into the ground of their hearts. Those seeds may remain there for a very long time. We may never see them become fruitful. We may never even see them sprout. We may begin to think that those seeds were wasted. But they are still nestled there, until conditions are right for them to work their way into the light.
In the meantime, we can remember another image that Jesus used—that of a vine and its branches. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” It’s natural to want to see the results of what we do, and we can become discouraged when we work hard in Jesus’ name and nothing seems to come of our efforts. But nothing we do in Jesus is fruitless. It is enough that we do it, and trust that God will know when the harvest has come.
A few years ago, I was taking a walk, and I saw this enormous bush in someone’s yard. It was tall, but not as tall as a tree—it reached maybe to the top of the first floor of the house. It had long, long branches that didn’t reach up to the sky, but instead cascaded down all the way to the ground. The leafy branches were soft and made a gentle whispering sound as they moved in the breeze. Beneath them was a large, shady space around the trunk; it would have made a great secret hide-out for a child (or an adult!). As I stood there looking at it, I became aware of the twittering of many birds. And then, all of a sudden, the shrub just exploded with birds! There must have been dozens, maybe even hundreds. They shot out of that shrub in every direction.
Ever since them, that is what I picture when I think about the kingdom of God: a large, beautiful shrub that offers a safe and sheltering space for God’s creatures—all of God’s creatures. And from that place, life comes shooting out, spreading in all directions.
I wonder how small the seed was that produced that shrub. Maybe it was as small as the mustard seed Jesus spoke of, that grew into an enormous, sheltering shrub. Maybe it sprang from a seed that lay in the ground for years, waiting until the perfect moment to begin growing. As we live out our faith, we can look to Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom and know that out of small things, great things can grow. The harvest is coming, and we are in the midst of the growing season. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young