Mustard Seeds, Kingdom Weeds
June 14, 2015
It is the third Sunday after Pentecost Day, and we are well into the book of the Bible that will engage us this summer: the Gospel of Mark. The disciples in Mark’s Gospel are portrayed as even more hopeless and thick-skulled than in the other three. Jesus does a lot of explaining in the Gospel of Mark, much of it directly and solely to the disciples…as in today’s passage…but nothing seems to help.
Indeed, while they start out in the beginning as mildly confused, by the end of the Gospel things have gotten much worse. They can’t even get the resurrection right. Instead of following the instructions to tell the disciples what has happened, the women who witness the empty tomb flee in terror, telling no one.
This is not good news if you are one who expects competency or intelligence or obedience from the Christian community.
But if you are one who has felt incompetent, or stupid, or has been less than obedient in your own life; if you are one who doesn’t always understand why things are happening the way they are, who isn’t sure of what your role should be or how you’re supposed to figure that out; if life has sometimes, or maybe often, felt beyond your control and not what you expected…then the Gospel of Mark might be the gospel for you.
But two heads are usually better than one, so let me begin this morning with a question for you and your neighbor. I invite you to find someone sitting near you with whom you did not come to church this morning. And I invite you to ponder this question together: What is the difference between a fable and a parable?
(discussion and review of some responses)
One way of identifying a fable is that it is primarily didactic; it’s meant to teach a lesson. A fable is a clever story meant to offer some insight into and instruction about life – think Aesop’s Fables. Fables are handy when you want to give kids some good advice or teach them some moral or practical lesson. So the lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is…..(slow and steady effort pays off). And the advice of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is…(honesty is the best policy).
A parable, on the other hand, is not intended to teach so much as it is intended to disrupt and interrupt. A parable turns what you thought you knew on its head and doesn’t just teach you something, it confronts you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.
Parables, says Rev. David Lose, are a way to share the truth, when it is difficult – whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe. In that way they are more like poetry than they are like fables. It was the poet Emily Dickinson who wrote about telling the truth “slant” –
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
This morning we have 2 parables. Let’s start with the second, the better known.
Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Some of you have heard this parable before. Some of you have studied it in Bible study groups. Some of you have probably heard many sermons on this passage or the ones similar to it in the other gospels. How do we usually interpret this parable? (Kingdom starts small, grows to great effect.)
Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable.
What disruptive truth might be confronting us is the parable of the mustard seed? One way to get at that is to ask - What part of this little story isn’t quite right or doesn’t quite fit? (That the mustard bush is the “greatest of all shrubs.”)
If you were going to illustrate a great tree growing from a tiny seed wouldn’t you pick something bigger than a mustard bush? We might pick a great oak or sequoia; Jesus could have used the great cedars of Lebanon – the enormous trees used to build the Temple in Jerusalem --as an example. But he chose a mustard bush.
Mustard, was and is an invasive weed. It’s not something you want to plant in your garden. In fact, you want to keep it out of your garden because it runs amok, it gets out of hand, it can take over whatever ground it infests.
So maybe this parable is about how God grows small things into great ones, but maybe it is also about the uncontrollable nature of the Kingdom of God.
Maybe Jesus is telling us the truth about the Kingdom that is hard for us to hear: that it can and will take over our lives, even when we didn’t invite it in, even when we didn’t plan for it or prepare for it, even when it contradicts our careful, cautious judgment.
David Lose says that if the kingdom of God were sold in a box, it would come with a warning – “use only in moderation” or perhaps even “maybe hazardous to your health.” But truly, the kingdom isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, used diligently but carefully. It’s a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It’s a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live into it. The kingdom is dangerous because you just don’t know where it will take you or what you will do when it seizes hold of you.
The kingdom of God is like a great mustard bush, exploding from a tiny seed, growing to such a size that – well, who knows what might come to live in it?
26 Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The traditional interpretation is that this is about bringing the harvest of souls into God’s kingdom. We sing about it every Thanksgiving.
But what about this story is disruptive? What confronts us with a difficult truth? What doesn’t fit? (That a farmer would scatter seed and do nothing else but sleep and rise…and the harvest would just show up.)
If the seed in this parable is the Kingdom of God, then the truth here seems to be that we are not in charge.
The farmer trusts the seed to grow. He scatters the seed and then…goes to bed! He sleeps and rises each night and, eventually, without his knowing how, the seed sprouts and grows. Within the seed lies the promise of future growth and this farmer knows that. He knows that, ultimately, he is not in charge.
Were he in charge of the seed’s growth, he would worry, he would lose sleep, he would wonder constantly what he could do to make sure that the seed would grow to be what it is supposed to be.
Which is what I would do; it is what I do. I am the opposite of the farmer in this parable. I have great difficulty trusting the seed to grow the way it is supposed to.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that at her house there is a gardener and a worrier. The gardener is a pretty easy-going fellow. Every May or June he comes through the door with a brown paper sack full of seed packets. A couple of evenings later he can be found puttering around the yard, emptying the packages into shallow furrows, heaping the dirt into little mounds and curling pieces of fence around them to keep the dogs out.
Several weeks later, plants appear in the strangest places. He has been known to plant green peppers between the azalea bushes and broccoli by the mailbox. For the second year in a row a stand of asparagus is pushing up through the roots of the crepe myrtle tree and sweet pea vines are winding through the branches of the weeping cherry. In a few weeks, string beans will overtake the back deck of the house, covering everything in sight.
All of this drives the worrier crazy. She knows how gardens are supposed to be and this is not it. You are supposed to begin by buying a book, for one thing, with illustrations on how to arrange plants according to size, height, and drainage requirements. Everything goes in straight rows. First you must test the soil; then you must fertilize, mulch, weed, and water. Above all you must worry, or else how will your garden grow?
To the worrier’s eternal dismay and amazement, there comes one day every summer when the gardener proclaims that the vegetables are ready. He goes out to collect them for all over the burgeoning yard and a little while later the worrier sits down to a table heaped with manna. Against her will and better judgment she has to admit that he has done all right, in spite of his refusal to worry.
Maybe this parable is about harvesting souls for the kingdom of God. Maybe it is also about the truth that we will never fully understand how all of that works, that it might not work by any rules that we would establish, and that ultimately – we are not in charge.
Maybe this parable confronts us – especially those of us who worry and make plans, and worry some more – with the fact that much of our job is to trust – trust the seed, and trust that God has created the seed to grow, trust that God will bring the growth, whether or not we have approved God’s plan or even understand it.
Jesus tells us the truth, but he tells it slant: God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts; it cannot be controlled or influenced; it can only be received as a gift.
This is not necessarily good news if you are one who relies on your own competency and intelligence; it is less than pleasant to hear if you have succeeded in following Jesus on the narrow path.
But if you are one who has from time to time, or more often than that, felt incompetent, or stupid;
- if you are someone who has been less than successful in following Jesus, despite your best intentions;
- if you are one who doesn’t always understand why things are happening the way they are, who isn’t sure of what your role should be or how you’re supposed to figure that out;
- if life has sometimes, or maybe often, felt beyond your control and not what you expected…
then this is very good news indeed.
Because in these parables Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God comes of its own…and comes for us. The Kingdom of God has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a tad frightening – future. This is, in short, a threatening word for any and all who believe they are “self-made” men or women, but simultaneously good news – perhaps the best news – for all those who can admit their need.
David Lose. “Pentecost 3B: Preach The Truth Slant.” Posted: 08 Jun 2015 on DavidLose.net. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/
Justo Gonzalez. “Living The Word: June 14, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 4:26-34.” The Christian Century. June 10, 2015. P. 18.
Lamar Williamson, Jr. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, 1983.