Short Stories By Jesus: The Mustard Seed

October 22, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

      LHUMC 10-22-2017 Sermon

View, print or save PDF: Sermon.08.22.17.The Mustard Seed

(Short Stories by Jesus Sermon Series)

“The smallest seed”

October 22, 2017

Rev. Melanie Homan

Ezekiel 17:22-24

22Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Mark 4:30-32

30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”

Every summer our family goes on a road trip to visit National Parks. This past year we went to Glacier National Park, and then crossed the border into Canada to explore Waterton Lakes National Park.  A huge part of Waterton Lakes National Park is now closed, due to the large forest fires that went through the park this summer.  But, luckily we were there before the threat of fire!  Each day we would go on hikes, or canoeing, or explore Waterton Townsite.  Every night we would return to our campsite to cook supper over a campfire, and clean up as fast as we could, so we could make it in time for the evening park ranger program.

We love park ranger programs, and we got to learn about rocks, glaciers, and cirques. Park rangers almost always have interactive pieces to their programs, and Rylee and Dylan always shoot up their hands to volunteer.  The best program, by far, that we saw last summer was a program on invasive plant species.  Anyone who can keep a group of children and adults on the edge of their seats, talking about invasive plant species, has found their calling!

I believe there was only one thing that matched this woman’s passion for eradicating invasive plant species – and that was Star Wars. She developed her entire program using themes, stories, and music from Star Wars, under the title “PLANT WARS”.  It was brilliant.  For the rest of our trip, the kids were humming the Star Wars theme song and identifying invasive plants whenever we’d hike by them.

Plant wars. I get the reason why it’s troubling to have certain plants come in and take over – the more they spread, the more they choke out other plants.  But, prior to our park ranger program, I wouldn’t have known if a plant was invasive or not.  My evaluation of plants with regards to this is based solely on personal preference and whether or not I think they are beautiful.

I’ve often thought that dandelions are beautiful, and I don’t get why people try to get rid of them – they can make a field a sea of yellow. I think it’s beautiful!  The same, apparently, goes for our backyard.  The people who owned our home before us were avid gardeners.  I can’t identify half of the plants in our yard, but they look nice and I leave them alone because I have entirely no idea what to do with them.

One evening this summer we were out in our backyard, and our neighbor was in her backyard, too. We were visiting and, as we were talking, I commented on how beautiful the flowers were in our backyard and how much we were enjoying them.  My neighbor said – “Those aren’t flowers.  Those are weeds.  They are invasive.  If you don’t pull them they will take over your entire yard.”  Oh.  I sort of thought they were pretty!  We then had to decide if we were going to enjoy our “pretty weeds” or pull them.

We have the same sort of dilemma when it comes to the mustard seed. Depending on which gospel you read, the mustard seed either turns into a large bush or a tree – either way, a plant that is big enough for birds to rest in.  But, depending on your perspective, a mustard bush is either a really useful plant – or it’s a noxious weed.

There were rules about where you were allowed to plant mustard – and it was NOT supposed to be planted in gardens, because it was so prolific in growing. Year one you have one mustard plant.  Year two you have several mustard plants.  Year three – the entire garden has been taken over with mustard.  If you are trying to grow other things, mustard plants would tend to be problematic.

But, the mustard plant is also pretty useful. In the parable, it was definitely useful for the birds of the air!  It was also thought to have lots of health benefits.  It was used to treat “snake bites, toothaches, indigestion, asthma, and epilepsy” (Pliny).  People still use the branches to brush their teeth because the plant helps to naturally resist bacteria and plaque and keeps teeth clean.  So, which is it?  A weed or a beneficial plant?

Amy-Jill Levine says that “Mustard is a curative, and one that is available to anyone. It is part of the good world God gives us; like the sun, which insists on shining, the seed insists on growing, to be used by anyone who finds the plant.  Like the vast amount of bread the woman baked, the mustard plant offers more than a single person can use.  Instead of looking at the plant as a noxious weed, we might be better off seeing it as part of the gifts of nature; something so small, allowed to do what it naturally does with prolific effect!” (page 181).

Whether it is yeast hidden into flour, or a tiny seed planted in the ground – when given the time and space to do what it naturally does, it grows. The flour grows big enough to feed many people, the seed grows large enough to shelter many birds.  Food and shelter and the kingdom of heaven…they all go together!

The kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – isn’t some big flashy thing. Little things can do big things.  Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite theologians, and here’s what she says about these parables of Jesus:

“How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?

Perhaps we do best if we use the most ordinary things, as Jesus did, and trust each other to make the connections. We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message. In the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences of our lives are hidden signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days. It is possible that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven, not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check, but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives.”

So, take a look around you. It’s in the ordinary things around us that we can come to know God.

If God can do something so big out of something as small as a seed, just imagine what God can do with us. Each one of us is just our ordinary selves, but we can expect God to do extraordinary things through us.

We are living in a time when it feels like we are not only in plant wars, but climate wars and water wars and oil wars and nuclear wars and tax wars. It can be hard to tell what’s noxious and what’s good.  It’s even harder to tell what we should do when it’s all so complicated.

I found these words from Bishop Kenneth Untener helpful. He wrote them in response to the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romera, who was killed at his altar for opposing evil in El Salvador.  (Richard, …in the meantime blog).  “It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.  No statement says all that could be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith.  No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.  No program accomplishes the church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about. We plant seeds that one day will grow.  We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.  We may never see the end results, but that is the different between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.”

There is consolation, especially when challenges seem to be towering over us, in remembering that we cannot do everything, but we can still plant seeds. We can still water seeds.  We can lay the foundation, and then we trust that God can do extraordinary things over time with our ordinary efforts.

After spending a whole day working on this message, and trying to figure out what unique thing to say about something as small and common as a seed, I took a break and we went out for supper. We ended up eating at a Chinese restaurant, and this was my fortune cookie.

Talk about a timely fortune! It struck a chord with me, though, and got me to thinking.  Sometimes the thing to say isn’t new or unique, the thing to say is a reminder.  So, here’s your reminder:  “With every deed you are sowing a seed, though the harvest you may not see.”  Amen.