Like a mustard seed

Below is my sermon from June 17, 2018. It focuses on two of Jesus’ parables: the seed growing on its own, and the mustard seed. But I also include an brief introduction to parables and the kingdom of God in general. A lot of Jesus’ parables can make us uncomfortable. That’s good! He was trying to challenge a lot of the assumptions of his listeners in way designed to make them think. When you feel uncomfortable with the emphasis of the parable, don’t run away from it, see where it might be leading you.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus starts so many of his teachings with this phrase. It’s the beginning of many of his most well-known parables. The kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great worth. The kingdom of God is like yeast in flour. The kingdom of God, we hear today, is like a seed that grows on its own. The kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds, with exponential growth in its future.

At the end of these parables, we hear that Jesus did not speak to the listening crowds except in parables, although he did explain everything privately to his disciples. So, what is a parable? How are supposed to understand them? And wouldn’t things have been a lot easier if Jesus had just explained publicly the point he was trying to get across?

Yes, I’m sure it would have been easier. But I’m not sure it would be better for us. Jesus’ parables are stories, or short comparisons that put together seemingly unrelated things. The kingdom of God and a seed. The kingdom of God and a gardener. The kingdom of God and a woman baking bread. Ordinary things.

Parables don’t have easy answers. We rarely get an explanation of what the parable means, and so we are left to struggle with them. Parables often question our assumptions and shed new light on things we accept without question. They ask us to see with new eyes.

Yes, Jesus could have simply told us the answers. And we could have memorized them and known them. But as any student who’s just finished their finals could tell us, learning by rote memorization will only get you so far. It might get you a good grade on the test, but you’re more likely to forget it than something you had to struggle with, experiment with, and come to conclusions about yourself.

And so Jesus tells us parables. Because the Kingdom of God is not like having an easy answer, but the Kingdom of God is like wrestling with our assumptions. The Kingdom of God is like testing our preconceptions. The Kingdom of God is like viewing things a new way.

I should say something, just briefly, about the “Kingdom” of God. That’s the traditional translation for what Jesus says, but it might not be the most helpful. We often think of kingdoms as places, nations, countries. Jesus isn’t talking about a physical place, but a different way of being. A way where God’s will for humanity is being realized. Perhaps a better word might be the reign of God. Whenever we are living in the new reality inaugurated by Jesus, we are living in the Reign of God.

So, what do these parables have to say about what the Kingdom of God—the Reign of God—is like? It is like a plant growing on its own, automatically. It both surprises and mystifies us. The farmer is able to help the seeds along but, at the end of the day, cannot force them to grow. They must do that on their own.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which, when it is grown, becomes a mighty shrub. So big even that birds will nest in its branches. A mighty shrub. Never say that Jesus isn’t funny. He could have compared the kingdom of God to the cedars of Lebanon, towering over the landscape, majestic and imposing. But instead he picks the biggest of all…shrubs.

So, the Kingdom of God isn’t necessarily something majestic or grandiose to look at. At least from our eyes. But it is mighty. Mustard is a weed, you know. It will grow and spread and completely take over a landscape, infiltrating every area. It’s difficult to control, and very difficult to eradicate. It wasn’t something you would plant, or try to cultivate, for that very reason—you can’t control it.

And Jesus says: this is the kingdom of God. Often unwanted, seen as a nuisance. But once it’s taken root, good luck getting rid of it. Good luck keeping it contained to one neat little area. We cannot relegate the kingdom of God to a “proper” place. We cannot carve out a separate, sacred space for the Kingdom and think that it will not sneak into all the other places as well and take them over, too.

And that includes within ourselves. We cannot partition ourselves and have our faith only impact some areas of our lives. Only be relevant to some of our decisions and not others. There is no such thing as an apolitical kingdom of God. There is no such thing as an economically neutral kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a kingdom of God that is not interested in our lived, embodied existence, in our relationships, in how we treat each other. We cannot separate our faith in Jesus into one neat area of our lives.

When we are faced with moral dilemmas, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with political decisions, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with economic choices, our faith must be part of the conversation. I’m not suggesting that there is only one right answer to any of these difficult questions. But when our faith is not part of how we seek our answer, that is a problem.

Right now, on our southern border, children are being torn away from their parents. Children are being kept in holding facilities by the thousands. There is not an easy solution to the immigration and refugee crisis facing, not just our country, but the world. I’m not saying that there is. But, as people of faith, we must say that whatever the solution will be, it does not start with this. It does not start with dehumanizing children. It does not start with destroying families.

We cannot separate our faith from the real-world situations we find ourselves in. Faith doesn’t work like that. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. It refuses to be kept in a neat and tidy box. It is like the mustard seed, growing and spreading with abandon, taking over wherever it will.

These parables of seeds and growth have both promise and provocation within them. The Kingdom of God comes without our help. Without our even understanding it. What great promise that is! It is not all up to us. Even when we feel as though nothing is happening, the seed is not growing, God is at work. It might be imperceptible, it might be painfully slow, but God is at work bringing about growth.

It is like Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “What do we mean when we say, “Your kingdom come?” “In fact,” Luther writes, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” We ask that the kingdom may also come to us.

We ask that we might have our assumptions challenged. That we might question things we take for granted. That we might see with new eyes, the reign of God. Paul describes what it is like to live in that reign in 2 Corinthians: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

When we pray, “your kingdom come,” we ask that we might see the world through God’s point of view. That we might let God’s kingdom take root in us, knowing ultimately it might get out of our control. Let’s hope it does.

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One thought on “Like a mustard seed

  1. Thank you for giving me a better understanding of parables and of the kingdom of God. I like the thought that it comes without any effort on our part. I thank you especially for preaching on the inhumane and cruel treatment of families crossing the border – separating children from their parents and a devastating effect that produces. As Christians we must speak out against such immoral treatment.

    Like

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