Did you say "shrub"?
The kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed. That’s a relief. Finally that crazy Jesus whom we met last Sunday is starting to make some sense. Because we know what the parable of the mustard seed means, we’ve got this one under control. The kingdom of God, the God’s way, the activity and presence of God in our world might start small like a seed but it will grow into something big. It may look insignificant to begin with, but it will become important, big enough and strong enough to provide shelter and security for us, just like the majestic mustard plant provides cover for nesting birds. And that’s a happy story, and we can all go out of here singing “let my faith grow like a mustard seed, and carry me all the way home.”
That’s not a bad way to look at this parable. In fact, that’s how I started with the children this morning. This nice, unthreatening, controlled version of what Jesus has to say really does provide us with some genuine insight about the kingdom of God.
But you know there’s got to be more to it than that. So let’s listen again, and this time we’ll try to move beyond the nice version.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”
“I know, I know. It’s in the book of Ezekiel. The kingdom of God is like a mighty cedar of Lebanon, the most noble of trees, planted high and lofty on top of a mountain.”
“Nice try, but no. Not a tall cedar. The kingdom of God is like . . . a mustard seed.”
“A mustard seed? You’ve got to be kidding. Mustard is a weed.”
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which when sown on the ground. . .”
“Sown on the ground? Nobody’s going to be sowing mustard seed on the ground. I told you it’s a weed!”
“It is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all … shrubs!”
“Shrubs! Did you say shrub? What’s so great about a shrub?”
“Well, it puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
“Must be a pretty small birds!”
And by this time, all of Jesus’ listeners, are rolling on the ground laughing. Well, I don’t know if they were actually rolling on the ground, but this is meant to be funny. This is stand-up comedy. Jesus is using humour here to break down our expectations and to open us up to a new understanding of God.
Because our heckler from the crowd was right. Mustard is a weed. And mustard is a shrub. Normally it grows about this high. Even in the best of circumstances, it won’t grow taller than about 2 ½ meters. Don’t you think we could find a better image of the kingdom of God?
Now, mustard has good properties. It has medicinal value. Birds, small birds that is, can nest in it. In the spring it has beautiful yellow flowers. And of course you can make mustard out of it. But why would you pick mustard as an image of the kingdom of God, when you could pick the mighty cedars of Lebanon, or the amazing, huge red cedars of our west coast. Wouldn’t those awesome trees be a better image of the greatness of God than a little mustard bush? Maybe Jesus is trying to tell us that there is a new standard for greatness in the kingdom.
But the parable gets even more subversive, parables usually do if you let them. Because despite the fact that the mustard plant has its uses, it is still basically a weed. I did a little mustard research on the internet. Brassica Nigra, to use the technical name, black mustard “can chemically alter the soil, suppressing germination and growth of native species. With fast growth and prolific seed production, black mustard has often escaped cultivation and is widespread as a weed in agricultural settings.”
There you have it. Mustard is a weed. And what do we do with weeds? We eradicate them.
When I was walking in northern Spain a couple of years ago, I saw mustard just about everywhere. By the side of the road, in scrub fields, in ditches, growing up the overpasses. Mustard was everywhere – everywhere that is except in the farmer’s fields where crops were growing. Because as soon as any mustard would pop up in the fields, the farmer would come along and rip it out by the roots. Because that’s what we do with weeds when they grow where we don’t want them, when they get in our way.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
When I was young I had a garden, and one year I decided to plant some mint in my garden. And it was great at first. It grew quickly, and I had all the mint I wanted. But mint is one of those plants with roots that spread everywhere, and it crowds out other plants. In fact, you might call it a weed. Mint sprouted everywhere. It took over the garden, it was choking off the other plants. It spread like crazy. It started growing in the grass. It started growing in my parents flower beds. It was out of control. And so I started pulling it up wherever I saw it, in the flower beds, the lawn, and finally by the third summer, I ripped it out of the garden. My mint experiment had come to an end. The thing got out of control, wouldn’t stay where I wanted it and I had to eradicate it.
Mustard is like that too. It starts small, but it grows quickly and it spreads. It shows up where you don’t expect it. It’s hard to contain. It’s out of control. It gets in the way of the other plants you’re trying to grow. It’s invasive. And when we can’t control it, sometimes our response is to try to get rid of it.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for us if the kingdom of God was a mighty cedar tree that would just stay in one place and look awesome instead of always trying to change everything.
The kingdom of God, God’s activity and presence in our world, the ways that God is manifested in our world is good. It is life-giving, it is beautiful, it provides shade and security for the birds of the air. But it is also subversive. It is invasive. It will disturb us. It won’t stay where we put it. It will spread and grow and we will not be able to contain or control it. We can try. We can try to make faith a private affair. We can try to keep God in the church sanctuary. We can enlist God for our favourite causes, try to make sure that God’s on our side and not their side.
But it won’t work. Because the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s going to go where it’s going to go, not where we want to keep it.
And that means that it’s going to meet resistance. Especially from those who don’t want things to change. Especially from the powerful and the privileged. When it shows up in the wrong places, at inconvenient times in our lives, we’re going to want to resist it. Cut it back, fence it in, pull it up by the roots.
Can I give you a couple of examples? In this country, the kingdom of God started showing up after the second world war in a number of reports and voices that started to question the Indian Residential School System in this country. Voices that started to question the health situation, and the language suppression, the reports of abuse. But they were ignored. We resisted them. We contained them and controlled them, kept them off to one side. They were inconvenient. But eventually, decades later, these little seeds had spread and grown and invaded enough of our consciousness that we finally dismantled the schools and apologized, though we know there is still much work to do.
Across our southern border, around the same time, there was another mustard seed that we call now the civil rights movement. One mustard seed sprouted in the person of Martin Luther King Jr. He and others fought racism and discrimination against African-Americans. This too was an inconvenient truth, and many resisted and tried to contain it, tried to keep it in its place. But when it couldn’t be contained by putting it in jail, or by spying on it, or by intimidation, finally it was eradicated. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just over fifty years ago. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. With God it never is. The kingdom of God will face resistance, and there will be setbacks. But it will prevail.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It starts small but it grows. It meets resistance but it persists. It disrupts our plans and priorities. It is invasive, it will surprise us, it will change things. Some will try to control it. Some will try to eradicate it. But God’s ways will prevail. Seeds will spread and grow. And though at times it may defy our expectations, at times it may be inconvenient, the kingdom of God is good news, especially for the birds of the air, who make their nests in its shade.
Homily: Yr B P11, June 17 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Ezekiel 17.2-24; Ps 92.1-4, 12-15; 2 Cor 5.6-18, Mark 4.26-34