Summer is one of my favorite times of year. Farmer’s markets are filled with berries, tomatoes, and peppers fresh from the garden. When I worked as a journalist in southwest Missouri, local farmers would routinely bring their extra zucchini and tomatoes to the newspaper office. There would be boxes of produce every week, and I found myself learning new recipes for zucchini casseroles and zucchini bread. I appreciated the hard work of the local farmers, tending to the plants, watering and fertilizing and plucking pests from the leaves. I regularly heard discussions on what to do to prevent moles and rabbits from infiltrating the garden, or the best way to get rid plants of slugs that seemed to come from miles to snack on the young plants. Reaping produce from a garden is hard work. It requires dedication.
Our parables today are not pleasant tales for gardeners. The first of these garden tales talks about someone scattering seed, then going about his regular business. He seems surprised when the seed grows into a plant — and he should! He had very little to do with it. The text tells us that the earth produces of itself. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Northern Illinois, compares these surprise plants to what she describes as volunteer tomatoes in her father’s garden. These volunteer tomatoes are those fruits that he did not plant, but that grow miraculously in strange places from seeds left behind from the previous year’s harvest. They are the plants that come up from the edges of the compost pile or smack dab in the middle of the yard, beautiful in their rebellion. All the while you are pleading with this year’s perfectly cared for tomato plants to produce something, anything edible.
The Kingdom of God is like volunteer tomatoes.
The second of these stories is about mustard. Jesus references the tiny seeds. I brought some today. I was amazed at just how many seeds one packet contained. The estimations I have found suggest that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 seeds in this ziplock bag. I find that incredible. But here’s the thing, Jewish law prohibited the growing of mustard in a garden. Now, scholars debate on what the definition of a garden was in that time. There is a suggestion that it was a plot 6 handwidths long by 6 handwidths wide.
The understanding, however, is that the mustard varieties that grew in the first century were mostly wild. They would take over a garden. Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 in the Common Era, wrote about mustard in his “Natural History.” He said “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
As soon as the sower scatters the mustard seed, the sower looses control. The mustard grows as a weed, taking over the place where it was planted.
When it is full-grown, it becomes a large shrub, 8-10 feet tall. The contrast between tiny seed and large shrub is pretty incredible. But in the Psalms, we are told that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Now these are mighty images—Lebanon is known for its cedar trees. They can grow to be over 8 ft in diameter and 130 feet tall.
But Jesus chooses a plant that starts from very small beginnings, grows into a large shrub, and must be replanted every year. A plant that has powerful healing properties, but that no one wanted in their garden in the first century. A plant that grew whether you wanted it to or not.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
Mustard and Mysterious plants. It is no wonder that Jesus had to explain everything in private to his disciples. Parables are riddles. It seems the moment you think you have the correct answer, something new crops up in the story that suggests yet another meaning.
It must have been scary to have been a part of the first century church. The Gospel of Mark – like all of the Gospels – was written after Jesus ascended into Heaven, after the church was established. These new Followers of the Way, as early Christians were called, were struggling with who they were. Some were Jews who believed that Jesus had ushered in a new age – the Kingdom of God. Others were Gentiles who came to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth had a message worth participating in. These groups were struggling to figure out how to navigate their differences and find a way to be united. They faced persecution from the Roman government, and perhaps persecution from religious leaders who felt these new Jesus People were messing with the established order. They were different. And who wants different?
Last week Samuel preached the first sermon from our 12 Verses Project on Romans 12:12 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Not conforming got those first century Christ followers in trouble. Followers of the Way were being killed. And they watched as the powers in control of the government worked to protect their own interests instead of working for justice for oppressed people. Their own efforts seemed so small, so useless. I imagine they were often discouraged, thinking that all hope was lost.
I imagine we find ourselves there, too. While those of us in America are able to worship freely, we watch as the world around us doesn’t seem to reflect the vision of the Kingdom. Divisions seem to grow—whether the divide is between people of different political parties or the divide between the rich and the poor or the divide between neighbors who never take the time to know each other, or the divide between the United States and the nations we engage in war. Both within and beyond our borders, we hear stories of those living in slavery, we hear of conflicts that rage, we hear of people who are exterminated for their ethnicity. And in the midst of all the fear and hate, it can be easy to think that our efforts are too small.
What does it mean to make sure my coffee is fairly traded, if everyone else in the neighborhood continues to buy the unfairly traded varieties? What does it matter if I recycle when no one else seems to? What does it mean to champion nonviolence when the nation we live in spends trillions of dollars on a military? What does it matter if we love our enemies, when our enemy doesn’t welcome or acknowledge our love? Our efforts seem small.
And they are. But I think that is the point. The Kingdom is like a person who goes out and plants some seeds. They are small seeds—perhaps even old seeds—but the sower scatters them around. And that is all the sower can do. For days, the sower goes to bed and is awakened without any evidence that anything is happening with those seeds. Perhaps the sower even gives up, believing that nothing can come of the sowing efforts. But all of a sudden, the seeds begin to germinate and grow—without any intervention from the sower. And those seeds become plants that grow into 8-foot shrubs. The leaves of those shrubs are pungent, but they have healing properties. And because the plants have overtaken the field, there are enough leaves to share with neighbors, who desperately need the healing.
Mother Teresa, who is widely known for her work with the sick, poor, orphaned and dying in Calcutta, once said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Church, we are small in number, and we are small in works—but we serve a God of great love. Jesus encouraged the first century church, and he encourages us now: our efforts to love the world around us are not in vain. God is at work, germinating and growing the Kingdom in ways that we can’t imagine.
Shane Claiborne, who is part of an intentional Christian community known as The Simple Way, writes in his book “The Irresistible Revolution” that perhaps The Kingdom of God is like a mustard plant instead of a giant tree because it keeps us closer to the ground, closer to real people who have real needs.
What needs exist around you? What is going on in your neighbor’s life that needs your love and care? We might not be able to do great things, but the world desperately needs the small things that you are able to offer. This is what the Kingdom of God is like: volunteer plants, tiny mustard seeds, and small acts done with great love.
Read more from Jennifer Harris Dault at her blog.