The Realm of God is like a weed sown in a garden. The weeds grow where planted and then take over the rest of the garden. They grow and entwine themselves in and through all other plants until the weeds and the crops cannot be distinguished. This is more what Jesus meant when he said that the Realm of God is like a mustard seed. He didn’t mean that there is much potential to grow and blossom hidden away in a tiny seed. Jesus is being funny in a way that might be lost on contemporary ears.
The mustard plant was an unwanted weed in Jesus’ day. No one in their right mind would actually plant it in their garden. It took over and grew into rangy, twiggy shrubs that choked out other, more desirable plants. When Jesus said that the Realm of God is like a mustard seed planted in a garden, his first hearers might have laughed out loud; no one would do such a thing. Jesus was an expert storyteller and he didn’t craft his parables without reason.
First Jesus says that the Realm of God is like seeds planted in orderly rows that grow up and produce grain and are harvested in the usual fashion. And, by the way, how exactly that happens is a mystery. At this, everyone listening probably nodded. This is a nice, orderly, predictable image of God’s Realm. It’s appealing and, from a human perspective, we think we might just have a bit of control over when and how God’s Realm shows up. We like to disregard the mystery part.
Jesus doesn’t leave his listeners nodding in approval, though. He goes on to make his mustard seed analogy. First his listeners laugh, and then they shake their heads and mutter about Jesus’ oddities. Why would the Realm of God be compared to such a pesty, invasive plant as a mustard seed? Ah, yes. To remind us all that the Realm of God is mysterious and beyond our control. It will spring up in both expected and unexpected places. It will grow in well-manicured gardens and it will grow in the wild places. Moreover, it will mysteriously spread so that it can’t be distinguished from what grows nearby. What kind of insidious mess is this Realm of God, anyway?
Most of us like to maintain an illusion of control in our lives. We like to think that we can keep chaos at bay and tame the Holy Spirit. We fool ourselves into believing that God only shows up and offers a stamp of approval when all is well. This little parable reminds us that God has an affinity for chaos. God shows up in the entanglements, weeds, and wilderness of our lives and plants some seeds. These seeds take root and grow in the shape of the God’s Realm more often than we notice. There may be no perceivable change in our experience of the wild places, the deep places, but we live through them. Later, we might realize how changed we are.
We would do well to pay heed to this mustard seed parable. We cannot control the Holy Spirit and we cannot determine where God’s Realm will take root. You’ve heard the stories of how someone’s life was transformed from deep pain and suffering into joy and strength in miraculous ways. Some of us have lived it.
I was born into a family that was unruly, to say the least. No one would have predicted that I would grow up to be an author, a pastor, an advocate for mental health. No one would have predicted that the shy, neglected child I was would grow into a preacher and conference presenter. Yet, along the way, seeds were planted. Seeds that were hope, value, and witness took root and grew into the Realm of God, choking out the seeds of pain, worthlessness, and invalidation. In the middle of the deep, despairing chaos, God’s Realm blossomed and transformed my life. No one could have known such a thing would happen, no one other than God.
This mustard seed parable of the tenacity and unpredictability of God’s Realm should guide us in our interactions with our neighbors. Yes, we need to plant seeds with care and nurture the crops of loving kindness. But in other situations where it seems we have no control and there is no hope for new life, we must look for the signs of God’s Realm unfurling it’s tiny, fragile leaves. The seed of God’s Realm could take root with any act of kindness, any effort to reach beyond what is comfortable and known, any tentative welcome of the stranger, or any tender mercy extended to the most vulnerable among us.
All hope is not lost, even in this violent, self-destructive world. The Realm of God is alive and well, just waiting for us to see it growing right in the middle of our lives, perhaps especially in the wild, chaotic, desperate places. Let’s not underestimate the value of those tiny seeds. They can grow into the largest of shrubs where more than birds will make their homes. Let’s be generous with our compassion, our kindness, our mercy, our patience, and our love. Let’s scatter the seeds everywhere – in cultured rows and in the chaos. There’s no knowing exactly where and when the Realm of God will grow strong and blossom with justice, healing, and grace for all of Creation.
RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 17, 2018
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 with Psalm 20 or
Ezekiel 17:22-24 with Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 or 2 Corinthians 5:6-17