Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The Kingdom of God is like when the smallest of seeds grows up, puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade (Mark 4:31-32). Jesus’ parable recalls images of the tree of life. We might expect a great Cedar or Sequoia.
In Glacier National Park in Montana, the Trail of the Cedars is a short walk from the road. Their massive trunks can soar up to two hundred feet high. Some are as much as 400 years old. The canopy of interlacing branches creates an awe-inspiring interior space worthy of a great cathedral. In fact, the magnificent Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain is inspired by a forest. Architect Antoni Gaudi duplicates structures found in nature. The width of the pillars undulates and branch out like tree trunks. Standing inside the Basilica looks more like it grew there than was built there.
It is easy to imagine the kingdom of God in an old growth forest or grand cathedral. But Jesus surprises us. Jesus says the presence and power of God is better revealed in a tiny, no-account seed. This is not the way we expect divine activity to look. Honestly, it’s not what we wanted either.
The people packed beside the sea listening to Jesus would have known, just as any farmer in the Midwest does, a mustard plant doesn’t have large branches. It doesn’t grow into a tree. It’s not suitable for birds to nest in. In fact, mustard isn’t good for much of anything. It’s a common weed.
A rule of thumb for interpreting parables is if they don’t offend you, you’re probably not understanding it. Until we hear the parable as Jesus own audience did we can’t begin to know what he meant.
Here then this parable of Jesus. ‘The kingdom of God flourishes like crabgrass or dandelions, or the creeping Charlie growing in your yard, next to the sidewalk, and underneath the L platform. The Spirit of God is like a weed. A weed is by definition, a plant nobody wants. A weed is a plant that grows everywhere, without tending to it. It just takes over – “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32).
Here Jesus topples any self-importance we might have nurtured about our piety and empties all pompous notions about our prized traditions, institutions, culture, refinement, and the arts. The response to Jesus’ message was decisive. The world flung out the parables and gospel of Jesus onto a garbage pile outside Jerusalem and violently put both him and his message to death on a cross. To which God responded creatively, gracefully and just as decisively with a resurrection for Jesus and also for us. In him was life. God’s free gift poured out upon all people.
To bind ourselves to this gospel is to take our place beside people, places, and things the world has thrown away—starting with yourself. Whatever flaws or faults you think you have, whatever shame you carry, regardless of the bad choices you made, or the tangled mess your daily life has become, the first step in our disciples’ journey is simply to prayerfully open ourselves and let the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus infuse, encircle, uplift, and heal you. You must learn to love yourself before you can truly love others. Here Jesus surprises us again. Once we stop running away from what is broken and become reconciled to God in Christ, fear and anger give way to generosity and joy.
Here is the tree of life sown in us like a tiny mustard seed. Here is the cross around which we gather, the tree into which we are grafted through baptism, the true vine that nourishes us with its fruit in the cup we share today at the altar. It did not appear all that impressive at first, but while nobody was looking it grows like a weed with a creative tenacity and power beyond our understanding. Even now God is bringing something new to life from ordinary discarded people and things that otherwise seem impossible.
The parables of Jesus teach us to see the world with new eyes. When the prophet Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king to replace Saul he was sure he had found him the moment he saw Eliab. But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Instead, God directed Samuel to anoint the youngest, the littlest, and by all outward accounts, the least likely to succeed. Yet, King David became the greatest king in the long history of Israel.
So, I ask you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what do you see? What do you notice as the fever dream of fear and violence begins to subside by the grace of God? Where does the spirit of generosity and joy encourage you to do God’s work with your hands and voice?
For three Sundays now, we’ve brought our collective attention to focus on the border and the plight of people in the world who live beyond it. Jesus led the disciples across borders and boundaries. Jesus lead them beyond their fear, beyond their wants from death into life. The love of God doesn’t stop at the border. Can we imagine a world where safety, justice, and abundance are so widely shared we will no longer have a need to defend the borders between nations, peoples, and religions?
What would happen to us, our households, our workplaces, our neighborhood, and our nation if we took Jesus’ crazy parables seriously? What if we embraced the parable of the mustard seed as a model for how we live life? What if we follow this gospel of fools would we see it is not only about the surprising character of God and grace, but an invitation to be planted like seed, to be plunged into the dark earth and there to die alone, in order that our lives might be broken open and our gifts multiplied like bread for the world? These parables are an invitation to walk with Jesus the way of the cross.
Be the seed. You may find yourself in rocky soil, on the path, or among thorns. It doesn’t matter. Be the seed. God will give the growth. Each of you is rooted in the garden of grace fed and watered through faith. Be the seed. Let yourself be planted in whatever place you find yourself.
Four thousand years ago human civilization was born in the land that today we call Iraq. Civilization began with the invention of agriculture and the cultivation of seed. Today, we multiply them, splice them, and harvest them in air-conditioned cabs guided by global positioning satellites, fertilized precisely according to the need of each plant with the help of drones. We know all about the bounty created by seeds –are we ready to let ourselves be the seed?
In baptism, the grace of God was sown in us so we might become like seeds of the kin-dom of God in the world. Thanks be to God. “For the wonders that astound us, the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” (ELW # 679)