Presented at First Baptist Church, Belmont, MA; June 17, 2012.
2nd Corinthians 5:6-17 (We walk by faith, not by sight…)
Mark 4:26-34 (The Parable of the Seed that Grows of Itself and the Parable of the Mustard Seed)
How many of you are familiar with the Garlic Mustard plant?
It’s a common weed in this area. If you crush its leaves, it smells like garlic; and it has a taste similar to that of mustard, hence it’s name. In colonial times it was a common herb, since the colonists had no money to buy spices from overseas, such as pepper, even if they had access to them. It was also very easy to grow. …Perhaps a bit too easy.
Let us pray…
Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning. We ask that you open the scriptures before us, and that I clearly speak what you intend for me to say. Through these words, enable your faith to come alive within each and every one of us, and that we continue to be amazed and transformed by your unconditional, living, infinite faith in us. In Jesus Name, Amen.
As I said, Garlic Mustard is easy to grow – a bit too easy. Each individual plant produces thousands of tiny little seeds, which can survive in the soil for years, until conditions are favorable for them to sprout and grow. This plant spreads rapidly if you don’t invest a lot of effort in controlling it – like I’ve been trying to do in my yard for years.
It spreads rapidly, not just because of the number of seeds it produces, but also because it’s roots secrete an enzyme that kills off other nearby plants. If it gets established in a field, it can very quickly kill or crowd out anything else there and take over the entire area, producing millions of seeds to continue the invasion. You’ll never get rid of the stuff. They keep on popping up in new places, and always seem to come back in those areas where you thought you’d finally gotten rid of them. For these reasons, no farmer in their right mind will plant Garlic Mustard in or near a field. It is a very nasty, invasive weed.
Garlic mustard is also a very close relative of the plant Jesus was referring to in the parable of the mustard seed from this morning’s reading in the Gospel of Mark; the differences being that the garlic mustard is about three feet (or so) tall with white flowers, while the mustard is a little taller, with yellow flowers. The mustard was just as likely to cause the same big problems for those long ago peasants who were the first to hear Jesus say the Kingdom of God ”…is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
But the mustard plant is not a shrub, but simply a tall plant, a weed. There’s no way a bird could nest in its branches, it has none! So, why does Jesus compare the Kingdom of God to such a plant as this? Why does he say it becomes the greatest of all shrubs here in the Gospel of Mark?
For many years, in my ignorance, I simply accepted that the mustard plant really did grow into a huge shrub. After all, that’s what Jesus told us it did, and I’d never actually seen a mustard plant, so how was I supposed to know? We didn’t have google back then, let alone the internet! I did not understand that the heart of the meaning in this parable, like all parables, lies in the paradox between reality and promise that was obvious to those in Jesus time but which may not always be so obvious to us in today’s world.
The mustard plant has several characteristics that contribute to the paradox within this story.
First, it grows in huge masses. No individual plant stands out. You’ll never see just one. You don’t look on a mustard plant as an individual, but as an anonymous member of an invading army. Yet, Jesus is talking as if a single plant is noteworthy. In the parable, the lowly, anonymous, individual mustard plant is not lost in a sea of sameness.
This is tied to a second astounding claim: Jesus calls it the greatest of all shrubs… big enough to shelter birds. Big enough to have large branches on which they can build their nests. This weed has been transformed into something far greater than the four foot tall plant that those listening knew all too well.
Third, and as I already mentioned – its invasive, it gets into everything, you can’t get rid of it. It will become your nemesis in a never-ending war that begins on the day it first finds its way into your garden.
And so these three characteristics are part of the answer, the Kingdom of God is unexpected. Its seeds are all around you, unnoticed and invisible because they are so small. Ready to pop up when you least expect them to.
Once you finally notice, it is too late: they will be unstoppable. What’s more, the Kingdom of God grows in ways we do not expect. It’s not a domesticated plant after all, but a weed. Jesus underscores its “weediness” by saying it grows into the greatest of shrubs. This plant sprouts forth from a seed that lay hidden in the earth, but, unlike a mustard seed, the Kingdom of God grows into a great shrub.
So, despite it’s small beginnings, the Kingdom of God grows until it stands out in its greatness: undeniable and unavoidable, perhaps even a bit scary, since those listening knew how easily this weed could invade and take over their gardens and fields – in their minds they might have imagined how much worse a field of tree sized Mustard Plants would be. Yet Jesus also portrayed this weed as a place to go for those in need of refuge and peace.
Lets step back for a moment to consider that Mark precedes this parable with another one, the Parable of the Growing Seed. This is deliberate. Something about the first parable, the Parable of the Growing Seed, is intended to lead us into a fuller comprehension of the second one, the parable of the Mustard Seed. Both parables talk about seeds, both talk about the Kingdom of God growing from seeds.
We know that the Kingdom of God is a spiritual Kingdom, not a Kingdom of this world. Therefore, the seeds that Jesus is talking of when he says the Kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed” or “is as if someone scattered seed upon the ground” must be spiritual seeds, seeds of faith.
There are some odd things about this parable of the Growing Seed. For one thing, the sower is absent. He scatters the seed, but does nothing further – “the seed sprouts and grows he knows not how” says Jesus, while the sower “sleeps and rises, night and day.” The sower is oblivious to the earth producing of itself. The seed must grow on its own, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Only then does the sower see that the grain is ripe and ready to be harvested, and then “at once goes in with his sickle.”
One obvious lesson from this is that we, are responsible for the nurturing and growth of our own faith. God won’t do it for us.
But, there’s a more subtle lesson here as well. The seed is scattered. Not only does the sower ignore the plants as they grow, but he doesn’t even prepare the ground. Even worse, the seed is being scattered – that is, cast randomly onto the ground. There is no concern about where it lands. The sower doesn’t even cover the seed with earth or water it.
And yet, the seed sprouts and grows, and there is a harvest.
It would seem, then, that God’s seed is a sure thing. The sower is not concerned about where the seed lands because he knows it will sprout, and grow, and produce a harvest in the fullness of time.
But, because it is scattered, we don’t know where the seed will sprout from, just like those garlic mustard plants in my yard. The seed is everywhere. It will sprout, and grow, and there will be a harvest, but where and when those seeds will sprout in our lives and in the world around us, is something we cannot know or predict; or can we?
I had a bare patch in my lawn, and decided to sow some grass seed there. But unlike the sower in the parable, I knew my seed could not grow without help. So, I first loosened the soil, then sowed, then lightly raked the earth to cover the seed a bit. And I then regularly watered it, and waited.
Then, something happened. The seed sprouted and grew, but I saw that it grew best in places where there were little ridges from the raking, or under little clumps of dirt or in slight depressions in the soil. The seeds found these imperfections to be a place of refuge, a place where they could sprout and grow a little bit better and sooner than their neighbors. The bare ground, with a smooth, unbroken surface, remained barren. It was the imperfections that gave those seeds a place to begin.
And so it is in our lives. We all have imperfections. We all experience hard times. We all have dark valleys, cracks, shadows, and stones.
And that’s where faith begins. We all sometimes try to hide our imperfections behind a solid, unbroken wall, but doing so makes it impossible for God’s seeds to gain a foothold. Our brokenness is an important prerequisite for the birth and growth of faith in our lives. That faith often unexpectedly pops up and grows strong at such times and in such places is usually a surprise to us, but I’m sure it is not a surprise to God.
So, what I see in these parables is that faith is everywhere. We can’t get rid of it, we can’t control it, and we can’t stop it. It will grow to be strong and tall, it is what makes us stand out as special and noteworthy in God’s eyes. And it grows out of our brokenness.
God has blessed us with faith in order to see His Kingdom grow and become strong within us. God knows that the seeds of faith that he has planted in us will sprout, will grow, and will produce a worthy harvest in the fullness of time. Not in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. We have all we need to become the glorious, beautiful harvest that God wants us to be. All he desires is that we nourish and cherish that which he has planted within us. Faith may sprout within us unexpectedly, but it is never unsure.
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site).