The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
A Mustard Seed Kingdom
Sermon by the Rev. Dan Hinkle
Pentecost 4 Proper 6B June 17, 2018
Scripture: Ezekiel 17:22 – 24 “22 Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
Mark 4:26 – 34 “26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ 30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.’ 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
“Shrubbery! Neep! Neep!”
What? No laughter? “I guess you had to be there.” Some of you may recognize that joke from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
I’m sure everyone here, at one time or another, has told a joke that fell flat. Of course, that’s not our fault. “I guess you just had to be there.” Or “It lost something in translation.” Or “They just didn’t get it.” Right?
A good story teller never tells the same joke or story twice the same way. You always change and embellish it to fit your audience and performance context. This is true for drama and musical performances, too. Long before “Beowulf,” or Homer’s “Iliad and Odyssy,” or the stories of the Bible were written down, the bard or scop or story teller told or chanted the story from memory and embellished it, often while playing the harp. So, stories change from telling to telling. This is especially true, I think, when there’s two thousand years between the telling.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, for instance, I think Jesus is telling a joke. But two thousand years later, did we laugh? Oh. “I guess you had to be there.”
Remember. Last Sunday I said that parables in Mark’s Gospel function more like riddles. So, how can Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed be a riddle or a joke? Well, the creators of our lectionary gave us a clue by pairing this parable with our first Lesson for this morning. The Prophet Ezekiel compares the Kingdom of God to the twig of a cedar tree which God plants and it grows up to be a huge tree and all the birds want to come and make their nest in the shade of its many branches. Keep that majestic cedar tree in mind, as many of Jesus’ audience no doubt did, and listen to the parable again.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It 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.”
Jesus even uses some of the same words as Ezekiel. Yet, he’s changed the mighty cedar tree into a scruffy little mustard bush. That must be a joke, don’t you think? And it’s not the whole joke. To really get it, we modern city dwellers must remember that most of Jesus’ listeners were subsistence farmers. Let me tell it this way. “the kingdom of God is like a dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn….” Get it now? Mustard shrubs are weeds, a farmer’s worst enemy. Jesus must have told this parable with a bit of wry humor.
So, was he just trying to lighten things up with a joke, or did he have a deeper point? Mark tells us that Jesus chose to speak in parables, or “riddles,” and riddles can be frustrating and confusing. They make you think about things in new ways. “Thirty white horses on a red hill, First they champ, Then they stamp, Then they stand still,” (From chapter 5 of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit’) Does anyone know the answer to that riddle? Teeth.
But why didn’t Jesus just come right out and say what he meant? Why’d he leave behind all these cryptic sayings instead of a clear set of laws or a stack of professional essays on how to be a good Christian? Well, because a list of rules never changes, never adapts, and written essays are like insects encased in amber — beautiful and precisely formed, but dead. If you still think Jesus would’ve gotten his points across better with hard and fast rules, try reading the Book of Leviticus or a preacher’s sermons. Ungh! Dry as toast, and easily forgotten. Haha.
I don’t know about you, but I love a good story and a good joke. (Of course, we preachers never get to hear the best jokes.) And the Gospel is among the most beautiful and moving of any story I’ve ever heard. If you haven’t yet read the Gospel story for yourself, well, that’s your homework for this week. Pick one of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John - and read it through, in one sitting if possible. It won’t take you long. You might start with Mark. It’s the shortest.
Other gospels may not be quite so well-known, but they’re just as influential. There’s “The Gospel According to Grandma” and “The Gospel According to Uncle Larry” or “The Gospel According to that camp counselor or parish priest” all of whom had such a positive influence on your life and faith.
All of us are in the process of writing our own gospels by living as followers of Jesus. As the Parable of the Mustard Seed teaches us, like the ever widening ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, the smallest of actions can result in a lot of good. It’s why he gave us the power of the parable. Jesus knew that only stories can connect us to one another, our ancestors, our world and to our God.
What is the power that Jesus’ parables awaken in us? It’s the power of forgiveness, or as St. Paul calls it in our Second Lesson today, reconciliation. We have a ministry of reconciliation to bring to a world full of conflict and pain. A ministry of reconciliation will seem like weedy dandelions in a beautifully manicured, green lawn. And folks think they should get rid of those weeds. And, of course, that’s exactly what they tried to do to our Lord. The leaders wanted to destroy him by putting him to death on the cross.
I think this parable of the Mustard Seed was a lighter, more gracious way to begin to prepare his disciples for what was ahead. In a world of division and conflict, his ministry of reconciliation was perceived as a weed to be stamped out.
But weeds aren’t that easy to get rid of, are they? God raised Jesus from the dead, and his ministry of reconciliation continues to spread and grow and branch out, like a lawn full of dandelions or a field full of mustard bushes. Did you know that far from being useless weeds, dandelion leaves make an excellent salad and the flowers make good wine, mustard adds spice to many foods and has medicinal uses, too? “All that is gold does not glitter.” (Tolkien)
The power of God’s reconciliation through Jesus Christ is a power that’s been growing for many years; it’s a power that’s been gradually bringing people together and tearing down the border walls that divide us. Slavery is now illegal in the US, for example. The barriers of racism and sexism have begun to come down. One of the things about the younger Generation X is that tolerance is a major value for them. Tolerance goes a long way towards breaking down divisions.
But there is much work to do as the kingdom keeps growing. Tolerance is a good first step. Reconciliation goes farther. Like the birds of the air, we can temporarily nest in the tolerant branches of the mustard bush; but a ministry of reconciliation is more like the farmer who sows the seed and then cares for the growing bush. It’s caring for the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness in our own lives, too. How were you like a weed spreading reconciliation in a conflicted world this week past?
So, once again we come here today to hear the Gospel Good News of forgiveness. We hear it throughout the liturgy but especially when the priest speaks the Absolution to us after the General Confession, and we hear it when we reach out our hands to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. You are forgiven.
And that’s the Good News for us this morning!
Source: Sermons by Paul J. Nuechterlein and Leonard Sweet of same title