You can listen to today’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.
Every morning, it is guaranteed that at least five items will be brought out from our girls’ rooms. Lainey will bring her owl and bear. Eliza will bring her fraff. And both girls will bring their blanket. Oh how they love their blankies. They are a staple for wake up time, for car rides, for quiet times, and especially for bed time. The world ends when it is bed time and a blanket cannot be found. Of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. While Lainey has her very own blanket, Eliza actually uses Cassie’s old blankie. I still have my mine, handmade 30 some-odd years ago by my Aunt Michelle My sister carried a piece of hers in her wedding dress as her something old. I think, or a least I hope, that we aren’t the only people with such an affinity to the comfort items of our childhood. It seems as if most of us have had that one thing that was a source of comfort and security; that kept us safe in the dark of night. And really, even once it is no longer socially acceptable to carry around a blanket; most of us have found new ways to find comfort in the topsy-turvy-ness of life. Some find it in routine. Some find it in companionship. Some find it in a good book.
I think we seek security and comfort in a lot of different ways, and I think that for many, one of those sources of comfort is the Scriptures. We find solace in the stories of our faith. Just hearing the words “In the beginning…” can remind us that God is in control and we need not worry. “The Lord is my shepherd” can soothe even the most troubled heart. Even these parables from Jesus seem safe and tame, especially the Parable of the Mustard Seed which is almost suitable for framing. Using a parable as a security blanket is problematic, however, because the parables were not meant to be a source of comfort. Instead, Jesus told parables to confound us and make us think. He told parables not so that we could find easy answers in them, but so that our minds might be opened to hear difficult truths. Unfortunately, we’ve heard these parables so often that they have all but lost their meaning. They’ve become nothing more than pithy proverbs that you might find in a fortune cookie.
I spent a lot of time this week trying to think of new ways to spin these parables; trying to make them less Linus’ blue blanket and more Eugene Peterson’s description as narrative time bombs, but every time I went back to the text, I would read “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…”, and immediately began to picture doves making their homes in the strong branches of a yellow flowering tree. And then, I remembered Mr. Little.
We hear the Parable of the Mustard Seed two out of every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. Matthew’s version is assigned for this week, Proper 12, Year A and Mark’s original take on it comes on Proper 6, Year B. Luke has it in his Gospel, but we skip over it in Year C. Every time this parable is read at the 7:30 service, Mr. Little comes out and says something like, “I don’t know what kind of mustard seeds Jesus was planting, but mine don’t look like trees.” I don’t know the first thing about agriculture generally or mustard plants specifically, and so I always chuckle at the thought and merely shrug my shoulders, but as I read my go-to sources this week, I began to think that maybe Mr. Little is really on to something. Again and again there were references to the silliness of this parable to the first century hearer. Words kept coming up like weed, crabgrass and the dreaded kudzu. Thanks to Mr. Little, the idea that Jesus meant the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a starry eyed image of the Kingdom of Heaven now seems absurd to me. Jesus didn’t have in mind a mighty tree, but rather the mustard plant that Mr. Little knows well, the scrubby almost grass like plant that when left to its own devices might grow tall and woody, but certainly isn’t a tree. This parable is often explained to a sleepy congregation, shrunken by the cares and concerns of summer time, by saying “Take heart! We may be small, but big things can grow from even the smallest of faith.” That’s nice, and that may be a quality children’s message that we can take from this parable, but I don’t think it is the only thing the mustard seed teaches us.
Instead, Jesus is using hyperbole, one of those great rhetorical devices they taught us about in seminary, by making a greatly exaggerated claim to teach a deeper truth. I’m certain that as Jesus told this story, many in the crowd chuckled at its absurdity. Some probably rolled their eyes at the very thought of the mustard plant being “the greatest of shrubs.” Maybe in the rolling of their eyes, this rag tag group of farmers and fishermen; widows and orphans; scribes and illiterate women crowded around the seashore were really learning something about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus could have chosen a more classical Biblical image of a majestic kingdom. He could have said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the seed pod of the mighty cedar, which when planted grows into the greatest of trees.” His audience would have immediately thought the mighty trees of the Babylonians or the lofty cedar of the Assyrians or the oaks of Bashan. They would have associated it with real power, real authority, real kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, he uses the image of the wild growing mustard plant to turn the idea of power upside down, subtly suggesting that real power doesn’t come from our usual expectation of might makes right, but from ordinary, often un-majestic sources. The Kingdom of Heaven is always expanding, always growing, and always present when people of faith take on seemingly simple acts of love. The love of God, like the lowly mustard plant, has a way of spreading beyond anything we can ask or imagine. It can take over your life, your family, our church, our city, even the world.
Jesus’ parables, like the Gospel message they share, are not meant to be like the comfort of a beloved blankie. If we take seriously that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, then it will change every aspect of our lives: from how you shop to how you vote; how you watch the news to how you treat your neighbor. Nobody likes that much change, but as we heard in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not go it alone. Nothing, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Sometimes, life in the Kingdom of God compels you to open your checkbook in unexpected ways. Sometimes, it calls you to be a tutor for kindergarteners at Foley Elementary School. Sometimes, it means sleeping on a cot in the education building for Family Promise, or inviting your neighbor to church, or forgiving that family member or friend who hurt you so many years ago, or praying for Christians in Mosul or Israelis and Palestinians in and around Gaza and undocumented children caught in between a political rock and a hard place on the Mexican border. The love of God can take you way out of your comfort zone, and these Parables, especially the mustard seed, suggest that that is exactly what the Kingdom of God is like. Sometimes, the Kingdom is just a tiny seed, waiting to be planted, so that it can grow, spread, and someday, to take over the whole world.