He also said, “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 the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Today marks the second part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.
Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.
The stories that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God are down to earth, literally. The kingdom is not some esoteric arena in the great by-and-by, but as close as a wedding feast, or a fishing net, or even a mustard bush.
A mustard bush is a strange thing. It develops from the smallest of seeds and grows like a weed choking out everything else. It is the kind of plant that farmers fear. The seeds are so tiny that if they get caught up in a group of others being sowed in a field, it can destroy the planned crop and replace it with mustard bushes.
One of the main points of Jesus’ parables is the fact that they are common stories that nearly everyone can appreciate or picture. But are we, today, familiar with a mustard seed or a mustard bush? I went out on Wednesday to a couple local plant nurseries, and I went to a couple hardware stores, and I found nothing. Not one bag of mustard seeds. Not one single mustard plant.
For the first century Jews and Gentiles this parable was as familiar as could be. Jewish law made it illegal to plant a mustard seed in a garden because they knew it would grow and grow and eventually take over the entire space. But for us today, we only know the mustard we buy in grocery stories. So, perhaps we need a new parable. Maybe we need a new comparison to what the kingdom of God is like. One that still holds true to the reality of a mustard seed but also resonates with our understanding of the world.
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like one of those computer viruses that we receive in an email attachment from our grandmother. At first it seems harmless “Click here to learn the secret to weight-loss” or “Click here to see a video of a monkey playing a piano” and then before we know what hit us it spreads and spreads through our entire computer corrupting every file before sending the same email out to everyone in our address book.”
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like the flu, we try to stop it from spreading by receiving flu shots and preventing people from visiting others in the hospital, but once it takes hold it spreads through everything we touch until it reaches the next person and the next person and the next person.”
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a video posted on the Internet of a black man being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. At first we try to scroll past because we know it is too graphic, too awful, too real, but we can’t help ourselves from watching. The longer we watch the more people we think about that need to see the video, we start to think about how the whole world needs to see this injustice so that justice might rain down like water. So we send it out for everyone to see until something changes.”
If Jesus showed up in church today and shared any of those parables with us, how would we respond? I’d tell him that he is crazy, that he has no idea how no idea how the church is supposed to work, and that his vision of the kingdom does not match with mine.
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is one that confuses and creates frustration precisely because our version of the kingdom is different than the kingdom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of God strikes in ways that we almost cannot see, and certainly not in ways that we can expect. Like an idea popping up in the mind, it refuses to be stifled and it begins to spread out through our conversations and our writing. Ideas like “war is wrong” or “homophobia is wrong” or “the indiscriminate killing of black men and women” is wrong. Those ideas spread like wildfire and at some point they cease to be ideas and instead transform into revolutions. The original thought tangles in the mind and heart of the revolution and people become so moved that they are willing to die so long as that original idea will continue to spread.
More often than not, we know what we want the kingdom of God to look like and we know what we want the church to look like. We want clear lines to be drawn so that we know who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is black and what is white.
But then Jesus gives us this two-verse parable with the mustard seed – the tiniest symbol of how God is forever invading our ordinary and orderly sense of things. The mustard seed is there in plain sight but hidden by our ignorance. We overlook it in the fields, in the church, in our lives, and then it sprouts into the greatest of all the shrubs.
Since January of this year at least 123 black Americans have been shot and killed by police. This week saw a black man gunned down outside of a convenience store for selling CDs and a black man gunned down during a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight. The saddest part of these stories is that they have become part of our common vernacular and experience of black culture. For a time we can remember the names of the individuals killed, names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, but now the list has grown so long that the names begin to bleed together.
And how do we feel? Are we outraged? Or are we apathetic? Are we disgusted? Or are we disinterested? Are we on fire for change? Or do we want things to stay the same?
And the death of black men and women is a small fraction, or perhaps the mustard seed, of the larger picture of racial inequality in our country.
People of color make up about 30% of the total population in the U.S. but they account for 60% of those who are imprisoned. 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than white offenders for the same crime.
In preschools across the country black students account for 18% of the total number enrolled but make up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Preschoolers! In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, black students are expelled at 3 times the rate of white students.
And 11am on Sunday morning is still, without a doubt, the most segregated hour in the United States.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is planted it grows into the grandest and largest of all the shrubs and puts forth branches so that all the birds of the air can find rest in its shade.
The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of America where people are still persecuted because of the pigmentation of their skin, where immigrants are treated as second-class citizens, where members of the LGBTQ community are murdered because of their identity; where police are attacked in retaliation for events in other parts of the country.
On Thursday evening, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, five law enforcement officers were killed and six others were injured. Snipers were set up in strategic elevated areas and sent the downtown area into chaos as bullets continued to fly back and forth. It is unclear what the exact motives of the attack might be, though it is clear that it is somehow connected with the recent shootings of black men in other parts of the country.
Black men and women are shot and killed by the police. Black communities respond in rage and protest. Police are shot and killed by individuals whose anger manifested itself into violence and destruction.
What are we to do? Turn off the television because of the unending violence? Shrug off the waves of death because at least its not happening in Staunton? Fall to our knees in prayer that we might be transformed into a people of peace?
Today we grieve and mourn all the lives lost at the hands of the destructive power of death. We lift up our fists and rail against the prejudices that result in black persecution and police assassination. We demand answers from the Lord for why things like this continue to happen.
That’s the power of a parable like the mustard seed; it strikes us as something true whenever we hear it. A detail will emerge that we’ve never thought about and we realize that Jesus is still speaking to us through the story. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus in the midst of our lives today. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.
The kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, like a viral video, like a revolution, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and creates something new. Hidden in plain sight, like words of a prayer, the seeds of faith grow in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our invasive and surprising God.
Our lives should transformed by the mustard seed quality of the kingdom of God when it stretches and reaches into every part of our existence and challenges us to be better. Not to pass the buck on to someone else, not to become apathetic to the tragedies of our time, but to be caught up in a revolution of the heart.
The power of the parable of the mustard seed is in the tiniest of seeds leading to a radical change. The mustard seed germinates and stretches out to grab hold of everything in its path. Oh that today the Lord would plant that mustard seed in our hearts, that the kingdom of God might grow and dwell among us, reaching out to everyone in our midst, that we might all believe that black lives matter, that we might believe that violence will only ever beget more violence.
We need that mustard seed. We need it planted deep into the soil of our souls, we need it to be cultivated, and we need it to grow with reckless abandon. We need a revolution of the heart, here and everywhere. Amen.