Lectionary 11B, June 17, 2018
Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Jesus told the crowds the parable of the mustard seed, they would have started laughing at the second sentence. Guaranteed. “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground—“ pause for incredulous laughter as the thought of someone being so deliberately idiotic as to plant mustard. See, mustard wasn’t really a crop in the middle east in Jesus’ day. It was—and still is—a weed. And the variety native to the area is not the crop that we grow today to make the condiment out of. Like all weeds, mustard is hardy, grows quickly, gets everywhere, and is really hard to get rid of once it’s established. It is edible, both the greens and the seeds (the seeds are what the condiment is made of), but you don’t go around PLANTING it. Because you can gather what you need from the wild plants on the hillside, and it will seed itself in your fields without any help from you at all. The problem is keeping it out of your fields. So, yes. Jesus starts talking about someone deliberately planting mustard, and people are going to start laughing.
Which then begs the question. Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed? A big, mighty weed, sure, but still. A weed. That doesn’t fit our normal picture of God and God’s kingdom. We tend to think of power and might and majesty and awesomeness and inspiration when we think of God. Weeds are the opposite of that. Weeds are the things that you groan when you see them. Why not something like cedar, the tree of kings? Cedars grow tall and majestic, the tallest trees in the holy land, and they were used to build palaces and temples and the wood is gorgeous and it smells beautiful and everyone looks up to cedar trees. Or, if not a cedar tree, then a mountain, or something else grand and awe-inspiring. Or maybe something useful, or profitable. Something humans at least want.
Why a weed? Well, maybe we shouldn’t assume that the kingdom of God will always be something we welcome. I mean, let’s take Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke, where he says he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free. That’s good news for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. If, however, we or people we like are profiting from the fact that others are poor, or benefiting that some people are oppressed, or if we and people we love are the ones holding people captive, then that message is not something we want to hear. It’s not good news to us. And there has never been a society in the history of the world—including modern America—in which everyone is free from oppression. There have always been people taking advantage of one another, and creating systems of laws and culture which benefit some people at the expense of others. And that’s simply not compatible with God’s kingdom. Some aspects of our culture will work with the Kingdom, but some simply will not. And people generally don’t welcome things that tell us we have to change, or tell us we need to give up power and influence and wealth. So we might be tempted to ignore the growth of God’s kingdom, or even tempted to treat God’s kingdom as if it were a weed. We might try to kill it, to preserve the garden of our community in the old, comfortable, sinful, oppressive patterns we’re used to.
The thing about mustard is that it’s one of those super-weeds that’s almost impossible to kill. Like kudzu, or the Himalayan Blackberries we have in the Pacific Northwest. I have spent many a long hour doing battle with Himalayan Blackberry vines. No matter how vicious you are with them—no matter whether you chop them off, bulldoze them to the ground, poison them with the most deadly herbicides on the market—they ALWAYS come back. Just like the Kingdom of God. Humans can try to subvert it, prevent it, root it out, but it will come despite our best efforts.
The coming of the kingdom does not depend on human efforts. We can work for the kingdom, yes, but each one of us is only one small part of that work. Consider the first parable from our reading. The farmer in that parable plants the seed … and then he waits. He waits for the earth and sun and rain to do their work. Eventually he harvests. For all the things the farmer can do to ensure a good crop, some of the most important things are simply out of his control, as all farmers know. When we treat the kingdom of God like good seed, we can till the soil and sow the seed and harvest it, but God is the one who gives us the seed and causes it to grow. And when we treat the Kingdom of God like a weed and try to kill it, well, the Kingdom of God is stronger and more powerful than we are. It always comes back, whether we like it or not, because God’s kingdom cannot be killed or prevented by any human power. And although we should work for the Kingdom of God, it will come whether we do or not.
The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush. It grows like the dickens. It’s not an awesome mountain or a graceful, majestic cedar, but it is large and full of life. It’s a bush that grows much, much taller than humans. It creates a lot of life, and it shares that life with others. There aren’t that many big bushes or trees in the Holy Land; not many things that give shade or shelter from the harsh desert sun. But the mustard bush does. And so does the kingdom of God. No matter what storms or burning sun or anything else comes into our life, the Kingdom of God provides shelter. And that shelter isn’t just for the high and mighty—it’s for everything and everyone, even the ones we don’t necessarily think about, the ones most likely to get pushed out of the rest of the world. Just like the mustard bush provides shelter for birds’ nests, the Kingdom of God provides shelter and a home for those who have no other home or shelter.
The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush. It provides food four our bodies and souls. Mustard plants are edible, both the leaves and the seeds. They’re one of those plants where, if you’re walking by the side of the road and you are poor and you have nothing else, you can harvest from the bush. Just like God’s Kingdom provides for those who are poor and have nothing. The kingdom of God provides food for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who feed people and make sure that all people have the resources they need to thrive. The kingdom of God provides food for our soul through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which nourishes us and helps us grow in faith and love.
The kingdom of God is like the mustard bush. It provides healing. Pastes made out of mustard are one of the oldest healing salves there is, and mustard is especially effective for burns. Even today, if you have a burn that’s not serious enough to go to the doctor with, you can use mustard—the regular condiment you find in your kitchen—and put some on the burn, and it will help it heal faster. Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who work to prevent harm to people and heal them. Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our souls through God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.
The kingdom of God is like a weed that will plant itself and grow anywhere, even when we try to root it out. It grows from the smallest things into something huge that gives life and healing and shelter and freedom to those in need. May we learn to recognize it when we see it, and value it as we should, and help plant and tend it. And may the day come quickly when all people receive shelter and healing and nourishment from it.