“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” Jesus says.
It’s the latest in a series of ear-ringing, expectation-defying parables that Jesus tells in this stretch of the gospel of Matthew. He has just told the parable of the weeds, suggesting that the Kingdom of God will not overtake evil or interfere dramatically with sin and injustice in this world. Instead weeds will grow up all around. And in their midst there’s this tiny, nearly invisible mustard seed of hope that a new world is possible.
The story of the seed is just as tiny to our eyes and ears when it shows up in the gospel of Luke. Jesus told this story in a variety of places it seems, almost the way a choir might sing a song at different points on a tour in different ways for different people, because all kinds of crowds and settings needed to hear it. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this parable, but they give us distinct ways of hearing it.
Luke relates the tale from Jesus in chapter 13. At the beginning of the chapter, the story is told of a large tower that falls in Jerusalem, crushing 18 people. Later in the same chapter Jesus heals a woman that had been bent over for 18 years. The stories are linked with that number – 18. But as a friend of mine once asked, “Why didn’t Jesus save the 18 instead of the 1? Better yet, why didn’t Jesus save all 19?”
Are you keeping count? Over the last two weeks, we’ve been overwhelmed by the count of 49 – the number of LGBTQ persons murdered at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Or 53 – the number critically wounded. 3 – the number still in critical condition today. 2 – the number of those lost lives whose broken families never claimed their bodies. And also the number 1 – the number of a man who even in his hatred, distortion, extremism was known by God as he ended 49 innocent lives before taking his own.
Amidst such overwhelming numbers, I gathered two weeks ago this evening at a quickly organized downtown prayer vigil. It’s what we do in such unspeakable times. We know the spot, we know the prayers eerily well – “How long, O Lord?” or “Have mercy, O God.” The candles still held the wax drippings from the last time we prayed, the last time we counted, the last time we wondered. Jenny and our kids dropped me off at the vigil on our way home from dinner with friends – and this prompted lots of questions from the two oldest in the back, who were frustrated by this interruption to our Sunday evening together. I told them something had happened that had hurt a lot of people. It had happened in another city, I said, but it was so sad that people were praying in our city. Jenny told me that as I left and the questions continued, Della our 4-year-old asked, “Are they praying in all the cities?”
In all the cities, towers just keep falling on people. People crushed by homophobia once again. Crushed by violence, hatred, fear. People broken by distortion, extremism. People lost to illness. Conflict and division growing up around us, finding us in the thick of the weeds once more. And you wonder how the kingdom could ever be seen or realized.
It’s at that moment in the gospels – as those questions start to mount – that Jesus tells today’s parable of the mustard seed.
It was an urgent message for those gathered around him in the gospel. They were trying to believe in the Kingdom of God that Jesus promises, but they looked around and, despite some momentary glimpses, there wasn’t much evidence of a coming kingdom. The world was at war with itself in the very places where we see so much conflict today. Caesar’s taxes were oppressive. Hunger was an epidemic. People with serious illness faced uncertain futures. Religious factions were constantly in conflict with one another. The most vulnerable were being crushed. And the disciples were wondering if their hope would survive all the pressures around them.
Those closest to Jesus even wondered sometimes about his effectiveness amidst it all. What difference is he making? When a woman uses a costly jar of oil to wash Jesus’ feet, some wonder why he didn’t demand that the money be used more efficiently and benevolently to feed the poor. When Jesus lags in the presence of children, some question why he does not move on to more important tasks that will make a sweeping difference. He never stages the overthrow that some wanted from their Messiah. He fails to exercise political clout.
And then he tells us, “The kingdom you’re looking for is like a seed…”
It’s what he’s always doing. For those awaiting grand, dramatic action – the arrival of the kingdom in spectacle and power – Jesus describes the kingdom in such things as seeds, and fields, and farmers, and bread baking in the oven, and people traveling a familiar road. He never asks people to leave their world, instead saying the kingdom is near to you even in places like this, where you feel at times crushed or overwhelmed with so much evidence of death and despair.
But you, who understand the world so well as it is, are the ones who can still imagine it as it can yet be, even in your very lives. Though tragedy towers over us, God’s kingdom is still at work. Though we can become increasingly overwhelmed and frustrated by things that grow up to choke out our vitality, the kingdom is growing. Healing the body of the bent-over woman. Touching the lives of children along the way. Making things grow. This kingdom does not overtake or overwhelm. Its Messiah mounts a lowly donkey instead of a conquering war-horse. Its message proclaims power in weakness and greatness in service. Its enduring symbol is not a mighty throne, but a rugged cross. And it is within the possibility of each of us.
So Jesus tells this parable because the disciples, with all their questions, needed to hear it. And maybe Jesus himself needed to remember it! And it seems Jesus could see all the way down through the years to those of us who would need to know the message today. The Kingdom of God is like the smallest of all seeds.
The famous mustard seed is notable for its incredibly small size. Its diameter is measured at less than a tenth of an inch. Put 750 mustard seeds together and they weigh merely a single gram. The reign of God, Jesus says, is like this. It doesn’t happen all at once, and it is not always clear. It is often overshadowed and seemingly overtaken. That’s good news, because our lives so often feel like that. But the message seems to be then as it is now: start somewhere, do something, do what it is in your power to do to see this kingdom grow.
Fred Craddock tells about a time when he went away to summer camp as many of our children and youth are this summer. The church camp reached its climax with a final worship service a lake and candlelight, and just everything about it so moving. He says:
“We sang ‘Are Ye Able?’ I went back to the dorm and lay on my bunk and said to God, ‘I’m able.’ ‘Are you able to give your life?’ ‘I’ll give my life,’ and I pictured myself running in front of a train and rescuing a child, swimming out and getting someone who was drowning. “I pictured myself against a gray wall and some soldier saying, ‘One last chance to deny Christ and live.’ I confessed my faith and they said, ‘Ready, aim, fire!’ The body slumped, the flag was at half mast and widows were weeping in the afternoon. Later a monument is built, and people come with their cameras. ‘Johnny, you stand over there where Fred gave his life. Let’s get your picture.’ I was sincere then, as I have been these forty-five years since. ‘I give my life,’ but nobody warned me that I could not write one big check. I’ve had to write fortyfive years of little checks: 87 cents, 21 cents, a dollar three cents.
We might think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table. But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for small change. And we drop that change on the table, or in the plate throughout our lives. It reminds me of when I was a child begging my mother for change so I could drop something in the offering plate, or putting quarters in an offering bank to support missionaries around the globe.
Those memories returned to me this week at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – our primary denominational partner. This week we approved a whole new strategy and plan for how to fund global missions, which provides two essential things: equity for all missionaries serving with CBF, and clarity to churches. Every cent we give to the Offering for Global Missions in CBF will go to support the longterm presence of Field Personnel who are serving throughout the globe.
On Friday, two such missionaries – Kirk and Suzii – shared about what such support can mean. In 1995 they went to Thailand as CBF Field Personnel, and in 1996 met the Bisu people. They accepted groups’ invitation to live, learn language, develop alphabet and literacy materials in their tongue, all with the support of the village elders, who only asked that they not be forced to change religion or build a church bldg.
The Bisu spoke a previously unwritten language and after 7 years an alphabet created. A lot of people interested in literacy, so they began classes with all ages. Some of the children even graduated and went to college, funded by CBF. And in recent years, 5 of those college students returned and formed a team that worked on the translation of the New Testament into the Bisu language.
The translation project was completed just this year, and they all gathered together recently to celebrate. And on the eve of their celebration of this translation the number of Christians among the Bisu – around a dozen or so – came to include 11 year old Gawin. He’s the child of an alcoholic father. He suffers from epileptic seizures. He’s teased by his peers. But he has come to believe that faith in Jesus, and the story of Jesus’ love for him, makes a difference. The love of God revealed in Christ has helped him to imagine his life differently.
And as they told his story this week, Kirk and Suzii held up a book: “This is the Bisu New Testament, 18 years in the making!”
And when the Bisu people open it, they will find in the gospels a story from Jesus that must sound so familiar: “The kingdom of God is like a seed someone planted…”
The reign of God is like that. Small. But still helping people to stand up straight, still granting abundant life, still helping us to imagine something more than what crushes or overwhelms. One biblical scholar explains it this way: “While it is the characteristic of mustard seeds to be small, it is also their characteristic to be alive.” That’s the thing about this kingdom of God – though it can seem little, still it is alive. The kingdom of God is alive, and it shows up all around us, sometimes in the smallest of seeds.
It’s not enough, of course. For one child to know the love of Christ is not enough, we want that worth and power for all. For one family to be housed is not enough, we want that promise for all. For one person to know that they are the beloved of God in a world that tells them otherwise is not enough, we imagine it for all God’s children. And, ultimately, even Jesus knows that the mustard seed kingdom is not enough. It’s alive, but it’s not enough. So, he tells us how the smallest of seeds will one day become the greatest of trees, where the birds of the air will nest. It’s an echo of the Old Testament, where the prophet Ezekiel envisioned God’s reign as a great cedar, where all kinds of birds – all kinds of people – would come together in serenity.
Of course, the confounding thing about this parable is that mustard seeds only grow into stubby little bushes, at most 10 feet high. It’s impossible for us to imagine a mustard seed growing into a tree. As one scholar puts it, “It would take a miracle for this small seed to grow into an enormous tree.” It would take a miracle for God’s kingdom to come on earth through our efforts.
But that’s what Jesus expects. That’s what he proclaims. He says that one day, through all these tiny seeds, God will transform all violence into peace, all fear into security, all pain into rejoicing.
As the people of God continue to plant themselves in the earth, loneliness will open up to a realm where all are in community.
As we continue to do what it is in us to do, finding the depths of our resources and gifts, homelessness and brokenness and displacement will give way to a kingdom with many rooms and space enough for all.
As we learn to give of our lives more fully ad graciously – affirming all God’s children as the beloved – people who have known fear and hatred and violence can come to know the security of God’s kingdom and people who have been forgotten or disowned can know that they are claimed.
As we scatter ourselves, the wind of the spirit will blow, spreading seed around, and soon trees are all over, attracting all kinds of birds, and before long the garden itself is transformed. A new heaven an a new earth. All these trees with refuge and space abundant.
The kingdom of God is so little. But it is alive. Jesus believes it, and so he asks his followers to believe it, too. To believe that through the smallest of seeds the kingdom can come… in a remote village in Thailand… in a shattered community Orlando, FL… in a community of faith in Greensboro, NC… and, yes, even in all the cities.