Parable of the Mustard Seed: a Celebration of Ordinary
In today’s scripture, Mark 4:30-34, we find Jesus riffing on a familiar theme—the kingdom of God, or as we say, “the kin-dom of God.” The concept of kin-dom gets at the relational, this-world aspect of his teaching. As he teaches, we get to see him process things, “With what can we compare the kin-dom of God.” We can picture him stroking his beard and scanning the horizonHis eyes lit upon one of the mustard bushes scattered across the countryside. That’s it! “The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed that starts as the smallest of seeds.”
Big things in small packages?
His eyes lit upon one of the mustard bushes scattered across the countryside. That’s it! “The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed that starts as the smallest of seeds.” Unless we listen carefully to the rest of what Jesus says, we think we can take it from there. Yup, God is all about taking what seems small and insignificant to make a maximal impact. We know the laundry list:
• Moses stuttered.
• King David was just a little kid that no one thought much about.
• Mary was a young peasant woman from the backwoods of Galilee.
• God comes to the world as a vulnerable baby and changes the world.
We’ve got this sermon down. Thanks for the reminder, Jesus. We won’t let anyone belittle us or put us down. We know great things can happen in our lives through faith. Jesus said it only takes a mustard seed of faith to do amazing things. We may not look like much or feel significant, but in God’s hands, amazing things can happen. If you don’t believe me, just watch!
Why use a mustard bush to make that point?
But is this really the point Jesus tried to make? If he were going for look how this little seed became a big deal, why not go for something grander—say a cedar seed? The cedars of Lebanon were majestic, inspiring awe, like the Redwood Forest. Towering pines that create their own ecosystems. The Old Testament waxes poetically about them. We’re talking about the king-dom of God; shouldn’t it be impressive? I ask because mustard plants are rather ordinary-looking shrubs. Most are about 5-6 feet tall, spindly branches about the width of your pinky. They aren’t even that pretty. There is a reason people don’t use them in their landscaping plans.
Wait, what?! The kin-dom of God isn’t like a redwood tree? It’s a shrub? A shrub? We’re talking about shrubbery? The point doesn’t seem to be big things come in small packages. Jesus seems to be aiming at something else. But what?
An insidious kin-dom?
Some scholars speculate that Jesus is getting at the subversive nature of the kin-dom of God in the Roman Empire. Mustard plants have a way of spreading and popping up—taking over the landscape.
The kin-dom starts with a small group of believers and like mustard plants they multiply and sprawl out. If you’ve been to the south and seen how kudzu takes over a forest or even ditch, you get the point. Most people considered mustard an insidious weed more like dandelions in the yard than the glory of God. Plus, if you had too much of it in one place, the smell was overwhelming.
So, what is Jesus saying? Maybe the kin-dom with its values of love and harmony, and social justice, and looking out for the poor is an idea that spreads and subverts everything else. It’s is like a noxious weed to the deeply rooted status quo. Maybe Jesus is saying sometimes we need to get together and make a stink against the petty tyrants, bullies, and corporations that record profits, fatten the CEO’s packages and claim there is nothing more for the workers. Make a stink about a Congress that has become whatever this is.
I like that idea. I like the idea that goodness is spreading and it can’t be stopped. It’s insidious, bound to take over, eventually. Let it get its roots in us!
The holy in the ordinary.
There’s another interpretation that says maybe Jesus’ decision to compare the kin-dom shrubbery has to do with the ordinariness of life, not its grandness. In our culture, we tend to think that something has to stand out and be a “cut above” to have value. Maybe Jesus is saying that not everything needs to be spectacular, the best of the best.
Comedian, Desi Lydic, on The Daily Show did a little riff on how not every Barbie needs to be an aspirational “boss Barbie.” How about one who is paralegal at a mid-sized law firm or one who works the lunch shift at a Just Salad? There is nothing wrong with Barbies who are just trying to make it through the day…Give me a Barbie who is okay with letting 5,000 emails pile up in her inbox. The Barbie who spilled coffee on her but who knows she can get another day of use out of it if she covers it with her blazer. The Barbie who spends her Friday nights in bed binge-watching Vanderpump Rules dunking carrot sticks into a jar of peanut butter, and letting her kids drive themselves to Tae-Kwon-Do. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=870074217431435
Maybe by drawing attention to the mustard bush, Jesus teaches us to say whether you are a Hot mess Barbie or Bland Ken or Average Joe, “We see you working hard, trying to be a good person, doing what you can to help others. You make the world work as well as it does. Hang in there. We’re here to support you.”
Brene Brown, in her book The Gift of Imperfection, says, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.” According to Brown, the pressure to be extraordinary leads to a cycle of performing, perfection, pleasing, and proving, which has dire consequences. She says, “We are the most obese, most in debt, most medicated, and most addicted adults in human history. We are also the busiest. We take less vacation, work longer hours, and sleep less than anyone who came before us.”
The question is, “Why?”
It seems we are constantly hustling for our worth, which is too often defined by the size of our accomplishments. Yet, most of us will never be identified as heroes, and most of our efforts will be the ordinary stuff of life.
Creating Safe Places
Maybe the size of the results isn’t what this parable is about. Three gospels tell the story with different slants but they all conclude by saying that the point of the of the seed growing up is to create a refuge for the birds, a sanctuary. It’s a metaphor about how the kin-dom creates environments where the vulnerable, the tired, the struggling can find a little shade and rest.
Maybe in some ordinary ways, that’s what we’re called to do. The little kindnesses, gestures of welcome, listening deeply to someone’s story–they all make people feel safe, as if they’ve found a bit of refuge in this world that makes us crazy.
Bay Shore Church as a safe place.
• That’s a way to think about our annual campaign: we do our part. We give a little, we serve a little, we volunteer and support each other. We make this a safe place. We are a church where people can be themselves without judgment.
• It’s a place of refuge from the crazy busyness and noise of the world, where we can be at peace and meditate and pray.
• It’s a safe place for kids to explore who they are and know people of different generations who aren’t their grandparents or authority figures in their lives.
• It’s a safe place for the LGTQ+ community to worship and find support instead of condemnation.
When these things happen, the kin-dom is on earth as it is in heaven.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
We need places like Bay Shore that advocate for peace and justice for people because the world is so crazy. We watch the news and feel so helpless when we see the atrocities and utter inhumanity in the Hamas-Israel war. Targeting civilians, torture, going after children—it’s evil.
And we just feel so helpless about the cycles of generation after generation of retaliation and revenge, destruction and death. Who has the answers? How can we poke a stick in the spokes of that grinding wheel? Who knows? None of us are diplomats that can affect much change so we sit and watch and pray. But we are not helpless.
That old song Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me, reminds us that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers… His crowd wasn’t filled with foreign diplomacy diplomats, but regular folks who could make peace within themselves, communities…It’s like a mustard seed you see. It starts taking root all over, growing, spreading, providing safe places for the vulnerable.
We aren’t international diplomats but we can do what we can in our ordinary ways to make peace with our own internal turmoil, our spiritual condition. When we do that we bring a peaceful presence into our families, our businesses, our work, our neighborhoods.
Make peace wherever you can in ordinary ways. Be gentle…listen more….judge less…find common ground with people who have different opinions than you. This dehumanizing we see across the world and our society is contagious, but so is kindness and listening and being curious about the world.
Not everything has to be spectacular, but by each of us doing our part, we can serve our neighbors and grow the kin-dom. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.