Mt. Lebanon and Cannon UMCs
June 17, 2012
Mark 4:26-34 (NRSV)
4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
4:28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.
4:29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
4:30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;
4:34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
The first part of this Bible passage is, according to the great Bible commentator William Barclay, the only parable that’s exclusive to Mark – it appears in Mark and nowhere else. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a growing crop.
That 28th verse – “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” – reminds me of the hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People Come,” that you often hear around Thanksgiving time. The second verse of that hymn, which was obviously inspired by today’s passage, goes like this:
“We ourselves are God’s own field
Fruit unto his praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown
Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear;
Grant, O harvest Lord, that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be.”
Jesus doesn’t offer, or at least Mark didn’t write down, much in the way of explanation for the parable, but Barclay finds several messages in the way it compares the Kingdom of God to a growing crop.
First, a growing plant is an example of the helplessness of humankind. A farmer can’t make a seed grow. To quote Barclay, “We do not create the kingdom of God; the kingdom is God’s.”
We can encourage the growth of that kingdom or discourage it, just as a farmer can fertilize the soil. But the ultimate process isn’t ours to drive; it’s God’s.
It’s the same way with the kingdom of God. We can do our part to receive the kingdom in our hearts and our community, but we cannot create it through human efforts. It is God’s kingdom, by God’s plan, on God’s timetable.
David, when he became king, wanted to build God a temple. But God told him that it wasn’t the right time, and he wasn’t the right person. David was wise enough to hear what God was telling him. Others throughout history haven’t been that wise, and have gone forward with efforts or projects that – however well-intentioned – weren’t part of God’s plan, and thus were doomed to fail.
The second thing about God’s kingdom is that its growth is often imperceptible. You can’t stare at a plant and see it grow. The scripture passage talks about the farmer getting up and going to bed, day after day, and seeing that process over time. The crop does grow, day after day. It grows on God’s timetable, not ours.
I’ve used this illustration before, and I’m not sure if I’ve used it here or not, but when I think of the Kingdom of God I think of highway 412 going into Columbia. A few years back, right before you got to Interstate 65, there was a sign saying “Welcome to Columbia.” Then, you passed under the Interstate, and there was another sign, that said “Columbia, 8 miles.” The kingdom of God is like that – in one sense, it’s here, and in another sense we’re still moving towards it.
A lot of people think of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, as it’s sometimes called, is off in the future – that’s what will happen when Jesus comes back, or when we go on to our eternal reward, or what have you.
I recently read a great book by theologian N.T. Wright, called “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.” Wright makes a compelling case for reading the gospels, and the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as a declaration of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel as if the Kingdom of God is all around us, but it is. It’s a matter of learning to recognize it. Just as it’s hard to see the growth of a plant by looking at it for a few minutes, it’s sometimes hard for us to see the kingdom of God in the ups and downs of our daily lives. We want instant results. Any farmer can tell you that crops don’t grow overnight.
Crops do grow, however, and that brings us to another way in which the Kingdom of God is like a crop. The kingdom of God has a moment of truth in sight – a consummation, as Barclay calls it. Just as a crop is destined for the harvest, the Kingdom of God is destined for a harvest – not a conclusion, because God’s kingdom will go on forever, but a moment of dramatic decision and transformation. Verse 29 says, “But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” There’s a moment when the wheat will be separated from the chaff, when the sheep will be culled from the goats.
We must avoid, from our personal perspective, being too smug about looking at others and deciding on their fate. The importance of knowing that there will be a harvest is so that we can look to our own lives and make sure that we are in a right relationship with God, and to give a sense of urgency to our efforts to spread the Gospel whenever and however we can.
But as we spread that gospel, we have to be careful about judging others. The one who makes the harvest grow is the one who goes in with the sickle and divides the wheat from the chaff. That is not our job. Pride and self-righteousness can be every bit as corrosive, every bit as destructive as some of the other sins at which we cluck our tongues, probably more so.
Jesus follows the metaphor of the Kingdom of God as a crop of grain with another, similar metaphor – but this time, instead of grain, he uses mustard, and the way a mustard seed grows up into a large plant.
Mustard seeds, ground up and mixed with water or vinegar or wine to make a condiment, is something we’re all familiar with. More than 700 million pounds of mustard are consumed worldwide each year.
There’s a national mustard museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, and there’s a Napa Valley Mustard Festival in Yountville, California.
Mustard, as a condiment and as a home remedy, has been around for many centuries. Six hundred years before Jesus, the Greek scientist Pythagoras used mustard as a remedy for scorpion stings. A century after Pythagoras, Hippocrates – creator of the Hippocratic Oath – used mustard in a variety of medicines and poultices.
By Jesus’ time, Romans had started grinding mustard seeds and mixing them with wine to make a condiment.
In the first few years of the 20th century, Francis French came up with the recipe for the kind of bright yellow mustard that most of us have in our refrigerators today. He convinced his elder brother George, president of the R.T. French Company, to produce it, and it was introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which was attended by millions of people from across America and around the world.
Two other food items that achieved national prominence as a result of that World’s Fair were the hamburger and the hot dog, and it may not be a coincidence that yellow mustard is closely associated with both.
All mustard is not the same. The kind of mustard we’re familiar with is made mostly from the seeds of a plant called white mustard. White mustard is the generic name for the plant; depending on the specific variety, its seeds can be white, brown or sort of yellowish. There’s another plant called Indian mustard that tends to produce brown seeds and is used in brown mustards. However, the bright yellow color we associate with mustard actually comes from the spice turmeric, not from the mustard itself. That’s why some other types of mustard, like Dijon mustard, don’t have the same yellow color.
But the mustard plant that Jesus would have been talking about, the one that grew and was used in Judaea of his day, was black mustard. White mustard seeds and black mustard seeds are both tiny, and they can be used in the same way, ground into a powder and mixed with liquid to form a spicy condiment. But white mustard and black mustard are completely different species of plant. Black mustard is more closely related to cabbage than it is to white mustard.
Jesus, in this parable, compares the tiny size of the black mustard seed with the large size of the plant that grows from it. A black mustard plant can grow as much as nine feet tall. That kind of growth is amazing, almost miraculous in human terms. It’s hard to think of a human invention that can grow so rapidly, from such a tiny seed into something so large. That kind of growth suggests God’s hand at work.
However, while the mustard plant grows quite tall, it is still a plant, not a tree.
Jesus says the Kingdom of God “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 shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus is apparently using some poetic imagery here. You see, the black mustard plant, while it is quite tall, doesn’t put out the kind of branches that birds would nest in. Birds are attracted to the tree, because they like the seeds, but the average plant isn’t developed enough to support them, especially at the time of year when the birds are building nests. So Jesus is speaking in a poetic, larger-than-life voice. He’s painting a picture. He’s not saying that all mustard plants have birds nesting in them; he’s saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard plant, and then he asks you to imagine a plant growing so large that birds are able to nest there..
This parable of course, is not the only time that Jesus mentioned mustard seeds. On a different occasion, Jesus talked about someone with the faith of a mustard seed – that is, even a tiny little speck of faith – being able to move mountains.
In this case, Jesus is using the image of the tiny mustard seed and comparing it to the image of a huge plant as a metaphor for the dramatic growth and progress of God’s kingdom.
The birds, in this story, are symbolic as well. As God’s kingdom grows, it invites others in.
Jesus’s specific explanation of this parable, if he gave the disciples one, isn’t recorded in the gospels, and there’s some difference of opinion about those birds. Some commentators see them in a negative sense. They think the parable is about the church growing too rapidly and bringing in corrupt elements as a result, the birds representing the corrupt elements. But others, like Barclay, give it a positive interpretation, in which the plant, welcoming to birds, represents the openness and the welcoming nature of God’s kingdom.
John Wesley made a principle of Christian open-mindedness. He had his own beliefs, held them passionately and took them seriously. But he also knew Christians with whom he disagreed, and was able to disagree in a civil, loving manner.
“We think,” wrote Wesley, “and we let think.” He also said, “I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair.”
Wesley had a saying: “Is thy heart as my heart? Then give me thy hand.” If our hearts are in the right place, and our relationship to God is in the right place, then we must join hands as brothers in Christ. Our theological differences will work themselves out.
Mustard contains chemicals known as emulsifiers which can bond to both oil and water. If you look closely at the ingredients, or at recipes in cookbooks, you’ll find that mustard is used in products like salad dressing and mayonnaise because it helps bring water and oil together.
Too often in the church, we’re trying to tear things apart, but the kingdom of God is about unity – not the kind of unity that comes from compromising or downplaying our important beliefs, but the kind that comes from tolerance, understanding and humility towards those with whom we disagree.
The birds are drawn to the mustard plant because they like to eat the seeds. That’s a good lesson for us. Are we creating a welcoming atmosphere for others, to bring them into God’s kingdom? Are we giving off the flavor of the kingdom? Mustard has a very distinct, very recognizable flavor, a flavor that enhances and brings out whatever you season with it.
Are we that distinctive? Are we attracting others to come and nest in our branches, and become a part of God’s kingdom? Do we give off the fragrance and the flavor of God’s kingdom? Our challenge, as individuals and as a church, is to be mustard seeds, to season the world around us, to feed others and bring them into the kingdom.
There’s a famous quote, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi although we can’t prove that he was the one who it, that goes “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” It’s important for us to talk about our faith, but how we live our lives is even more important. As we watch God’s kingdom grow, we don’t need to do it from the sidelines. We need to be a part of the kingdom, serving others, standing up for what’s right, and living lives of faith, love and integrity.
It’s not a question of whether or not we can cut the mustard; it’s a question of whether or not we can be the mustard, the flavor of God’s kingdom.