The mustard “shrub” Looks like a tree to me!

     Jesus said “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” That’s a great question! The subject is the “kingdom of God” which is an old-fashioned phrase for modern ears to hear. Kingdoms are something we speak of in fairy tales, Game of Thrones, or Renaissance fairs! They usually involve kings and queens, and knights in shining armor. Kingdoms may even include a dragon or two depending upon our imagination. But, somehow I don’t think this is what Jesus is talking about!

     More modern expressions that try to convey the sense of “kingdom of God” include the “reign of God,” “commonwealth of God,” “dream of God,” “beloved community,” “God’s domain,” and “Love’s rule.” And if we’re really adventurous, we can call the “kingdom of God,” “the love revolution of God,” which sounds a little bit too hippy to me!

     Brian McLaren suggests “God’s regenerative economy” and “God’s sacred ecosystem,” but these terms sound like they belong in a college term paper rather than from the lips of a 1st century rabbi.

     So all of this brings us back to the phrase “kingdom of God” which is what we have to work with! Basically it means “what the world looks like when God is in charge and we are not.” It’s what happens when political, religious and societal institutions release their death grip on the world  and allow God to change it for the better.

     This brings us back to Jesus’ question: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” Perhaps the terminology we use is not nearly as important as how we describe this kingdom. Jesus often talked about the kingdom of God through the use of parables and metaphoric speech. In today’s gospel lesson he gives us two parabolic sayings: “the seed growing secretly” and “the mustard seed.”

     The first parable says that the kingdom of God is a bit mysterious, even elusive. Jesus says God’s kingdom is as if “someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” We are left to ponder if the kingdom of God is like the man sowing seed, the mysterious growth of plant life, or a little bit of both!

     I’d like to think it’s a little bit of both. God’s kingdom is like someone who scatters seed on the ground. Then they take a great big power nap and hope for the best! This accurately describes most of the Church’s attempts at what we call evangelism. Some think it involves slick marketing campaigns and gimmicks. Others think it involves getting out into the community and serving others in the name of Christ. Some think it involves going door to door and disturbing people during dinner. Others think it involves Facebook posts, tweets, e-mails, web sites and the like.

     Every year there are several dozen of new books that claim to have the perfect seed planting formula for growing a church, or being a more effective witness for Christ. All of these efforts are like the person who scatters many, many seeds on the ground. They read the book, make a plan, which they may or may not implement. Then they take a great big power nap and hope for the best!

     Thankfully, something happens while they’re napping! Jesus says, “The earth produces of itself,” [Do you hear that? The earth produces of itself. It has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the one who sows the seeds! After all, they’re busy taking a nap!] The earth produces of itself,  first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower of the seeds goes in with a sickle, because the harvest has come.”

     I like this description of the kingdom of God because it defies our attempts at sowing seeds. We sort of throw them around everywhere, hoping for the best, but the real miracle of God’s kingdom is that it grows all by itself with no help from us whatsoever! This is both a frustration and a blessing. It’s a frustration because we often “try so hard” to get a church to grow, or help someone to deepen their relationship with Christ. But many times, nothing happens.

     It’s the same situation Jesus describes in the Parable the Soil and Seeds where the sower also scatters seed on the ground. However, most of the sowers efforts are in vain. The ones that fell on the path, the rocky ground, and among weeds produce nothing. Then, miracle of miracles, which may be the point, a few tiny seeds fall on good soil. These kingdom seeds produce a crop that is 30, 60 or 100 times more than we could hope for!

     Again, the growth of the seeds seems to have very little to do with the sower and EVERYTHING to do with God! This is frustrating, because we want to see results of all our hard work and effort. But Jesus is telling us that sometimes this simply isn’t gonna happen! We can try every marketing strategy under the face of the sun, but the truth of the growth of the kingdom is that most of the seeds will fail to germinate.

     Now I know you’re thinking that this is TERRIBLE news. But remember, I also said that there is a blessing in both of these parables. The blessing is that it’s NOT about us, it’s ALL about God. If we continue to be faithful, loving servants of Christ. If we keep on scattering kingdom seeds in the field, God WILL work with what were doing and the kingdom of God WILL grow, often times in spite of us.

     Paul states this beautifully in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Do you hear that? “I planted, Apollos watered, but GOD gave the growth.” It sounds EXACTLY like our gospel lesson for today. Paul, then, goes on to say: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” This where the blessing comes in! We are simply called to plant and water kingdom seeds. We don’t have to be experts at this work. We can scatter seeds everywhere. We can go crazy with it, and let God produce the growth.

     Where this first parable leaves us is with the knowledge that God is in charge of growing the kingdom of God. Sometimes God even does this while we’re taking a power nap! So the next time you hear all those doom and gloom stories on Facebook saying the Church is dying, don’t believe a word of it. Our numbers in Christianity may be a little bit smaller, but God will grow the kingdom with or without our help. Our job is to sow those kingdom seeds, wherever and whenever we can, and trust that God will take care of the rest.

     This leads us to Jesus’ second parable in our gospel lesson for today. It is the better known of the two. Jesus says, “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 shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

     The seed Jesus is describing is the black mustard seed. While it many not technically be the smallest seed on earth, it is a seed his audience was well acquainted with, so it works well in this parable. Furthermore, the black mustard plant grows to a height of about 9 feet tall. So it is, indeed, a plant where birds of the air can make nests in its shade. The final piece of information we need to know about the black mustard plant is that in Jesus’ day it was never cultivated. It grew wild in the field. While it was used for cooking purposes, it was considered to be a weed and was very hard to get rid of. It was the kudzu of 1st century Palestine, except for the fact that  the mustard seed plant was far more useful to them than kudzu is to us!

     When we put all of this together in the parable, Jesus is telling us something similar to his first parable of the seed growing secretly. The mustard plant grows on its own without any help from us whatsoever. We could take a power nap for an entire growing season and the mustard plant would do just fine on its own. Once again, Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is quite tenacious. It grows and flourishes wherever it wants to grow and flourish. In this case, we don’t even have to plant the seed since the mustard plant seeds itself.

     This, of course, is great news because the growth of God’s kingdom does NOT depend on us. It depends on God. This may be telling us that sometimes we plant kingdom seeds and God grows them. Other times we do absolutely nothing and God still grows the kingdom without our help whatsoever.

     I don’t think Jesus means to discourage us by telling us these two parables. In fact, I think he means to encourage us. The encouragement lies in telling us that our efforts are not in vain. We are called to sow kingdom seeds and trust that God will grow them. We are called to have faith that even the tiniest of seeds that finds fertile soil can become a respite for the birds of the air, and for us!

     In a world where I read on Facebook almost every day that the Church is dying or the Church is dead, I find the images of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed to be tremendously encouraging. All the articles I’ve read whine and complain about what the Church is NOT doing to minister to a certain group of people. These articles usually contain a list of all things we need to do in order to get them back, if that is even possible. However, the two parables in today’s gospel lesson remind us that the grow of the kingdom isn’t even our job responsibility. God gives the growth. We are seed planters at best and even then the kingdom often grows without our help whatsoever.

     So, friends in Christ, What does all of this mean for us? What is the Spirit saying to God’s people? Well, I believe it’s a word of encouragement that we simply need to be the Church and let God do the rest. We simply need to baptize and commune, preach the love of Christ, and let God do the rest.

     We need to be the welcoming, inclusive community we claim to be in our Welcoming and Mission Statements, and let God do the rest. We need to speak out against those in our government and society who exploit the poor, the voiceless, and the vulnerable, and let God do the rest.

     There is no perfect marketing strategy, ministry structure, or worship style that will guarantee success because it’s not about us, it’s all about Jesus. And if we can move out of the way every once in a while, and let the light of Christ shine brightly though us, the kingdom of God will grow. It will find that small patch of good soil. It will be that one small mustard seed that grows into a plant to be reckoned with.

     Let us embrace this good news and trust that God will grow the kingdom, both with our help, and without our help. The reason this is true is that the kingdom of God is tough and tenacious. There is no amount of apathy or hostility in our world that can stop it from growing and flourishing in the most unlikely of places! AMEN

Copyright ©2018 David Eck

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