The Lord of life is lifted up!
Let us look to Christ and live.
Gracious God, in order that the children of earth
might discern good from evil you sent your Son to be the light of the world.
As Christ shines upon us, may we learn what pleases you,
and live in all truth and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
*HYMN How Great Thou Art #467
*CONFESSION AND PARDON
In the name of Christ, I urge you: be reconciled to God.
Accept our repentance, O God, for the wrongs we have done.
For our neglect of human need and suffering
and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, have mercy on us, O God.
For our waste and pollution of your creation
and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
have mercy on us, O God.
This is the proof of God’s great love: that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! Thanks be to God!
*SONG OF PRAISE Gloria Patri #579
*PASSING THE PEACE
Christ offered us peace through his own sacrifice.
Therefore, we are called to live in peace with one another.
May the peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Gracious God, our way in the wilderness, guide us, by your Word, through these forty days, and minister to us with your Holy Spirit, so that we may reformed, restored, and renewed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Mark 4:30-32, GW
30 Jesus asked, “How can we show what God’s kingdom is like? To what can we compare it? 31 It’s like a mustard seed planted in the ground. The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds on earth. 32 However, when planted, it comes up and becomes taller than all the garden plants. It grows such large branches that birds can nest in its shade.”
SERMON Mustard Seeds
I have mustard seeds in the cupboard at home and in the drawer at work. As much as I love a variety of mustards (my favorite condiment), I do not cook with mustard seeds. But I keep buying the seeds to share whenever I teach this parable. Trust me, if we had been able to worship in person today, you would have gone home with a mustard seed to lose in your pocket or purse.
However, here we are worshipping online, so let me share instead a couple of pictures of black mustard seeds and yellow mustard seeds.
The first two images come from online stores that sell these items. (coloelde.com and spiceology.com mentioned not to advertise but in the interest of crediting the photos.) The last is from gardenindelight.com. It gives you an idea of the size. While mustard seeds are not the smallest in the natural world, they are still small, and the black mustard seed reportedly the smallest among them.
This parable starts with a seed. Seeds are a beginning. A seed of thought or an idea can grow into a movement. A seed of sedition can start a rebellion, but a seed of kindness paid forward can begin a very different revolution. Something as microscopic as a virus has turned our world upside down. Something as simple as washing our hands and staying home can slow down it’s disastrous effects. Seeds are small yet powerful.
What else belongs in this parable? To answer that question let me share that this is found in three of the gospels, but of course they are all a bit different. Let’s compare.
31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
18 Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it? 19 It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)
30 He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? 31 Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; 32 but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
The above are all from the Common English Bible. You can do this like one of those games where you stare at the pictures to spot the difference. Do you find them? Here are the hints: where is the seed planted and how, what does it grow into, where do the birds rest? But of course none of these are the point. Look again and find what is the same in all three versions of the story as retold by three different evangelists, possibly even retold by Jesus to three different audiences.
Did you find a mustard seed, that is planted, that grows into something much bigger, and provides a resting place for birds? All three gospels have this much in common, so these are the points to which we will pay attention.
First let’s note that a seed, no matter how small, contains a great deal of potential. It has within it the possibilities of life and growth. Mustard may be only a condiment to you, but when I work through dietary restrictions for various health reasons, I’m grateful that I like mustard. It’s one I have never had to give up. When I google mustard and health this was the first pop-up. “Mustard seeds also contain calcium, dietary fiber, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, protein, zinc, and selenium—a trace mineral that is an antioxidant that may offer protection against asthma, heart attacks, and some cancers.” There’s a tiny pharmacy in there! Now I’m wondering how to use those bottles of mustard seeds I already own. Clicking on the question, “Can you eat mustard seeds?” gives me this response, “All parts of the mustard plant are edible, including the seeds, leaves, and flowers; it is in the same genus as cabbage and turnips and is an annual plant. Brassica nigra is the plant that produces black mustard seeds.” Oh yeah, I forgot about mustard greens. I didn’t know the rest. Pliny, Roman author and naturalist writing in the first century said this about mustard, “extremely beneficial for health … [and in treatment of] snake and scorpion bites, toothache, indigestion, asthma, epilepsy, constipation, dropsy, lethargy, tetanus, leprous sores” and more. (quoted by Levine in Short Stories by Jesus, p. 177) So among the points to be made about this parable, note that mustard seeds are a good thing. We are talking about planting something good regardless of some careless interpretations in earlier centuries. Mustard seeds: small, full of nutrition with potential for more benefits. Got it!
But second, let’s note that for the seed to grow into its potential it must be planted. There is human action involved in this parable. I consider it a matter of our intended partnership with God. Even back in Eden’s garden, humans were assigned the task of tending what God gave them. Levine suggests, “anyone who “plants” a seed might be expected to tend the garden.” (p. 177) Seeds are meant to be planted. That is part of the mysterious workings of seeds. Planting them leads to more.
Sometimes the planting of seeds and tending of plants is shared by more than one person. Paul used this to illustrate a fundamental in the growth of the Church in 1 Corinthians 3, “6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. 7 Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. 9 We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)
Jesus told a lot of parables about planting seeds. In fact there are three in a row in Matthew 13. The Mustard Seed story follows two others, The Parable of the Soils, and the Parable of the Weeds as the CEB translation names them. Perhaps you know the first of these parables the best. The sower sows seed and some lands on the path to be eaten by birds, some on rocky soil too shallow to sustain growth, some among thorns only to be choked out by them, but the seed that lands on good soil yields a hundred-fold crop. In the second parable, a farmer plants good seed, but an enemy comes at night and plants weeds in the same field. As the plants grow the difference is obvious, but what to do? They must grow side by side until harvest; then they can be sorted. We learn that it matters what is planted and where it is planted. Mark 4 also puts these three together in the same order. John’s only reference to seeds focuses on the fruitfulness when planted. “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Perhaps you are already speculating on the meaning of the seed and its planting. Matthew and Mark record Jesus giving his disciples explanations for the Soils and for the Weeds parables, but NOT for the Mustard Seed. By now we have learned enough from Levine’s take on the parables to know church leaders and scholars added more layers of interpretation over the centuries, some of which we still hear and others we have never heard in our own day. This parable is no different. I read the allegories and find myself asking Where did they get that idea? Levine would not make this parable an allegory. “Sometimes a seed is just a seed, a bird is just a bird, and a tree is just a tree.” (p. 180) That said, on to trees and birds.
Item three, whether the seed grows into a vegetable, a shrub, or a tree (all three are speculated by the gospel writers), the mature plant is much larger than a seed. This is no surprise, and hence probably not the point or challenge of the parable. We observe this throughout nature. You’ve likely heard the proverb, “mighty oaks from little acorns grow” that originated in an essay by D. Everett in The Columbian Orator, 1797. You may have also seen the humorous version, “The mighty oak was once a little nut like you.” I like this version, “The mighty oak was once a little nut that stood its ground.” But back to mustard seeds, a black mustard seed can grow a plant as tall 8 – 10 feet though yellow mustard is usually much shorter. (Levine, p. 170) In any case, growth is one of the themes of this parable, and that growth is into something useful.
Item four, a shelter for birds. In her own translation, Levine says “birds of heaven” in all three gospel translations. This would be similar to saying “birds of the air” in the creation story. She says that in the Hebrew scriptures this phrase appears nearly 50 times. While I cannot find it so in English translations, I did find “birds in the air” 15 times in the Complete Jewish Bible. She also writes of the association in Old Testament scriptures of trees sheltering birds. One set of examples can be found in Psalm 104 which praises God’s providence for creation. Vs. 12 “Overhead, the birds in the sky make their home, chirping loudly in the trees.” Vs. 16-17 “The Lord’s trees are well watered—the cedars of Lebanon, which God planted, where the birds make their nests, where the stork has a home in the cypresses.” Without resorting to giving allegorical meaning to birds or trees, we can agree they are often together not just in scripture but in our own backyard. The mustard plant of our parable is also a gift of God to shelter the birds.
We’ve identified the common stuff of which Jesus’ parables are usually made. In this case a seed, planting, a matured plant, and birds finding rest. But these common ingredients do not in and of themselves reveal the meaning. Levine has another way of approaching the parable laying it alongside the parable of Leaven which Matthew and Luke also do, and the parable of The Seed that Grows Secretly as Mark does.
Mark 4:26-29, CEB
“26 Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, 27 then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. 28 The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. 29 Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”
The parable of The Mustard Seed follows immediately after this in Mark 4.
Matthew 13:33, CEB
“33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”
Luke 13:20, CEB
“20 Again he said, “To what can I compare God’s kingdom? 21 It’s like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole.”
In both cases the parable of Leaven (or Yeast) follows immediately after The Mustard Seed.
Now here are the parallels Levine perceives looking at these combinations. First, there is the growth from small to large as we have noted before. Second, something is happening in secret. Seeds grow without letting us see what is happening within or underground; we see the results later above ground. Yeast is at work in a batch of bread without letting us see the chemical process in action. Third, Levine sees both the mustard seed and leaven parables as being “about the necessities of life: bread and shelter.” (p. 174) Fourth, she claims, “each shows that a single person’s actions have a possible impact on life outside the immediate context.” (p. 174) As the bread feeds others and the grown plant shelters birds that result is in part thanks to the person who mixed the leaven in the dough to bake the bread and the person who planted the mustard seed in the first place.
What does this suggest? Let me make my own interpretation based on Levine’s points here and elsewhere. The Kingdom of heaven, which is already present among us here and now, is like an ordinary person taking a small action in cooperation with God’s work in our world. But that simple seemingly insignificant action involving the ordinary stuff of our world can take on significant proportions when allowed to progress naturally according to the mysterious sometimes invisible processes built into creation or built into human nature. One small thing done by any one of us may make a difference meeting the need of another person or creature or any part of creation. This is how God intended his kingdom to work and how we partner with God for God’s work to be done.
What is the challenge of this parable then? Actually I am seeing it as a picture of hope. It asks me what seeds I can plant, in partnership with God, that might yield results beyond my limited perspective. For myself in March 2020, one answer is the Bible Studies I have started on Facebook and on my blog site connected to the church web site. What seeds might you plant meeting the need of someone around you? You might be calling a person to live alone for safe interaction in the midst of mandated social distancing. You might send cards to family and friends. You might help deacons and elders reach out to church members. You might donate to a food pantry. You might find a way to send thank yous to those who do have to work in the midst of this crisis.
For Levine the parable offers a variety of lessons. She notes from Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent that “one of the markers of the seed is its insignificance” by pointing out that Jesus’ ministry began as a small unrecognized ministry among his fellow Jews but spread to include Gentiles. (pp. 181-2) The church had a small start in Jerusalem, but has grown to include followers throughout the world. While she does not believe the parable was intended to be about Jesus himself or the church, this is another example of something small and seemingly insignificant having much broader ultimate effects.
Likewise small actions may yield greater results. She refers to the action of mixing leaven in the dough or planting a seed in the ground. “Even small actions, or hidden actions, have the potential to produce great things.” (p. 182)
However (and I find her next point important), after the human action there may be a need for refraining from human interference. At certain points in the process dough and seeds must be left alone to the natural courses of nature if you want the intended results of bread or plants. I am recognizing this in the process of preparing the church for my retirement. I planted a lot of seeds and had the privilege to nurture some, but for the most part now, I need to stay out of the way and let God bring the growth.
As Levine looks at the shelter provided for birds she notes “the ability of God’s creatures – feathered or flesh - to survive, to make do with whatever is available.” (p. 181) I find that very hopeful in our current world scenario dominated by COVID-19. I also affirm its message with the family motto of my childhood, “Make do with what you’ve got.”
Her final analysis, similar to what I gathered from reading her chapter, gives me hope for our future. “The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do – to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well.” (p.182) To that I can say a hearty Amen!
*AFFIRMATION Apostle’s Creed, Ecumenical Version p. 14
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Creator God, remind us that you are indeed King of the Universe and sovereign over all things. Teach us to cooperate in partnership with you whether it is growing a garden or fighting a virus, cleaning up from floods or fires, recovering from illness or surgery, locusts, tornadoes or earthquakes. We have experienced it all in recent weeks, and we need encouragement. Remind us that you are still with us in the midst of it all, and that with you we can face anything. Hold us in the midst of loss that must be grieved. Let us find creative ways to take advantage of the time we must spend at home and ways to reach out to others even though we cannot do so face to face. Inspire us with positive ways to move forward in our new realities as well as in the more mundane and routine changes of our daily lives. We put our hope and our trust in you for all things are possible with you. Amen.
*PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
Gracious God, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our redeemer, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory now and forever. Amen.
*THE LORD'S PRAYER
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
For the Sundays in Lent, our messages will focus on Jesus' parables using primarily a resource from Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus. Toward the end of each service we turn to the cross, extinguish one candle, hear a reading about the disciples and sing a hymn of the cross.