Some of you know that for the last two Sundays I’ve had a bandage on my right index finger to cover up the stitches required after I cut myself trying to eliminate the staghorn sumac that was taking over part of my lawn. Maybe some of you have heard about Lanny’s ongoing struggle with the bamboo that has engulfed a lot of the field by her barn. If you are a gardener, you probably have your own example of something that just won’t stop growing, no matter how much you try to control and contain it.
When Jesus uses the image of mustard seed in today’s parable, that’s the point he’s making. Once mustard, that tiny little, innocuous looking seed, makes its way into the ecosystem, there’s no getting rid of it. And that, he says, is like the kingdom of God.
He’s building on that prophetic imagery we found in the passage from Ezekiel this morning. Ezekiel addresses those who have been hauled away from Jerusalem into Exile in Babylon. These people have lost all hope that there is any future for themselves. They believe that God has defaulted on the promise to always have a descendant of David on the throne. That’s what that language about the “lofty top of a cedar” is about—it is an assurance that God keeps God’s promises.
The word grafting is never used here, but it was an agricultural practice by the time this text was written, and it does seem to describe that practice of taking a cutting from one tree and coaxing it into growing on another. Paul will use the metaphor of grafting generations later to describe how Gentiles become part of God’s people. The tree, of course, is a symbol for the kingdom of God, which in Ezekiel’s time was thought to be synonymous with Israel, particularly the city of Jerusalem, always described as up high. As one seminary professor said, it doesn’t matter what elevation you were at, in the Bible you always go up to Jerusalem.
Ezekiel is setting out a vision of what Jerusalem, and by extension the whole kingdom of God’s people, will look like after it is restored. It will be a place of shelter and shade, where every kind of bird finds a place. The prophets were clear that when the people of God understand their purpose only in terms of themselves, they will fail. When they embrace the idea that God is calling all people into its shade and shelter, that is when they flourish.
If you want to have a Biblical discussion about the way to address immigration, refugee resettlement, and responsible care of the least of these, you should probably start here. (I am just going to leave that there for you all to chew on.)
So now that you know the foundation for this image of a plant that provides shelter and shade to all who come to it, let’s go back to Jesus and his parable about this mustard plant that grows from a tiny little seed.
Jesus is being quite provocative here. He hints at this majestic image of the noble cedar tree that stretches into the heavens and spreads its branches out over the land—but he replaces it with a mustard shrub.
If I had a sound effect machine, I’d use the ‘needle scratching over a record’ one right now.
Because there is nothing majestic or noble about mustard. This is not mustard that is intentionally cultivated for use as a condiment—that plant with the beautiful yellow flowers that I saw everywhere in Germany. This mustard is a weed. It is, as I mentioned earlier, an invasive nuisance. If you were a farmer, you did not want mustard showing up in your fields. If it showed up in your crops, it crowded out the things you were trying to grow. And if it showed up in the fields where you grazed cattle or sheep, you would probably just move your herds to a different spot. This mustard is part of the garlic family, and it would get into the taste of the milk, making it unusable.
This annoying, tenacious, scruffy little plant is the one Jesus used to describe the kingdom of God.
Just to be clear, this is not the “faith the size of a mustard seed” discussion. That is somewhere else in the Bible. There will be time on some other Sunday to reflect together on how God uses our smallest offerings to do great things.
This is all about how the kingdom of God is not in our control. We don’t get to direct God’s activity in the world, we only get to cooperate with it. God plants the seeds—the most unusual sorts of seeds in the most unexpected places. We are here to learn to recognize the signs of God’s activity and bear witness to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And, if we are so honored by God to be invited to help scatter the seed or prepare the ground or water the seedling—we need to be prepared to do so.
And all of this—ALL of this—is grounded in Christ’s love. Not in fear. Not in self-preservation. Not in futile attempts to control who or what is allowed in God’s kingdom.
The love of Christ urges us on. The love that went to a cross rather than abandon us. The love that offers forgiveness and a new start instead of judgment and condemnation. The love that says ‘spread those branches a little wider, grow a little taller, provide a little more space for all those different kinds of birds.’
The love that believes that God is making all things new.
I want to go back for a minute to the stark contrast between the noble cedar tree and the scruffy little mustard shrub. Ezekiel continues to hold onto an image of the kingdom of God that is formed around the idea of nobility, a king. The danger of his symbolism is that it allows the hearer to say, “Oh, that God-Stuff, that’s for other people. People with more status, more power, more…” whatever it is that you think you don’t have that exempts you from the discussion.
Jesus shakes it up. He says that it’s not just The Beautiful People over there who are part of God’s kingdom. It’s all of us. Each of us in our scruffy, mustardy, imperfect, sometimes annoying selves can be part of the spreading that makes room. We are none of us exempt. Te love of Christ urges us on.
And the wonderful, hope-filled good news is this. Even when we resist, even if we refuse to be part of it, God’s kingdom is breaking in. God’s kingdom is growing in those little hidden corners, creeping up through the broken concrete of our attempts to keep it contained. Despite our every attempt to weed it out and knock it down and burn it to the ground, it keeps coming back.
Just like that sumac. Or bamboo. Or wild mustard. You can’t keep the kingdom of God out.
Thanks be to God.