July 24, 2011
“The Kingdom in Bits and Pieces”
David A. Davis
There aren’t all that many mustard seeds in the bible. Yet, when you hear of one, you still need to stop and think about it; about which mustard seed it is that we’re talking about; that Jesus is talking about. The bible is full of seeds; the Creation story in Genesis with every seed bearing plant upon the face of the earth and trees bearing fruit full of seeds. The story of Joseph who was not only the dreamer in Pharaoh’s service, he was also a distributor of seeds to plant in the land. In the Exodus narrative, the manna from heaven is described as a kind of coriander seed. In the New Testament, Paul’s soaring rhetoric about the resurrection begins with sowing and seed and dying and living: “you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain”, Paul writes. And of course there is Jesus and his parable of the sower and the seed; the seed sown on the path, the seed on rocky soil, the seed among thorns, the seed on good soil The bible has plenty of seeds but as far I can tell, Jesus is the only one to talk about the mustard seed.
And still, when you hear of the mustard seed you have to stop and think which one. “For truly I tell you, if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Or “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…” The only two mustard seeds in the bible; both from the teaching of Jesus. The mustard seed of faith. The mustard seed of the kingdom of God.
Mention of mustard seed faith comes as Jesus is in conversation with the disciples. Here in Matthew it is in the 17th chapter. The disciples had been unable to heal a young boy of his suffering. The father brought the boy to Jesus telling him his disciples were not able to help. Jesus healed him immediately and the disciples followed up with him privately; “why couldn’t we do that?” Jesus said, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have the faith the size of the mustard seed…” In Luke, Jesus’ teaching moment with the disciples is about the insurmountable task of forgiveness. “You must forgive” Jesus told them. “Then increase our faith!” They replied. “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed….” Mustard seed faith. Is it a promise or an indictment? A nod (affirmative) to the potential of the microscopic faith that germinates in the petri dish of our lives or a nod (negative) to the woeful inadequacies of the faith of those who would follow Jesus? If only this much faith! Mustard seed faith.
Mustard seed kingdom has a different context in the teaching of Jesus. There’s only two mustard seeds and you ought to know the difference. The 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is a parable chapter. Like Matthew 25 where Jesus tells the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens, and the parable of the Talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Like Luke 15 where Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son. The 13th chapter begins with Matthew’s version of the parable of the sower. It includes the disciples asking Jesus “why do you speak in parables?” Jesus offers a puzzling answer to their question but gives a clear explanation of the sower. He tells them another parable about weeds sown among the wheat. There’s the parable about a woman who hid yeast in the three measures of flower and the treasure hidden in the field, and the merchant of fine pearls, and the net that was thrown into the sea. “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable Jesus told them nothing.” (Mt 13:34).
Smack in the middle of all that parable-lizing, Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” When the mustard seed isn’t faith, but it is the kingdom, then it’s a parable. As with the other parables of Jesus, it’s a parable that is not so much explained as it is experienced. A parable that shuns simplicity and points to layers of meaning. A parable that you don’t so much figure out as you sit with it for a while. A parable that isn’t easily reduced to a crisp summary like “it only takes this much.” A parable that offers a glimpse into the workings, the hope, the presence of the kingdom of God.
Perhaps some of you have seen the eagles’ nest that is up in a tree on the old VanDyke farm off Mapleton Road on the other side of Lake Carnegie. You can see it as well with the help of some binoculars from the Princeton side of the lake. The nest is built in a tree that was partly sheered off in that big storm a while a back. It looks less tree-like and more platform like. It’s a huge nest, probably larger than some New York City apartments. Certainly the presence of those bald eagles trumpet the regal nature of the habitat but the tree and nest formation is impressive as well.
In our backyard we have a garden that is around a very small pond and some rocks and some streaming water that we built a few years ago. The garden now has a nice combination of lilies and wild flowers, honeysuckle. It’s the kind of growth where I’m never sure what to weed and I usually get in trouble regardless of what I decide. This year we neglected to cut back the now dominant butterfly bush. It’s beautiful right now and seems to be undeterred by the heat. I’m sure someone here could tell me but even a few more years of not cutting it back, it’s still going to be a bush. A bush for butterflies not bald eagles. There is no confusing that bush and the tree over by the lake.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The greatest of shrubs. The greatest of shrubs. That’s like the fastest turtle, or the sweetest sounding bagpipe, or the quietest jackhammer, or the best seat in coach, the prettiest pig at the fair. The greatest of shrubs. The most majestic of garden plants. That’s how to distinguish the mustard seeds. How to remember which mustard seed. When Jesus talks of the kingdom mustard seed, it was like the greatest of shrubs.
Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase of the bible, “The Message”, has become very popular. His take, his reading offers fresh insight and different perspectives. Here, at Matthew 13:31-32, Peterson writes, “God’s kingdom is like a pine nut that a farmer plants. It is quite small as seeds go, but in the course of years it grows into a huge pine tree, and eagles build nests in it.” No, where’s the shrub. Where’s the irony, the twist. It’s not just a mighty tree, like a cedar, or an oak, or pine. It’s the greatest of shrubs. The eagle is nesting in the butterfly bush.
It’s not just the kingdom of God growing from “only this much”. It’s the kingdom being revealed in utterly unexpected places, in radically unpredictable ways. It is the kingdom turning the world upside down. It is the hope and the promise of the gospel percolating in the oddest of places. It is God’s kingdom breaking through not just in bits and pieces, but breaking through defiantly, despite all human expectation, despite humanity’s determination to figure everything out and control all things, despite the best of efforts in every generation to favor the powerful and the rich, forever preserving the status quo, despite humanity’s inability to ever learn what makes for peace.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, Jesus said. Like the psalmist prayed, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Like the prophet proclaimed “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” Like James wrote, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this, to care for orphans and widows” and “ a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Like Jesus himself said, “Whoever wants to be greatest of all, let them first be a servant of all.” The defiant and unexpected inbreaking of the kingdom of God.
Kingdom birds aren’t nesting in the steeples and eaves of church buildings where faith communities have long lost their edge when it comes to gospel forgiveness and transforming lives, and working for righteousness and justice. The kingdom doesn’t blossom where military might seeks to exert the deep roots of security and strength for some while so many in the world are starving and dying. Kingdom nesting doesn’t happen where the elected and appointed posture on entangled branches of privilege and ideology and power while the economy stirs with volatility and financial incontinence. God’s reign doesn’t flourish because of the perceived sturdiness of a doctrinal purity that stifles disagreement and eliminates the other, or because of a canopy of legislated practice peppered with God language that pretends to insure a future by stoking fear, or because of a veneration of the past where the church’s glory years are like the inner rings in the trunk of an aged oak tree while the struggle to burst forth with life sustaining ministry gets harder every year. No, the kingdom of God is like the greatest of shrubs.
In the last six weeks I have been privileged to visit some of the most famous, historic, and beautiful churches in the world. Most you had to pay to get in. Some came with an audio tour like a museum. From the security guards, it was evident that “shh!” means the same in every language. Incredible art. Holy places. History. Recent weddings. Visitors from every part of the world. People were coming in droves at every church; long, long lines and for some I am sure, it was a spiritual experience, maybe even a kingdom moment. My glimpse of the kingdom came far away of all of that.
In Bethlehem our group walked from the Church of the Nativity about ½ mile over to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Off the tourist path but still in the center of Bethlehem, in the last ten years the church has established several programs to serve the community. One of them is a college of the arts; photography, journalism, theater, poetry. The mission statement for the church’s community work is a quote from Jesus in John; “I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
In our conversation with the pastor, Mitri Raheb, almost every answer to a question included a story about one student or another; a muslim single mother artist, a young Palestinian poet, a budding film maker. From our group of pastors, all of whom are engaged in community ministries, some in really challenging urban contexts, came the question, “How do you assess the effectiveness of these ministries.”
“Look” Mitri said, “I am not a politician. I am not a diplomat. I’m not the director of a non-profit. I am a pastor of congregation of 150 members seeking to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in my community.” He went on to describe the hopelessness of the larger situation in the relationship of Israel and the Palestinian people, and the real suffering he sees in Bethlehem where he was born and raised. The pastor talked about helping one student dream, or empowering another student’s voice, or touching the heart of leader of a generation to come who might make a difference. “Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus” he said, “I have the privilege and the time to work for the kingdom one life at a time.”
The greatest of shrubs. A defiant hope, not among world leaders, not in military power, not in walls and fences, not in acts of terror, not in hatred and violence, not in lobby groups or political pressure or world wide NGO’s, but in a local pastor, seeking to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.
A mustard seed kingdom.
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