Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 6/13/18
Of the Synoptics, Mark is the oldest gospel. Matthew and Luke must have used the original manuscript as source material when they penned their narratives about Jesus. And while they borrowed story and sentence unedited from Mark, today’s text was different. There was something about the parable of the mustard seed that was problematic, and so they both changed the word shrub to suit their own theological agendas.
But if Mark is the oldest, then his recollection has to be the most authentic of all the accounts. So, returning to the first telling of the parable, what do we learn about the kingdom of God?
Mark 4:26-34 He also said, “The kingdom of God 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. 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 he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “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.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Much of ministry is done covered in manure.
Every seed is intended to grow.
The kingdom provides cover and shade to all of creation.
A friend named Rob recounted the story of stopping by a grocery store that went something like this. After getting everything on his list, he headed for the checkout. Surprisingly, there were a number of eager cashiers waving him over where there was no waiting. But as he steered his cart in their direction, Rob noticed that lane four was backed up with customers patiently standing in a long single file line well past the end of the frozen food section, each with only one or two items in hand. Curious, and not in a rush, he turned around and went to the back of the line. While inching forward, he heard one customer say, “I came over during my lunch break to buy a gallon of milk I don’t need.” Another said, “I can get groceries cheaper and closer to home anytime, but I only shop on Thursdays during the afternoon shift.” After twenty minutes of listening and wondering, Rob made it to the front. There he could see that after each purchase was scanned and put into paper or plastic, a bagger named Cliff, a middle-aged man somewhere on the Autism spectrum, was carefully placing a handwritten note into each bag. After exiting the store, customer after customer would immediately retrieve their folded piece of paper and read the week’s message. Sometimes it would say, “You’re special,” or “Live for today,” or “You are more than your mistakes,” or “Be kind to yourself,” or “God loves you.” Rob realized when he opened his note that no one was there for the groceries, but only to receive the sincerest of blessings from Cliff.
The Greek essayist Plutarch said, “If you choose to measure the greatness of a person, do not count the ships launched, battles won, or books written. Look to the insignificant moments, and there you will see the true measure of character.”
In the Church, however, we are so often seduced into believing that an act of ministry is only worth doing if it has grand significance. We’ll organize the revival if thousands of souls are saved; we’ll start a food pantry if it eliminates hunger; we’ll protest in the streets if the legislators in Raleigh will switch their vote. We’ll practice our Christianity… but only if it makes a difference.
Remembering that parables are always subversive, it’s helpful to know that the Mustard plant was banned from gardens in ancient Palestine, dismissed as a weed without merit. It was ordinary and inconsequential, neither regal like a bush nor wise like a tree, a confused shrub stuck somewhere in the middle of obscurity.
When Jesus sarcastically shares that the mustard seed will grow to be the greatest of all, we hear the irony in his voice and learn that the inbreaking of heaven here and now requires the humble work of blending in with the shrubbery. While it may not change the world, it will most certainly help usher in the kingdom one hand written note at a time. So stay low to the ground, major in the minors, and do something insignificant in God’s name.