Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, July 2020
The mania over measurable outcomes, apparently, was present back when Matthew and Luke were penning their Gospels. Unable to restrain their revisionist pens, they both succumbed to the seduction of success, the allure of bigness.
In Mark’s account, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a seed that grows into a diminutive shrub. What? He must have been misspoken. That’s it? Not into a noble olive tree, not a verdant Sycamore, not a giant Cedar of Lebanon. Overwhelmed by the underwhelm of the original source material, the two later writers adapted the parable for their dramatic effect.
But Mark had a different theological intent and because his Gospel is the oldest and most trusted, the account closest to the original telling one afternoon in rural Palestine with the disciples gathered round, we are wise to search his words for the fullness of meaning.
After forgoing the triumphalist tendencies, what does the mustard seed teach us about the kingdom of God?
Mark 4:26-34 Jesus 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.
We all start out small, beginnings don’t always determine endings.
In faith, the most minuscule are strong enough to move mountains.
We do the planting, God does the growing.
Rob, a dear friend in ministry, recounted stopping by the grocery store. After getting everything on his refrigerator 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 rack of tabloid magazines and candy bars. There he could see that after each purchase was scanned and placed in plastic, a bagger named Cliff, a middle-aged man 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: “You’re special,” or “Live for today,” or “You are more than your mistakes,” or “Be kind to yourself,” or “God loves you.”
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 allow recovery groups to meet in the fellowship hall if someone gets sober. We’ll practice our faith… but only if it makes a significant 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 noxious seed will grow to be the greatest of all, we hear the irony in his voice and learn that heaven’s invasion here on earth requires the humble work of blending in with the shrubbery.
During the pandemic, with outbreaks spiking and many of us cloistering in our corners, there’s never been a more faithful time to neglect the metrics of success and give our lives over to the underwhelming. Smile through your mask, love from six feet away, point someone in the direction of free testing, share your sanitizer, plant a seed, write a handwritten note.
Staying low to the ground, do something insignificant in the name of the One who goes small.