The Little Mustard Seed That Could

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

I have enormous respect for people who can make things grow successfully. My wife, Kelly, is the green-fingered one in the Rectory. I seem to just have to look at a pot plant and it dies -though, having said that, I did once, back in England, have a Swiss Cheese Plant, which I named Albert, and fed on a diet of used tea bags and cold coffee, and it absolutely flourished.

So for me, that you can put a very small seed in the dirt, and it will turn into a tree or whatever, is little short of a miracle. The latency I find utterly remarkable, too. They’ve found seeds in Egyptian tombs, given them some soil and water and they’ve sprung back to life, after patiently waiting for the right conditions for many, many thousands of years. In fact, some of the Ancient Grains that are so trendy right now come from precisely such kinds of sources.

Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene as a gardener in the Vaux Passional (late 15th c.)

There’s an old medieval hymn that starts, “King Jesus hath a garden full of divers flowers”. Jesus being cast as a gardener is a common metaphor in Christian literature, but I’m not sure how he’d have done as an actual horticulturalist. For a start, mustard seeds are indeed very small, but I don’t think they are the very smallest. And a mustard plant can grow up to 9 feet tall, but I think it would be a stretch to be this tree-like thing that birds could nest in. It’s a kind of floppy plant and any bird’s nests would soon end up on the ground. But, literalism like this is not the point. Jesus was speaking in parables, which are, in a sense, extended metaphors woven into the form of a story. So the botanical veracity is not the most important thing.

As with any of his parables, Jesus takes a scenario, or a thing, with which his hearers would be intimately familiar, to make a point. And everyone knew that when they planted the tiny, tiny seed of black mustard, which was indeed the variety of mustard growing in the fields in Palestine at that time, it would produce a plant that was exponentially much huger than its seed. 

Mustard plants in Burzi, Pakistan

Mustard plants in Burzi, Pakistan

Jesus could have chosen any number of other plants for his parable – an olive tree or a fig tree, for instance – both of those feature in the gospels. An olive stone is small, and an olive tree is big. A fig stone is small, and a fig tree is big. 

So, why a mustard seed for the parable?

First of all, the narrative effect is stronger. An olive stone may be small, but a mustard seed is really small. Like, miniscule. What the mustard seed is famous for is being small. The olive stone, on the other hand, isn’t really famous for anything. But the mustard plant? Yes, that works. Tiny seed, massive shrub. Or to put it another way – with a nod to the financiers and economists in our midst – it’s a great multiplier effect.

But what it is the underlying message that Jesus is trying to get across here? The parable of the mustard seed is one of those parables that sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Until one tries to explain it. Then it becomes much more difficult. 

How would you describe the Kingdom of God? It’s a very difficult question to even conceptualize, let alone answer, but I think that the adjectives I would use would be in the order of superlatives. I would certainly see it as huge, expansive, all-encompassing. In St John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as like a place with many mansions, with many rooms. Splendid accommodations, the finest there are.

Not very like a mustard seed, surely? A seed that is so small, and seemingly insignificant. Yet, this is what Jesus chooses to compare the Kingdom of God to. To be sure, he also compares the Kingdom of God to an expansive fully mature mustard bush, in which there is indeed room for shelter, and shade and nourishment.

But there’s something more here. Jesus isn’t just being descriptive about the expansiveness of the Kingdom of God, he’s saying something about nature of God’s Kingdom as distinct from this world, and how God’s Kingdom can come about in this world.

We live in a world where conspicuousness is king. A bigger house is apparently better than a smaller house. We want to be noticed, and be recognized. We want to be significant. The thing about the mustard seed that is more important in this parable than its size is that it is insignificant. It is so easily overlooked. If the mustard seed was on the red carpet at the Oscars, the paparazzi wouldn’t be remotely interested. The mustard seed isn’t showy. In fact, it’s rather plain. And yet it holds all of its amazing potential.

And so we begin to get to what I believe is the heart of this parable: that the Kingdom of God is wonderful and expansive and, in fact, unsurpassed, but at the same time is so humble and un-showy that it’s very easy to overlook.

How many times have we overlooked the Kingdom of God because we were distracted by the showy, shiny stuff? How many times, have we overlooked somebody because they appeared to be somewhat insignificant, and instead were drawn to the more glitzy, or glamorous, or popular people? By overlooking the seemingly insignificant, we also overlook the extraordinary potential of a person or a place, or a situation to grow into something that looks a lot like the fullness of the Kingdom of God?

As any student of marketing, PR or the hospitality industry will tell you, it’s often the small things that matter the most. A little detail, a kind word, a simple gesture often end up being the catalysts to a successful outcome more than the great big, grandiose stuff.

The Kingdom of God is very much all around us, but we have to want to see it. And it’s around us in lots of tiny, little ways. Here at St. Stephen’s, we’re not a large church in the public eye. We’re a small congregation, and we have a small program. And sometimes it might feel like compared with big churches with lots of people, program and staff, that we’re less significant than them. But when we’re tempted to think that, then let’s remind ourselves that Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. The little seed that people often overlook, but the little seed with the greatest of potential. To mix my metaphors, St. Stephen’s is the little seed that could. We here can grow into the expansive mustard plant, but we should never stop being the mustard seed as well. Where the little details, and the kind words, and the simple gestures always matter.

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