Sermon preached for the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.
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.”
When I was in middle school, maybe, my mother and I planted a small garden by our driveway. Nothing fancy—a bunch of tulips and grape hyacinth. The red and purple were stunning together, and it was the best our yard had ever looked, to my mind.
The following year, the hyacinth rose right on time. A swath of purple all up and down the way. But not a single tulip grew. It wasn’t shocking—tulips are harder to cultivate as perennials than as annuals—but I was still bummed.
The year after that, the hyacinth again made their appearance. Then, about a week later, I noticed a hint of red among the purple. A single, solitary tulip was growing in the sea of hyacinth. Just one, but it was beautiful.
For several years, that one tulip made its mark among our hyacinth. The funny thing was, it grew in a different place each year. We could never predict where it would pop up. We weren’t even sure how it was growing—whether some of those first seeds were lying dormant, or whether some squirrel or bird was carrying the seeds around.
That tulip was for me, a parable. A parable of the beauty of persistence, of new growth popping up in unexpected places. As someone who sometimes felt like the odd one out—as most middle schoolers do, on occasion—a parable of standing tall and unique, exactly how you were made to be.
It’s not too far a stretch from the parables Jesus tells. Jesus is always talking about seeds and shrubs and flowers and trees, about how the kingdom grows like plants do. About how something tiny and ordinary and insignificant can become something huge. About the mystery of how God works.
We are continuing to read through the gospel of Mark and today we have two of Jesus’ parables, both about the kingdom of God.
The first parable describes the mysteryof God’s kingdom: like a seed that grows without our understanding how, God’s kingdom happens right under our noses.
The second parable, perhaps more familiar, describes the patternof God’s kingdom: it starts in the tiniest things, and grows into greatness.
Such metaphors were not unknown to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. We read one of Ezekiel’s prophecies this morning. In it, he describes God taking a twig from a cedar tree, a new one from way up top, something small and fragile and young. He imagines God planting that twig on a mountain, and that it will grow tall and strong and noble, with branches stretching out in every direction, casting shade over the ground, making a habitat for every species of bird.
Ezekiel was hoping for a human kingdom—sanctioned by God, yes, but very much a human kingdom, with a human king, human armies, human power. He wanted David’s kingdom back. A kingdom that would look strong and mighty from the outside, strong and mighty like a cedar tree.
That hope had not waned in Jesus’ time. People still wanted a kingdom—a king in power, armies to protect them, borders to call their own. And many who followed Jesus were hoping he would be just the one to bring the kingdom back.
That hope never really goes away. There is something in humanity that yearns for power, that yearns to be big and strong and impressive. We want to be the toughest kid on the block, the guy in the corner office, the flashiest megachurch in the city, the strongest power on the global scene. As individuals, as a nation, even as a church, we want to be big like that cedar tree. And often Christians make the mistake of thinking that if we getbig, and getpowerful, and getimpressive, than it’s proof that God made that happen. That the biggest churches and strongest nations and most successful people are the ones God is most active through. But that’s all backwards.
Jesus’ parable is in many ways a riff on Ezekiel’s prophecy. That smallest twig becomes the tiniest seed; the result is still a home for birds to nest in. But instead of the noble cedar, Jesus puts forward the mustard plant.
Now, Jesus calls the mustard plant the “greatest of all shrubs,” which is a bit like being the biggest fish in the fishbowl—not really that impressive. A really well-nourished mustard plant canget to eight feet tall, but that’s still nothing in the agricultural landscape. A single mustard plant really isn’t that great.
But you almost never see just one.
You see, mustard plants are an invasivespecies. They grow like wildfire. You are more likely to see a mustard fieldthan a mustard plant. Have you ever seen kudzu? That green viney stuff that covers whole mountains in the south, that eats telephone poles and covers over anything in its path? Mustard plants are more like that. They’re weeds. But they’re stubborn, and persistent, and can cover a lot of ground.
What makes a cedar noble is how tall it is, how elegant, how visible it is from miles away. What makes a mustard plant great is how far and fast it spreads. Nobody would call a mustard plant noble. What they would call it is persistent.
The greatness of a mustard plant is not in its size or beauty. The greatness of a mustard plant is in its tenacity. It hangs on.
And that is what Jesus compares the kingdom of God to. Not to a kingdom of military might and power and privilege, but to an invasive weed that gets in all the places it shouldn’t go, spreading compassion and forgiveness and dignity to every corner of the globe.
It is plain to see that God’s kingdom has not fully come on earth. There is still too much pain and cruelty, too much darkness and despair, too much powermongering and pride. But what I will tell you is that neither is God’s kingdom eradicated from this earth. You can take a weedwhacker to a mustard plant, but unless you get every root, every seed, every bit of that plant, it will still live. And you can take cynicism, and bigotry, and cruelty, and you can whack away at every sign of hope and love and decency among people, but as long as even just a few of us still follow the footsteps of Christ, then God’s kingdom is still here.
I know that we are tiny, on this planet. You and I are one of billions of humans, among billions upon billions upon billions of organisms, on a planet floating in space whose mass is so much greater than mine I can’t even figure out the calculations. In many ways we am infinitely smaller than a mustard seed.
And yet I know that God’s kingdom, God who is bigger than I can imagine, rests in you and me. Was placed in you and me by God, and nurtured by teachers and parents and mentors and pastors and friends. And as long as we live into that truth, as long as we work to make Christ’s love, mercy, and justice shine bright in our little corner of the world, then God’s kingdom is still here.
All of us here today are seeds. Seeds of a kingdom that will grow and persist, even when we are cut down, even when we are not wanted. Seeds of a kingdom that is rooted always in God’s love for this—our—world.
And even more, all of us can help plant seeds of God’s kingdom in others. The smallest acts of kindness, of compassion, of mercy can reach far. Lives are changed by the small things we do—a kind word, a quick prayer, a brown paper bag with a weekend’s worth of food. We will probably never see how God’s kingdom grows from the seeds we plant, just by living faithful lives, every single day.
Sometimes that’s frustrating. I want to see results! But sometimes I experience that mystery as grace. Like the man in the first parable, I sleep, and I rise, and I don’t know what God is doing in the hearts of those around me. But other days I sleep and I rise, and I get to look at you all, and see the kingdom of God flourishing right here in this congregation, and it is sheer joy.
God is always at work nourishing the kingdom, in ways invisible to our eyes. We rise and sleep, work and pray, rest and play, day in and day out, and the all the while God’s kingdom is growing. We may not ever see the full results of the seeds we plant. But we are not the only ones making them grow.
In a minute we are going to sing This is My Father’s World. There is a line in there that gets me every time, almost by surprise: “This is my father’s world/ o let us not forget/ that though the wrong is great and strong, god is the ruler yet.”
The wrong in this world is great and strong. We know that. We feel it.
And yet this world is still God’s world, God’s world that God called good. So remember that hope is an invasive species, growing in the cracks, popping up like weeds, rioting across our lives, showing up in all the places we least expect. Remember that there are seeds of love quietly growing in the ground beneath our feet, ready to burst forth. Remember that just because we cannot see God’s kingdom in full Technicolor yet, does not mean it isn’t coming. Remember to look for the smallest signs of God’s presence around you, because they contain all the majesty and mystery of our God.
I remember that lone tulip, growing among all the hyacinth in my front yard. Only one. But always one. Always one feisty, persistent, beautiful sign of the way things can grow against all expectation.
The kingdom of God is growing still. O let us not forget.