The grain of mustard seed
Mark 4: 26 -34
This is a very familiar passage – one we have visited on numerous occasions but this morning, rather than starting with the seed I want to talk today about the soil the dirt. Because humanity has a relationship to dirt in the Bible.
We read in Genesis, God gathers soil and breathes into it. In creation, humans are this beautiful mix of earth and divine, body and spirit. The soil of the earth and the soil of humanity have a rich and beautiful connection. But the beauty and harmony don’t last for long. We turned from the creator and lived Godless lives and the bond of earth and heaven was broken.
We have a strange way of talking about the earth, soil, dust whatever we want to call it. You can even hear it in many common phrases. That family is dirt poor. My friend hit rock bottom. This information really muddies the waters. I bit the dust. His reputation was soiled. She treated her employees like dirt. In all of these phrases, the stuff under our feet gets a bad reputation. In the same way the soil bears good seed along with thistles and thorns, we also have brambles, barbs and nettles of failure, pain and regret for what we have done, and what we have left undone. We’ve been stung. And we sting others. Sometimes it seems that no matter how hard you try, dirt from a situation in your past or present still clings to you, unable to be washed away in forgiveness.
This is where Jesus’ words in the gospel have something to say to us. Jesus tells two parables, both about seeds and soil, but slightly different. One is a parable of the growing seed, one is the parable of the mustard seed. In the parable of the growing seed, the dirt and soil are part of the story, essentially one of the characters. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like when someone sows seed, and it lands in the soil and as the world sleeps, something mysterious happens: the earth produces new growth.
The word in Greek for “produces of itself” is the word automaté. This is where we get our word automatic. I don’t understand automatic car transmissions, or the mechanics behind a machine that can automatically record Downton Abbey when you are watching something else. All these things and many more are mysteries to me. In the same way, this parable speaks about the automatic nature of the earth producing growth. It is also a mystery, a divine mystery; we plant seeds, and before too long little green blades shoot from the earth. How on earth does this happen? It is a mystery!
In the same way the seed of faith in God, the seed, the very beginnings of the kingdom of God, are planted in us, and as we let this take root in us there will be evidence of the kingdom in us. This will choke the weeds in our lives, enable us to forgive and be forgiven, live lives of integrity, truth and justice, love our neighbour, need I go on.
And that brings us to the second parable, the mustard seed. It is a very wee seed. This seed, this small, insignificant seed, this seed will expand and take root and grow branches that reach up heavenwards and allow birds to rest in it. And Jesus says this is like the kingdom of God. In reading this parable I have often thought of myself as the seed, and I’ve tried to be a good seed, to plant myself in good earth, a place that will allow me to take root and to grow and to be the kind of person that always reaches up towards God and heaven, and in so doing allows others to find safety and rest in the tree that is me. But really, that kind of interpretation is just narcissism. It is presumptuous to make humans the centre of the story. This isn’t what Jesus meant in this parable - it is not about us. This very tiny seed, transforms the soil around it. It will crack and burst open and take rootspreading throughout the soil, reaching deep into the earth. The seed then grows upward and outward into a tree and becomes a bridge between earth and heaven.
We are not the seed in this parable. Jesus is the seed. Jesus is the tree that bridges earth and heaven for us. We are people of the earth, and Jesus comes to nestle himself in the very midst of our life with all that is us the, grief, shame, need and longing. As his reckless love begins to grow it transforms our whole being. Jesus is the mustard seed that yearns to take root in us, and to stretch and lift us towards heaven. Not just for us, but for others as they rest in the branches and take shade from the leaves.
You may remember the Bette Midler song, “From a Distance” which she recorded in the early 1990s. The song talks about how “from a distance, the world looks blue and green, and snow-capped mountains white, and from a distance there is harmony, and no guns or bombs or disease and God is watching from a distance. The song is so lovely with its images of peace and harmony that you almost find yourself believing it, - that is until you realize it is totally false, and the parable of the mustard seed tells us so. God is not watching us from a distance; God is not some pie in the sky God that looks down and glosses over suffering, and who doesn’t deal in the reality of our lives. This God is the God who comes to earth to be among us, who reduces himself to the scant, insignificant life of a poor carpenter who enters into the dirt and mud, pain and sufferingand who gently but persistently cracks open new life.
If you took a handful of soil with some seeds in, the mustard seed is so small, it is hard to find even if you are looking. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In the same way, our inability to see doesn’t affect God’s ability to be. And God is always there for us. Ours is an underground and mysterious faith which involves patient waiting and hoping for God to breathe new life into the places where we struggle to see signs of hope. In the parables of the growing seed and mustard seed, we can be assured of one thing: new life is going to come.
The overwhelming, earth-shattering, life-transforming love of God is a love that will not stay buried. There is no place so dirty or wretched that God’s grace cannot reach. There is no place so dry or hardened or cold that won’t soften and live and produce new growth. God is in the business of growing new and beautiful things out of the dirt of our lives. And our faith isn’t only underground and mysterious, it is also vibrant and green, visible and growing. Wherever you are today, however you feel, which ever picture you identify with, you might not be able to see it, but the mustard seed is there, nestled in your life, waiting to grow, maybe already cracking open something new that you can’t yet see. We may not understand how the kingdom of God will come to life in us, or in what ways it will be unleashed, but grace, with all of its mystery, is in us. The amazing, unmerited, overwhelming grace of Christ is transforming us. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place.
The next time you reach down and gather soil in your hands, remember you are the soil nestled in God’s hands, and God is the seed nestled in you.