If you were to have the “birds and bees” lecture from an adult living in Biblical times, it might go something like this–”Well, the male plants his seed in a female, and then the seed grows inside the female, who keeps it warm and safe, until it’s time for the baby to be born. Now, have you gotten your chores finished?”
It was thought that the mother only provided the incubator for the father’s seed, so the father was literally “life-giving.” You can see why God would have been called “Father,” the Creator and Source of our lives. In an agricultural society like the one Jesus grew up in, stories about seeds would be a natural way to talk about God, for his hearers would have observed how seeds are sown, what conditions they grow best in, how many obstacles there are to bearing fruit, as well as how miraculous that so many seeds yield such an abundant harvest.
So, here in the 4th chapter of Mark, we have several stories about seeds–”Listen! [Jesus says] A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Others fell on rocky ground with no depth of soil, and it withered and died. Other seed fell among thorns, which choked the young plants. Other seed fell into good soil, and it yielded 30 and 60 and 100-fold. Isn’t that amazing?…” Or, “the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep night and day, and nonetheless the seed sprouted and grew–isn’t that amazing?–and he harvested the full grain.” “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 and make nests in its shade.” Isn’t that amazing?
For a community faced with all sorts of perils and oppression, the image of even the tiniest seed surviving and flourishing and multiplying was good news indeed. “You are God seeds,” Jesus told them. This is how you will grow and flourish. And we probably need to let go of our typical images of gardening, of carefully planting seeds in rows and pretty fenced-off places. Seed was sown by throwing it out in extravagant movements. Some absolutely would fall on rocks or amongst thorns or on pathways, so thank God there was abundance in each of the seeds that fell on good soil.
And the mustard seed was not planted in carefully labelled herb gardens. John Dominic Crossan explains that mustard was “something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses–if you could control it.” (Cited by David Lose in Working Preacher.com, 6/17/12) Mustard was more like kudzu, that weed that literally takes over everything in its path down south.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God? [Jesus asked] It is like mustard seed, that not only grows into great shrubs where birds can make their nests, but it gets into everything, takes over everywhere, is way beyond your control.”
The kingdom of God is not something you can control. It’s not safe if, as one writer puts it, “if we’re even minimally satisfied with the way things are.” [David Lose, ibid.] And the kingdom of God is not really even a place, a geographical territory like we think of other “kingdoms.” A better translation for that word might be the reign of God, or really the “reigning” of God. It’s not a static thing, but rather, dynamic. “God is a verb,” as pioneering feminist theologian Mary Daly said. Think of God as a verb, not a noun, not a name.
We might even think of seeds as verbs, or at least of pure potential energy for change, rather than a contained, static thing. “The kingdom of God [or, the reigning 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….until the grain is ripe.” Transformation, change, is built into the universe, Jesus said. It’s a given.
Some seed sprouts into ripe grain, able to nourish us, other seeds, like the mustard seed, turn everything upside down, providing shelter for some creatures but upending our carefully designed plans and lives. The reigning of God is like that, Jesus said. You can’t control it–isn’t that a relief?!–but it can push us off our couches and out of our recliners to get with the program, to be part of that life-changing, world-changing energy. “Changing lives since 1836” our t-shirts say. That’s only impressive or appealing if you’re open to having your life changed. If you’re totally satisfied with your life, if there’s no room for improvement, or if you think the world is just fine the way it is, then who needs to be part of “changing lives”?
“But if you’re not satisfied,” as one writer puts it, “if you can imagine something more than the status quo of scarcity and fear and limited justice and all the rest we’re regularly offered, then maybe Jesus saying that God’s kingdom is infiltrating the kingdom of the world offers a word of hope, a hope that will entice, prod or poke you into working toward the vision of the kingdom of God he proclaims.” (David Lose, ibid.)
In the movie Hunger Games, (though not in the book upon which it’s based), the diabolical President Snow asks his chief Game-maker in charge of making the Hunger Games a spectacle that are as entertaining as they are barbaric, why there has to be a winner. The answer is hope. Maybe if the odds are in their favor, the tributes of the various districts will be able to escape poverty and servitude; and so they enter into the games, throw themselves into them, in the hope of winning a better life for themselves and their families. “But for that very reason, such hope is as perilous for a dictator as it is useful. ‘A little hope,’ the Game-maker tells the President, ‘is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.’” (cited in Lose, ibid.)
“With what shall we compare the kingdom of God, the reigning of God…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, the most invasive of all species…”
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, not only is that one changed, but “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Godseeds have been scattered and sown all over the world, barely noticeable yet in some places, in others already providing shelter and shape for the new creation, all of them working their life-changing, world-changing work already. What are you the possibility of? as the Landmark seminar asks. “I am the possibility of love, valor, and compassion,” one man discovered. “I am the possibility of beautifully made marimba cases,” another one of our friends discerned, and so changed his life work. What are you the possibility of? What are we the possibility of? What kind of community might we yet become? What kind of mustard seed effect might we have on our community or the world?
“Where do you picture God?” the children of Godly play have been asking this year, as we heard and saw last week. It’s another great question to ask–Where do you picture God? Where do you see God being present in the world and in your life? Where is the kingdom of God, or the reigning of God, already coming and in our midst?
At their meeting this past Tuesday evening, the Board of Deacons decided to issue the challenge, the invitation, the assignment, if you will, to our whole congregation to take pictures, write poems, draw or paint, think of or create music that, like the children of Godly Play, portrays where you picture God. Summer is as good a season as any to take on that assignment, so keep your eyes and ears and heart open. We’d love to have an exhibit and create a worship service around these “pictures” in the fall.
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” “The kingdom of God 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.”
There’s a bowl of mustard seeds on the table in the back of the sanctuary. I invite you to take one, or if you’re really brave, a couple, with you today and keep it as a reminder throughout the summer. You can put it on a piece of tape, if you’d like, for “safe” keeping, but know that it’s not “safe.” The kingdom of God, the reigning of God, is like that mustard seed, able to grow and transform your life and even the whole world. Where do you picture God? What are you the possibility of?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark