(Matthew 13: 31-35)
A retired minister friend of mine said he always liked sharing this story with his church’s confirmation class every year. A man was hiking in the mountains; and as he negotiated the precipice of a steep mountain peak, he slipped off the cliff. Thankfully, he managed to grab a strong vine on the way down to stop his fall – at least for the moment.
Now this man had never really believed in God all that much, but as he hung there precariously with his life literally hanging in the balance, he started to reconsider. So he looked up to the heavens and called out, “Is anyone up there?” To both his surprise and relief, he got an answer: “Yes, I’m here,” the voice said. “I am the Lord. Do you believe in me?”
The man cast his gaze down and saw the ground way, way, way down there and replied, “Yes, yes, Lord, I do believe I do believe in you! But I gotta tell you, I’m in a bit of a bind here and I don’t know I can hang on much longer.
The voice replied, “That’s all right. “If you really believe in me, you have nothing to worry about. Just let go of that vine and I’ll take care of you.”
“Come again?” the man asked.
The voice: “You ever heard the expression, ‘Let go and let God?’”
“Give it a shot.”
The man thought about it for a moment; then he looked back up at the sky and said, “I’m just wondering – is there anyone else up there?”
Faith can feel that way sometimes, don’t you think? Feel like you’re hanging over a cliff, holding onto a vine. Faith is about taking risks, about letting go of control and handing our very lives over to God.
Which is very much what our four confirmands are doing today – making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and being confirmed as members of this church and of the church universal. They’ve done this as part of our confirmation ministry, and in particular with the help of an adult mentor, who now is more of an adult friend, really. And as these youth and adults will tell you from their four months together, the faith they talked about and lived out is something that will keep growing and growing and growing.
That’s right, mustard. And please know I’m not talking about the kind you find in a bottle, French’s or Grey Poupon or something like that; squirting it on a hot dog or smearing it on a ham sandwich. I’m talking about the seed mustard, the kind Jesus speaks of in our scripture today. This seed, of course, is what makes the mustard we know, before it’s in a bottle or a jar. These seeds vary in color – yellowish white or black.
The most notable thing about these seeds, though, and the reason Jesus talks about them, is that they are incredibly small. How small? A mustard seed is typically one millimeter in diameter. If that’s hard to imagine, just picture yourself holding a dime in your hand and turning it on its end so you’re looking at the side. That side is roughly the diameter of a typical mustard seed.
Mustard has been around long before we started putting it in bottles and jars, of course. Back in Jesus’ day, mustard powder was an important spice. In fact, the truth of the matter is that Jesus probably knew a lot more about mustard than you and I do. Which is why he chooses to make a mustard seed the focus of his parable:
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says to those listening,
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.
It is the smallest of all seeds,
but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree,
so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
You ever heard the expression, “faith of a mustard seed?” It comes from this parable. It’s the idea that a small faith can lead to big things. Which, if we think about it, is a common theme throughout scripture: there’s the little boy David who takes on and defeats the giant Goliath. The Hebrew people whom God leads out of bondage in powerful Egypt. Even Jesus himself, feeding thousands of people one afternoon with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Faith of a mustard seed, right? It rolls off the tongue.
Which is probably why it’s the title of any number of sermons you could find in a google search, or the name of a Sunday school curriculum. There’s “Faith of a mustard seed” charm bracelets and fridge magnets. There is even “Faith of a Mustard Seed” mustard – a bottle of your average yellow complete with a picture of a mustard seed on the front and the parable’s text on the back. How’s that for divine marketing?
There is certainly nothing wrong with the notion of the faith of a mustard seed. But here’s the thing: this parable is not talking about the faith of a mustard seed. In fact, the word “faith” isn’t mentioned at all. And it’s not like Jesus makes a big secret of what he is talking about. He says it right up front: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The “kingdom of heaven.”
Which leads to the obvious question: what exactly is the “kingdom of heaven?” Is it heaven heaven? Is it the afterlife Jesus talks about here? It’s possible. Jesus certainly did talk about eternal life.
But here’s why I’m not entirely sure that’s what he’s talking about here. I think about the audience Jesus speaks to – a predominantly Jewish audience of first century Palestine. And what was their context? Their context was living precariously under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire. And this empire did not take kindly to anyone submitting to an authority other than its own. To be a Roman citizen, one had to pledge full allegiance to Rome as the defining force in the world. Understandably, this ran contrary to what the Jewish people believed themselves.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s possible Jesus is speaking about heaven here, but that sure would sound tone-deaf to a people who were far more concerned about what they were facing in this life than what might come in the next. It makes me wonder if this “kingdom of heaven” is something more immediate, something Jesus is calling them to be part of here and now, something that, in fact, is already here.
That is why, in this passage and many others, Jesus describes for this persecuted people a very different kind of kingdom than they one they were more acquainted with. In this kingdom Jesus speaks of, it is God and not Caesar who rules. In this kingdom, the powers of the world revolve around God, not Rome. In this kingdom, military might and coercion and fear are replaced with grace and mercy and love. It is fundamentally, categorically different from what they were currently encountering.
So what Jesus is doing with this simple little parable, with this cute little simile about a mustard seed plant, is actually pretty radical stuff. With colorful strokes of the rhetorical brush, Jesus paints an extraordinary picture of an alternative reality, a whole other kingdom that runs counter to the one they were being forced to live in. And even though it was surely hard for them to actually see this “kingdom of heaven,” Jesus assures them it’s there. He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven will be like a mustard seed….” No, he says it is like a mustard seed. Present tense. Right now. It is a kingdom that’s already arrived! It is a kingdom they are already part of. Which means, of course, that it is a kingdom we are part of.
Remembering the kingdom that we, God’s people, are part of is a big reason we gather here every Sunday, why we do the things we do as a church family – to remind us, as the old saying goes, of who we are and whose we are. Remembering the kingdom that we’re part of is also a big reason we do confirmation. Harrison, Connor, Marshall and Jimmy, on this day when you join God’s church and become a member of this Trinity family, we are all reminded that the family you’re now part of celebrates with you in your moments of success and joy, and mourns alongside you in your times of sorrow.
But more than that, or along with that, this day of confirmation reminds you – reminds all of us – that when we make a commitment to Christ and his church, we are signing up to be part of a whole different kind of kingdom than what we live in most of the time. The kingdom of heaven as Jesus describes it is a particular way of living and following Jesus in the world. It is a kingdom that calls us to see things differently – or, in some cases, to simply see them, rather than turn a blind eye – and then ask, how does this change the way that I live?
And I want you to know, if you don’t already, that this is a very dangerous question to ask. When we take the gospel seriously, when we live as if we are truly in this kingdom of heaven – which we are – it changes us, and it changes the world we live in.
Like a mustard seed.
Because a mustard seed eventually becomes a mustard plant. And have you ever seen a mustard plant before? Neither have I – which is why I found it helpful when someone told me it’s a lot like kudzu. Now I haven’t seen a lot of kudzu here in South Charlotte. But when we lived in Mount Airy, in some of the natural and undeveloped rural areas, kudzu was all over the place. This wild vine growing in the spring and summer, large leaves. Growing everywhere, I mean everywhere – all over the ground, on top of bushes, engulfing power lines and taking over trees. And it is very, very hard to get rid of. That’s exactly what mustard plants were like in Jesus’ time.
That, my friends, is how Jesus describes God’s kingdom. Like a mustard plant. Like kudzu. A wild vine that grows and grows and grows, and takes over everything, and cannot be stopped no matter how many times you try to kill it off. No matter how many times Rome plays the heavy hand. No matter how hard life gets for us today, responsibilities and pressures, divisiveness in our dialogue, anxiety and fear and worry all around. God’s kingdom keeps growing through it all. Love wins. Right now!
That is what the four of you are signing up for today. That’s what all of us are signing up for. To be part of this invasive and subversive kingdom, growing and growing all over the place.
That’s why in pledging our allegiance to this kingdom, we denounce other kingdoms in this world. Kingdoms that celebrate violence and fear over love; kingdoms that seek self-gratification over concern for all, kingdoms that demand we put our complete trust in anything other than the God who created us and loves us.
That’s why we pledge ourselves to be part of this wild vine growth, this community that others will build nests in and make homes out of. That’s why we let this vine grow and take root deep in our hearts as we relinquish control of our lives to God. So we come to see God’s kingdom not just around us, but see ourselves right in the thick of it.
So welcome to the life and work of God’s church. Faith like a mustard seed? Perhaps. A kingdom like kudzu? Now you’re talking.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.