Rebecca M. Heilman-Campbell

Mark 4: 26 – 34 (Selected Verses)

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain (you know it, it’s the giant basilica) is a spectacle, a one-of-a-kind structure like you’ve never seen. It was designed by the famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, a true visionary for something different. But to a non-architect’s eye, it’s an odd structure at first. I’ve always compared the texture and color of the walls to when you slowly drizzle wet sand higher and higher and higher, creating a bumpy-like look. It has been under construction for over 140 years and just recently the current architects announced they are close to finishing.

While I don’t remember much from the walking tour I took of the Sagrada Familia years back, I do remember the experience. From the outside, the walls look dull, brown, a little strange to the eye, and as soon as you walk through the doors, your entire experience changes. Suddenly, you notice the stain glass that wasn’t quite noticeable on the outside. And if you hit it on just the right sunny day, the colors of a rainbow flood around you – greens and blues, yellows and reds touch every corner of the basilica. Light shines through the crafted, chaotic glass and forms a warmth in what you thought would be a cold, distant room. It’s absolutely beautiful. There is now life to the structure like never before. A change in perspective, a memory made. What once was obscure on the outside is now clear to the eye on the inside. One theologian compares that same experience to Jesus’s vague riddles, stories, and parables. (1) On the initial read or listen, Jesus’s parables don’t make much sense. At least, I’ve always struggled to dissect the stories but once you lean closer, that is closer to Jesus, and truly listen, you then hear life, you see life, you see the life Jesus wants the Kingdom to have, for each of us to have.

Jesus uses parables intentionally to draw people in, to draw them close. To invite hard questions and wonder what the stories might bring for their life. And so today we look at the parable of the mustard seed and we are drawn into the story. Just a chapter before this passage, Jesus has called his followers and given them their authority. His apostles know that Jesus is…well different, a son of God, but Jesus has not fully exposed himself just yet to his disciples. Yes, he has cast out demons, healed the sick, and challenged the religious authorities. They just know that Jesus is…different. Now, he sits down with a large crowd by the sea and teaches about a Sower in a field suggesting that it’s the ground, the good soil that makes the seed grow. Everyone walks away from that parable thinking “Ok, I just have to be the perfect soil, an excellent person. And this new idea of a new realm, a new life, a kingdom of earth just as it is in heaven will happen if I just live my life in a certain way.” Then Jesus drops our Scripture today. The Parable of the Growing seed first, which is to warn us that being the “good soil” or that perfect, excellent person will not bring about the Kingdom of God. Sometimes seeds just grow and their growth comes from God. It’s out of our control. It’s the order of life. All we can do is grow with God and watch as the Kingdom emerges. Of course, this suggests that the Kingdom is amongst us now.

And now, the final parable is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. All of these parables are certainly obscure to us, but for the ancient ear, Jesus used agrarian parables to draw the person in and challenge the status quo! There’s intentionality to these stories, whether they are familiar to the ears or completely new. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds when thrown on the ground. And yet, when that small seed grows, it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, so great, it grows branches and coverage and strength for even the birds to make nests in their shade. Oh, Jesus is smart. He’s saying that the Kingdom of God, the realm of God, the beauty and justice of God may be compared to a tiny, insignificant, almost impossible to imagine its growth seed. Yet, it becomes something magnificent. Something grand and hospitable, safe and restful. Just when we think we need to be in control of the realm of God with our supposedly perfect selves, that perfect ground for seeds to take root, we learn God’s will is going to come about regardless. And just when we think we are aware of the kingdom of God transforming itself around us, Jesus is saying, “Oh, no.”  It’s as tiny as a seed, barely noticeable to the eye and yet becomes a grand structure of safety and renewal.

But one theologian writes, and this is important for the story and our modern ears. They write “There’s also a twinkle in Jesus’ eye here, a gleam of mischief. In the ancient Near East, most farmers would have considered mustard to be an invasive weed.” I think of the massive kudzu vines here in NC that have taken over our fields. The theologian continues, “In fact, because [mustard plants] spreads quickly by sending out shoots underground, it can take over a garden or a field; accordingly, farmers would typically avoid it or root it out, never mind intentionally sow it.” (2) What Jesus is suggesting then is that “The kingdom of God…may very well upset the ordered, conventional status quo. It spreads swiftly, invisibly, often underground. It’s more wild than “noble,” [more of a] undomesticated weed than [a] domesticated crop, and more helpful to birds than to kings.” (3) Oh, Jesus is a sneaky one for us modern listeners. Here we are for years comparing the kingdom of God or our faith to a mustard seed and it’s grown shrub, empowering it to beauty and a standard that is glorious and normal, when in reality, nothing is normal about the kingdom of God. It’s unpredictable, it’s complicated, a mystery that spreads quickly and takes over. The Kingdom of God is wild! It’s nothing we might imagine. And we shouldn’t expect anything different.

One of my favorite authors, Ross Gay, writes about an experience like this in his garden and how that experience brought him nothing but joy, even in its wildness of nature. In his book, that I’ve mentioned before, The Book of (More) Delights, he writes about a sad day in November when it was time to clear his vegetable garden. The frost and cold had changed from green growth to slumped over plants. He writes, “Oh, they did a beautiful job this year, made so much fruit…I’m so grateful. Goodbye for now, basil. Goodbye for now, cherry tomatoes, I know you’ll be back. Marigolds and zinnias and sunflowers and castor beans, goodbye for now, and thank you. And goodbye, sweet potatoes. Which also means hello, sweet potatoes. They are so rambunctious…” (4) he writes. “These guys have been working!” (5) And so, Ross Gay gathers up the vines and pulls them from the roots in the ground or as he writes, “if there were roots; part of the mystery, the wonder, is that you never really know until harvest.” (6) And so, he starts digging, “rooting around the roots…and oh, it was marvelous down there…. So much rip-roaring life; tangles of roots, beetles and worms; chunks of wood we threw into the bed…and sweet potatoes galore.” (7) He pulled up buckets of potatoes, buckets of tubers grown from a small seed. Buckets of life. And Gay finishes his story with, “And after I’d harvested most of the crop, and was finishing up, looking for the little straggling guys hiding in the depths, I noticed myself, I mean I caught myself, elbow deep in the earth as I was really smiling.” (8)

Gosh, God’s creation is amazing. Our faith is amazing. What sometimes starts as small seeds grow into order. And sometimes what starts as a small seed becomes chaotic, wild, widespread, unpredictable, uncontrollable and yet, thrives. That’s the kingdom of God. It’s not perfection. It’s not the status quo. It’s not the order of life as we expect it to be. It’s not the traditions and routines and we have to do it this way only. It can be, as a theologian suggests, a lowly, wily, undaunted weed! It can be something humble that grows into a necessity of shade. It can be taking a risk, putting ourselves out there in ways we never thought the Spirit would lead us.

You know, I can’t help but think about the underground railroad that shuttled hundreds of thousands of slaves out of slavery. Now that was a part of the network of the kingdom of God. I can’t help but think about the organization, World Central Kitchens, that has fed over 400 million meals in humanitarian crises, risking their lives to give life to others. That’s part of the network of the kingdom of God. I can’t help but think about Roof Above and Supportive Housing Communities and Caldwell and Newell Presbyterian Church building affordable housing on their campus. That’s part of the network of the kingdom of God. I can’t help but think about small individuals who are making an impact in our world today. Like doctors and nurses working long hours. Friends holding each other’s hands. Children hugging, unwilling to let go. Small moments of joy when gathered around the table or reading a motivating article or praying just for praying sake. We are all a part of the wild network of the Kingdom of God.

I can’t help but think about Sarah. Sarah walked into my office on my last call in NYC desperate for help. She carried a full canvas bag and heavy shadows under her eyes. She said close to exhausted tears, “I need help. I know this church has a shelter; can I please stay there? I just need a good night’s rest. I just need to sleep. If I can sleep, I will be able to do more.” Something in my gut told me this woman wasn’t just looking for a handout or trying to take advantage of the church. She truly needed help. I apologized and said our shelter is only for men and we talked about other options. She didn’t want to go to the public shelters, they were too dangerous. Of course, with my naivete, that was news to me. We ultimately settled on a women’s shelter downtown, but she didn’t want to stay there long.

I worked with Sarah for weeks and months on finding her shelter and safety. It really wasn’t easy. Some nights she had no choice but to sleep outside. Other nights, she found a convent to rest her head. Finally, she found secure housing with a group of nuns in lower Manhattan. Sarah wasn’t a drug addict; she wasn’t hopping from one resource to another. She was a college graduate with a master’s degree who lost her job and struggled to find a new job because of the market, abuse in the homeless system and lack of sleep. After staying with the nuns for several weeks, Sarah applied for a job at the United Nations and she still works there today, 6 years later, thriving.

We think about the kingdom of God on the large scale, but like the mustard seed, the kingdom of God grows underground, rooting in places we might not imagine and impacting lives left and right. Your life as well when you notice it. For that’s the purpose of this story. God’s love, God’s justice, God’s life and light, God’s kingdom on earth just has it is in heaven is supposed to fill fields, fill the streets, fill the lost and the lonely, the homeless and the hopeless, the average and the privileged. God’s kingdom fills this entire world regardless of if we let it. It’s rooting without our perfection and without our tradition, without our ways of life, without the comforts we know. It’s unruly and it’s taking root. Thanks be to God for that, for it’s out of our control and would we really want to try to control it? I don’t think so. Let God take root if your life. Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

(1-3) The Power of a Seed: SALT’s Commentary for Fourth Week after Pentecost (

(4 -5) Ross Gay, The Book of (More) Delights, (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2023), 77.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Gay, Delights, 79.

(8) Ibid.