Monday, June 11, 2012


1) When I was a little boy growing up in Vincennes, my father took me past his boyhood home and showed me a large Walnut tree. This tree was special to him because when he was but a small boy in the 1940s, his father helped him plant the walnut seed. My dad was amazed that the seed sprouted and the tree grew. It is still there and is very large! On this father’s day, my dad’s tree is a testament to his faith that that small walnut would grow. He is still amazed that the tree grew from the walnut and that it has withstood the test of time.

In the bible, the Cedar tree is extolled as a symbol of the majesty of God. The cedar tree grows upwards to 130 feet tall with a trunk of more than 8 ft in diameter. The Cedar trees of Israel and Lebanon were used for building ships, palaces, and temples. King Solomon built the great Temple in Jerusalem with cedar trees. And the Psalmist reminds us that: The just person shall flourish like a cedar of Lebanon.   

2)      Yet even though the scripture says that the great cedar tree will be lifted high, the prophet Ezekiel warns that the Lord will bring low the high tree and lift high the lowly tree.  And, again, the prophet Isaiah used the Lebanon Cedar as a metaphor for the pride of the world, as an arrogant example of worldly power and self-aggrandizement.

This is very similar to the Gospel message where Mary, the mother of Jesus proclaimed in her Magnificat: “He has cast down the arrogant of mind and heart; has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”

3)      Jesus listeners were likely taken aback when he proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” A mustard seed? The smallest of seeds? Jesus’ followers were likely waiting for him to declare that the Kingdom of God is like a mighty cedar tree!

But no. Jesus confounds his audience and maintains that the kingdom of God is like the wild mustard plants that can grow into large shrubs and small trees. WHAT?  The Mustard plant is a weed in contrast to the impressive mighty cedar tree!  While the wild mustard takes over the field, we want order; but the weeds thrive and the mustard blooms and the birds of the air come to roost.

4)      Mustard does not need any cultivating, for it sprouts all by itself, for once a mustard seed falls in fertile soil, it germinates almost at once and begins growing. Mustard plants are not trees per se, but are bushes though they grow between 10 and 20 feet tall. And there are few plants which grow so large in one season as a mustard.

There is a definite "subversive and scandalous" element to this parable, in that the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it an "undesirable, unwelcome weed" that will present a danger to the status quo or “business as usual.” Once a mustard seed is sown it is nearly impossible to get rid of.

5)      Jesus chooses the humble mustard seed over the image of a mighty cedar tree to show that even though the beginnings of the Kingdom of God are small, over time it would grow into something large and firmly rooted, in which many would find shelter and comfort, while others would find it detestable and even against tradition or respectable religion.

The growth of the kingdom is slow and rooted in a tiny beginning, but it is on the move.  Look at the growth of the early church, from a small following in the first century to the 3rd century where the mighty Roman Empire could not contain the rapid growth no matter how many Christians it put to death.

Or consider the days of slavery or the days of open discrimination and Jim Crow laws and segregation. Slowly but surely the march towards freedom took place. For instance, even though many Christians despised Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the movement refused to go away because the mustard seed of the kingdom and the gospel message had taken root in people’s hearts!

The wild mustard weed is nearly impossible to get rid of once it has infested a field, but so is the faith of those who seem to be weeds in the kingdom of God. And not only is this nasty weed unwelcome, but then so are the many different birds it attracts!

The wild mustard takes over the field, thriving like the kingdom, and the mustard blooms and the birds of the air come to nest! Just like all the "sinners" and tax collectors and the lowly ones who came to Jesus, these birds then threaten the well planted crop.

So the kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, poses a healthy challenge to the society and religion and to the hearer of the gospel: The church is not to be country club for self-righteous saints, it is an open field for the unwanted weeds and unwelcome birds.

The kingdom of God is messy. Worldly power is threatened by the Kingdom of God just as mustard seed threatens the perfect garden. We as subversive mustard seeds are called to challenge our culture, our society, and even members of our church. We, like the mustard plant, are called to invite the undesirable, unwelcome birds that seek refuge among us.

Yes, when we do this, we may well be viewed with suspicion, and be a thorn in the side of those who want to maintain the status quo, but the kingdom of God is not about “business as usual” in a perfect “weedless” garden.  

What the world considers a weed is really the greatest image of the kingdom of God.

No matter how small we consider our efforts or our faith, it is the beginning of great growth.  When we love our enemy and pray for him or her and when we walk with those who have lost faith, the mustard seed blooms! When we help a neighbor, visit the sick, or pay someone’s bills, the mustard seed blooms! When we make a meal for the lonely or those who are grieving the death of a loved one, the mustard seed blooms!

When we defend the human dignity of each and every person, regardless of nationality or language, the mustard seed blooms! When we stand up for those in poverty who have no voice, when we defend the rights of workers, the mustard seed blooms! 

When we assist the woman with an unplanned pregnancy–both before birth and after she gives birth, when we truly defend marriage by living our vows and giving witness to the sacrificial love that is marriage, when we love our children and our parents, no matter what they’ve done, the mustard seed blooms! For in the smallest acts of love the seeds of the kingdom bloom.

Let’s pray that our hearts might be like fertile soil ready to allow the seed of the kingdom to take root and germinate at once!

God’s love is constant. 

God is on the move. 

God’s kingdom moves forward.

The smallest seed of faith can grow into a great faith.

Even a giant walnut tree begins as a single walnut.

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