STORIES JESUS TOLD: IT’S ALIVE!
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Genesis 8:15-22; Mark 4:26-32
“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.”
Want to get away from it all — I mean, really get away? You may want to consider the Norwegian island known as Spitsbergen. It’s pretty big, as islands go — nearly 15,000 square miles, almost twice the size of New Jersey. Unlike our fair state, there’s no shortage of undeveloped real estate: fewer than 3,000 people live there.
I have to warn you: it does get a bit chilly. Spitsbergen is just 800 miles from the North Pole — the same latitude as northern Greenland.
Other than its splendid isolation, Spitsbergen doesn’t have whole a lot going for it: with one exception. It’s home to one of the most secure storage facilities on earth. Spitsbergen was chosen for this distinction because it’s covered by permafrost and because it’s seismically-stable (no earthquakes or volcanoes). The storage facility is located high enough above sea level that it will never be flooded, not even if the polar icecaps melt.
You reach this storage facility — deep inside a mountain — by means of a 400-foot-long tunnel, dug through solid rock and equipped with two air locks. It boasts a state-of-the-art security system and elaborate climate and humidity controls. Temperature is maintained at a brisk zero degrees, year-round. Its super-hardened walls — one meter thick — and its blast-proof doors are designed to survive a nuclear war.
Sounds like the lair of a super-villain from a James Bond movie, doesn’t it?
So, what do you suppose they store in the vault deep inside that mountain, under the permafrost? Nuclear waste? Samples of deadly viruses? Electronic backups of everything on the internet?
No. This super-secure storage facility opened in 2008 for the sole purpose of storing seeds. The Norwegian government administers it, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has an ambitious goal: preserving seed samples from every plant species on earth — a cross-section of the planet’s genetic diversity. They’re well on the way to meeting that goal.
Seeds are among the most remarkable features of God’s creation, and well worth saving. We take them for granted. Every plant — even California’s mighty redwoods, thousands of years old — eventually dies. Seeds are the means by which plant life goes on: a little packet of DNA, protected by a hard shell. Seeds can survive for years, even centuries. Some archaeologists discovered the truth of that when they dug up a 2,000-year-old date palm seed in the ruins of the ancient fortress of Masada, in Israel. They planted the seed, and a palm tree sprouted and grew. It’s a species of palm that hasn’t been seen since biblical times.
It’s no wonder that, when Jesus was spinning a parable about the kingdom of God, he chose a seed as its central image: the tiny mustard seed.
Now, there are two factual problems with what Jesus says, here, about the mustard seed — scientifically speaking. These problems have caused Bible scholars to bend over backwards trying to reconcile Jesus’ words with scientific reality.
The first problem is that Jesus calls the mustard seed “the tiniest seed on earth” — which it’s not. Mustard seeds are pretty small — about one millimeter in diameter — but they’re not the smallest of seeds. Poppy seeds — the things stuck onto your bagel — are actually smaller, and a whole lot of other seeds besides. Mustard seeds were very likely the smallest seeds his listeners had in their gardens, so it’s no wonder that was the image he chose. But they’re not, as Jesus says, the smallest seeds on earth.
This raises the age-old question of what the Bible is really for: what sort of truth the scriptures tell. Now, there are some devout people — as you and I well know — who believe the Bible is without error of any kind, including scientific error. They also insist there’s only one kind of truth. Scientific truth, spiritual truth, moral truth — they’re all of a piece, all validated by the same standards.
If you believe there’s only one kind of truth, and if you believe the Bible is utterly without error, then you get pushed into the camp of the Creationists. They believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old: a number they arrive at by counting backwards in the biblical genealogies. They also believe the universe was created in 7 days, because that’s what the book of Genesis says.
I don’t know what people like that do with Jesus’ mustard-seed comment. The Greek text very clearly says “the tiniest seed on earth.” Most of them get around the problem, I suppose, by claiming Jesus is speaking locally, not globally, referring to the smallest seed in the “earth” his listeners knew — though that’s a far cry from the plain sense of the language.
There is, though — as I’ve said — a second scientific problem with this text. Jesus says the mustard plant grows into “the greatest of all shrubs,” sprouting big branches on which birds build their nests. There’s an even bigger problem with Matthew’s and Luke’s version of this parable: they speak of “trees,” not shrubs.
The mustard plant is most certainly not a tree. It’s a shrub. One variety, the black mustard, is a big shrub that on rare occasions can grow as tall as eight feet — big enough to hold a bird’s nest or two — but it’s still a bit of a stretch. I consulted a lot of biblical commentaries preparing for today’s sermon, and saw a whole slew of Bible scholars — who aren’t especially well-versed in botany — going to great lengths explaining how an exceptionally tall black mustard plant must be what Jesus is talking about.
I don’t think they had to bother with those convoluted explanations: for one very simple reason. Jesus isn’t giving a botany lesson. He’s talking theology: specifically, the kingdom of God: that invisible, ever-present reality that’s part of our world now, but one day will become even more so, as God brings the work of creation to its promised end. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Jesus is saying to his listeners, “If you want to know what God’s kingdom is like, think of the tiniest seed you know, the mustard seed. Think of the plant it grows into — that humble garden shrub. I tell you, when God’s kingdom comes in all its glory, that puny shrub we all know will become a mighty tree, because that’s the way the kingdom of God is. It adds value to everything good. The kingdom grows in our midst, by the power of the Spirit, exceeding all expectations. The world God has given us is a marvelous place, but God’s kingdom is grander and more marvelous yet. It’s a place where mustard plants grow into mighty trees, where justice is the universal standard, where there’s no shortage of kindness, and love rules over all.”
Jesus is saying we don’t have to just sit and wait for God to deliver this glorious new reality full-grown. It’s already here in seed form. The kingdom seeds are planted. They’ve germinated and have started to grow. You can’t see the seedling just yet — the first green shoot is still in the moist earth — but believe me, the new growth is under way. And our task, as people of faith, is to live not by the standard of the world we as we know it, but by the standard of the new world we know is coming.
One thing that intrigues me about this parable is its organic imagery. Jesus could have used a number of other images. He could have said the kingdom of God is like… a brick! The divine builder has laid that brick upon the ground, and one day, after laying brick upon brick, row upon row, the house will be finished: and a grand home it will be! (Jesus uses an image very like that, actually, in the Gospel of John: when he promises the disciples, “In my father’s house are many rooms…”)
But somehow that image doesn’t get at the mystery of God’s coming kingdom. Laying down a row of bricks is a very different thing from pressing a seed into the topsoil. Bricks are inanimate objects, like the house they will one day become. A house may shelter life, sure enough, but it is not life itself.
Not so with a growing plant. There’s a life-force at work there, a mysterious power not even our most brilliant scientists have been able to comprehend in all its fullness. Planting a seed is an act of faith, in a way building a wall never will be. There’s mystery at the heart of it. There’s wonder. And there’s life: God’s greatest gift!
This isn’t the Bible’s only organic image, describing the work of God unfolding all around us. Paul uses a beautiful and fascinating organic image to explain what the church is, and what it’s meant to be. That image, of course, is the body of Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul teaches: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” He has some fun with that image, exploiting all its comic potential: the eye saying to the hand “I have no need of you,” the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.” The whole picture Paul paints is ridiculous: the parts of a human body seceding from one another and still expecting somehow to function effectively as a body!
One essential characteristic of a living human body is that it grows. We grow from infancy into adulthood, and — even more than that — the very cells of our body are continually growing and changing, dying and being reborn. That’s what Paul’s getting at, in using an organic image to describe this reality we call “church.”
Now, there will always be some who prefer bricks and mortar to the body of Christ. They’re forever picturing the church, in their mind’s eye, as a building. It’s a comforting thought. As long as the building remains in good shape, as long as the paint isn’t peeling and the lights are on, then the church must be healthy. Fresh paint and good landscaping mean the church is present and making a difference in the community, right?
Not so. This all-too-common point of view is the reason why the easiest money to raise, in the life of the church, is for the purpose of maintaining buildings. Most of you know all about the “Summer Heat” campaign we finished a couple months ago. Its purpose was to install new boilers in both our buildings. When the Session realized it was time to do this, some Session members came to me and asked, “Where are we ever going to find 25 grand to replace the boilers?”
I said to them, “Just wait and see.” We made the appeal, and lickety-split, in the space of just a few weeks, we raised all that money. That’s because we Presbyterians love our church buildings. We want them to be appealing to the eye. We want them to be comfortable and welcoming. Having a good heating system is a pretty important part of that.
Such generosity is a wonderful thing to behold, and all of you who gave to the campaign can pat yourselves on the back. Yet, consider this. What if the Session had asked instead for 25 thousand in special gifts not to bring the building up to snuff, but rather to start some new and worthwhile ministry: say, a revitalized youth program, or paying for a musician and equipment to offer a new style of worship to reach a different segment of the population, or starting up a support and respite group for those caring for elderly parents or special-needs children? Faithful Christian outreach like that builds up the body of Christ in ways that far exceed what bricks and mortar are able do. Yet, why is it, then, that money to make new ministries possible is so much harder to raise?
I think it’s because we don’t quite get this organic understanding of the church as the living body of Christ, nor of God’s kingdom as a tiny seed planted in the ground — planted in faith and hope, relying on the Holy Spirit to do a great work in our midst.
The church that is the body of Christ does not grow one brick at a time, nor even one boiler at a time — as important as such things are. Christ’s church grows one baptism at a time, one confirmation at a time, one new member at a time. Whenever someone discovers here a welcoming community and joins in our common mission, then the body grows!
We grow qualitatively, as well. Every time our community life grows richer, every time we join together in mission work, every time we do the sorts of things together that disciples are meant to do, the body of Christ grows stronger, more vital!
There’s one further aspect of this parable, and with this we close. There’s a good chance that, when Jesus is talking about the mustard seed planted in the ground, he’s referring to himself. Think about it — what happened to him after his death? His friends took his body down from the cross and what did they do with it? They planted it in the ground.
Joseph of Arimathea and those others who helped him had no idea they were planting a seed that day. They thought they were burying the body of a beloved friend, turning it over to invincible forces of death and decay. Little did they know… Little did they know of the wonder God had in store for that seed.
Let us pray:
in these days of deep summer
as a profusion of green takes over the garden patch,
and succulent tomatoes hang heavy on the vine,
let us not forget the days
when all we had was a handful of seed
and hope in our hearts.
In faith we plant.
In thanksgiving we harvest.
What more can we do
but this thing you yourself have done:
planting your own son
in the tapped-out soil of this world,
believing — as you call us to believe —
that, out of the tiniest of seeds
comes life abundant.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.