Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the 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.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
The Kingdom of Heaven is like … a raspberry seed that someone planted in his garden. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows up … it takes over your entire yard!
Yeah. I used to have raspberry bushes in my yard—and every year they produced seemingly endless quantities of fruit. They’re not hard to grow. In fact, the real challenge lies in containing the raspberries. And I’m not talking about containing the fruit in jars.
No. I mean keeping the bushes from growing where you don’t want them to grow. That’s the challenge. Because raspberry plants keep popping up everywhere—in the vegetable garden, amongst the flowers, over the other side of the fence … even through cracks in the concrete sidewalk.
You don’t need the wisdom of Solomon in order to cultivate raspberries. Or even a green thumb. I mean, if you’re looking for a foolproof business, I think raspberry farming would be it! Raspberry bushes are incredibly tough.
You don’t even have to bother planting the tiny seeds. You can just cut some branches and stick them in the ground; they will develop roots and grow. They produce an abundant summer harvest, and always seek to enlarge their territory. The only difficult thing is keeping up with their production.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable not about raspberries, but about mustard. But they are kind of similar plants, in a way.
Not that mustard tastes very much like raspberry jam … but raspberries and mustard (at least, the kind of mustard Jesus had in mind) … Well, they have a few things in common. They both have tiny seeds. And they share the same kind of energy.
The people listening to Jesus would have understood that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. We see it in Canada, too. We call it wild mustard. Wild mustard is an invasive weed. Left unchecked, it will entirely take over a field, choking out the other plants. And it will do that before you know it.
Think about that. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that constantly and inevitably (and vigorously) keeps on growing and spreading. Just like raspberry bushes. Or like ivy growing on the outside of an old building. The ivy will climb and spread until it covers the entire wall, taking it over completely.
Now, there’s a visual! And according to Jesus, that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Or at least, that’s how it turns out in the end. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny.
The Kingdom of Heaven starts out small. It’s barely noticeable. But once the Kingdom takes root, it spreads everywhere. You can’t miss it. In fact, you and I are part of that growth—part of that Kingdom—even if nobody recognizes us for what we are. The most important thing, however, is that God knows what we are. Our heavenly Father recognizes us.
We might be small and insignificant today—but tomorrow we’ll be invasive weeds!
Maybe that’s not exactly what Jesus meant. But you get the picture, right? And even if you don’t, Jesus provides another illustration. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman mixes with flour to make huge amounts of dough.
Now, in Jesus’ day, yeast did not come in convenient little packages. “Leaven” was a remnant of dough that was allowed to … well … rot! Or ferment. A fungus from the air—in other words, yeast—would settle on the dough and begin to work. This remnant was then used to leaven the next day’s batch—which it would quickly do, working its way throughout the entire lump of dough.
If you don’t understand what’s going on, it seems like magic, because yeast isn’t just small—it’s microscopic! A single cell.
Mustard seeds and yeast. Two parables about small, insignificant things turning into great big things. But more than that, they are parables about how the Kingdom of Heaven takes over everything around it.
The mustard takes over the field. The yeast takes over the bread. They are barely noticeable to begin with, but—over time—they change everything around them. That, Jesus says, is how the Kingdom of Heaven works.
You know, that should be encouraging to us. Because sometimes it seems like our efforts to bring about God’s Kingdom are not really doing a whole lot of good. If you’ve been active in church life over the years, you surely understand what I mean. You’ve witnessed the struggles that take place inside a congregation. You know what it’s like to yearn to see the fruit of your labours. You realize how wearying discipleship can be. Which is why so many people give up on it.
From time to time, a few of them actually leave the church in frustration. But many more … even if they do not absent themselves from worship, they pretty much abandon discipleship. It’s like they carry Jesus around in their pockets and take him out for an hour or so on Sunday mornings, only to put him back in as soon as they leave the church parking lot.
I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another. We get settled in our daily lives—immersed in work and school and worldly obligations—and we forget about the One we claim to follow. Or maybe we just get overwhelmed by the immensity of following him.
“I’m just one person,” you say. “What difference could I possibly make?”
Or maybe you think, “I’m just part of a tiny little church. We can’t do very much, so why bother?”
Why bother? Well, because God bothers. Then God asks us to bother … usually more than we want to.
Jesus tells us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed—but then it turns into a giant tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. And by the way, that’s hyperbole. Jesus knew full well that mustard does not actually grow into a tree. If that happened, it would be a miracle. Or perhaps just a daily occurrence in the Kingdom of Heaven. God can do amazing things with even our tiniest efforts.
Scott Hoezee is a well-known preacher and author. He’s also the Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not long ago—on the seminary’s website—he wrote this:
… as bearers of God’s kingdom, we keep plugging away at activities which may look silly or meaningless to the world but which we believe contain the very seed of a new creation. We keep coming to church and singing our old hymns, reciting our old formulas and creeds. All of us who preach keep cracking open an ancient book called the Bible, looking to find within it truths that are anything but ancient. We keep gathering at sick beds and death beds and whisper our prayers for the Spirit of the resurrection to be with us in life and in death. We keep drizzling water onto squirming infants and popping cubes of white bread into our mouths in the earnest faith that through the Spirit baptism and communion don’t just mean something, they mean everything.
And we keep working for Jesus in this mixed-up, backward world of ours. We quietly carry out our jobs and raise our kids and tend our marriages in the belief that God has designs for all those things and it’s our job to follow them. We keep pointing people to an old rugged cross, having the boldness to suggest that the man who died on that cross is now the Lord of the galaxies.*
Did you hear that, you tired disciples? What you do matters. Not just what you do in church on Sunday morning, but what you do at work, or behind the wheel of your car, or at the grocery checkout, or anyplace else you turn up through the rest of the week—it all matters! More than that, it makes an incredible difference. If Jesus can say that the Kingdom of Heaven takes over this world through little things like mustard seeds and yeast, then the Kingdom of Heaven is surely taking over this world through you, as well! Even your small corner of the world is being transformed because of what God is doing through you.
Yes, you may struggle. Raspberry bushes are covered with thorns.
Yes, you may feel insignificant.
Yes, it may seem like what you do has little effect.
But in these parables, Jesus tells us different. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming through things that appear unimportant and ineffectual.
So, don’t give up! Keep planting those mustard seeds. Remembering that God sees what is done in secret, keep hiding that yeast in the bread. Continue sowing seeds of kindness and mercy. Keep doing what is just and right, even if you meet opposition. Because—although you may not see the fruit of it—Jesus promises that this is how the Kingdom comes. This is how God’s Kingdom will turn the world upside down.
That, I think, is a promise we all need to hear—and believe. Amen.