Scott Crawford
John Calvin Presbyterian Church,
Metairie, Louisiana

Text: Mark 4:26-34 (and secondarily Psalm 20)
Title: “Rebuilding from a Mustard Seed”

Good things have small and humble beginnings.  In the winter of 1818, the city of New Orleans was home to all of 80 Presbyterians.  Technically, they weren’t Presbyterians, but instead, a hodgepodge of Protestants who wanted a non-Episcopalian Protestant church in the city.  They met one evening to call their first minister, a young Princeton Seminary student named Sylvester Larned.  Those of you who know your New Orleans history will recall that this was a time of horrible outbreaks of yellow fever.  The young minister arrived and was a smashing success.  During his first summer in the church, Rev. Larned traveled north to attend a meeting of the Presbytery of Mississippi.  While he was away, an endemic swept through the city and Larned was unable to return.  Rumors swirled within the community.  Some said he had abandoned the church and fled in fear.  But that wasn’t the case.  In his personal notes, he wrote later that he would not be caught again in a similar situation.  Quote, “I resolved that I would never leave New Orleans again in a sickly season…Duty is ours, events are God’s.”  A year later, Larned, was true to his word.  Another yellow fever outbreak swept through the city.  But he did not leave.  Instead he was serving in hospitals, ministering to the sick.  That service, though, had a price.  He came down with the deadly disease.  But it did not stop him from preaching.  On August 27, 1820 he preached on the text, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Ph1:21).  Four days later he died.  But the seed of the Presbyterian church in this city was planted. 

Today’s New Testament reading is a parable about the Kingdom of God.  The setting is early in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus has been baptized.  He spent 40 days in the desert with the great Tempter.  He called the first disciples together.  He healed the sick.  And after all that, Jesus is found near his home on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The crowd by this time is so large, Jesus has to get into a boat.  And he begins to teach, or maybe even to ponder and imagine.  “With what shall we compare the kingdom of God?”  From that question, let us remember that this story is about the kingdom of God.  It’s not about a seed; it’s not about a tree or the birds in that tree.  These are images that help us to understand the object of his lesson.  That object is the kingdom of God.
What does that term – the kingdom of God – mean to you?  What images come to mind?  Is it heaven?  Maybe, but remember that Jesus also states that the kingdom of God is within or among us already.  Is it the perfect earthly society where people live in peace and harmony with one another?  Maybe, but in such pictures, God is often left out.  Theologians in the past two centuries have argued back and forth on these two images of God’s kingdom – the heavenly future that is God’s work alone and the earthly present which humanity is obliged to build.  Interesting as those debates may be, Jesus is not about complicating matters.  He simplifies them and says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.”  In that simple message, we stand confounded.

God’s reign, God’s kingdom, starts off small, like a mustard seed.  Those who garden and have seen a mustard seed and mustard bushes know that the tiny black seed is not literally the smallest of the seeds on earth nor is the shrub that the seed produces the greatest of all the shrubs.  This is just another example of the hyperbole Jesus often uses. The seed is a physical, corporeal image that helps us gain understanding.  In the modern world, we like to think in terms not only of space, but also of time.  So thinking in terms of time about the kingdom’s beginning, we turn to the creation story,  The kingdom begins in the beginning, when something came from nothing, when light was brought from darkness, when the dust was brought together, molded, breathed into, and humanity formed.  God initiates this kingdom and God rules over it. 

Like a mustard seed, there’s something so organic and utterly alive about this kingdom.  It isn’t a kingdom which God reigns over in the highest heaven, removed from and untouched by the events that go on below.  God’s kingdom is here, but it’s also moving, moving from potential to actuality.  God’s is the kingdom that continually builds up, growing more and more vibrant as time passes.  Our earthly kingdoms, empires, unions, and republics are not like that.  Ours are the kingdoms which begin and reach a height of power.  And then they collapse and are as dust to dust.  Look through the pages of history: Babylon, Egypt, the dynasties of China, Rome, and one day America.  Enron and Pan Am.  DH Holmes, K&B, McKenzies, though their king cakes live on!, Schwegmann’s, and Brunnings.  All are like the flower that fades.  In the words of the psalmist (20): “Their kingdoms will collapse and fall, but we, whose pride is in the name of the LORD our God, shall rise and stand upright.”  All natural things have a start but soon disappear.  We see it in the seed that becomes the plant that withers after bearing fruit, the star that becomes a supernova, the human that gives us friendship and love and sadly dies.  Such is the circle of natural life.  But, like God’s being, God’s reign knows no end.  There is a beginning and a consummation, but no end.  It is infinite.

In its boundlessness, the kingdom of God is mysterious.  Jesus says that as the seed sprouts, the farmer does not understand how or why it grows.  It is a mystery.  For many, mystery has come to mean a problem that needs to be solved, like in a mystery novel.  The true meaning of mystery, however, is something that is beyond human reason and understanding.  A mystery can never be fully understood and whatever understanding we do receive is a result of God revealing that bit of understanding.  A mystery, therefore, is not a problem to be solved.  Neither is it something to be left to the recesses of our minds and tongues because we at the outset know we can never fully understand it.   Absolutely not.  Mysteries should be enjoyed and adored.  Their meanings should be sought so that we might know them better, even if we see but dimly.

Mysterious as it is, God’s kingdom is also majestic.  Though it starts small, like a mustard seed, it becomes like the greatest of all the shrubs.  Matthew and Luke actually use the term tree.   That image – the tree – should catch our attention, not only because we see them every day but also because the tree is loaded with symbolism in the Bible.  In Genesis, it is ironically the tree of life that bears the fruit that kills us.  In the Gospels we rise to new life because of the tree from which our Savior hung.  The tree is there, from our death to our birth.  Death to birth.  It sounds a little silly, but as Christians we begin our true journey with a death, a death to ourselves.  And our journey continues with a new birth into Christ.   Likewise, the mustard seed must die a death.  It must cease to be a seed if it is to reborn as a tree. So too did Jesus have to die a real death, so that he might be reborn in the resurrection that we all will share.  The kingdom of God died at Calvary; it was conquered and vanquished.  But soon, triumphantly and gloriously, it rose again and was born anew.  The kingdom grew for us so that we might have rest here and now, in this world.  Not slothful laziness, but real and true rest where our desire is for God alone.  But we also wait for an eternal rest.  In that coming day, we shall find what Augustine says is “the peace of quietness, the peace of the Sabbath, a peace with no evening” where we rest in God and God in us for the Sabbath of eternal life (Confessions XIII.51).

Where do you see the seed of God’s reign growing in this world?  Out of the chaos we have been through, can you see the seed?  In the time, energy and money of volunteers, can you see the seed?  In those who peacefully work for reconciliation in the world, can you see the seed? It’s not going to happen over night.  Like a mustard seed, growth isn’t instant.  It’s slow, but steady.  We work and wait for that growth.  Working and waiting.  We can till the soil and weed the garden, and we should, but ultimately, we wait and trust that the one who “began a good work among us, Christ Jesus, will bring it to completion” (Ph1:6).  Work and wait patiently for that growth.  It’s the same patient working required when we learn a new language.  We learn slowly, taking baby steps, first learning the vocabulary and then moving to the grammatical rules.  From a small beginning, we gradually have something new and good – the ability to communicate with a new people.  It is like repairing your home, putting in drywall or ripping out flooring bit by bit.  The work is hard and slow, but it is leading somewhere.  It is like prisoner Andy Dufrene in the book and movie The Shawshank Redemption.  Wrongly imprisoned, Andy shows us how to work and wait, each night as he chips away at his concrete cell wall.  After nearly twenty years, he completes his tunnel that leads to redemption.  Recall the patient work our Lord has done with us.  Always at our side, even when we have turned away.  There God is, waiting and working, quietly and mysteriously leading us from death and into life. 

From death and into life.  From chaos and into order.  From small to enormous.  That is how God’s kingdom works.  Remember Sylvester Larned and the Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.  Out of death, life was born, and we, nearly 200 years later, enjoy the shade of the Presbyterian church.  Out of the death of he who is God with us some 2000 years ago, we sit in the shade of the universal Church.  John Calvin said, “We are not our own…We belong to God; to God, therefore, let us live and die” (Institutes III.7.1).  May we, God’s chosen servants, be willing to live and die for God’s kingdom.  A zeal such as this may seem small when you look at the big picture of the universe.  Yet, the fruit born from this willingness, fruit you may never see, will become larger than you could have ever imagined.  Just like the mustard seed.