Matthew 13: 31-32

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

March 12, 2017


We love trees. By “we” I mean “we humans.” We love trees. It is one of the best parts about living here in Arkansas, to not only have so many trees in our town but also to have the National Forest in our backyard. Humans love trees so much that, in much of the world, we will pay top dollar for them.

I just read an article about how much tiny studio apartments in Paris cost. Needless to say, it is a lot: $5-$10,000 a month! One gentleman was interviewed about what people are looking for in those apartments. He said, “It is the people who want a tree-lined street who will be disappointed. Trees on your street can triple the price.” Did I mention how nice it is to live in Arkansas?

We do love trees. The scriptures, of course, love them too. We begin and end our scriptures with a tree: the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and the tree of life, replanted in the new city of God. Isaiah writes about a shoot of salvation growing out of a tree stump and Ezekiel prophecies that God will make Israel into an exalted and mighty tree: “I myself,” says God, “will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…in order that it may…become a noble cedar.” In this description, Israel receives the promise it will be so great that it will be like a tree big enough to have every kind of bird come and make their nests in its branches.

We love trees: for their beauty and their strength and their grandness.

This tiny parable of the mustard seed is probably one of Jesus’ best-known parables. It is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Perhaps it is so well known because it is so accessible: something very tiny, with God’s help, can become something great. That is not tricky to grasp. Children love this parable because they are tiny themselves. Adults love this parable because we have realized how feeble and small our efforts so often are.

So it seems pretty simple really, and straightforward: God’s kingdom starts small and gets big. Except that parables, by their very nature, are supposed to force us to think. They are supposed to take us someplace new so our faith can go deeper. And this conventional reading doesn’t seem to take much thinking at all. No, this reading is only scratching the surface of what Jesus wants us to know about God’s kingdom.

We know this because of two details in Matthew’s version. And the first detail has to do with a tree. Matthew writes that when the mustard seed has grown, “it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” Except that a mustard seed never becomes a tree. Sure it is possible for it to grow even up to 6 feet tall but usually it is more like 2-4 feet tall and, always, it is still a shrub. A bush. That’s why probably why Mark writes that the seed grows to become the “greatest of shrubs.” Because it does. But Matthew is fixated on it becoming a tree.

Some have said that this doesn’t mean anything. That Matthew just included a little hyperbole here. But that’s not it. He very intentionally chooses to call it a tree. And it is not just any tree but it is a tree so great that “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Sound familiar?

This is the tree; “THE Tree.” The mighty cedar that God himself plants so the people will know that he will make them grand and great. Except that Jesus says, in the kingdom of heaven, this tree looks like a mustard bush.

Oh. But we like trees. They are tall. They are impressive. They are strong. Shrubs are none of those things. Yet this is what Jesus needs us to hear about God’s kingdom: a shrub may be the final product. Even at its fulfillment, we may not see much that impresses us. But what God can do with that unimpressive thing, is enough to make it reach to the heavens, is enough to shelter all who come to it.

This is a message to us: Jesus’ Church. For we long to be a mighty cedar: tall, impressive, strong. But we may never be. Even at our height, we may never get above 4 feet. But look at what God can do with our unimpressiveness! He can make it reach to the heavens. This is about us, about what our goal should look like and what it should not worry with. For the Church is not the kingdom of heaven but it is that kingdom’s first fruit in this world. If we are the first sign in this world of the kingdom of heaven, what will our mustard fruit look like? And how does it change us if we do not have trees as our goal?

NOW this is a parable that asks us to think. Now we can see how Jesus is forcing us to view the world from his point of view. And remember there is a second detail in the way Matthew tells this. For him, this seed was not simply cast into a garden or placed in any old kind of ground. In Matthew, someone takes a seed and sows it into his field. Imagine that and you will not be able to imagine much that is more ludicrous than this: a farmer has cultivated a field for growing crops and he chooses to go out with a single mustard seed in his hand. And he chooses to bend over and plant that lone seed. It is crazy. And, as a farmer’s daughter I can tell you, it is no way to get a crop planted.

Who does that? Who takes the time and makes the effort to go out and plant one seed at a time? To plant, one at a time this way, is completely inefficient and, potentially, ineffectual. It is exhausting and it sets an unending task. So who would do it? Jesus says that people who care about seeing the kingdom of heaven will do it. Those who want to participate in God’s kingdom will plant, one at a time, with very little pay off. But they will do it.

So many people want to say that the enemy of faith is doubt. But that is not true. Doubt can often be faith’s friend and strengthener. The enemy of faith is fatigue. When we work and work and work and we cry out, “How long, Oh Lord?” When we try and try and try. When we pray and pray and pray. Our faith’s enemy is the fatigue that inevitably comes and we cry out, How long? Will you hide from us forever? Will you never fulfill your promises? Will the world always be like this? Will I always be like this? How long, Oh Lord, can I keep planting what looks like nothing?

This is not a parable for those with little faith. This is a parable for those who have faith but who are so tired. And to those fatigued faithful ones, Jesus says: Keep planting. Keep planting because it is not about the result. For, in the kingdom of the heavens, a mustard shrub can be a mighty tree. The ending is not important because God will transform it.

It is the beginning that counts. For someone has to plant. God will transform what grows but have the perseverance to plant it! We should not worry that our efforts seem small. Quit worrying about that, Jesus says, because your efforts ARE small. But, like the seed, our efforts are also alive. They have the Living Lord in them and his active and breathing Holy Spirit.

So plant, plant, plant: even when it seems hopeless, even when you are tired. Plant, because, in planting that single seed, you are very close to the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.