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Mustard Seed 2018


Mark 4:26-34


How many of you ever had a mustard plaster? Do you remember what it was? It was one of those home remedies, which, while scientifically questionable, seemed to work anyway. When I was a child back in the thirties and forties, I would get a deep chest cold. At night I'd toss and turn and rattle like a horse. The room was dark and there were nightmares in the shadows. Just about the time I thought I was going to die, a sliver of light would appear at the door, then a figure would stand shrouded in a robe, outlined (nimbus like) by the full light of the hallway. A compassionate hand would soothe my fevered brow, and a voice would proclaim, "You need a mustard plaster."

Mother would go into the kitchen and take out a box of dried mustard powder. This was made from the ground up mustard seeds. She would put this in a bowl and make a paste. Then she would cut a square of flannel from an old nightshirt and spread the mustard on the cloth. The mustard flannel would be held in place by a couple of safety pins to my pajama top, and I would be told to sleep on my back. After about eight hours sleep, I would awaken with the congestion broken and be on the path to recovery. Was this a miracle cure for the inner body? Doubters will say no. At the very least some -thing was done, I felt better, and I lived. (A side effect is that I have no hair on my chest, but that may be coincidental.)

To talk about a mustard plaster is kind of hokey. But we had then a greater sense of natural ingredients. Perhaps we were closer to an agrarian society. Certainly we were closer to the elemental forces of nature. We didn't need Martha Stewart gushing over spices as though she were Madame Currie discovering radium. There were dried cloves, bay leaves, pepper, mustard and yeast in the cupboard because they were used. Not because they were "an exciting way to bring a new dimension to our dining experience." The mustard not only had medicinal uses, it was important as a spice. It gave a special zing to life, quickened the taste buds, and enhanced certain foods. No one has ever equaled my mother's special mustard sauce that went with the Easter ham. It always made the ham twice as good. Later in the 50's she made a mint sauce for lamb from the mint in the yard. That too was incredibly good. But that is another story.

Now Jesus knew about spices and about basic cooking and baking, just as he knew the elemental details about farming and trading. He knew about mustard, and he uses it as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. In today's Gospel lesson from St. Mark, Jesus reminds us that the mustard seed is very small, and yet from this seed there grows a large bush, which eventually becomes a tree. Birds come and roost in it. Within that small seed there is incredible potentiality. There is a latent future, nascent capacity for growth. There is form and color and strength and pungency. There is that which can give zest to life, that which has curative, medicinal and restorative power. There is that which can give protection from the harshness and the storms of life, and that, which can provide a home even for the birds of the air. All of this is implicit and explicit in the mustard seed as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven (also called the Kingdom of God.)

Just as you and I bring our associations and experiences to the teachings of Jesus, so did men and women around Him. In temple and in synagogue they heard the Torah and the prophets. When they heard of a great tree in which birds came to rest, a tree, which sprung from a small seed, perhaps they thought of the images of the trees in Daniel (4:12,20-1) and in Ezekiel (l7:23; 31:6). Daniel uses the image of the tree as an image of hope and of promise. For Ezekiel the tree image suggests that God's people will become an empire which rules over subjected nations (the birds). In both prophets the idea of the Kingdom of God is an apocalyptic and eschatological one. God's Kingdom will come with great upheaval and at the end of time. It will be a glorious rule. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being worth great sacrifice (a pearl or treasure) or as a place where some will be excluded, His hearers could understand that. Many looked for a military victory. Others thought that the Kingdom of Heaven would come through keeping ritual purity and through keeping the law. These of course were the Essenes, the Levites, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

In contrast to these secular and religious expectations Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a mustard seed. (That is like going to an organizational development seminar at General Motors and talking about your cooking ingredients!) There is an intentional iconoclasm here. Jesus is saying more than the old saw that "good things come in small packages". Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is part and parcel of the power and will of God. Like the nascent power of the mustard seed, it is partly unseen. And yet this potentiality, this power, emerges into a great tree. The essence of the Kingdom of God can be found within the paradox of that which is hidden and that which is revealed. Hence it is that God often has chosen the least likely (such as the shepherd boy, David, or the youngest son, Joseph) to be the greatest of leaders. The Kingdom of God is often found within the least likely and most unexpected. Like the smallest of seeds, the Kingdom of God is within the potentiality of growth; it is energy; it is process. It explodes and bursts forth becoming inclusive, and thereby forcing choice. As with the grain of mustard, the Kingdom of Heaven is not only in the future it is in the here and now. This message of the Kingdom of Heaven is part of the good news, the Gospel which Jesus proclaimed, and which He embodied. With His life, death, and resurrection the Kingdom of God is corporally initiated within the world.

In this parable of the mustard seed Jesus proclaims a message of incredible contemporary relevance and hope for those of faith.  You and I are surrounded by voices of doubt and despair. The images of materialism, secularism, and violence saturate the market place and the media. In the work place often there is constant carping and complaining. We all know the power of the furrowed brow, the down turned mouth, and the cloying ploy of disappointed expectation. No individual, no family, no organization is immune from the corrosive power of the sarcastic comment, the deprecatory observation, the obsessive persistent doubting. All of this negativity, all of this chronic disappointment, all of this self-absorbed narcissism has the potency of battery acid, which when spilled eats it way through our protective coverings, then through flesh and finally through bone. This is the way of the world.

Over against this corrosive world, Jesus chooses the image of the mustard seed to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. God's will, God's presence, is with those of faith and hope. God's Kingdom is one of power, potentiality, and growth. It is one of strength and healing. Through our faith and through our life in the spirit and in the Church you and I live in a kingdom of power and hope. Our lives can be lives of zest and color, of healing and of support. Jesus assures us that His kingdom is present even when it seems most hidden, is enlightening even when it is darkest, is strongest when we seem weakest.

Through life in the Church you and I are part of that kingdom. We are not perfect, even as the Church is not perfect. Yet you and I confess, as did the saints before us, that the life of faith and hope is a life of growth and power. It is worth sacrificing for; it is worth working for; and it is worth living for. Our Gospel, Christ's Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven, has potency and zest, cannot be stifled in the smallest heart, but explodes again and again with new vibrancy, new hope, and new strength. God's kingdom is here and now. Through our life in the Church you and I are part of it. Like a mustard seed, God's kingdom is potent. Like the tree, which the seed becomes, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of faith, stands against the harsh elements of death and destruction in the world. This kingdom, like the mustard tree, protects, shelters and is our refuge and our home. Amen.     



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