“Seeds of the Kingdom” by Elizabeth Gelfeld

June 13, 2021

This Tuesday we will finish a three-week class in the School of Christian Growth, on the parables. We’re using a book by Thomas Keating, Meditations on the Parables of Jesus. [footnote 1] Keating, who died in 2018 at the age of 95, was a Trappist monk and one of the developers of Centering Prayer, based on the method of Christian contemplative prayer described in the 14th-century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing.

Marjory and Mary are teaching the class, and they started off by asking us to reflect on the question, What is a parable? Here are some of the answers we came up with:

  • A metaphor for how to live
  • A story that turns our expectations upside-down
  • A lesson that is not obvious — we have to dig for it
  • It may even be subversive

Parables were a part of the Jewish Wisdom tradition before Jesus’ time, but Jesus used parables in some new and surprising ways. In the Preface to his book Keating says, “When rightly understood, the parables help us to see how extraordinary a wisdom teacher Jesus really was, and how revolutionary . . . was the content of what he taught and to which he bore witness by his life and death.”

Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark gives us two parables, each very short. The first one, which could be titled One Who Scatters Seed, is worthy of its own sermon, but as we only have time for one sermon, I will focus on the second parable, The Mustard Seed. Here it is, from the New Revised Standard Version:

4:30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Let me say a word about words. Because “kingdom” has so many problematic connotations for us, we often substitute “kin-dom,” which suggests family relations, rather than the hierarchical dominance of the powerful over the powerless. That is certainly a good change for our thinking. However, as we consider this parable today, I want us to remember that the kingdom that Jesus and his followers knew from their history had been conquered and divided many times over, and they now were an oppressed people, living in occupied territory. Jesus’s followers believed that the kingdom of God would come in an apocalypse of deliverance, meaning that God would break in and destroy the oppressive kingdom and God’s peace would be established as the law of the land. The glory of Israel in the time of the kings David and Solomon would be restored, and God’s chosen people would be the leaders of the world.

The symbol of this vision was the great cedar tree of Lebanon. We read in Psalm 92:

92:4 For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

92:12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

92:13 They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God.

92:14 In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, …

Think of the redwoods of California. The cedars of Lebanon grew straight up for three hundred feet or more. Keating says, “This image was deeply embedded in the cultural conditioning of the Jewish people” (p. 6).

But Jesus says that the kingdom of God is really the opposite of a mighty tree. It’s like a bush, a shrub, spreading rapidly and growing to about four feet tall. The mustard shrub puts out small branches that might shelter a few birds.

The idea of the kingdom of God being like a mustard plant was so subversive that it didn’t survive intact even with the evangelists writing their gospels. There are versions of this parable Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas, which, like Mark, is considered to be closer to the oral tradition than the later gospels. By the time of Luke and Matthew, the mustard seed has grown into a tree. Even in Mark, it is “the greatest of all shrubs,” while in Thomas it’s a great branch where many birds can nest. However, says Keating, all of these are botanically not happening. “A mustard seed does not become a tree, the greatest of shrubs, or put forth a great branch, however much one may want it to” (p. 11).

Jesus’s parables disrupt our myths, the stories we tell ourselves to keep up our hopes of some kind of apocalypse, a breaking in by God to rescue us from the problems that seem too much for us to bear. But Jesus tells us what the kingdom of God is really like.

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

That phrase, “… when sown upon the ground, …” Luke’s gospel expands it in this way: “… that someone took and sowed in his garden.”

Keating tells us, “In the Jewish view of the world, order was identified with holiness and disorder with uncleanness. Hence, there were very strict rules about what could be planted in a household garden. … A mustard plant was forbidden … because it was fast spreading and would tend to invade the veggies” (pp. 7-8).

So the one who planted a mustard seed in his garden was doing something illegal. Keating continues, “The mustard seed is just one step ahead of being an ordinary weed. How are we to understand this deliberate use by Jesus of the unclean and the insignificant as images of his kingdom?” (p. 10). And that’s not all. In other parables, such as The Leaven, the image is one of corruption, which Keating defines as “that which is first looked upon as crisis or catastrophe” (Preface). The ordinary, the unclean, the corrupt — in other words, the stuff of our daily lives.

The Reflection in our liturgy for this Trinity season comes from a sermon preached by Kate Cudlipp in 2006. It says, in part,

When Seekers Church formed in 1976, it embraced the three “legs” of a Christian life: the inward journey, supported by daily spiritual practices; the outward journey of mission in the world; and a community of committed people who deepen their lives of faith together and hold each other accountable.

When Seekers Church formed, as one of the branches of the Church of the Saviour, there was some controversy. The outward journey of mission in the world, said Seekers, didn’t have to be added on to a person’s ordinary, daily work; it could be the work itself, the ordinary work of earning a living and nurturing a family. Some examples, from then and now:

  • Raising children
  • Teaching in schools and libraries, in colleges and seminaries
  • Professions of medical, psychological, and wellness care
  • Advocacy and legal work for the powerless and the abused, including children, the elderly, and those with disabilities
  • Writing
  • Creating art
  • Creating music
  • Accounting and other financial and administrative work
  • Grocery store clerking and stocking
  • Work in technology and information systems
  • Attending school, working toward a degree
  • Caring for pets
  • Advocacy and direct service for immigrants and victims of racial, ethnic, and economic injustice
  • Work with homeless people, providing for daily needs and helping them move into jobs and homes
  • Being the hands and feet of Christ in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons
  • Being the hands and feet of Christ in the United States military
  • Caring for those who are ill or disabled, including ourselves
  • Bringing joy to others, using the abilities we have
  • Advocacy work for L.G.T.B.Q. and all sexual and gender minorities
  • Creating new connections between people and communities, working for justice and peace, at home and in other nations
  • Fighting systems of cruelty and exploitation of animals
  • Working for environmental justice, fighting the corporate drivers of climate change and environmental destruction
  • Work in profit-making business

This list is not complete. Feel free to add more examples of your own.

If I truly accept that God’s kingdom is my own, ordinary life, with all its problems and frustrations, what does that mean?

I think It means that I look for God right here, like a tiny seed planted in my heart and in your heart — seeds that we can nurture with prayer and meditation, spiritual practices and accountability — our inward journey.

In our outward journey, we might hope to accomplish a great change in the world, or at least some visible success. But what does the parable of the mustard seed tell us about success? Keating summarizes it in this way:

No one may notice our good deeds, including ourselves. The kingdom of God manifests itself in the modest changes in our attitudes and in the little improvements in our behavior that no one may notice, including ourselves. These are the mighty works of God, not great external accomplishments (p. 12).

It is so hard to keep that in mind, especially as we live in a culture that encourages us to celebrate those accomplishments. Like the evangelists, we can’t quite let go of the vision of the cedar of Lebanon. We want the seed to grow into “the greatest of shrubs,” or at least grow a big branch that can hold a lot of birds.

But Jesus tells us that it’s really no big deal, and yet it’s divine, miraculous. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein says, “There are only two ways to live you life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I don’t like that quote because I don’t yet live the second way. But that just means it’s a growing edge for me.

As often as we fall back into our habitual myths of the way things should be, we lose the incredible freedom that Jesus calls us to — the freedom to relate differently to what IS happening. If God truly is in the ordinary, the insignificant, the unclean, the corrupt, then that is where we find grace, and we can begin to open to that grace and also support and encourage one another in opening to grace. Our inward and outward journeys are strengthened by the third leg of our faith, the community. As Kate Cudlipp would often remind us, “We are all in this together.”

Thanks be to God.

Source: Meditations on the Parables of Jesus, Thomas Keating. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2010.

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