July 24, 2011
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Thomas L. and Laura C. Truby
Jesus, the Mustard Seed
How many of you went to a fireworks display this Fourth of July? If you did you saw bursts of light, one right after the other, in different colors, light up the sky. You never knew quite where the light would burst but then it did and you saw it. This morning I want to suggest that Matthew 13 is like a fireworks display and the various parables function as lights bursting in air. They explode with radiance and brilliancy and together point to something beyond themselves.
For a couple of years, Laura and I assisted a professional fireworks detonator. We would help him set up the fireworks and then load the bombs into tubes for firing. There were three inch tubes and then a few five inch tubes. The five inch tubes fired really big shells that created a boom that would rattle windows or a huge cascade of color and sometimes both. Today’s first parable is a five incher.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” Wait, you don’t sow mustard seed into your field if you are a farmer. It’s a weed. In fact, you try to keep it out. Why would someone deliberately sow one mustard seed in their own field? In the previous parable an enemy in the night sowed lots of weeds amid the wheat. This time the seed is sown by the owner and it is only one very small seed.
In fact, the smallness of the seed seems to be important. In Jesus’ story Jesus says, “It is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” This too doesn’t make sense. While a mustard seed is small, many seeds are smaller, poppy seeds for example, and the people listening to Jesus would have known this. And in addition, mustard plants, at least the kind we had in Nebraska that grew among our oats, got no higher than five feet. It was not the greatest of shrubs by any means and it never grew into a tree. The people hearing Jesus would have known this just as I do. Either Jesus was an incredibly poor observer of nature or these distortions are the key to the story.
What if Jesus himself is the mustard seed sown in the field? He, like the mustard seed, starts very small and insignificant as a baby born into the human family, with Mary as his mother and Joseph as his adopted father. Now we know why the sower sows only one seed. The One seed is Jesus. He is but one tiny seed sown in the mass of humanity and yet that seed grows and expands until it provides a place for the birds of the air to build their nests.
In the story the tiny seed is a mustard seed and not just any weed. When mustard seeds have grown to their full height they stand out above the wheat. At harvest time, particularly when you are harvesting by hand, very easy to pull them out before they reseed themselves and burn them. This is what all farmers would do. Isn’t that what we did at the crucifixion? Like a mustard plant, we pulled him out and thrust him from our midst. The one seed the sower had sown has become the one who hangs on a cross absolutely alone and cast out. We didn’t want to see who he was and instead chose to see him as a weed. And he allowed himself to be treated as a weed in order to finally show us how deadly our attempts at separating good and evil really are. In fact, I believe showing us this is why he was planted in our midst in the first place.
But by God’s grace, this weed does not burn, instead it grows into the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. The weed becomes the tree of life through the transforming power of the resurrection. The resurrection makes it into a tree where birds build their nests and find shelter.
I am one of those birds of the air. Jesus is the tree in whom I am building my nest. This tree shelters me and gives me a place to rest. I am hidden in its branches and supported by its capacity to hold me. I believe it is my final resting place.
Last Thursday Laura and I went to a Chamber Music Northwest concert featuring two songs by Brahms for alto, viola and piano. The alto part was sung by Sasha Cooke, a young mother who has studied at the Metropolitan Opera. The lyrics for the songs were in German but Sasha translated them for us during their Wednesday rehearsal. The two songs were entitled “Longing” and “Sacred Lullaby.”
The first song, “Longing” asks “when will I be at rest?” When will there be peace in my heart? The song is full of yearning. The lyrics lament, “When I have peace in my self, life will be calm. I will be one with nature. I and my life will be able to be one.” The spiritual movement is toward the absence of longing where the heart’s wanting is met and at rest. Jesus describes such a place when he said the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. When we embrace the kingdom of heaven, our longings find rest.
In the second song, “Sacred Lullaby,” mother Mary is singing to the baby Christ Child. The trees around are blowing furiously in the wind making such a noise that she fears the child will not be able to sleep. So Mary calls out to the trees to cease their wild, erratic swaying; hushing the wild palm trees so the child can rest. Mary tries to bring calm so that the child can sleep undisturbed by the roaring’s and sorrows of the world. Finally the child falls to sleep as the song concludes. Shasha said that being a young mother, this part of the song had new and deeper meaning for her—sleep child, please go to sleep. The musical expression of the desire to calm her child was moving and powerful and the spellbound audience stood in appreciation when her performance had finished.
While in the song it is Mary who calms Jesus, in our world it is Jesus who wants to calm us by inviting us to rest in him. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. He wants us to build our true home in the tree of his making, amidst the branches he has provided for us restless birds- of-the-air. As we build there, we find ourselves more and more able to rest, like a child in its mother’s arms. Jesus gazes upon us with gentle and all-accepting eyes. As we look into his face; and he ours, we find ourselves calmed and our longings met.
Now we are ready for two final parables to burst upon our spirits with cascading light. In each it is the peace and calm of kingdom-dwelling that attracts us and requires we invest all to make it our own. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” When you find this treasure, it is so wonderful that you don’t want to lose it. You find yourself willing to let go of all to live in its joy.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Living in the kingdom of heaven is a pearl of such value that you lose interest in searching further and let go of all things lesser.
I want to invest in this kingdom and invite you to join me. Amen.