Seeds of Mustard and Kudzu

A Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; St. Mark 4:26-34


Grace to you and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has sown the seeds of the Kingdom. Amen.

The Kingdom of God, our Lord says, is like a mustard seed. It’s small, insignificant, easy to miss. But plant it in the ground and it will grow and grow and grow until it becomes the mightiest…

…shrub.

Well, that’s different. Uh, Jesus, why not go with the cedars of Lebanon? That’s what Ezekiel did. Those cedars – there’s a mighty plant! Their timbers supplied the navies of the ancient world, the railroads of the Ottoman Empire, and the timbers for the very Temple itself in Jerusalem. The mighty and majestic cedars of Lebanon! Any bird would be lucky to build a nest in their branches!

But our Lord Christ goes for the mighty mustard shrub.

Mustard is an odd plant. You can eat the greens, feed them to animals, or compost the plant as a fertilizer. But it also grows quickly and spreads easily. The seed can hide in the soil for years before sprouting up. You might easily buy a parcel of land and wake up surprised one morning to find that mustard has overgrown your crop. And once it’s taken root, it’s difficult to get rid of. Writing in the late first century, the Roman author Pliny the Elder notes of mustard:

When it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it….

New Testament scholar Michael Bird says:

Whether wild or cultivated, the mustard tree becomes a malignant weed….

If I may translate this parable into Southern, “The Kingdom of God is like kudzu, not much larger than a mustard seed, yet when it grows becomes the greatest of vines and puts forth many tendrils until the whole countryside is green.”

Kudzu Growing in Cobb County, Georgia

Compared with Jesus’ parable, it’s much easier to understand Ezekiel’s point: that God is planting a sprig from a mighty cedar which will grow into something great and mighty. Oh, to be a cedar, towering above the forest, to stand for generations, to be the subject of sacred myth and poetry. But no, Jesus goes with, of all things, a shrub. From a human point of view, it’s so foolish to compare the Kingdom – that glorious treasure, that pearl of great price – to a wild-growing, uncontrollable shrub. The Kingdom is like mustard, it’s like kudzu. It infests more than it grows.

But nothing is ever what it seems in the Kingdom. Let’s consider Ezekiel more closely:

I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

As Babylon is cutting a path of destruction towards Judah, as Ezekiel himself is telling the people to prepare for destruction and exile, there comes a promise that they shall, in the Lord’s own time, stand tall like cedars. Regarded from a human perspective, this is foolishness: a false hope in a time of crisis, as though the tiny kingdom of Judah could withstand the onslaught of the mighty Babylonian Empire.

The entire story of Israel, though, is one of a people who are, from a human perspective, unworthy. Consider the people the Lord has chosen. A cowardly, adulterous, childless old shepherd named Abram and his post-menopausal wife, Sarai – they’re supposed to found a great family as a blessing to the world? A liar with no inheritance named Jacob, who betrays his family and runs away; he’s supposed to be a patriarch? A people with no homeland living enslaved in Egypt – they’re God’s chosen ones, the recipients of the Lord’s favor? A young woman named Mary, betrothed to a working class man in a far flung province of an oppressive empire – she’ll give birth to the King of Kings? An impulsive fisherman named Simon; he’s going to be the rock of the Church? A treasonous street preacher beaten and nailed to a cross; he’s the fulfillment of God’s covenant, the savior of the world?

The story of our redemption is the story of shrubs and dried, dead old wood. From our point of view, there’s nothing worth saving.

But it’s not about us, is it? It’s not about what potential we see, about what we value. The things we look down upon and reject, the mustard seeds and kudzu vines, these are the people that God favors. New life can come to dry wood, and shrubs can grow mighty, and not even death is the end of the story. There is new creation erupting forth from this life – hallelujah!

Maybe, though, we should be careful what we wish for. Maybe, when we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we’d really rather not wake up to a bunch of wild mustard plants invading our carefully cultivated garden or kudzu vines devouring entire hillsides. We’d rather keep our lofty cedars than have them chopped down and replaced with some noxious weed.

The Kingdom of God really is like a mustard seed: dead in the earth, it sprouts up and grows uncontrollably, and before you know it, it’s bursting forth everywhere, ruining our best-laid plans. It pops up in places where we don’t expect it, where we don’t really want it, driving us to love people who, from a human point of view, are of no account. Suddenly, that mustard seed is bringing forth new life, spreading its branches and tendrils wide, overrunning your neatly ordered life.

This coming Kingdom is wild and beyond our control. It can’t be contained to one small patch of the garden or weeded out. There’s no limiting it to Sunday mornings for an hour. It may very well look like an item of little worth, possibly even something to be avoided, to the outsider. We can try to tame it, try to make it fit a specific economic, political, or cultural message, to work it to our own ends, but the Kingdom will overwhelm our every intention. It’s going to require us to get up close and personal with people we would rather ignore: strangers, foreigners, people who don’t look like us, people we consider enemies – not only to get up close and personal with them but to love them as family members!

Suddenly, the immigrant, the prisoner, the beggar on the street corner is no longer a nuisance or a threat. No, suddenly these people are beloved children of God, our siblings in Christ, an opportunity to serve the Lord in the “least of these.”

Maybe instead of an invitation to the Sacraments, they should come with a warning: “Caution: Here is God’s grace, the free gift of salvation. It will ruin your reputation and cost your life. Enter these water at your own risk.” “Warning: This meal will change everything. You are what you eat.”

Dear ones, the old things are passing away. Our pride, our greed, our fear – all of our sinful ways are being overgrown by God’s Kingdom. God’s grace is sending out green shoots of new life into this tired old world, working even within us to make us new and open our eyes to the new creation, sending us out to live for Christ, and through Christ, to live for our neighbors.

May our Heavenly Father, who has sown good seed among us, bring us to completion.

May Christ enter into our hearts, bringing us to new life like dried wood made green.

May the Spirit drive us out into the world to sprout up wildly, unpredictably like mustard shrubs.

Amen.

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