Grace Presbyterian Church
June 13, 2021, Pentecost 3B
The green viny stuff that became a rather notorious menace across much of the South not that many years ago? You could drive down the highway and see trees or bushes or even just what should have been grassy embankments covered in green vine. Anybody else remember it?
Kudzu was introduced into US agriculture back in the 1930s as a guard against soil erosion, especially during the years of the Dust Bowl, and it also made good feed for cattle. When farmers had to abandon their farms because of boll weevil infestations and crop failures during the Depression and Dust Bowl, however, the kudzu that had been planted grew unchecked. And it grew, and grew, and grew. When it grew, it prevented other plants or shrubs or even trees from growing or caused them to die off. Kudzu had become an ecological hazard and threat to the biodiversity of the region.
It might surprise us to learn that when Jesus told the second parable in today’s reading, the one fondly known as the Parable of the Mustard Seed, his audiences quite likely responded to his mention of that seed and the shrub that grew from it in much the same way a modern farmer or nature observer might respond to the mention of kudzu.
Jesus doesn’t tell many parables in the gospel of Mark, but the ones he does tell are choice. The first portion of this chapter is given to the Parable of the Sower, and it’s not hard to believe that he deliberately followed that parable, with its sower scattering seed over soils and surfaces of varying receptiveness to the seed, with these two parables about seeds. How many ways can you use seed to make a point about the kingdom of God?
We should take note here that the way the seeds function in these two very brief parables is different than the role seeds play in that previous parable of the sower. In the earlier parable, which Jesus explains quite thoroughly to his disciples, the seed represents the word that Jesus proclaims; the focal point is the various “soils” – the path, the rocky ground, the soil covered with thistles, and finally the good soil – that represent the different souls to which the word comes and react differently. Here, though, in these two mini-parables, it is the seed itself that is the object of the story and serves as the primary “mover” in each.
Also, in these two parables, the seed plays a specific role. Each parable begins with some evocation of the kingdom of God and suggests that in some way what the seed does is somehow representative or at least evocative of the kingdom of God.
In the first parable, the sower has scattered the seed on the ground and then, for all practical purposes, disappears from most of the parable. The sower sleeps through the night, and rises at day, but the seed’s growth occurs quite independently of the sower. We get a brief description of that growth that seems to be echoed in that old favorite Thanksgiving hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” when Jesus describes how “the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” You might remember the hymn’s line “first the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear…”. At any rate the seed’s growth happens without the prodding or direction of the sower.
Maybe we need to remind ourselves of this, given as some of us are to keeping gardens or working very hard on lawns or foliage. The gardener can plant the seed; the gardener can then set up a very rigorous schedule of watering (according to local regulations) and then pile on all manner of nutrients or fertilizers or whatnot to encourage growth; but, even so, whether the seed grows or not is not up to the gardener. That growth is ultimately not a thing that the gardener controls despite their best efforts. (I suspect some folks can tell their own stories about learning that truth the hard way.)
If that particular gardening truth is frustrating, the one found in the second seed parable is downright maddening. When Jesus casts about for something to which to compare to the kingdom of God, he comes upon that mustard seed, (quote) “which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 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.”
There’s a bit of backhanded humor going on here, in that it was very unlikely that anybody in Jesus’s audience was deliberately going to sow mustard seed. More likely, if one found that great shrub growing on one’s land it was most likely because a stray mustard seed had hitched a lift on somebody’s sandals in some other location and finally been dislodged on your piece of land. Furthermore, most folks would emphatically not have wanted that shrub growing wild on their land, as it tended to disrupt or interfere with the growth of the stuff you actually did plant. To put some modern environmental terminology on it, in terms of cultivation and agriculture, this plant was the equivalent of an invasive species. It didn’t really care what your plans for that plot of land were; like kudzu, it moved in and took over.
This is what the kingdom of God is like? Not just growing and moving without our doing anything, but actually overrunning, taking over, disrupting and disturbing what we’ve planted?
Well, yeah, that is what the kingdom of God is like.
God is not a potted plant to be planted and confined to this specific corner of our garden. God grows wild; the Spirit blows where it will, as John 3 tells us; the kingdom of God grows and spreads out and provides shelter for all of God’s creatures – even the ones we don’t want messing up our perfect little garden.
To understand the kingdom of God in this way is to grasp why possibly the most important words in the Lord’s Prayer that we will pray in a few moments are “your kingdom come, your will be done.” Your kingdom, your will. Not ours. God’s and God’s alone.
That Jesus (as Mark records) uses the word “kingdom” here is actually rather important and not something we want to mess around with, precisely because the kingdom of God as these parables describe it is completely unlike the human “kingdoms” we raise up over ourselves. If we as citizens of a democracy aren’t diligently scrupulous about watching over our government, it inevitably devolves into some kind of tyranny, right? Go ask those who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire of Jesus’s time. And when human kingdoms or governments make like invasive species (like, say that Roman Empire), it isn’t a life-giving thing – no vulnerable creatures are finding shade in the branches of that human kingdom’s invasive growth. But God grows wild, the Spirit blows where it will, and the kingdom of God spreads out without waiting for us to tell it where to grow.
It’s tough to let go of making our own perfect little garden in our own perfect little lawn, once the Spirit blows in and the kingdom grows in. But faith truly has its roots in letting go of our insistence on control and getting on board with the kingdom of God, wherever it may grow.
For the invasive kingdom of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #684, Faith Begins by Letting Go