The Mustard Seed
Pentecost 10A Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
(It is helpful to read Mark’s version of the story of the mustard seed (in Mark 4:26-32) in preparation for this sermon. The following sermon is based on the flow of Mark’s version of the story of the mustard seed.)
“He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself (automatically), first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, 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.")
Today continues the summer series of sermons on the Book of Matthew. This series of sermons will last six months, from June through November. We recall that Matthew was a tax collector who not only collected taxes but stories about Jesus. In Matthew, chapter 13, he collects together seven parables of Jesus. One of those parables was about the mustard seed.
Back in Jackson, Minnesota, when I was a boy growing up, I had a wonderful time. Jackson, Minnesota was known as the corn capital of the world. I know that Mitchell, South Dakota, has the only corn palace in the world, but as a boy growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, I always thought of my hometown as the corn capital of the world. The farmers would take a small grain of that corn and plant in into the rich hill of Minnesota soil, and those seeds would really grow.
Some of those farmers would have corn-growing contents. They had these highbred corns which would grow really tall. For the contests, these farmers would then take a bullhead or a carp fish from the Des Moines River and they would place it into the soil of that hill in which the corn seed was planted. That was good fishy fertilizer, the real stuff. And those corn stalks would grow and grow and grow, up and up and up. They would grow taller and taller and taller until late August. In late August, the corn queen from the country fair would go out into the cornfields where the tallest ears of corn were located. This corn queen would get on a ladder and she would have a tape measure (such as I had for the children’s sermon) and that tape measure would show that the corn stalk was something like twelve or thirteen feet tall. Every late summer, in the Jackson County Pilot, the county newspaper would publish a picture of the corn queen standing along side the tallest corn stalk in Jackson, Minnesota.
Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear let him understand the mysteries of the kingdom of
One time, I was down there in southwestern Oregon, between Grants Pass and Crescent City in northern California. I was a Minnesota boy from a farming town and so I had never seen the ocean and I had never seen big, big trees. Down there in southwestern Oregon, my wife and I drove into Stout Grove. Stout Grove had the biggest, most giant redwood trees that I had ever seen. There was a giant redwood there that had an arch cut right in the middle of it. The road drove right through the middle of that redwood tree. I was driving my 1963 Volkswagen Bug and I drove right through the middle of that tree. Then I pulled the car off to the side of the road, and I looked at the sign near the tree. The sign said, “More than 2000 years ago, a seed was planted by nature and it grew up into that massive redwood before you.” That little acorn grew three hundred feet up into this gigantic tree. If I would have taken an acorn and said to the kids during the children’s sermon, “How tall will this acorn seed grow?” “Can this acorn seed grow up two or three hundred feet, shooting right through the roof of our church, they would have said, “Nooooo.” Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago, when a little acorn was planted in the ground, that it would grow so tall?”
And Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him understand the mysteries and the riddles of the kingdom of God.”
It’s springtime again and that means its garden time at our house. We have a garden at our house. Do you have a garden at your house? Most of us have different roles at our homes, and I have the role of being a grunt laborer when it comes to gardening. We have a lot of red clay at our house where our garden is, and so we had five yards of good top soil delivered to our home. It was a lot of work to wheelbarrow all that top soil down to our garden. So I hired some kid to do it. My job is to work on the soil. My wife’s job is to do the planting. We each have our roles. My wife gets down on her knees and she plants those seeds so particularly in that soft soil. A role of mine is to watch her work and the garden grow. I stand up on the deck above the garden and look down on her back as she plants the garden. I come out and look at the garden the first morning and there is nothing up. Then the second morning and there is nothing up. Then the third morning and there is nothing. And on the fourth morning, you can see all those seeds starting to sprout and those plants growing. It is like a miracle. The seeds lie dormant for a few days and then, WOW, up come the little seedling plants.
And Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear the miracles about the riddles of the kingdom of God.”
It is with these stories that we approach the parables of Jesus for today. Whenever Jesus preached a sermon, he always told a parable. I mean, the Bible tells us that Jesus never preached a sermon without telling a parable. Jesus was the master storyteller. He wasn’t like those Pharisees in the New Testament. The Pharisees quoted from the Old Testament all the time. The Pharisees were super religious people who quoted from the Bible continually so they could sound religious. People were bored to death when the Pharisees quoted the Bible like that. But Jesus almost never quoted from his Bible which was the Old Testament. Nor did Jesus ever quote from Greek philosophy, from Socrates, Plato, or Demosthenes. No. What Jesus quoted from were common and ordinary stories of life. These were the kinds of stories from everyday life. These stories from everyday life were naturally told and easily understood. Jesus forever told a story.
He said, “The kingdom of God is like this. The way of God is like this. It is like this farmer and this farmer went out and planted a seed in the ground. The farmer came back night and day and night and day and night and day, and WOW. Look at that little plant that is showing through the dirt. The seed grew up automatically. The earth produced of itself automatically.
“Whoever has ears to hear let him understand the riddles of the kingdom of God.”
Jesus said, “In case you didn’t get it, I will tell you another story, another riddle, which is similar to the first one. The way of God is like this. This is the way that God works. It is like a person who takes a mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds and you plant it in the ground and it grows up to fourteen feet tall. It is the tallest bush in all of Israel.”
And Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear the riddles about the kingdom of God.”
Now, at that point, Jesus would finish his sermon. He would just tell the story and you would go home and figure it out. So technically, I should just quit my sermon right now and that probably would please many of you. But pastors are paid to preach, and so unlike Jesus, I am going to explain what Jesus was saying. But Jesus himself would not have explained the parables.
In the first story for today, we may recall that the seed stands for the Word of God. It stands for the Bible. It stands for the words and stories of Jesus. It stands for Jesus Christ himself. The Bible passage for today is saying that the Scriptures, the Bible, the Word, the parables of Jesus have a hidden mysterious power inside of them to grow. Just as the body heals itself such as when we break an arm, we know that the broken bones of the arm heal. Why? Why do the bones heal? Because there is some mysterious power within the bone. So the bone heals itself. Or just like you plant a seed into the ground, it grows. Why? Why does it grow? I don’t know. It is because of some power within the seed that miraculously grows. So also we say that the Bible, the Word of God, Jesus is planted in our hearts and it grows. You plant the Word in our hearts and there is something about that Bible, Jesus, the living Word that grows within us.
Let’s take a minute and look at this large Bible on the altar. This Bible is the center of our worship service. When you come into the sanctuary and look up the central aisle to the altar/communion table, you could see this large Bible placed at the center of the altar. I remember when this sanctuary was being remodeled, there was discussion about whether or not this congregation should get rid of this big, symbolic Bible that was placed in the middle of the altar. Instead of the Bible symbolically located on the center of the altar, many Lutheran churches have a book of liturgies in the center of the table. But when this sanctuary was remodeled, the people said that they did not want a book of liturgies at the center of the focus of our worship but the Bible. The people on the planning committee said we want the old big Bible to be on the table. The sanctuary is designed in such a way that when you enter the worship space, the first and most prominent item that you see here is the Bible. It is our belief that there is something inside this Bible which has the mysterious power to grow. What is inside this Bible is the very presence of Christ himself. It is the love of God. There is something inside this Bible when it is planted into a person’s heart that the love of Christ begins to grow.
Just as there is power in the bones to heal and power in a seed to grow, so there is also a mysterious power inside this book to grow as well. And so at our church, we try to do everything humanly possible to have people daily meditate on the Word of God and weekly come and hear a meditation based on the Word of God. That is at the very heart of who we are.
In our confirmation program here at church, we have our students read a short passage of Scripture each night if they do their work. This nightly reading is at the heart of our confirmation program here at Grace.
We have adults, many of whom are going to be baptized today, who attended my adult inquiry class. I did everything I could to persuade new members who are joining our church today to daily meditate on the Bible, every morning or every night.
Throughout our whole parish and throughout our whole worship service, we know that there is a power inside of that book. And that power inside that book is Jesus Christ. The power inside that book is the very presence of God. That is what this story for today is all about.
Now, some Christians just can’t figure out why there faith is not so strong. They cannot figure out why their Christian faith is so weak, so anemic and so colorless. They cannot figure out why nothing is happening in their Christian life. So often this is because they are no longer meditating on the Word of God.
Perhaps you are a person who knows only a few Bible verses by memory. Perhaps you know the famous Bible verse of John 3:16 or the shortest Bible verse of “Jesus wept.” Perhaps you don’t know your Bible too well and instead you know only a broad generalized Christian philosophy of life.
But to be honest, to be really honest, you don’t daily meditate on the Word of God. You don’t consistently and weekly nourish your life in worship that is based on the Word of God. Then you ask, “Why is my faith so shallow? Why am I not close to God? Why am I falling away from God? Why am I spiritually depressed? God, what is wrong with my spiritual life?” Chances are, in all probability, you are no longer nourishing yourself on that Word of God. For when you nourish yourself on that Word of God, you take Jesus into your soul and Jesus grows through the Word.
The Gospel of Mark’s version of the story about the mustard seed adds a slightly different twist. Mark’s gospel says, “He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. Automatically, the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
Do you hear the two words, “of itself?” That is the Greek word “automatos,” from which we get our English word, “automatically.”
Do you realize where that Greek word, “automatos” is placed in the sentence? At the very beginning of the sentence. For emphasis, the author puts it at the beginning of the sentence. Automatically the seed grows. Automatically, the earth produces. Automatically, the Bible produces. Automatically, the Word gets inside of us. There is something inside the word that changes us. It is Jesus inside the Word that gets through to us. Jesus grows in you, just as seeds grow mysteriously and miraculously.
Now, that does not mean that automatically you are going to be a Christian. That does not mean that automatically you are going to grow to be a large church. That does not mean that automatically you give your life to Christ. But what it does mean is that there is power in this word. As you pick up the Bible and hold it in your hands, you realize that this Word is not passive. I keenly understand it. There is something in here. If you daily meditate on this word, it grows in you. That is what Jesus was talking about in this first story.
For me, one of the classic interpretations of this Biblical passage about the seed growing automatically (Mark 4:26) was written by Martin Luther when he said about this text: “After I preach my sermon on Sunday, when I return home, I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer and I just let the gospel run its course.” I like that. Luther said that after he pounded on the pulpit and expounded the gospel, he would go home and pull out the Sunday newspaper, and pull out his glass of warm Wittenberg beer and start to drink it and enjoy the afternoon. Luther knew that the power of his sermon was not based on the power of his theological acuity. He knew that the power of his sermon was not based on his eloquence or his abilities. He knew that the power of the sermon would have no effect whatsoever unless the very Word of God got into a person’s heart. Luther knew that he couldn’t do that. It was the Holy Spirit who did that. Luther keenly understood the power of the Word.
But Jesus also told another story that is part of today’s gospel lesson. Didn’t Jesus tell a parable about a mustard seed which started small but then grew absolutely large and tall? Let’s talk about that mustard seed. It is one thing to say that the kingdom of God is like this: you plant it like a seed into the ground and it grows automatically. But it another thing to say that you plant a seed into the ground and it grows really large. So the point of the first parable is that you plant the seed of God into the ground and it grows. The point of the second parable is that the seed grows really large. I mean it grows fourteen feet tall. So let’s talk about this second parable.
How many people are Christians this year around the earth? 1.6 billion. We are by far the world’s largest religion. Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago, when Jesus’ body was planted into the ground, his body would rise up out of the ground and his resurrected body would grow taller and taller to 1.6 billion people tall? Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago when nature planted that little acorn in the ground that it would grow to be a giant sequoia? And who would have guessed that when the body of Jesus was planted into the ground and after three days he would rise from the dead and he would grow so large? 1.6 billion people large. Who would have guessed? You see, there is something about this kingdom; there is something about Jesus which not only grows but grows enormously large.
Let me give you another illustration where this seed has grown so large. I would like to suggest to you that many of the values of Western civilization are rooted in Jesus and the Scriptures. I want to ask you a question. Where did our concept of democracy come from? Most people say off the top of their heads, that it came from Greece and the Greek senate. Yes, but not totally. Where did our concept of democracy originate? From the Magna Carta. It came from the Magna Carta and England in the year 1215. Who was one of the primary authors of the original Magna Carta? Stephen Langdon. Who was Stephen Langdon? The Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Stephen Langdon was one of the principal authors of the Magna Carta and he had his roots in the Bible, his roots in the Word, his roots in the Book of Galatians and his roots in the freedom described in the Book of Galatians. The book of Galatians is about freedom, Christian freedom which has implications for political freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Another question: Where did our Constitution come from? We all know: Thomas Jefferson. Where did he get his ideas? The French Enlightenment. Where did the French Enlightenment get its ideas? The Renaissance. Where did the Renaissance get its ideas? The Reformation. Where did the Reformation get its ideas? From the Bible.
I would like to suggest to you that for many people including myself, that the ideals of democracy can be traced back through history to the Scriptures themselves.
Originally, the hospitals in America were primarily Christian hospitals. The colleges in America were originally Christian colleges. The freedom movement in America for blacks had its origin in the Scriptures.
I am suggesting to you this morning that the very values of our democracy are rooted in the Scriptures. Who would have guessed that these American ideas and ideals would have started as a small seed so many centuries ago?
I would like to give one more set of illustrations. This small seed not only grew to 1.6 billion people. This small seed not only inspired many of the values of Western civilization. But this small seed also grows in people, in individuals, so that people like you and me have a faith that is fourteen feet tall. There are people who have become giants of faith. I would like to tell you three stories that are fresh in my heart.
The nature of my sermons are such that they are like a diary. When I prepare a sermon, I read the Biblical commentaries about a text, but I also read my old sermons. The following is a story from twelve years ago. Twelve years ago this week, I made a visit to an old man to prepare his funeral. His name of Alfred Lunde, the ninety-two year old Norwegian patriarch of our parish. Alfred Lunde was one of those giants of faith. He was one of those people who had migrated from the dust bowls in North Dakota and come out West to Washington. I’ve never known a man as smart and wise as old Alfred Lunde. What a faith that man had. One afternoon, twelve years ago, as we prepared his funeral, Old Man Lunde said to me. “Tell them this at my funeral. Tell the folks that everything I have is garbage. Tell the folks that everything I have is garbage compared to having Jesus Christ. Markquart, write that down and tell it at my funeral.” And he went on to say, “And tell them that this world does not belong to us, that this world belongs to God. We are to improve the earth and not to destroy it. You are to leave nothing behind. It is tragic not to leave the world a better place. So many people celebrate life and they leave nothing behind to improve this world. I have lived and I have improved the world. Tell them that, at my funeral, Markquart.” He had a faith fourteen feet tall. This old Norwegian farmer turned janitor had a faith that was fourteen feet tall, and anybody who knew Alfred Lunde knew that.
So it was six years ago that I was preparing a sermon on this text. It was Friday. Friday, six years ago, was one of the most difficult days of my life. It was the funeral for Patti Arnold. Patti Arnold, thirty-nine years old. Patti Arnold, cancer. Patti Arnold, bone transplant. Patti Arnold, the Italian. Here maiden name was Colello and she was Italian, pure Italian. Her family owned an Italian grocery story. Her family was Italian Catholic. She was the most fireball woman I had ever met in my life. Never in the history of this congregation have we ever had a funeral like this. The people who came to that funeral were sitting in the parking lot, way out to the road. Why? Why were there so many people? Why? There was no one who had loved the way Patti had. Patti had loved the world so vigorously. In that sermon for her funeral, I told about how Patti had loved people, not only when she lived but when she was dying. I told stories about when Patti was up at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Treatment center and the way that she cared for people around her at Fred Hutch. While she was dying. It was absolutely incredible. Her faith was fourteen feet tall. To this day, her life still inspires me.
The years passed. And I look at the most recent funeral here at Grace Lutheran Church. It was for Ellen Heffner. Ellen Heffner, of all people. This giant of a woman who at the age of seventy-seven lead our homeless ministry. She said of herself in her poetic musings, “God, why is it that you have created me in such a way that my heart always goes for the underdog? Why is it when the little boy in my first grade class at school wet his pants and everybody else made fun of him, why is it that I could not? Why did I have to go and protect him? God, why have you made my heart this way that I always go for the underdog? God, is that a curse or a blessing on my life?” The answer? It was both. It was a curse because it took so much out of Ellen, but it was a blessing because she helped so many people. A week ago, when the homeless men and women had a memorial service for her in downtown Seattle and all the homeless men were gathered in a park, their lives had been deeply and physically blessed by the generosity of Ellen Heffner. Why. Because Ellen’s faith was fourteen feet tall. Ellen’s life? She still inspires many of us.
Now, the purpose of this last point of the sermon is not to talk about the virtues of Old Man Lunde, the Norwegian farmer. Nor about the blessings of Patti Arnold, the Italian hairdresser. Nor about the social compassion of Ellen Heffner, the German school teacher. No. This sermon is about the Word. It is about the seed. You see, the key to these peoples’ lives was that a seed had been planted inside of them and it grew and it grew and it grew to enormous proportions. That is what this sermon is about. It is about the power of the seed. When Jesus Christ is planted in your life, when his word is planted in your heart, a miracle may occur. Because the power is within the seed. And over time, the seed grows and grows and grows and you finally exclaim, “It is over fourteen feet tall.” That is what you want to have happen in your life. That is what I want to happen in my life.
One time, Jesus was gathered with his disciples and he said, “I have to tell you about the kingdom of God. The way of God is like this. “There was a farmer who took a seed and planted it in the ground. He wanted it night and day and night and day and night and day, and the seed produced automatically by itself. Get it? I’ll tell you another story. There once was a farmer who planted a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. He planted it in the ground and it grew up to fourteen feet tall. And the birds of the air came and made their nests and they found shelter from the storm. He who has ears to hear, let him hear the riddles of the kingdom of God.” Amen.
CHILDREN’S SERMON: Distribute mustard seeds to all the children who come forward. Then the pastor says words such as the following, “These seeds are very small. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that these are the smallest seeds in the land of Israel. Children, how tall do you think these seeds will grow? Three feet? Four feet? Five feet? Six feet? Taller. Let’s watch.” The pastor then pulls out a step ladder and has a twenty-five foot measuring tape in his hand. The pastor starts measuring out one foot at a time from about six feet high on the ladder. The pastor asks, “How about this little seed, will it grow seven feet high? Eight feet? Nine feet? Ten feet? Eleven feet? Twelve feet? Thirteen feet? Fourteen feet? Yes, this little seed will grow fourteen feet high which is mighty high. Jesus said that a seed like this little one is planted in our heart. This seed symbolizes Jesus. Jesus is the seed planted in our hearts. And then the seed of Jesus grows taller and taller and taller in you. Jesus grows and grows and grows in your heart and gets so big and so tall and so large within you.”
Kids, take your mustard seed home and perhaps plant it in your garden and see if it will grow. Be careful as you take it home, because those seeds are so small. They are some of the smallest seeds there are. Thanks kids. Bye now.