The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-33,44-52)
Listen, then, to the parable of the vicarage garden.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a vicar who had in her garden great quantities of ivy, cow parsley and ground elder. She watched as these plants grew until the whole garden was thick and green and almost impenetrable. And when there was a street party for the Royal Wedding the local children made dens and forged paths with sticks and declared the garden ‘brilliant’; and muntjac deer came and could eat without causing any real damage; and the wood pigeons came and waddled about feeding and grew so fat they could hardly leave the ground. And the vicar decided she’d better not try to become a member of the village gardening society.’
Those who cast a glance over my fence will realise this is not entirely fantasy. I have a dream that one day when I retire I will grow vegetables and pretty flowers and sit in the shade sipping something cool and
enjoying it all. But right now my garden is something else: something slightly wild and unkempt, but a place that some creatures find welcoming in a way that perhaps other gardens can’t be. I think the muntjac have learnt that they won’t get chased away : and the black and white cat from who-knows-where is so at home that when I venture out into my garden (usually to attend to the bins) the cat gives me a very old-fashioned look which says ‘who are you? get out of my garden!’.
Jesus offers us a whole string of short parables to try to explore different facets of what it means to talk about God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s place.
The nearest to my heart, given my attitude to gardening, is the parable of the mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like someone who takes a mustard seed and plants it in a field. This tiny seed grows to be a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.
This mustard seed Jesus talks about is not the ‘mustard and cress’ which we might know from our kitchen windowsills – it is a pernicious weed of first century Palestine. The kingdom of heaven is like an out of control weed, a great scourge, something farmers would love to get rid of. But it is not entirely useless. It can provide an unexpected home for the birds of the air – although if we’re honest, flocks of marauding birds are another sight that wouldn’t exactly gladden the eye of the farmer.
But the kingdom of heaven is broader than the farmers imagine – it is not meant to be kept neat and tidy, ordered and sensible – the kingdom is a place of delight and exploration and welcome to absolutely everyone.
Jesus tells his parables to get us thinking. How does God’s love work? Who is included in this ‘kingdom’ Jesus talks about? What does it mean to accept the love God offers?
We see in the parable of the mustard seed that even tiny outworkings of God’s love can produce big results – just as a tiny seed can grow to a large tree.
We know that a lot of the growth that happens, happens almost in secret – we cannot see the great root system that must support a large tree – but it must be there, hidden below the ground, to enable the tree to thrive.
But most surprisingly, Jesus tells us that even a thing some would think a weed can be used to offer a life and a home to other creatures.
We cannot keep the kingdom of God tidy and predictable – we cannot simply apply rules of cause and effect – we certainly can’t keep away those who need to be at home in the places where God’s love is growing.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which grows into a tree and welcomes all the birds of the air. So what should the church of Jesus Christ, as an outpost and expression of God’s kingdom, be like?
A bit ‘messier’ than we would like, perhaps. I don’t mean the building should be untidy – that serves no useful purpose! But I think Jesus challenges us to be less sure of our boundaries and our rules:
to be altogether more fuzzy about who’s part of God’s work and who isn’t. I know as churches we’re all very good at saying that everybody is welcome – but Jesus asks us if we really mean that. Do we welcome the messy weeds of this world, or the birds of the air that other might want to shoo away?
So here’s the advert: Peter Ball – our synod training officer – and I will be putting on a course for local churches in Cambridgeshire called “Everybody Welcome”. It starts in October, and there are flyers about it for everyone. The course will encourage us to think about how we make our welcome really for everybody: even the weed and the birds of this world.
And now I invite you to this table to eat & drink: not because you’ve earned it or you deserve it – but because God’s kingdom of love really is for everybody. Even you. Thanks be to God. Amen.