A Dangerous Hope
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Rev. Dr. Darlis Swan - June 13, 2021
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, 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There must be something holy about a mustard seed. At least that’s what I always thought. When I was a child I remember that my grandmother gave me a necklace that had a mustard seed inside a round piece of glass. She told me that my faith was like that mustard seed - while it might be small now, it would grow if I tended it and that God would use it to do great things.
I always believed that was true because my grandmother told me so. Basically, what she was telling me was this: if you use your faith – even in small ways, god will use it to do great things.
This is a common interpretation, along with the idea that the kingdom (reign) of God and its importance may not be obvious at first. I have always associated the mustard seed with faith, and the interpretations I mentioned. These are commonly held understandings of this parable of the mustard seed. I confess that I never really thought much about the mustard seed itself outside that cocoon of my necklace and stories about the kingdom of God.
What if, the key that unlocks the meaning of this parable were an understanding of what a mustard seed really is? We think of mustard seeds as being used as a spice or a medicine. I recently learned that they can actually be somewhat dangerous! Why? Because wild mustard is hard to control, and once it takes root, it can take over an entire area. In the ancient world, in Jesus’ time, mustard would rarely be found in a garden. It would be found overtaking the side of a hill or abandoned field.
In other words, this parable is more than just a nice story about Jesus. It’s saying that once a mustard seed takes root all kinds of unexpected things happen! Some of them a little dangerous!
A notable scholar, John Dominic Crossan, puts it this way:
“The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts out as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, more like a pungent (strong taste or smell) shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses – if you could control it.
I believe the point of this parable is that the kingdom Jesus proclaims isn’t something we can control! And it’s not safe – that is – if we are basically satisfied with the way things are. The kingdom of God comes to take over and transforms the kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we are satisfied with the poverty, scarcity, and unfairness in this world – believing that this is just the way life is. While we know that we will not see the fullness of god’s kingdom until we live with God in eternal life or the second coming takes place, we see snatches of God’s kingdom here and now. In this parable Jesus is saying that even now, God’s kingdom is pressing in on the kingdom of this world – making a difference. God’s kingdom offers a word of hope. And it’s a dangerous hope. Why? It’s a hope that entices or pushes you to work toward the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims. One of my favorite bible verses (and no doubt yours too!) Is Ephesians 8:2 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
We work toward the vision of the kingdom that Jesus describes. This hope is dangerous because it has us taking action. It’s not just a hope that cheers us up temporarily. The hope Jesus talks about changes the world. It’s a hope we can’t control or call up when we want it, it is something we can actively be part of and help its unexpected growth. We can look for it. I will give you one example to start. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is known for its world hunger program. It has been “creatively and courageously working toward a just world where all are fed.” I am sure Christ Lutheran gives to these efforts, and you may have made individual contributions to offer hope and help of all kinds.
Can you think of other places where the kingdom of God is seeping into our world? Can you think of other places where we find that dangerous hope changing lives? It is not necessarily something dramatic – but it may be unexpected. If I were to talk about that, I would start with the way I see the tireless work and faithfulness of Christ Lutheran Church here in Harrisburg seeping into the hearts and lives of people. Your Health Ministries provide a place of healing for all people - letting them know the church cares about them. Think of all these: your pastor, musicians, teachers, altar guild, office staff, council, officers, and so many more. Those who pray and offer time and financial resources. Those who care for the building and grounds…
I invite you to think of places where you have seen God at work in a way that helped you relax, not worry so much, and trust more. Last Sunday I mentioned my retreats at Kirkridge, where I found a sacred space where God was creating hope through the beauty of nature. With time to reflect on that, my thoughts bring me back to this church where basically you offer the same kind of in breaking of the kingdom. By telling the story of your witness in this place – by continuing to feed the hungry, offer healing for the ill, providing legal services and education of all sorts– you are an example of the wild, uncontrollable mustard seed Jesus was talking about. As a congregation in the ELCA, you continue to support the Lutheran World federation, Lutheran World Relief, and all the efforts to help people in places like Palestine and other areas where people struggle to lift up the message of Jesus. You are part of the vision of the kingdom in this world and the life to come!
On Pentecost we were caught up in God’ s whirlwind. Today, let us continue to be caught up – this time in God’s dangerous and lively hope!