1 Kings 3:5-12
Mt 13:31-33, 44-52
A prayer: Lord, grant us the strength to admit our weakness in this large world of yours and use us, your smallest seeds, to cultivate your great kingdom of love. Amen.
The readings this morning are especially poetic in the way that they sympathize with the frailty of our earthly existence while also overflowing with the abundance that is God’s grace. There is a balance struck in our smallness and God’s greatness which moves in concert, like a dance. And the dance is nothing less that the creation of God’s kingdom. It is for this dance that we were made and by it we are drawn into God, as is all of creation. And we, small as a seed of mustard are the very foundation of God’s kingdom. We are not just a part of it, we are the foundation of it.
Since the Genesis story of creation, it is clear that humanity was made to reside at the heart of God’s creation; to cultivate and care for the earth in such a way that God’s goodness is shared throughout. We are called over and over to share the goodness of God with eachother, to expand the kingdom of god in acts of generous love, hospitality and forgiveness. In every action of our lives; loving, caring and forgiving, we are not only sharing but growing the kingdom of God. Like the bright green shoots on the tips of branches, our actions of goodness in the name of God grow the kingdom to extend that much further into the world.
Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mt. 13: 31-32).
Jesus actually borrows that metaphor from the book of Daniel. And it really is a wonderful way to describe the kingdom of God: connected to the earth, reaching for heaven, thriving with life, sheltering creatures, it is a perfect image. As a girl raised on a beautiful Virginia tree farm, I love this rich imagery of trees. The network of limbs and leaves were the stuff of my family’s livlihood, shelter and imagination.
But there is something kind of odd about Jesus’s tree in this morning’s gospel. His tree is not one of the mighty oaks of Hebron, one would expect. Those trees are legendary in Israel. Thick and strong, they were the symbol of power and virility, wealth and dominion. Nor is Jesus’s tree the fruit laden olive trees that are rich symbols of peace, wealth and beauty. Abundant with expensive oils and requiring decades of loving care and peaceful lands to grow, olive trees would seem perfect metaphors for the kingdom of God… No, these are decidedly not the tree that Jesus chose for his parable.
No, instead Jesus chose the mustard. Mustard plants are not actually trees, they are more like scrub bushes. Actually they are weeds, not a lot to look at never intentionally cultivated. And yet, Jesus is telling us that these trees represent the kingdom of God. Think about why he would chose such a plant, and I suspect, as is the way with Jesus’ parables, that that puzzle is your salvation.
I think Jesus’s choice of the mustard has something to do with the way they grow. Mustard seeds are teeeeeny tiny, so small we can literally fit thousands of them into the palm of our hands. With a thoughtless breath they can be scattered, and most would not bother to scurry after those cheap seeds. Most… except the one who lovingly created each one, who values every last seed. Even though the tiny mustard seeds are easily overlooked, they are in fact precious, and to Jesus, they represent great potential, beyond measure, surpassing prediction.
In these very small, vulnerable things we are meant to see ourselves; small and easily overlooked by the world, and yet, AT the same time, how precious every one of us is in the eyes of God, how great we are meant to become. We are meant to grow the kingdom of God. You are intended to grow the kingdom.
Out of something small, God makes something truly great.
For ancient Israel, King Solomon was an icon of power. He was the most revered, adored and powerful of all its kings. And yet, when we meet him in the 1 King’s passage this morning, it is his absolute vulnerability which is highlighted. As he is about to take over his father’s kingdom, Solomon knows who he is, and he knows he is nothing without God. He does not pretend to be the great heir of David, beckoning God to make him even greater with riches and power, as other monarchs would. Instead he says to God, “I am only a little child; I do not know if I am coming or going” (1 Kings 3:7). So he prays to God, asking for understanding, so that he might be made a worthy leader for God’s people. Solomon knows there is no power aside from God and he will most certainly fail without God. It is because of Solomon’s honest humility and recognition at how very small and vulnerable he is that God responds by generously sharing his wisdom and offers his continuous guidance in decision making.
Out of something small, God makes something truly great.
Jesus invites us in the gospel this morning to be like Solomon. First, to admit how small we are, how vulnerable we are, and then, to submit ourselves to him SO THAT he can make something great of us. Each of us, when forced to be honest with ourselves know how vulnerable we really are. We are so often reminded of our weakness when a loved one grows ill and we are confronted with the impassability of mortality, or when the market takes a tumble, tossing our hard earned investments about with it, or when someone we need to be able to depend upon, turns out to be anything but dependable. Life reminds us and our neighbors so often how small we are. The wise among us know that no matter how many walls and safety nets we have, we alone cannot make ourselves stronger alone.
But scripture tells us that out of something small, God makes something truly great.
So the question arises, how? How are we supposed to humble ourselves in such a way as to offer ourselves to God? And the answer is with Paul’s passage in Romans. God bless Paul’s bluntness because he tells us how to do it. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a straight-talker, he knows nothing of subtle imagery and parable. Paul tells us clearly that we must pray. He tells us to lay before God everything that we have and even more: everything that we do not have. Paul tells us to allow God to provide for us. Paul, knowing that we can’t always be articulate says that even in those times when we don’t have words to pray, we still must submit to God in a posture of prayer. Paul promises us that in that submission, God, in the Holy Spirit, will pray on our behalf. This is my favorite line of scripture: “the very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Sometimes sighs are all that can be said in response to the human condition, aren’t they?
Prayer is the most important and valuable aspect of what we can do in recognizing our smallness, if we are EVER to hope for a taste of God’s goodness, God’s wisdom, God’s great kingdom. It is so hard to recognize how vulnerable we are. In a world where we are so often told to pretend that we are happy when we are sad, wealthy when we are poor, powerful when we are weak, admitting to ourselves and to God how vulnerable we are is really really hard. But this is just what we are called to do. To seek humility and to pray to God in thanksgiving for who we are, knowing that if we are to be anything of value, it is because of God.
I invite you to consider that bound red book before you in the pew as a tool in this process. That is the prayer book and it is not supposed to be a substitute but a help, a spring board for your prayer life. If you use it on the regular basis, daily I mean, you will find that it helps you find the words and the postures to offer yourself, evermore completely to God to be shaped, to be cultivated, to be grown into that great tree that you are intended to become.
There is in that red book different types of prayers. There are prayers of thanksgiving for all of the gifts that you have based on no merit of your own, but on the grace of God; your life, your health, your family, your passions, all of these and many more.
Pure and graceful gifts that God has given you for the sake of building the kingdom.
And there are prayers of adoration; sentiments of great love and admiration for God and all that God is. Perfect love, perfect truth, goodness, patience and freedom. The scriptures tell us that we were created in order to adore God, it is what we are meant to do.
There are prayers of petition, on behalf of your needs and those of others. You pray that God would heal, protect, love and help our fellow people, so vulnerable we all are.
And there are prayers of intercession, which you offer for your loved ones and your enemies alike. These are prayers you offer for those who cannot or will not pray themselves.
Every day thanksgiving, adoration, petition and intercession…. And as you pray, the spirit will guide you and teach you to pray. It is not you alone who is praying. In fact, it is actually the Spirit is praying through you. It is beautiful, really. Much like how opening the windows of your home allows the breeze to pass through, in opening your heart to prayer and your mouth to speak those prayers, you allow God to pass through you: shaping you, feeding you and yes, growing you. This is why Jesus chose a mustard seed to grow the tree which is the kingdom of God. You are so small in comparison with how large God’s kingdom is, but you are not insignificant. You are essential to God. In fact our smallness with which we were created is a gift. It means that there is that much less that we need to give up for the sake of the kingdom and what grows is no longer ours, but God’s.
Indeed, out of something small, God makes something truly great.
Thanks be to God.