1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
34Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
16The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lordcame mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Good morning, saints of Glenshaw Presbyterian!
If you have read your bulletin, you already know I come from a long line of ornery Scots Irish Presbyterians, who settled on what once was the frontier of Southwest Pa. and West Virginia back in the 19thcentury. Family legend has it that the less refined side of the family enjoyed shooting guns and drinking whiskey when they could get it, and moonshine when they couldn’t. My more high-brow ancestors were tee-totaling, perfectly pious and never bothered anybody.
But the shared trait of those generations is that all of them were superb farmers. Some made a living from farming and were able to live well through wars and depressions thanks to their family farms. And some of them didn’t make a living as farmers, but had a backyard patch of soil in which to grow enough produce to feed a family. Long before seasonal eating became a thing, when I was a child, I grew up eating green beans or strawberry shortcake for dinner because that’s what was coming out of my aunt’s garden that particular week.
The gardening gene has sort of gone dormant in my generation. None of the cousins have gardens or farms. The last remaining hold out is my 82-year old uncle. He is a botany professor and what used to be called “a gentleman farmer,” still growing flowers and vegetables in his tidy, organic garden.
All of this is to say, I don’t know much about farming or gardening. But I doknow something about weeding thanks to being sent out to work in the gardens of all my ornery Scots Irish relatives when I was a kid. You might say, I am a weeding expert. Expert-ish.
So when I hear Jesus say, “mustard seed,” I think mustard weed.
And, as some of you probably know, mustard weeds are like the zombies of the weed world. You can hack at them and pull at them and dig at them, but mustard weeds are impervious to human intervention. Mustard weeds seemingly do not die. The mustard weed is the White Walker of the plant kingdom. It is an invasive plant that can take over whole gardens and even forests, choking off other plants around it.
Pick your favorite garden variety weed – crabgrass, dandelion, wild onion, mustard weed – and that is how Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God in this text from Mark. The Kingdom of God is not filled with petunias and daffodils. The Kingdom of God is like a seed that will take root and eventually grow into a 6-foot weed that will spread like wildfire and kill off all your carefully cultivated begonias and snapdragons.
The mustard seed, incidentally, is not the smallest of all seeds, nor does the Greek text say that it is. It is mikroteron, from mikros, which is the opposite of megas, or “great.” Mikroteron should is best translated as “least,” not “smallest” as most English translations put it. So it makes sense that Jesus says the mustard seed be considered “least of all seeds” because it grows into a common weed that is universally disliked by anyone who has ever tried to grow anything.
And Jesus tells this parable in front of what was probably a group of farmers!! Jesus talks about a small seed that grow into a pesky weed which threatens desirable crops. I wonder what those farmers thought about Jesus and this parable?
The gospel of Mark’s version is, as far as anyone can tell, the first telling of the mustard seed story. Matthew and Luke adapt it by having the mustard seed be somehow transformed into a tree instead of a weed. But in Mark, the weed remains a weed. And as if an invasive weed isn’t bad enough, Jesus says that birds will make nests in its shade. Birds are terrible news for any farmer who is trying to grow wheat because, as we know from Mark’s earlier parable of the sower, birds are well-known seed stealers.
Most of the interpretations of this text treat it as an allegory or fable.
The allegory is that the just like the mustard seed starts small and grows into something big, your small faith might grow if you tend it carefully.
The fable suggests that sometimes very large things have very small beginnings, so do not be discouraged if you have only a small faith or a small church because God can do big things with small things.
These are not bad ways to interpret the fable. Because both interpretations reveal something that is absolutely, certainly, provably true. The Kingdom of God does shows up all the time in unexpected places. The Kingdom is never obvious at first glance. The Kingdom of God first appears in all sorts of small, barely perceivable ways that go on to exert significant influence. The planting of faith as small as a mustard seed may indeed be a tipping point needed to get God’s grand vision off the ground.
But if we want to really take seriously what Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” we must also think about the Kingdom of God as weed-like: pesky, dangerous, difficult to control and, once it takes root, able to take over a whole field. In our time and in ancient times, it is hard to imagine any smart farmer or gardener would plant a mustard seed on purpose. Yet Jesus says that’s exactly what God does in this kingdom planting business, scattering seed everywhere, watering 6 foot weeds as generously as the heirloom tomatoes, so that somehow the kingdom might take root and grow wildly, creating a shady space for unwelcome, seed eating birds. Jesus dares us to perceive the power and presence of God in a new and immediate way.
As human beings, we believe if we work hard enough, good things will happen to us, when in fact, what Jesus is suggesting about the Kingdom of God is quite the opposite. The Kingdom of God does not depend on our hard work.
We can sleep and rise, night and day, but the kingdom of God is going to grow with or without us. The Kingdom of God will be persistent and chaotic. We can prune and fertilize all we want with properly pious words and weed whacking doctrine. But we will never keep up with God, and we really have no clue how or where the kingdom will sprout or grow. God is the sower and grower of this kingdom seed and it is beyond our control. Way beyond our control. And God will entrust this creative work with the most unexpected people.
Our Old Testament text from 1 Samuel tells the story of how the runt of the litter, Jesse’s youngest son, is plucked up by Samuel to become King David. After surveying all of Jesse’s sons, Samuel can’t understand why the Lord keeps rejecting all of the tall, strapping older brothers. But the Lord tells Samuel not to be deceived by appearances because God has a very specific person in mind who will come in a very unexpected package.
God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Samuel sees as mortals see. When Samuel looks at David, this very unimpressive shepherd kid-slash-runt, he sees a weed. God looks at the small boy and sees a king.
Like Samuel, you and I do not see how God sees.
How many times have we gone back to the well for church leadership instead of inviting people at the margins to a place of honor at the table?
How often have we seen people as objects for our mission projects, not potential leaders in the church?
How quickly have we categorized people as unworthy, unneeded, undesirable, unwelcome or just too much trouble to deal with?
Or worse, how often do we view such people as needing our pity and not love?
How easy is it for us to look into the faces of people who do not look like us, or speak our language, or live like us, or worship like us, and completely miss the image of God that is in them?
God is the sower of God’s kingdom, and Jesus challenges us to be participants in the wild and indiscriminate nature of God’s planting in us and among us. Jesus tells this parable to open our minds and receive seeds of creativity, imagination and even risky ideas – so God can do God’s best work, even among hothouse flowers like your average Presbyterian congregation.
If you’ve seen the new documentary about Mr. Rogers, you’ve seen a part of the movie which discusses how his central message about children – that each one is a special, unique and necessary child of God – was resisted by critics who said “nope, that’s not so. Not everyone is so special, Mr. Rogers.” One critic described Mr. Rogers as a saccharine, evil man whose job was to help the education industry tell stupid children they were special. https://boingboing.net/2018/03/24/fox-news-explains-why-mr-roge.html
There are voices still that tell us some people are not so special. Some people are not so needed. Some people are stupid or illegal or expendable, and need to be plucked up and thrown out, as if grace, compassion, and the love of God is only for those who have earned it or deserve it.
I think part of the reason it is easy for us to think some people are too small to matter, is that we often do not believe we matter. I work extensively in churches who see themselves as insignificant, in a space of scarcity, cut off from God’s care. So many of us learned at some point to see ourselves as the small fish, the runts who never will amount to much. We think the weeds in our lives haven’t also been watered by God’s freely floating shower of nourishing grace.
What I want to say to every church, large or small, struggling or growing, and to you my friends, is summed up nicely in quote I once read by Chief Arvol Looking Horse. He is the leader of the Original Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nation of the Sioux and has been actively involved in leading the Dakota Access Pipeline protests:
“Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind.
Did you think you were put here for something less?
Did you think the Creator would create unnecessary people?”
We do not see as God sees. God allows the rain falls upon the righteous and unrighteous. Our work and our call is to keep watering God’s garden because God only knows what will eventually grow. Mr. Rogers once said, “I realize it isn’t very fashionable to talk about some things being holy; nevertheless, If we ever want to rid ourselves of personal and corporate emptiness, brokenness, loneliness and fear, we have to allow ourselves room for that which we cannot see, hear, touch, or control.”
Even though watering weeds may sound like very bad news for our begonias and the snapdragons, Jesus promises us it will be very good news for the birds.
Each seed, each plant, each creature, each person is created by God to participate in God’s redeeming work on earth.
That means you. You. With your doubts and your fears. You gifts and gaffes.
It doesn’t take much faith at all to see the sacred in the extraordinary.
Anybody can do that.
To see something deeply holy in the ordinary, though, takes courage to believe the mundane can be enough;
that weeds have purpose and beauty just in their being.
It takes the eyes of God to see that grace can emerge
through the dull,
the slightly disappointing,
the not quite right,
not quite as we intended,
not what we hoped;
and the imperfect.
And that is very good news indeed.