Mark’s telling of the mustard seed parable includes a detail not in the other versions. In Mark’s version, the seed becomes a bush, and birds come and nest in the shade of the branches. Imagine the blessed shade.
A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 and John 12:20-26, with allusions to Ezekiel 17:22-24
The story of the mustard seed is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The way Jesus tells it in Matthew and Luke, the tiny seed grows into a mighty tree. Some birds do like to nest high in a tall tree.
But other birds—especially many small ones—prefer the shelter of something smaller and more humble. They like shrubs and thickets where they might nest in the branches, and often underneath them in the shade. This is the scene Jesus is imagining when he tells the mustard seed story in Mark. The seed germinates, a shrub grows from it, puts forth branches, and birds come make nests in the shade underneath. Wonderful, blessed, sheltering shade.
Imagining the mustard bush sheltering many birds prompted me to read up on what birds find welcoming, things we can do to make our yard a more welcoming habitat. Certainly assisting with food sources and placing houses for birds that like them are helpful. We can provide sheltered spots in the landscaping itself and supply nesting materials. Birds like natural materials like pine straw, but I realized that I can also give them those little ends of yarn left from my needlework projects. I won’t throw those in the trash any more. You can even put yarn scraps and small strips of fabric inside a wire mesh bird feeder, and the birds will come and pull them out with their beaks.
The Sylvan Heights bird sanctuary in Scotland Neck has created a village of different kinds of bird habitats on a large scale. Two years ago when the Morton Salt Shakers (our daytime fellowship group) visited, we were able to go into a special area where we could feed the birds, and they would literally hop on our feet and land on our arms and hands. It was a place where the birds felt perfectly safe around us humans.
Mighty trees make good and beautiful bird habitats, but so do humble shrubs. To create a welcoming habitat, all it takes is one seed that falls on or into the ground, breaks open and dies to its old form, so new life can come out. That one seed can bless many birds.
This is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said. It is like a tiny mustard seed sown on the soil. It germinates and grows up into a great shrub, and puts forth its branches. The birds of the air come and nest in the shade. Welcome, welcome shade.
Who finds shelter in the kingdom of God? In the scriptures, birds are sometimes used as a metaphor or symbol for outsiders, for Gentiles—people that aren’t Jewish. It is clear from the gospels that outsiders of many different kinds—Gentiles and more—found a welcome in Jesus. They felt safe with the king of the kingdom.
The poor and the sick flocked to Jesus. And so did tax collectors and other outcasts. The weak and powerless were attracted to him, and that included women and children. These folks had no power in that society, but Jesus treated them all like royalty in the kingdom.
Jesus was approachable, and as we will see just in the next chapter of Mark alone, a man terrorized by many demons came to Jesus, and Jesus didn’t recoil from him. Jesus helped him. A distraught synagogue official fell at Jesus’ feet and begged Jesus to save his desperately ill little daughter. Jesus helped that family, too. A woman who had been hemorrhaging for many years and as a result was considered permanently unclean, unfit to go into God’s house, dared to come near Jesus. She felt safe enough to reach out and touch the edge of Jesus’ coat. Jesus approved, and he addressed her as “daughter.”
In the other gospel lesson I read today, when two Greeks wanted to see Jesus, he took the opportunity to explain his ministry in terms of a seed. Unless a grain, a seed, falls and dies, he said, there can be no new life. It remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Jesus himself was about to be sown into the ground in death, and then rise to new life for the sake of the whole world.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, but so is the king of the kingdom, Jesus. He came into this world in tiny infant form, grew up, and put forth his arms to touch and to heal and to draw people to himself. Jesus, who put forth his arms on the cross and transformed it into the place of safety and salvation for all who will come under it. People can rest in the shade of the cross. The king invites his followers to live in this same way, to let him sow us as seed, to die, to bring forth fruit, to be the place where people can rest in the blessed shade.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that is sown, breaks open, grows, and puts forth its branches, and the birds of the air can find a nesting place in the shade. All this, from one small seed.
Where the kingdom of God is, where Jesus is king, there is a place for everyone in the blessed shade, from every people and tribe and nation. All are welcome. No one is a stranger. Everyone is safe. People of all kinds and condition are cherished and precious. The sick and sinful are safe—and saved. There’s room for everyone in the blessed sheltering love of Jesus.
Those who claim Jesus as king, those who want to take part in his kingdom, must give Jesus our hearts. We let Jesus create this welcoming habitat in our hearts. Communities of his followers allow him to shape our life together into a welcoming habitat, a place that points to the kingdom of God. A place where people can participate in the reign of God.
Imagine a safe place where all kinds of people, young, old, and in between have a purpose bigger than each of our individual lives. Imagine a place where a little child who has already been through so much can feel welcomed and know in his heart that he is loved. A place where no one need fear being put out to pasture due to illness or disability or age. Where the energy and insights of the young are welcomed and encouraged. Where those of us in pain do not have to hide our tears, and the fearful do not have to hide our fears. Where people wrestling with doubts are met with understanding, not frowns. Imagine a such a safe place, where people can rest.
Imagine a safe place where no one is cold or hungry or lonely. Imagine a place where people of different sexes and colors and ethnic groups and nationalities regard each other as equals. As family. Where hardened hearts are a thing of the past, just as having people at the door to keep certain people out is a thing of the past. Imagine a safe place where people whose viewpoints differ can find common ground in our shared humanity.
Imagine a place where we all find unity in Jesus himself. Where it’s safe to be who we really are. Where those of us who are LGBT and our family and friends need never fear that we might be treated with anything other than love and respect. Imagine a safe place where there is no judgmental talk, either within earshot or outside of it, a place where we all humbly bow before Jesus, and where we all count on his strong arms alone to hold us safely always.
The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, that is sown, grows into a shrub, puts forth its branches, and the birds of the air can make nests in the blessed shade.
All it takes is one seed. One small seed falls and dies to its old life, so new life can begin, and many can find shelter. One follower of Jesus, one small community of followers willing to fall, break open, and die to the old life, so new life can begin, and many can find shelter.
The birds of the air can rest in the wonderful, sheltering, blessed shade. And people can rest in the wonderful, sheltering, blessed arms of Jesus. AMEN.