In many ways Marguerite and I are fortunate to have moved to an area that has such easy access to locally grow, fresh fruit and vegetables. We find ourselves enjoying weekly trips to the farmers' market on the highway by the feed store to purchase tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, and squash. While our quests for fresh produce give us some excellent opportunities to get out and explore Pottawatomie County and support our local farmers, there is a part of me that looks forward to finally harvesting produce from my own garden this year. When we lmoved to Tecumseh last month, one of the first things I did after the truck was unloaded and the boxes were unpacked was to plant a garden. For me planting a garden is one of the most hope-filled things we can do. To watch plants grow, blossom and bear fruit from a tiny seed is so awe inspiring to me.
That doesn’t mean that I am a particularly good gardener; mostly gardening is an excuse to get outside and get dirty. I have planted flowers and grown roses, and I have even managed to keep a couple of saplings alive through our long, hot summers. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I had ever planted a vegetable garden that survived long enough to harvest. Every single vegetable I had planted prior to that withered and dried out somewhere around July Fourth.
Since I had had so little gardening success, a couple of years ago I decided that I would buy the cheapest vegetable plants that I could find at the plant nursery around the corner from where we lived. So, I ended up buying a little four-pack of tomato plants that were apparently just out of range of the sprinkler in the plant nursery because the soil in each one of those small plastic compartments was so dry that it looked like it was starting to shrink and the tomato plants were starting to go limp. I guess I looked at those tiny, pitiful plants and said, “Hey that’s what they are going to look like anyway, so we’ll just start with withered plants and save me the time and hassle of nurturing them to their premature death.”
But I took these hopeless little plants home. I dumped them out of their plastic containers, and I dug a series of small holes about 6 inches or one-foot apart and put those tomatoes in the ground. I did remember to stick into the ground the white, plastic information stake that tells you the name of the plant variety and how to care for the plant so that later on I could identify which plants I had managed to kill. I did notice that these tomatoes were called “Big Boy” tomatoes. I didn’t notice the suggestion to plant them 36 to 48 inches apart. I watered those tomatoes, and lo and behold, to my surprise they perked up and started to grow!
Encountering the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus describes in this morning’s parables is a lot like cultivating wilting, dying tomato plants in your garden. Seeking to live in the Kingdom of Heaven can seem hopeless and pointless at times, and it can feel like God is invisible or even absent, and it certainly can feel – based on our previous attempts and experiences – like a favorable outcome is never guaranteed. But in the Kingdom of God if for some reason we keep watering, to our surprise we will eventually see growth.
Well, Jesus uses his own gardening metaphor to describe to his disciples the way that the Kingdom of Heaven is at work. Jesus tells the disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed. There are several seeming inconsistencies in Jesus’ parables this morning. For starters, strictly speaking the mustard seed, while tiny, is not the smallest of seeds in Palestine – the region where Jesus is teaching and preaching. For example the seeds of the cypress trees that grow in the area are smaller. But for the Jewish people living in Palestine to say that something was as small as a mustard seed was an expression or a cliché that indicated that something was so small as to be insignificant. It’s kind of like my grandma who would always say, “Oh, that’s just small potatoes!” to describe something that was seemingly insignificant or inconsequential. Obviously a potato is not that small, but that’s just how the saying goes.
So when Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, he is using the everyday language of the people; he is using common sayings that people can grasp. In a way Jesus is saying that this Kingdom of Heaven is not so complex and difficult to access that you need fancy words, technical terms, or flowery language. When Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, it is a sign that says that you can find God where you are at and how you are right now. God is reaching out to us and speaking to us in ways that we can grasp and understand.
When Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, he has another point in mind as well. Jesus would have in all likelihood seen mustard plants growing in the landscape all around him, and so he knew the tremendous size that these bushes or shrubs could achieve. Jesus is saying that God’s purposes, God’s reign will grow to tremendous size even from its humble beginnings as an invisible, insignificant seed. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like having only four little, dried out tomato plants just struggling to survive when we really crave big, juicy red tomatoes today.
Here is where we encounter another seeming inconsistency with Jesus’ parable. He says that this mustard plant becomes like a tree in which birds make their nests. The botany isn’t quite right here. A mustard plant usually grows two- to six-feet tall; in extreme cases the mustard plant might reach 10 feet, but even then it is still a plant. It never has the defining marks of a tree: woody limbs, bark, a trunk. So, why does Jesus anticipate the mustard plant will be like a tree?
One answer might be that Jesus is an awesome savior, and he was a pretty-good carpenter, but he made a lousy botanist. But another answer might be that Jesus wants those who hear this parable to take a closer look because throughout the Old Testament trees represent rulers and the fulfillment of God’s reign. The botany involved in calling a mustard plant a tree is not quite right, but “becoming a tree” signifies that this is God’s rule and God’s reign. Jesus says that in this tree – in God’s way of ruling – the birds of the air make their nests.
Birds are yet another common symbol Jesus is using in this parable. In the early days of the Jewish people it was the poorest among them who brought birds as an offering to God, so birds came to symbolize the poorest, the outcast, and the oppressed – those who were on the outside. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven – God’s rule – is active and growing when the poor, the forgotten, the oppressed, the mistreated find food and shelter and safety and a welcoming home.
For us here today this means that for us to grow like a mustard tree that is home to the birds, we may have to change some of our attitudes and some of our practices. Being a mustard tree that is home to the birds of community might mean that we rethink and readjust where we park on Sunday morning. It might mean we rethink where we sit in that sanctuary so that guests might feel more comfortable worshipping with us. It might mean we rethink how we respond to disruptions so others might feel more comfortable and safe in our church.
Around here mustard plants are often considered undesirable for the very fact that the small seeds lead to plants that grow so large that they can take over the entire landscape – over running fields and pastures. Mustard plants in a sense can corrupt or change the landscape which brings us to Jesus’ one-verse parable about the yeast.
Right on the heals of the parable about the mustard seed Jesus now tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast that is hidden in the dough that a woman is mixing. It is interesting that Jesus would say that God’s rule is like yeast since throughout the Bible yeast is seen as a corrupting agent that the people avoid. It was Jewish practice to eat unleavened bread as a reminder of when God liberated their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and they did not have time to allow their bread to rise before fleeing.
It seems that Jesus is telling his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven in a sense corrupts the world. God’s rule goes against conventional wisdom; it tells us that the way we are doing things are not always right. This tells us that our assumptions and our ideas and our traditions our attitudes and our expectations may not always be in keeping with God. Jesus seems to be telling us that the Kingdom works by scandalous means that we will work so hard to avoid when really they hold what we are searching for. God’s kingdom has the power to change the landscape of our lives and our world.
Finally, we read that this woman in whose dough the yeast is hidden is not baking bread just for herself. She is not even baking bread just for her family because the three measures of flour that she uses is enough to bake bread to feed 150 people. We are not talking about a simple meal, but a full-blown gathering, a banquet, a feast – maybe it’s a pot luck barbeque she is getting ready for. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this tiny, world-corrupting or world-changing, hidden yeast which results in abundance. There is no skimping; there is no shortage, only abundance even though it is difficult to distinguish today.
Yes, encountering God and living in the Kingdom of Heaven is a lot like cultivating wilting, dying tomato plants in your garden. I did not think that those fragile plants would make it. When I planted their dried-up roots in the soil it was with full expectation that that summer I would be doing all my tomato shopping at the grocery store, but I watered those plants anyway. Miraculously, unexpectedly they grew … and they grew … and they grew. They began to flower and produce huge red, juicy tomatoes – more than we could eat or give away!
And those tomatoes kept growing and growing. They outgrew the tomato cages we built to support the weight of their vines. They grew over the fence. They grew up the trellis right alongside the rose bushes. Those tomato plants grew so large that we had to dig up and relocate the broccoli and basil plants.
And oh the abundance of tomatoes! We froze eight gallons of diced tomatoes so that they did not go to waste! When the first frost did fall, we made 12 quarts of pickled green tomatoes, and we ate fried green tomatoes every night for dinner for two weeks. All of this came from four seemingly pitiful tomato plants.
Encountering God’s Kingdom is a lot like putting your hopes for a plentiful harvest in four discounted, near-death tomato plants: abundance seems so far away and impossible. Yet, with regular watering and a little time we find those plants have transformed the landscape of our lives.