homily for July 17, 2018
The Greatest of All Shrubs
The seed of God is in us.
Given an intelligent
And hardworking farmer,
It will thrive and grow up into God, whose seed
It is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature.
Pear seeds grow into
Pear trees, nut seeds
Into nut trees, and
God seeds into God.
Is there anything in this world so valuable as a seed? A seed is the first kernel of fruitfulness, it is the tiny speck of promise that, with an unknowable mix of toil and sunlight and water will result in nourishment for all of us. Each tiny seed carries within it the history of the soil it’s planted in, yet each is a unique expression of the world that God created. Did you eat today, or wear clothes, or for that matter take a deep breath? If you did – and I hope you did – you can thank a seed for that. But more than that, if you ate food of different flavors and textures, and were even able to notice and savor the differences, you can thank a seed for that, too.
Farmers know the value of a seed. Anyone who makes their living growing food knows that the price and quality of a seed have everything to do with their ability to make a living or even grow the crop in the first place. Gardeners know the value of a seed. Whether it’s something they plant or an interloping weed or scrubby growth that doesn’t belong, keeping a garden or a yard means daily engagement with where seeds have put down roots – and where they haven’t.
Scientists and universities and stewards of our environment know the value of a seed. In 2008 the Svalbard Seed Bank was established in Norway to preserve spare copies of seed from all over the world, to protect them in the event of regional or global crises. It’s essentially the back-up hard drive for regional seed banks all over the world.
Do you think, though, that the Svalbard Seed Bank has, hiding among almost a million seeds, a copy of the God seed? Probably not. God seeds don’t lend themselves to that kind of cataloging. But as Meister Eckhart tells us the seed of God is in us nonetheless.
Given an intelligent and hardworking farmer, Eckhart tells us, the seed of God in us will grow and thrive, and the fruit will be of the same substance as the seed itself. A pear seed results in pears, a wheat seed results in wheat, and the seed of God bears the Holy One.
Can you imagine a more valuable seed than the seed of God? Yet the sower isn’t building the kingdom of God: she is simply faithfully planting and watering seeds and letting them grow naturally. As Matthew Skinner writes, “It is the nature of God’s reign to grow and manifest itself.”[ii] We don’t have to force it. We don’t have to worry about hybrid seed blends or crop efficiency or even the basic economics of growing food (which is a sermon for another day). We simply honor that the seed is God, and show up each day to water and tend it.
But sometimes – oftentimes, really – the seed of God has even less to do with us than that. That, of course, is why Jesus goes straight from a simple lesson about farming to a much more playful and disruptive parable about the mustard seed.
Anyone who grew up in the church and attended Sunday School as a child will know this lovely parable about growing in faith and maturity, from something tiny to something grand. But look more carefully, and we see that Mark isn’t talking about faith. The “faith the size of a mustard seed” is from Matthew; Mark’s mustard seed is entirely about the Kingdom of God.
The mustard tree may be great for shade, but they tend to pop up in places we don’t expect, and sometimes in places where we don’t want them. The mustard tree is both a promise of God’s prolific hospitality, and a rejection of the ordered and contained furrows into which humankind presumes to plant the seed of God. The mustard tree is not something one plants; it is a scraggly volunteer that lands where the wind blows, puts down quick roots, and changes the landscape whether the farmer wants it to or not. The mustard tree doesn’t care about our agriculture any more than it cares about the rest of our culture. And that, too, is the Kingdom of God.
But is this seed as valuable as the rest? Does the mustard seed belong in the great seed bank, alongside the seed of the olive tree and chickpea and the grain of wheat? If there were farmers in the audience, they might have said no. But Jesus wasn’t teaching how to farm, he was teaching them how to be holy.
They’d have laughed at the very idea of planting a mustard seed in the ground. As my garden gets into the leggy season, I like to joke that Norway has the world’s greatest seed bank, but my yard is the world’s greatest weed bank. And that’s exactly how they would have regarded the mustard seed: teacher, is the kingdom just a plot of weeds? And then Jesus tells them what the fruit of this seed is: not the mighty and beautiful cedars of Lebanon, or the majestic oaks of righteousness, but the greatest of all shrubs. The kingdom of God is like unto the greatest of all shrubs.
It sounds absurd, and Jesus meant it that way. Jesus was telling us that kingdom values were not to be confused with the values of the world, whether the practical and necessary values that made agriculture possible, or the avaricious values that leverage cash crops into profound disparities of wealth and power. The first parable is a story of a crop that is harvested, but the mustard seed isn’t valuable for its economic output. The mustard seed is valuable for the hospitality and sanctuary that it offers, but also for its very ability to grow anywhere in the field. Whether we like it or not, God gets into everything, putting down roots on every hill and in every valley we can see.
That wild and untamed seed is in us as well. That may be hard to believe when our lives and our spirits seem to press daily against a world and culture that seek to tame our souls and to contain and define the wildness of God. How can we be the kind of soil in which the greatest of all seed can grow and bear fruit?
We know not how, yet the seed of God grows in us all the same. Our souls are a curious yet fertile landscape, ordered furrows mixed in with scraggly shade trees, sometimes places of sunlight and refreshment, and other times enduring drought and downpour on the same day. Yet this, too is the kingdom of God. The seed beneath the soil withstands all of it, and grows in us to become the fruit of holiness and grace.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.