Sept. 4, 2022 Sermon Pastor Betsy Wooster
Let us hear God speaking to us from the gospel according to Luke, Chapter 13, verses18 & 19.
“Jesus said therefore, “What is the dominion of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
Let us pray.
God, you are the essence of our lives. You are the beginning, middle and end of our story. You nurture our growth. You hold us during the storms of life. We come to your scripture and your words with hearts eager to find you. Catch us up in your unstoppable joy. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be a reflection of your love for this beautiful and wild world you have created. Amen.
Therefore, Jesus said, “What is the dominion of God like? And to what should I compare it?” If it sounds like Jesus is responding to something that happened before verse 18, it’s because he was. The leader of the synagogue where Jesus was teaching had become indignant that Jesus had publicly cured a woman on the sabbath.
This leader was upset because Jesus had broken the important Hebrew legal code that no work was to be done on the sabbath. In his frustration, he began telling the crowd that if they needed cured, to go home and come back another day. Come back another day. No curing on the sabbath.
The rule not to work on the sabbath was an ancient Hebrew tradition. There were valid reasons for it. The sabbath was sacred to the Hebrew people, just as it is sacred to us today.
The sabbath is both a time and a space in which we recognize and give thanks to our maker, to the one brought us life. It’s a time to remember that we are called. We are called… to tap into the love that created us, a power that is deeper and greater than ourselves.
So, Jesus knew this rule well, right? And yet, he had just cured a woman from her 18-year ailment, on the sabbath, after which she stood among them, praising God with thanksgiving. She was praising God, on the sabbath. Jesus heard the condemnation from the synagogue leader, and it angered him. He criticized them for not understanding that the act of healing someone was in fact honoring God on the sabbath.
Immediately after Jesus freed this woman from the bondage of an 18-year illness that he posed this question: What is God’s dominion like? And to what should I compare it?”
And then he gave this answer: “It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
I admit, I had to look up more about the mustard seed and the tree it produces. I researched the mustard seed tree a bit. I learned what many of you may already know, and that is that the mustard seed, when sown into the earth, spreads so prodigiously that it overtakes all vegetation around it if we don’t keep it in check. It's often compared to an invasive weed.
Depending on who is writing about it, the mustard seed doesn’t really become a tree, but rather a large, sprawling shrub. The mustard plant is an annual winter herb with a taproot, an herb that grows fast, branching profusely. It can grow as high as 12 feet tall, so that sounds like it could be a tree, with brilliant yellow flowers that produce slender seed pods. The seeds inside the pods are dark and tiny, each one about 1 millimeter in diameter. One pod can hold up to 12 seeds. When you consider the profusion of flower-producing pods, it's easy to see how the plant becomes invasive.
Most of my life, I have studied this passage and thought of thesheltering branches of the trees for the birds. It’s an important part of the metaphor, that this tiny seed blooms into a plant with branches vast enough to shelter and house the birds of the air. While the trees’ gift to the birds is important, today I am more interested in the speed of the mustard seed’s spread. It may sound to us like the mustard see is basically a weed, but it’s still a good metaphor.
First of all, mustard is a curative, available to anyone. The yellow flowers in the plants produce pods with miniscule seeds in them that have medicinal properties. For instance, mustard plasters are still used by some people to assist with arthritis pain. Second, all of the mustard plant is edible — leaves, seeds, and stems — and can be cooked or eaten raw like lettuce. The seeds can be ground up and used as a flavoring. One miniscule mustard seed can change the topography. Jesus described the dominion of God as a seed that both feeds us and heals us, and it grows and spreads everywhere. Everyone can be fed and healed. This is what the dominion of God is like, says Jesus.
There is something to this idea that the planted mustard seed spreads so freely and wildly like a weed, not to be stopped.
- Maybe the dominion of God is too big to be defined by our bordered garden plots or neatly planted rows.
- Maybe it’s too big to be defined by the rules we make about religion, even when those rules are born of good intention.
- Maybe it’s too vast to be contained by our rules about who’s in and who’s out, by the lines we draw in order for things to be “just so.”
The mustard seed, once planted, grows with voracious intention, spreading out wherever it wants, happy to overtake the soil so that it can offer more of itself, happy to overtake the walls of the garden. Christians have many ways in which we think about the dominion of God, or as the gospel of Matthew calls it, the reign of heaven. God is what we yearn for, the one we earnestly trust to be present at the end of our lives and the lives of those we love.
We think of where God is in this life, and how we can live into God’s abundant realm on earth. We wonder what God is like because we feel we haven’t fully entered God’s realm yet. And so, once again, Jesus asks us:
”what is the dominion of God like?” It's like the invasive mustard seed, Jesus tells us. It’s so potent, and nourishing and healing that as one seed is sown, it produces multiple seeds, each of which produces more and more and more seeds of sustenance and healing. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that becomes an endless orchard of nourishment, an endless orchard of healing.
I grew up in an apple orchard that was a place of nourishment and healing for me. My mother had grown up in this orchard – an orchard of apple trees at the home of my grandparents, only a few houses from my own home. I joined my older sister and brothers in our orchard playground, a haven of fun, as well as a place that we helped to tend. I played and worked and picnicked in the orchard, soaking up its riches, climbing its branches, swinging in its boughs, harvesting its fruit. It wasn’t a mustard seed orchard, but it was like heaven to me, and I have long compared it to the kingdom of heaven or the place where God lived. It was both a bastion of wonderful family time and also my favorite place to go, alone, when I was sad. It was safe sanctuary for me, a place of healing.
The trees bore the fruit that became apple dumplings, apple pie and apple sauce. The orchard fed our bodies, and, in certain ways, it saved us.
I have long thought that the orchard in my grandparent’s back yard orchard was a gift bigger than I could describe. A gift bigger than I could have predicted. The hard things in life were always predictable. In the orchard I was always surprised by joy. It was a living, breathing heaven metaphor.
Jesus was the first Sower. Jesus is the master planter. We, all of us, have been planted and nourished, and in our receipt of these lives we’ve been given, our thankfulness can begin to fill the soil around us. The unconditional love of God can never be stopped once it’s on the move. It catches. It spreads. By loving and following God in healing ways, whether on the sabbath or on a Tuesday, we are already like mustard seeds, capable of growing and spreading the unpredictable love of Jesus into the world around us. Jesus healed a woman on the sabbath because she was suffering. Do we want to belong to the surprising dominion of God or to the predictable kingdom of this world?
It was innate in Jesus to heal and restore suffering wherever he found it, whenever he found it. And when he caught some grief for it, he posed a question. Then he immediately gave us the answer. When the world is hungry, feed it. When the world is broken, heal it. When the earth is parched, water it. Let’s do this. Let’s love with the voracity of the thistles that spread through our gardens no matter how many times we weed them out. The healing, nourishing and growing dominion of God awaits us. Amen.