The Mustard Seed and the Greatest Love There Is
The Mustard Seed and the Greatest Love There Is
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 12th, 2023
Today we are going to hear and reflect on just one of the parables Jesus tells in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Most of Jesus’ parables—stories that he told to make a point about how to live in God’s way—involve ordinary things that people around him would have understand. What he was trying to teach about life might not have been easy to understand, or to put into practice, but the things he used to make his point were simple. Jesus lived in a time when people were closer to the land than we are here and now—even those of us who have flower or vegetable gardens. The people who first heard Jesus would have known what it was to plant a field with seeds—and to wait for those seeds to sprout into something. They would have known about weeds and how they can choke the growth of other plants. They would have known about rocky soil where it’s hard for seeds to take root. All of that would have been closer to them, because they didn’t have grocery stores, or bags of chips, or boxes of food delivered to their homes. Listen now for what Jesus’ words might teach us about God today.
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Just the other day I had a memory of something that happened
Way back when I was in second or third grade,
At Winfield Public Elementary School in a suburb outside of Chicago.
My teacher gave me and all of the kids in my class each a lima bean
and a paper cup filled with black dirt. I remember soaking that lima bean in water until the coating around it came off, and pushing that lima bean down into the soil, and then running a little water from the faucet into it, and setting it with all of my other classmates cups by the wall of windows in our classroom, so it could get some sunlight. Over the next several days, I watered it some more, and I watched that bean grow into a seedling with green shoots and leaves. I don’t remember continuing the project long enough to replant the seedling so that it could become a plant of its own, producing even more beans. But I got the point. This is how things grow. Seeds get planted. They get water and sun and they grow into something.
When Jesus wanted to make a point to his followers about how to live in God’s way, he often talked about seeds and plants. At the beginning of the 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus talked about a sower going out sow seed and scattering it all around everywhere. Some of the seed, Jesus said, fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, where there’s not much soil, and even though it started to grow, it withered quickly because it didn’t have deep roots. Some of it fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. But some of it fell on good soil and took root and brought forth grain. The message of how to live in God’s way is like that, Jesus said. It’s like seeds that God can use us and others to help throw everywhere, but the seeds have to take root and grow—which means they have to land on good soil—in hearts and minds and souls that are open and willing to receive that message. Which means that we can and should try all sorts of ways to reach children and adults—casting the seeds far and wide, including trying new things like this—and it also means that we ourselves need to think about how we might be good soil for the message to take root in us.
What can we do to help make ourselves good soil ready to receive? Well, praying and meditating helps, including reminding ourselves to be open to what life and God might show us or call us to do. One thing I have tried is using a mantra in my meditating; saying over and over again, Be Open; another thing I have tried is this simple repetitive phrase, “Breathe in Love, Breathe out Fear, this is now, I am here.” You might try that with me now.
But our passage for today is less about how to make ourselves ready to be receptive to the message of God’s way—which, spoiler alert, is living in the way of love—and more about what happens when that message of how to live in God’s way takes root? That’s what Jesus story about the mustard seed is all about.
When Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven (or what its like to live in God’s way) is like a tiny mustard seed which is so small and yet grows into a bush that becomes so big that its like a tree that the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches, what he is saying, at least in part, is that little things can make a big difference. Tiny things, so small that they seem insignificant at first, can take root in us and grow.
Little acts of kindness can be like seeds that take root. Speaking words of welcome, calling someone by name, being gracious rather than assuming the worst about another person, these things are part of God’s message. We never know what we do or say that might land in someone’s heart and soul and grow, which means that we should try to scatter as much good seed as possible. And we should also pay heed to the kinds of things that we say and do that aren’t things we’d want to take root in someone else’s heart and soul. We should also pay attention to how those sorts of unhealthy seeds might have taken root in us—like seeds of resentment, or greed, or fear—that probably won’t produce good fruit.
Let me tell you a little bit about my quick trip to Florida for Trey and Alie Olcott’s last weekend—and about some good seeds. On the Jet Blue plane ride down, I sat next to a woman who, once I got seated, asked me if I am allergic to nuts. She was about to open a bag of mixed nuts, and she didn’t want me to have a possibly deadly allergic reaction. I told her no, I wasn’t, but I really appreciated her asking—and that I’d never thought about asking that question on a plane before. A seed of kindness planted.
That opened the door for more conversation, and before the flight was through, we’d talked about weddings and in-law relationships and the importance of religious education in both of our traditions. Jill is a Jewish layperson, I am a Presbyterian minister, and neither of us was out to convert the other. We’ll probably never see each other again. We just had a good conversation—and seeds of insight and understanding that will grow into something wonderful in both of our lives may have been planted.
On the shuttle ride to the hotel, the other person in the van was a Canadian, from Windsor, Ontario. He had already been down there for a few weeks to get away from the cold, and he gave me all sorts of recommendations of places to eat and things to see—none of which I had time for, but boy, did I feel welcome.
Then, while I was waiting in the hotel lobby to get checked in, I had an encounter with a celebrity. I’ve told this story so many times in the last week that I’ll bet most of you have already heard it, but it’s a mustard seed story, so I’m going to tell it again. I met the comedian Tracy Morgan—who used to be on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. To say I met him might be an exaggeration. He sat down as his personal assistant checked him in—and I just thought to myself, “Don’t be that guy. Don’t pull out your phone and try to take a selfie with him. Just let him be.” So I did. When he got up to leave and go up to his room, I quickly said, “Uh, hey, I just want you to know I really like your work.” He smiled at me and told me thanks.
I thought that would be the last I saw of him, but the next day, as I was heading down to the lobby he got on the elevator in front of me. When we got off, he went and sat down in the lobby, and I sat in another part of the lobby (kind of sort of stalking him a little, I guess). A woman who was sitting next to him asked him what he was in town for, and he told her some comedy shows, and asked her what she was in town for, and she said a wedding. I thought to myself, “Aaron, here’s your chance.” So I sidled over to where they were sitting and I inserted myself into the conversation, somewhat awkwardly. “Uh. I’m in town for a wedding, too. I’m actually officiating at one later today. I told people last night that I’d seen you, and I’m wondering if you have any well-wishes that you would pass on to the couple.”
Tracy replied, “Hummph. Good Luck.” And then he said, and this is the kicker, “I wish you agape. Do you know what agape is?” And I thought to myself, “Tracy, don’t you know who I am? I’m one of the 10,000 most well-known Presbyterian ministers in the U.S. Of course I know what agape is.” Then he gave me the punch line. “Agape is the greatest love in the world.” I told him thank you, then I went back upstairs to finish my wedding homily—in which I told the couple that story, and then went to say that Tracy Morgan and I wished them agape, the greatest love in the world, the love which comes from God—and talked about how that kind of love—a love from beyond them, beyond what they could muster on their own—would be what would help them live the vows they were about to make. Who knows what will continue to grow from that in their lives—and in the lives of other people who were at that wedding?
What Tracy may or may not have known with his wish for them is that he was throwing out some seed. When the seed of the greatest love in the world takes root in us, and when we share it with others, it grows into something bigger than we can imagine—what might only normally grow into a bush, becomes a tree, and a tree big enough that the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches. Or people are treated justly and made to feel welcome and loved regardless of their religious affiliation, or their sexual orientation, or the color of their skin, or their ideological convictions. Hungry people get fed, hurting people—after disasters like the earthquake in Turkey and Syria—receive aid and attention, people learn to forgive and are forgiven, and there is room.
In a little while, we’ll be baptizing little Piper June Anderson. We’re planting a seed, and her parents and her godparent and this congregation will be promising that she’ll grow up in a seed-heavy environment. In a place and among a people who come back again and again to tell stories about the greatest love in the world and how it’s made a difference in their lives.