The Mustard Seed: A Parable for Our Time


The Mustard Seed, by James B Janknegt

(This homily was preached for Church of the Beatitudes in Santa Barbara, California. It was also published in their regularly posted Noozhawk column. The readings for the week can be read here.)

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe. On the last day of our trip, we hiked through Van Sickle Bi-State Park, a beautiful section wilderness that stretches between California and Nevada. As we climbed up the rocky paths, we were able to catch glimpses of the unbelievably blue lake peeking through a forest of Ponderosa Pine.

About an hour into our hike, the scenery changed. Suddenly, we felt the harsh Nevada sun on our faces and realized that we no longer had a lush canopy of trees giving us shade. The Ponderosas, which only a few feet away had been strong and green, were bare and charred and dead.

We had stumbled upon a hillside where there had been a forest fire nearly thirteen years earlier. I was struck by how fragile our wilderness is. That a fire, which had lasted only four days, could still leave such scars on a mountain over a decade later. Looking up at the charred remains of pine trees, it was easy to think the whole forest was dead.

But by looking down at the ground, we were able to glimpse new life. Everywhere we looked the mountain was covered with green and red Manzanita bushes—bushes that I hadn’t even noticed when we were hiking in more lush territory but that now seemed to take over the area where the fire had been. While the Ponderosa would take generations to recover, these Manzanita had found that this scorched mountain was the perfect location to take root. To bloom.

It was a powerful reminder that the things that look the most magnificent can actually be the most fragile. While the little things– the weeds and bushes beside our feet that we don’t even notice as we walk– are often the things with the most resilience and strength.

In the first reading, Ezekiel writes about the Cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for Israel. These beautiful cedars defined the landscape of Israel for generations. But in the time Ezekiel wrote this passage, these same beautiful cedars—and the people they represented—were under attack. Israel was occupied by the Babylonians and its resources—including the cedars—were being exploited.

For Ezekiel, Israel was like a cedar, which stood tall for generations only to be chopped down by an invading power. And he longed for God’s reign to return as a new, strong and powerful cedar.

It’s an image that speaks to the way people often think of power: both in Ezekiel’s time and today. The cedar brings to mind majesty and strength. It stands high above everything, like a mighty king.

But is that what the reign of God really is? Solitary and inflexible? So big and stately that it is actually incredibly vulnerable to forest fires or deforestation? Is that really the best description of God’s power?

“What comparison can we use for the reign of God?” asks Jesus. And his answer is: a mustard seed.

Mustard is the exact opposite of a cedar. In Jesus’ time it was commonly considered to be a weed. It’s not tall and majestic. It’s not even a tree, just a short, fat bush.

What lessons could we gain from the mustard seed? To get some idea of the power of a mustard seed, we need only look to our own Catholic heritage.

For centuries, the institutional Roman Catholic Church has acted as a cedar, slow growing and not adapting to change. It’s so big and powerful that it’s been totally detached from what was happening on the ground. It held itself above people instead of abiding with them. And as a result, it’s dying. Churches are closing, and people are leaving in larger numbers than ever.

But there is another story happening in Catholic communities across the world: a story that all of you at Church of the Beatitudes know very well: the story of the mustard seed. Of worship communities that started in small ways: out of church basements, living rooms or online. Communities that lack tall buildings and big budgets, but who faithfully serve the needs of LGBT people, divorced Catholics, women called to ordination and others who had been left outside the church doors for too long. Communities that are resurrecting the Catholic Church in new, exciting and, yes, smaller ways.

These intentional Catholic communities don’t grow too tall like cedars or cathedrals. Like mustard, they prefer to remain close to the ground, where they can best reach out to the marginalized.

And unlike the institutional Catholic Church, which like a cedar is so focused on being the tallest and most important thing in its path, these intentional Catholic communities know that, like mustard, we’re strongest when we work collaboratively as a community. That, to me, is the true strength in mustard: it’s never alone. It multiplies quickly, spreading more seeds wherever it goes. Sure, you can kill a single mustard plant, but good luck getting all the mustard out of your garden.

In a world of globalization, of giant corporations, a world that worships the “bigness” of things, we are invited to take part in God’s revolutionary smallness. God’s reign of the mustard seed.

This is a new sort of power that lets go of competition and embraces collaboration. That doesn’t try to get too tall, but instead spreads out, connecting with its neighbors. That tries to provide a home for the smallest and most forgotten of God’s creatures.

Like the inclusive Catholic communities we’ve built, we’re called to embrace this way of the mustard seed. To follow what St. Therese of Lisieux calls the Little Way, understanding that God, too, chooses little ways of engaging with the world.

This is a god that came to us in the form of a humble infant, who called beggars and prostitutes into ministry, and who calls us now to participate in the creation of a new world power looks like weakness, success looks like failure and where great things come from the tiniest of seeds.

In the mountains of Tahoe, it was easy for me to think the forest was dead and barren until I looked down at the small, hearty plants who had made a home for themselves in such a hostile territory. These easily overlooked bushes were leading the way for the much larger Ponderosa and for the rest of the ecosystem to recover. They were quietly planting seeds of resurrection in places of death.

In our own work, in our worship communities and in our lives, may we also take the risk to grow where God’s planted us, spreading small seeds of love and justice, strengthening networks of communities, until— suddenly—we’ve covered the whole forest.

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