The Power of Small

June 23, 2024
Mark 4:26-34

It is serendipitous to have this parable about sowing seeds when we are also celebrating sewing comforters. The cleverness of this homonym, sew/sow, may not work in other languages but the coincidence in English sure is cool.

A sower scatters seed on the ground… These short little parables that Jesus’ tells to describe the Reign of God are not what we see in popular Christianity. So often the Reign of God (or the Kingdom of God) is depicted as an endpoint that will finally arrive, maybe we call it heaven. “Jesus will come again on clouds of glory and we will finally see the reign of God. And we can only watch with fear and wonder.” Perhaps popular Christianity leans toward this understanding because we live in a culture that is focused on the end product, the final countdown, the big finish, the end times.

The sower and seed parable turns some of that traditional popular Christianity on its head. This parable says the Reign of God is not so much about the end as it is about the process. The sower, or the farmer, plants the seeds and then waits, resting at night and rising each day. The seed does what it is meant to do. It sprouts and produces a crop, all by itself. The farmer does her part and harvests at the end. That is what the Reign of God is like, everybody does their part in a predictable order.

It is a little reminiscent of Genesis 1. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. The sower plants then goes to bed at night and then gets up, day after night after day. The Reign of God is like this: it happens the way things have been happening from the beginning, like day follows night. Seeds are scattered and plants grow and then there is harvest. Sounds like a fairly ordinary routine.

Popular Christianity often focuses not on the growth process but on the final actions – the reaping, the harvest, the cutting down. The harvesting process is made to sound pretty ominous. But in this parable, it sounds like Jesus says the Reign of God is part of the natural rhythm of things. The sower, the seed and the earth work together, each doing what they are created to do. The sower plants, then waits. The seed and the earth work together as the seed progresses through the stages of development. Throughout the process, during the nights and days, like in Genesis 1, it is good. The natural rhythm of things, each one doing their part, is good.

What is less clear is how exactly that seed grows. In verse 27 we read: and the seed sprouts and grows, the sower does not know how. This makes one wonder then who is this sower, that they don’t know how seeds work? How can the sower be an all knowing God and not know how things work? Or can anyone drop the seeds that initiate this ordinary rhythm of the Reign of God? Can anyone be the sower? Can anyone be the seed? Or maybe we shouldn’t push this simple parable too far.

The next short parable that Mark includes is about a particular seed, the mustard seed, the smallest seed. I have always heard this parable, and understood it as if the minuteness of the seed is the most important thing. And it is pretty remarkable. The mustard seed comes in a small seed pod. The actual tiny black seeds contained in that pod are a fraction the size of the grain of wheat we imagine is planted by the sower in the previous parable.

On a day when we are celebrating babies and children, it is good to remember that powerful things grow from very small beginnings. And like mustard seeds, children grow in ways that are remarkable. Children help us want to create shelter, they compel big people to become shelter. Children, just by being who they are, help to create home.

We might also ponder the small squares that join together to make a comforter. It doesn’t look like a whole lot but when you put them together, step by step, sewing and stitching, day by day, along with the rhythm of sleeping and night, a comforter is created. It gives warmth and home and love in a way that separate little squares, or a tiny seed, can’t do. There is a lot of power in smallness. And a lot of power in coming together.

This week, in Sojourners magazine, I read a different interpretation of this mustard seed parable. (June 2024, Raj Nadella.) This understanding is not quite as endearing as a “tiny seed growing into a big tree and becoming a home for nesting birds.” New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan writes that in Jesus’ time, the mustard seed was known for growing in uncontrollable ways; in fact, it often grows where it is not wanted. It is less like a giant oak and more like a weed tree that pops up and gets in the way. We might call it invasive.

The mustard seed that becomes a tree wherever it will and then plays host to birds that eat the crops that we have so carefully planted, that is like the Reign of God? That sounds kind of like a nightmare. It definitely sounds like a nuisance.

Nuisance for some and a relief for others. It depends on who needs the shelter and shade of that tree. It depends who is harvesting the crops. Maybe the Reign of God is not only for those who can create whatever shelter they want, those who can build strong and sturdy homes out of the best hardwood. Theologian Raj Nadella calls this mustard seed image of the Reign of God “disruptive.” The mustard seed, the Reign of God, spreads and goes where it wants, it puts down roots and grows big enough to create a haven for those deemed small and big enough to create disruption for those who think they are in control..

Nadella says the mustard seed is like the early Jesus movement that popped up in places where it was not wanted. The Jesus movement created a refuge for those who had a hard time finding places to belong. Think of the person who was blind we heard about last week or those who were told they had demons. Think of those who were derided for their roles as tax collectors. They were outcasts and had nowhere else to turn. They all found their way to Jesus, to the shelter created by the mustard seed. The strange and motley crew of Jesus’ disciples make a home in the weed tree that grows from the tiniest of seeds. Jesus says this disruptive, invasive mustard seed is what the Reign of God is like.

When explained like this, these two seed parables almost sound opposite from each other. How can they both be images of the Reign of God? The seeds that are sown and grow on their own, just as the sower intends. And the tiny, unpredictable mustard seed that grows wherever it will, a pesky plant that harbors small creatures. Both of these are like the Reign of God?

According to the writer of Mark, this is the way Jesus taught, in these confusing parables with coded messages. With such disparate interpretations, it is no wonder that Jesus explained the meaning of the parables only to his closest disciples, when they were in private. Maybe in this case, Jesus said something a little like this:

If you are looking for logical answers, seeds that grow and eventually ripen in fullness ready for harvest, if you are looking for things to line up in a way that is predictable and controlled, there is a place for you in the Reign of God. The Reign of God is like that. And if you don’t quite fit in, if you put down roots in a disruptive manner, and find shelter even in the most unpredictable places, the Reign of God has room for you too. The Reign of God is like that.

These two parables, appearing side by side in Mark’s gospel, illustrate a kind of grace in the Kindom of God that does not exist in the Reign of Caesar, and is hard to find in any kingdom of this world. The Reign of God respects and welcomes what is small. The Reign of God has room for those who like order — and room for those who impose themselves inconveniently. The Reign of God can accommodate those that sew in straight lines and those that sow with abandon.  And God calls it all good.