by Rev. Joan Kessler
Mustard seed has a long history I discovered this week. According to archaeologists and botanists, the seeds have been found as far back as Stone Age settlements. During the Sumer period of Mesopotamia, Sumerians would grind mustard seed into a paste and mix this with the juice of unripe grapes; Egyptians too flavored their food with mustard and the tiny seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. To create mustard condiments, Romans ground mustard seeds and mixed them with wine into a paste not much different from the prepared mustards we know today. The use of the seed spread to Gaul, took root in Europe, and was there even before the commerce of spices traveled from Asia. In Europe, the French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was for sale in Paris by the thirteenth century. Mustard appeared in Spain with the arrival of the Roman legions, then on to India. Throughout history, the use of mustard was not limited to culinary purposes… it was also valued for medicinal uses. As early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras recommended mustard as remedy for scorpion stings. A hundred years later, Hippocrates used mustard in medicines and poultices. The Greeks preceded the Romans by using mustard as a cure for anything from hysteria to snakebite to bubonic plague. And I recalled this week that I too grew up with the mustard plaster as a treatment for chest congestion and I still make them today as a natural and effective remedy.
This tiny seed is at the centre of Jesus’ teaching this morning. Somebody in the crowd asked, so, what is the kin-dom of God really like? And Jesus, perhaps standing beside a barrel of harvested mustard seed in the marketplace or maybe walking along a field of yellow mustard in full-bloom in late July, uses the seed, the plant, to illustrate what the kin-dom is like. The smallest of seeds becomes the largest of shrubs, so big and sturdy that it can host the birds of the air, who will come and nest in the branches. Now Jesus’ audience were agrarian folks, they knew farming and I’m sure there were more than one of them rolling their eyes at this description of the mustard plant. Mustard plants can become big but really? Big enough to support birds? In the Ancient near East, farmers would have considered mustard to be an invasive weed. In fact, because it spreads quickly by sending out shoots underground, it can take over a garden or a field; accordingly, farmers would typically avoid it or root it out, never mind intentionally sow intentionally. This is no noble cedar and shrub is an incredibly generous description on Jesus part. There were no further questions from the audience following the telling of this parable. It was simple and about as exciting as a fourth-grade science lesson.
But there was profound hope and optimism and love in Jesus’ parable this day… that small things held great potential. This small seed contained everything it needed to grow and flourish. And the best part is, all they had to do was put the seed in the ground and God would look after the rest. Jesus used parables, interesting stories that fit his listeners context and experiences but with some unusual twist in the details and the outcome. Someone compared parables to stained glass windows of a church… from the outside, they are nothing special, but become vibrant and alive with color and mystery when viewed from the inside. Jesus’ parables are contemplative spaces, evocative puzzles, riddles that beckon us closer… to consider our understanding of things like the kin-dom. What do we think of when we consider the parable and the hyperbole that Jesus used? What have been your Mustard Seed moments of late? What small, little things led to a result far beyond your intention or imagination?
This parable is not difficult for us. But we all know what it feels like to become disheartened about a particular situation… when our efforts fall flat or don’t realize the result we were hoping for, and others don’t respond to our acts of loving service. It can be frustrating too when we seek to make a contribution and feel that our gifts or opportunity is insufficient and the resources we bring are too meagre. However, this week’s reading invites us to consider the small, the seemingly insignificant, the hidden potential.
I think of the Community Fridge project we as a congregation as are considering hosting. We will find helpers and small gifts of time and capital; we will have something that we as a congregation will be proud to say we host and are helping to address food insecurity in our community. We know there will be days when it is a challenge and we will figure out things as we go along and will be bring others to our door to help and to use the fridge, either by leaving items or taking them home. It feels good to consider this… our mustard seed. Maybe I’ll buy a bottle of French’s yellow mustard and it will be one of the first things I put in the fridge… the seed of things to grow and to come.
I found a beautiful poetic reading of the Jesus’ teaching called On the Parables of the Mustard Seed by Denise Levertov. And I share her words and invite you to consider the wonder and possibility that little things, little acts of kindness can bring to a world sorely in need. Sometimes it is easy to be cynical…to see only the ordinary and overlook the wonder. It’s about taking time to notice the wonder a tiny seed and all the life it holds. I share with you Denise’s poem…
Who ever saw the mustard-plant, wayside weed or tended crop, grow tall as a shrub, let alone a tree, a treeful of shade and nests and songs? Acres of yellow, not a bird of the air in sight.
No, He who knew the west wind brings the rain, the south wind thunder, who walked the field-paths running His hand along wheat-stems to glean those intimate milky kernels, good to break on the tongue,
was talking of miracle, the seed within us, so small we take it for worthless, a mustard-seed, dust, nothing. Glib generations mistake the metaphor, not looking at fields and trees, not noticing paradox. Mountains remain unmoved.
Faith is rare, He must have been saying, prodigious, unique — one infinitesimal grain divided like loaves and fishes,
as if from a mustard-seed a great shade-tree grew. That rare, that strange: the kingdom a tree. The soul a bird. A great concourse of birds at home there, wings among yellow flowers. The waiting kingdom of faith, the seed waiting to be sown.
~ Denise Levertov