The Image of the Mustard Seed

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Traditional Sermon
Pentecost 4

Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Colossians 1:3). Amen.

Happy Fathers Day! And I also extend this greeting to all the ladies and to whomever else who have had to step in to be fathers!

As I am sure all of you are aware, one of the traditions in our country on Fathers Day is to celebrate the guest or guests of honor by having a cookout. I’m sure we have all seen the promotions at the local grocery stores leading up to Fathers Day regarding special discounts, especially in the sale of hamburger patties and hotdogs. So, for those of you who will be involved in a Fathers Day cookout today, I highly recommend that you get some prepared eye of newt put on either or both your burger and hot dog. Yes, I said prepared eye of newt! Eye of newt does not sound very appetizing. In fact, it sounds kind of gross, don’t you think? Not a very good visual either—prepared eye of newt. When one first hears the phrase eye of newt, one normally thinks of those little creepy, salamander-like amphibians.

I believe I am safe to say that most of us here have heard a reference made to eye of newt at one time or another, especially if the reference was associated with witches and witchcraft. And we have William Shakespeare to thank for this! Of all the Shakespeare plays, my personal favorite is Macbeth, written in 1606. In Macbeth, there is a scene in which three witches are stirring up a boiling cauldron—Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble. The witches are putting together a recipe to summon ghosts that will be used to manipulate Macbeth, the future king. I retrieved my Complete Works of Shakespeare book and looked up the witches’ scene in Macbeth and counted almost 23 different ingredients the witches recited while stirring the cauldron. Eye of newt was the fourth ingredient named in the recipe. Now, for some reason, even though there are other weird and crazy-sounding ingredients recited, like toe of frog, wool of bat, blind-worm’s sting, and scale of dragon, it’s the eye of newt that sticks out and the one that most people have remembered over the centuries.

Interestingly, many of the ingredients in the witches’ recipe are actually references to herbs and other vegetation. The eye of newt is actually an archaic name for mustard seed. Getting back to my cookout scenario where I recommended that you put some prepared eye of newt on your burgers and/or hot dogs, I was actually referring to prepared mustard. Regardless of whether one knows that eye of newt means mustard seed, I think we probably all would agree that prepared mustard sounds more appetizing than prepared eye of newt!

Concerning this eye of newt and mustard seed illustration, I’m sure many of you are thinking that this was a very strange way to start a sermon. But you will shortly see that my aim is to show how some perceptions, although they may not look very clear and to-the-point, do indeed have a purpose to get a message across. We see this in today’s gospel passage from Mark Chapter 4.

In today’s gospel passage there are two short parables, the Parable of the Growing Seed in verses 26 to 29, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30 to 32. I am going to focus on the Parable of the Mustard Seed in which we see Jesus using the mustard seed to illustrate the kingdom of God. This past week I was tasked with creating the study page that is found in today’s bulletin. If you look at the second paragraph of the study page, which I obtained from Sundays and Seasons, a worship planning guide, the paragraph notes that we would expect a tree of grand proportions, like a cedar or a sequoia, to be more appropriate to represent the kingdom and power of God. Instead, Jesus uses a weed-like, ugly, wild mustard shrub that spreads quickly. This type of mustard plant is more than likely the type known as Black Mustard, which is found in the Holy Land and grows to about 9 or 10 feet in height. It just does not seem right to use a weed-like shrub, especially if we are talking about God, his power and his kingdom. This point really got stuck in my head. Using the mustard seed, I felt, was almost deceptive—kind of like me suggesting prepared eye of newt instead of prepared mustard in the cookout scenario to get your imaginations going.

Of course, we all are aware that God would never deceive us and he did not send his only Son, Jesus, to deceive us. There was a reason why Jesus chose to use the mustard seed that grows into an ugly, lowly shrub instead of a beautiful, magnificent tree. Have you ever seen a mustard seed? The seeds really are tiny. It really is amazing how these tiny seeds result in a plant that grows and, in the case of the Black Mustard variety found in the Holy Land, spreads like weeds and crowds out other vegetation. And just like weeds, these mustard shrubs are very difficult to eradicate. I believe Jesus chose the mustard seed because of its size and especially the fact that, despite its tiny size, the seed results in something big. That size issue is deceiving because the resulting plant is not expected. Barbara Reid, in her book Parables for Preachers, referred to the mustard seed as being mischievous. That tiny seed is playing tricks on us! She also points out that Jesus may have used the Parable of the Mustard Seed to boost the morale of his disciples. Jesus wanted to reassure them that his ministry, which of course was at its very beginning during his time on earth, would grow into a huge following. Think about it, Jesus started growing the kingdom of God with his disciples. It’s almost as if Jesus planted a tiny seed into each of them.

History shows us that as the Good News of Christ’s ministry spread and more seeds were planted into the hearts of people, especially after Pentecost, the growth of the church which, within 300 years, would conquer the Roman Empire. So that analogy of something great coming out of something appearing to be so insignificant and tiny, the mustard seed scenario, really is appropriate as an analogy and not deceiving if it is clearly understood. Another commentary, this one by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, noted that the mustard seed scenario demonstrates that “Though the dominion appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.”

What really caught my attention was Witherington noted that there are those who find us Christians obnoxious and would try to root us out. How many of us have experienced times when we, as Christians, are viewed as obnoxious and pushed aside because of our faith? Like the mustard shrub, Christians can also be viewed as weeds. But, what’s good about that analogy is that, like weeds, we Christians and our faith are hard to eradicate! Christianity will persevere. And there is room for the kingdom of God to continue growing, despite the evident decline in church attendance in most denominations today. The Good News of Jesus Christ is still here and just as powerful as it always has been. More effort is needed to sow those tiny seeds of faith in our neighbors through the Word so that they, too, can come to be a part of the kingdom of God. Just like Christ’s disciples sowed seeds of faith into the hearts of people to spread the Good News of Christ that eventually led to the establishment of the church, we, too, can do the same today.

And then, what about that little mustard seed within us? It’s there! How many of us have cultivated the tiny seed within ourselves to allow our faith to grow by leaps and bounds? Through the Holy Spirit, our faith grows. We have the ability to cultivate our faith through the Word and also by participating in Holy Communion. Let us not deceive ourselves to prevent ourselves from growing in our faith. There is always room for improvement. Luke 1:37 says For nothing will be impossible with God. We can do it! Amen.

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Pal Pusztai

Vicar, 2017-2018

Vicar Pál is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. He currently lives in Dover, Pennsylvania.

One comment

  1. Soooo glad I could read your sermon here since we couldn’t get to church. Excellent! Enjoyed our little table visit at church on Friday. Abundant blessings on your faith journey forward. —Barb Tolbert

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