A sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 30, 2017*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Jesus’ parable has mustard in it and I am not sure how relevant you may find it at first, but I have a story about mustard that I am quite certain no other congregation in the world has heard.

Once upon a time . . . three weeks ago, a friend and I went to a Cleveland baseball game. The ride up was full of fun and witty conversation and went by quickly. We parked. I bought a soft drink and a hot dog and my friend bought a soft drink and two large bags of peanuts. We sat. We talked. We laughed some more. We solved world problems. We ate. We watched the crowd and a great game. It was baseball at its best.

But something happened that made the experience very unique. It all started when three really, really big . . . hotdogs covered in different sauces entered the field. They were known as “Catsup,” “Mayo” and “Mustard.” Those hotdogs did something remarkable . . . they had a foot race. This caused my wonderful friend to do the unthinkable. First, he pointed out that Mustard never wins. Then he looked inspired – I like to think it was due to my sermons about expressing love to those we are taught to think of as losers.

Whatever the reason, my friend looked at me inspired. He looked at the race on the field. He swallowed the peanuts in his mouth and bellowed “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!” It was so loud I’m pretty sure most of the stadium heard it. He cracked some more peanuts, chewed, swallowed and bellowed again, urging Mustard on. It became perhaps the most interesting chant I have ever witnessed, Crack . . . Chew . . . “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!” Crack . . . Chew . . . “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!” It went on and on until, well . . . you won’t believe this . . . Mustard won!

Was it the chant? Was it the love? . . . Was it my inspiring sermons? Maybe, though I suspect what it really was, was pre-planned by event coordinators. But I know this part was not planned, in a post race victory tour Mustard went around the stands–and came by us and my friend again yelled “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!!!” There’s no doubt Mustard heard. And right then Mustard began to throw large catchable prizes into the crowd far and wide– well as far as a giant hot dog can.

By this time my friend was standing. As prizes were being flung about he continued to yell out his undying love for Mustard . . . while still cracking and eating peanuts. Finally Mustard looked right at my friend and lobbed a rolled-up t-shirt right to him. My friend reached out to catch the coveted prize, and I thought “What a brilliant way to get a free shirt!” . . . but I am sorry to report that my friend didn’t close his catching hand. The shirt bounced off his palm and disappeared into the crowd. My friend looked at his hand in disbelief. He looked at me. He pointed to his hand. In it was one un-shelled peanut still clutched by two fingers.

My friend sat down mumbling “I lost the shirt because of a peanut! . . . I could not just drop the peanut? I lost the shirt because of a peanut!” I did the only thing I could do, I pried the peanut out of his clutching hand and ceremoniously threw it away. We got another soft drink. The game went on. The team we were rooting for won. As we drove home we laughed and plotted that next time how fun uit would be if we’d have a whole bleacher section dressed in yellow loudly chanting “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!”

It’s been awhile since I’ve addressed Jesus’ parable that claims “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field . . .” That claim by Jesus is at least as weird as a giant hotdog race if you think about it. Heaven is like a mustard seed? . . . Wait. What?

I love this little parable. I love this kinda heaven. We think heaven is all pearly gates and angels and harps and being in the presence of God in the afterlife, but Jesus’ parable shreds that idea. No, it’s like a mustard seed. All of the images Jesus coveys in today’s reading are NOT what we are taught or expect heaven to be like – which is sort of odd since they are in the Bible . . . in Jesus’ own teachings!

Sometime exploring the Bible is often about finding new treasures in old words. It’s mystical to me how we can turn to Bible verses we’ve considered before and find new meaning. The Lectionary verses for today offer just such an experience. The verses have a few parables in them, but I am going to focus on the mustard parable. We hear about parables a lot.
What is a parable? In 1935 C. H. Dodd, a religious scholar gave the definitive answer

At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought’” 1.

Jesus was a storyteller who “used language to create a world in which his vision of reality could be played out in events conjured up in the imagination” 2. His parables are clever stories about the ordinary which draw an extraordinary illustration meant to evoke contemplation and ultimately transformation. In short, Jesus’ parables turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

My New Testament professor, Stephen Paterson, puts it like this:

Jesus was suggesting that God encounters people in the concrete everydayness of their lives. The transcendent is immanent. The Empire of God is –or could be– a present reality already breaking into the world as we have constructed it. 3

I find it fascinating that Jesus’ parables before us are about heaven– and in them heaven is not something coming after life, but coming in life. They are about God’s kingdom come and will being done on earth – now! The message is heaven can come to earth while we are alive.

In proclaiming this Jesus asks us to imagine the unimaginable, the extraordinary idea that God’s Reign can be here if we take action to bring it into view! We just need to let go the peanut sized ideas we cling to, that keep us from catching hold of the prize, heaven on earth! We usually hear today’s “heaven-is-like” parables as focusing on things– like the seed, yeast, treasure and pearls. Those images are important, but, each image is tied to human action. The mustard seed is taken by someone and sown. The yeast is taken by someone and mixed into a huge amount of flour. The treasure and pearl are found by people who give up all possessions to acquire them. There is human action in bringing about heaven in the seeds and yeast parables–humans spread it about! And there’s human action in responding to the found treasures– humans give their all to get and keep them.

See, humans are needed to bring about heaven on earth. We matter in God’s plan and call! As Bishop Desmond Tutu puts it:

Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us. St. Augustine of Hippo has said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot” 4.

When we let go of our small peanuts sized ideas that we cling onto so that we can catch hold of the heavenly prize by getting involved . . . like sowing a mustard seed … what is the heaven we are bringing about? 5 In the mustard seed parable Jesus says

Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all 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.

It sounds at first like something really tiny gets a lot bigger. That is kinda cool, I guess. But folks in Jesus’s day would’ve been more than a little eccentric to sow mustard seeds in their field. Mustard was not loved, but considered a pesky weed that grew quick and big and was not easy to get rid of. It’d be akin to sowing bamboo or mint or thistle in a crop field or vegetable garden! So it is not just about tiny growing big, it’s about a pesky thing the world resists sowing, let alone growing. Pitching heaven, God’s abode, as a pesky weedy mustard shrub is an unexpected humorously odd image. It’s not only a funny image, but, serves to mock our concepts of power with irony: God’s power is not found in OUR human symbols of strength, but rather in something like: a common abundant weed seed. And we are to want mustard. Even shout out WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD! This is a STRANGE idea!

In this very short parable Jesus gets his listeners’ attention with strangeness and leaves them in doubt about precise application which teases active thought about it’s meaning – just as C.H. Dodd indicated parables should!
Most of us probably wonder how the heck the Kingdom of Heaven could be like a mustard seed that someone sows in their field to become a mighty shrub? How can that have been heard in Jesus’s day, or heard today, as a good thing? Professor Patterson’s helps tease out answer these questions. He writes:

Jesus likens the empire of God to a weedy shrub, planted where it ought not to be. It is not the big and powerful realm you expected. But at least it is tenacious. It will not be going away soon. There is a feisty hope in this parable, a determination to hang on, even if they try to rid the place of you. Mustard does have it’s good qualities. And there is more to its good side than mere tenacity . . .

Pythagorus judged it to be the chief of those plants whose pungent properties reach a high level, since no other penetrates further into the nostrils and brain. Pounded it is applied with vinegar to the bites of serpents and scorpion stings. It counteracts the poisons of fungi. For phlegm it is kept in the mouth until it melts, or is used as a gargle with hydromel. For tooth ache it is chewed . . . It is very beneficial for all stomach troubles . . . It clears the senses, and by the sneezing caused by it, the head. 6

After quoting Pythagorus, Professor Patterson writes:

Now that is a useful plant! The Empire of God may not be what you expected, but it is not without it’s qualities. It clears the head, penetrates the brain. It clears the throat, restores your voice. Calms your troubled soul. Clears the senses. Cleans you out. Mustard may not be what you want in the garden, but for an empire of the unclean, the shamed, the expendable, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, it may be just what the doctor ordered. 7

We can add to Dr. Patterson’s astute observations that mustard shrubs were free, available to anyone, virtually everywhere in Jesus’ time and place. So it’s a spice that not only overwhelms and is useful but once you start spreading it, sowing it in your own fields, it cannot be stopped from growing. And then, of course, it is your’s and others’ to find– all we have to do is seek it out and help others find it.

The Kingdom of Heaven you see will always be around, and it is not sown by high and mighty earthly powers but by God’s people for all God’s people– humanity. All of humans whether red, yellow black white, LGBTQ, another faith or an enemy in our sight, all humans are precious in God’s sight. Heaven is for everyone. And so heaven, God’s Reign is on earth in the present and it does not look like what most would call a majestic thing, like the things we are taught to expect. Heaven in the here-and-now starts out small. A very tiny mustard seed caught in the open hand of a regular Joe or Jane it can be spread about in their own small fields of influence. When it grows it’s never going to overwhelm us it’s size, but Wow! will it overwhelm us with it usefulness; its steadfastness; its everywhere-ness; its affects on our well-being; and its soul calming qualities.

This is good news. We do not have to wait to die to experience the Kingdom of Heaven as Jesus proclaims it. We do not have to wait for others to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven is within our power to catch and sow, to bring into our fields, and into our lives to spread all about the world so that others can have access to it.

Heaven. On. Earth. Is. Possible! That is why Jesus told us these parables. That is why Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And that is why we need to drop what stops us from catching the mustard seeds of God’s love and proclaim in words and deeds . . . “WE LOVE YOU MUSTARD!”


* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I originally preached in 2008
1. Many of the ideas about parables and the mustard seed as heaven are influenced by Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998). This quote is found at page 120.
2. Ibid., 125.
4. Ibid., 126-127.
4. Tutu, Desmond, No Future Without Forgiveness, New York: Doubleday (1997), 158.
5. Again, I relied heavily on Dr. Patterson’s outline of these heaven is like parables on pages 135-142 and 158-161 of The God of Jesus.
6. Patterson, 137-38.
7. Ibid., 138.
8. Ibid., 161.