The Mustard Seed
Pentecost 19C Luke 17:5-10
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
(This theme of the
mustard seed needs to be rooted in the gospel parallels of Matthew
13:31-32, Mark 4:26-32, Luke 13:18-19. Matthew 13:31-32 is found in
the lectionary for Pentecost 10A. Luke 13:8-9 is not part of the
Sunday morning lectionary. This reading from Luke 13:8-9 about the
mustard seed needs to be incorporated with the gospel lesson for
today from Luke 17:5-10. A pastor needs to read all of the above
Scriptures about the mustard seed before proceeding. The following
sermon is based on the flow of the story from Mark’s account of
the story of the mustard seed.)
Back in Jackson,
Minnesota, when I was a boy growing up, I had a wonderful time.
Jackson, Minnesota was known as the corn capital of the world. I
know that Mitchell, South Dakota, has the only corn palace in the
world, but as a boy growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, I always
thought of my hometown as the corn capital of the world. The farmers
would take a small grain of that corn and plant in into the rich
hill of Minnesota soil, and those seeds would really grow.
Some of those
farmers would have corn-growing contents. They had these highbred
corns which would grow really tall. For the contests, these farmers
would then take a bullhead or a carp fish from the Des Moines River
and they would place it into the soil of that hill in which the corn
seed was planted. That was good fishy fertilizer, the real stuff.
And those corn stalks would grow and grow and grow, up and up and
up. They would grow taller and taller and taller until late August.
In late August, the corn queen from the country fair would go out
into the cornfields where the tallest ears of corn were located.
This corn queen would get on a ladder and she would have a tape
measure (such as I had for the children’s sermon) and that tape
measure would show that the corn stalk was something like twelve or
thirteen feet tall. Every late summer, in the Jackson County Pilot,
the county newspaper would publish a picture of the corn queen
standing along side the tallest corn stalk in Jackson, Minnesota.
Jesus said, “He
who has ears to hear let him understand the mysteries of the kingdom
One time, I was
down there in southwestern Oregon, between Grants Pass and Crescent
City in northern California. I was a Minnesota boy from a farming
town and so I had never seen the ocean and I had never seen big, big
trees. Down there in southwestern Oregon, my wife and I drove into
Stout Grove. Stout Grove had the biggest, most giant redwood trees
that I had ever seen. There was a giant redwood there that had an
arch cut right in the middle of it. The road drove right through the
middle of that redwood tree. I was driving my 1963 Volkswagen Bug
and I drove right through the middle of that tree. Then I pulled the
car off to the side of the road, and I looked at the sign near the
tree. The sign said, “More than 2000 years ago, a seed was planted
by nature and it grew up into that massive redwood before you.”
That little acorn grew three hundred feet up into this gigantic
tree. If I would have taken an acorn and said to the kids during the
children’s sermon, “How tall will this acorn seed grow?”
“Can this acorn seed grow up two or three hundred feet, shooting
right through the roof of our church, they would have said, “Nooooo.”
Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago, when a
little acorn was planted in the ground, that it would grow so
And Jesus said,
“Whoever has ears to hear, let him understand the mysteries and
the riddles of the kingdom of God.”
again and that means its garden time at our house. We have a garden
at our house. Do you have a garden at your house? Most of us have
different roles at our homes, and I have the role of being a grunt
laborer when it comes to gardening. We have a lot of red clay at our
house where our garden is, and so we had five yards of good top soil
delivered to our home. It was a lot of work to wheelbarrow all that
top soil down to our garden. So I hired some kid to do it. My job is
to work on the soil. My wife’s job is to do the planting. We each
have our roles. My wife gets down on her knees and she plants those
seeds so particularly in that soft soil. A role of mine is to watch
her work and the garden grow. I stand up on the deck above the
garden and look down on her back as she plants the garden. I come
out and look at the garden the first morning and there is nothing
up. Then the second morning and there is nothing up. Then the third
morning and there is nothing. And on the fourth morning, you can see
all those seeds starting to sprout and those plants growing. It is
like a miracle. The seeds lie dormant for a few days and then, WOW,
up come the little seedling plants.
And Jesus said,
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear the miracles about the
riddles of the kingdom of God.”
It is with these
stories that we approach the parables of Jesus for today. Whenever
Jesus preached a sermon, he always told a parable. I mean, the Bible
tells us that Jesus never preached a sermon without telling a
parable. Jesus was the master storyteller. He wasn’t like those
Pharisees in the New Testament. The Pharisees quoted from the Old
Testament all the time. The Pharisees were super religious people
who quoted from the Bible continually so they could sound religious.
People were bored to death when the Pharisees quoted the Bible like
that. But Jesus almost never quoted from his Bible which was the Old
Testament. Nor did Jesus ever quote from Greek philosophy, from
Socrates, Plato, or Demosthenes. No. What Jesus quoted from were
common and ordinary stories of life. These were the kinds of stories
from everyday life. These stories from everyday life were naturally
told and easily understood. Jesus forever told a story.
He said, “The
kingdom of God is like this. The way of God is like this. It is like
this farmer and this farmer went out and planted a seed in the
ground. The farmer came back night and day and night and day and
night and day, and WOW. Look at that little plant that is showing
through the dirt. The seed grew up automatically. The earth produced
of itself automatically.
“Whoever has ears
to hear let him understand the riddles of the kingdom of God.”
Jesus said, “In
case you didn’t get it, I will tell you another story, another
riddle, which is similar to the first one. The way of God is like
this. This is the way that God works. It is like a person who takes
a mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds and you plant it in the
ground and it grows up to fourteen feet tall. It is the tallest bush
in all of Israel.”
And Jesus said,
“Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear the riddles about the
kingdom of God.”
Now, at that point,
Jesus would finish his sermon. He would just tell the story and you
would go home and figure it out. So technically, I should just quit
my sermon right now and that probably would please many of you. But
pastors are paid to preach, and so unlike Jesus, I am going to
explain what Jesus was saying. But Jesus himself would not have
explained the parables.
In the first story
for today, we may recall that the seed stands for the Word of God.
It stands for the Bible. It stands for the words and stories of
Jesus. It stands for Jesus Christ himself. The Bible passage for
today is saying that the Scriptures, the Bible, the Word, the
parables of Jesus have a hidden mysterious power inside of them to
grow. Just as the body heals itself such as when we break an arm, we
know that the broken bones of the arm heal. Why? Why do the bones
heal? Because there is some mysterious power within the bone. So the
bone heals itself. Or just like you plant a seed into the ground, it
grows. Why? Why does it grow? I don’t know. It is because of some
power within the seed that miraculously grows. So also we say that
the Bible, the Word of God, Jesus is planted in our hearts and it
grows. You plant the Word in our hearts and there is something about
that Bible, Jesus, the living Word that grows within us.
Let’s take a
minute and look at this large Bible on the altar. This Bible is the
center of our worship service. When you come into the sanctuary and
look up the central aisle to the altar/communion table, you could
see this large Bible placed at the center of the altar. I remember
when this sanctuary was being remodeled, there was discussion about
whether or not this congregation should get rid of this big,
symbolic Bible that was placed in the middle of the altar. Instead
of the Bible symbolically located on the center of the altar, many
Lutheran churches have a book of liturgies in the center of the
table. But when this sanctuary was remodeled, the people said that
they did not want a book of liturgies at the center of the focus of
our worship but the Bible. The people on the planning committee said
we want the old big Bible to be on the table. The sanctuary is
designed in such a way that when you enter the worship space, the
first and most prominent item that you see here is the Bible. It is
our belief that there is something inside this Bible which has the
mysterious power to grow. What is inside this Bible is the very
presence of Christ himself. It is the love of God. There is
something inside this Bible when it is planted into a person’s
heart that the love of Christ begins to grow.
Just as there is
power in the bones to heal and power in a seed to grow, so there is
also a mysterious power inside this book to grow as well. And so at
our church, we try to do everything humanly possible to have people
daily meditate on the Word of God and weekly come and hear a
meditation based on the Word of God. That is at the very heart of
who we are.
In our confirmation
program here at church, we have our students read a short passage of
Scripture each night if they do their work. This nightly reading is
at the heart of our confirmation program here at Grace.
We have adults,
many of whom are going to be baptized today, who attended my adult
inquiry class. I did everything I could to persuade new members who
are joining our church today to daily meditate on the Bible, every
morning or every night.
whole parish and throughout our whole worship service, we know that
there is a power inside of that book. And that power inside that
book is Jesus Christ. The power inside that book is the very
presence of God. That is what this story for today is all about.
Christians just can’t figure out why there faith is not so strong.
They cannot figure out why their Christian faith is so weak, so
anemic and so colorless. They cannot figure out why nothing is
happening in their Christian life. So often this is because they are
no longer meditating on the Word of God.
Perhaps you are a
person who knows only a few Bible verses by memory. Perhaps you know
the famous Bible verse of John 3:16 or the shortest Bible verse of
“Jesus wept.” Perhaps you don’t know your Bible too well and
instead you know only a broad generalized Christian philosophy of
But to be honest,
to be really honest, you don’t daily meditate on the Word of God.
You don’t consistently and weekly nourish your life in worship
that is based on the Word of God. Then you ask, “Why is my faith so shallow? Why am I not
close to God? Why am I falling away from God? Why am I spiritually
depressed? God, what is wrong with my spiritual life?” Chances
are, in all probability, you are no longer nourishing yourself on
that Word of God. For when you nourish yourself on that Word of God,
you take Jesus into your soul and Jesus grows through the Word.
For me, one of the
classic interpretations of this Biblical passage about the seed
growing automatically (Mark 4:26) was written by Martin Luther when
he said about this text: “After I preach my sermon on Sunday, when
I return home, I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer and
I just let the gospel run its course.” I like that. Luther said
that after he pounded on the pulpit and expounded the gospel, he
would go home and pull out the Sunday newspaper, and pull out his
glass of warm Wittenberg beer and start to drink it and enjoy the
afternoon. Luther knew that the power of his sermon was not based on
the power of his theological acuity. He knew that the power of his
sermon was not based on his eloquence or his abilities. He knew that
the power of the sermon would have no effect whatsoever unless the
very Word of God got into a person’s heart. Luther knew that he
couldn’t do that. It was the Holy Spirit who did that. Luther
keenly understood the power of the Word.
Would you all take
your bulletin insert out from the bulletin? Let’s do a little
Bible study. Would you turn to Mark 4:26? The kingdom of God, the
way of God, the way that God works is this: “If someone would
scatter seed on the ground and sleep and rise night and day and
night and day. And then the seed would sprout and grow, but he
doesn’t know how it happens. The earth produces of itself. The
seed produces of itself.” Let’s pause here. Do you see the two
words, “of itself.” That is the Greek word “automatos,” from
which we get our English word, “automatically.” But do you
realize where that Greek word, “automatos” is placed in
the sentence? At the very beginning of the sentence. For
emphasis, the author puts it at the beginning of the sentence.
Automatically the seed grows. Automatically, the earth produces.
Automatically, the Bible produces. Automatically, the Word gets
inside of us. There is something inside the word that changes us. It
is Jesus inside the Word that gets through to us. Jesus grows
in you, just as seeds grow mysteriously and miraculously.
Now, that does not
mean that automatically you are going to be a Christian. That does
not mean that automatically you are going to grow to be a large
church. That does not mean that automatically you give your life to
Christ. But what it
does mean is that there is power in this word. As you pick up the
Bible and hold it in your hands, you realize that this Word is not
passive. I keenly understand it. There is something in here. If you
daily meditate on this word, it grows in you. That is what Jesus was
talking about in this first story.
But Jesus also told
a second story that is part of today’s gospel lesson. Didn’t
Jesus tell a parable about a mustard seed which started small but
then grew absolutely large and tall? Let’s talk about that mustard
seed. It is one thing to say that the kingdom of God is like this:
you plant it like a seed into the ground and it grows automatically.
But it another thing to say that you plant a seed into the ground
and it grows really large. So the point of the first parable
is that you plant the seed of God into the ground and it grows. The
point of the second parable is that the seed grows really large.
I mean it grows fourteen feet tall. So let’s talk about this
How many people are
Christians this year around the earth? 1.6 billion. We are by far
the world’s largest religion. Who would have guessed that two
thousand years ago, when Jesus’ body was planted into the ground,
his body would rise up out of the ground and his resurrected body
would grow taller and taller to 1.6 billion people tall? Who would
have guessed that two thousand years ago when nature planted that
little acorn in the ground that it would grow to be a giant sequoia?
And who would have guessed that when the body of Jesus was planted
into the ground and after three days he would rise from the dead and
he would grow so large? 1.6 billion people large. Who would have
guessed? You see, there is something about this kingdom; there is
something about Jesus which not only grows but grows enormously
Let me give you
another illustration where this seed has grown so large. I would
like to suggest to you that many of the values of Western
civilization are rooted in Jesus and the Scriptures. I want to ask
you a question. Where did our concept of democracy come from? Most
people say off the top of their heads, that it came from Greece and
the Greek senate. Yes, but not totally. Where did our concept of
democracy originate? From the Magna Carta. It came from the Magna
Carta and England in the year 1215. Who was one of the primary
authors of the original Magna Carta? Stephen Langdon. Who was
Stephen Langdon? The Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Stephen
Langdon was one of the principal authors of the Magna Carta and he
had his roots in the Bible, his roots in the Word, his roots in the
Book of Galatians and his roots in the freedom described in the Book
of Galatians. The book of Galatians is about freedom, Christian
freedom which has implications for political freedom. “For freedom
Christ has set us free.”
Where did our Constitution come from? We all know: Thomas Jefferson.
Where did he get his ideas? The French Enlightenment. Where did the
French Enlightenment get its ideas? The Renaissance. Where did the
Renaissance get its ideas? The Reformation. Where did the
Reformation get its ideas? From the Bible.
I would like to
suggest to you that for many people including myself, that the
ideals of democracy can be traced back through history to the
Originally, all the
hospitals in America were Christian hospitals. All the colleges in
America were originally Christian colleges. The freedom movement in
America for blacks had its origin in the Scriptures.
I am suggesting to
you this morning that the very values of our democracy are rooted in
the Scriptures. Who would have guessed that these American ideas and
ideals would have started as a small seed so many centuries ago?
I would like to
give one more set of illustrations. This small seed not only grew to
1.6 billion people. This small seed not only inspired many of the
values of Western civilization. But this small seed also grows in
people, in individuals, so that people like you and me have a faith
that is fourteen feet tall. There are people who have become giants
of faith. I would like to tell you three stories that are fresh
in my heart.
The nature of my
sermons are such that they are like a diary. When I prepare a
sermon, I read the Biblical commentaries about a text, but I also
read my old sermons. The following is a story from twelve years ago.
Twelve years ago this week, I made a visit to an old man to prepare
his funeral. His name of Alfred Lunde, the ninety-two year old
Norwegian patriarch of our parish.
Alfred Lunde was one of those giants of faith. He was one of
those people who had migrated from the dust bowls in North Dakota
and come out West to Washington. I’ve never known a man as smart
and wise as old Alfred Lunde. What a faith that man had. One
afternoon, twelve years ago, as we prepared his funeral, Old Man
Lunde said to me. “Tell them this at my funeral. Tell the folks
that everything I have is garbage. Tell the folks that everything I
have is garbage compared to having Jesus Christ. Markquart, write
that down and tell it at my funeral.” And he went on to say,
“And tell them that this world does not belong to us, that this
world belongs to God. We are to improve the earth and not to destroy
it. You are to leave nothing behind. It is tragic not to
leave the world a better place. So many people celebrate life and
they leave nothing behind to improve this world. I have lived and
I have improved the world. Tell them that, at my funeral,
Markquart.” He had a faith fourteen feet tall. This old Norwegian
farmer turned janitor had a faith that was fourteen feet tall, and
anybody who knew Alfred Lunde knew that.
So it was six years
ago that I was preparing a sermon on this text. It was Friday.
Friday, six years ago, was one of the most difficult days of my
life. It was the funeral for Patti Arnold. Patti Arnold, thirty-nine
years old. Patti Arnold, cancer. Patti Arnold, bone transplant.
Patti Arnold, the Italian. Here maiden name was Colello and she was
Italian, pure Italian. Her family owned an Italian grocery story.
Her family was Italian Catholic. She was the most fireball woman I
had ever met in my life. Never in the history of this congregation
have we ever had a funeral like this. The people who came to that
funeral were sitting in the parking lot, way out to the road. Why?
Why were there so many people? Why? There was no one who had loved
the way Patti had. Patti had loved the world so vigorously. In that
sermon for her funeral, I told about how Patti had loved people, not
only when she lived but when she was dying. I told stories about
when Patti was up at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Treatment center and the
way that she cared for people around her at Fred Hutch. While she
was dying. It was absolutely incredible. Her faith was fourteen feet
tall. To this day, her life still inspires me.
The years passed.
And I look at the most recent funeral here at Grace Lutheran Church.
It was for Ellen Heffner. Ellen Heffner, of all people. This giant
of a woman who at the age of seventy-seven lead our homeless
ministry. She said of herself in her poetic musings, “God, why is
it that you have created me in such a way that my heart always goes
for the underdog? Why is it when the little boy in my first grade
class at school wet his pants and everybody else made fun of him,
why is it that I could not? Why did I have to go and protect him?
God, why have you made my heart this way that I always go for the
underdog? God, is that a curse or a blessing on my life?” The
answer? It was both. It was a curse because it took so much out of
Ellen, but it was a blessing because she helped so many people. A
week ago, when the homeless men and women had a memorial service for
her in downtown Seattle and all the homeless men were gathered in a
park, their lives had been deeply and physically blessed by the
generosity of Ellen Heffner. Why. Because Ellen’s faith was
fourteen feet tall. Ellen’s life? She still inspires many of us.
Now, the purpose of
this last point of the sermon is not to talk about the virtues of
Old Man Lunde, the Norwegian farmer. Nor about the blessings of
Patti Arnold, the Italian hairdresser. Nor about the social
compassion of Ellen Heffner, the German school teacher. No. This
sermon is about the Word. It is about the seed. You see, the key to
these peoples’ lives was that a seed had been planted inside of
them and it grew and it grew and it grew to enormous proportions.
That is what this sermon is about. It is about the power of the
seed. When Jesus Christ is planted in your life, when his word is
planted in your heart, a miracle may occur. Because the power is
within the seed. And over time, the seed grows and grows and grows
and you finally exclaim, “It is over fourteen feet tall.” That
is what you want to have happen in your life. That is what I want to
happen in my life.
One time, Jesus was
gathered with his disciples and he said, “I have to tell you about
the kingdom of God. The way of God is like this. “There was a
farmer who took a seed and planted it in the ground. He wanted it
night and day and night and day and night and day, and the seed
produced automatically by itself. Get it? I’ll tell you another
story. There once was a farmer who planted a mustard seed. It is the
smallest of all seeds. He planted it in the ground and it grew up to
fourteen feet tall. And the birds of the air came and made their
nests and they found shelter from the storm. He who has ears to
hear, let him hear the riddles of the kingdom of God.” Amen.
SERMON: Distribute mustard seeds to all the children who come
forward. Then the pastor says words such as the following, “These
seeds are very small. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells us
that these are the smallest seeds in the land of Israel. Children,
how tall do you think these seeds will grow? Three feet? Four feet?
Five feet? Six feet? Taller. Let’s watch.” The pastor then pulls
out a step ladder and has a twenty-five foot measuring tape in his
hand. The pastor starts measuring out one foot at a time from about
six feet high on the ladder. The pastor asks, “How about this
little seed, will it grow seven feet high? Eight feet? Nine feet?
Ten feet? Eleven feet? Twelve feet? Thirteen feet? Fourteen feet?
Yes, this little seed will grow fourteen feet high which is mighty
high. Jesus said that a seed like this little one is planted in our
heart. This seed symbolizes Jesus. Jesus is the seed planted in our
hearts. And then the seed of Jesus grows taller and taller and
taller in you. Jesus grows and grows and grows in your heart and
gets so big and so tall and so large within you.”
Kids, take your
mustard seed home and perhaps plant it in your garden and see if it
will grow. Be careful as you take it home, because those seeds are
so small. They are some of the smallest seeds there are. Thanks
kids. Bye now.