Not enough Mustard for a hot dog

Sunday May 9th Third Presbyterian Church

Mark 4:30-34

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

The Use of Parables

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


St. Teresa of Availa described prayer as watering an interior garden.  I am not an expert on St. Teresa so while this is my best attempt at explaining this metaphor if it piques your interest you may want to consult other experts. 

Within each of us is a garden and within that garden is a deep well.  The water in that well is prayer.  Watering this garden is a joint effort between us and God.  Our initial efforts are difficult.  It may feel like the ground is very dry and we have only a small bucket.  Hoisting the bucket up from the deep well makes us tired and frustrated.   Sometimes it’s difficult to find the “right words” to pray.  Sometimes its difficult to clear our heads of all the noise that isn’t prayer.  Sometimes we might wonder if there is a hole in the bucket.  But rest assured that there is nothing wrong with you or your bucket, sometimes prayer is hard.  This time when prayer is difficult, we are learning about spiritual practices and well, practicing them.  These practices can include any number of things, mindfulness, centering prayer, contemplation, Lectio Divina, and the like. We get better the more we practice, kind of like having a water wheel or irrigation system in place.  There is a little less work on our part as we begin to worry less about “getting it right” and simply spend time in God’s presence.  The more comfortable we get with our spiritual practices the easier it is to get the water flowing.  Sometimes, God sends rain, and there is no work at all on our part.  In these times, we are participants in the prayer and God leads the prayer[1].  

I like this metaphor.  Especially the part when it just rains.  Maybe it’s because I’m a lazy gardener.  I prefer to have plants in my garden that don’t need a lot of water or attention and will still come up year after year, you know, like dandelions.  I love the cheerful yellow guys; they are good for bees and wishes.  I don’t know anyone who has actually planted a dandelion and yet most of us have these little miracles pop up in our yards and gardens.  Some people seem to be unsatisfied with a yard full of dandelions and plant other stuff too.  And others even actively try to rid their lawns of the persistent yellow blossoms.  Maybe there is a reason to have an intentional garden instead of just letting whatever blows in grow.  

My own prayer life shifts between unintentional and intentional.  For me faith is most strongly linked with service and a sense of mission.  And the other part of my faith is academic, it’s about reading and studying to gain knowledge.  Prayer is often a writing exercise for liturgy, or it is a mindful moment and I’m not very consistent with either.  Sure, I can find, evaluate, edit or write a new pastoral prayer for worship.  That’s sort of still in the academic realm.  And I do pray for our congregation and for specific people who have requested prayer.  When I say I’ll pray for you, I do, but maybe not like you think I do.  I find a quiet place inside of myself and bring myself to an awareness of God’s presence, then I imagine your face and hold you up to God.  Sometimes there are accompanying colors or feelings or sounds that are held up with you and in some rare instances there are a few words that form a sort of breath prayer.  I’ve had to really practice praying out loud for people and sometimes it still feels like I’m watering the garden with a leaky bucket.  Which seemed like a good reason to take a few Spiritual Formation classes over the last year, which is where I learned about Teresa.  

The plants I’m watering with these prayers are important so I’m going to keep trying.  These plants are empathy, care, and love.  Maybe they are the sage, aloe, and roses I’m willing to pull out dandelions for.  I’m learning as I work on my spiritual formation certificate that contemplation is like weeding the garden.  It’s putting aside for a moment the pop-up ads in my brain.  It’s seeing tangents and choosing not to follow them.  It’s emptying my bucket so I can fill it with living water from the well of prayer and divine presence.  And most importantly, choosing what it is that I’m going to water.

This is the part I wish St. Teresa had explained a little more.  How do I decide what to water?  Is it a weed or is it butterfly food?  Is it poisonous or can it be harvested and shared?  Perhaps those answers come as we co-create with God.  So, while I’m trying out these spiritual practices, I’m asking those questions.  What I’ve noticed about watering is that sometimes I think I’m in control and sometimes I know that I am not.  I feel really in control of my bucket, even if it leaks, I’m holding it, carrying it to the plant I’ve chosen to water, and I can control how much I dump out.  But if I give up a little control, say I let God run the water wheel or direct the irrigation system more plants get watered.  But digging an irrigation system is hard sweaty work too.  And sometimes its frustrating enough to bring me to tears.  St. Teresa will point out that tears are water too.  Tears are prayers.  And God hears even the silent tears.  God cries too.  It’s those moments when we realize we can’t control everything, we can’t keep watering with the leaky bucket, it rains.  And it pours.  God is in control.  Not me.  Not us.  God.

And I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell us about growing too.  I can choose plants; I can weed and water to my heart’s content, but I can’t force something to grow.  God gives the growth.  God is in control.  

So, what’s the deal with the mustard seed?  It’s everyone’s favorite parable for kiddos.  I’ve heard it throughout my life at various churches, vacation bible schools, and camps.  The smallest seed with a little bit of care can grow to be a huge tree.  Kids love it because something small (like a kiddo) can grow in God’s love and become a big tree (or a grown up that can help others).  I have seen lots of mustard seeds because that’s the usual prop for this parable.  They are so tiny, so seemingly insignificant, that they really illustrate the idea that God can use you no matter how small and that your faith will grow into something amazing.  But that’s not exactly what Jesus is saying.  It’s not amazing that a little seed can grow into a big tree, it’s impossible.  I didn’t know what a mustard tree looked like, so I googled it.  Guess what? Mustard doesn’t grow on trees.  A mustard plant, depending on what google image you find, can be as unimpressive as a dandelion or it can be a slightly more impressive almost a bush (but not quite) kind of plant.  Mustard doesn’t grow on trees.  

Did you ever feel guilty about something you had no control over?  Like planting a mustard tree and feeling like an inadequate gardener wondering if you planted it in too much shade or over watered it or underwatered it because all you have to show for your work is a stupid yellow flower that isn’t going to make enough mustard for your hotdog.  Did you think with enough will power you could make the thing grow?  Did you beat yourself up because you should have worked harder?  Did you think you were in control?

Mustard doesn’t grow on trees.  God is in control.  We are stewards of the mysteries of God.

The parable might really be about tossing whatever seed you have onto whatever ground you can find, watering with God in prayer, and watching and waiting to see what God is going to grow. 

The mustard seed is the gospel, the good news of the love of God.  As the church we are supposed to scatter that seed with reckless abandon.  And we can water it when we remember, and with whatever bucket we can find.  We are called to be faithful gardeners in whatever dirt we have, sowing without ceasing, and trusting that God will bring the growth[2].  

No matter how small the offering, how little the love, or how inadequate we feel, our job is to sow seeds, to cocreate the kin-dom of God here and now, and most importantly to trust that God is in control.  Our work is to prepare, to plant, and to pay attention to what God is growing.  God is growing the kin-dom of God so that it can provide shelter, support, and love to everyone in this world and the next.  God can make a tree out of a few small seeds and occasionally watered soil.  

Third Church we have a little bit of physical dirt on the corner of Fifth and South Negley, which we recently did do some planting in, but the spiritual dirt we can plant seeds on is impossible to measure.  When we talk about our mission study goals, these are not simply things that we check off the list of activities in our building, these goals are for shaping us as individuals and as a community.  Our goal of supporting women does not end with hosting PW meetings and Days for Girls events in our building, it means preparing soil by pulling the weeds of toxic gender discrimination and water plants of equality.  Knowing our history as an abolitionist church means that we are working in our gardens to be anti-racist and affirming and pulling the weeds of racism and homophobia out wherever we find it in ourselves and in the community around us and supporting work and policy that prepares our common ground so that all people can thrive.  Supporting education especially for those with special needs does not stop with supporting Kentucky Avenue, Literacy Pittsburgh, and The Neighborhood Academy, with our building space along with providing scholarships.  It means that we will also use our privilege of higher education to help our neighbors reach their educational goals and aspirations too.  Our goal of spiritual nurture is all about making watering our personal interior gardens so that we have the love of God growing inside of us, seeds to harvest and share and scatter on the common ground to meet our other goals.  

Pick up your leaky buckets, check out those seeds whose label has worn off, and sew without ceasing because the kin-dom of God is all about growing love.  God gives the growth.


[1] This came from my notes from the elective “The Four Women Doctors: Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen October 25 – November 20, 2020 An Online Spiritual Formation Elective Office of Continuing Education, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary” taught by Sr. Kathleen Flood.  

[2] I got this idea from Richard I. Deibert’s “Mark” from Interpretation Bible Studies published by Westminster John Knox Louisville KY in 1999.

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