Of course Jesus knew the writings of the Old Testament prophets. So when he asks the question in today’s gospel text, “To what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” the tree that would have normally come to mind for his audience is the cedar mentioned by Ezekiel, in which every kind of bird, and every winged creature, would find a nest.
But Jesus loved to turn expectations on their heads. So what did he say instead? “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? Well, it is like a mustard seed which is the smallest of all seeds, and yet, it shall grow, and it shall become the greatest of all…shrubs!” A shrub, Jesus? Seriously? What happened to our noble cedar?
Still, at least the point of these two images from Ezekiel and Mark would at first seem to be somewhat parallel. “Both parables are about hope in the Kingdom of God. Both affirm that God will accomplish great results from small beginnings.”  The kingdom of heaven starts out small, like a seed, but sow the seed, and the kingdom will expand in astounding ways.
Look how one woman, the recently sainted Mother Teresa, began her orphanage in Calcutta with resources as small as a mustard seed. She told her superiors, "I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage." Her superiors chided gently, "you can’t build an orphanage with three pennies...with three pennies [it just isn’t possible]." "I know," she said, smiling, "but with God and three pennies I can do anything." The materials God uses may at times seem inadequate, but once God gets to work, the results can be extraordinary.
A closer look at Jesus’ parable also shows us it’s a bit more complex than it seems at first. First, it’s interesting to note that this parable appears in three out of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke writes that the mustard seed “grew and became a tree” (Luke 13:19). In Mark, “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs” (4:32), and Matthew conflates the two: “When it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matt. 13:32).
No matter which way you read it, though, you’ve got to love the hyperbole here. After all, a mustard seed is small, but it’s by no means the smallest of all seeds. I remember as a child hearing this parable in Sunday School, and having just planted truly miniscule carrot seeds in our backyard garden, I have to say I was a little thrown as I looked at the far larger mustard seeds in my teacher’s hand. Mustard seeds actually aren’t that tiny, relative to other kinds of seeds. It’s certainly also an exaggeration to say that a mustard seed grows into the “greatest of shrubs,” much less a tree.
Preaching professor Tom Long suggests, though, that “Jesus … has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty political kingdom is like a great tree.” Powerful kingdoms are supposed to look like the massive cedars of Lebanon. And what does Jesus offer? A humble mustard plant. The kingdom of heaven is like…an overgrown shrub?! Long says, “The main point remains intact – the kingdom grows to great size from very small beginnings – but another important point gets made as well: This greatness does not come in the form we expect.”
As I understand it, wild mustard is hard to control, too. One commentator notes, “The mustard plant tends to take over where it is not wanted … tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon … [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties.” 4
So… this kingdom Jesus proclaims isn't necessarily going to be tidy and orderly. “Rather, the kingdom comes to overturn, to take over, to transform ...”
It’s worth considering, I think. Where can we see God's kingdom sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of our world? Where do you see God's kingdom infiltrating and upending things, even though at first it might not seem obvious or particularly grand?
Have you ever caught a glimpse of God’s kingdom, of people truly living in God’s way, in an act of kindness in the face of bullying? In an act of bravery in speaking truth to power? In an act of compassion in the face of pain or need? Think of these acts as tiny branches of a growing plant, one that’s continually expanding and thriving under God’s watchful eye, able to bring life and hope wherever it goes.
There’s one final reflection I want to make on this morning’s text, and that is on the power of a simple shrub.
Keep in mind that Jesus told this parable to a group of disciples who were impatient with the slow results of their work. They wanted action, and they wanted it immediately! Jesus reminds them here that God's kingdom is not in their hands. It’s in God's control and things may take time. Genuine progress can be slow. Still, mighty things can come from small beginnings.
So we don’t need to lose hope when things move more slowly than we’d like or when it seems darker forces are winning out, because Jesus assures us that God's kingdom continues to spread and move in ways we may not even perceive.
We also needn’t worry about our size. And by that I don’t just mean that I shouldn’t be discouraged that I’m only 5’3” and both of my daughters long ago left me in the dust, height-wise. Admittedly the phrase “small but mighty” has some personal appeal for me. I’m actually talking about the size of a small church family like ours.
I have great respect for larger churches. As some of you know, my husband very happily serves a large church here in Seattle, and the good work that bigger congregations are doing is significant. The parable of the mustard seed, however, reminds us that we don’t have to be a mighty cedar mega-church with thousands of members or millions of dollars in our budget to make a difference in this world. All we have to do is be the exact size God calls us to be, and God will bless the world through us, will spread God’s kingdom, through us.
And in fact we’re going to be focusing more intentionally on stretching our branches and expanding our vision in the coming year, of what God can do through this particular congregation. Our Deacons are going to help us focus on a different outreach organization every month, with displays in the narthex and information on the back page of your bulletins each Sunday and opportunities to see where your mission dollars are being put to work through our church budget. We’ll also regularly be offering hands-on ways to demonstrate our compassion for those in need, like our collection of household supplies this month for refugee families. Next Sunday we’ll welcome a speaker from World Relief to tell us more about what life is really like for those who’ve had to flee their homes in the Middle East and elsewhere, and he’ll share with us ways we can become more involved, as a whole congregation or even as individuals.
There are so many wonderful organizations spreading out their particular branches of God’s kingdom and impacting our world. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We don’t have to do God’s work all on our own. We simply have be the people God calls us to be, and take advantage of opportunities to participate in amazing ministries already happening all around us. Every one of us can find a way to pitch in.
So take heart, fellow branches in God’s ever growing mustard plant. If we simply seek to be faithful, heaven only knows what God can do for the world - heaven only knows how God can expand God’s kingdom - through the people sitting right here in this room.
After all, “with God and three pennies, we can do anything.”
 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation
 The Rev. Dr. Hugh L. Eichelberger, http://day1.org/894-a new perspective
 Long, Matthew, 153.
 Garland, Reading Matthew, 149-50
 David Lose, http:www.workingpreacher.org