I remember very fondly the first day Jennifer and I landed in England. The parsonage, or the manse as they call it, wasn’t quite ready for us, so the church put us up at the Red Lion Pub which also operated a bed and breakfast. We were provided a huge, traditional English breakfast with eggs and beans and blood pudding and sausage and a grilled tomato, but we still needed some more food later on that day. So, Jennifer sent me down to the local grocery store to pick up some bread and deli meat and cheese for some sandwiches. And, she reminded me to be sure to get some mustard.
So, I walked down to the grocery store cooperative and navigated its aisles to find the bread and the deli counter and picked up some ham and cheese. As I walked toward the checkout lines, I remembered that Jennifer would send me back down to the store if I failed to grab some mustard, so I perused the sauce and spice aisle and I found more varieties of mustard than I have ever seen. There were rows upon rows of French Dijon mustards, whole grain mustards, sweet and hot German mustards, they even had French’s American style mustard. But then, I spotted it-Colman’s Traditional English mustard sitting there on the shelf in a variety of packaging.
I have always been one to sample the flavors of the areas I visit, and I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to try some “traditional English mustard.” I had never even heard of English mustard before, but it was made just a few miles away from where we were in Norwich, so I thought I would give it a try. I put a small metal tube of Colman’s mustard in my basket. And let me give you all a tip…never buy any sauce that comes in the same packaging that paint and glue come in. But, nonetheless I stood by my choice and I went up to the counter to check out.
I placed my items on the belt and casually waited for the cashier to bag my groceries. She just stood right there and didn’t move. I looked around for a bag boy, but there weren’t any. The cashier smiled at me and said, “Ah…you must be American. You aren’t in America anymore lad, and over here, you bag your own groceries.” I apologized and put my groceries in the bag and paid the equivalent of $22 for a few ham and cheese sandwiches and some mustard. The cashier noticed my mustard choice and asked me if I had ever tried it before. I told her “No, this is my first time.” She said, “Now be sure you really pile it on thick! Whatever you do, don’t be stingy with it!” I thanked her for her kindness and helpfulness. And I grabbed my bag and trekked my way back up the hill to the Red Lion.
I made us a sandwich and I unscrewed the cap of this traditional English mustard but there was a piece of metal covering the opening. I noticed it had one of those pointy caps that was used to open it so I punctured the tube of mustard and squeezed several healthy lines of mustard on the bread, being careful not to be stingy with it (like the cashier recommended). I sunk my teeth into the sandwich, and my eyes suddenly felt like they were going to pop out of my head. I started dripping sweat and crying and breathing heavy. My eyebrows started to melt off of my forehead and the hair on my head felt like someone had set it on fire. Jennifer hadn’t yet bitten into her sandwich, and she asked me what was wrong, to which I tearfully replied, “Oh, nothing.” But I saved her the agony of experiencing the local culinary delights of traditional English mustard. It is almost as hot as wasabi. Mustard can be a very pungent and fiery spice.
Jesus tells us this morning that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When it is sown into the ground, it is one of the smallest seeds. But when it grows up it becomes a large shrub so that the birds of the air can come and make their nests there.
I love how certain parts of Scripture baffle us and confuse us, but then something happens in our lives and all of the sudden, we find some new insight into these holy words and we understand it so much better. I dare you to get some Colman’s mustard and put a big blob onto your sandwich. You will quickly learn one of the meanings of this parable. A little can go a long way. Although just a tiny amount of ground mustard seed goes into the stuff, that small bit packs a big punch. Although the mustard seed is small, it grows into something much, much larger. This is one thing this parable teaches us-that small groups of people can accomplish great things, that small efforts can have a grand effect, that our small church can indeed change the world.
I want to give us all a challenge here today, and it is not just a challenge from me-it is a challenge from God. I want to challenge you to bring just one person to Christ. If we were to start with a group of just 20 people seeking to bring others to Christ, in one year, that number would be doubled. In just five years, there would be 640 new Christians. In ten years, there would be 20,480 new Christians. In twenty years, that number would be just shy of 21 twenty one million (20,971,520)!
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Just a few, faithful people who devoutly and earnestly share their faith with others can have an absolutely dramatic effect on our world. Talk to just one person for starters, a friend, a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker. You don’t have to hand out a tract, you don’t have to tell them they are going to hell if they don’t come to church, you don’t have to pound it down their throats. Simply extend the invitation and live after the example Christ has given us. If we live lives of joyful obedience, if we live lives of service to others, outsiders will try their best to have what it is that you have.
Pliny the Elder, who lived between 23 and 79 A.D., wrote about the mustard plant in his encyclopedia “Natural History”:
With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny, “Natural History” 19.170-171; Rackham et al. 5.528-529)
As Pliny the Elder reminds us in our modern, industrialized times, mustard was a weed of sorts. It spread like wildfire. Once it started growing somewhere, it spread all over the place. The Jewish law book called The Mishnah prohibited it from being grown in a small garden, because it would take over everything. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like that mustard seed. The kingdom of God starts off like a small seed, but it can’t be contained. Soon, it has not only grown into a large plant, but it has started to spread. But you know, that’s how the kingdom of God really is…it is not content to stay where it is planted. The kingdom of God cannot be compartmentalized to Sunday morning between the hours of 11 and 12. The kingdom of God cannot even be compartmentalized to our own personal religious experiences. The kingdom of God is meant to be shared.
That cashier in the grocery store really played a mean trick on me. She knew I had never tried English mustard. And she told me not to be stingy with it. The next time I went to the grocery store, I was sure to go through her line. When she saw me, the first words out of her mouth were, “Did you like the English mustard?” I will never forget the big smile on her face when she asked me that. She told me that Colman’s was her favorite and that I would be sure to fall in love with that little flavor of the United Kingdom. She looked in my basket and saw four tubes of traditional English mustard. I told her, “I know a few people back home that need to experience this.” The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed–whatever you do, don’t be stingy with it. Amen.