The late 19th century Philadelphia Pastor named Russell H. Conwell, who founded Temple University, raised money to build that school by giving literally hundreds of lectures across the country. And every lecture Conwell gave included a true story which he called, “Acres of Diamonds”. It goes like this:
“There was once a farmer in Africa who heard about others making fortunes by discovering diamond mines. These reports so exited the farmer, that he sold his farm and started to wander the African continent in search of the beautiful gems. But after many unsuccessful years of searching, he became so deeply discouraged that, finally, in a great fit of despair, he threw himself into a deep river and drowned.
In the meantime, the man who had bought the farm toiled the land faithfully. And one day, while working, he was crossing the stream that ran through his property and noticed a large `piece of crystal’. He brought the stone home and placed it on his mantelpiece as a curiosity.
Sometime later, a friend from the city came to visit the farmer. Noticing the odd crystal, he hefted it in his hand to examine it more closely. With a gasp of astonishment, he suddenly realized that his friend the farmer had discovered a huge uncut diamond. Which the farmer could hardly believe since he knew that his stream was liberally strewn with such `crystals’. But it turned out to be true.
This farm turned out to hold one of the largest diamond mines in Africa.
The first farmer had, in reality, owned acres of diamonds, free and clear, and yet he didn’t know it. He sold them all for a pittance so that he could look everywhere else in vain for his life’s treasure … All of his dreams could have come true if he had only seen the diamonds God had placed in his own backyard, as it were” (from You Are Talented, Patrick Kavanaugh, Chosen Books Pub., 2002).
Jesus taught mostly in parables for a reason. He explained why to his disciples by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
And so he offers a string of parables referring evocatively to things that are hidden: a great treasure hidden in a farmer’s field; a really valuable pearl hidden in a shovelful of ordinary pearls; good eating fish hidden amidst the rest of the catch.
The mustard seed parable implies something hidden as well.
As one points out, “Almost weightless and growing into weeds that spout up wild, they would not often have been deliberately sown in the neat rows of a farmer’s field. [We might] thus wonder: is the primary emphasis of this parable on growth, or does the parable of the Mustard Seed [along with these other parables which follow] point to something invasive and unpredictable about the kingdom of God?” (Theodore J. Wardlaw, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word)
“Mustard seeds—lying undetected in a big sack of some other kind of seed—are finally thrown onto the waiting soil in the same handful as that other, more dominant seed; no one suspects for an instant that any plant other than the one that is planned will spout and grow up. . . [The mustard seed] is hard to see, hard to keep an eye on, but it has a way of mixing with what is more noticeable [and perhaps more expected]. At the end of the day, as it germinates and sprouts and grows, its final result radically reorients what is expected.” (ibid.)
I mentioned last week Diane’s garden in Davenport. The other thing that happened was that she found this little yellow flower springing up in bunches, and had no idea what it was. So we took a handful of it to the garden center, while we were going to buy more birdseed. As soon as the garden center person saw it, she cautioned, “Oh, that’s mustard weed. Pull it up and throw it away. Or before you know it’ll take over your whole garden.”
The disciples probably assumed that the planting and cultivation of the kingdom was more orderly and predictable—where what is planted produces exactly what is expected. But Jesus did not say that, `The kingdom of heaven is like neatly laid out furrows of carrots or soybeans; or like beautiful rows of lavender or cotton or grapes.’
“Mustard seeds just hide there in the sack of other seeds or in the hand of an unsuspecting sower” (ibid.). And then they spring up and take over the entire garden.
During the height of Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu did an interview on PBS in which he said something that seemed very curious at the time: “When the white people arrived,” he said, “we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, `Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.”
At the time that comment seemed a hapless seed to sow. But now we see that Bishop Tutu had detected the mustard seed: it was the great faith of people like himself, Nelson Mandela, Alan Boesak and others which cultivated the moral authority and spiritual fortitude necessary to overcome the oppression of Apartheid.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure surprisingly discovered right in the farmer’s own well-ordered field. The kingdom is like a pearl of great value hiding in amongst a bunch of ordinary pearls. It’s like a little bit of leaven hidden in the dough to make the bread rise.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that goes entirely unnoticed and then grows into the most prolific plant in the whole garden or field.
We Presbyterian-types tend to like a well-organized field. We prefer our lives – and our religion – to be predictable, staid, stable. We like things to stay in their place. Which, as one remarked, is why we make all our furniture really heavy and then bolt it to the floor. We lay out the pews in nice, neat rows where we can always find our proper place on Sunday mornings. We have the reassurance of traditions we depend upon; familiar liturgies, doctrines and theology which we sink our roots deeply into.
We have a long established committee structure whereby we allow ideas to germinate in due order and cultivate gradually, so they don’t get out of our control. And so we know just what to expect from the seeds we sow.
Yet hidden within what we think we see so clearly or know so well, the kingdom of heaven – and often in rather subversive ways – intrudes and yields something previously unnoticed; transforming the well-ordered convention of our lives, and our faith, into something unexpected and extraordinary.
The farmers of Jesus’ day – as do many today – consider mustard a trash plant. But I discovered that it has some surprising attributes: it can grow about anywhere in the world; it’s increasingly used as a cover crop, containing within its plant tissue, seeds and roots compounds that work as soil biofumigants, which kill nematodes (roundworms) and pathogenic fungi as part of a process to prepare the ground for cash crops; the plant is entirely edible enhancing the flavor of salads and other foods; it has surprising nutritional value, rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium; it’s even been link with a number of health benefits containing generous amounts of phytonutrients proven valuable against maladies from various kinds of cancer to psoriasis to cardiovascular health to respiratory disorders.
In fact, the oil extracted from this species of seed contains a constituent called erucic acid, ordinarily toxic, but which proved, quite astonishingly, to be the magic ingredient in Lorenzo’s Oil, in the treatment of the rare brain disorder ALD (adrenoleukodystrophy).
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have a well-ordered garden or field. It’s good to have well-thought out and time-tested doctrines, theologies, polity, and traditions to draw from; to give a sense of structure to our faith; to give us a sense of place, belonging, and identity.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss those things which spring up unpredictably in this ancient garden. We shouldn’t be too quick to uproot those ideas that seem subversive; or dismiss those rather uncultivated innovations and surprising revelations which seem to come unbidden from some outside Source.
Jesus’ parables are as instructive for us today as they were for those first disciples. They are encouraging us to be more willing to let go of our fierce sense of control over the church, let go of our assumptions concerning the nature – or potential – for its growth.
I believe Jesus is exhorting us to nurture that tiny seed which burns within each of our hearts in the hope that something new and unexpected might, indeed, happen when we walk into this place, open these age-old texts, and engage in our well-worn traditions. Something that forever radically reorients what we expect to happen here.
The story is told of a man who had been on the outs with the church ever since his adolescent days. The church, he said, was too concerned about the rules, so he left and said he was finished with it. His father worked on him, begging him to give the church another chance, and finally the man agreed that he would. He got up the nerve one Sunday and wandered into a church. The congregation was in the middle of the prayer of confession. “We have done those things which we ought not have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.”
The man heard that and smiled to himself. “Good!” he said. “This sounds like my kind of crowd.” (ibid.)
To be sure, preserve the rich soil of tradition, doctrine, theology, liturgy and polity which has so long nurtured us in our reformed faith. But also be sure to make room in your hearts for something entirely new and unexpected to spring up in this primordial garden.
For God tells the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth. Can you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise!” (Isaiah 43:19ff)
(*Grateful acknowledgement to Theodore J. Wardlaw for much content and guidance from his Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word.)