“Please, pass the mustard!”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Ezekiel 17:22-24
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Mark 4:26-34

On hearing that a man was about to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary, a young man said, “Wow, to stay married for 50 years, you must have had a very good woman.” Without hesitation, the husband responded, “Or she had a very patient man.”

Similarly, two elderly women, old high school chums, were sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about the last 50 years. One was about to celebrate a 50th anniversary, the other a fifth. The latter had been married five times and was remarking how she could finally say that for the last five years she had been happily married. She then went on to admire and marvel how her friend had been happily married all that time to the same man. Her friend responded, “Actually I think you and I have always been a lot alike. We both kept learning after high school and after 45 years, we both learned how to have a happy marriage. The only difference is that every time I failed a course, I went back to the same school.”

The following story may be the most touching. It comes from “Life in These United States,” in Reader’s Digest.

“When my husband and I were first married, he moonlighted doing remodeling in people’s homes. One day we stopped by at the house of an elderly couple he worked for, and the husband joyfully insisted that we join them for some ice cream and cake because it was their 50th anniversary. ‘Fifty years!’ I exclaimed. ‘That’s a long time with one person.’

“‘It would have been a lot longer without her,’ the husband replied.”

I am fascinated by how many people readily tell the world what they will do with the money if (or is it “when”) they win the lottery. Now, if you’re wondering what that sentence has to do with the beginning of this devotion, too many people approach many aspects of life, including marriage, with a kind of lottery attitude: “Nothing ventured–nothing gained,” going in, “No great loss,” going out.

When it comes to marriage, few of the “lifers” that I know will tell you that the reason for their success is that they picked the right number and won the grand prize right off the bat. Most of the really good stuff in life doesn’t emerge full-grown. It comes about through a long-term investment. A fellow told me that it takes about five years to turn even a decent plot of ground into a good garden. Five years! No wonder I’m not a gardener. I’m the guy that thinks there ought to be luscious and fruitful watermelon vines growing next year where I spit the seeds this summer. I am confident that the entire plant world is grateful for the fact that I’ve given up messing with them and they no longer have to live in dread of my brown thumb. They doubtless think it is an act of mercy on my part, but it is probably more the result of frustration and little motivation.

Working with plants takes a lot of patience. It also takes faith. When it is successful, it also takes adequate amounts of fertilizer, sunshine, water and maybe some tender loving care. Good gardening is not a matter of spitting a few seeds or buying a lottery ticket. If you’re looking for the quick answer, the big solution or the fast buck, you’re barking up the wrong bush.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses two parables to teach His disciples some patience. First He tells of the fellow who sows seeds and then waits patiently for ol’ mother earth to do her thing with them. Jesus draws out the process one step at a time–first the blade, then the ear, and then the full grain in the ear. Only after it’s all over can the farmer break out the sickle and reap the harvest.

Then Jesus tells another horticultural illustration of the kingdom of God. (I know a professor who calls these “agristrations.”) In the second parable, Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed that, in the course of a year, becomes a substantial shrub. Horticulturists tell us that Jesus used hyperbole (exaggeration for effect) about the size of the seed and the plant, but the point is well made. According to one source, an orchid has the smallest seed.

Apparently, Jesus’ disciples were a little disappointed with the way things were going. When He called them to follow Him, they believed that He embodied the long-expected arrival of the kingdom of God. Perhaps they expected the light for the blind, liberty for the captives and justice for the oppressed to take a little more forceful approach than that of an itinerant preacher, sharing a message of hope and peace and grace and Good News. Maybe they thought their own lot as His followers would be a little more glorious than walking dusty roads with steep hills, and dealing with clamoring crowds and hostile Pharisees.

Jesus says they should take it one step at a time–first the blade, then the ear, etc. He also says that the tiny, mustard-seed-beginning, with which they were apparently disappointed, would eventually blossom into more than their greatest expectations. I suppose, in their own way, the disciples were like impatient Americans–fast-paced, power-hungry, after the biggest slice, wanting to get rich quick and find instant happiness.

Perhaps they should have had some clue to God’s rather laid-back approach to things when they first heard the stories of how their super hero entered their part of the universe. This conqueror of evil kingdoms and toppler of unjust governments doesn’t come burning into our atmosphere in a space capsule, wearing a bulletproof cape. He comes wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. His first “claim to fame” is ducking out of town to avoid Herod’s henchmen. The disciples still had to learn of His destiny–not a palace in Rome or even a throne in Judea, but a cross on Golgotha. Of course, that brings up another “agristration” about a seed falling into the earth and dying before coming back and bearing much fruit.

If Jesus’ disciples were worrying that He maybe couldn’t cut the mustard, He told them to just keep planting those seeds. When missionaries get discouraged because more people don’t respond to the Good News about Jesus, when Pastors get frustrated that more people don’t attend worship, when parents wonder what will ever become of their kids, when marriage partners get bored or disenchanted, when the American Bible Society envies the circulation of magazines like Playboy–Jesus reminds us to keep planting those seeds.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never performed a marriage ceremony for a couple who intended to be married less than five years or even 10. I am confident that I never baptized anyone who intended to become a delinquent church member the next year. I seriously doubt that anyone I know ever deliberately chose to become only a half-hearted, uncommitted, unwilling and non-working child of God. At the same time, I have seen people in all these circumstances sow exactly those kinds of seeds or, more accurately, fail to sow the kind of seeds that would have produced more desirable results. Do you sow the seeds of Good News about Jesus that God has abundantly supplied to you?

Jesus used agristories to emphasize several important points. He told one to emphasize the receptivity of those to whom the Word is preached (sown). Another stressed the patience, faith and hope of those who sow. All of this leads to another story promising results–great results, bearing great fruits. It all comes back to those of us who have received the Good News in an unlimited supply–keep on sowing! “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” Please, pass the mustard.

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