He might as well have told us that the kingdom won't grow unless it's buried in the dirt.
The kingdom of God begins in a womb of darkness where there's no air to breathe and life is pressing in from all sides, leaving the seed trapped with no escape. The weight of the world bears down upon it. Plus, if the dirt is any good then it's called compost, which is a fancy word for manure that's been aged long enough to become black gold. The seed is emptied into a world entrenched in violence, division, and deep loneliness. It takes root in the heart of the mourners, the meek, the poor. God's trajectory in Jesus is fundamentally down and he is only lifted high when he's put on a cross. The kingdom of God isn't this far of place; it's here, in the manure of our world.
If your life is imperfect and broken, then that's the kind of soil God prefers to be planted in.
God seems to have a propensity for small and insignificant things. When God creates there is only chaos and a dark void, but then there's light and order. God chooses the little nation of Israel amidst the world's powerful kingdoms. And when God lifts the veil to truly reveal Godself, we don't see a soldier or a king on a throne. Instead, God becomes a seed placed in a poor, teenagers body, Mary. Here's a list of synonyms for God: I Am Who I Am and an infant in a feeding trough; the Lord and an itinerant rabbi; El Shaddai and an enemy executed by the state.
The word we use to describe God is omnipotent, or all powerful, and that's a fine thing to believe, but God's almighty kingdom doesn't take the shape of a kingdom like Rome. The Kingdom of Rome was compared to an eagle flying at high speed, crashing into its prey, and latching its talons into its flesh. God's kingdom is less assertive--just a mustard seed. Shall we put this on our flags? We are as strong and mighty as, well, a seed.
Jesus' metaphor should restrain us from conflating God's kingdom with the United States.
My mom has this mustard seed necklace--a simple gold chain with a kitschy little heart that holds a mustard seed levitating in the center. It's so simple that she almost threw it away, but said to herself, "how can you throw away the hope of a mustard seed?" A seed, at least, is a promise that there will be something more. Wherever there is a seed buried in the dirt and the manure there is also hope. A tiny thing can become a bigger thing. A little seed in the ground. A little yeast in the batter. Michael Pollan, a food writer, said that ancient cultures used to think that bread-making was magic. You’d start with a little ball of dough and yeast, but the yeast feeds on the starches and releases carbon dioxide. The gluten traps the carbon dioxide. Then, your bread somehow doubles in size overnight creating enough sustenance for the entire family. It’s a miracle akin to the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus says we have this small seed, but when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants.
Here's the problem: this is, to put it generously, not true. A mustard seed does not become a mustard tree. It grows into a mustard shrub, no bigger than, say, 20 feet with a single nest of birds. Ezekiel compared a mighty kingdom to a cedar tree, large enough for birds of every kind to nest and find shelter. But Jesus compared his kingdom to a mustard shrub, which to the original listener, was a weed. The Kingdom of heaven is like a weed. It's a nuisance like kudzu. It grows and spreads and you can't seem to get rid of it. God plants it in your heart and it takes over until it no longer belongs to you. It started so innocently--you joined a church and a few years later you're on the church council, member of the choir, and the soup kitchen team. It appears that your life is no longer your own. We think that God makes no discernible difference in our world, but at the end of a long day or year we may look back and realize that something has grown resiliently and obstinately through the rocks, thorns, and hardened soil.
Can we please have our garden back?
This is why, I presume, Jesus was arrested by the state. He was a nuisance and a threat to all of our manicured gardens. But you can’t get rid of the Kingdom of God with a bottle of Roundup or a cross. It's just not that easy. The powers of the state locked the seed into the darkness of a tomb and sealed the stone tight. But we know that the darkness is fertile soil for something new to grow. Three days later, new life began to peek out of the ground taking shape and sprouting new branches for the birds of the air to nest. Now the seed is planted and will one day grow in every heart and atom of creation. And if you look closely, you'll spot the seed hidden in all the world's crosses, the lives that are falling apart, and the crises that are too big for such a small seed. It's there, germinating, and waiting to burst into new life.