“Mustard Seed”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

June 7, 2015 – The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:26-34


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but here in Northeast Connecticut, garden season has arrived. The greenhouses are in full bloom. The parking lots at the nurseries are jam-packed. All kinds of seedlings are stretching up toward the light, just waiting to get their roots out of the flats and into the ground. Shovels and trowels and rakes and watering cans are emerging from basements and sheds. Rented rototillers are a hot commodity. Fertilizers and pesticides, critter repellents and flower enhancers are prominently displayed in the hardware store. And then there’s the garden paraphernalia—canvas gloves and leather ones, knee pads and sun hats, mosquito nets that cover you from head to foot.

I know we have a lot of gardeners in this community, and so I know that you know that gardening takes a lot of work. First, you have to take care of your soil. You have to till in the compost, the peat moss, the cow manure. You have to turn the soil thoroughly so there’s enough air space for roots to grow and worms to wiggle. You have to make sure you have the right balance of nutrients to feed all those plants you want to grow.

You have to lay out your beds. You have to think through which plants are tall and which ones are short, which ones like full sun and which ones like some shade, which ones need a fence or a trellis to climb and which ones need open space to spread. You have to remember what you planted where last year so you can rotate the crops and avoid depleting the soil.

You have to sow your seeds and transplant your seedlings. You have to get the spacing right so they won’t crowd each other out. You have to water enough, but not too much. You have to pull out the weeds but avoid damaging the crops. You have to pinch the japanese beetles and fence out the deer and discourage the rabbits. And, of course, you have to hope the earth cooperates—not too cold, but not too hot; enough rain, but not too much; plenty of pollinators but not too many pests; no hail or high winds to break stems and damage blossoms. A successful garden takes some good luck and a lot of hard work.

But if you leave the carefully-tended confines of your garden and venture to the edge of your lawn or into the woods, you will find plants that grow wild with no human intervention whatsoever. In fact, you don’t have to go far. You don’t have to look hard to find common buckthorn, and japanese barberry, and autumn olive, and multiflora rose, because they grow just about everywhere. Ecologists classify them as invasive species—they are not native to this part of the world, and they can grow almost unchecked, even to the point of choking out native plants.

If you leave the carefully-tended confines of your garden and venture to the edge of your lawn or into the woods, there’s another invasive species you are likely to find. It’s a scrubby green herb, about thigh-high, with triangular leaves and small, white, cross-shaped flowers. It’s not very showy, so you might not even notice it if you’re just walking by, especially if you have your eyes peeled for more interesting-looking specimens.

But you are sure to find it. If you step off the path and walk through a patch of this plant, you will know that you have done so. If you step on one of its stems or crush a leaf underfoot as you pass, you will know that you have done so, because you will smell a peculiar, pungent aroma that will cling to you for the rest of the day. And when you have smelled it, you will not be surprised if someone tells you the name of this plant: garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard is well known among outdoorsy types. It is loved by practitioners of herbal medicine for its various salutary properties. They say if you grind up its roots and heat them in oil, you can make a good poultice to relieve chest congestion. They say if you mash its leaves with water, it makes an effective treatment for insect bites and stings. They say if you take it internally, it’s good for the respiratory system.

Garlic mustard is enjoyed by edible plant enthusiasts. Its leaves, flowers, and fruit can all be eaten, and it tastes like it smells—a mild, garlicky, mustardy, oniony sort of flavor. I can tell you from personal experience that a mixed-green salad with a few garlic mustard leaves tossed in is particularly delicious…

Garlic mustard is loved by herbalists and foragers. But most forest conservationists and gardeners can’t stand the sight of it, because it is one of the most unruly, uncooperative, invasive species out there.

Garlic mustard, it turns out, is a Eurasian plant that made its way across the Atlantic originally as a culinary import. Once it was introduced in North America, garlic mustard spread like wildfire. Deer and other large herbivores don’t seem to like its taste, so it grows pretty much unchecked in woodlands and along roads and paths. It grows faster than native species; it survives disturbance better; it produces compounds that actually inhibit the growth of other plants nearby. It spreads inexorably and transforms the ecosystems with which it comes into contact.

A single garlic mustard plant can produce hundreds or even thousands of seeds in a given year. Those seeds spread where they please, without regard for where you planted your petunias, or your green beans, or your tomatoes. They stay viable in the soil for up to five years, waiting for the conditions to be right, biding their time until the opportune moment to spring forth right between your carefully-laid flagstones or in the middle of your award-winning pumpkin patch.

All of which is to say, garlic mustard takes its invasive species label seriously. Once it takes root, you will never get rid of it. You can try pulling it up; you can try cutting it down; you can try burning it; you can try spraying; you can try praying; but once it takes root, it is pretty much unstoppable.


Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Now, some of you know that I have a background in environmental studies. And as you might imagine, I have some opinions about the problem of invasive species. But in spite of my ecological loyalties, I have to say that I think the kingdom of God is more like garlic mustard than like a carefully-tended garden.

That’s not to say that our cultivation efforts don’t matter. If we till the soil of our communities, we make it easier for God’s realm to take root. If we fertilize it with compassion and generosity, we can help it to grow. If we pull out the weeds of injustice and selfishness that might choke out God’s growing realm, we can nurture the tender shoots of mercy and understanding as they strengthen and begin to spread. What we do matters a great deal—and if you’ve looked at the world around us any time recently, then you know that God’s realm can use all the green thumbs it can get.

But even if we do no such thing, even if we find ourselves distracted and otherwise occupied, even if we grow weary of toil, even if we turn our backs and throw up our hands, the kingdom of God will grow nonetheless. It will spread inexorably and transform the communities with which it comes into contact. Once that tiny mustard seed has been planted, you will never get rid of it. Not hail or high winds, not drought or flood, not insect or rodent or fungus can cut those shoots down. Not violence or hatred, not suffering or despair, not pain or abuse or addiction can keep that plant from growing. There is nothing—not even death itself—that can put an end to it. Once it takes root, it is pretty much unstoppable.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Friends, make no mistake: a divine invasive species is alive and well here in our midst—and even for a gardener like you, or an environmentalist like me, that is good news indeed.



This sermon and some of the ideas it contains grew from work I began while serving at Old South Church in Boston. I am grateful to my sisters and brothers there for the insights and wisdom they shared.