June 21, 2015
Probably we’ve all learned that mustard grows from a teeny tiny seed, and that once it takes root, it can be very hard to restrict to one place. It’s why farmers in Jesus time found it annoying. While some species of mustard are good for medicinal purposes, or for flavoring, in actuality, wild mustard is a WEED! Weeds, it seems to me, are simply plants we can’t control.
Given all that, it makes me wonder what Jesus was up to when he compared the kingdom of God–which is to say believers, which is to say, US–to mustard. Jesus thinks of us as a weedy annoyance? I know we are a growing body, and that an organic image is a good idea, but why didn’t he quote Ezekiel, who speaks so poetically about a sprig of cedar on top of a high mountain? Why didn’t Jesus speak of us spreading the mighty branches of our community over the land so that all kinds of creatures come to rest in our shade? Isn’t that a more suitable image for church?
It certainly seems to encompass what Paul is trying to tell the Corinthian church. Open up your eyes, so that you see everyone you encounter as Christ. Begin to break down the divisive blocks you erect between you and whoever it is you think of as “other.” Isn’t that the exact message Ezekiel’s poetic description of the cedar is trying to get at?
Now Jesus did mention creatures finding rest in the shade of the mustard bush. He points out that birds will come to nest in its branches. Isn’t that just what every farmer wants? Birds to come and nest in the midst of the crops? My neighbor has been out of town for a couple of weeks, and told me I could pick whatever strawberries grow in her garden, but although she has had some pretty red berries grow, the birds always peck them into pieces before I get to them. I understand that sometimes farmers erect netting and ribbons in their crops, or erect and forms called SCARECROWS precisely to Scare off the crows (and whatever other sort of bird might want to come near). What is Jesus talking about, inviting the birds to nest in the middle of the garden?
No doubt Jesus had a sense of humor, so some of this comparison of his followers to a noxious weed that provides hospitality to the unwanted birds is probably to get us laughing at ourselves, singing that country song, “I’ve got friends in low places….” But maybe Jesus is using this parable to pointedly remind us of what brings about real change. Calling us cedars wouldn’t provoke us as calling us weeds. Although occasionally pure beauty results in dramatic transformations–I know I’ve had life-changing moments in front of a wonderful painting, or in the midst of a great book or piece of music. But most of the time, change happens because the present condition is uncomfortable. Ask any baby.
Change occurs when people are discontent with the way things are, when something agitates us so much that we can no longer sit still. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to say about the church. That our role is to be a community impossible to ignore, not because we are so lovely and righteous and comfortable, but because we are annoyingly constant. It’s not too different from Jesus suggesting last week that when the church is most closely following him, people will think we are out of our minds at best, and possessed by demons at worst. A church that acts like mustard may not be respectable in the same way that a cedar tree is, but when the kingdom of God is on the move, it is certainly harder to contain! When Christians rise up as our truest selves, the rest of the garden trembles. We threaten every idol our world holds dear.
Jesus himself was considered a weed by his community, you know. Why should we expect anything different? Religious authorities were irritated by his radical reinterpreting of Scriptures to include in God’s favor all kinds of people they thought ought to be excluded. Jesus did not keep the proper cleanliness or behavioral codes–he touched the untouchables, healed people even on the Sabbath; he told the rich to give to the poor whether or not they “deserved” charity; he invited the alienated and lonely people to come and have dinner with him. Jesus didn’t preach or teach or live like the rest of the plants in the garden of the faithful.
The political authorities of his time certainly thought Jesus was a weed. He spoke of a kingdom more powerful than the Roman Empire that everyone thought dominated the world–a kingdom where forgiveness matters more than being right, where compassion surpasses revenge, where all people are sisters and brothers, not divided by race, religious convictions, or any other artificial boundaries. Jesus promised this kingdom that had nothing to do with military might or social status. He instructed his disciples not to keep silent when injustices occurred around them.
You know where all this lead him, right? To another tree. Not a mighty cedar with wild animals resting in its shade, but a cross, bits of wood cut up and reshaped to become an instrument of torture. In his refusal to condemn even those who condemned him, Jesus took the strongest stand anyone could take against violence. He loved people even as they called for his blood. He loved people even when they destroyed his body. And the jaw-dropping, miraculous truth is that in our baptisms, that goodness is extended to all of us. As God’s beloved children, we are grafted onto that tree of life, that powerful living, loving force that nothing, not even death, can kill. When Jesus calls us to be mustard, he is calling forth that kind of unstoppable, unexplainable infiltration into our world’s systems of power and domination.
Jesus calls us to practice resurrection wherever and whenever we encounter death. Perhaps the first image of the planter in today’s lesson from Mark is the best way to explain this. Take the seeds of hope. Whatever it is that makes you hang on when there doesn’t seem to be anything else to hang onto, plant those seeds. Put them out in the world. Look after them–water them and nurture them. And then let God do what God does–bring life from them.
Jesus did not come to earth to say that everything is ok, and everyone is ok. He came to this world to speak the truth, to realign our allegiance to God, to the creation, and to our neighbors near and far. We don’t get to sit back complacently and say, “Well, let’s pray about that situation” unless we are open to the possibility that the answer to someone else’s prayer might be our actions. Sometimes God answer prayer through the hands and voices and votes of believers. Our bodies and blood are God’s own, and we are called to employ them in bringing about the kingdom of God.
Though some people want to say the church an irrelevant social club, when we are at our best, we are a dangerous, sneaky, unstoppable company Jesus is using to change the world. My fellow mustard plants, God intends to use our spice and heat to alter the whole garden. Let us give thanks for our community of weeds and God’s enduring love and presence with us. Let us bless the world with all that we have and all that we are. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider