The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee, Bishop of Chicago
Proper 6B - June 17, 2018
Who doesn't love the parable of the mustard seed? It's almost become a cliche, one of those images from the bible that has infiltrated our consciousness so deeply that we don't even wonder where it came from. There's this parable this morning about that tiny little seed producing very big results, and Jesus' related saying to his first friends that if they only had faith the size of a mustard seed, well then, they could move mountains. And we get the point, right? Good things come in unsuspectingly small packages, God doesn't need obviously important looking things to make something great and good out of them, that sort of thing. Just remember the reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. All those big, strong sons of Jesse pass by the prophet, all obviously looking like possible king material. And yet the one God was really interested in making king was the youngest kid, David, out there on the hillside throwing rocks at his father's wayward sheep. That's the one, says Samuel. And the rest is history.
We like this kind of stuff. At least I do. It is of great comfort in those times when we feel insignificant or not quite up to a task. When life seems hard and faith is far away, it's good to remember that God doesn't need much that's great and glorious to get us through and work his purpose. David didn't look like much of a king. The littlest bit of faith can move mountains. The smallest seed, says Jesus, can produce astonishing results. Just consider that little bitty mustard seed.
Well, yes. All that is or can be comforting and assuring. Nothing wrong with interpreting Jesus's stories that way ... Except I'm not quite sure that those common and comforting ways of listening to the mustard seed parable are right. I'm not convinced that's what parables are for and I'm not at all sure that cozy and reassuring is what Jesus meant to be in telling them. Parables are stories designed to upend our normal assumptions, their purpose is to get us to view the world differently and to shape our actions in new ways. Think of that other beloved story of the Good Samaritan -- the star, the Samaritan, is the one person in all the world a good, church-going Jew would not have expected to be cast as the hero. Jesus tells that story to explode his hearers' narrow definitions of who my neighbor is.
So back to mustard seeds. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, while there were some medicinal and culinary uses for mustard, it was definitely not something a careful gardener would ever have intentionally planted in a cultivated bed. Mustard bushes grow wild, quickly covering hillsides or taking over abandoned parcels of land. It is a wildly invasive species and would easily overrun and ruin a carefully laid out garden.
So pick your favorite weed – crabgrass, dandelion, buckthorn – that’s pretty much what Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to. Oh, and that part about the birds finding a place to build their nests? Maybe Jesus meant it to be a comforting image – shelter from the storm and so forth. But in the parable he tells just before this one, he describes birds in less than favorable ways – they eat all the good seeds off the path. You don't really want too many birds around your strawberries do you? I wonder if Jesus is suggesting that once mustard shrubs take root, all kinds of things happen including the sudden presence of “undesirables.”
Looked at this way, Jesus’ parable is challenging, even ominous. As one biblical scholar puts it:
The point ... is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses-if you could control it. (Crossan, The Historical Jesus).
In other words the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims isn’t something we can control. It’s not something we’d even want, at least if we’re even a little satisfied with the way things are. No, the kingdom of God comes to over turn, to take over, to transform the kingdoms of this world. Which is why, of course, Jesus’ preaching and teaching stir things up, both then and now. Maybe that’s why we prefer again and again to domesticate the scriptures and even distort them - sometimes with blasphemous results - like the way a certain reading from the Letter to the Romans is being used to justify the outrages taking place on our border with Mexico. I can hardly imagine any practice sanctioned by the government of this country more clearly opposed to the Gospel of Jesus than what’s going on now.
I've often thought that we don't exactly practice the best principles of truth in advertising when we baptize people. Typically enough we welcome parents and godparents to the font as they bring their small and beloved baby for holy baptism. We ought to spend a lot more time warning them about the way of life they're about to commit this child to living. We sign the newly baptized with a cross after all, not a smiley face. The promises and vows of holy baptism we're all about to renew in a few minutes commit us to something wild and uncontrollable, to a way of life empowered by the Holy Spirit who blows just when and where she will, we promise to live in ways that will invite the Kingdom of God to become just that much more real in this world. Listen to those promises: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you respect the dignity of every human being? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? These are not the values most of this world lives by. They're not much of a game plan for getting ahead and staying there. They aren't guaranteed to ensure my personal security and safety. They will not bless the status quo of who's in and who's out, who is acceptable and who is not, who wins and who loses. It's not the world of Wall Street and Presidential policies that we're after - it's the reign of God. And if we are to believe Jesus this morning, then we must be prepared for that Kingdom to be on God's terms and not our own. It will not be neat, it will not be tidy, it will not be tightly controlled. The most unlikely people might well show up, and who knows who we'll find beside us at the dinner table? The short answer is one you know well here: Everybody. Everybody. Everybody.
So dear friends here at St. A’s, let's throw some seeds around, no matter how small they may seem. There's no telling what God will do with them.