Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mustard Weeds...

When I was young, and I would ride to see my grandparents in Tuscaloosa, there was a long stretch of road through Coaling where the hillside, the buildings, the billboards, even the telephone poles were covered in kudzu. It was at once breathtakingly lovely, and a little frightening. If we slowed, if our car broke down, would the kudzu overtake us, consume us, smother us in its deep and beautiful green?

I wonder today: if we were to slow down our breakneck pace of forever working, forever striving, forever consuming, forever chasing stimulation and entertainment and immediate gratification, would the Kingdom of God overtake us, consume us, and smother us in its lovely, graceful embrace?

Mark 4:26-34
He also 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, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are, in this world, words that don’t seem to go together. I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase “jumbo shrimp,” for example. And in today’s Gospel reading, we have another example: “the greatest of all shrubs.”

A shrub, great? Really? And what’s the big idea of associating the Kingdom of God with a bush, anyway? Why not a mighty fortress, like the hymn by Martin Luther? Why not a flash flood that covers the whole land, or a bright white cloud that expands from horizon to horizon? A mountain whose summit pierces into outer space! Something big!

But no. A shrub.

And it gets worse from there, really. In our culture, we think of mustard as a condiment: something that comes in a bright yellow bottle that you put on a burger or a hot dog or a soft pretzel, or if you’re like me, on everything humans consume. For the adventurous there’s spicy brown mustard, and for the truly daring, Chinese hot mustard.

But to those first-century Judeans gathered and listening to Jesus speak, it’s a bit of a comedy routine from the moment Jesus says that the mustard seed is sown. Planted. On purpose! Hilarious, because the mustard plant was a pervasive and despised weed. It popped up everywhere, encroaching on carefully tended land, offering no benefit whatsoever to the hardscrabble subsistence farmers who were listening that day. It was an insane comparison, the mustard seed would never have been sown! They spent a good portion of their energy keeping it from growing in the first place, for cryin’ out loud!

It would be exactly like going and cultivating kudzu, or seeding your lawn with dandelions.

But, you know, the more I think about it, the more this parable makes sense.

John Dominic Crossan suggests that “The point [of the parable]… 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.”

This Kingdom of God began gathering in small groups of prayerful people, huddled in the dark corners of synagogues or dusty courtyards, men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile and Samaritan. The rich and the influential were few and far between in these gatherings; rather, the message of new life in Christ tended to attract those who had nothing to love about their present existence of servitude and poverty. There were no towering cathedrals, television preachers, or building campaigns. Not a single pane of stained glass, no organs, no bulletins.

To the outside world, there was nothing attractive or useful about this ugly little band of slaves and women worshipping their crucified god, these pesky birds attracted to the shade of this mustard weed bush of a church. In fact, the idea that these little nobodies would dare to ignore all the perfectly sensible gods that kept the Empire safe and prosperous was offensive to the rich and powerful Roman authorities. They slashed and burned, cut and destroyed, dug up and decimated the weed of the early church, determined to stamp it out once and for all.

Yet the Kingdom not only grew but thrived, spreading even while its citizens were being tortured and killed by the rulers of the known world. Send one to the lions, and three hundred pop up over here. Crucify another, and three thousand show up over there. Like the mustard weed to the first-century Judeans, or the kudzu to you and me, the Kingdom of God was uncontrollable, unstoppable, pervasive.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? The very idea, that a shrub could be such a dynamic force.

And now here we are, two thousand years removed from the morning that Christ walked free of the tomb, dropping the chains of death like a discarded napkin. Christianity become first legal, then mandatory, then institutionalized, then fragmented.

And is that all there is to it? Is the Kingdom of God reduced to a jumble of fractured, disparate denominations, constantly warring within and outside themselves over points of doctrine or how wide to draw the circle of acceptance, alternately condemning or ignoring one another’s existence? Is this all that is left of the wild, offensive, unstoppable Kingdom of God?

Oh no. There is so much more.

Take away every church building, every pew and pulpit, every hymnal and offering plate, erase every doctrinal statement and theological treatise, and in the end you will find that you’ve removed nothing at all, because the Kingdom of God transcends all of these things.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – this tiny mustard seed – is within us. And for this Kingdom at work within us, there is no limit. The words of the parable, planted within us, have the power to alter irrevocably not only our spiritual existence, but the trajectory of life for all those we impact with our words, our talents and treasures, our love and grace.

The Kingdom is alive and well, still rampant and rude, still persistent and inescapable.

The Kingdom within us calls out to each of us to realize that our lives are more than the sum of days lived and dollars earned. Life has meaning beyond the walls of home or church or workplace. Life means so much more than our own self-interest and ego. After all, we humans, we seedbearers, live in relation to one another and to the world around us. And in that relationship we find the meaning of the kingdom and the worth and value of our lives.

Annie Dillard once observed, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

This is the picture Jesus draws with the parable of the mustard seed. Even today, the Kingdom of God is exploding around us, and we seedbearers are called to sow God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s Word, to spread the branches of the mustard weed and draw the circle wide, to strap in, pull our helmets down tight, hang on, and live the adventure!

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