A familiar parable because we’ve heard it before but not truly familiar b/c the images are common to Jesus’ time not our own.
Pictures: Mustard Greens vs. Mustard Plant w/seeds
While the image of mustard growth was common to Jesus’ contemporaries, I thought I could make it more relevant to us, in North America.
1. Perhaps we should rewrite it.
The Kingdom of God is like...
or we could say Johnson Grass, which has been a big problem out in Fauquier county.
You may choose your favorite or LEAST favorite invasive species.
Mustard was common in the near east. It was and is cultivated but it's weed properties can quickly take over. We know from experience in Arlington how that can happen.
Suddenly the parable takes on a different meaning.
Wonder, “what did Jesus really mean?”
I’d like you take you on a journey back in time,
not all the way to Jesus’ time, but just 2 years ago when I was sitting around a table at a lovely retreat center in St. Louis at a writer’s conference for the New Earth Outdoor Ministry curriculum. I wrote for this year’s release and it’s called,
Secrets of the Kingdom
Prior to the week of the writers retreat, we received background on the chosen theme, the scriptures for each day, and a beginning biblical background for each text.
After our opening worship, we had scheduled sessions for each “Day” of the curriculum. They began with an exposition by the Biblical researcher who had done detailed exegesis of the text, original language, and thoughts of commentaries.
The we ‘kicked around’ ideas for our assigned age group or particular task in the curriculum. This year mine was the daily worship for the camp community. This curriculum is used by Shepherd’s Spring, but also by many diverse Christian camps. Some have primarily outdoor rustic activities, others have indoor, due to poor climate conditions, and others use a lot of computers. You had to come up with ideas to accommodate everyone and yet be true to an Outdoor Ministry focus.
The writers were a diverse group, presbyterian, disciples of christ, baptist, methodist, and of course, brethren. Our conversations brought in our individual camp experiences and our understandings of theology. We listened to the deep explanation of the Mustard Seed text and then cut loose on comments.
It sounded like this:
Do you think the K of G is like Kudzu, growing wildly? until it takes over?
Wait, Did you notice, in Mark it’s not a ‘tree’ it’s a bush?
What does the Greek say? - “to what shall we liken the Basileian tou theo?”
Ezekiel was referenced, Jesus and listeners certainly knew the ‘birds of the air’ was a traditional reference for ‘all the nations of the earth’ - which were all the Gentiles around them.
slide: ezekiel quote
Also from Ezekiel, the GREAT cedars of Lebanon were to be the nesting place of these birds. Surely a drastically different image came to their minds when they heard, ‘the birds of the air’ nesting...
slide: image of cedars
Jesus used a well known image of a time to come when all nations gather at God’s command and equally share in the protection of a wonderful home in the great cedars...
slide of quote and cedar
how do we explain all this to campers if WE are just figuring it out?
So, “What did Jesus really mean?”
We kept coming back to this question with increasing disruption in the ways we had previous understood the parable, until someone said,
“wait, everyone was expecting the Cedars image to go along with the place where the birds or nations will one day rest and instead Jesus uses the image of “weeds” - as in - the K of G will be like a field overrun with weeds? Did anyone laugh?
slide: picture of field of mustard bushes
and on and on we went.
It happened every day like this,
Every session a different para
We tried to solve the mystery. Discover the secret explanation.
Yet every round brought us new & surprising. Insights to ponder.
We each ended up with a slightly different outrageous metaphor for the parables.
Like the one I began with, the K of G grows wildly and expands like ivy until you can’t get rid of it? Is that what Jesus meant?
slide: Slide of IVY
We kept looking at the parable like a puzzle, trying to put the pieces together to solve the mystery.
slide: mustard field and plant pix
Mustard the smallest of seeds (actually orchid is smaller but still)
Grows wild, like weeds and yet is also sown for crop
Birds like to nest in it
Yet Birds nesting in the Huge Cedar Trees are a metaphor for the nations in God’s Kingdom.
3A. And don’t forget this was #3rd story about seeds. We heard #2 read earlier and sang it...
(the first story was the sower...)
So Jesus is on a roll’ talking about the mystery of growth. He calls it ‘automatic’ but not like we use the word - done by machines
but automate, “of itself” in other words, the growth happens out of sight. We can’t watch it, but the observant person can see incremental progressions, blade, ear, full head of corn or wheat. . .
You know the saying, the farmer doesn’t help growth by going out and tugging on the sprouts. He or she, sows the seed, may help with a little water, but even the rain is provided by God.
So the growth doesn’t depend on the farmer. once it is sown its up to the inborn, inherent life within the seeds that makes it grow.
“God gives growth”
What does this mean for those of us who try so hard to make things work?
We live by cause and effect - effort and consequence are directly related.
We even use this typical business model in church.
You’ve heard or said things like,
Is our work effective?
What else can we do to ‘grow’ the church? the youth, the children’s class..
If we are living into God’s Kingdom and teaching the way to God’s kingdom - RIGHT HERE, What is the Kingdom Secret Jesus intended us to hear?
And is it a surprising message for ALL organized religion of OUR day, just like it was for the organized faith which Jesus grew in.
(May remove this from sermon) ? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote some of his most powerful reflections after he was imprisoned for participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. An effort to MAKE something happened that needed so much to be done, or so it seemed.
He was frustrated at the church that went along with the state, that was part of the state. He was frustrated at a lack of action by the church.
He could see both the cause and the devastating effect on human life.
And we are likely to agree with him looking back at the Holocaust.
His life with all it’s action, words, and his resulting execution, just prior to the end of the war, is puzzling too. In prison he began to see things differently. He wrote this from his cell,
“There is a need for spiritual vitality. What protection is there against the danger of organization? ..Our relationship to God is not a religious relationship to a Being, absolute in power and goodness, (which is a spurious conception of transcendence), but [it is] new life for others, THROUGH PARTICIPATION IN THE BEING OF GOD.”
I’ll admit it is hard to comprehend his words today. But I do recognize that what faith is really about is “Participation in the Being of God” and that is what we, -- no, not us, but Jesus, -- offers. Participation in God. ... in God’s on-going work, God’s mysterious action, under the ground, often hidden from view, popping up in surprising places that doesn’t always fit with normal business process of cause and effect.
Divine Action is often not recognized as God’s Kingdom... because weeds don’t fit our idea of a good home or a religious experience.
In order to hear Jesus, in order to ‘participate’ in this story we have to Go back to the definition for a parable:
4. Parabole/ means “thrown alongside of”
It’s a a story thrown alongside of life
mustard seed/weed/ bushy image thrown alongside of traditional image of great cedars
K o G then is what?
Like baffled curriculum writers? - Batting ideas around the table?
Since we keep coming back to same question, let’s. .
5. Imagine (for a moment) what Jesus was trying to get people to see and hear.
slide: w/question up the KoG is like
Participation/a few answer
MAYBE the KoG IS like an invasive species?
6. One (more) alternate way of looking at a parable comes from a former comedian now a lutheran pastor...
who has to edit her sermons to remove most of the jokes. She finds it hard b/c there are so many stories like this one.. that are really a joke. “Surely someone in the back of the crowd did laugh out loud when Jesus turned the image of stately cedars into a weedy mustard plant.” says Nadia Bolz-Weber at least until they realized they were the only ones who got the joke..
Nadia says parables are not meant to be solved.
If we try her method, we can take everything I listed earlier, all the clues to the mystery, and throw them out. And maybe then we will get the joke.
She says we should let the parable enter us, vibrate within us, like a fine stringed instrument
let it resonate with what we know,
let it puzzle us, and then
sit with the wonder and a smile on our face. (Christian Century current issue)
7. hmmm so the KoG is more like a joke, - in church
surprising and out of place
a weed instead of a mighty tree
It’s a joke, or maybe a riddle. Just like the rest of the Jesus’ story which is full of the unexpected, the puzzling and mysterious.
- a helpless infant is announced as savior of the world
- who was born to an unwed teen in a barn
- who is a king that demonstrates royalty by kneeling on floor to be a servant that washes his followers dirty feet
- the one we call ‘son of God’ dined with whores and traitors, and tax collectors/who skim off a profit from both side for their living
- a triumphant entry, not with legions of soldiers and chariots, but on a donkey, with crowds of peasants laying down leaves and sticks from trees
- the K of G is a royal “procession --- of a beaten criminal walking toward his execution”2
Are You Confused?
I think we are meant to be.
we are meant to never forget that God’s ways are not human ways.
I think we are to walk away from the mustard seed parable
-with a puzzled smile
-left in a state of wonder
For how and where else will we encounter our surprising God?