When I was in seminary in Atlanta, I had a church job my first year and I would spend my weekends in a little town about an hour’s drive out. It was one of those churches built about a hundred years ago that was in the style of James Flanders where the altar seemed to be in the corner of the room and the pews were curved and spread across the expanse of the rest of the room like a fan. These pews were also on a hard wood floor incline, like in a theatre, for better visibility, with red carpet in the aisles.
I was asked to lead a children’s sermon each Sunday for the many children that regularly attended this church. The text came up that summer of the parable of the mustard seed, though from Matthew’s version when Jesus said, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.” (That’s a challenging text, even for children. Because, well, when has a mountain ever actually been moved?)
So, I asked one of the farmers in the church about mustard seeds and did he know if they really are small. And he gave me a little bucket full of these tiny little yellow seeds. I had my children’s sermon!
I thought giving each child a couple of these tiny seeds would make the point of how small they are and that just a tiny amount of faith can move a mountain. But, of course, when the time came, each child wanted a whole handful. And some of them ate the seeds and some of them threw the seeds at little sisters and some of them dropped their handful down the back of the shirt in front of them and we ended up with mustard seeds all over that pretty little church. They were rolling down those slanted hardwood floors during the sermon and the sexton probably quit on Monday.
I’m not sure if anyone got the point of the parable of the mustard seed that day, but lots of folks still remember the day we were all covered in them.
These summer time readings we are working our way through from the Gospel of Mark are mostly parables with agricultural images often thought to be about growing as a community - something I mentioned in last week’s sermon. I said then that we, like the good people of All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna Tennessee, whose journey in farming on their land was made into a movie - we too could grow a community in the way that they also grew a farm. I said then that this means caring for the old trees as well as tending new plants.
That image of an old tree is strong and Jesus reminds us in the parables from today’s Gospel lesson that all things created by God and nurtured through faith are capable of growing into strong trees.
Or at least, that’s the usual interpretation. It makes us feel good, though perhaps not challenged, but we feel good and we go back to our lazy summer days.
I’ve been struggling with that a lot lately, of the expectation of sermons to be “feel good” moments of the week. A parishioner at my last church told me that one Sunday. He said, “We don’t want all that theological, heady stuff. Most people just want to hear a nice story and go home.” And, well, getting restored by attending church on Sunday is good. That’s the intention. But I like to think of the Eucharist and the prayers and the music as restorative. A good sermon ought to challenge us a bit.
So, let’s dig a little deeper.
The old testament story we are working our way through this summer is about the beginnings of the kingships of Judea. The people wanted a king after the era of the judges and begged for a king to be chosen. This was mostly because they wanted a strong defense department because they felt threatened by the big armies of their neighbors. So, Yahweh allowed them to have Saul as their King, but this decision did not have a good outcome.
We read today that God regretted letting Saul be King. Following warrior Kings instead of wise leaders like Samuel who prayed and listened to God was not a good path to start down. So, God asked Samuel to anoint David who would be at the ready when the time came for a new era.
Then Jesus came and asked us to shift our thinking entirely away from kingships. Jesus shook up everything, turned all of our perspective about the world and how we think we should run our world, upside down. Jesus came and taught peace and love and gave his life for us to realize that we only need God. We don’t need kings.
One of my favorite children’s stories is the one about the giant and his garden. Do you remember that one? He was a selfish giant who wouldn’t let the children play in his garden but then his heart was changed, he was transformed in some way and tore down the wall and let the children play there.
It is actually a story by Oscar Wilde. It began with children playing in the beautiful garden while the giant was away for seven years. Then he came home, found them there, ran them off and built a wall.
“'My own garden is my own garden,' said the Giant; 'any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.' So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”
And so the children went away and winter came. And winter stayed. For years the selfish giant’s garden was plagued by the absence of Spring. Until one day when the children crawled into the garden through a hole in the wall and began to play there again. Then winter finally ended and the giant saw signs of Spring breaking through.
The giant’s heart melted, he was transformed by the coming of the children and the coming of the spring and he went to the garden to play with them but they ran away in fear. Except one small child who the giant lifted into a tree the child wanted to climb but could not reach. The child hugged the giant and the other children saw the transformation, that the giant had changed, and they came back.
This small child was unknown to the other children and he disappeared only to return at the time of the giant’s death years later. This smallest child was the Christ Child who came back to take the Giant to paradise.
It’s an odd story. Scholars have interpreted the story in many different ways. Many dismissed it because of Wilde’s personal life. (He was imprisoned for 2 years of hard labor because of his homosexuality. His wrote of his personal spiritual journey while there.) Most agree Wilde meant it to be a Christian story about the transformation of faith. But I don’t think Wilde was just setting up an allegory of the individual’s faith, as in, the giant was transformed and so all was right with the world and then the Christ Child, whom he helped, came for him and took him to heaven. The end.
I think this is allegorical of the entire church. The church is transformed when we remember the Christ Child and tear down our walls. It is collective.
At first glance, the story of the mustard seed reads like a simple children’s story too. It reaffirms things people have already learned about God’s kingdom: something very small will eventually morph into something much larger; also, something that appears obscure and insignificant will turn into something public and grand. Yet there is more: the reign of God won’t just grow for the sake of looking pretty, but creatures will find that it provides them shelter and security.
Those are all important points, but they cannot capture the real energy in this parable. The parable’s punch comes in at least two funny things which Jesus says.
First, God’s reign isn’t like any ordinary seed. In some ways it resembles a mustard seed. This is not the kind of crop most people would sow. Where Jesus lived, mustard was prolific like a common and sturdy weed. It could pop up almost anywhere and start multiplying. Some of Jesus’ listeners must have groaned or chuckled. Imagine him speaking today of kudzu. But bigger. And more useful, since mustard has a range of medicinal qualities. In any case, the reign of God apparently isn’t much of a cash crop. Yet it grows. It is not easily eradicated. Good luck keeping it out of your well manicured garden or your farmland. Better be careful what you pray for when you say, “Your kingdom come…”
Second, Jesus describes the fully grown mustard plant (probably brassica negra in Galilee) as “the greatest of all shrubs.” At this point, some of his listeners probably snorted and laughed. I Googled brassica negra yesterday and found a smallish, scrubby little flower. It can grow dense, but it is hardly a magnificent tree. Jesus must have been grinning as he spoke. He was not aiming to impart insights about the relative worth of shrubberies but to shock people into a new way of perceiving greatness.
The humor and the absurdity are part of the main point. Jesus could have likened God’s reign to the cedars of Lebanon if he wanted to describe an in-breaking state of affairs that would cause people to drop everything and be impressed (see Ezekiel 17:22-24; see also Ezekiel 31:3-9; Daniel 4:10-12). Instead he describes something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up, to take over inch by inch, and eventually to transform a whole landscape. Fussy people might deem this uninvited plant to be too much of a good thing. Others might consider it a nuisance, but what about those who, like the birds, need a home where they can be safe? They will be happy.
The parable therefore depends on satire. Just as it reorients the image of birds and majestic trees (in Ezekiel 17:23), so too it promises to upend a society’s ways of enforcing stability and relegating everyone to their “proper” places. The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness.
As a result, some people will want to burn it all down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields.
Jesus didn’t use parables to give us a feel good moment before an afternoon nap. And the time the children made a mess in church with a bucket of mustard seeds really was a good lesson after all. Because it is in the messiness, like Saul’s sinful ways and eventual failure as king, like all our failures when we try so hard to be a good church and end up in messy places. We learn. We live better.
The Kingdom of God is most likely found in the smallest, the weakest, the and the ugliest among us. If you look there you will find the transformation of the love of God. It happens all the time, every day, all around us and even giants and powers and principalities fall on their knees eventually to worship the one true King. The King of Kings.
I got some new glasses this week. They’re RayBans. I feel very cool wearing them. The prescription on my last pair of prescription sunglasses was so old I wasn’t able to see very well. When I got these everything was so clear and beautiful. I’ve been wanting to go on drives just to enjoy them.
Yesterday, Kate and I drove over to Floyd and ate dinner and enjoyed the long way back along the ridge above Indian Valley. We watched the sun set as we headed West back to Radford. It was somewhere over near Carthage or Snowville that it dawned on me why everything was so beautiful in those fields and vistas. I was literally looking at the world through rose colored glasses!
This reminded me of the many ways our eyes can be opened to the beauty of God’s creation and God’s ways among us.
I use to think that the parable meant that faith as tiny and insignificant as a pin head sized seed was enough to move a mountain. It would give me the power, if I wanted, to move a mountain.
Faith opens our eyes to see all the ways that God is moving mountains, on God’s terms, in God’s way. Not ours. Not ours to do. Just ours to see. If we only open our eyes and have a little faith.