From the Tiniest of Seeds
There is probably not one of us in this church who doesn’t remember the Mustard Seed Necklace from Vacation Bible School. It is usually one of the craft projects given out by about mid-week. Everyone files into the craft room, sits down at a table for the teacher to emphasize the theme of the day which is something along the lines of “God uses the smallest for great things.” The children are then told they are like the mustard seed, yes they are young but God has great things planned for them in their life. They all sit down and begin to put their necklaces together-funnily enough, it is the boys who like this project the most. The seed goes on a piece of cotton and then placed in a clear plastic ball. String is inserted, knotted and the creator proudly puts it on. The whole exercise takes about 10 minutes max leaving the teacher to then wonder what to do with the extra 15 minutes. Praying there is not some sort of mutiny in the time left. But the necklaces are proudly worn for the rest of the week. Then put away in a drawer until some unsuspecting parent finds it covered in mold some months later. Asking Mergatroid “Can I throw this away?” He shouts, “NO! That’s my mustard seed necklace.”
The Mustard Seed parable is one of the more well known parables in the gospels. Matthew puts a whole slew of them together. Pithy one liners. Now we don’t know if he said them all at once or spread the material out. After all any good public speaker understands you don’t use all your best material at once. The story goes, a tiny seed planted in the ground, a shrub materializes. Now is the shrub invasive or not. It is left up to the listener to decide.
There are several things going on in this parable which ancient audiences would understand. First Mustard plants would grow wild, growing into a tree is Jesus stretching the truth as pointed out in the book “Preaching Matthew” by Stan Saunders. How else though could Jesus keep their attention? I would rather say the audience is now intrigued. They look at each other quizzically. “What in the world…” But as they know the Old Testament they could readily call up the image in Ezekiel where God lops off a piece of a tall cedar which was probably Babylon and plants it on Zion to remind the people of God’s ability to humble the arrogant. The birds are also a judgement of arrogant powers. So what are they to make of the mustard seed. I imagine Jesus hinting that the small, him and them, is going to bring down the powers-Rome and the religious authorities. That would give them something to think about.
Parables though are fluid and we read them in our own context. So let’s come out of the ancient world and enter the 21st century. What is the one thing we see growing over growing even overtaking everything in its path-kudzu. Doing a little research I found out kudzu grows a foot a day. It is lovingly called, “the vine that ate the South.” I might be crazy but I love kudzu. It is a reminder of the power of nature. Kudzu as we know is virulent, not easy to eradicate. But there is something beautiful in it’s covering of a long ago abandoned shack or filling in the highway trees. There is also something to think about in terms of its patience and staying power. It has nothing better to do than to grow and flourish. Just like God’s love for us lush and rampant.
Which brings us back to the Mustard Seed. If Jesus is talking about something that can be seen as an invasive species which grows wild could we also not see faith as the same? And if the mustard seed once take root is impossible to eradicate. Carefully tended fields are now overrun with it. Jesus is telling his listeners this new way of thinking about God and the world. David Lose writes that perhaps instead of seeing this story as a way of bringing the powerful low, it is an example of God infiltrating the world with a message of hope. A hope that will entice, provoke, prod and eventually move us. The opposite of hope is fear and Jesus’ explanation of the kingdom is not to make us fearful it is to make us fearless. All people need is a little hope-the light at the end of the tunnel to make us realize it is not the great things which change the world but many tiny things strung together which become a force. Think of the butterfly effect: a small butterfly flapping it’s wings in Africa causes some weeks later a tornado in the mid-West. Jesus is our butterfly-one man who has made an enormous life changing, world changing event-now and forever.
Are You Weeds or Wheat?
A clergy person walked up to the bishop, who was in the middle of a conversation with someone, and said, “My job is to be a pebble in the shoe of the those in power.” The bishop turned to her and said, “Well, right now you are being a pebble in my shoe.” Pebbles they are annoying, one in your shoe and it is all you can think about. You may try to wiggle your foot and move the pebble so it slides down and stops bothering you. But it returns and finally you have to stop, remove your shoe and dislodge the offending stone-which by now feels like a boulder. Weeds are a lot like pebbles. They pop up when and where we least expect them. They are as we know annoying. Just as soon as the garden is weeded or the shoe is cleared return.
Here we are again this Sunday with another story from the farm. Or as we know it the wheat and the tares or the wheat and the weeds. The slaves tell the master that there are weeds growing amongst the wheat. To cover their own backsides they question the master-”Hey what kind of wheat are you growing here?” They certainly do not want the blame for something that is not their responsibility. As slaves they would know any blame would be cast on them.
Weeds in this passage are also known as darnels in the biblical world. Darnels looked like wheat but were toxic to human and animals. Interesting the master tells them to leave them be, at the harvest they will be pulled out, separated and burned. Now one of my questions is if they look so much alike, how will they know which is which? A little research told me darnels turn black when ripened and wheat as we know is brown. So what is the problem? If they know what the weeds look like at harvest, other than the time consumed separating them out, it is safe to say no one will be poisoned.
What exactly is this passage about? It is almost smack in the middle of the Gospel. It is as if Matthew is saying it is time to choose a side. Things about to get real serious real fast and you are either with us or against us. We hear this type of language frequently in our world. Choose a side. Good people and bad people. This is no time for sitting on the fence. Make a decision as to who’s side you are on.
Remember President Bush uttering these words to the nation ten days after standing on a smouldering pile of rubble at the World Trade Center, arm slung around a firefighter. He said to to the world, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” We all knew what he was talking about and we all knew the consequences. Weeds are still the terrorists of our collective garden. They seem to come up at night when we are not looking. Events overtake us and suddenly we are left wondering how could this have happened? Why did it happen and most frightening will it happen again? Weeds of fear and horror have popped up and remain with us in our collective conscience. When anything terrible happens in the world, we immediately leap to the weed of terrorism.
As we know though weeds pop up in our own lives or in the church. What do we do with these weeds when we encounter them? There are some who would stomp on every little thing or fear which gives them offense. Always willing to call attention to least slight or the decision which was not one they are in favor of, causing controversy and stirring up the waters. People whom when coming our way, cause our spines to stiffen as we frantically look for an exit. What is it now we wonder-what is the drama du jour? And there always is one. Usually insignificant.
Maybe you have weeds in your life? These weeds are never alone because we are only too happy to visit them and see how tall they have become in the gardens of our souls. Perhaps it is a hurt suffered long ago which just can’t be left alone it grows wild and unchecked. Or an unrealized dream or a missed opportunity. What happens is one thought leads to another and suddenly you are remembering every little thing which has happened over your lifetime and you have choked off your outlook on life. It has become overrun with every wrong or ill ever foisted up on you. The harvest bitter and ugly.
Now there are others like the master who let things be. And there are people who take this same approach to life. Instead of arguing or focusing on every little thing which has happened to them in life, they let it alone. They don’t nurture the bad memories or hurts in their lives but rather allow them to exist alongside the good. The master hints there will be time enough to separate out the wheat from the weeds but right now is not the time.
Jesus leaves it up to the listener to decide who the enemy is in this story. It could be the Pharisees or Gentiles. The point of the story is though, does it really matter? Isn’t it up to the listener to decide who the story is about. If you are landowner, the story is a servant who is lazy and causing discontent among the household. If you are a servant, it is probably the landowner who has you working from dawn to dusk for barely a living wage.
This is still true today for each and every one of us. We can decide who the enemy is that we allow to run rampant in our garden. It is safe to say there is not a person in this place who has not suffered some sort of setback or disappointment in life. Each of us can if we choose, let the bad memories co-exist alongside the good. They grow together because they make us full human beings. I am not diminishing bad things but I am reminded that the sad times, the angry times and the disappointing times make for sweeter good times. They are intertwined .
Our humanity is also intertwined. There are times, let’s be frank, that we are weeds. We are impatient with one another and impatient with the way things are. Sometimes we are not kind or generous because honestly, in the minute, it is just too darn hard. It is easier to be a weed in those moments than to be a stalk of wheat. Fortunately those times are few and far between. It is better to be a stalk of wheat than to be a gnarly weed. I don’t know about you all but I feel better as a person when I see what life has to offer. Even when there seems to be nothing to be happy about. We are all bound together and Martin Luther King so eloquently said in a speech at Oberlin College, “We are all tied together. What affects one of us, affects all of us.” Weeds and wheat we need one another.
In this parable Jesus doesn’t condemn people-he condemned their behavior. He may have been as frustrated by the people he encountered as much as we are. His spine may have stiffened as he saw his nemesis after temple having refreshments. But he had the uncanny ability to see beneath the human veneer we all put on from time to time. What he saw a group of people who were downtrodden, poor and held captive to a system that depended on their bodies as machines. He understood why they were the way they were at times: judgmental and mean-spirited. He understands the same thing about us-we want to judge and categorize people. It’s what we do. Jesus doesn’t discount these feelings but he tells the disciples let the angels take care of that, focus on the here and now. Focus on perhaps what each of us can do to till our own gardens and let God take care of the rest.
God's Dress Rehearsal
"Abraham! Abraham! Take your son. Your only the son. The son you love and go up the mountain to sacrifice him." This is the beginning of one of the most if not the most repugnant stories in the Bible. What kind of a loving God would require this of someone? It is no wonder people prefer the New Testament to the Old Testament. We question Abraham's blind obedience to God. Never mind what kind of a God would ask this? What kind of parent would comply? We put people in jail for this type of behavior. We call it child abuse.
But Abraham sets off with Isaac and up the mountain they go. Isaac with the wood strapped to his back. Abraham walks along silently cursing God for asking him to do this. He momentarily brightens and thinks "God didn't let anything happen to Sarah when I pawned her off as my sister." It will be OK. He straightens up and walks along but then dark thoughts crowd in again. He thinks of Ishmael and Hagar being cast out to appease Sarah. Again Abraham curses God for this but then he remembers an angel saved them both. He reminds himself it will work out. After all he keeps telling Isaac that God will provide. Both he and the boy walk along and in one crazed moment Abraham peers over the cliff and thinks to himself, he will hurl Isaac down off the cliff and then he, Abraham, will jump after him. No. No. That is not a plan. So they keep trudging along.
They reach the top of the mountain and Abraham begins to lay the sticks on the altar. He ties Isaac to the woodpile and pushing his face away from his so he can't see the boys face, he pulls out the knife. An angel appears and tells Abraham to stop. Isaac is saved, but we are still left pondering this story. Again we question the characters. What kind of a God and what kind of a father would require and do such things? Some denominations tell us this is a story of ultimate faith in God. And indeed it is, but I think it is safe to say we don't worship a God that would toy with us like he did with Abraham and Isaac. We worship a God who loves us as we are.
It is easy to follow someone who has authority. I often wonder what I would do with faced with a life and death situation and an authority figure gave directions on what to do. If you will recall, on September 11th the workers in the building were told to go back to their desks that everything was under control. Some did and we know the tragic consequences. What would you do in such a situation? I don't think any of us knows until we are in that situation how we would act. Tragically, we have learned, blind obedience is not always the best decision. If you notice, we never hear about Isaac again and neither do we know if Sarah was aware of what was taking place. Abraham was not only tested by God but his relationship with his son, the son he loved is decimated. How did any of them go on? The toll of blind obedience.
"God! God! Take your son. Your only son. The son you love. Strap some wood on his back after being mocked and beaten have him climb to Golgotha and be crucified." For many years I have had the theory the Isaac and Abraham story is not about Isaac and Abraham but rather God testing himself. As he watches the scene play out between the two, does God wonder could I do that? Could I sacrifice my son? We have our answer. "God! God! Take your son. Your only son. The son you love. Sacrifice him for humanity." He did.