short version: the Reign of God is a fast-spreading weed, not a majestic tree; a movement, not a monument. Trust it anyway. I wanted to conclude with "let it infect your life" but apparently "infect" is a yucky word. I mean "infect" in the sense of "infectious smile" or such. LET YOUR LIFE BE TAKEN OVER BY GOD'S RULE.
and while you're at it, sing "Crown Him with Many Crowns" because it's an awesome song, and conclude with "the Canticle of the Turning."
Dandelion Seed Faith
06/14/09 Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City (my home church!)
Here we are with two agricultural parables for the Kingdom of God. This is a happy coincidence for me since I’m currently in the midst of a parish internship at an extremely rural church, and cultural orientation includes learning some agricultural basics. If you want to ask me after the service I’ll be happy to brag about my experiences with cattle branding, sheep herding, wild mushroom gathering, and the like. I am particularly close friends with a certain sheep-herder and I must say some Bible verses have come to LIFE while hanging out with her and the lambs. The sheep DO know the voice of the shepherd, and will not listen to me.
I think this is important to learn because I, like most citydwellers, have been generally isolated from the practices of agriculture. Most of us do not milk our own cows, gather our own grapes, kill our own chickens, or grind our own flour. But this isolation would be an uncommon luxury in Jesus’ day. Most of the population especially in Galilee would either be full-time farming, or at least raising some of their own food. Animals and plants were a major part of the Biblical world. So if nothing else, my rural internship is helping me gain insight into all those passages in the Bible where a basic knowledge of agriculture is presumed!
So here we have two parables. The first one is about a seed growing by itself in the ground; the second is about a tiny mustard seed growing into something much bigger. At first BOTH these parables seem like they have clear messages. The kingdom is like something that grows, which is organic, a natural process, and it eventually produces increase, prosperity, and abundance.
But I think we are missing something, particularly in the parable of the mustard seed. There is irony in this parable, and it is an irony that we miss because we aren’t very involved in agriculture. Now one part is clear – a small seed turns into a large plant. And the seed of a mustard plant is indeed appropriately tiny. But! The mustard plant is actually not very large. Mark records Jesus as saying it becomes “the largest of the herbs” or “the largest of the vegetables,” which could be true, depending on what you are comparing it with. But mustard seldom grows as tall as a person, and most of the leaves remain near ground level. It is a stretch to translate it as “the largest of shrubs” as the NRSV does. And it is an annual plant – unlike a tree or bush that loses its leaves and keeps its trunk or stem – when the mustard loses its leaves each year the entire plant dies.
So, okay, we have some exaggeration on Jesus’ part. A tiny seed does grow into a big plant – maybe not the biggest of shrubs – but tiny to big – we get the point, right? / But no, there’s another factor that makes this confusing. Jesus goes on to describe the mustard plant as if it were a tree, saying that “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” What did he mean? Birds cannot literally make nests in a mustard plant, because it is not a tree – it is a leafy herb and it does not have strong branches. Most people don’t like to think that Jesus could have said anything that wasn’t actually true, so they say Jesus would have meant “the birds can perch underneath it.”
I think that Jesus meant the birds would make nests on the branches, and that he KNEW this made no sense, and that he said it anyway. He was recalling an Old Testament prophecy. Ezekiel prophesied that a cedar tree would be planted on mount Zion, and that all kinds of birds would come to roost in it. This is essentially an image that says all the nations of the world will come flocking to Jerusalem, where they will be protected and sheltered. And that seems very much in line with what Jesus preached – salvation to the ends of the earth, centered first on the Jewish people and then spreading to all nations.
But while he chose to reference the symbol of the cedar, jesus did NOT actually say: “the kingdom of God is like a cedar tree.” This mustard plant might be attracting birds like a cedar tree does, but it is not a tree. The cedar is a time-honored symbol of majesty and power, while the mustard is a medium-sized, invasive, generally unwanted weed. It is great only in the way the dandelion is great. No one plants a dandelion. They arrive by storm on the breath of playful children, and their seeds settle and take over. If cedar trees are majestic institutions, mustard plants and dandelions are subversive movements. And Jesus has deliberately mixed these images, creating a mustard plant which does what cedar trees do.
Two other gospels go a little farther into this parable. Without getting into criticism of the other gospels, I will only point out that Mark was written earlier, while Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels later on in the course of oral tradition, when the stories had been passed down with little more interpretation attached to them. Both Matthew and Luke, in telling Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, say that it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and becomes a tree. Now THAT is a miracle, on par with something like a lettuce tree or a watermelon tree. It is even more ironic and mystifying. If Mark said “the reign of God is like a tiny seed which turns into a plant which is like a majestic tree,” --- then Matthew and Luke said, “the reign of God is like a tiny seed which turns into a plant which is a majestic tree.” They chose to emphasize the tree more.
We don’t know why the disciples started focusing on the tree part of this interpretation, but I think this is familiar and to be expected. Even if we know that the reign of God is like an ironic mustard plant and cedar tree combination, it’s easier to talk about the cedar tree side of that combination. This is because Israel was compared to a cedar tree… Assyria was compared to a cedar tree… countless kingdoms of this earth have expressed their power and might by comparison to the noble, majestic, BIG STRONG CEDAR. We’ve got a working vocabulary for talking about how the kingdom of God is like a tree. And as for that irony about how it’s really a mustard plant, well, it might be easier to skip over that part.
It seems that over the generations, Christian folk have often forgotten the ironic half of this statement. Christianity in many places and times has been more about the institution than about the movement. How else could Christendom become so confused with wordly power, with wars carried out in its name, inquisitions, and violent imperial conquest of much of the world in the name of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace? Missionaries and soldiers went out all over the earth in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and sometimes it was hard to tell who was the soldier and who was the missionary. An African proverb says “when the missionaries came, they had Jesus and we had all the land. Then they asked us to close our eyes and bow our heads and pray, and when we opened them, we had Jesus and they had all the land.” People mistakenly thought that Christian government was equivalent to the kingdom of God, and that it would grow in the same way earthly kingdoms grow – by conquest of land and growth of population.
This is not just about things that happened in the past. As we go to other nations preaching to them about the Kingdom of God we often bring more of the institution – the majestic cedar tree – than of the movement – the invasive mustard plant.
My favorite visual for this is the stage at the front of Kampala Pentecostal Church in Uganda, where my sister and I used to go for some vibrant English-language worship services. Try to imagine how wonderful the music was there -- in Uganda, the pearl of Africa, the heart of drumming culture, the home of the best drum-makers in the world. Close your eyes and you hear great songs sung by a talented choir and an enthusiastic congregation, accompanied by a nice set of drums made by Yamaha. To me that said that they were caught up in the American expectations for what church should be. Yes, the missionary group who set this church up has brought the Gospel to Kampala, and an infectious, spicy, mustardlike enthusiasm with it – but somehow this wasn’t all they brought. The gospel message was tied up in expectations of what a church was supposed to look like and sound like, and what the pastor was supposed to wear (a business suit), and all the other cultural elements that build a cathedral or an empire or a majestic cedar tree.
The good news is that the Reign of God is not limited to the spread of Christendom. Christendom, from our ancient stone monuments to today’s billion dollar Christian Music industry, often looks disturbingly LIKE the kingdoms of this world, as if it is trying to prove something by its size, and grandeur, and brute strength, by how many votes it “has” in congress, or by how many of “its” books hit the bestseller list. It is very tempting to try to grasp and prove God’s reign in such tangible measurements. Samuel tried to do the same centuries before, he tried to choose the strongest and most handsome son of Jesse to be king. God kept proving Samuel wrong – and David, the youngest and weakest of the family, was chosen instead. As much as we may try to catch, control, direct, and manage this institution, God’s reign is not our job. The growth of the kingdom of God is in GOD’s hands, and it grows by itself, organically, naturally. God’s reign IS spreading over the earth like mustard through a field of grain, like dandelions through your nicely trimmed lawn. It is as irresistable and invasive as a weed.
So I have some agricultural reflections now that may shed light on this parable about God’s reign, in continuing to wonder why Jesus chose to speak of a mustard seed.
One point is: mustard is tenacious. It does not call for the good soil of Jesus’ other gardening parable. It can thrive on uncultivated soil and in rocky places. Mustard multiplies at the rate of up to four thousand seeds per plant, and broadcasts them far and wide. One individual plant can be uprooted, of course, but the odds are that mustard plants – as a group – will manage to grow and take over.
Another point is: Not everything can grow at once. In late spring when the ground finally thawed in Oregon, I went out to weed my garden. I have two agricultural advisors, one a cynical old rancher, and the other an idealistic flower child. We looked at a flowerbed popping up all over with wild Shasta Daisies, and the one told me “pull them out, they’re weeds!” while the other said “leave them in! they’re organic!” I looked at the space I had available and chose to leave about a quarter of it inhabited by daisies. Two months later the plot was at least 50% rugged, tall daisies and I had to reluctantly relocate the rest of them, because: they were blocking the light for my prized tomatoes and peppers. Those delicate little plants couldn’t thrive in the shadow of the robust daisies. The point is: if one plant grows exponentially, like my daisies did, another plant will wither just by being in its presence. The Reign of God opposes and undermines the corrupt kingdoms of this world, as Mary sang in the Magnificat: you have brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
Another disorienting point is this: mustard is an annual. It does not grow bigger and bigger as time goes on; it dies every year and grows again from the seed it has spread abroad. So if we and all the nations of the earth are to come like birds and roost in the shade of the mustard plant, we will not be guaranteed that there even IS a particular mustard plant in the same place it was last year. We will be flocking to the shade of an unpredictable and temporary plant – wouldn’t we be better off just finding a nice stable cedar tree instead? That is always our temptation – to cling to something that looks strong and familiar – but we are invited instead to put our trust in this other Kingdom, very different from the ones we know.
The good news is that God’s reign IS spreading over this earth like a mustard plant. It shifts, and moves, and dies and is reborn with every generation, because it lives in people, not in permanent stone monuments and cathedrals.
We see the mustard plant in revival and renewal movements throughout the ages. One of the most interesting new ones is called New Monasticism. They are a group of a dozen or so monastic communities spread around the United States. They are similar to other monastic movements the world has known in that they call for lives of simplicity, obedience, and prayer. They are different because they are open to couples and families as well as committed single people, and because they have started to redefine their own practice of the religious life. My favorite example of such a community began in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, when some homeless families took up residence in an abandoned church. Before long some authority or another found out about them, and made arrangements to have them removed. A group of young, idealistic, and passionate Christians found out about this and went into action. They moved into the church with the homeless people. Taking the verse seriously that said “whatsoever you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me,” they printed fliers that said “Jesus is getting kicked out of church” and raised an enormous ruckus about the whole scenario. Well after a few weeks of this life, money was raised for transitional housing for all the homeless families, and they all began to move out of the church. But the movement didn’t stop there. For the young people who printed the fliers and moved in with them, this experience had created such a deep tie of solidarity, and a passion to live out the gospel with their whole lives, that a new community was born out of it. They found a place to live in the same neighborhood, living a life of service and solidarity and commitment to the Gospel.
Another intriguing monastic community was temporary, like the mustard plant, but while it existed it was called the Psalters, and they were a singing group who committed ALL their time to their mission. They left their homes and lived together on a bus. They traveled around the country, singing songs of praise to God and witness against injustice, in the psalmist’s tradition of crying out to God for justice to be done.
That is another mark of weeds, and of God’s reign in our lives. They are infectious; they take over. It may begin perhaps with a weekend mission project or a single prayer, but it can affect your career, your living arrangements, your family planning, and what you buy, what you eat, what you give away. One mustard plant can produce four thousand seeds… so it should come with a warning label… when you allow your spirit to truly pray “your kingdom come / your will be done” you are giving God’s mustard seed permission to root and grow and broadcast seeds throughout the field of your soul.
May we have that courage, to let God reign in us here and now, to invade our lives and take root in our world, and scatter seed, unpredictably, uncontrollably, and full of the vibrant LIFE that God brings to us and our world. Amen.