Sunday, February 27, 2011

Consider the Lilies, How They Fade.

TEXT: Matthew 6:24-34
Preached today at Montclair. Enjoy.

Oliver just read us a scandalous text. Throughout the history of Christianity, people have appreciated the poetry of the lilies and the birds, but they also have tried very hard to find ways to get around it, to say somehow that it doesn’t say what it says. What it says is: Consider the lilies. Don’t worry. Consider the birds of the air. God takes care of them, and therefore God will take even better care of you.
This is a problematic statement, in all kinds of ways. The first problem that comes to my mind is a Peanuts cartoon, in which Woodstock the bird hears this verse, asking if a human being is not “of more value than many birds,” and he goes off totally depressed, and Snoopy has to cheer him up. That verse is not fair to birds.
The second scandal, this one a little more serious, is that it doesn’t necessarily WORK, at least not to cure us of our worrying. If you don’t believe me, find an anxious person – I bet there are many of us who identify as such – tell them to consider the lilies, and stuff some flowers under their nose and see if they are cured. Better yet, tell them “the Bible Says, you shouldn’t be anxious,” and watch them have a panic attack because now they feel guilty for feeling anxious. I do not recommend using this as a treatment plan for anxiety.
The text is also scandalous because it seems to tell us not to work. And what would happen to our society if we all stopped working? We can’t ALL be hunter-gatherers in the woods, there just isn’t enough to go around.
What’s more, it’s upsetting because we know we need more than food and clothing… education, for example, and technology… so it’s insulting to compare our complex needs and requirements with the simple existence of birds and lilies. This text is riddled with problems. How can we interpret it?
One hint for interpretation is that Jesus may not have addressed this message to everyone. The Sermon on the Mount begins by saying “his disciples came to him,” so it probably includes the twelve famous disciples, and an inner circle including women as well, but it’s not addressed to “everyone.” These are verses of particular encouragement to a particular group of people. Some of them were fishermen, but some may have been farmers, and some of the women were employed in spinning and weaving. The point is that these are people who used to sow and reap and labor and spin, who no longer work in those vocations, because they have given them up to travel on the road with Jesus full-time. These are people who know well what it is to work, but who have willingly put their work behind them. By leaving their work to follow Jesus, the disciples have abandoned their means of supporting themselves. So maybe the message about birds and lilies isn’t meant to challenge us to STOP working, but to console people who are no longer working.
So some of us can heave a sigh of relief. Jesus isn’t addressing this to us, after all! Some, however, are in a similar life situation – where you do not sow or reap or labor or spin – some are there willingly, because you have saved up enough from your previous work to retire or take a self-supported sabbatical…. But some are in this kind of situation unwillingly, because of injury or misfortune or old age. Keep in mind that regardless of how we are living now, most of us at some point will face such a situation, where we are no longer ABLE to work, and these words will take on a new meaning for us.

When you can’t work, and your savings run out, these words need no interpretation. They speak for themselves, with good advice. God loves you. Don’t worry about the future. Just take it one day at a time.
I did my internship in the hardscrabble hills of Eastern Oregon, where many people live off the produce of the land and have known what it is, at least at some point, to be in need. One woman told me that when she had more than enough, she could go out hunting – for fun – and never get a deer, but somehow whenever she was desperate and wondering what she could put on the table for her children, it seemed like a deer would just walk up to her in the woods and offer himself to her. Or a neighbor would ring the doorbell and drive off, leaving a basket of food just exactly when she needed it. Some call this coincidence and some call it providence. In such situations, the verses about lilies and birds need no explanation. They are a comfort and consolation.

But for those of us who fortunately have clothes and food and don’t need that kind of comforting, what does this passage do for us? What can we say about it?
No matter what our context, everyone can hear this as a challenge and an invitation to simplicity. Of which most of us are in desperate need.

Everything around us teaches us to fight, to scramble, to survive. Work harder, worry more, save more, plan more. We’ve been groomed our whole lives for the culture of competition and the evolutionary scramble to the top, and along the way, if we step on some other people, that’s just the cost of doing business. We push them down so we can stand on their heads, because we need to rise to the top.
But in Jesus’ words of challenge, we are being invited BACKWARDS, going down that ladder of competition instead of up it. We’re being invited to remember that we are, simply, animals; to compare ourselves to plants. But that is not easy to do.

Consider the lilies – how they grow.
Consider how they poke their heads up, early in the spring,
Consider how they bloom, how gorgeous they look.
But consider how they fade, how they wilt, how they scatter their seeds and die back down to a bare root for the winter.
Consider the birds – how they live.
Consider the food they find all around them without working and farming the land.
But consider the birds that find NO food around them.
Consider the birds of the Gulf Coast.
Consider the birds whose habitat is being destroyed.

I don’t want to compare myself to that kind of bird! So we might think that here the metaphor breaks down, that Jesus only wanted us to naively consider the happy birds. But let’s try to take it farther.
Consider a lily in harsher climate than ours, one that came up too soon, one that has been snowed on – a flower that is freezing, wilting, and dying.
It still doesn’t worry! It still doesn’t fret about the future, or the seeds it hasn’t produced. The grass of the field is alive today, and tomorrow it is burned in the oven, and all of this is part of its natural life cycle.
I remember as a child when our family’s cat was slowly dying. I was worried about him. Was he scared? Was he confused? And although no one knows what was really going on in the cat’s head, my mother told me that cats don’t worry about dying.
I may be leaning away from the Christian and more toward a Native American kind of understanding here, but in some sense I believe that animals know some simple things that we have forgotten, and one of those things is that death can be a friend.
It’s not just in the animal world that we see such radical trust and acceptance. In Jesus’ example himself we see that although he admitted his fear, in the end he was not too worried to give his life away.
It’s not necessarily because Jesus believed he was going to heaven. That idea took a long time for the early Christians to develop. Even before we put pearly gates and golden streets in our minds, Jesus and his disciples were able to face death as a transition, knowing that even death could not separate them from the boundless love of God.
(turn page)
It’s a hard world out there. And we are taught to fight, and to deny the reality that we will ever die. We keep our mortality at bay by constantly struggling up the ladder of achievement. We may not THINK we’re stepping on anyone’s shoulders to get to where we are, but we still buy shoes made in sweat shops, and blueberries picked by underpaid immigrants, and we fill our cars with the same sludge that swamped the Gulf of Mexico. We are stepping on a lot of shoulders – whether human or any other creature. Because we have to keep ourselves UP, you see, and we will sacrifice anything to keep ourselves on top. But the painful truth is that this struggle doesn’t even work. It hurts us, it hurts others, it lays waste the earth and pollutes the seas. We are finding more and more that we cannot be healthy and whole while we destroy the world around us. When we get to this point we realize – even if the Bible doesn’t tell us how the earth was really created, it does tell us one important thing: we didn’t create it ourselves. And for the most part, we can’t control it either.

The good news that comes with this recognition is that another way lies open before us. We can recognize the world around us as a gift, and we can take a path of simplicity, of trust, of natural connection. On this path we will not be the ones on the top, who control everything from a place of untouchability, immune to every disaster – but just grateful, humble participants.

I wonder, what this path will look like?

For some of you I may have just touched very close to home by mentioning the fear of death. For some that’s a nearby reality, and I certainly can’t pretend to know what you should do, especially in questions about your medical care. I, and we as a church, can only offer our respect and honor for the path you walk, and offer a blessing – may you trust and feel God’s presence, day by day. May God’s love protect and sustain you, day by day.

For others this path may lead to some self-examination. How much of my energy do I spend competing? How much do I put into building my power base, gathering my supporters, preparing arguments for those who will disagree with me? What would happen if I showed up open-handed instead of armed and defensive? Can I be simply one part of a greater whole, or do I feel I “need” to be on top?
What if we even took this farther – out of our personal relationships? What if I saw myself as a sister or brother to the non-human creatures of the earth? It takes a radical shift to get there, and to really escape from the default position, which is that the natural world doesn’t matter except when it’s useful to us. We could act, instead, as if the lily’s joy were our joy, and the Gulf Coast seagull’s pain were our pain.
It raises the question of generosity. Do I hoard my treasure like a dragon, or do I give it away trusting that others will do good things with what they receive?
It raises the question of sufficiency. Do I have enough? Am I in need? Do I have clothing and footware to spare? Isn’t there a three-week supply of food in my pantry? Or am I in need?
Sallie McFague writes: “Theology by relatively comfortable North American Christians ought not to focus on personal salvation, in this world or the next, but on lifestyle limitations, on developing a philosophy of “enoughness,” and realizing that the cruciform way of Christ means making sacrifices so that others might live.”
But this path is not about bucking up and being grim. It’s about truly being grateful for the abundance we DO have. And it’s about joy. Considering the natural world around us, we do see death and suffering, but we also see abundant life, multiplying like crazy every springtime, and now is a great time to be out in the parks looking for it. When we see the world with the Loving Eye of kinship rather than the Arrogant Eye of objectification, we ourselves will be happier.
This path is liberating. Because with all we have done to keep other people and creatures down, we find we have been bound, ourselves, in the same oppression. As we free other people, we find we are freed. And as we work to heal the earth, the earth works to heal us.

Jesus invites us to take a radically different path from the one we have learned… but deep in our souls, somehow we know that it is joyful, and beautiful, and good. Jesus invites us to receive the grace that allows us to back off our competitive scramble and take our rightful place in the order of things.
Let us receive that grace from God…

A grateful heart
Generous hands
And feet standing on the solid ground of God’s good earth, rather than climbing on the shoulders of those we must push down.

Let us pray.
God, pour out your grace on your people gathered here. Give to those who need it, trust and provision, one day at a time. Give to all of us who struggle, grateful hearts, generous hands, and grounded feet. Lead us forward on a simple path of joy and compassion. We ask these blessings in the name of our teacher, our brother, and our friend, Jesus Christ – Amen.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Waiting for the Season

Strawberries are coming into season. At least in the warmer parts of California. As of this week, they are showing up at my farmer’s market, which is enough for me to say FAIR GAME! Of course I write this here with great trepidation, because my kind readers, being from all over the country, may hurl spite and jealousy in my general direction. But just think of what you can look forward to.
Strawberries from the grocery store just don’t do it for me. The white and mealy insides, the lack of juicyness, their ridiculous size – they smack of unnaturalness. The worst are the strawberries you buy in November. They’ve been flown from Chile or somewhere, and aborted prematurely off their vine so they can survive the flight before ripening (and rotting). But a local, fresh strawberry is something else entirely. Red all the way through, ripened thoroughly on the vine, intoxicating in their sweetness, and so delicate they will bruise in a minute, if you don’t eat them – nevermind flying them to another country. They are truly worth waiting for.

The Bible verse that most immediately comes to mind is Ps 104:27. “[all creatures] look to you to give them their food in due season; you open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
The proper course of things, the rightness of seasonal changes, the appropriate time to receive and to eat – the goodness of waiting!

But a more ominous verse comes to mind as well. This is from the wilderness wanderings, Numbers 11:4-6: “The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’
The truth is, we can get our cucumbers and melons any season of the year, but we get it at a price. We can have raspberries on our Christmas desserts, flown on little petrochemical wings from faraway lands, to save us from the boring manna diet of what CAN be grown (or stored) locally in the winter. We get it at a price: pollution across our skies, insecurity for our own local farmers, and mealy white strawberries.
The Israelites got access to their wonderful, Nile-irrigated vegetables while they were in Egypt, and got it at a price: their freedom. It is useless to pretend we do not also give up our freedom when we allow Dole and other multinational corporations to feed us, hook us in, teach us the attitude of entitlement that keeps the dollars flowing and the strawberries flying.

Barbara Kingsolver writes in vivid terms about our lack of (gastronomic) patience, which may be said to have negative effects on other realms of society. Patience and restraint, great virtues, are only applied selectively in our culture: “…browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. “Blah, blah, blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.” (Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” page 31).

Dare to cut loose and be free. Cut loose from Pharaoh’s addictive provisions of food-with-a-price, and wait for the Real Deal. I promise (though I have perhaps not waited as long as you in colder climes will) that the strawberries will taste way better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Created in God's image

There's something difficult in the word "dominion" which the humans are commanded to exercise in most translations of the Bible: "have dominion over the fish and the birds and the animals." It should be translated somewhere on the fine line between "stewardship" and "domination," because its meaning is about midway between, but the problem is that the word resembles one much more than the other. So I take Ellen Davis' recommendation to call it "skilled mastery" (from her full article which you can download right here) which indicates that our rule is not arbitrary or forceful. In order to take good care of it, we must have knowledge and respect for it.
Also, the "be fruitful and multiply" is mostly quoted with reference to humans, but the fish & birds & all are also commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Let us not forget our kinship.

A reading modified from Gen 1:26-28

God said, “let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them exercise skill and mastery over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind, Adam, (earthling), in God’s image.
In the image of God,
God created him,
Male and female,
God created them.
In much the same way God had already blessed the animals, God now blessed humankind, and God said, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and exercise skilled mastery over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Great God, you have created us in your image,
and imprinted upon us your attributes.
You have created us to be creators,
you have created us to be creative.
Deep in our souls is imprinted
your limitless vision of this world’s fertility and abundance;
sharp on our hearts is your call
to exercise good stewardship and loving care over what is entrusted to us.
We feel the true goodness of the world you have created
And the particular goodness of our little corner of the world.
We are standing on holy ground; ought we to have removed our shoes?
Great God,
Into your servants breathe the inspiration of your holy spirit,
Scrub away whatever is covering your image hidden inside.
Allow us to pray and to think and to speak from that place of creativity, of wisdom, of love and tender care.
Be in our work, and in our play. Be love in our hearts today.
In the strong name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

( i prayed that for the trustees of SFTS as they opened their meeting yesterday. I'm an avid recycler. )

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sermon: Wormwood & Poison

Preached in class today. I preached it scriptless, but this is my first draft, which then I edited a bit thanks to my classmates' feedback. We're supposed to "take risks" in this class. Scriptless is definitely risky for me!

I teach Godly Play to children at church. In this curriculum we use small props to tell a sacred story. I am telling the story of the prophet Jeremiah next week, and when I got the story box out to prepare, I found a plate and a cup of wormwood and poison. I had some questions about that, so I decided to look into the context and to preach from that scripture for you today.
I found the wormwood and the poison in Jeremiah 23, in a tirade against the false prophets of Jerusalem. It seems there was competition between groups of prophets, and God may have had some punishments in mind. Listen now to verses 15-22:

We have been learning about prophets a lot in Godly Play. The children have heard it so many times that they can rattle the line off unprompted: “A prophet is someone who comes so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what God wants them to say and do.”

Two weeks ago we had a real live prophet in worship. The Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr was there, who is an outspoken advocate and witness for the rights and full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the church.

Pastor Beth told the congregation we might have a prophet in worship. She invited the children up and asked if any of them would like to ask and find out if there was a prophet. Nory raised her hand and came up to the front, where Beth said – this is Janie – why don’t you introduce yourself – and ask her a question. Nory stared for a moment, the congregation got restless, Beth asked if she needed help. Nory said no, I want to think of my own question. She looked Janie in the eye and asked her, “what does God want us to do?” The congregation was dead silent as child and prophet looked at one another, and as Janie said, “to love justice, and love God, and love each other.”

Most of us did not have an experience like that at the age of nine. But imagine being that child. Imagine searching for a question in your soul, wanting to know what God wanted us to do, having the courage to ask, receiving that answer, nodding, saying thank you, sitting down. Remembering that – God wants us to love justice.
Janie is a wonderful prophet. She is a prophet of love, and inclusion – a prophet of “stop hurting other people” and a prophet of “be nicer to each other.” Although the moment may have been hugely serious and holy, Janie is not a scary prophet.

Another prophet comes to mind – one I haven’t met face to face, but I’ve only encountered through the internet. Her name is Annie Leonard and her prophetic platform is a video series called “the story of stuff.” It’s appropriate for children as well as adults, and is often shown in schools. She shows in vivid terms how the cycles of production, consumption, and disposal are ruining our planet, our health, our lives. She paints a picture – just a cartoon, but a good one – of the clouds of pollution encircling our planet, of fish going cross-eyed up in the rivers, of corporate barons sitting on piles of cash, and piles of garbage forming a floating island in the Pacific. She puts arrows between them all and makes it so direct – the things we buy and use and throw away are killing us.
And imagine being a child who encounters THAT prophet. That prophet is a little scary. Imagine going home after you watched this movie at school, and looking at your shelves and toy boxes and thinking. Look at all of my STUFF. Look at all those battery-powered toys. Annie said, “toxics in, toxics out.” Are batteries toxic? Who made them? Did their fish float belly-up in the river next to the factory? Where does it go when it breaks and I put it in the trash? Do I really need a whole set of legos? That prophet is a little scarier.

Imagine being a child who has met both of these two prophets – and maybe even one or two others, some nice, some scary... Imagine the question burning in the in-between – What does God want us to do? Is it okay to have a general idea or do I need clear instructions? Maybe I need to find another prophet who can give me specifics. And what then do you do when one prophet’s message is really different from another’s? Sometimes they don’t agree.

In Jeremiah’s time, the conflict between prophet of happiness and prophet of doom was so tense and so important that the issues rose to a pitch where they used fighting words like “God will feed you poison and wormwood” in their arguments against one another. This is not a light little issue. Prophets are people to be reckoned with. They affect many people’s lives. How do you know what God wants us to do?

Jeremiah says that in order to know what God wants us to do you have to stand in God’s council. You know, that throne room up in heaven where Yahweh-God calls all the other little gods to come and advise on heavy matters, or depending on your view, if we’re done with polytheism at this point, maybe they are just angels. Anyway, the idea is that Jeremiah, the true prophet, WAS there in the council, and that the false prophets weren’t. Jeremiah had a TRUE message – which was watch out, Jerusalem is going to be destroyed – while the other prophets were using a message that maybe wasn’t completely WRONG, it was just out of date – a message of peace and prosperity. That message works 95% of the time, but those prophets didn’t get the status update that let Jeremiah know the time was over, and that the people should be bracing for impact.
Being a prophet is different from being a faithful scholar, or a true mathematician, or a good preacher. It is not enough to find something that is true, and say it. Prophets must be so close to God as to be in the divine council – to get the updates – to be open, day by day, to news and revelation.

I wonder who is in the divine council. I don’t think they are angels and demi-gods in a divine throne room in the clouds. But if there is a divine council, who is there? Who are the true prophets listening to, these days?
I think if we could see into the divine council we’d see… the wind and the rain. They must be saying something… between the ridiculously warm weather here, and the equally mindboggling cold and storms on the east coast… the earth, and the weather, must be trying to deliver some message they’ve heard in the divine council. Trying to get us to pay attention to the painful cries of the earth we pollute, perhaps?
If we could see into the divine council, maybe we’d see… polar bears? I don’t know, it just seems to me that a species getting shuttled around from iceberg to ever-smaller iceberg, trying to find enough space to live, ought to deserve to send at least one or two representatives.
And along with the polar bears maybe some other special interest groups. Incarcerated African-Americans, people excluded from the church because of their sexuality, the disabled and the elderly, the people who keep getting swept off to the margins and ignored.
I’m just imagining, of course. I’m not up there myself. And I wonder what you think. I’m imagining a pretty large and open council, but it could be smaller. How we imagine these things affects who we think might be a prophet.

A prophet is someone who comes close to God, so close that they can stand in God’s council and hear the testimonies of God’s people and creatures and creation, hear these testimonies and KNOW what God wants us to do. Prophets can be boys, and prophets can be girls. They could even be grown-ups. May we find even today, that prophets are among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Inclusive language: including "Lord."

We work very hard in the PC(USA) to make sure we use inclusive language for people (i.e. not gender-specific so that women don't feel left out) and expansive language for God (i.e. more than just "King" and "Lord" and other such patriarchal labels). We work very hard at Montclair Presbyterian to keep God in a gender-neutral space, although you could accuse us of just being allergic to tradition.

This week we did some spirituals and some other songs that used a lot of "Lord" language. It was occasioned by wanting to include my bassfriend in celebration, and Isaiah Jones' lovely communion liturgy setting. I did some editing of the songs ahead, but although you can easily substitute "God" in for "Lord" in prose, that gets iffy when you get to particular phrases like "Lord our God" which need to have three syllables and a certain musical rhythm. In total syllabic frustration I gave up the efforts at lyrical transposition, and we started talking - at staff meeting - about how (and whether) we could reclaim a positive use for the word "Lord."
After lots of groupthink and collaboration, we ended up printing this in the bulletin:

“Inclusive language is not a fad. It is not this year’s ‘cause,’ to be soon replaced by another. The growing use of inclusive language is the result of serious commitment on the part of many people to use words more responsibly, to speak more precisely, and to communicate more truthfully and sensitively.” (From “More Than Words” by Schaffran and Kozak)
We have changed the words of some of the music in our liturgy this morning to reflect our commitment to inclusive language. The word “Lord” in its traditional use is exclusive and patriarchal. When we use it, we do not use it in the same manner. When we use the word “Lord” in a description of God, we are using it ironically to bring to mind and heart the God who would become incarnate to bring us to wholeness. Our “Lord” -- our “boss” or “master” or even our “king” should we choose to say it – our “Lord” is the one who voluntarily gave up all forms of domination and power, who became the weakest of the weak, and whose greatest power is love. We do not give this respect to anyone who coerces it or demands it; we only give it to the one who subverts and transforms the very idea of power, and who gently loves us into our own strength and empowerment.

What do you think? Does that work? Are you comfortable with applying the word "Lord" to God, despite its connotations? And if so - how do you think of it?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Dandelion Tree

It's hard to understand about 80% of the Bible if you don't live in an agricultural society, and do at least a little bit of growing things. And sometimes even the Bible makes it hard to understand what's going on.

Take Matthew 13:31-32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the
air come and make nests in its branches.”

Right. Great story. The Kingdom (or the realm of God, as I like to say) is a thing that grows. When we tell it in Godly Play with the kids, we roll up a piece of cloth and hide it in our hands and unroll it - it's shaped like a tree. The kingdom is like something small becoming big.
uh-uh. We're missing a major part of the story, because, well, have you ever seen a mustard tree? GUESS WHAT - mustard is a weed. A shrub, maybe a bush at best. Mainly, a weed. It spreads ferociously. And when the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches, I'm slightly concerned given that earlier in the chapter, the story of the "sower and the seed" was told, and the birds' role in that was to eat the seeds on the path. Birds aren't necessarily great for your seed-sowing endeavors. So the story could be re-told....
The Realm of God is like a dandelion, which is a small seed when blowing on the wind - it is too small to catch, even, or to keep off your lawn - but when it grows it becomes a TREE, full of pigeons and crows and rats and squirrels.
(not as pleasant).

The thing with trees, is that trees and especially the "greatest" trees, the majestic cedars, were often compared to the house of Israel. It's not just about size, it's about your past as well. YHWH has a long history of planting and uprooting that house - that tree. Ezekiel prophesied that a cedar tree would be planted on mount Zion, and that all kinds of birds would come to roost in it. And now there's another plant, a lowly shrub, which will take its place and shelter its birds. Ezekiel said "all the trees of the forest will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish." .... but he may not have imagined that the "low tree" and the "dry tree" wouldn't even be a tree, but a weed. 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.

What are we? As followers of the parable-telling Christ, are we planting cedar trees, pruning rosebushes, training topiaries in a good-looking, majestic church? Or are we tossing dandelion seed to the wind like playful children, spreading mustard seed in the dry and rocky ground where it can dig its tenacious roots in?

Here's the other beautifully disorienting thing. 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. The Realm of God shifts and grows and changes. Notably UNLIKE cedar trees. Do we shift and grow and change?

The kingdom of God is like a dandelion tree. May it be so. Amen.