June 17, 2012 Mustard Seed George Hermanson
Mark 4: 26 - 34 ST. PAUL'S-EASTERN UNITED CHURCH
I love these parables. The hearing of them makes us scratch our heads. Ask, what is going on? If we pay attention they stop us in our tracks and makes us examine our taken for granted views about life. They ask of us periods of self-reflection and self-criticism. Now such a stance is not always welcomed in our culture. We prefer to be left alone, warmed by our beliefs that reinforce the status quo of privilege We don’t probe too deeply the taken for granted of “this is natural” or “how things are” or “given” .
As a teaching method, the parables were used by Jesus to challenge the taken for granted nature of how we see the world. They asked us to see life as a relational reality, to reject purely instrumental views of life. They caught the listener in mid stride and say “take another look”, probe your views. They say the kingdom of God is like - and all prior understandings of how things are, be they religious or secular are questioned. In the questioning we see all the ways we organize our personal and social lives and they demand justification in the competing market of values. How does what we do value up life? Help us attain the common good rather than what is the good for my group?
The responses to the parables was, and is , this cannot be. This is not our conventional view of God or nature or reality. They give a different picture which then shakes our foundations so a novel experience can slide in... in them we actual are opened to the experience of the living God, in this moment, in this now.
Take the mustard seed for one. It appears like another story about weeds. Like weeds the mustard seed silently takes over and becomes dominate. Pliny the Elder, a first century Roman scholar who wrote 37 books on natural history and died in 79 AD while investigating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, had this to say about mustard: It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.
That does not fit well with our control needs, so over time we have spoken about having faith - small seeds lead to big outcomes. That view is only part of the story, for it is not about us, but about God. The aim of God is sometimes hidden and is at work unseen, and it springs out in unexpected places. It is to have eyes of faith to see the activity of God who works within all reality beyond our control.
When we understand the context, the parable becomes a satire. We know that mustard is both a weed and a plant - it is small - it could not have birds nesting in it. Yet there they are, the birds taking shade in the mustard tree. This image suggests how it was understood in Jesus time. They knew mustard as weeds and small and yet the birds nest in them. Yet here in the parable God’s kingdom is like a weed. So they would have got it as a joke
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses-if you could control it. It is also a challenge to all empire thinking.
There is a wildness to the Kingdom - it is out of control. Now that is disconcerting for we like religion that is controlled and controlling. We like to control life. We like to control others for we get uncomfortable with too much enthusiasm.
But control has it down side. In reaction we can turn to events and ideas that push the edges. Those edges can push us beyond our comfort zone and we can be too wild. So we move between extremes in our society - too controlling - too out of control.
The role of the church is help us be uncontrolled in ways that issues in a more beautiful reality. Yet, in the church we get comfortable with things as they are. Tradition becomes traditionalism, as if this is how it always has been. Tradition is a living organism, changing and responding to new hints of an uncontrollable God. We domesticated the gospel as a blessing rather than a call to bless others. This ought to leave us a bit uneasy with what we call our good fortune. Possessions are not God’s blessing and goodness, but the opportunities of service which God entrusts to us. God doesn’t bless some to the exclusion of others, but rather God blesses some for the benefit of others. So, being blessed isn’t simply a privilege: it’s a responsibility. It is to find the outbreaks of beauty and life coming through the cracks in the cosmos. To join a movement that seeks to heal our global crises. It is to understand that to be a moral leader is to call the strong to take care of their hurting brothers and sisters. This is to be both a political and religious task.
Yet too much rationalism, which is control, allows us to live with realities that are not good for society. We see nature not as a living reality but instrumentally so we can manipulate it rationally and technically for profit. From an ecological and religious point of view nature is alive and thus, if not something holy, then something that ought to be the object of great and abiding care. We are in a relationship, and each part of that relationship has intrinsic worth, meaning for itself as well as subjective relationship with others
In the end the hearer is left with a challenge. We are to be different from the world’s greed, uncaring ideologies, to move from self-centredness to other concern, to move from exclusions and violence to sharing. This is the purpose of the church, to nurture us in this journey Our participation is vital to endowing the community with a sense of letting loose love. It is an act of communal responsibility inspired by the realization that we are part of something greater than ourselves. It is to join with that uncontrollable God whose love continues to spring up like a weed.