February 15, 2015
Mark 4:21-32; 1 Cor 3:6-7
The parable of the mustard seed got my attention this week. Doing some research, I found a foodie blog called, “Mustard on Everything.” I like mustard as much or more than the next person, but not quite on EVERYTHING. At the same time, this title filled my imagination with pictures of mustard plants growing everywhere! A meadow of flowering mustard – on everything! Then I found another article “9 Surprising Uses For Mustard (that don’t involve a sandwich).” Did you know that mustard can be used to remove odors left behind in plastic containers, soothe a sore throat, relieve muscle pain, give you a better complexion, help you catch fishing worms, or even fix your car’s radiator?
Well, the people of Jesus’ day did know about the amazing healing qualities of mustard. That is why they grew it in their gardens. It had so many uses! The people who heard Jesus’ parables may have puzzled at their point, just as we do, but they could visualize exactly what he was saying, which sometimes, we can’t do.
There is a modern Jewish parable with the same point:
All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country. As they went walking along the road they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled. “What on earth is he doing that for!” they wondered. “He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?”
Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows. “That man must be crazy!” they exclaimed. “He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt.” “I don’t like the country!” said one in disgust. “Only crazy people live here.” So he returned to the city.
His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change. His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer’s work.
When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: “The farmer is crazy! He’s insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I’m disgusted with such an idiot and I’m going back to the city!” His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.
(from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York)
The patient, observing brother saw how creation is set up to care for itself in abundance. To provide enough for all through the ordinary processes created in the earth itself. The impatient one went back to his impatient life – most likely complaining about his lot, rather than learning how to live life, as his brother had done.
As we said last week, I wish we had a different term for kingdom of God. This term gives us images of golden crowns, valiant soldiers and terrifying power. But that was not in any of Jesus’ stories about what the kingdom is like. These power images of the kingdom of God seem to lead us down the wrong road.
And Jesus didn’t really define the kingdom for us. Instead, he told stories and said, “the kingdom is LIKE lighting a lamp and putting it on a lampstand, like sowing seed in the soil and letting it grow, like the tiny mustard seed that quickly grows into a sheltering plant. Jesus had lots of stories like this.
The kingdom of God seems to be like ordinary life. Or, maybe about ordinary people living ordinary life in a whole new way. I wonder if Jesus was helping people get their focus off of their misery. Sort of like the impatient brother, we tend to focus on our troubles and look for someone to come and fix them for us. Jesus seems to be saying, “God doesn’t work like that.” Everything you need is right at hand. The kingdom of heaven – all the resources of God – are right at hand.
I have been reading a book by Jewish scholar, Amy Jill Levine called, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi. In her book, she makes the point that these stories are indeed surprising, but not in the empire-shattering way we often hear them discussed. Rather, she suggests, the Kingdom of God is found in what today we might call “our own backyard” – in the garden, the field, the village oven, or the evening household. The kingdom of God comes in very ordinary ways, hidden in what we overlook, growing beneath our feet and within our grasp. (p. 167)
Don’t wait for God to make a grand entrance. Instead look how little things, in their own good time, make all the difference. One of the reasons I love poetry is that poets see with patient, loving eyes. They notice. Mary Oliver has a poem in which she says exactly this. “Mysteries, Yes!”
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
(“Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver, from Evidence: Poems. © Beacon Press, 2010)
“Look! And laugh with astonishment, and bow our heads.” What a wonderful description of discovering the kingdom of God – what God is doing in our world, the face of God in the simple, ordinary.
The kingdom of God is bafflingly simple. We can go to classes and seminars our whole lives, but we will never really know how it works. But if we are patient, like the second brother, we will begin to realize that it is good, beautiful and creative. It is a mystery and it does its work of transforming what looks like death into life – it does what it intends, in its own time.
Where people had been looking up to the heavens, to some power from on high, Jesus told stories to bring people back down to earth. Somehow, the kingdom happens while we are going about our lives. While we are not looking life wins!
We observed a perfect illustration of this concept in the last century when the borders of China were opened again, generations after all missionaries were expelled from this very unresponsive mission field. Surprise! – the church had grown exponentially during the time the missionaries were away, and a Chinese church was alive and well. The missionaries had planted seeds – seemingly fruitlessly. Others came and watered. But during the night, when China was completely cut off from western eyes, God caused the growth.
We are easily lulled into the idea that we can somehow build the kingdom, or cause its coming in some way. I love going to classes and learning from what others are doing which seems to produce good results. It is easy to think I can learn how to build the Kingdom of God. In these days when mainline churches, the grand old churches, seem to be falling apart, we wring our hands and try to do the same things only better and harder. There must be some technique for bringing kingdom life here. We worry and search.
But Professor George Hunsberger reminds us that when it comes to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, we neither build it nor bring it. We are invited to enter it and receive it. We don’t know how it happens, but we see its growth and enter it.
The kingdom, the death-transforming power of God, is among us, most often without us knowing it, and most often without us doing anything to bring it about. That is humbling. There may not be an answer for the shrinking church. But God’s kingdom is alive and well. It is at hand. Our task is to find God’s tell-tale work of healing, creating, loving, releasing – and join the work. That is why we say in our mission statement that God is at work in our world ahead of us. We don’t make the way for God. God is already busy. Where we see God at work, we join God in it.
Amy Jill Levine puts it this way: “The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do – to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well.” The world is created with the DNA of the kingdom. That includes us as human beings.
Living in the kingdom is living our everyday lives. We plant seeds with each act of mercy. We scatter seeds each time we stop our hasty meanness and respond with kindness. We light a candle with each conversation when we listen to others, value their ideas and passions. And pretty soon, without knowing how it happens, we find a bush big enough to shelter and feed the birds pecking away in its shade.
Let us keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads!