Parable of the Mustard Weed

Inspired by Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:30-32

Our first reading, from Ezekiel, gives us a very particular image of the kindom of God. The author pictures it as a mighty cedar growing on a high and lofty mountainside, looking down on the rest of creation, with branches spreading out far for all to see. Think Bob Ross and one of his majestic paintings of snowy mountain tops and a tree to match. This is how that author describes God’s realm in the world. It’s big, it’s showy, it’s unmistakable, and overpowering.

Most authors in the Hebrew scriptures saw God’s dominion that way. And as such, God’s people, saw themselves that way as well, for good or ill. They saw themselves as part of this larger than life superpower over the rest of the world. And surprisingly, the church fell right into this same pattern of thinking, going so far as to become a tyrannical empire up until the Reformation.

And, why is it surprising that Christianity fell into this same pattern of thinking? Because it’s not the way Jesus pictured God’s kindom. Hence the parable of the mustard seed. Now, I’m no botanist, and clearly, Jesus wasn’t either, but in order for any of this to make sense, we have to understand a few things about mustard. First off, it is not the smallest seed, nor is it the largest plant. Jesus was many things, wise teacher, religious leader, Son of God, savior of the world, but a botanist he was not. But hey, nobody’s perfect. So if it’s not the smallest seed nor the largest plant, what is it, what do we know about mustard? Well, it does come from a very small seed, and it can grow into a massive plant if left to its own devices. But if there is one word that describes it, it’s not "majestic tree" or "mighty vegetable plant", it’s…

…a weed! That’s right! Jesus depiction in this parable of God’s rule in this world, of the church in this world, of you in this world, is a weed—an ordinary plant, with many uses, but one that not everyone always wants around. As you can see in this picture, it’s a mess! It kind of reminds me of a blackberry bush! My uncle Dennis had a blackberry bush in his backyard, and every year he would go into battle with this thing. It was massive, and no matter how hard he tried each year, he could just not tame it! It looks like a mustard plant could be the same way.

However, in spite of the headaches it gives the farmer, it is a blessing to many others. Imagine all the wildlife that take shelter in a plant like that. It’s also a food source as the leaves can be eaten, in the same way we eat spinach leaves. The seeds are also edible. And on top of all that, it has medicinal properties that have been known for thousands of years.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a weed. Which shouldn’t surprise us at all that Jesus uses this image! This is his M.O.! Jesus, the savior of the world, ruler of the cosmos, God incarnate, came in the flesh not as a majestic ruler, but the child of a poor family, born in a smelly animal shelter and laid to sleep in a feed trough. I mean, if anyone knows how to enter a scene without any pizzazz, without any flare or majesty, it’s Jesus! This is the model that Jesus has set before us to follow. We are not called to be a majestic power towering over the world. But rather, we are called to be a source of nourishment and food for others, a source of healing and comfort, a source of shelter and protection, all with humility, without a need for attention and credit.

So, why is this important for us to hear from Jesus? Well, because I think we often have a skewed sense of self that can be a bit unhealthy for us. On the one hand, it’s almost as if we have over-corrected from that old Holy Roman Empire sense of self, to the point where we don’t think very highly of ourselves and our abilities. We have what theologians would call a low anthropology, a low sense of self, especially in relation to God—thanks to reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who got it from the theologian Augustine. And I think, this collective low self-esteem if you will, often gets in the way of us taking risks, answering God’s call, or having confidence in our God-given gifts and using them.

On the other hand, I also think we often dream of being more than we are. More what? I don’t know. Bigger, better, flashier, more…something. If you don’t know what I mean let me put it this way. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone compare us to Bayside, I could probably retire early! Why do we do that to ourselves? And what’s funny is that every time I hear someone do that, in the next breath they criticize Bayside for being who they are! As if that’s gonna make us feel better about ourselves or something. It never does though. What will make us feel better when we fall into either of these unhealthy self-images?

Remembering the parable of the mustard seed! This is who we are called to be. Not the mighty and majestic cedar tree of old, but a nourishing, life-giving, sheltering, healing, weed! We’re not called to turn heads or be something that people are gonna want to stop and take a picture of! I would argue, that the church is at her best, when our work in the world goes unnoticed, when we are so ordinary, we blend in with the world that we are called to serve. And that’s extraordinary! That’s nothing to be ashamed of! As a wise colleague said this past week, it’s about seeing the “extraordinary in the ordinary.”

In this parable of the mustard seed, Jesus calls us out of our low self-esteem, but he also says that there’s no need to be more than who we are, all at the same time. If you grew up in the church, confidence was probably not something that was proclaimed as a virtue. But in this parable, I hear Jesus proclaiming just that, be confident in who you are, because that is the way you were made. Claim your extraordinary ordinariness, and be proud of it—as you answer God’s call to be a source of shelter, nourishment, and healing for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Family Disclaimers

Inspired by Mark 3:20-35

My family fights a lot. Ok, I should probably qualify that statement! We’re ok, I’m not about to announce a separation or some other kind of family trouble. But a normal way that our family operates is by fighting, some might call it “play-fighting.” And that phrase might work, as long as your idea of play-fighting means that we occasionally, inadvertently, make each other cry, or leave bruises. Ok, this is not helping. I’m just making things worse! Let me give you an analogy.

Have you ever seen dogs play? If you’re not a dog person, the first time you see dogs play, you might mistake it for a dogfight. They play hard. And sometimes they get a little carried away and leave crying and maybe even bruised. But that’s just the way they play. They will often play until someone submits, until one of them is on their back with the other’s teeth around their throat. And then they both get up and walk away like nothing happened.

That’s my family. When we horse around the house it’s not uncommon for something to get broken. When we tease each other we are pretty brutal; words and phrases like dumb, stupid, or shut-up are daily occurrences. Our director of children, youth and family ministries, Lisa, got a dose of this last year when we took our high school youth to a youth gathering in southern California. At one point Lisa asked us, “Are you two ok?” And we were like, “Yeah, why?”

And then we had to explain how our family works. Although, I’m not sure our explanation made her feel any better! We play hard. But we do just about everything that way together. We don’t just play hard, we laugh hard, we cry hard, you get the picture. And this has me thinking, especially as my girls get older, I wonder if they’re going to have to give their significant other a warning, a disclaimer, before they bring them into our family?

I can just hear them now, this is how I imagine their conversation going in the car on their way to Thanksgiving dinner, “So, I should probably tell you a few things about my family before you meet them.” “What, are they racist?” “No, nothing like that. We may look like we’re fighting but we’re not. We might seem rude to each other but we’re not. We might seem like we don’t like each other but we do.” “So, how will I know if you’re really arguing? Like when someone cries?” “No, we might do that.” “So, like if it gets physical!” “No, we might do that too.” “Well, then how will I know if it’s serious? An ambulance?” “Yes, definitely if an ambulance is called, than you’ll know we’re not playing anymore…I think.” “I think I’d rather them be racist!” Oh, God be with anyone who wants to join our family!

Now, your family may not be quite like mine but I think you can relate to the family disclaimers. When you welcome people into your family, whether it’s permanently or just for a dinner, sometimes you have to warn people about certain things, or certain people. Sometimes you have to warn people about racist uncle Bob, or overprotective mom, or judgmental dad, or critical grandma.

Every family is quirky, every family is weird, every family needs a disclaimer or two or more. And your church family is no different! I think the first session of the Journey of Faith, that’s what we call our process for joining this church, the first session should include a disclaimer. That way everyone knows right out of the gate, what they are getting themselves into! I think sometimes people have an idealized expectation of what church life might be like, of what church people might be like.

As amazing as we might be, and I do think we are pretty amazing people, we are also human like everyone else. We fight and bicker like anyone else. We joke and tease each other like anyone else. We make each other laugh, we make each other cry, and make each other want to pull our hair out like nobody’s business. We can be endearing, and also very annoying to each other. The truth is, if people come to church expecting to find these superhuman people who never get angry, who never let our egos get in the way, who always do the right thing, boy, are they in for a rude awakening!

However, in spite of all that, at the end of the day, we all want the best for each other right? In spite of how much we might drive each other crazy, when one of us hurts, we all hurt, when one of us is in need, we are all in need, when one of us is attacked, we are all attacked—because that’s also, how family works. We ease each other’s pains, we fill each other’s needs, we defend and have each other’s backs.

In our reading from Mark, Jesus is redefining family for us. And it’s important to note that this is only in chapter 3 of this Gospel. This is at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has barely taught them anything at this point. Only healed a handful of people. And so his redefining of family at this point in the story, is as if he is saying, none of what you are about to experience is going to make any sense, unless you have a wider understanding of what family is. And for us, two thousand years later, it might sound more like, nothing you are about to read in this gospel, is going to make any sense, unless you can begin to have a wider understanding of what family is. Family is not about your family tree, it is something deeper than that, it is something harder than that.

Anyone can make a family tree, all you gotta do is starting connecting the dots between your dad’s dad, and his dad, and his dad, and your mom’s mom, and her mom, and her mom, throw in all the children, and boom, you got your family tree. Easy, especially because you don’t have to choose whose dad is whose, or whose mom is whose, or whose children are whose. You just fill in the blanks. What’s not so easy, is looking at total strangers, which you all were at one time, and seeing family.

Especially when, you don’t have to! You get to choose whether you want us as family or not! When you don’t get your way, or when the council makes a decision you don’t agree with, or when so and so pisses you off, or when your pastor uses the word “pisses” from the pulpit, twice no less—we can choose to leave any time we want to! People walk out on their families all the time—and for much lesser evils than I’ve mentioned.

But that’s easy! Which is why Jesus gives this disclaimer so early in his ministry! Jesus knows it’s hard work! If anyone knows that, it’s Jesus. But none of his teachings are going to make sense, unless we can reimagine how we see family. And Jesus knows this takes practice! Jesus knows this isn’t going to happen overnight! Which is why we come here, week in and week out, to practice this with each other!

So that, you think that’s hard, so that, we can practice this out there! Granted, we’ve been practicing this for two thousand years now, it’s bound to catch on! But the whole point of practicing this reimagining of family in here, is so we can practice it out there. Just as we here were once strangers and are now family, so too, we are strangers out there, and can be family. With a few disclaimers of course. Because that’s how family works. Thanks be to God. Amen.