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…
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.