The Little Things
Rev. Julie Emery
The Larchmont Avenue Church
June 26, 2011
Text: Psalm 1, Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: “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.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
If you’ve ever gardened vegetables, then perhaps you know the complicated relationship that gardeners have with the zucchini plant. Practically a no brainer, it will thrive in most growing zones and in most any soil, in fact a zucchini plant has been known to crop up out of a compost pile or random mound of dirt.
Novice gardeners love them because of this, when there are so many other finicky vegetables: tomatoes that end up brown on the bottom, bell peppers that bear fruit the size of a grape, bugs of all sizes and shapes eat through your eggplant: zucchini’s seem to survive, and not only that: thrive.
In our first gardening endeavor after marriage, Jason and I rented a small awkward half-plot at a community garden, and got our hands dirty. We put in anything we could get our hands on, just to try it. And I think we had 3 or 4 zucchini plants.
When our flowers turned to beautiful green zucchinis we were thrilled; sauteed them in a little butter or olive oil, a little salt and pepper: Perfection. We soon learned that a three inch vegetable could overnight become the size of a child’s arm. And shortly after that each plant had several zucchinis growing on it.
It was not long before we had so much zucchini we couldn’t keep up. We froze loaves of zucchini bread, ate zucchini pancakes and stuffed zucchini boats and stir-fry and whatever other recipes we could find online. We left zucchinis on our neighbors doorsteps and ran away as fast as we could. It was an amazing, zucchini filled summer, and we have never planted quite as much zucchini again.
While Jesus does not say that the kingdom of God is like a zucchini plant, his comparison was not far off. Instead he compared the kingdom of God to a mustard plant, which is just as fast-growing and prolific, and just as bizarre a comparison. Not only that, but as he makes his comparison he calls the mustard plant a tree, which is a bit of a stretch. Because while the mustard plant, like a zucchini, grows quite fast and large in a short stretch of time, even Jesus must have known it was no Redwood – which is our fist indication that Jesus is trying to mess with us a little bit.
This is nothing new. Matthew writes that “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.” Which must have been more than a bit frustrating. A few verses later Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” That they answered “yes” reminds me a bit of some confirmation classes I’ve taught, as the students nod in the affirmative about something that not even I understand.
We may think we understand, but in truth can be simplifying and sweetening these parables of Jesus to catchy phrases or quaint greeting cards. As one commentator notes: “To reduce a parable to a “point” is to dismiss it and domesticate its message to more comfortable and manageable categories.”
Because, we are not supposed to understand, certainly not at first. “Parables are intentionally polyvalent: each one takes on meaning only as it is puzzled together and forces the hearer to participate in the construction of that meaning…”
It’s possible that his comparison of this ragged shrub to a rooted and grand tree was a nudge at the imperial tree of the empires around him. Those trees that were emblazoned on flags to represent the kingdoms that stood tall and oppressive, who claimed power for themselves but did not see it as a right for all. Laced with apocalyptic meaning they were trees that would stand tall even until the end of time, representing for some an oppression that would never end.
For this rag-tag group of disciples, what could be a more compelling image?
Jesus also calls that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds – which is also a bit of hyperbole. Small, yes, but not insignificant; tiny but noticeable.
They must have known, too, that the mustard plant was an annual – and needed to be planted again and again each year. It would grow to great heights – even over the head of an adult man – in a very short time. Not unlike a group of disciples who had gathered quickly and with force around this man Jesus.
But unlike a tree that towers over it’s neighbors, the mustard plant is subversive and spreads like brushfire. It is not pretty but ragged and messy, and nests made in the midst of it’s branches would have been protected, even hidden.
Perhaps too we should unpack a bit of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” which often strikes our modern ears as antiquated or even negative. Kingdoms are like dictatorships, we think, and we rejoice as they have been toppled over the course of this continuing “Arab Spring.” It is a challenge, isn’t it, to replace one evil dictator with a good one, for we know to distrust anyone with that much power. So perhaps we distrust even a kingdom that has God at it’s center.
And yet, this is what Jesus seemed to be getting at with his parables and subversive images. The kingdom of Heaven is different, so different, from the kingdoms built by human hands. The kingdom of Heaven does not tower over but grows up from the ground. The kingdom of Heaven is not manicured and perfect but ragged and messy. It is not built for the wealthy and elite but for the poor and the powerless.
For Matthew, the parables of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven also meant the coming judgment for those who oppress and the coming of salvation for those who are downtrodden. It meant the coming of a world where the voices of the afflicted and suffering are heard, where homes are protected, where food is abundant, where all people, however small and insignificant, are allowed to take root and grow.
This kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, can start from just a tiny seed of hope, and can grow into something remarkable.
Reverend Andrew Warner tells a story about the church he pastors in Milwaukee, WI, and their strategic planning process that began in 2005. Like most churches seeking direction into the future, their hope was that they could through that process hear the voice of God calling them into action and faith. And like most western churches in America, they came up with an “earnest, business like plan.”
The vision statement they developed claimed that God was calling them to use their resources to grow in diversity and membership, support one another and community life, and work toward social justice. It sounded great. But as Reverend Warner puts it, “it filled our bubble economy perfectly: it assumed that God was calling us to have more, as in more diversity, more people, more programs, more of everything. The statement reflected our liberal bent, but in its own way was not far from the prosperity gospel.”
About the time they completed their strategic planning, a knock came on their door. An interruption, really. It was a local shelter for homeless young people, who needed a place for a drop-in youth center. Could they help?
The question seemed out of left field, really, not necessarily aligned with their strategic plan, but perhaps only a small bump in the road. A distraction, but not one so big to derail them. For now, they thought, they could help. While the church did not have enough space for the drop-in center, they did have enough to house youth meetings in the church and the ability to invite these homeless or housing instable youth to church events. They did have the ability to offer food, and community, and kindness.
As these young people began to breach the doors of the church the congregation became, well, involved. They met Ajay who had fled with his mother a toxic family situation but had been turned away from the shelter for women with families because they do not house 17 year old boys. They met Kendra who had been kicked out when she came out to her family. And as they met these young people, heard their stories, ate with them, began to know them and love them, the small seed of something new began to take root and grow.
The strategic plan began to evolve into a new plan. Even as the space was no longer needed from the church, the youth kept coming; and the church began to see this as God’s calling into their future. This new vision looked nothing like what they had originally imagined in their meetings and gatherings of strategic planning.
It was not a tall towering tree, planted by the waters of God’s word, asserting their calling to have and be “more.” It was messier, more complicated, but also richer, fuller, more beautiful.
Perhaps we must learn not to have fixed understandings of what the Kingdom of Heaven must be. God’s presence may scandalize our own ideas of where and how God’s Kingdom is supposed to be here and at work. God’s calling may be into what seems like a thick wicket of trouble, but turns out to be a place where birds of the air make their nests and find a home.
For each of us, there are mustard seed moments. Moments when we are faced with a holy calling or divine nudge. Moments when we are challenged to choose between walking toward the tall imperial trees or bush-wacking through the shrubbery.
Moments when the choices aren’t obvious, and aren’t easy.
They are moments when to stand up for someone means to stand apart from the crowd. When speaking up for the outcast means becoming an outcast ourselves. When choosing faith means to eschew privilege.
They are moments when we are faced with choosing what is right and ethical means less for ourselves or our family. When to show one’s politics means to instigate disagreement. When celebrating marriage equality means alienating family or friends. When showing one person love means causing another pain.
There are moments when choosing a job that fulfills means applying for loans for our child’s college tuition. When welcoming the outcast means letting the rugs get dirty. When agreeing to teach Sunday school or volunteering at the food pantry means we lose time with our own family, but build relationships with a host of amazing people we wouldn’t know otherwise.
Moments when saying “yes” to something means a crazier, busier life – overwhelming and unmanageable. Moments when saying “yes” means exhaustion and frustration but also joy and fullness and life.
These moments are small, yet not insignificant. They are worthy of notice and attention. They are moments that happen again and again, and our faithfulness in these moments need to be planted each day, watered, tended to…
But if we are careful, if we are watching, if we are paying attention, these are the moments that can take root and grow into something bigger than we had imagined. Something messier, more complicated, more frustrating and difficult, yes, but also something that looks like…
Well… something that looks more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the name of the Creator the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.