Sunday, June 14, 2009

Like a Weed: A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34

A few years ago I served on an arts committee with A.. She’s a professor at Excellent Local University, and during the time we worked together, she felt it was the right time to buy a house. She looked and looked, and finally found the perfect place, nestled on a hillside in NearTown, with a little creek running by and a stand of pine trees. The house was not too big, it was not too small, it was cozy. It was comfortable. It was just right.

When A. moved in she noticed another stand of something that looked like bamboo running alongside the creek. It was picturesque, and A., a first time homeowner, had visions of it imparting a kind of serenity to her surroundings. She liked it. She liked it until the day, late the next spring, when it started growing through the baseboards of her bedroom.

A. had encountered Japanese knotweed, which some have called “killer bamboo.” She didn’t know it at the time, but this is an invasive species that gives new and richer meaning to the word “tenacious.” A. embarked on a plan of trying to control it. She dug it out. It grew back. She invested in environmentally friendly methods of trying to control it. They had no effect whatsoever. She invested in environmentally nightmarish chemicals. The pretty “bamboo” continued its incessant, unending program of growing in through the cracks that had now formed in the foundation of A.'s home, sometimes appearing inside the walls of her house in the morning, like an scary new species from a science fiction film. A.’s last attempt to control the bamboo involved pouring acid on it. The leaves shrunk and withered, and for a time the weed receded. Within a month it was back with a vengeance.

How shall we envision the kingdom of God? Jesus asks in this morning’s scripture. By what parable shall we present it? And he answers himself: it is like a mustard seed. A mustard seed is tiny. It might even be the tiniest seed, he says. But when it grows—watch out. It’s big. Bigger than you thought it would be. It’s a shrub, though, so… it’s not as big as, say, a California redwood, or even the pine trees in Angela’s backyard. So maybe the point is not that it’s big. So then… what is the point?

Jesus was always speaking in parables, according to the gospel of Mark. And it’s good for us to recognize that parables are an extremely complex and sophisticated mode of communication. When Jesus speaks in parables, we often find ourselves wanting to turn them into allegories, stories in which all the characters signify someone or something else, and if we can just plug in the correct identities, then we can understand the story. For example, the prodigal son is the sinful, ungrateful human being, the loving father is God, and the older brother… well, is he Satan? Or another jealous human being? At any rate, we tend to want parables to be neat little life-lessons that have an easily decodable answer. In other words, we want parables to be something they’re not.

Parables are most often brief sayings or stories that raise more questions than they answer. They take familiar items and characters and situations, and tell us something about them that, usually, turns our customary way of thinking on its head. One writer puts it this way:

In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data.[i]

In the very earliest stories about Jesus, parables go unexplained. Jesus simply floats them out there, to rise or to fall on ears that are, or are not, able to hear and comprehend. We wish it weren’t so. We wish we could understand each and every one with absolute clarity. We want them to make sense.

We are not alone in that. The gospel writers are just as frustrated with Jesus’ parables as we are! They bend over backwards to provide us with interpretations, to minimize the confusion, and to give us those neat little life-lessons we are craving.

Take the parable of the mustard seed. The most common interpretation of this is influenced by the way Matthew tells the parable: he says, though it’s the smallest of seeds, it grows into a tree, and the birds of the air can nest in its branches. This is a very appealing image for the Jewish community Matthew was preaching to. It evokes a beloved vision used by the prophets to describe Israel, the great and majestic cedars of Lebanon.

I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
~ Ezekiel 17:22-23

This would have real appeal for the hometown crowd! This is an image of the work the Messiah will do! The cedars of Lebanon would grow to a height of a hundred feet or more, and they would, in effect, provide a home for all who would care to nest in them. This is an image of how God intends to care for God’s people. We can easily imagine this as a wonderful vision of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus isn’t talking about a giant cedar. In Mark’s version, the earliest version of this parable that has been preserved for us, Jesus isn’t even talking about a tree. The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a great… shrub! Well, frankly, that’s kind of disappointing. Doesn’t it even sound like Jesus might, in some way, be teasing his listeners, poking fun at the image of the cedars of Lebanon?[ii] Maybe we need to step back a bit to define our terms. What exactly does Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God,” anyway?

Remember: the kingdom of God always carries with it a paradoxical sense of here/ not here, already/ not quite, accomplished/ coming. That helps when we consider the mistake we often make in thinking about the kingdom of God. We tend to think of a “kingdom” as an “area,” a place. And the Greek word that is translated kingdom, basilea, can mean that. But it can also mean “power” or “authority.” In other words, it may be more helpful, in understanding just what Jesus is talking about, to think about the “kingdom of God” as “the power of God,” or “God’s rule.”

With what can we compare God’s rule? What parable shall we use for the power of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. Mark 4:30-32

Here’s the thing about the mustard shrub. It’s not that big-- a large one might grow to be 10 feet, tops. But it is tenacious. Stop thinking oak, pine, redwood or cedar. Think, instead, kudzu, dandelions. Think, instead, Japanese knotweed. In the gardening practices of the ancient Jewish world, the mustard plant was considered a weed. It was to be avoided. It was never sown in a garden, because it would quickly take over every bit of space that was available, crowding out all the other vegetables and flowers. It was like Japanese knotweed, which, I’ve learned, can take root if even one tiny tendril of it remains alive in tons of landfill.

With what can we compare the power of God? The power of God is something that starts out small. It may even look picturesque when you first encounter it. And it is, truly, beautiful. But watch out. It’s tenacious. It can’t be stopped. The tiniest slip of it, one little seed, one small tendril can take hold and take over.

And… we’re not necessarily going to like it. It’s going to disrupt our pleasant and cozy places. It’s going to make us uncomfortable. It might even crack the foundations of the things we think we treasure most… our homes, our institutions, our churches. The power of God is wild, and untamable, and uncontrollable. We will wake up in the morning and find that it has made its way into the comfort of our homes. We will probably be distressed, we will probably be freaked out, we will probably want to find some way to fix it or modify it or eradicate it. But it is the power of God, and so it cannot be fixed or modified or eradicated.

In his book, Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne writes, “Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released.” Who does that remind you of? Sounds a little bit like Jesus. Claiborne goes on, “This is the crazy mystery that we celebrate, a Christ whose body is torn apart and whose blood is spilled like the grains and grapes of the [communion meal] that gives us life. Mustard was also known for healing, and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vicks vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.”[iii]

With what shall we compare the power of God? It is a wild contagion. It is a healing balm. It is something that starts out so small we can barely see it. It is something that grows and moves without pause or hesitation. With what shall we compare the power of God? It is something that may crack the foundations of the things we rely upon, maybe even cause cracks in our own hearts. It is something that, in the end, will provide us shelter… perhaps not the kind of shelter we envisioned, but shelter nonetheless. The wild, unruly, untamable, healing, growing, moving power of God. It is here. It is not here. It is already. It is not quite. It is accomplished. It is coming. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Eugene Boring, “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 19__) 299.
[ii] Brian Stoffregan, CrossMarks,
[iii] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing/ The Little Way, 2008), 104-105.


Cheesehead said...

"The power of God is wild, and untamable, and uncontrollable."

These are comforting words to me this morning!

Choralgirl said...

Well, that's just extraordinarily hopeful. :-)

And vivid enough imagery to stick, as well.

Well done, you.

MaineCelt said...

Ohhhh, yes, we have knotweed here. I'm an associate board member for a conservation organization that deals with invasive species, so the opening story really resonates.

The idea of Jesus as a figure of weedy subversion has great appeal to me. Thank you for everything you've drawn together in this sermon--and a special thanks for introducing me to Shane Claiborne. What a fantastic quote!

Brian said...

Thanks for your words!

Anonymous said...

I really loved this. This makes so much sense because it asks us not to make sense but to allow sense.

Does that make sense? lol

Thanks for the thoughtful writing!