July 27, 2014

Rector’s Reflection – July 27, 2014

Dateline: UK – Environmentalists raised an outcry when the British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology announced the discovery of what has been termed a “superweed.” The single wild mustard plant achieved superweed status in the minds of some when it proved resistant to a powerful weed killer. Scientists discovered the plant in a field that had been used in trials of a genetically-modified group of plants which included those used to produce canola oil.

How many – and I’m not trying to be sexist here – how many girls reading this had a charm bracelet or a necklace with a clear round ball that looked like a marble and had a mustard seed inside it? I had the necklace, and I always think about that necklace when this parable rolls around. I would look at that seed and imagine this huge tree springing from it and I would think that God could work magic!

Of course, as time went by I listened to people who said that the mustard seed was not the smallest of seeds and that mustard plants didn’t grow large enough to house a bird and her family, so if Jesus was wrong about that then how can we trust him on anything else. For the record, the black mustard seed would have been the smallest seed a 1st– century Palestinian farmer would have encountered and those seeds produced trees that could reach 12′ tall.

But coming on a story about mustard as a superweed gave me pause. It shook me out of my tendency to look for what a parable says about me or about the church, and just as it says, in this case the mustard seed is about what the kingdom of heaven is like: a superweed.

Well, not exactly, but mustard wasn’t a food crop in Jesus’ time. As with the wheat and the tares, mustard plants took up valuable garden space and took nutrients away from the desired plants. Mustard wasn’t grown in tidy rows like cotton or soybeans or grapes. It wasn’t an intentional plant. It was not a decorative botanical. So how’d the mustard seed get there? It probably got there because it was so small that the sower didn’t notice. You buy a 25 lb. sack of grass seed, you’re not going to notice a mustard seed lurking in its midst. You broadcast that seed expecting a lush green oasis, and one morning some ugly duckling mustard plant is going to be spoiling your much anticipated Augusta National-worthy lawn.

And maybe that’s the point. We in the church have our nice neat rows… literally and figuratively. We have our creeds and our prayers; we have our liturgy down pat. We have our traditions. We have our prayer books and manuals on church growth and subscriptions to publications from the Alban Institute.

But the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. One morning we wake up to the voice of God pushing us out of our tidy rows, and like the superweed, we are not going to defeat it. It’ll keep on until we wise up and learn the beauty of mustard.

Thomas Wardlaw tells about an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu he heard in the 1980’s. That was back when apartheid was very strong and there was no outward sign that it would end any time soon. Tutu said, “When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.” Wardlaw goes on: the kingdom of heaven, like the mustard seed, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and our boundaries and creates out of it all something new – “the better of the deal.”

Indeed, hidden within what we think we see so clearly, the kingdom of heaven is subversive and grows in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed and redeemed by our surprising, invasive God.