(Ezekiel 31:1-6, 10, 12 and Matthew 13:31-32)
Behold! The mightiest of all shrubbery!
The glory of prodigious weediness!
The richness of such sublime pungency, a taste that graces the hotdogs of kings!
O, may I humbly sing my praises to
The prince of the weeds
The queen of the condements:
There. If you’ve cracked a smile, then you’ve caught something of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s the point of the parable of the mustard seed – it’s a joke. Jesus is being a jester. And this parable is a joke.
Now, there’s nothing worse than explaining why a joke is funny, let alone a joke that’s two thousand years old. But here it goes.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a furball of tiny dandelion seeds, that a gardener went and spread all over her grass and garden, and those tiny seeds grew and the yard filled with flowering blossoms of such beauty the neighborhood had never seen. All the lovers passing by, strolling and holding hands, were overcome with the divinity of this dandelion lawn. O, the redolence of their perfumed blossoms. Ah, the dazzling display of their golden peddles.
This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Do you remember as a kid, once dandelions go to seed, picking one of those fuzz balls and blowing it and watching the seeds float off into the wind? And making a wish? That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The Kingdom of Heaven is like those little seeds spreading out and drifting and settling down and sprouting up into tons of dandelions.
In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven is a beauty to kids and a nuisance to the neighbors who think dandelions are a bunch of weeds … even after you’ve explained to them that the leaves have more nutrients than the kale they charge you three dollars for at the supermarket. You can tell this has gotten personal for me. This sermon is a statement to the world and to our neighbors about why we’re keeping the dandelions in our yard: it’s a matter of good theology.
Anyway, Jesus was talking about mustard, not dandelions. So let’s talk about mustard. We’ve heard this parable about the mustard seed so many times that we’ve lost its impact. Usually it’s taken to mean that faith is so powerful that having even just a little of it can have huge effects. Take that leap of faith and God will make something great grow from it. That’s how we can get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven on earth. This is great, it’s true, don’t get me wrong – it’s a good message. But Jesus is saying something different with this parable, he’s doing something different, do something much more startling. This is high comedy here. It’s trying to get across something that we gotta be laughing to take in. And the proof is in the mustard.
The meaning of mustard I think is summed up by how “mustard” used in British slang. In British slang, “a mustard” is a rude way of talking about someone who’s homeless. A homeless person is “a mustard.”
Mustard sprouts quickly, it spreads quickly, it’s tenacious and it’s tough to get rid of. It acts like a weed. Farmers at Jesus’ time were instructed to grow mustard apart from their main crops, at the edges of their fields. So Jesus in this parable talking about a farmer sewing mustard seed all over the place is ridiculous. She’s contaminating her fields.
Now, a mustard seed is a small seed. And the type of mustard plant in the middle east, the black mustard, it grows into an impressive piece of shrubbery indeed – averages four feet high, can get as tall as nine feet.
I know people were shorter back then, but still, a nine foot tall weed with bitter leaves doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is tongue in cheek.
In the Hebrew tradition, when poets want to evoke the grandeur of God’s creation and God’ power, one of the images they use is the Cedar of Lebanon. This is the most impressive thing that grows in the area. Cedars can grow big and tall and are beautiful trees. It’s the tree that’s on the Lebanese flag today, and it deserves to be. Now, when talking about how great the Cedar tree is, Hebrew poets said that all the wild birds find shelter in its branches, just like Jesus said about this mighty mustard plant.
In our first reading from Ezekiel, we see the prophet also talking about all the wild birds finding shelter in the branches of a tree. It’s also a cedar tree. But this cedar tree represents the pride of the Egyptian empire. Ezekiel is saying that Egypt is playing God, in all of its invading and oppressing and enslaving. Ezekiel is warning Egypt that they’re playing a dangerous game they’re going to lose … saying this pride is going before the fall. God will crush Egypt, like a storm tearing apart a cedar tree.
Now Jesus has a much better sense of humor than Ezekiel. He’s mocking imperial hubris the same, he’s mocking religious pretense. But he’s doing it with a flash of humor that is lifting up all the spunky and scrappy roots of the truth that spread tenaciously through the cracks between things. He’s talking about his little movement of mustard-people who are wild with love and recklessly spreading everywhere the seeds of grace – the seeds of grace for those weedy places, the places in our lives that we turn away from or, worse, mow down. This is about spreading the wild seeds of grace through all those people who are considered weeds, the people on the margins of society. Jesus’ movement was a movement of the lepers and prostitutes and punks and junkies and peaceniks and illegals and maladjusted misfits -the ones who are ignored or, worse, rooted up or mowed down. There is the Kingdom of Heaven.
We don’t go there as missionaries to bring the Kingdom of Heaven, we go there as pilgrims to find the Kingdom of Heaven. And there is here, down here. We’re the kinds of pilgrims who scrounging around on the ground looking for the wild weeds busting through the cracks. That’s where the grace gets it.
That grace won’t get in if we’re being so friggin’ serious all the time. This parable is a joke. Jesus had a touch of the jester in him. So, let’s all have a little bit of fun along the way.
Thanks be to God.
Delivered April 3 2016
First Congregational Church of Walla Walla
Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg