Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
Proper 12, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
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Last weekend I was at a family wedding in South Carolina. As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was struck by the climate, by the overall feeling of things: the heat. The humidity. The chirping crickets. And all around, the green, green, green. So different from the golds and greens of our California hills and evergreen forests: there it was deciduous trees, and vines growing on the deciduous trees, and more vines growing on those vines. Driving down the freeway was like being in a tunnel between two walls of solid vegetation. So much of that, of course, is thanks to just one plant: kudzu. It started as an ornamental plant and ground cover crop imported from Asia. Well, it covered the ground, all right. It’s been called “the vine that ate the South.” It spread to become one of the most successful invasive species ever.
Now we don’t have kudzu here in California. But we do have invasive plants of our own. When I go running on the Bay Trail or the Ohlone Greenway I see big bushes of thorny blackberry and wild fennel. Those are both plants that people cultivate, and that produce delicious things to eat; but they also easily escape and grow wild and take over all kinds of places where they’re not wanted.
It’s hard to contain an invasive species.
a wild, weedy fennel plant
a brambly blackberry bush
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” says Jesus. And we nod our heads, having heard this parable before, perhaps, most of us: the tiny seed becomes a big tree, God can make great things out of little things, very inspiring, next parable please. We in our place and time can so easily miss what Jesus’ hearers would have noticed right away: the utter strangeness of this example.
For one thing, it’s not the most impressive of examples. A mustard plant grows to be something like a big bush. You could charitably describe it as a tree, maybe. In this version of the parable Jesus does that, but he hedges his bets by also calling it “the greatest of all shrubs”—a phrase that always makes me smile in its modesty, sort of like the slogan of my former hometown of Reno: “the biggest little city in the world.” But Jesus had plenty of other symbolic possibilities to choose from. In fact, he seems to be intentionally reworking an image from the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel in which a nation like Assyria or Babylon or Israel itself is compared to a cedar of Lebanon: a towering, vertical giant in which the birds of the air find shelter. So Jesus is ignoring the image of the cedar, an image as obviously available to him in his place and time as a giant redwood would be in ours, and instead comparing God’s kingdom to something like a really big blackberry bush.
And just like that blackberry bush, mustard is extremely prolific, to the point of being invasive—even of being basically a weed. You might choose to cultivate it, but if you did, you’d put it in a plot by itself, carefully segregated away from the rest of your garden. To sow it on purpose in the middle of your field, as Jesus is apparently suggesting the person in this story does, would be to invite disaster as it starts to grow all over everything, transgressing your neatly planned rows and crop boundaries, growing through and around all your other plants in a big, bushy mess. The greatest of all shrubs, indeed.
In Godly Play, that wonderful way of telling sacred stories to children, the materials for parable stories are always kept inside wooden boxes that are closed with lids. That’s because a parable isn’t always easy to get into. Sometimes, no matter which way we turn it, we can’t find our way in, and we just have to come back another time. And even when we do find our way inside a parable, there is always more there waiting for us to come back and discover it.
Sometimes in Godly Play children will call a parable a “terrible.” And there’s wisdom in that too, because there is something transgressive about a good parable. It’s like that with the next one too: the woman takes three pecks of flour—a huge amount of flour, about fifty pounds—and mixes in yeast, which throughout scripture is almost always used as a symbol of impurity. What does it mean, this yeast of impurity, working its way invisibly through the flour until all of it is leavened? And what of the sneakiness of the person who finds treasure in a field and, instead of telling the owner, rehides it for just long enough to go and buy the field at market price?
Today’s gospel reading has things to teach us about how God makes big things out of little ones, yes. But there’s another dimension to these parables: they are about slowness and imperceptibility, but also about contamination. Jesus in these terribles is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is not at all what we might have expected. It’s not like a cedar of Lebanon, not a superpower like Assyria or Rome or the superpowers of our own day. Nor is it a well-behaved garden plant that grows in its proper compartment. It is like an invasive weed that grows unpredictably, messing up our carefully planned boundaries and rules; sometimes seeming to do nothing for a long time, then bursting out with new shoots in a new direction; sometimes growing close to the ground and hidden, sometimes stretching towards the sky for all to see.
It grows from the smallest of seeds: a single man on a cross, rejected, ignored, and impure. And from that seed it has been growing for thousands of years, and it is still growing today. Our call is to become branches of this invasive kingdom, to take part in this contamination of love that is spreading through God’s world. You might say the kingdom of heaven is going viral. You might not always know it is there. But it is growing wherever people are proclaiming good news and doing the work of love.
This week again shells are falling in Gaza and rockets in Israel. On both sides are many who believe that peace can only come through violence and the eradication of the other, or else through creating firm and unbreakable boundaries between Palestinians and Israelis—and I am thinking here of spiritual boundaries, even more than the physical ones which also exist: spiritual boundaries that keep relationships from forming so that people know one another only as enemies and not as human beings. But there are also those people on both sides who are working to create peace as an invasive species.
Twelve years ago the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East began a program called Kids 4Peace. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim kids from Palestine and Israel come together to build friendships and travel together to attend summer camp, along with American kids, in the United States. They do arts and crafts and activities and all the things that kids do at summer camp; they have fun together, learn about one another’s families and traditions, and learn the skills of dialogue and peacemaking. Right now there are 400 young people involved in the program. Many of them tell stories of the friendships they’ve made across boundaries and the ways their lives have been changed. One young Palestinian who participated and later became a counselor in the program said, “I consider us farmers, planting peace seeds in the kids’ hearts.” It’s a small kind of thing, so far: a shrub, not a cedar. But you never know what will happen when the kingdom of heaven starts to break out in somebody’s field. What birds will it shelter? What boundaries will it cross?
fennel in greatest-of-all-shrubs size?
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Kids4Peace is a great organization; my friend Josh Thomas is the Executive Director and many people I admire are directly involved as officers, board members, and staff. Do go and check out their web page to learn more about their work, and please consider supporting their mission with your donations as well as your prayers.