That Pesky Mustard Seed

Get your Googles ready, everybody, because it is once again time to fill your favorite search engine with image searches of mustard seeds and plants.  Every year, I get the question from a farmer in our congregation about what sort of mustard plants Jesus was talking about because in LA (Lower Alabama) they just don’t grow into “the greatest of all shrubs.”  As the internet is ever expanding, I found a new image this year, that perhaps will help allay some of Mr. L’s concerns.

That’s not me in my cassock-alb.

What are we to do with this wildly contextualized image for the kingdom of God?  It is like a mustard seed, which if Wikipedia is to be believed, is awfully small.

Yet it grows into “the greatest of shrubs” according to Jesus, of the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kudzu, as some scholars have described it.  Either way, this tiny seed is a force to be reckoned with.  In the genre of parables, it seems that the details are only important insofar as they point you to the underlying meaning.  So, whether great bush or annoying weed, the truth that Jesus is sharing is that even when it seems that the influence of the kingdom of God is nearly imperceptibly small, there are big things brewing.

This makes sense, of course, here near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  Over the course of three years there will be great crowds and utter isolation; there will be cheers of joy and mocking jeers; there will be moments of profound influence and times when it seems as though the whole world is rebelling against Jesus and his message.  In the long-run, the kingdom of God will have its influence, will make a difference, will flourish beyond imagination, but in those moments of doubt, we can recall the mustard seed and know that God’s plan is larger than our momentary frustrations.

Kingdom Tasks

Proper 6, Year B brings us back to everybody’s favorite season: it’s Kingdom Parable Time!!!!!!  All the contextualized fun of Jesus’ regular parables, with the added bonus that they are describing something we can’t even imagine! Yay!

I’m being facetious, of course, but there is some truth in the thought that the Kingdom Parables are about the toughest genre a preach will have to deal with.  They are often short, dense, and full of things that made perfect sense to first century Jews, but an awful lot gets lost in translation.  Take everyone’s favorite Kingdom Parable as an example.  The Parable of the Sower is clearly not to be taken literally.  Nobody will waste that much seed, and nobody would expect returns of 30, 60, or 100-fold.  In our current context, where farming is almost entirely mechanized, family farms are nearly non-existent, and, quite frankly, barely anyone gives any real thought about where their food comes from, this parable just seems odd, and yet there are lessons to be learned about the extravagance of God and the call to discipleship.

The same is true in Sunday’s double-header of Kingdom Parables from Mark 4.  We’ll deal with the mustard seed tomorrow, but today I want to look at the pithy harvest parable.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Science has helped us to understand how seeds mature into grain, but even in Jesus’ time they knew of using minerals and manure to grow better crops, and as I said before, these parables aren’t meant to be lessons in agriculture, they are meant to describe the Kingdom of God.  Putting aside the naivete’ of the farmer in Jesus’ parable for a moment, we see Jesus highlighting two discipleship tasks in the Kingdom of God.  The farmer scatters seed and the farmer engages the harvest.

Plant and harvest, plant and harvest, plant and harvest.  Like all parables, the lessons is not explicit, and the first meaning is usually the wrong one.  My initial thought is that this is a parable about evangelism.  We are to tell the Good News and then help those who believe it to live the kingdom life.  That’s probably not wrong, but there are probably other ways to interpret this parable.  Maybe we plant seeds simply by loving our neighbor and the harvest comes when love abides.  Maybe we plant seeds by caring for the poor and the harvest comes when justice rolls down like a mighty river.  Maybe we plant seeds through prayer and Bible study and the harvest comes by way of a deep and rich relationship with God.  Maybe we plant seeds by giving sacrificially to the Kingdom and the harvest comes by way of blessings unimaginable.  There are lots of ways to interpret planting and harvesting, but the underlying truth remains, God blesses what is planted with an abundant harvest.

Thy Kingdom Come – a Lenten Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer

I taught the second of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s prayer last week.  Here’s the text.

Good evening.  Welcome to the second week of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Last week, we looked at the opening acclamation of the prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Father Keith helped us think about how we approach God both as Abba, our Father, on YHWH, the Great I am, a name so holy that a proper Jew would never speak it.  We looked especially at the story of  Moses at the Burning Bush, where God was both accessible to Moses and yet appeared in the form of fire, a force that must be treated with great reverence.

Tonight we will turn our attention to the second portion of the prayer.  If you’ll recall, Keith noted that the Lord’s Prayer follows a somewhat modified A.C.T.S format: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  Tonight’s section, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” falls under confession.  Simply in saying these words, we know that they are not yet true.  The kingdom of God is not yet fully realized here on earth.  We are not living out the will of God every moment of every day.  That’s why we have to pray for it, and we do, we pray earnestly that God’s kingdom would come, but ultimately, the responsibility for the building the kingdom of God falls on us.  When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will see fully what the kingdom is like.

Saint Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun and mystic is credited with writing a poem called, “Christ has no body.”  In that poem, she reminds us that since the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus carry the responsibility of the kingdom.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thy kingdom come Lord.  Thy will be done.  Help me to do it.  Of course, we know all too well that discerning God’s will is much easier said than done.  Even when we turn to the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t give us much help.  More often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he does it in veiled stories called parables.  When he was asked why he taught in parables, Jesus said, “Because the kingdom of God is so hard to understand.”  For thousands of years, the seeds of the Kingdom have been planted.  Through a bow in the clouds, God established a covenant with Noah and planted a seed.  Through the promise of a son, God established a covenant with Abraham and planted a seed.  Through the promise of an Exodus from Egypt, God establishes a covenant with Moses and planted a seed.  Prophets came and reminded the people that for the kingdom to grow into full blossom, the people of God had to water and care for it.  Holy people throughout the ages fertilized the kingdom through their prayers and compassion.  Faithful people have tilled the ground, studied the scriptures, and longed for the kingdom to come.  And then Jesus came along, the kingdom of God personified, and told people stories about the seeds that had been planted.[1]

“[The Kingdom of God] is like a tiny mustard seed planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds come and find shelter among its branches.”  Most of us have absolutely no concept of a mustard tree.  You might know mustard seeds, if you’re sort of foodies and like to make Indian food or maybe you’ve probably seen them ground up in a Grey Poupon jar, but most people have no concept of what happens between mustard seed and the French’s yellow mustard that ends up on their hotdog.  Of course, Jesus’ crowd knew about mustard seeds.  Mustard plants grew wild in Palestine; they were the kudzu of their time.  When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, he tells the people that after thousands of years of seed planting, the kingdom of God is getting ready to run amuck.  As we hear that parable two thousand years later, there is evidence all around that the kingdom is growing, spreading, and in some cases even flourishing, even while in some places it is being choked out by fear, anger, and just plain ignorance.

The kingdom of God is here.  Growth has begun and continues every time a disciple of Jesus chooses to follow the will of God.  The kingdom is fertilized by acts of care and compassion.  The kingdom of God grows with love.  The kingdom of God comes when God’s will is done.  So what does that look like?  Like I said, it can be confusing.  Seminary was really hard for me.  My eyes were opened to all sorts of new and scary things.  By the time my first year was coming to an end, I was seriously considering dropping out.  I had a great safety net.   I could always go back and work for my father-in-law.  Doug is a good Christian man who runs his company on good Christian principles.  Surely I could fulfill the will of God by working for him.  Yet, God had so clearly called me to be a priest.  As a preacher and teacher I could share God’s will with others so easily.  Surely staying in seminary was God’s will for me.  They couldn’t both be God’s will, but they both sure felt like it. I finally realized that God’s will for me wasn’t about what job I had or what food I ate or what socks I wore.  God’s will for me is the same as God’s will for the whole world, to be restored to right relationship.  God’s will for me was to love him and love my neighbor as myself.  I could fulfill God’s will while working for Thomas Construction or as an ordained minister, the details didn’t matter, the way in which I lived did.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we confess that the world is not yet the way God intended it to be.  Each time, we invite God to open our eyes to the ways we can fulfill his will in our lives: to help us find ways to be his hands and his feet.  Each time, we repeat the hope of generations of disciples who have come before us that the kingdom of God might come in fullness.  Each time, we affirm our faith in the God who can set all things right, make all things new, and restore all things to the fullness of his good and perfect will.

[1] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, p. 161.

Evil Eye

There is perhaps no better evil eye than that of the Janitor from Scrubs.

I raise this, partly because SHW and I have been working our way through the whole series on dvd as of late, but mostly because of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson wherein our faithful translators have attempted to capture the meaning of a Greek figure of speech that English probably wasn’t meant to capture.

Toward the end of the parable, as the landowner is confronting the grumbling laborers, he says to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  If we can be honest with each other for just a moment, this is probably the end of Jesus’ dealing with this matter and the whole “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” part is probably a Matthean addition to created the bookend he’s looking for rhetorically.  If this is the end of the lesson from Jesus, it really does end with an interesting challenge, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  I dealt with that yesterday.

What I find even more interesting is what the Greek has Jesus actually saying, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  John R. Donahue, SJ picks up on this little gem in his The Gospel in Parable, noting that for Matthew, the eye bit is something of a recurring theme.  “The final words of the owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” underscores the defect in these servants.  Since in Matthew “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22) and “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (5:29), these servants allow their attitude to “darken” their whole way of viewing the world.  What began as an act of goodness to them and unfolded as an act of generosity to others blinded them to the goodness of the owner and the good fortune of others” (82-83).

When we begin to make judgements about what we think others deserve, we look upon them with an evil eye.  That evil eye doesn’t really have any negative effect on the other, but rather, it permeates our own hearts with the darkness of envy.  Remember that Jesus has told this parable in response to Peter’s question about what kind of reward the disciples were going to get for having given up everything to follow Jesus.  Remember that Peter asks that question in response to Jesus’ assertion that though it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.  Remember that Jesus says that because the rich young man walks away sad rather than becoming a disciple.  And remember that the rich young man walks away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.  Got all that?

Peter didn’t want there to be any chance that that rich young man, who refused to give up his opulence, could get in to the kingdom of heaven.  And on the off chance he did, since everything is possible for God, Peter wanted to be sure that the disciples would end up better of than that guy.  Peter’s eye had become evil, and Jesus let him know about it.  He saved him the indignity of cutting it out, and instead told a parable inviting Peter to look upon the kingdom of heaven in a new way.  There are no winners and losers, no firsts and last, just beloved children who have been graciously received in through the generosity of the Father.

Jesus and Nickelodeon’s “Kid’s Court”

As a child of the late 80s/early 90s, I have vivid memories of the early days of Nickelodeon.  You remember the “You Can’t Do That on Television” era, don’t you?  Though I grew up in The Episcopal Church, may parents weren’t the new age hippies you might expect them to be.  Rather, there were very strict television rules in our house: No “YCDToTV” or “Ren and Stimpy” and certainly no MTV.  One of the shows I could watch was “Kid’s Court,” which was, as you might have guessed, a play on the perennially popular “People’s Court.”  Each episode featured a couple of “cases” in which children would write in seeking to settle a dispute with parents, siblings, etc.  The case would be “decided” by a very unruly courtroom audience which would scream for the side of the argument they thought should win.

Kid’s Court existed before the Internet, so you’re lucky that this screen grab is even available.

What I remember most vividly however, was at the end of each episode when the host would run around the audience getting kids to offer a brief complaint about life in their households.

“My mom always makes me wash the dishes while my brother plays Nintendo.”

“My dad never lets me help fix the car other than holding the flashlight.”

My parents went on a cruise and left me with my grandparents who smell like moth balls.”

Afterwards, the host would shout “Fair or Unfair?” and the audience would shout back their vote.  Obviously, all three of the above named complaints are “Unfair!”  I can’t help but read the story of the Prodigal Landowner without thinking about Kid’s Court.  “He payed everyone the same wage: Fair or Unfair?”

UNFAIR!!!!!!

In this parable, Jesus invites us to reconsider our understanding of fairness in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Reflecting back on last week’s lesson, if I’ve been forgiven a debt of 150,000 lifetimes, what right do I have to complain that another has been forgiven 1,500,000 lifetimes?  Or what right does someone who has been forgiven 15,000 lifetimes have to complain about me.  The promise of God is eternal life through his Son.  Whether we start that life at age 8 or 88, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we “sin boldly” or live piously, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we are first and last or last and first, it doesn’t really matter. Whether we think it is unfair or not, it doesn’t really matter.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of Heaven precisely because it is unfair.  Unfair enough to include me, and unfair enough to include you, too.

The Kingdom is like…

While I enjoy all three weeks of Parable Season, my distrust of all things allegory makes week three the shining star.  Clearly the disciples, and Matthew’s readers, have failed to fully grasp Jesus’ drawn out metaphorical parables.  They, and we, have been further confused by his attempts to explain them.  And so this week, Jesus tries a different tack, straight up simile.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like…

  • A Mustard Seed
  • Yeast
  • A Treasure Hidden in a Field
  • A Merchant in Search of a Fine Pearl
  • A Net Thrown into the Sea

These are five very different ways of explaining the kingdom.  None of them is able to carry the full weight of explaining the Kingdom of Heaven.  In fact, combined, they still don’t even begin to do the job justice.  Still, there is plenty to learn from these five short similes about the Kingdom.

  • The Mustard Seed – the Kingdom of Heaven may look unassuming at the start, but when it takes root, it changes the very landscape of your heart.  From shrub to tree to a home for the birds of the air (those pesky things that stole the seed back in the Parable of the Sower), the Kingdom changes everything.
  • Yeast – the Kingdom of Heaven is subversive: working through an inordinate amount of flour, even this little bit of yeast can change the world.
  • A Treasure – this is a tough one.  It seems as though Jesus is telling the disciples to be unscrupulous.  It is awfully unethical to find a treasure, not tell the land owner, and buy it at market value, but Jesus did once tell his disciples to be shrewd like the children of this age and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
  • A Merchant – the Kingdom of Heaven is of great value, in fact, it will cost you everything, even your very life.  This is the parabolic version of “take up your cross and follow me.”
  • A Net – though God desires the restoration of all of creation, there will come a day when everyone will have to make a choice: do I want to live in God’s love or not?  I believe there is a hell, though I hope it will be empty at the second coming when everyone, experiencing the overwhelming love of God, chooses to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that is so unspeakably awesome (I use that overused word very intentionally), that even Jesus can’t explain it fully in human terms.

Eschatology and Parables – Oh My!

As I tried to make clear last week, I love parables because they aren’t easy to understand.  This presumes that I enjoy working at difficult theology, which I do, but everyone has their limit.  So it is when the lectionary invites us to handle the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  For the second straight week, we are given a juicy parable by Jesus.  This one even starts with a variant of my favorite opening line, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

If all we had was the parable itself, this would be an interesting enough exercise.  What does it mean that in his description of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus includes a) the enemy and b) the enemy’s fruit?  How does Jesus’ acknowledgement of the presence of evil help us to understand the world around us better?  How does it open up our imaginations around the Kingdom of God?  What does it say that the farmer allows the tares (weeds) to grow alongside the good wheat throughout the growing season?  These are just a few of the several difficult questions that are brought up in this week’s parable.

But the lesson doesn’t end there.  For the second straight week, we are also given an allegorical interpretation from the lips of Jesus himself.  As I said in my sermon yesterday, I don’t particularly like allegories because I think they make the parables too easy to understand.  This is not the case this week, however.  This week, Jesus raises the bar by including in his allegory “the harvest is the end the age.”  So not only do we have the depth of the parable to deal with, but we also have eschatology or in more common parlance, the End Times.  Matthew’s Gospel has a strong eschatological bend to it.  He spends most of chapters 24 and 25 expanding on Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  Given the first century context and the notion that Jesus was coming back “before some in this generation fell asleep,” it makes sense that the Gospel writers would deal with the end of the age, but now 2,000 years later, when eschatology is mostly the purview of a few quack authors who enjoy clothesline theology, the average Mainline preacher will be well advised and probably hard pressed to carefully handle the eschatology in Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel equipped to deal with the eschatology in this parable adequately.  I’m not preaching this week, so I probably won’t take the time to do the research, but I will pray for those who are preaching this Sunday.  It is a daunting task.  If you are preaching this week, I’d love to hear how you handle to deal with this parable and its inherent eschatology.  And if you have a go to resource, be sure to link to in in the comments.