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St. Paul’s – Proper 6 – 6/13/21

He was just a kid, so young and apparently insignificant that his own father didn’t consider him worthy even to attend the sacrifice offered by the traveling prophet Samuel. Sure, he was good looking, and he was tough, and he had some talent, but by and large everyone who knew him assumed he’d spend his days as an adult the same way he’d spent those of his adolescence: tending sheep, playing with his sling, writing poetry, and playing music. He was hardly a suitable replacement for a great warrior like Saul. Yet David, the least of Jesse’s sons and the unlikeliest of leaders, was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be King over God’s people Israel.

It was just like the God of Israel to do something so totally unanticipated. He had, after all, chosen to redeem the world through the as yet unborn descendants of a pair of skeptical senior citizens named Abram and Sara. When those descendants were enslaved and oppressed by the mightiest political, economic, and military power the world had known, He called upon a hot-headed, inarticulate fugitive named Moses to take up their cause and lead them to freedom. More than once He responded to their recurring disobedience and loss of faith with reassurance and forgiveness. Why should it surprise us to discover that when Israel demanded a king (so they could be like the other nations), God responded (after an initial false start) by choosing so improbable a candidate as David? It is, quite simply, the way the God of Israel and of Jesus works: divine power manifest in human weakness, divine purpose made present in the midst of human folly. As the Psalmist says, Some take pride in chariots / and some in horses / but our pride is in the name of the Lord. David, whom no one expected to be God’s anointed – His mashiah – was filled with God’s Spirit and became the greatest of Israel’s kings, a man after God’s own heart who was destined to be the ancestor of the One through whom God would bring salvation to all creation.

The story of David serves as a nice example of the lesson Jesus taught when he told the parables in today’s Gospel reading. In the first parable Jesus offers his listeners a gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves (or, as Mark puts it, the earth produces of itself), and when the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second parable, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.

Both of these parables, insofar as they’re meant to show us what the kingdom of God looks like, are counter-cultural to the point of sounding ridiculous. As in: they make no sense. They’re big, cosmic jokes, intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we’d take them on our own. What is the kingdom of God like? Are you sure you want to know? Okay, brace yourself: the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds. 

Let’s start with the sleeping gardener.  If you are any type of workaholic or perfectionist, then you know what’s wrong with this first parable. Good gardeners don’t toss a bunch of seeds into their backyards and then snooze away the growing season. They plan, plod, and hover. They make neat little rows in well-manicured beds. They keep a wary eye on the weather. They protect their gardens from birds, rabbits, and deer. From early spring until harvest time, they water, they fertilize, they prune, they weed, and they worry.

But the gardener in Jesus’s parable?  He sleeps. He doesn’t slog. He doesn’t micro-manage.  He doesn’t second-guess. Instead, he enjoys the rest that comes from leaning into a process that is ancient, mysterious, cyclical, and sure. He trusts the seeds. He trusts the soil. He trusts the sun, the shade, the clouds, the rain. Yes, he participates in the process by planting and harvesting. He pays attention to the seasons, and gets to work when the time is ripe. But he never harbors the illusion that he’s in charge; he knows that he’s operating in a realm of mystery. In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety, our doctrinal purity, or our impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. It is grace alone.

In Jesus’s second parable, a sower sows a mustard seed in the ground. The joke here is not only that mustard seeds are tiny, but that the people in Jesus’s day didn’t plant mustard seeds. Mustard was a weed — and a noxious, stubborn weed at that. If a first century gardener in Palestine were foolish enough to plant it, it would quickly take over his land, dropping seeds everywhere, and breaking down all barriers of separation between itself and the other plants in the garden. Imagine a gardener today planting kudzu, or dandelions, or broomweed or goatweed. These are commonplace nuisances we try to get rid of, not plants we’d ever cultivate on purpose.Mustard, moreover, is not a plant that grows with any stateliness or beauty.  It’s nothing like a cedar, or a giant sequoia, or even a well-tended rose bush. It grows like a weed, and it looks like one.

So what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy as a tiny, insignificant mustard seed? What does it mean to take an invasive, spindly weed — a plant we’d sooner discard than sow — and make it the very heart, the very structural center, of God’s kingdom?  Who and what counts in God’s economy? What is beautiful? Who matters? Where do we see the sacred?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the speaker of this parable — Jesus himself — comes to earth as a tiny and forgettable mustard seed. A backwater baby born into poverty on the edges of empire. Or that the people who first follow him when he grows up are a bunch of raggedy fishermen and corrupt tax collectors. Clueless, clumsy, timid, and doubtful.  Is it really the case that God’s kingdom rests on folks like these? Yes. Absolutely yes.

The last image in this set of parables is that of nesting birds finding shade in the branches of the mustard plant. It’s a pretty image on its face, but it, too, as it turns out, is a joke: who wants birds taking up residence in their gardens? Birds eat seeds and fruits. They wreak havoc in cornfields.  Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.

But Jesus isn’t a scarecrow kind of gardener. Why? Because the kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome. Sheltering the unwanted. Practicing radical inclusion. The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to offer nourishment to everyone the world deems unworthy. It exists to attract and to house the very people we’d rather shun. Its primary purpose is hospitality, not productivity. 

How many times have we shooed the birds away because we’re so busy policing our gardens? Whose needs, hungers, and hopes have we ignored because our eyes are locked on the ground of our own efforts, intentions, priorities, and strategic plans?The reign of God, when it came, would appear first of all not as an overwhelming counter-presence to Roman or any other imperial power; rather it would come quietly, unassumingly, underwhelmingly. The Kingdom of God, Jesus explained, is like a mustard seed.

The basic lesson of this parable is easy enough to grasp. In Jewish tradition the mustard seed was proverbially known as the smallest of seeds; its diminutive size made it a favorite image of the teachers of the faith, encouraging them, as the prophet Zechariah said, not to despise the day of small things. God’s reign was like this most miniscule of seeds because God’s reign began with insignificance. What could be a less likely indication that the creator of heaven and earth could be at work changing the world than the anointing of a teenage shepherd as king. And what could be a better sign of that unlikely work than something as small as a mustard seed? What could be a less likely beginning for the establishment of God’s reign than a peasant teacher from Galilee and his rag-tag group of disciples? This was God’s Messiah? These were the people through whom God was going to change the world? Not likely. Not likely at all. They were practically nothing. They were like, well, like a mustard seed.

But seeds do not remain seeds, and the mustard seed, when sown in fertile soil, eventually sprouts and grows and becomes the largest plant in the garden, a shrub that can grow up to 15 feet high, big enough, Jesus tells us, to offer shelter to birds.

Big enough to offer shelter to birds. Hmmm. There’s an irony here that we dare not overlook. God’s reign begins in insignificance, like a little tiny seed, and then it develops, and it grows, and it matures, and it becomes … a shrub. Just a shrub. Not a mighty oak, nor one of the famed Cedars of Lebanon, but a modest, unassuming, and most of all still insignificant shrub. What’s that about?

What it’s about is a metaphor for the way God works in the world. God begins with weakness and impotence and insignificance, and God works through those things, and they become God’s salvation, even though the world is likely to continue to regard them as weak, impotent, and insignificant. God’s work in the world is the life together of God’s people, and in Scripture God’s people are seldom impressive by any standards except God’s. God enters the world as a peasant from an obscure Middle Eastern tribe, as an infant born to a poor unwed teenager. When that infant grows to become a great teacher with many followers, he suffers the most ignoble death imaginable – at the hands of the government. When God breaks into history and raises him from the dead, he leaves his work in the hands of the very people who abandoned him at the end of his life. When God sends the Holy Spirit to empower them to preach and demonstrate the reality of God’s reign, they gather followers who turn out to be every bit as weak and ambivalent as the people Israel had ever been. And still, God continues to work, and the Kingdom is planted, and it grows, and birds take shelter in its branches.

Here is what the kingdom of God looks like: slow, mysterious growth. Periods of fallowness. Plants we can neither control nor contain. Weeds that run wild and still nourish. Hungry, raucous birds. Feasts we might mistake for waste. Gardeners who take naps.

David was just a kid. The mustard seed grows into just a shrub. And I am part of a little church: a small, mostly unremarkable group of people who live together in rural Far West Texas, doing the best we can to raise our families and pay our bills. On Sundays we gather to worship God, and we stumble along as best we can. 

We host a Thanksgiving feast for the town, an ice cream social and school supply give away, a blessing of animals and we baptize children and we gather, warts and all, around Jesus’ table.

You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds to me like God has us right where he wants us. It sounds to me like our weakness is the very soil for the seeds of God’s Kingdom. It sounds to me like we better be careful, for before we know it we might find birds taking shelter in our branches.

When that happens, thanks be to God.