October 25, 2020
Jesus was the kind of person who loved to tell stories. Stories were the vehicle by which he communicated very complex truths. Our reading today is one such story, a parable from the fourth chapter of Mark. Listen:
[Jesus] also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
It’s a Friday, which means its visitor day – two men sit across from one another at a simple, wood table. One is a decorated veteran of Afghanistan, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of John Hopkins University, a Rhodes Scholar. The other is serving a life sentence at the Jessup Correctional Institute’s maximum security prison. These days, their two lives could not be more different. The only thing they share now is a name. Wes Moore.
Their respective stories are told in the book, The Other Wes Moore: two boys born with the same name in the same Baltimore zip code, both with no father figure to speak of, both with juvenile records by the time they were adolescents…and yet, their paths diverged so sharply. It’s a story that illustrates just how pivotal some moments can be in a young person’s life.
The Wes Moore who is now incarcerated grew up admiring and emulating the tough guys in his neighborhood – they embraced hm, invested in him, showed him what success looked like…and so that Wes wanted to be just like the tough guys – a copy of a copy of a copy.
The other Wes’ testimony is that he, instead, had people in his life who taught him the power of writing his own story. A different story from the one handed to you.
When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he stepped onto a scene every bit as politically charged as we are experiencing now, just nine days from a Presidential election. There were different parties vying for the loyalty of the people – all under the context of being occupied by a foreign empire. So…Jesus tells a story.
He begins with a question of sorts:
“How do I describe the kingdom of God?”
Well, Jesus says, take an itty-bitty mustard seed and plant it in the ground… give it some time and it germinates, it sends out roots and shoots and eventually it grows into a glorious…shrub!
(Monty Python clip)
“Really, Jesus? The Kingdom of Heaven is like…a shrub?” (MP Clip)
“Yeah…that baby might grow four, five, maybe even six feet tall!”
Wow, Jesus…that’s one impressive…shrubbery. (MP Clip)
“You bet it is – it’s branches are so dense it could even provide shelter to birds.”
Birds, like what kind of birds…hawks, eagles?
Well, not those kinds of birds…little birds, like sparrows or doves. Still, pretty impressive, huh?
Understand, I make light of the parable’s imagery for a reason. Jesus is having a go with the hearer here – he’s pulling our leg. This whole parable is borrowing language from a prophecy in the book of Ezekiel concerning the fall of the great Assyrian empire. In chapter 31 it reads:
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
and of great height, its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
the deep made it grow tall,
So it towered high above all the trees of the field;
All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs;
Sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ parable – except, instead of a tall and mighty tree – Jesus likens God’s Kingdom to a lowly shrub.
It’s really quite an absurd image – so absurd that Matthew and Luke couldn’t leave it alone.
Luke turns that shrub into a tree – the mustard seed grows into a tall and mighty tree.
(Post Luke 13:19 – “it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”)
Matthew splits the difference and says the seed becomes the greatest of shrubs which then grows into a tree.
(Post Matthew 13:32 – “when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”)
But in Mark – it’s just a plain shrub.
Jesus is most definitely winking at us with a big grin on his face. Sometimes, that’s what parables do…they use humor to help the listener hear something they may not want to hear – that the Kingdom of God is indeed not a mighty empire imposing its will from above, but rather a subtly creeping ground cover.
Some of you may remember Brian Blount who preached our installation service exactly one year ago this week. Dr. Blount specialized his studies on the Gospel of Mark and he argues that much of this Gospel is written as a warning against the Jewish zealots who were active in the time of Jesus.
Now the Zealots…were not exactly on the same page as Jesus. They very much wanted Israel to become a great big empire – a tall, tall tree in the forest. So all this talk about Shrubs would really rub them the wrong way. In fact, if it were 1999 and you found the Zealots in a recording studio, I have no doubt they would have written this song…
PLAY “SCRUBS INSTRUMENTAL” by TLC
Who is this weak messiah guy
With a story of tiny seedlings
Always talk – talk – talking about the Kingdom
But he never is a man of action
No – I don’t want to hear your parable
No – don’t you see we’re wasting time
No – I don’t want to follow your way
No – You just need to follow mine
I don’t want no shrub
A shrub is a kingdom can’t get no love from me
I’m bringing back King David’s line
And Israel’s pride
Just you wait and see
That was painful…necessary but painful. Let’s talk about the Zealots. The Zealots were a revolutionary group who fiercely held on to the belief that they could usher in the Kingdom of God with force – all they had to do was overthrow the latest tough guy – the Roman Empire. Once Rome toppled, they would be free to take their place as the tallest tree in the forest.
Jesus sees the zealots plotting and he offers this story as an alternative. Power, Jesus suggests, is not measured by how big and strong you are or how much you tower above everything and everyone else. Power comes from below.
Not trees – but shrubs
There seems to be an awful lot of speculation these days about how COVID may permanently change the Church. For months we’ve been talking about “when things go back to normal,” but the question is out there and gaining traction – “will we ever go back to the way things were?”
After a year or more of not gathering, will folks decide they really didn’t miss Church all that much? Will the Church become much smaller? Will people give to the Church? Will people get so used to Sunday mornings in their pajamas that they won’t ever darken the door of a Church again? For the record, it doesn’t bother me if you come to Church in your pajamas, but it is the south and I find it highly unlikely that would catch on here.
I joke – but I’d be lying if I said that this doesn’t fill me with existential dread. We might be smaller. We might have less resources. And frankly, the Church has been grappling with this fear of diminishment for decades…grieving the fact that we simply are not the cultural force we once were. The pandemic only amplifies the anxiety that was already there.
Yes that frightens me.
Yes, at times, I lose sleep over it.
Yes, I have no idea what I would do if that turned out to be true.
AND – I’m staring at this Church…and You – or, it is the south so shall I say – and Y’all give me
I see the honest-to-goodness joy on your faces when you gather for small groups. (SG Photo)
I see the way that you care for one another in ways both structured and spontaneous.
I see the heart of compassion you have for this community and for partners around the world
from Haiti to Thailand.
I see the generosity of your time and talent, and yes, your hard-earned treasure, and how you
Pledge – perhaps even later today – to share that in this place.
As Brian Blount proclaimed to us one year ago this week, I see your commitment to the Jesus way.
And even if the Church were to be a little smaller, when we follow in the Jesus way, we still must contend with the hard-to-hear, so-difficult-I-don’t-want-to-accept-it truth that he conceals in this parable. The Church doesn’t need to be big or successful or imposing. Power comes from below. The Kingdom of God is not a Tree…it’s a shrub…and not just any shrub, but an invasive mustard plant.
The ancient historian Pliny likened Mustard to a weed: “It grows entirely wild,” he wrote, “and it is scarcely possible to get rid of it.” In the Roman empire there were actually laws against planting mustard because it was such a nuisance.
So if I were to translate it to our location – Jesus likens the Kingdom of God – to Kudzu
(show photo of Kudzu – REM Murmur cover photo)
What Album Cover Is This? Email Me at Jarrett@upcch.org
Kudzu was planted throughout the Southeastern United States from 1935 to 1950 in order to combat erosion. Can you believe it? The government gave out 85 million seedlings for landowners to plant.
By 1953, the USDA removed Kudzu from the list of acceptable ground covers. In 1970 Kudzu was labeled a pest weed and in 1997 Kudzu was officially added to the Federal Noxious Weed list. Did you know that such a list existed?
Perhaps not, but if you’ve ever driven on some North Carolina back roads you’ll understand why Kudzu is on it.
Kudzu swallows forests whole. If unchecked, it’ll cover houses in thick tangles of growth. Nationwide, Kudzu consumes 150,000 acres of land every year. Try as you might, once it’s been planted, there’s no getting rid of it.
So it is with the Kingdom of God…it doesn’t grow tall and call attention to itself. The kingdom of God spreads; it takes over. It shows us that true power is not being that tallest of trees…but in being the invasive love of God that you cannot get rid of.
Whatever the future may hold for the Church, our calling is to make sure that we get swallowed – heart, mind and soul – by the love of God that never, ever lets us go. Let God’s people say together – Amen.
 Willimon, Will. “The Greatest of All Shrubs.” This preceding portion is a riff from a similar device in his sermon