Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cultivating seeds and new life to come

We awoke this morning to find a light covering of snow on the ground and covering the chicken coop. The snow has come early. It is raining today and the snow will likely disappear before noon.

As this first hint of winter, it is hard to imagine Spring and the new life beyond. But it will come. The seeds are in the ground, and in our hearts, and they will grow if we cultivate them.

In the Daily Office readings this morning, Jesus is back with the seeds again. He tells the oddly strange "mustard seed" parable in Matthew 13:31-35.

It must have been one of his greatest hits, for it appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in the Gospel of Thomas that was dropped from the canon in the 4th century as the Church decided what would be the New Testament.

If you conclude that Jesus had an inordinate fondness for seeds, you would be right.

The seed story today is about a tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty bush – and is probably the most familiar of all the seed stories.

Maybe too familiar?

What an odd thing to compare the Kingdom of God to seeds, and to the plants and weeds that grow from them. Religious people in the time of Jesus would have been shocked by these stories.

They would expect a holy man like Jesus to give them grandiose religious images like a majestic cedar tree or a marble temple or God riding on a Chariot of Fire.

They would not expect to hear God’s kingdom compared to seeds and weeds. After all, in yesterday's parable, in Matthew 13:24-30,  Jesus said the weeds would be burned. Now he is comparing the Kingdom of God to those very weeds! What is he getting at?

And they certainly would not expect to hear that God’s kingdom is like a mustard bush. I can safely guess that many of those who first heard this story from Jesus would have been mightily offended.
Why? Because a mustard bush is a scourge of the grain fields.

To get the full impact of this parable, it may help you to know something about mustard.
In our time, we consider mustard a delightful condiment, and we cultivate it as an herb. Not so in the time of Jesus.

Mustard was considered a weed, and farmers dreaded it when mustard sprouted in their fields. Mustard weeds could grow the size of a house, and when they did, mustard would take over the neatly cultivated rows of grain.

So when Jesus says the mustard seed grows into a mighty plant with birds nesting in it, he is talking about a shrub considered by many as an unrespectable weed.

Indeed, biblical scholars will tell you that the mustard seed parable is something of an ancient inside joke. Jesus is making fun of the Temple priests who indeed describe the Temple in the grandiose imagery of mighty cedars of Lebanon so large that birds nest in it.

Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God will grow not like a grandiose cedar, but more like a mustard weed from tiny ordinary seeds – seeds that no one usually thinks are useful or important.

The Kingdom of God is mighty, but not the way the Temple priests think.

The kingdom won’t be orderly growing in neat rows. God’s Kingdom is entwined with all the other plants of the field, and nothing will stop these plants from growing. And then this parable gets worse for high-and-mighty Temple crowd.

They must have wondered what kind of farmer would throw seeds everywhere, or mixes all the seeds together with wheat and mustard and thorns and put them on rocky ground and loamy ground?

Farmers don’t do that.

Farmers grow things in neat rows and they do their best to keep the weeds out. Seeds are valuable, and farmers don’t waste them, and certainly don’t mix them together in the fields.

But the farmer of the parable does exactly that – and that is precisely the point Jesus is making with these stories.

The farmer – the God of abundance – has so many seeds, and so many kinds of seeds, that the farmer is not afraid to toss as many around as possible, and get them all jumbled up.

I am absolutely convinced Jesus wants us to go one more step with this: Everyone is included in this great holy mix of seeds that is God’s kingdom, especially people who are considered outcasts like the weeds.

The lowly and unwashed may look like weeds to the world, but to God they are mighty. The meek and the humble of heart shall inherit the earth.

And the sower of these seeds?

The sower is not stingy. The sower has an overabundance of seeds and plants them with abandon.

There is a challenge to us in this. We are being pushed to plant God’s seeds, and plant them extravagantly, on good ground and thorny ground, rocky ground and loamy ground.

We won’t know what will grow until we plant – and what comes of these seeds may not be as we expect. Be ready to be surprised and delighted.

The weeds may be just as beautiful as the orchids, more beautiful than we might ever have imagined.

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