Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mustard Trees

31He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but 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."

33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

44"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

So every Spring, Dan and I continue our crusade to eliminate our need to do any sort of lawn care. Well, it doesn’t really start out that way. What really happens is that after a long winter of gray skies and frozen pizzas, we get this itch to plant things, to see stuff grow, to just walk out our back door and pick fresh raspberries and sun-warmed tomatoes - even eat them right off the vine. So each year, we set our sights on adding to our garden. Every May we move the t-posts and stretch out the chicken wire a little further to accommodate just one more tomato plant, and then just one row of asparagus, and then, heck, while we’re at it, let’s try blueberry bushes this year. Needless to say, we’re running out of lawn. The three strawberry plants we planted two years ago have now taken up the whole flower bed and wandered out past our fence and into the front yard. The raspberry bush we planted last year has tripled in size and sprouted up three new extensions. And we really only wanted one zucchini plant and one yellow squash, but when they come in packs of four, well, you might as well plant them all and see what happens. Well, what happened is that we’ve got a whole freezer full of shredded zucchini, and I’ve tried so many different yellow squash recipes that I’m thinking about trying yellow squash sorbet next.

But here’s the thing - we really don’t spend that much time gardening. Neither of us would describe our thumbs with any shade of green. We stick the plants in the ground, throw some worm castings over it, give it some water now and then, and get back to reading about Process Womanist Theology, or the “shared cultural milieu of the Gospel of John and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and appeasing our toddler’s newest fascination with trucks and vacuum cleaners. We just let them go, and yet, and yet, they still take over our lawn and fill our countertops and freezer with produce. It’s overwhelming, really, but in a fun, melting-ice-cream-all-over-your-fingertips sort of way. And I’m sure our neighbors think we’re crazy, and maybe shake their heads a little at our tiny farm in the city.

And that’s sorta how I feel when I try to thread all of these parables together in today’s Scripture reading. The images and their implications are overwhelming, maybe even a little overgrown, and so much can be said about each parable individually that we could be here all day. But don’t worry, I’m just a seminary student, so I won’t make us do that.

Instead, what I want us to do is to hover over these stories, and see how they are all planted in the same field, how, when these parables are sewn together, or sown together, they make a kind of narrative, a pattern of responding to the kingdom of God that is both present here, now, as well as in the future. I want us to see the narrative arch that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew presents to us when we thread these parables together. The kingdom starts small, invisibly even, but when we see it, or when we know it’s there even if we don’t see it, our response should be one of both joy and discernment.

This list of parables is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ confusion. They don’t get why more people aren’t coming on board with Jesus’ message. As good, observant Jews, they’ve been waiting and looking for the Kingdom to come their whole lives, and now that it’s here, now that they see it and feel it and can almost taste it through their encounters with Jesus, they don’t understand why everyone else isn’t seeing it too. They’re trying to juxtapose two incongruous facts: the “smallness” of Jesus and the disciples’ ministry and the “great” expectations of the future - the fact that a scrubby son of a Jewish carpenter and his mentally unstable cousin - along with twelve or so equally scrubby fishermen, tax collectors, and joe six packs - are going to be the beginning of this paradigm shift that centuries of Jews have been waiting for. This collection of parables is an invitation to contemplate these two things - our present circumstances as well as our hopes and expectations of a future that God has promised us.

And of course, Jesus explains things in a way that turns everything on its head and, if we’re paying attention, completely confounds us. The kingdom of heaven isn’t going to come in a grand whirlwind or from a lightning bolt from the sky. No, Jesus tells us, the kingdom starts small. Its beginnings look insignificant, and maybe even a little precarious - like a mustard seed, like leaven. Through these series of parables, a vital truth is revealed about God’s kingdom - that, to quote Dale Allison, “a humble beginning and secret presence are not inconsistent with a great and glorious destiny.”

So, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour.” When it comes to gardening, or making bread, or the beginnings of the coming of the Kingdom, it’s easy to screw it up. So much can so easily go wrong. That’s why we place ten or even fifteen tiny seeds into the peat pots in the spring, hoping to get one good tomato plant out of it. And if your water is too cold, your yeast won’t activate. But if it’s too hot, the yeast will die. If you accidentally forget about your sourdough starter, and find it dried up and crumbled in the back of your refrigerator, you have to start all over again. Someone can tell you that you don’t belong in a church, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not “spiritual” enough, and the hopes of the Kingdom could just whither on the vine.

And yet. In each of us is a part of the divine spark that sent entire planets into being. The end is held in the beginning. A little bit of the old leaven is needed to make new dough. And all the potential, the entire future of a tree is held within that one seed. Again, our buddy Dale Allison writes, “For Matthew, the kingdom exists now; and it is an ‘eschatological sphere of salvation, which breaks in, makes a small, unpretentious beginning, miraculously swells, and increases; as a divine “field of energy” it extends and expands ever farther.”

But let’s not forget about the scandal of it all. This is Jesus after all. Jesus not only takes the expectations of the Disciples and turns them upside down, but he completely reverses the clearly defined codes and limits of Jewish life. But for us to understand this, we need a little bit of a botany lesson as well as a little bit of an Old Testament lesson. According to Jewish codes in Leviticus, “You shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed.” Seeds need to be properly separated. You don’t mix the wheat with the corn, or the barley with the oats. But the thing is, it is the nature of the mustard seed to spread and take over, to cross boundaries, to do what my raspberry bush is doing now by fraternizing with the tomatoes. If you tried to plant one nice, neat little row of mustard bushes, they’re so resilient and persistent, they’ll soon spread and take over the whole field. So hold that idea in one hand.

And in the other hand, consider that in the Old Testament, it’s trees, not bushes, that are symbols for God’s reign on earth. The book of Daniel, the book of Ezekiel and even Psalm 104 all refer to giant trees where birds find shelter and places to nest. “A tree in whose shade animals or birds find shelter and sustenance is an Old Testament image of a powerful kingdom sheltering the nations.” But Jesus changes this up. He says that this planted mustard seed “is the smallest of all the seeds, but 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.” Mustard plants don’t really become trees. According to Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman botanist who wrote a Natural History - a sort of ancient encyclopedia of nature - most mustard bushes grow to be about four feet tall. These are bushes, not trees. So why does the writer of Matthew choose to call it a tree? Maybe Matthew was a horrible botanist who didn’t know his ragweed from his sea weed. Or, maybe, and perhaps more likely, Matthew, an ever careful writer, chooses the word “tree” on purpose, to emphasize that this is something that we’ve never seen before, something beyond our expectations. God’s kingdom is one made up of mustard trees. As Bernard Brandon Scott calls it, these trees are an “unnatural malformity of mythical botany.” And in these overgrown bush/tree hybrids is “recognition that God’s mighty words [and works] are among the unclean and insignificant.” It’s not a giant cedar or a majestic oak, but the tiny shoot of Jesse, a lowly carpenter’s son, a torn up man hanging on a cross of rotting wood, or a bush that barely grows four feet high - these are the ways the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.

The planting and growth of a mustard seed is a scandal on many levels. It’s a scandal for planting this seed where it will certainly “corrupt” the other fields, and a scandal for becoming a tree - something completely unexpected for such a humble plant. Or, think of the scandal, the shock on the faces of the disciples when Jesus suggests that a woman is one who can facilitate the coming of the kingdom in the simple and domestic realm of baking bread.

Jesus again restructures, adjusts, and sometimes even obliterates our expectations. The kingdom is like a seed, or the leaven needed for bread. We want the quick fix, the immediate answer, or if we have to wait, we at least want something majestic and lasting and big. But this isn’t how things work, says Jesus. The kingdom must be planted, and when planted, it is buried, it is hidden, and then it must germinate and grow. All of the potential of the kingdom is in that tiny seed, or contained in that yeast, and that potential is huge, life-changing, unexpected and welcoming.

The coming of the kingdom begins with a hidden presence, and it’s first growth is vulnerable, small, weak even...maybe even threatening.

But Jesus says to the Disciples - give everything you have for it anyway. And so we continue with our narrative of parables. If the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us that the kingdom of God has humble, even scandalous beginnings, the parables of the treasure and the great pearl tell us to give up all that we have to attain it - even if it seems strange, or radical, or ridiculous or even a bit scandalous.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Or again, it’s like “a merchant in search of pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.” The value of the kingdom goes hand in hand with our appropriate response. Give everything you have, because it is worth everything you have.

And I can hear you all, right now. You’re thinking, “whoa, whoa, Jenn - I go to Sixth, I’m a Presbyterian, one of the “frozen chosen,” when did you get all Fundagelical on us?” Give up everything? That’s just irresponsible. That’s not only crazy; that’s just dumb.

But let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Don’t we do this all the time? Don’t we make decisions about what we’re going to give our lives to and what we aren’t? This is where our parable of the nets comes in. The kingdom of heaven “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

Don’t we give our whole lives to our children? Or, wouldn’t we, if we were asked to? Don’t our jobs demand this from us, even if we resist? Don’t we watch television commercials and think, “If I just had that new car, or bought that kind of mayonnaise, or used that kind of deodorant or had that degree everything in my life would be so much better?” The question is, how do we sort through what is life-giving and what needs to be thrown out? Does what you give your whole self to give you your self back? Does it give back more? What is worth giving of our whole selves? And what isn’t? Jesus tells us it’s the stuff that surprises us, the stuff that seems a little bit scandalous, the stuff that seems hidden that will give us our lives back, and ultimately, bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Jesus tells us that when we find that hidden, vulnerable, pervasive thing that brings in the kingdom, it’s worth everything we have, and that means making some choices. That means that when we gather up everything that life has to offer into our nets, we’re going to have to throw out the things that don’t bring about the kingdom. We must sort through what gives us life and what takes life from us.

Jesus says, the Kingdom is worth it, even when it’s hidden, even when it looks like a weed, even when it needs to be carefully tended to, even when it disrupts our neat little rows of order, control and routine. And when we give everything we have, we don’t leave with nothing. We leave with our arms full of life, nets full of fish, loaves and loaves of bread, and acres of mustard trees. And more than that. We leave with an idea of what we thought was impossible is now possible - bushes become trees, fields become treasure, a speck of dirt becomes a pearl.

Thanks be to God.

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