For the Birds

Sermon for 14 June 15

Mark 4:26-34; Psalm 92:1-4,12-15; Ezekiel 17:22-24
[We think of Jesus’ parables as explanations, but the mustard shrub kingdom is more of a riddle or joke]
Jesus is using horticultural imagery, but if you’re thinking you need to dig out a botany textbook, you’ll miss his punchline that this is all for the birds.

That joke from Jesus came after you already had a heads up in the Psalm. Sure, it’s good news that you still bear fruit in old age (though that could include its own off-color humor). There’s also the line that you’re full of sap. Yup, you are sappy. The Bible tells me so.

If you think these plant puns are corny (that was another one—did you get it?), if they ex-“seed” your attention span, or if you’re wishing I would just “leaf” all this alone, well then your ears are getting warmed up to Jesus’ parable today. It’s meant to be tricky or subversive, a riddle to catch you off guard and make you do a double-take.

So to start back at the beginning, if you think that this agricultural tidbit from Jesus is about how you can grow your faith, or about doing some church-planting (do you notice these are our kinds of terminology?), if you think Jesus gives some instruction to follow, then you’re missing out.

Admittedly, that could be disappointing. In the first part of his parable, Jesus compares faith to the sprouting of a seed. And he says there’s a lot that remains mysterious about that. You can put the seed in good soil and give it water and fertilizer and harvest it when its ripe, but you can’t tell it what to do or even really know why it’s growing and producing.

So maybe if you’re trying to grow your faith and make your life more fruitful, we can say that it’s good to be planted in the right place (like here at church) and to be well-tended (maybe we take that as personal devotions like prayer and Bible reading, or as elements of worship, that you are watered with the forgiving splash of baptism this morning with Braxton James and given nourishment at this table).

But what really makes faith happen? What leads to growth? How do you actually come to believe any of this? Well, that’s a mystery. We can’t force it or prod it or cause it. It’s God’s hidden work going on and ongoing in your life, through day and night. Just like nature, it’s so natural you can try to dissect it but never simply explain this miracle.

If that first part on how faith is produced is frustrating, the second part of the parable may seem absolutely absurd. We could hear this as Jesus describing what his goals are, as his mission statement. In that, it’s opposite to our lofty ambitions. As a counter-example, picture commercials on TV. We’re used to ads telling us the company or the product is the best, the most effective, the most efficient, the fanciest, the prettiest, the newest, the glitziest, the toughest on the market.

Jesus skips that pile of baloney. Instead he goes for something small and obnoxious and problematic. He quite literally and essentially says that his kind of work is annoying, that it gets in the way. It undoes what you were trying to do.

Some of that notion comes through with the background of Ezekiel. Jesus is spoofing on that passage we heard. The prophet used the image of a mighty cedar tree, towering and resilient, an enormous trunk and beautiful bows stretching to the heavenly heights. This is a typical biblical image for kingdoms: strong, rigid, majestic. So as your sights are set on what is biggest and best, this grand tree, Jesus says that God’s kingdom (of course) must be exactly like…a shrub?! A weed. Even worse is the bad company. The mustard shrub invites sparrows to take up residence, birds that gobble up the growth of the good plants.

Or, to tweak Jesus’ imagery, recall instead having a taste of a really pungent mustard, brown with horseradish or the spicy mustard at a Chinese restaurant that makes your nose wrinkle and your head burn and your eyes water. Jesus is giving that sort of image of the kingdom of God.

The obvious problem is that we want it otherwise. We don’t want the dab of spicy mustard kind of kingdom. We want the kingdom to be a delectable cut of steak or a succulent strawberry, just exactly ripe, or to be some premier caviar. We want God to be so elite and exclusive and special as a Dom Pérignon champagne, but instead Jesus arrives with a gallon jug of wine that Ruth Circle buys exactly because it’s the cheapest stuff at the grocery store.

A passage in Isaiah that we hear on Good Friday highlights this absurd notion. It says, “Who has believed what we have heard? For he grew up like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; he was despised and we held him of no account.” (53:1-3)

This unappealing mustard shrub-y guy is the God of the cross, finding his way into the least expected and least desirable places of life. Jesus shows up in the smallest seeds, the littlest moments of your life and the worst places. He takes up residence and takes over. He begins to crowd out the other stuff that you thought was pretty and attractive. He begins if not to overpower at least to distract from all of that other baloney that claimed to be the best and biggest and brightest.

So if you were thinking that God would come straighten out your life, to make everything just right and orderly, to really bless you with all kinds of great stuff, to fulfill your advertising wish list, to be the sort of mighty kingdom that makes all others bow and tremble, well thank God you don’t have that sort of God.

Instead your God provides a place for all the pests, for the troublemakers, for the sick and those seeking refuge, and all the bad company. A God, then, for you, who is with you in common life and not just waiting for exceptional, rare moments, insisting on perfection. A God who is not reserved, but is popping up all over the place to be found exactly where needed, a God in whom you can home to roost. This whole church thing, after all, is for the birds.

Hymn: Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery (ELW #334, 1-3 & Lent3)