Like a lot of you, I raked and weeded my three acres of flower gardens in May that my wife Paige insisted we plant fifteen years ago against my strenuous objections. Then I purchased and shoveled out the twenty tons of black mulch, using a gift card from our youth of course. It looked great for a week, pristine, beautiful, nothing but black, green and a little color of the flowers just starting to blossom. The first of June, I noticed a thistle. Yesterday when I mowed, uninvited plants were everywhere. I couldn’t even get a month of perfection without weeds ruining everything.
Today’s story is about the beauty of weeds. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When we study a parable, we look for the surprise to find the meaning. The most obvious surprise is the smallness of the mustard seed becoming the largest of all the shrubs in the world. If this were the surprise, the teaching would be that the Kingdom of God will start small in our world but grow big. This would have been a welcome message to the people listening that day who couldn’t possibly imagine that they were on the ground floor of the Jesus movement that would change the world, anymore then a tadpole can imagine becoming a frog or an acorn a giant oak.
That is the most obvious of surprises in this parable, but can you really have an obvious surprise? What if the real surprise is that the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed at all? This could have been a joke for those peasant farmers that would be lost on us. The mustard seed grows into a crazy shrub that any farmer listening to Jesus would want nothing to do with. Mustard had some uses, but they were considered a weed and grew wild everywhere. Farmers would yank the unruly shrubs out of their fields in order to protect the things they wanted to grow.
Jesus describes his mighty weed almost exactly the way Ezekiel describes the more legitimately mighty cedar. Ezekiel is writing about the future of Israel. She will become a great kingdom that is compared to a huge tree with many branches that give the birds of all nations a safe home. The Ezekiel description of a kingdom is typical, comparing it to something strong, majestic, powerful. This is how we imagine kingdoms.
Jesus uses the language of Ezekiel in his parable to point to the surprise. My Kingdom isn’t like a majestic tree that shoots up into the sky, that people are awed by. My Kingdom is more like a weed, unruly, unpredictable but persistent and at ground level. It will show up like a weed does, where you least expect it and don’t necessarily want it. However, it will still keep the promise of Ezekiel’s prophecy, providing a safe place for all people regardless of their birth or their circumstance to find comfort, food and community.
In my first call as an associate pastor in Circleville, Ohio, there was an ecumenical ministry that had a building in the poor part of town. In that building, churches like mine would leave the good part of town to go and serve faithfully people in need. There was a food pantry, free clothing ministry, tutors for kids, a small youth hangout space. The director of this ministry, told me that Circleville needed a small homeless shelter to accommodate the occasional person passing through town or local family in emergency that needed a short term place to stay. The building that housed all of these great ministries, just couldn’t accommodate this need.
Hmm…34 year old me thought. Our church owned a large, empty house right next door to our sanctuary in the center of town. We had just chased some renters out who had trashed the place. Renting to them had been a ministry of sorts for a complicated reason I can’t get into. However, it had ended badly and we had had to fight with them to get them to leave. Now empty, council had asked me to investigate what we could do next with the house. This seemed like a God thing to me. I got just the place for the Circleville Homeless shelter, right next to our beautiful, red brick church on Court Street, the center of town, clearly the right side of the tracks.
Of course, you know where this story is going. Council listened to me graciously, then made it clear that a homeless shelter was not going to be located next to their church. What about our preschool? Vagrants and undesirables should not be living so near our children. What about security? We would be inviting break ins from people obviously in desperate circumstance. What about our neighbors? They would not be pleased with a homeless shelter moving into their backyard. Talk on what to do with the house stopped and the house sat empty. Eighteen months later, they tore down the house to build a parking lot.
Even our churches can be surprised when weeds show up in our neat manicured lawns. Too often, we are happy to go to the other side of the tracks to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has drawn near, but less happy when the Kingdom shows up in the cracks of our very own sidewalks. The Kingdom of God is like a weed. We can’t stop it from popping up. We might be able to keep it out of that crack. However, it will just show up fifty feet down the street. God is relentless in planting that pesky, beautiful, wild, unruly, comforting, inviting weed.
And how will you know you are drawing near the Kingdom of God? Not by how beautiful the building, how full the pews, how stelar the music, how engaging the sermon or moral and upright the people. You will know it is the Kingdom of God, if all sorts of birds are finding rest, comfort and care within the shade of her branches. Branches that don’t shoot up into the sky, but spread over the earth to invite birds of every feather to come and find a home.
I like to think of those birds as not just being people of all races, languages and backgrounds. But also of a variety that rarely gather together. Rich and the poor birds right next to each other, doctor and school teacher birds right next to unemployed or underemployed birds. Movie star birds honored by our culture next to jail birds that culture has no use of and shamefully disposes of. Snowbirds that have just flown in from a great home down south, next to birds that have left their home forever, travelled a great distance alone through a desert, leaving a desperate circumstance to find this shrub in a strange land where no one chirps like them. If I close my eyes and squint, I think I can even see a Republican bird right there next to a Democratic bird. There, that crazy shrub that has grown up out of the crack in the middle of our beautiful mulched garden to overtake the entire place is the Kingdom of God. Amen