by Ellen Sims
texts: I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Mark 4:26-34
On third Sundays our contemplative service includes a brief reflection on the Gospel text rather than a sermon.
Today’s Gospel reading is the first of Jesus’s parables in Mark about the kingdom of God. His mission is all about announcing a new kind of kin*dom that opposes the ways of earthly “kingdoms” of power and might. If you think Jesus was preaching a way to get into heaven, you haven’t read the gospels. Jesus is teaching and illustrating the way God wants us to live here and now. The kingdom of heaven begins here and NOW.
We catch glimpses of God’s realm from time to time when the full force of love breaks into this world, when, for instance, the very least and last of eight sons of Jesse becomes the king. God’s way sprouts before our eyes when a tiny seed becomes a large plant. God chooses the littlest, the lowliest, the least.
If God were the team captain in a playground game of kickball, she would choose her team by passing over the biggest kid in the class and overlooking the fastest runner and being unimpressed by the most popular boy and caring nothing about who’s wearing the coolest running shoes. Instead—if God were a ten-year-old choosing a kickball team on the playground–she would shout the name of Herman as her very first choice. “Herman!” she’d yell as she’d wave that stunned and scrawny thing to stand next to her. Yes, Herman: the kid everyone else expected to be chosen last, the friendless oddball who just moved from Podunk, Mississippi. And here’s the “kicker” to my kickball parable. Although Herman, the runt of the playground, would look confused at first, and would stumble over his worn out running shoes to stand with the growing line of the misfits on the God Team, Herman would blossom into the MVP for his team, thanks to some excellent coaching by God. Like the tiny mustard seed. Like little David, the shepherd boy. Like Jesus. Like you and me. Herman would be walking proof that God’s greatness is made known in our weakness.
God chooses and uses the unchooseable and the unusable.
The drawback to my kickball analogy is that it implies that God’s realm has rules and orderliness that our Gospel reading for today, the parable of the sower, contradicts. The irony of that parable is lost on us if we’re not aware that the shrub produced by the mustard seed was an invasive weed. The sower is planting the Middle Eastern equivalent of kudzu. About the same time the Gospel of Mark was written, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that “mustard, [which] is extremely beneficial for the health, . . . grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
The realm of God that Jesus preached was being compared to the potentially health-enhancing and shade-producing mustard plant, but the mustard plant tends to take off and take over and then, well, who knows how the landscape might change? The kingdom/kin*dom of God grows in just that way. Health and healing may come from it. The wild birds will find shade in it. Vulnerable creatures will be protected through it. But something unpredictable and untamable might be set in motion.
Isn’t that what we fear about the realm of God? I mean, it’s one thing to let Herman on the team. We might even get to feeling patronizingly fond of him as sort of a mascot. But surely you can’t build a whole team with a bunch of misfits. Surely you don’t want to intentionally plant mustard seeds. After all, the kin*dom of God could then break down the borders and boundaries of this world’s kingdoms and let in . . . oh, maybe families fleeing brutal situations in their home countries. Surely no one actually plants mustard seeds, right?
They do in God’s kingdom. Which shelters some people and annoys the heck out of others. I hope that you’re finding ways at Open Table to plant some mustard seeds, to see some kin*dom growth. Spotting signs of God’s realm here in midtown Mobile may feel encouraging, exciting, but there’s also something subversive and invasive and unsettling about kin*dom work. As if the inner landscape of your life is getting rearranged. As if some kind of spiritual kudzu is growing greenly in your life and reaching out its branching arms into the world around you.
Take some deep breaths. Get comfortable. Think about new seeds being planted in you. Some new idea that is starting to take root. Some spiritual practice you’re beginning. Some project of justice in the world you want to take on. Is there a kin*dom seed you’d like to plant here at Open Table? If so, remember that sometimes the littlest, the lowest, the least are the ones God uses. A whole movement can begin with a little seed.
Reflect for a moment now on God’s invasive spirit that can take root in our lives and spill out into the world. Where would you like to plant mustard seeds in our city? Where specifically can you extend God’s love and care, God’s shelter and healing?