God’s life is like a weed
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
What if I were to tell you that God’s ways are like the majestic tumbleweed, offering security to all who lean on its mighty branches and comfort to all who rest in its luxuriant shade?
Essentially, this is what Jesus just said. We might have missed Jesus’ irony because in church we’re supposed to listen to the Bible with very serious piety. Or we might have missed it because we’re used to hearing the plant in this parable mistranslated in other versions of the Bible as a “mustard tree.” There is no such thing.
What you know as the mustard plant is the same thing the world over, including Israel: thin and scraggly, two to three feet high, little yellow flowers, popping up all over the place, especially where you don’t want it. You know the weed. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of God is like.
Jesus was making a parody of the passage we heard from Ezekiel today, and others like it throughout the Hebrew scriptures, that use the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor.
This tree was so large and strong that its trunk was made into masts for the ships of the Mediterranean and beams for the great temple in Jerusalem. The scriptures say that the righteous – or in other places, the wicked - will tower over others like cedars of Lebanon. The powerful armies of Assyria are like cedars of Lebanon.
And as we heard today, Ezekiel said that Israel would be like the noble cedar: a great and powerful kingdom, in which every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
To contrast the kingdom of God with the worldly kingdoms of Israel, Assyria, or Rome, Jesus turned this familiar metaphor upside down. He said “We all know what the kingdom of Israel is supposed to be like. But to what shall we compare the kingdom of God?...Ah, the mustard shrub! Such a little seed! But when it grows up, it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, putting forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” His audience, people who were close to the earth, must have burst out laughing. What was he trying to say?
Two things, I think. The first is that God appears most powerfully in the least of appearances, not the greatest. The second is that once God takes root in us, his life spreads unpredictably, into places we may not even want it to go.
I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, the Taj Majal, the top of the World Trade Towers, the Vatican. I’ve prayed in sacred monasteries and temples, heard famous musicians and seen Van Gogh’s paintings.
But do you know where God has made the most impact upon me? At the kitchen table, on an ordinary Wednesday evening, in a conversation with my wife. During the 10th meeting of a committee I serve on with you. At the bedside of an old man, dying at the heart hospital, with only his daughter by his side. On a walk along the ditchbank with my dog.
Would it be possible that we miss the presence of God because we’re looking in the wrong places? Maybe we expect our experience of God to be like the expensive plants we buy at the nursery: vibrant and lush and happy and colorful, full of joy and delight. Surely that’s where God is to be found!
But perhaps God is really more available to us in the weedy, forgotten places of our back yard: in the daily grind of our work, in our suffering, in the lonely and empty times. Perhaps God is most present when we fail, when we know our need for grace.
We may be so busy trying to rid our lives of these things that we don’t realize we’re weeding out the very presence of God. The last shall be first. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit.
And now to the second part of this weedy metaphor. As God’s life grows in us, it will take us in some very surprising places, perhaps even where we do not especially want to go.
As we all know, weeds spread unpredictably. Once they get hold in an area, they take on a life of their own. You can’t contain them. And once we’ve invited the Spirit into our lives, into the ministries that we share together, we can’t contain grace, either.
Some of our members might start coming to church here reluctantly, dragged in by their spouse or partner, sure that this would be a depressing repeat of bad religious experiences of the past.
But then they hear the Word proclaimed in a new way, see real community, feel a palpable sense of God’s presence in our worship, and before they know it, they find themselves serving on the Vestry!
Or together, we might start with an innocuous project like giving food away to hungry neighbors, but then we find out that they’ve got a serious heart condition and don’t have access to medical care; or they’re afraid that INS agents will come into their house and split their family apart. Soon, without intending it, we find ourselves in league with UNM medical school residents and community advocacy groups.
Or you might ask for God to guide you through a difficult patch, praying only for a little insight and comfort, nothing more, thank you very much. 3 months later, you find yourself being hauled through the depths of your brokenness, on your way to being healed of your greatest pain.
It happens all the time. God’s life spreads in us like weeds.
Finally, Jesus reminds us that the spreading of the kingdom is not up to us to accomplish. He says that it is like growing grain. After the seed is sown, the farmer rises and sleeps, day after day, for months. The seed sprouts and grows, and the farmer doesn’t know – and doesn’t have to know – how this happens. Then “the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
After the seed is planted, God’s kingdom produces of itself. The original word for this in the text is automatos, or “automatically.” Automatically, the seed of God, once planted, produces grain. Automatically the Spirit begins to do its own work. We don’t have to make it happen.
Martin Luther once wrote about this parable, emphasizing his faith in the living power of God’s grace. He said “after preaching my sermon, I go home and sip my Wittenburg beer with my friends or take a nap and let the Word do its work.”
What a wonderful way of trusting in God’s grace. Put in your effort, offer it in prayer, then let God go to work. Automatically, the seed of God produces first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain.
But Jesus knew that not everyone is prepared to hear this stuff. It’s subversive.
Not everyone welcomes his message that our hope is not to be found is being a part of a powerful, dominant nation, like the great cedar of Lebanon – whether that is ancient Israel or the United States of America. Strive instead, he said, for the things of God that may be smaller but much more important: mercy, understanding, reconciliation, and peace.
Not everyone welcomes his message that God’s life can’t be controlled within religion like a tidy little English garden. It spreads unpredictably, like weeds in the wild desert, once it takes root.
Not everyone welcomes his message that once we’ve set our need before God, we can really let go of the reins, go to sleep, and let grace take over.
That’s why Jesus spoke in seemingly harmless little stories about mustard seeds and growing grain. These humble parables hide some very subversive stuff. Only those with ears can hear. But Jesus’ disciples wanted to hear, and so later he took them aside, and explained everything to them in private. There, he probably asked them, as he asks us today:
Will you keep your eyes open in the midst of it all, appreciating even the scraggly and troublesome weeds of your life, so that you not miss God’s presence?
Will you let God’s life in you spread like a weed, following it wherever it leads, even if you did not intend for it to take you there?
And after you’ve asked for God’s help and planted the seed of faith, will you please go have a beer with friends or take a nap, and just trust God to get to work?
For this, Jesus said, is the kingdom of God.