Dear Working Preacher,
There are two parables here. I'm going to focus on the second. Why? Because I think it holds both the secret to the kingdom and the means by which to renew our congregations. But only, I should add, if we read against its dominant interpretation. Let me explain.
The primary way I've heard the parable of the mustard seed interpreted and preached is as an allegory or fable. First the allegory: just like the mustard seed starts small and grows, so might your faith if you tend it. Second, the fable: sometimes very large things have small beginnings, so don't be discouraged if you exercise your faith in small ways, because God will use it to do great things.
Is there something dramatically wrong with these interpretations? No. In fact, I think they convey an important element of this parable: the kingdom of God and its importance is not at first obvious. It may appear quite modest and yet exert significant, even surprising influence.
So my concern isn't with the interpretation per se, but the use to which it's put as fables and allegories are meant to teach, to instruct, and to edify. Parables, on the other hand, are meant to overturn, to deconstruct, to cause frustration and, for those who stay with them, transformation. (Trust me, no one has been transformed by a fable!)
So while I think the dominant interpretation is safe enough, I guess that's exactly my problem with it -- it's too safe. So consider an alternative, even subversive interpretation. What if the key to reading the parable of the mustard seed were to understand what a peculiar seed it actually is? The things about mustard seeds, you see, is that while some varieties were used as spice and others medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least pesky and often somewhat dangerous. Why? Because wild mustard is incredibly hard to control, and once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. That's why mustard would only occasionally be found in a garden in the ancient world; more likely you would look for it overtaking the side of an open hill or abandoned field.
So pick your favorite garden-variety (pun intended) weed -- crabgrass, cinquefoil, dandelion, wild onion -- that's pretty much what Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to. Oh, and that part about the birds seeking refuge. Maybe it's meant as a comforting image -- birds finding shelter from the elements. Or maybe, given the unfavorable reference to birds in the previous parable about the sower -- eating the seed off the path -- it suggests that once mustard shrubs take root, all kinds of things happen including the sudden presence of "undesirables."
Looked at this way, Jesus' parable is a little darker, even ominous. As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
And I think that's the point: this kingdom Jesus proclaims isn't something we can control. And it's definitely not safe, not, that is, if we're even minimally satisfied with the way things are. Rather, the kingdom comes to overturn, to take over, to transform the kingdoms of this world.
But if you're not satisfied, if you can imagine something more than the status quo of scarcity and fear and limited justice and all the rest we're regularly offered, then maybe Jesus saying that God's kingdom is infiltrating the kingdom of the world offers a word of hope, a hope that will entice, prod, or poke you into working toward the vision of the kingdom of God he proclaims. Hope is like that, you see -- it doesn't just cheer you up, it moves you to action.
There's a scene in the recent blockbuster film The Hunger Games that gets at the same idea. (It wasn't in the book but fits the story beautifully.) President Snow, the totalitarian ruler of futuristic Panem, asks his chief Games-maker -- the one charged with creating a spectacle as entertaining as it is barbaric -- why they must have a winner. The answer? Hope. He wants to give the oppressed people of Panem hope that maybe, just maybe, the odds will be in their favor and they may win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. "Hope," he explains, "is the only thing more powerful than fear." But for that very reason is as perilous for a dictator as it is useful: "A little hope," he explains, "is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous."
That's what Jesus offers, the dangerous hope that God's kingdom is coming and while we certainly cannot control or even summon it (as in the first of today's parables) we can actively anticipate it by looking for and even aiding its unexpected growth.
So what if we sent people out this week with a mission, Working Preacher. What if we sent them out to look for those places where's God's kingdom is sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of our world? What if we sent people out to look for hope, the dangerous hope that changes lives in ways small and large? And what if we didn't just send them out to look for these things, but to aid and assist them however they can and even to capture and share them.
About a year and a half ago I suggested inviting people to bring in pictures of places they saw God at work in a way that helped them relax, not worry so much, and trust more. Well, it's been long enough that we might do something similar now. Let's invite people to take pictures of those places they see God's kingdom infiltrating the kingdom of the world, places where God is creating hope, places where we sense God at work, even though it might not be obvious or particularly grand. Maybe this mission could start this Sunday and continue throughout the summer. And maybe by the end of summer we'll have a harvest of pictures and testimony and faith that reflects the wild, uncontrollable, but oh-so-useful mustard seed Jesus is talking about here.
When the pictures start coming, you can put them on your website or print them up and start covering the walls of the narthex or entranceway or sanctuary or whatever makes sense. But however you use them, do start collecting them so we can all be caught up in God's dangerous and enlivening hope.
You are one the things that gives me hope, Working Preacher, as through your tireless labor the kingdom is seeping into the hearts and lives of the people who look to you. Thank you for that ... and for so much else that you do.
Yours in Christ,
PS: If you are leaning toward preaching on the first parable, you can read my devotional on it here - it's pretty good. :) And if you want to watch The Hunger Games clip, I posted it on my blog with some further reflections on hope.
Note: My thanks to the Rev. Meg Decker, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Escondido, CA, for conversation that helped shape this reflection.