Mustard Seeds


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Proverbs 23:19-21, 29—24:2, 1 Timothy 5:17-22 (23-25), Matthew 13:31-35

Have you ever heard someone say they love gardening because it brings them closer to nature? This is somewhat ironic, because manicured lawns and gardens are anything but natural. Nature is not tidy rows bent to human will; it is rambling and untamed. Gardeners fight nature with fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make sure desirable plants  thrive in an orderly fashion, and the plants they don’t value are removed or destroyed. Left to her own devices, nature would overrun most gardens and lawns with a beautiful and diverse ecosystem we call “weeds.”

When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed – the tiny seed which grows into a great shrub to shelter birds – he wasn’t talking about mustard as a cultivated crop. In his culture, mustard was often a highly invasive plant species which was difficult to remove once it infested a field. Essentially, he was comparing his followers to a persistent nuisance – to weeds.

The Kingdom is all about the humble persistence of small acts of faith. As much as the world tries to insist its structures are the right way to do things, followers of Christ appear and reappear like weeds to defy its exclusionary boundaries. And try as we Christians might to impose order and uniformity through religion, visionaries and prophets spring up among us to remind us God’s vision can’t be contained within ours. In the parable of the mustard seed, it is the nuisance shrub which becomes a great sheltering tree for those needing a safe place to roost. Does that sound like the church today? Or are we busy balancing the soil pH for roses because dandelions are too common and don’t look as pretty?

Gardens aren’t bad. Genesis tells us humankind began in a garden. They can be beautiful, functional, and therapeutic. They can also be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. A worship service is like a garden – carefully selected blooms of song, prayer, and scripture to inspire and nourish us. But we can’t spend our entire lives inside church. The Kingdom grows in the wilderness, a sprawling tree for all who seek God’s shelter.

Comfort: Your life doesn’t have to be pretty to grow in the Kingdom.

Challenge: Regularly examine your expectations about church and faith, and ask yourself how God has defied them.

Prayer: God of the garden and the wilderness, I will worship you and spread your love in all places. Amen.

Discussion: What scares you about wandering in the (actual or metaphorical) wilderness?

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Whether to Wither


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 15:22-16:10, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 15:1-11

A friend who is a lifelong gardener once said she was amused when people found peace in parables about sowing, tending and harvesting. Gardening, she said, is brutal. One is continually ripping living things from the ground to make room for other, more desirable living things. Foundering plants are removed to prevent the spread of rot and disease. As in today’s parable about the vine and branches, a gardener prunes away unproductive branches so they don’t drain resources from or contribute to the demise of healthy ones.

Sometimes parables like the vine are used to paint a picture of a God who’s waiting to damn us. It’s not difficult to take a story with actual burning in it as proof God is eagerly stoking the fires of hell for us right now. Preaching and teaching which use this fear of punishment to motivate us produce obedience that more resembles a hostage situation than worship. When Jesus says unfruitful branches will be trimmed and thrown into the fire, is he being a ruthless gardener and threatening us with eternal suffering?

Not quite. The difference between us and a withered branch on a grapevine is that we have a choice in whether we wither. Jesus knows the world is a hard place, a wild place overgrown with corruption and danger. He is not resigning us to the inferno, but extending an offer to shelter in his love, where our spirits can grow fruitful. Without the love of God, we are subject to everything that tries to choke out and nibble away at our spirits. Christ’s message about unhealthy branches is more lifeline than threat. He concludes by saying: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

God’s hope for us – and therefore Christ’s hope for us – is that we will know and flourish in his love. He wants us to know the natural consequences of ignoring or rejecting that love is a withering of the soul. Christ does not threaten us with death. He invites us to life.

Comfort: Christ provides nurturing shelter in a world overgrown with disorder.

Challenge: If you are a gardener, allow a small section of your garden to grow untended. If you are not a gardener, cultivate a small bed of flowers or herbs. What do you think you will learn?

Prayer: God of Life, thank you for tending my soul. I will seek shelter in your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you relate to the images of a vine and branches? Why or why not?

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