June 17, 2018
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Fathers’ Day)
Today, as I am one of those people tasked to “explain in private,” a parable used by Jesus, I have to admit that I find myself questioning Jesus’ choice of metaphors. “With what shall we compare the reign of God?” Seriously, Jesus, and with all due respect to our friends at the National Mustard Museum just down the road a bit, the best you could come up with was a condiment? Yes, mustard does have small seeds, and the bush that springs from one is large–those referred to here typically grow 9-10 feet. And, of course, Wisconsin’s unofficial state food, the bratwurst, would not be complete without it.
But, if you are going express the majestic extent of God’s kingdom, coming from the smallest of sources to tower over and dominate the landscape, why not stick with Ezekiel’s majestic cedar trees?
What characteristic does mustard have that would cause Jesus to choose it for his parable? Two words: Invasive species.
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (published around AD 78) writes: “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It 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.” (emphasis mine)
Rabbinical sources from the time of Jesus go so far as to proscribe planting mustard in garden plots.
Many commentators on Mark’s gospel have noted that Jesus could have chosen a genuine tree for the parable, and that in his choice of the mustard plant as Douglas Oakman puts it “It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately likens the rule of God to a weed.” For many of us, we might better understand what Jesus meant here if we simply insert the word “garlic” in front of mustard. It then is likely to conjure memories of long pants and long-sleeved shirts with thick gloves as we, with great effort, pull it plant by plant in a vain attempt to eradicate it from the restored prairie that surrounds this monastery.
There are always those who wish to make the church into a garden plant: flowering at prescribed time, requiring careful cultivation and, most importantly, staying within the narrow boundaries set for us.
And, it is tempting. To be beautiful, to be admired by all and threatening to no one. But, that cannot be who we are. Garden churches do not produce or revere martyrs. Garden churches do not sprout up in protest in the desert outside of the concentration camps established for children torn from immigrant families. Garden churches do not organize to extend healthcare to all or fight to end legal contrivances that result in the mass incarceration of black men in our country.
At Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas this past week we saw the perniciousness that Jesus wanted his followers to display as dozens of evangelical women gathered in protest. They carried white banners with black-and-blue-lettered slogans, such as, “Calling Women to Preach Since the First Easter Morning,” and “I Can Call It Evil Because I Know What Goodness Is.” Representing groups as such #SilenceIsNotSpiritual and #ChurchToo, they were pressing evangelical churches to condemn domestic abuse, train pastors in caring for victims, and place women in positions of leadership.
This is what Jesus calls us to be as church-the outward expression of our faith: as tough, even pernicious in our defense of the vulnerable and our pursuit of justice as the most noxious weed.
Equally important, I think, Jesus is telling us that faith itself is not garden-variety. It can germinate and grow even when we’re struggling maybe especially then. Daniel Berrigan, the late Jesuit priest and social activist, in his commentary on Psalm 88 describes such a faith. He begins by paraphrasing the psalm itself, a brief part of which goes:
“I hear only the closing of doors, the turnings of locks. Friends (friends?) freeze at the sight of me. Is this your doing? Misfortune my middle name?…The thought of death crosses me-cold comfort. What comfort to you my death that cold shoulder that icy touch? In hell who praises you? Who magnifies your deeds? Hell’s chorus spontaneous, breathless striking up Alleluia, Alleluia?…Still, I would be your faithful servant…”
Berrigan’s redition of the psalm captures perfectly its dark spirit. And then he comments:
“A prayer like this one is not often heard these days. Shame? Fear? We’re caught in a dilemma—the psalmist seems to despair, yet he prays, he prays out his despair. We have things all mixed up. How can despair turn to God? How can God attend to despair?
The trouble is our own; neither God’s, nor the psalmist’s. The trouble is the narrow range of emotion, need, prescience, devotion, yearning, which is allowed to come forward at prayer: like a row of scrub-faced children, Sunday speeches tripping from their tongues. God sits there like an aging superintendent, bored but benign, takes it all in, nods sagely, applauds. It is all perfectly harmless and everyone knows it. Nothing will come of it, everyone knows it. Sunday school will go on as it was. The world will go on as it was.
The idea would be laughable were it not so sorrowful.
We open the bible, we seek out Jesus. A shocking life passes by. We cannot grasp it, take it in. An explosion of energy, an implosion of stillness. The impossible is continually surmounted, pushed back and back. Where only outer darkness seemed in command, he stands; suddenly the human has won another space to occupy, to be itself in.”
The Reign of God, in both its interior and exterior manifestations, is like a mustard seed–tiny perhaps, but producing a plant that can be tough, enduring and at times obnoxiously persistent. May we be so as well.
 Daniel Berrigan, Uncommon Prayer: A Book of Psalms (New York, The Seabury Press, 1978) 82-85