I had the privilege of filling in this morning for Pastor Rosemary Peek at our church, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran. This is the text of my sermon:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like Kudzu. It sounds crazy, right? But stick with me.
I love Jesus’s parables. This time of year – ordinary time, the time of the church – the time when you see green paraments here in the worship space – is a time of contemplation and growth. During these summer months, we hear Jesus teaching through parables, and sometimes we struggle to understand what, exactly, he’s trying to say. Rest assured, if you struggle with the parables, you can take comfort in knowing you are in good company. Those who first heard these parables were sometimes as baffled as we are.
The thing is, parables are not linear stories. They are not meant to be. They force us to change our way of thinking. Jesus quite literally turns the story – and, by extension, the world – on its ear. As I prepare for the upcoming academic year, I have been spending some time in my office this week, and one of my tasks has been to change the message on my letterboard. Inspired by the Gospel text for today, and by my love of parables in general, I put up a quote from organizational learning scientist Peter Senge: “The world is made up of circles,” Senge says, “but we think in straight lines.” If we are to truly absorb the parables, we have to break away from linear thinking. We have to let Jesus turn our stories on their ears.
In today’s Gospel text, we hear about agriculture. That’s why I like so many of the parables. I relate to the agrarian life. As I thought about today’s text, I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful landscape that surrounds us here in Western North Carolina. I thought about the little volunteer squash plants that have popped up between rows in our garden. I thought about how, when we are surrounded by so much green, including here in our worship space, we can’t help but see the intimate connections between the Gospel and Creation. I also thought about kudzu.
In the first parable in today’s Gospel text, we hear Jesus compare the Kingdom of Heaven to seeds that grow into plants. The text makes it clear that the sower of the seeds does not know how the little seeds turn into plants, but it happens anyway. Like many of the agrarian parables, this one reminds us that God is at work in the world even if we do not understand how. Certainly, we can know and understand the biological and chemical processes that cause the plants to grow, but in the end, most of us rarely stop and give notice to the growth happening around us. Yet, even without us taking notice, the plants grow, just like God is constantly at work in the world around us, even if we do not bother to notice. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in knowing that God is at large in the world just as surely as the grass keeps growing in our yard.
The second parable in today’s text is one of the more popular ones. To understand it fully, we have to know the historical context. Of course I’m going to say that, right, because I’m an historian, but when we understand the historical nuances, we can better understand Jesus’s point, particularly because in this parable, Jesus is sort of making a joke. At least, his audience might have taken it that way.
Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed. When sown, it is the tiniest of all seeds, but it grows to become the greatest of all shrubs. This is where it helps to know the historical context. The mustard seed was not the smallest seed around by long shot, and it was far from the mightiest of all shrubs. More importantly, perhaps, mustard seeds weren’t the sort of thing the average person would have been sowing. And a great shrub? How great can a shrub even be? I’m reminded of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur and his knights are baffled by the Knights who Say NI demanding that they fetch a shrubbery. It just doesn’t sound very mighty.
For Jesus’s audience, then, this parable would seem a bit strange. It might have gotten their attention, and maybe that was the whole point. After all, Jesus could have chosen a substantially mightier plant – maybe even the Cedars of Lebanon that we hear about in our Old Testament reading today. So when we hear Jesus intentionally pick what might be an underdog plant and proclaim it as the greatest of all shrubs, maybe we should pay attention.
Which brings us to kudzu. The Kingdom of Heaven is like kudzu. It doesn’t make sense to us any more than mustard shrubs would make sense to the crowd who first heard Jesus tell this parable. However, there are some similarities. In Jesus’s time, mustard shrubs were the sorts of plants that would slowly take over a landscape. Just a few tiny little mustard seeds, when left to their own devices, could completely transform a landscape in a short amount of time. Are you starting to see what I mean about kudzu? As any Southerner knows, one little shoot of kudzu and a whole mountainside will be transformed in no time at all.
With this in mind, then, let’s rephrase the parable. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a plant that, when sown, is a tiny seed, but which, as it grows, has the ability to completely transform a landscape, and, as a result, the birds of the air can nest in its shade.
Now I’m not sure about birds nesting in kudzu, but I do know that as much as we hate it, it also serves a valuable function. When kudzu was first imported to the US in the 1930s, it was meant to control erosion. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, irresponsible farming practices led to the dust bowl, and erosion was a major problem. Kudzu seemed, at the time, to be a perfect solution. It could transform barren and eroding surfaces into lush green landscapes. It could provide life again where that once seemed impossible. With this reality in mind, perhaps kudzu isn’t all that different from mustard seeds.
So the Kingdom of Heaven is like kudzu, or mustard seeds, or, as in the first parable, any kind of seeds that grow when sown. What are we to make of that? What is Jesus trying to tell us? I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in the fact that Jesus chose the mustard plant to represent the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s just so ordinary. It was an everyday sight for Jesus’s audience. And while none of them would have intentionally sown mustard seeds, they hear from Jesus that God is like something they already see all around them.
For us, I think, we can be assured that God surrounds us in the utterly ordinary. In the green leaves outside, in the yellow buttercup flowers that pop up in our lawns when we skip mowing for a week, in the volunteer squash plants that popped up this year between the rows in our garden, and, indeed, even in the kudzu.
We can take comfort in knowing that God is close by and indeed all around us – that God isn’t just a mysterious and potentially grumpy cosmic being with Morgan Freeman’s voice and a penchant for smiting people. I think, too, that we can go a little deeper. I’m reminded again of that Peter Senge quote on my office wall: “The world is made up of circles, but we think in straight lines.” Parables like the mustard seed force us to think outside the linear, and, perhaps, to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t linear at all. It seems pretty clear from that last line in our Gospel text that Jesus was okay with the uncertainty –the ambiguity – in his parables.
The truth is, we don’t have to have all the answers. We can have vigorous debates about what the parables mean. In the end, though, what we can take away is that the Kingdom of Heaven – that God – that Christ’s love for us – is not linear. It isn’t meant to be rational. That’s what makes it so magnificent. It is beyond the scope of all human understanding. We can neither control it nor harness it. Maybe that’s why Jesus chose parables to tell the story.
It has been a common theme lately in my own social circles to look at the world around us and wonder where God is in all of this mess. We are surrounded by the sins of racism and inequality and poverty. Homophobia and discrimination are rampant, and perhaps now more than any time in our lives, we wonder if our society is so divided that the wheels might be about to come off. It’s so easy when we hear political leaders using scripture to justify immigrant babies being stripped from their mothers’ arms to wonder where God is. It’s easy to think that the God we know – the God of love – has simply abandoned us.
But then we read about the mustard seed. We read about the Kingdom of Heaven being like something ordinary. Something that can transform from a tiny speck into a shrub that can completely transform the landscape. In the parables in today’s text, we are left with little doubt that God is present and at work in the world, transforming the landscape right in front of us, in ordinary ways, even when we are too distracted to notice.
A few years ago, I spent the summer teaching a Sunday School class on the parables. Some of you were there and might remember it. Week by week, we deconstructed the parables. We asked ourselves who God or Christ was in the parable, and who we were. Most importantly, we thought about which of the characters in the parable God might be calling us to be. As we work our way through the parables this summer, we can ask ourselves the same questions. Even though the parables are complicated, they are calling us to something greater. To what is Christ calling you through this story about a mustard seed and a mighty shrub?
Maybe, for now, we need to be the mustard seeds ourselves. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, reminds us often that we are “Church Together,” and “Church for the sake of the world.” As we make our way through a world that often bewilders us, let’s go be mustard seeds. We might feel – and indeed, be – tiny, but with Christ’s help, we can transform the landscape around us, and we can do so for the sake of the world. Just as the mustard shrub in Jesus’s parable grows to provide shelter for birds, we can, and should, become a shelter for the world. It isn’t straightforward or easy, and the path forward isn’t a straight line, but it’s the path that Christ is calling us to walk. So let’s go.