In the parsonage where we lived in Logansport, Indiana, there was a very long sidewalk that led from the back door all the way out to the alley, where the trash cans were kept. One of my jobs was to take out the trash and burn it. Since most little boys are budding pyromaniacs, that was my favorite chore. But I had another chore that also involved that long sidewalk. And that chore I hated. The sidewalk was raised very high off the ground and the lawnmower couldn’t get close to the edge, so of course, that’s where the weeds grew. And it was my job to get rid of the weeds. We didn’t have a weed whacker, but what we did have were my two hands. And I learned to despise those weeds. No matter how many I pulled or how deeply I dug, they always came back.
Much later, when I lived in my own parsonage as an adult in Cleveland, Ohio, I took the battle of the weeds to the next level. I didn’t really have much of a life back then, so I poured my energies into having the perfect lawn. I had a high-powered weed whacker. I learned from my neighbors where to buy the best weed killers. They taught me how to dig deep around the roots of a dandelion and pull it up whole. And they showed me how to lay plastic down on the ground, and then cover it with topsoil before you plant your flowers. The plastic killed the weeds (and everything else) that was underneath it. But those flowerbeds sure did look nice. And by golly, they were weed free.
I don’t think I am that unusual when it comes to weeds. Americans have a thing about them. They mess up our illusions of control and perfection. And so we dump chemicals on the ground. We cover the earth with plastic. We control nature, or so we think. We impose order, or so we think.
You might be surprised, then, to learn that Jesus actually liked weeds. He liked them so much that he told a famous story about them. Jesus saw in the wildness of the weeds a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable of the mustard seed is short and anything but sweet and goes like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in her field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
We think of mustard as something to be cultivated. But first century Middle Eastern people thought of mustard as a weed – and an invasive one at that. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who was alive during the time of Jesus, wrote: “Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. …On the other hand when it has… been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
And that’s the problem with weeds. They multiply, sometimes wildly. And mustard seeds are tiny and easily carried by the wind. So you always had to be on the lookout for the sprouts. But Jesus said: “"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field…” It didn’t get there by chance. Why would anyone import that chaos? It was an absurd idea to a first century crowd who knew something about agriculture and the Law of Moses! --And a murmur rippled through the people.
And if that statement were not enough to electrify the crowd, Jesus, never one to shy from pushing the envelope, introduced birds to the story: squawking, messy birds. Now if you’ve ever planted a garden, you know what birds can do to all your glistening vegetables and glorious flowers. And they’re not just annoying and ravenous. In the Bible, birds are often metaphors for unclean people: Gentiles and outsiders – the very folks you want to keep away. But Jesus said that the Reign of Heaven is full of them. --And this time a gasp went up in the crowd.
If we were honest with ourselves; if we weren’t in church right now, we might gasp too. We’re fonder of order and separation of kinds than we let on. We give lip service to diversity, but lean heavily on our religious traditions and “law and order” government. But Jesus said that God’s dream for the world is wild and weedy. God’s dream of perfection is filled colorful people, who squawk and flap and eat too much. And there is profound beauty in God’s weedy and bird filled garden, if only we have the eyes to see it.
Some years ago I was in the church office when I was told I had a phone call from a former parishioner. Typically this would delight me, but to tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to talk to this one. You see, she represented a particularly chaotic part of my life I don’t like to think about. She was calling from that parish that finally pushed me right out of the ministry for 10 years.
A lot had happened after I left that place. I had gotten on with the business of planting a new garden, in a new city, eventually in a new parish where other dirty birds also roosted. And I had worked very hard on leaving all that pain behind me – or so I thought. It was mostly just an adamant refusal to ever think about it.
But now I had to think about it. When I was told who was on hold waiting to speak to me, I thought I handled it very well. First I cursed, and then I took the call. It turned out that this church was compiling its history and they wanted to know where I was serving now and to remind them about my education, etc. After some polite, orderly chitchat, Barbara gave me her email address and I promised to respond with all the requested information. As is my want, I replied right away to get it off my plate but mostly so that I would not have to think about it or them any more. But a few hours later, a new email arrived in my inbox. It was from her. “Oh God,” I sighed and then I opened it.
She thanked me for responding so quickly. Then she ran through a list of people who had sent their love to me through her. And then she closed with the absolutely shocking salutation: “Love, Barbara.” Now I would have been tempted to simply dismiss that sentiment had it not been for her peculiar post-script. She simply wrote: “Lucky Broadway United Church of Christ.”
And this took me by complete surprise, because quite frankly, I had always thought of Barbara as being one of the ones happiest to see me go, eager to plow my messy garden under and restore order just as soon as I was out of town. But apparently, mustard seeds are heartier than that. They are not so easily disturbed by the plows of cruelty or injustice or neglect. They thrive under a burning sun, completely ignored.
Somehow, during the time I served that church, however imperfectly, something I said or did planted a seed. And that seed grew a pretty weed. And wonder of wonders, somehow that dirty bird Barbara had found its shade. And now she was planting a seed of her own, with her words of reconciliation and peace, when I would have been perfectly content to continue to hate her. But she planted a seed and it grew too. And all these years later, this dirty bird still rests in its shade – a shade I didn’t even know I needed.
Thanks be to God.