Sunday, June 14, 2009
The Round Up Just Doesn’t Work
Mark 4: 26-34
If you go to California in the summer, don’t expect it to rain. The weather pattern of that part of North America is solidly stated, almost as if it was written in a book somewhere. There’s no rain in the summers, that’s why the hills turn such a golden brown—lots of folks think its pretty, Golden California, and all that, but natives and firefighters know just how close they are to devastating grassfires for 4 months out of the year.
But in the winter, the rains do come. The hills turn green again, and where I was born, the true beauty of the land comes forward. Constantly changing clouds and light, days and days of rain, with peek-a-boo bits of sun poking through the quick moving grayness, and the constant presence of the colors of green and yellow. Gray, green and yellow. Gray from the clouds, green from the grass and the trees, and yellow from the mustard that sprouts up in between the dormant vines. It happens every year, and to those who are wishing to control every aspect of their fields, it is a nuisance. There is no reason for a weed to grow in a modern agricultural field, To many it shows a certain laziness of character.
But the wise ones know that mustard in a field, when plowed under in early spring as the vines come out of their winter dormancy, are a very good source of nutrients and minerals that don’t have to be added to the fields chemically.
Some folks in Napa have even figured out that mustard is a great moneymaker on its own, and there is now a mustard festival, where I am sure someone has figured out a way to charge $20 for a jar. There is also a restaurant called “Mustards”, which, when I lived there, was about the only place you can get a decent plate of ribs in the whole valley.
Those wise ones, the ones who leave the mustard alone in the winters, also know the value of simply having beauty present in bright colors in an otherwise drab season. They know the value of a weed.
That’s what mustard really is, you know. It’s something that, when left to grow, spreads quickly and grows quickly. It’s not a great big thing, but when left to grow is still just a bush, maybe 4 feet high for the most ambitious ones. It certainly is not a great big powerful tree, unmovable and powerful. Well, not powerful in the way that empires and governments love to be seen—impenetrable, glorious, ever present.
There is power in mustard, however, and it is the power that every weed has—spreads quickly, grows quickly. You just can’t kill it. Round Up, that powerful herbicide, just doesn’t work on it. Yes, you might have killed the individual plant, but the seeds have been spread far and wide, and the plant will show up again, somewhere.
Diana Butler Bass, a recent favorite author of mine, has written a book called A People’s History of Christianity, and in it she writes that there is an alternative story of how the Christian church we know came to be. Let me read to you what she writes as the thumbnail history we were all taught about our faith, and you tell me how familiar it feels:
Jesus came to earth to save us, but he founded the church instead. That church suffered under Roman persecution until the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. With it’s new status, the Christian religion spread throughout Europe, where popes and kings formed a society called Christendom, which was run by the Catholic church and was constantly threatened by Muslims, witches and heretics. There were wars and inquisitions. When people had had enough, they rebelled and became Protestants . . . eventually the puritans left Europe to set up a Christian society in the new world. The United States of America then became the most important Christian nation on the world, a beacon of faith and democracy.
This is a story of the faith as seen as the growth of one of those mighty trees. In her book, she proceeds to write stories of examples of how this didn’t work, and how there are always these little exceptions to that story that nonetheless lift up the Christian faith, often even while allowing other religions and beliefs to co-exist.
So it is also when we look at Jesus’ words in Mark. What we see as his example for the model of faith isn’t a great and mighty tree, but a shrub. A weed. Mustard.
There’s value in the traditional view of this parable as needing only a little faith, but it being enough to do great things, the scriptural version of the ant and the rubber tree plant in that old song High Hopes. But I invite you to think of it a slightly different way today, a way that is less big tree, and more quickly spreading weed.
The mustard seed is indeed the smallest of the seeds. But that allows it to be blown in the winds, eaten and deposited by birds, and caught into the mud that cakes on hooves and boots and carried all over the land. One way or another, the mustard seed, like other weeds, spreads. It lands, it gets into the ground, it germinates, it sprouts, it grows, and the first thing it does is produce flowers and heads that are nothing but more seeds. When it grows to fullness, as I mentioned above, it isn’t the tallest ever, but it is a full shrub, and is enough to provide cover for birds and other critters.
There’s two things here that Jesus, I think are highlighting to the large crowd that gathered by the sea that day. The first is that the kingdom of God is valuable only in what it can do for the people who live in it. When the mustard seed grows into a plant, he says, it doesn’t matter how large it is, how strong it is. Its appearance isn’t its value. As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s value is how the birds of the air can make a home in its branches.
Now, if that was Jesus’ intention, he could have told that story with an acorn or a pinecone, which, while bigger, is still proportionally small compared to the fully grown tree. But he didn’t; he used the example of a weed. So, he’s also saying that the kingdom of God should be easily spread, and easily grown.
So, what about the faith is easily spread? What about what you believe is simply stated, but true even to the deepest and most critical, most skeptical examination?
For me, it is the love of God. Simply stated, true all he way to the bottom, unable to be picked apart by the literalists of both the Biblical and secular sort. That is where we should live as Christians. You may wrestle with the concept of the Trinity, you may want to understand just how the Holy Spirit came and made Mary with child, you may want to know exactly where heaven is. All interesting theological and intellectual exercises, but by Jesus’ words, the true value is how easily you spread the word, and how well you provide large branches and shade for the birds of the air.
What about your life is sheltering to others? What about what you believe about your faith is wise and practical, and easily spread? Wherever that is, there is where you should live in your faith, and that is what others will see your faith as. How do you think the people around you see your faith? Do they see it at all?
I pray that for you, it can be said that if your faith is like a mustard seed, the Round Up just doesn’t work.