Spreading like a weed: June 16, 2024

June 24, 2024

 Year B, Pentecost 4                                                                  Mark 4:26-34                                              

We use the word parable a
fair amount when we discuss the bible.  Like
many things, I am not sure we do a good job at defining it. Parables are
stories, but they are more than that. 
For a long time, I thought that parables were meant to help us
understand Jesus’s point.  They were
another way to teach. That is true to an extent, but often the parables are
confusing, and that is not just because we are reading them in a different time
and place.  Jesus’ message wasn’t always
clear to those who were hearing the parables 2000 years ago.  Jesus was teaching something that was so new,
so counterintuitive, there was an innate mystery in many of the stories he
told. Sometimes it seemed like he was just trying to confuse people.  I think the purpose was to help people think differently.
He was taking a conventional story and shaking it up. 

While his stories were
confusing at times, the images that he used were familiar.  Chapter 4 of Mark has a lot of stories about
seeds. This was an agrarian society, so talking about planting and harvesting
would have made the message accessible. 

Jesus told two parables in
our reading for today.  The first one
seems rather mundane.  Someone scatters a
seed, goes to sleep and it sprouts and grows. 
The person who does the scattering doesn’t seem to know how it all
works, he just knows that what he scatters grows. The next story is of the
mustard seed.  Many of us know that
story…or at least the image…faith the size of a mustard seed. It’s become a
symbol in the Christian faith. That comparison to faith is actually in the
gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. 
Matthew and Luke also have this story about the mustard seed growing
into something bigger, but it’s not connected with the idea that having faith
the size of the mustard seed will allow you to move mountains. 

In Mark (as well as Matthew)
the growth of the mustard seed is a way to describe the Kingdom of God.  It would be natural to assume that the
Kingdom of God is heaven or the afterlife. 
But the Kingdom of God is not relegated to what comes next—it’s also
in the here and now.  Part of what Jesus
was doing in telling these parables was teaching people how we can bring the
Kingdom of God to our world and our community.

In Matthew, the tiny mustard
seed becomes a tree.  In Luke, it becomes
a huge tree.  In Mark, it’s the greatest
of all shrubs.  That’s not as impressive
as the huge tree, but still indicates that God has growth in mind for the
Kingdom of God.  Over the years people
have interpreted this parable as the success and growth of the church of
God—which is the church getting bigger. 
Yet what we know of organized religion over the past 50 years, is that
it’s getting smaller.  Does that mean
that the seed isn’t growing—that God’s work is not being done? Of course
not.  Jesus was talking about the Kingdom
of God, not the church. What Mark does is show us a different way to perceive
growth and success.

Here is the interesting
thing about Mark. The Greek word that is translated to shrub is also (perhaps
more accurately) translated to plant or vegetable.  The mustard plants that would have been
growing in Galilee looked a lot more like yellow flowers than shrubs.  In some circles, they are classified as an
invasive plant because they just take over. It’s like mint or ground ivy. It’s
more of a weed than anything else. This is not to say that it didn’t have its
purposes.   The mustard plant could be
used as medicine…but there was typically more than was needed. It was also a
tough plant, very difficult to kill.  No
one then would have considered this a valuable crop. That’s why this parable
would have been so confusing, because the listeners knew all this.  They were probably wondering why he chose the
mustard seed and plant when he could have talked about a seed that grew into
something truly impressive.

There are many reasons that churches
and cathedrals were built to be tall. Partly it was about symbolizing a
connection to God—reaching up toward heaven. But I wonder if it was more
basic than that.  People wanted them to
be seen from far away, to be an important land mark in the community. These
tall building were meant to represent our importance in the community.  In some ways, these tall buildings became a
symbol of what we wanted the church to be.

Yet I wonder if we have
missed the point, just a little.  What if
Jesus was telling people in this parable not how high they could go, but how
far and wide they could go…how much this message was meant to spread and take
root, even in the places that didn’t want any more weeds in their soil. The
Roman Empire definitely didn’t want a new religion.  They didn’t want this faith that taught that
all are equal, all are welcome, all are beloved—-spreading across their
lands.  In some ways, our world still
doesn’t want that.  Many would prefer if
faith was confined to these building where it can be easily ignored.  And even some of us in these buildings would
rather our faith be a beautiful orchid than an invasive weed.

I have heard the Episcopal
Church referred to as a niche denomination or even a boutique and there is a
part of me that agrees.  It’s not for
everyone.  Maybe it’s our traditional
worship, or our unwillingness to teach basic messages and repeat things over
and over.  Maybe that is not what most
people want.  But the message that we
have, the message of compassion, forgiveness, sacrificial love, and
belonging…that is a message that the whole world could use.  I don’t know a single person who could not
benefit from that message.  Are we ever
going to convince everyone of how critical the weekly Eucharist is? No. Do we
need to? No.

I believe that Christ Church
and many churches should consider how we can both stay true to our rich
traditions of music, sacraments and thoughtful theology while also finding ways
to get closer to the ground, be that invasive mustard plant that can grow just
about anywhere and is almost impossible to eradicate.   

You know the other thing
about the mustard plant…they are bright and lovely. They bring color to
wherever they grow.  Philly needs some
more irrepressible color and joy. I mean, this city is colorful in some unique
ways, but I am talking about bursts of color.  The mustard plant has the power to transform
an entire landscape.[1]  So does the Kingdom of God. Let’s bring color,
tenacity, compassion, joy, and love to our community.  May it spread like a beautiful invasive

[1] Commentary
on Mark 4:26-34 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary
by Matt Skinner. This commentary was integral for my sermon.