An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Faithfully Underwhelming

A sermon on Mark 4: 26-34, 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 & 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17 by Nathan Nettleton

There are some things about the Kingdom of God that have always made followers of Jesus squirm a bit uncomfortably. I don’t mean so much the scary things like “take up your cross” and “you will be persecuted”. I’m thinking more about the things that just embarrass us a bit. The things that make us want to stand at the back and hope that no one we know sees us with this mob. It has been this way ever since the beginning, and Jesus doesn’t help. In fact, sometimes he seems to take a mischievous delight in making us squirm. He makes public jokes about just the things we were hoping to play down and stay quiet about.

The second of the two parables we heard in tonight’s gospel reading is a case in point. There was a well known story in Israel, a story retold in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel (17:22-23), in which Israel was depicted as a cedar sprig taken and planted on a mountain top which then grows into the mightiest of trees, and the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. Israel was, through most of its history, a relatively small and vulnerable nation, so this image was an encouraging and optimistic one. Stories like the one we heard of the choosing and anointing of David as king were often told with a similar flavour. The youngest and least likely of this brothers, so unlikely that they didn’t even bother to call him in when the prophet came looking for the chosen one, and yet he grows to be the greatest and most famous king of all. Very popular, those kind of stories. The popularity of some reality TV shows, especially the cooking or singing ones, is often grounded is something similar. Someone who has been an anonymous no-one until now suddenly emerges as being a remarkable undiscovered talent, and suddenly we can all appreciate them. Another innocuous little sprig grows into a mighty tree and everyone feels good and stands to applaud. We love those stories.

And so we hear Jesus apparently launching into just such a story. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all . . .” Here it comes. Wait for it. “The greatest of all . . . shrubs!” A shrub! You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. The Kingdom of God grows into a mighty shrub! What kind of good news is that? What happened to the mighty cedar tree on the mountain top? A shrub! “Yes,” says Jesus, “and it puts forth branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” They’d want to be pretty small birds wouldn’t they, Jesus?! “Well, yes, okay. Small birds. And maybe a few butterflies! Pretty impressive, huh?”

This is not even a popular shrub, a coffee bean bush or a rose bush or something. It is a weed. The kingdom of God is like a shrubby weed with room for a few small birds and butterflies. Great. Thanks. I think I’ll just stand up the back and look down when the photos are taken.

This story has made people squirm with embarrassment right from the start. The Apostle Luke couldn’t cope, so when he wrote down the story in his gospel, he edited it so that the seed grew into a mighty tree. It became almost a miracle story, a bit like saying a tomato seed grew into a Mountain Ash. You can readily understand why he would do that, but since there is no plausible reason to imagine Mark deciding to change the tree to a shrubby weed, you can be pretty sure that a shrubby weed is actually what Jesus said. And you can also be sure that he knew the popular original with the cedar tree, so you can see he was having a bit of fun. This was no doubt said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He is laughing at our desires for greatness, our longing to be the mighty cedar tree that grew from nothing. But he’s not doing it to be mean. He is playfully urging us to see that the emerging culture of God is not some grandiose celebrity political power that is going to wow the world and have everyone standing and applauding. Rather, it is so alien to our usual mindset that we will be quite unable to recognise its importance. To eyes shaped by the cultures of this world, it will look entirely underwhelming; shrubby, weedy, a bit of a joke. And if we want to be part of it, we’d better get used to it.

There is nothing new about wanting more. When Jesus set about his public ministry, John the Baptiser sent a note to him saying, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we be expecting another, because frankly, you’ve been a bit underwhelming so far. We were expecting a bit more than this.” And even after his crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples were saying, “So, is now the time when you are going to restore Israel’s destiny. Because we always thought you’d be the one to make Ezekiel’s story come true and turn Israel into that mighty cedar on top of the mountain, but frankly, it’s been a bit disappointing so far. Are we there yet?”

As the Apostle Paul said in our other reading, “In Christ, there is a new creation: everything has become new! From now on, therefore, we don’t look at things from the usual human point of view.” Boy we have trouble with that though don’t we? Especially at a personal level. On the larger stage we may think we are getting the hang of it. I mean, churches the size of ours are quite good at saying the culture of God doesn’t value the mega-big and impressive and successful. Self-justification makes that a rather attractive belief for us. But even if we are not secretly jealous of those big successful influential churches, at a personal level we still spend much of our time wanting something more. I can’t begin to tell you how many of my pastoral conversations are with people who are putting themselves down for their supposed failure to be the big impressive major contributors they think they should be. The people they admire are all supposedly cedars on mountaintops, while they see themselves as only shrubby little weeds and therefore as useless failures.

In part of next week’s anniversary service, we will recommission our Host Group for another year. I think that even after five years of this model of church leadership, we are still having trouble getting our heads around the idea, and I think part of our difficulty is similar to this issue. We are more comfortable with the more usual model of electing other people to a Council and then demanding that they be the impressive go-getters that we like to be led by. It is much harder to imagine that God might be calling a bunch of shrubby weeds like us to recognise that we are all we’ve got and that we need to stop waiting for someone else to grow into a cedar. So the Host Group is not a group of exceptional “other” people who should be much more impressive than us. They are “us”. They are just those of us who have been willing to step forward and do their best in hosting the feast that is our common life. That’s why tonight’s ballot is not to elect them, but simply to reaffirm our trust in them so that they know they have our support as they fumble along doing their best, underwhelming though it may often be. It is the faithfulness of shrubby weeds like us that God would prefer to use. Mighty cedars just tend to get in God’s way.

You can see our embarrassment at our shrubby weediness in our attitudes to what we do well too. This church rightly prides itself on the quality of its worship. Visitors often comment that it is unusual to meet a group of people who have such evident pride in their liturgy. And there is nothing wrong with that. But it can trip us up too. It is easy to begin taking it just a bit too seriously; to think of our worship as the cedar on the mountain top compared to everyone else’s, and if we start seeing it as the cedar on the mountain top, then we begin focussing on standards and maintaining them. Some of us had a little uneasinesses along these lines when we first began involving the children in our worship. Some of us went through a period of thinking “Oh well, I suppose it will be okay once the children learn to do their stuff with proper dignity and once they learn to be quiet properly, but it is a bit unruly at the moment.” But the same Jesus who said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed growing into a shrubby weed was standing among us with a mischievous twinkle in his eye saying, “With what can we compare the liturgy that brings most joy to the heart of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mob of children playing pin the tail on the donkey at a party. Want to come and play with us?”

Perhaps the element of joyous unruliness that was added to the liturgy is a far more faithful sign of the culture of God than any of the polish and dignity and niceness we had previously achieved. If Jesus compared the kingdom to a weed, it is a fair bet that it is not going to look all neat and carefully pruned and in its right place. And sure, our silences have never been as silent as they used to be when the children were put away in another room, but it was never supposed to be about perfect silence anyway. It was always supposed to be about stilling ourselves and listening for what God might be whispering to us, and the sort of God whose kingdom looks like a shrubby weed is just as likely to be heard in the out-of-place voice of a small child as in some carefully cultivated deep silence.

God is present in what and who we’ve got, not in some pristine ideal standing loftily on a distant mountain top. Jesus calls us to follow faithfully, to follow joyously, and to follow as we are and with who we have among us. When we re-form our church around our covenant in next Sunday’s anniversary service, the liturgy will recognise that various people have different roles in the body, but that all of us are included, as we are, to make up the one church. And if that all looks a little unimpressive, a little unruly, and often a little out of place, then it might just be the most faithful expression of the culture of God that we can possibly be.

The central image of this sermon was inspired by an article by William Willimon. “Living by the Word: The Greatest of All Shrubs.” The Christian Century. 108:17 (1991) p.547


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