An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Feeling like a weed?

A sermon on Mark 4:26-34 & Ezekiel 17: 22-24 by Nathan Nettleton

There is a lot happening here tonight. It is our birthday, the 152nd anniversary of the founding of our congregation here in South Yarra. In case you haven’t heard, we are actually not going to do the covenanting rite which we normally do on our anniversary tonight, because we have been a bit slow out of the blocks with its revision and we are not ready. However, we will, straight after this sermon, have two additional rites that relate to the make-up and mission of the church. Firstly we will be marking another stage on the journey with our catechumens, Audrey and Kathy, with a rite of handing on of the faith. And then we will go straight into welcoming into membership someone who has completed the catechumenal journey with us. Mark Lawrence is ready to reaffirm his baptismal vows before us and commit himself to us in membership. So with those joyous things before us, I am going to be rather briefer than I usually am, but there are a couple of pretty interesting things to note from tonight’s gospel reading which really do contribute to our understanding of what we are doing in these rites.

Our reading from the Gospel according to Mark consists of a couple of parables told by Jesus to illustrate the nature of the Kingdom of God, or the Culture of God. The first is the more straight forward. It points out how plants grow without the people who plant them needing to understand the biology of growth, and so suggests that the Culture of God will also grow quite independent of whether we understand how it does.

The second parable is better know, but less easily understood. This is the parable of the mustard seed, and it is so well known that the idea of the mustard seed has become something of a Christian cliché. However, I think it is probable that we have usually missed the point of the parable, because we have missed the joke. I think Jesus is making a joke, in this parable, but we usually miss it for two reasons. Firstly, it was a controversial joke even at the time; so much so that some of the other recorded version of it change it to eliminate the joke and make it more straightforward. And secondly, it is one of those jokes that is culturally specific, so it doesn’t translate very easily. It is a bit like trying to tell a joke to a ten year old when the joke depends on a memory of Gough Whitlam. They’re just going to look at you and go, “Huh?”

The first we need to get our heads around in order to get this joke, is that it is a parody of a story that was well known and much beloved among the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The popular version of the story comes from the seventeenth chapter of the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, and it goes like this:

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.

So if you were a proud young Israelite in Jesus’ day, you would have known this story, and felt good about its image. Israel is depicted as a mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting, planted by the Lord. This mighty cedar stands proudly on top of a mountain and its great branches provides shelter for any number of birds. Israel then is seen as strong and dominant and a place of blessing and refuge for all the world. Something to be proud of. Something to make every Israelite feel good about themselves and their nation.

But what does Jesus do with it? It’s just similar enough that everyone would have known what story he was playing with, but he has scrambled it. Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed. A mustard seed, as Jesus and his listeners would have known, is not the smallest of seeds, but more importantly, it doesn’t grow into a mighty tree like a cedar. On the contrary it grows into a shrub, and what’s more, it was and is usually regarded as weed. So when the familiar story demands a mighty tree, Jesus twists it and gives us a shrub that is considered a weed. And his image of the shrub putting out big branches that the birds can nest is is deliberately bizarre. This is a weed and a shrub gone mad, no ordinary weed or shrub, but still a weed and a shrub. A lot like the lantana weed in Australia.

So, this parable stands as something of a jovial warning to those who would follow Jesus – to those who we are training in the way as catechumens, and to those who would join themselves to Christ’s church in baptism. Do not be under the illusion that what you are joining is the biggest tree on the highest mountain. Do not imagine that the world will stand and admire the tree in whose branches you have made your home.

On the contrary, what you are joining will mostly be seen as weak and stunted. It will be seen as insignificant alongside the powers and dominions that shape our world and call the shots. And what’s more it will been seen as an undesirable nuisance, and a noxious weed. The world and its dominant cultures will rightly see that the culture of God threatens to infest them and displace them. The cultures that are built on greed and consumption, and violence and coercion, will not welcome this threat. They will seek to eradicate it. The culture of God is founded on the life, death and resurrection of one who was eradicated as a dangerous weed, and so it invites us to see the world through the eyes of the victim of an eradication, and to embrace as sisters and brothers all those who the dominant cultures would seek to eradicate and rid themselves of. As the Apostle Paul said in our reading from one of his letters to the Corinthian disciples, we no longer look at people through the same eyes that most people do. We now see them as the new creation that they have become in Christ. We now see all as those who are loved by God, and chosen to be God’s beloved servants, and if the world regards us all as weeds, so be it. So with that reminder that the path you are treading leads deeper into the love and mercy of God, but also further out of step with the world around you, I would invite our catechumens and their sponsors to step forward.

One Comment

  1. Thank you ever so much for your take on the Mustard Seed parable. I’m teaching a Sunday School class in Dallas, TX, where we are studying Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Jesus. Your explanation of this parable demonstrates so well the mystical nature of the parables and Jesus’ use of them: It’s a joke; the listeners would have understood its origin; the absurdity of farmer planting acres of weeds; the dynamic nature of the weed that grows everywhere, almost out of control; how the experience will often appear in places it’s not wanted … Your explanation makes it clear how the twists would have been perceived by first century hearers! My hope is that the upcoming explanation will convey at least some of its meaning to 21st century churchgoers. Thank you!

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