Indianapolis First Friends Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
August 6, 2017
This morning, you may have noticed we changed up the order of worship putting our time of silence and meditation at this point in the service just before the scripture reading. At my previous church I labeled this time “Centering Down.” To “center down” simply means becoming quiet, still and silent as the Meeting moves into a time of listening to the Spirit through scripture, spoken word, and waiting worship. After a brief time of silence we will read the scriptures and I will proceed to the message.
Let us take this time to center ourselves and enter into a time of expectant waiting and listening.
Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV) (Pew Bible p. 795)
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 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.”
A couple of weeks ago now, I mentioned the tag line “Making Visible the Kingdom of God.” And I said, First Friends is making visible the Kingdom of God in what I would call “Greater Indianapolis.” But this morning, I want to take a moment to discuss a little more about what that Kingdom really looks like through the eyes of Jesus. I think too often it gets confused or misrepresented - and that is usually because of how we interpret Jesus’ words.
Jesus was asked on numerous occasions to explain the Kingdom of God. And his answers came in the form of short stories - which religious folk have often labeled parables. Sometimes the stories were rather cryptic and took explanation in Jesus’ day (and even more in ours, since most of us don’t live in a rural agrarian society). Also, I must mention that many people throughout history utilized the parables to promote their own theologies and I believe some explanations have taken away the impact of Jesus’ example.
So Jesus is posed the question, “What is the Kingdom of God [or Heaven]” and he answers with several different stories about a sower, weeds, and then to our text for today where he compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. The first couple of parables may have passed the ears of the disciples and followers of Jesus, but not the Mustard Seed. Actually, they probably would have laughed, chuckled, or even whispered to a friend, “Did Jesus just say Mustard seed?”
For Jesus to compare the Kingdom of God to a mighty cedar [which he had done] was fine, but to compare it to what in Jesus’ day was a noxious, invasive, common weed, quickly got their attention. For us today, it would be like Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is like the climbing, coiling, and trailing perennial Kudzu vines that are ruining landscapes across America. Jesus’ audience would have been either in shock, think that he was being irreverent, or that he had somehow misspoke.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with this parable in Sunday School, someone once even gave me a necklace with a little mustard seed in it to wear to remind me that something very small could grow into something big - which often they implied meant the church. It is true that mustard seeds are very tiny and grow rapidly into a bush - some as tall as 10-12 feet high.
But I need to be honest at this point...I think there is a much more important meaning to this parable than church growth...and I believe it has a lot to do with quality not quantity.
First, allow me to give us some information that may help us understand the radicalness of Jesus’ comparison of the Kingdom to the mustard seed. Some of these thoughts come from Quaker Daniel Coleman’s commentary of this parable:
You may not have realized this, but right off the bat Jesus is talking about breaking the purity codes of his day. In Jesus’ culture, people were not allowed to plant a mustard seed in one’s garden, as the gardener in the parable does. It was Levitical Law, one of many prohibitions about mixing things, such as, “Don’t wear clothing made from two kinds of fabric; don’t plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; and yes even, don’t plant different kinds of seeds together.” Yet Jesus says this gardener sowed it directly into his field.
The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness, what they called kedosh, had to do with separating. It is understandable that this view developed when you consider that throughout ancient history Israel was a tiny nation sandwiched between great empires who wanted to swallow up and assimilate them. To survive they needed their own separate identity.
You are probably familiar with what that kind of holiness resulted in... “purity codes.” Coleman described it this way,
“If someone was deemed ritually impure (which PLEASE NOTE often had nothing to do with sin or immorality), such as a woman during her monthly cycle or a person who had touched a corpse or someone with a skin disease, they had to be excluded from the community and from worshiping God until they were purified.”
By the time of Jesus, there were so many purity codes regulated by Pharisees that it was hard not to break the rules every moment of the day. All you had to do was eat the wrong thing or associate with the wrong person. Or like most of us gathered here today, we are breaking purity codes by dressing in mixed fabrics - I am sure there is someone in this meetinghouse this morning wearing a cotton-polyester blend .
But let’s stick with gardening. The gardener also had to keep her/his garden kedosh - holy and separated. This meant each type of plant had to be kept separate from the others in neat, tidy rows.
So I think you might be getting the picture of why Jesus using the Mustard seed would be rather shocking. If you planted a mustard seed in your well kept garden - gardening chaos would ensue. Quickly the Mustard seed would take over the garden. Since the Mustard seed had lots of seeds, fast growing shoots would be coming up all the time all over your plot of ground - a gardener’s nightmare. The holy garden would quickly become less than holy - more like a holy mess.
And did you notice what Jesus said at the end of the parable. Birds would be attracted to the seeds and come and make nests. No…..Not birds! That is the last thing a gardener wants in their garden. This is why we have scarecrows and pinwheels and moving distractions to get rid of the birds.
Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?!
The followers of Jesus must have been absolutely confused or otherwise laughing at Jesus’ comparison as if it were a joke or something. Yet in reality Jesus wasn’t making a joke, instead he was painting us a picture of what God’s kingdom looked like and what following God’s example would accomplish.
At first glance it doesn’t make sense, but Daniel Coleman helped give me some insights to why this is such a radical and important parable for us. Listen to what he says.
“When you look at what Jesus did throughout the Gospels (and remember, Jesus is the revelation of God), he kept breaking down barriers and disregarding taboos. He disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with sinners. He surrounded Himself with low-lives and outcasts and those who, socially, were on the margins.
● Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with despised tax-collectors.
● Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning Samaritans and even made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about loving one’s neighbor—another absurdity, which would have been highly offensive to many.
● Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning the place of women in society and the segregation/marginalization of women… [and the list could go on, because]
● Jesus disregarded many other cultural/religious taboos.”
So much so, Jesus, himself, would have been considered unclean most of the time by the Pharisee’s standards.
So here comes the kicker….What if Jesus saw kedosh, or what we have termed holiness, from a different perspective? [consider that for a moment]
Daniel Coleman turned to a quote from If Grace Is True, a book that several years ago opened my eyes to new ways of seeing. In the book, fellow Quakers Philip Gulley and James Mulholland talk about holiness in this way. I remember underlining this definition of holiness and reading it over and over to let it sink in.
“Holiness is God’s ability to confront evil without being defiled. God’s holiness does not require him to keep evil at arm’s length. God’s holiness enables Him to take the wicked in His arms and transform them. God is never in danger of being defiled. No evil can alter His love, for His gracious character is beyond corruption. This is what it means to say God is holy—God’s love is incorruptible. Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love. His love endures forever. This enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can separate us from this love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. It is our experience of this love that inspires us to such perfection. Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). If this verse was a command for moral perfection, our cause is hopeless. Fortunately, this admonition follows a command to ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44). Perfection is demonstrated not by moral purity, but by extravagant love. We are like God not when we are pure, but when we are loving and gracious.”
Too often good-meaning religious people get obsessed by rules, laws, purity codes, and often take it to the limits by categorizing, labeling, and finally excluding people. Instead of being like the Pharisees of his day, Jesus put people first.
Instead of growing the church bigger as many have taught, the parable of the mustard seed is, at its heart, a teaching about radical inclusion.
I love how Daniel Coleman said it:
“Jesus is saying, in effect, ‘If you allow the Kingdom of God into your midst, it is going to make a mess of your neat, tidy garden. It is going to break down your barriers of separation. It is going to attract and shelter the ones that everyone else tries to keep out. It is not going to look majestic and lofty and impressive, but rather, common and unremarkable and initially very small. But…, it will spread like crazy.”
So, First Friends what do we do with this parable of Jesus?
As Quakers we are known as common, unremarkable and smaller than other churches out there - but I believe as we continue to break down those walls of separations and open our doors to the Kingdom of God, great things are going to happen. Sure, outsiders will consider us absurd, taboo, even risky - but isn’t that part of our Quaker history?
All I know is that God loves to take his people out of their comfort zones. God likes to plant a mustard seed in our garden and make things a little messy, because then we have the wonderful opportunity of learning to include and love as God does.
First Friends, let us plant the seeds and prepare to welcome the birds!