In the weeds
Sermon based on Matthew 13:31-33 - Amy Yoder McGloughlin
Every year, there is this giant weed that grows up in my yard. I don’t know what it is, or what it’s called. It’s the kind of thing that grows boldly, so at first I think it’s not a weed. It has a thick stalk, and big elephant ear leaves on it. But, once it gets to a certain point, I realize it’s that an annoying weed, and I struggle to pull it out. But by then it’s deeply rooted–entrenched in the soil. It’s not a wanted plant as I so optimistically hope it will be earlier in the season; it’s an annoying intrusive and invasive weed growing up among my lovely hydrangeas and daffodils.
While it look and acts much differently, the annoying weed in my yard reminds me of kudzu, the invasive, fast growing weed that seems to have taken over the south. Kudzu was introduced to this country from Japan in the 1876 World’s Fair, held in Philadelphia. It was introduced as a shade plant, and later as a way to prevent soil erosion.
But no one took into account its invasive qualities. Now, if you drive down the highways of the south, you’ll see that this plant has taken over and choked out trees, houses, cars, and anything else in its way. It is annoying, invasive, and unwanted plant.
Our Matthew texts today give us several examples of the reign of God–what it’s like when God’s world is made known to us. And Matthew gives us these examples by way of parables. John Dominic Crossan defines parables as the opposite of myths. Myths are stories that we live by; stories that tell us about ourselves and what we value. Parables, on the other hand, are designed to undercut those myths. And, since parables tell us about what the reign of God will be like, it seems to be Jesus’ way of saying, “The reign of God will not look the way you think it should. It’s going to look like this other thing instead.”
For the people of Israel, the tension between the everyday reality and the mythical vision was never more stark than the times they were living in. God’s people had been on a slow descent downward for many centuries, since the time of King David and King Solomon. The people longed for a day when they would be tall and strong and powerful again, like the Cedars of Lebanon, the cultural and mythical equivalent of our redwood trees.
The Cedars of Lebanon were a forest that flourished in the time of the Kings. The forest was decimated by King Solomon in the making of all his palaces. But the prophets, like Ezekiel and Isaiah often likened the restoration of the people of God to the Cedars of Lebanon. Ezekiel said, “Behold, I will liken you to a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade” (Ezekiel 31:3)
Instead Jesus proposed that the reign of God is like a farmer who plants mustard weed in the field, and it grows up into a bush.
In the cultural and religious tradition of the time, mustard was forbidden in a garden. It was invasive and choked out vegetables. Order was associated with holiness–in rabbinic law, one could not mix certain plants in the same garden, and mustard was one of those plants. But in this parable, a farmer threw mustard seeds into the field willy nilly. The hearers of this story knew that the farmer was doing something completely outlandish.
So an unclean image, an outlandish image, became a starting point for Jesus’ vision for the reign of God.
The reign of God is like an invasive weed that no one wants in their garden. It’s a fast growing, shrub like weed that no self-respecting, law abiding person would dare have in their field. It’s a four foot tall weed that does nothing more than shade the birds.
That’s not the reign of God that the people were looking for. In fact, it feels like a letdown compared to the tall cedars of Lebanon, those big graceful trees that seem towering, indestructible, and impenetrable.
What does it mean that the reign of God is like an invasive weed, a bush that is only good for annoying farmers and shading trees?
It sounds to me like the reign of God is not the conquering reign that–in our heart of hearts–we really hope to have. We aren’t much different from the first followers of Jesus who longed to see the victorious reign of God made known, for our opponents to lose, and for us to be winners, to walk tall like the cedars of Lebanon, or the great redwood trees of California.
But, unfortunately, the reign of God doesn’t work like this–Jesus destroys that myth with his parables. The reign of God comes to us through the the most unacceptable kind of weeds, through tiny little seeds thrown into the empire, creating a giant mess. The reign of God is insidious, unwelcome, frustrating, and impossible for the powerful to contain.
That’s how the reign of God feels to those in power, to those that they have something to lose, to those that experience the reign of God as an annoyance, when there’s money to be made and power to be gained. It wrecks the order that the empire tries to create with its rules about how things should be, what is good and evil, and what is proper.
The mustard bush is an unwanted thing if you are in charge of the field, but if you are a bird, it is a welcome shade. If you are not in power, it provides comfort and sustenance, and alternative to the harshness of the empire.
The annoying weed in our garden is a reminder that despite our best attempts to create it, order is not necessarily a part of God’s reign. Order is not what is valuable to God. What is valuable are the birds that need a home, that need shade from predators, that need a place to rest.
When Hugh Hollowell, my Mennonite friend who works with homeless folks in Raleigh, came to spend the weekend in Philadelphia, I lamented to him that the programs that congregations have put in place to help address homelessness, don’t always meet the needs. One family in particular didn’t meet the parameters of any of the programs this congregation supports. Hugh reminded me in his very sweet, Southern, Hugh-like way, “Amy, sometimes those structures get in the way of us building relationships with folks that come to our door. You are so quick to want to solve the problem of the person in front of you, that you don’t take the time to build a relationship, have a cup of coffee, sit in silence, or be present with them.”
I was mortified by what Hugh said to me. Because he was absolutely right. I was thinking about this all wrong. I spent so long as a social worker, conditioned to solve problems, that I had forgotten to sit with folks in their need, without solving problems, without trying to fix anything. We in Northwest Philadelphia, have become conditioned to solving big problems using a non-profit model, a 5 year plan, and some grant money. And I–as a pastor–have become really good at referring the problem cases to these non-profits, rather than just sitting with folks and listening to their stories. Sometimes what people need is not a tidy garden, free of annoying weeds, but a shade tree to sit under. Sometime what people need is not to have all the problems solved right here and now, but to have a moment of compassion and kindness in a harsh world.
The reign of God is counter-cultural–we know this. But it is also, and quite often, counter-intuitive. It is nonsensical, whimsical, and always out of our control.
Feeding people doesn’t solve the problem of hunger in our city. But it lets those who are hungry know that they are loved and they can carry on for just a little longer. Accompanying our friends from New Sanctuary Movement to court doesn’t stop our nation’s policies on the undocumented, but it gives the families we accompany share for a time. Making a meal for someone who is sick in our congregation doesn’t stop them from being sick, but they know that they are loved, and cared for and prayed for.
Those actions don’t solve poverty, hunger, anti-immigrant policies, or sickness. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t do a damn thing. But the food we share is a mustard seed of hope, and our acts of solidarity are an annoying weed in the empire’s attempts to create an orderly garden.
This is the reign of God made known among us. When the little birds have shade, a place to make a nest, even in an ugly bush that gets in the way.
On one hand, our scrawny, ugly, mustard plants are an act of resistance in a corrupt and self-serving world. But, on the other hand, they are safe places for folks to take shelter, to rest, and to make a home.
The reign of God does not look like the tall stately Cedars of Lebanon. They were destroyed by our greed centuries ago. But the reign of God looks instead like a field of annoying mustard bushes that take over, and that give shelter and sustenance to the birds. AMEN.