This is the text of a sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington D.C. on June 14, 2015.
The readings were for Proper 6, Year B.
When you hear the name Jesus what words comes to mind?
Wise. Loving. Caring. Peaceful. Savior. God…
One word we could wait for all day and never hear is “funny.” We tend to think of Jesus as a kind of other worldly mystic, well beyond a joke and a sense of humor, but throughout the gospels Jesus is a satirist as good as John Stewart or Stephen Colbert, a man with the stand up chops of Bernie Mac. Jesus told a lot jokes, mocked politicians and satirized the religion of the day, but we tend to be too tone deaf to the familiar words to see it. It’s not entirely our fault. Like a lot of good humor Jesus relied on subtle subversions and common social cues. Imagine an episode of Saturday Night Live in two thousand years. People might think it was some sort of esoteric cult with a strange fetish for politicians. To get Jesus’ jokes we have to do a little unpacking before we can get in on the joke his hearers would have recognized.
Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 4:26-34) shows Jesus’ humor on display. It contains a mocking satire that at once subverts the expectations of his listeners and proclaims a joyful possibility for the sovereignty of God.
Like any nation, before or since, national symbols were important for the Jewish identity and hope. One key symbol was that of a tall cedar tree. Tall cedars were an image in many prophetic texts for powerful nations and in Ezekiel 17 the prophet had used this image of the cedar to proclaim the hope of Israel—that God would make them a mighty tree above all other trees.
Of this cedar the prophet writes:
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.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
Ezekiel is telling a group of people who have been oppressed for centuries that God will save them and make them into a tree greater than any other tree.
That image had been lodged in the heads of the Jewish people, especially since they were now under the domination of one more foreign power—Rome.
Then Jesus comes along and adds some clarity to Ezekiel’s message. To what can we compare the Kingdom of God? He asks. It is like… And in that moment many of those sharecroppers in his audience would have had this image of the mighty cedar in their minds—majestic, powerful, a strong alternative to the foreign oppressors that had so long plagued Israel. Then Jesus delivers the punch line: “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 shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”I can just hear the guffaws rustling through the audience as Jesus stood there by the sea. Jesus is paraphrasing Ezekiel here, but instead of a mighty cedar he’s just named one of the most pernicious weeds in all of Israel. Mustard plants grew to be shrubs at best. They were most definitely not something that “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
It’s as though I were to say “to what bird can we compare the United States” and everyone’s mind went to our national symbol, the big and power and majestic Bald Eagle and I said instead “our nation is like the common crow.” The image doesn’t quiet resolve in our minds. We have to change our expectations and understanding to see it.
In the same way Jesus’ mustard seed image was meant to create satirical dissonance. The image of the tree spreading its branches so that birds could make nests in its branches was meant to be a symbol of peace; that the powerful nation the tree represented was to be a place where people could live in fullness and prosperity. Jesus’, by including this bit about the birds, is saying that the Kingdom of God will be a place where peace and flourishing is to come, its just not going to come through a mighty kingdom but through a small seed and invasive weed that was hard to get rid of. The kingdom of God is like kudzu.
Weeds of course are in the eye of the beholder. While billions of dollars are spent each year to kill and suppress them, there is another school of thought that says that weeds are important messengers about problems in the soil and environment. In a classic pamphlet on the subject “Weeds and What They Tell” by Ehrenfried Pheiffer we can learn a little about the mustard plants that Jesus’ audience would have known all too well. Listen to what Pheiffer says and see if this is not an apt description of the kingdom of God:
“To this Family belong some of the most useful as well as troublesome plants.” Isn’t that a description of Jesus revolutionary kingdom? At once useful and troublesome. Useful for the oppressed, troublesome for the oppressors. We have to remember that we worship a man who was problematic enough to be executed. Throughout Christian history the kingdom of God has been established where hospitality has been shown, but also where resistance to the powers of oppression has sprung up.
“The seeds of some…can lie inert in the ground for from 50-60 years.” The kingdom of God can be there even when it is hard to see. It can be there in the fallow ground, waiting for the right conditions to spring up.
“The more often grain follows grain in a crop rotation the more weeds there are.” The only reason to have grain crop follow grain crop, over using the land, would have been to meet the tax burden of sharecropping. Most of the peasant audience would have known that pressure. The kingdom of God springs up to cause problems and bring peace when economic oppression is pervasive.
The metaphor Jesus offers here and elsewhere for the kingdom of God are examples that upset the standing power dynamics and expectations. The kingdom is not a powerful cedar but a problem weed that questions the economy of over cultivation and exploitation. As a weed that quickly spreads, its seeds small and agile, easily carried by birds and the wind, it is hard to get rid of once it starts, even if it lies dormant for years. It is an image of the kingdom that we can see only if we look down to the lowly rather than up to the powerful. Amen.