By Rev. David Rommereim
Matthew: 13.31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure
what is new and what is old.”
If you're like me faith is often in the cerebral cortex. That is, we think about faith, we find words to describe it. We pray for it. Hopefully the thoughts we use to describe our faith in God come from the thinking side of our brains. Lately, however, in all the religious rhetoric going on throughout the world it looks like the words church, synagogue, mosque, use to describe faith in God (our theos-logos) comes from the reptilian part of the brain rather than the mammalian. That is, the reptilian is the oldest part of our brain, which deals with issues of survival, conflict, defensiveness, and protection. It is where wars are made and fighting is nurtured. It is that part of our brains where many of the destructive forces in our society begin ~ economic exploitation, racism, class-ism, sexism, religious warfare, suicide bombers, desperate and addicted behavior, etc., etc., etc. Often our reptilian brain is the place that nurtures conflict between partners, lovers, friends, or siblings.
Thankfully the mammalian part of our brain tells a different story. It is the mammalian part of our bodies that marks humans as distinct from other living creatures of God's creation. There we have learned to think, to interpret our world, to think beyond ourselves, to imagine, to write, to draw, to dance, and to participate with God in creating. It is where stories are made and comprehended. And it is often the place of personal well-being. The place you are best suited to contribute to the world.
Today Jesus touches us through story telling. He speaks sparingly and almost subversively. A story like the Mustard Seed leaves us wondering whether God has more trust in us than we do of ourselves. In the story of the mustard seed we hear Jesus share the likeness of God’s presence through a little seed and a promise of greatness and the offering of a shelter from the storms of life.
I remember how difficult it has been to believe this tale. I remember how difficult it has been to believe that I, a little seed of faith, could become a shelter for others as needed, or a bird flying for refuge, or a soul searching for a sanctuary. I remember Jacob, a little boy playing baseball for the first time as a 7 year old. He was a little seed. He was intense, and had no sense of humor in playing baseball for the first time. He watched TV like any little person. To learn baseball he watched his favorite team and tried to emulate the best player on that team. For Jacob his hero, his television mentor, was Jose Canseco. Jacob would stand at the plate trying to look like Jose. He had a strong will to be great, to do big things, to seek greatness…just like his hero.
Jacob would stand at the plate ready for every pitch with utmost seriousness. After each pitch the umpire would shout out, strike one, strike two, and then strike three, you’re out! Jacob swung his heart out at the pitched ball. After the third strike Jake would stand in awe and embarrassment for a moment. Then, after a moment, he would burst out crying. Our team would love him out of his tears. We would say things like: “It’s ok Jake. You’ll get ‘em next time.” But next time was the same. With the same intensity, the same loss, and the same loneliness of failure at home plate, Jake would burst out crying.
This went on for many games in our short season. Until one day his coach, who was myself, went up to Jake and whispered in his ear. I said, “Jake, you’re going to strike out again unless you smile at the pitcher.” Jake put a quizzical look on his forehead and directed it at me. He didn’t know quite how to act. He didn’t know how to smile and play baseball at the same time. So after the first strike he looked confused. Then after the second strike he looked nervous. He took himself out of the batter’s box and did what he watched on TV. It is what the big leaguers always did. He took his bat and hit the bottom of his shoes pretending to clean them and look like he knew what he was doing. Then he stood up to the plate, almost as if all the cheering and encouragement from team members and family were silent in his ears. For a brief moment Jake gave a little smile and looked to the pitcher. I could see the twinge in his cheek. It showed the beginnings of a smile. Then when the pitch came he did not think about striking out. He didn’t think about being embarrassed, about being no good. He smiled a little smile, and swung with all his might…hitting the ball fair for a single.
When he got to first base he was so excited that he kept going to second even though the pitcher already had the ball in his hand. But Jake kept going. The whole event was new to Jake. He wanted to mark time with it. So, with Jake still running the pitcher needed to throw the ball to second base. But, because this whole event was so surprising, there was no second baseman at the base…so the ball went into the outfield. By the time the fielder got back from his daydream, he picked up the ball and threw it to third base. But by that time Jake was on his way around third and on to home. The ball from the outfielder went past the third baseman, as happens in that field of work. Almost as if this was the event of the season, Jake slid home as if it was a close play. And the smile never left his face.
But the home run was not his victory, nor was the smile. His victory was in learning how not to be controlled by his failures and to begin to live up to his potential. Jake, like each of us, has something important to accomplish. Each of us has something vital to offer God’s earth - something life-giving. All of us are little seeds with large wonderful branches. When Jesus told this story to his disciples he was sharing something about God, about God’s presence in their lives. And Jesus, through the story, was touching them with God.
Every person listening to Jesus’ story knew that mustard seeds were small. They were so small that they could be carried on the back of the wind. They also knew that mustard seeds grew everywhere. For farmers, they were annoying since they would get in the way of their crop. They would be in the way of the big landowners’ need for another bumper crop. And whenever the landowner grew greater crops, the little ones/the poor did not get to share in the bounty of the landowner’s crop. In Jesus’ day the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer. There was no middle class. This was especially true since Rome was taxing Palestine for the first time in record numbers.
But, Jesus said that the mustard seed, the little ones, grow up to be a tall tree. They grew to become a shelter for God’s creatures. And the people hearing this tale for the first time would probably have thought that Jesus was telling a tall-tale, because everyone knew mustard seeds only grew about three to five feet tall. The image of a small seed growing to become like a cedar of Lebanon, a large tree in the forest, providing shelter for the birds of the air, seemed like folly; laughable. But, when we look at this parable with what Jesus has told us about the eyes of God, through the touch of Jesus’ ministry of God’s grace, we then can hear this story/parable that God’s abundance is not necessarily quantitative.
God’s abundance is in the quality of grace - shelter from the storms, from when we fall on our buttocks, from when we are afraid of striking out. It is the abundance of this quality of grace which takes little ones -- the little seeds, the little Jewish resistance movement Jesus has begun -- and spreads them on the backs of the wind through the earth placing them in the way of persons. These people, in a humorless way, often horde and provide no shelter or sanctuary for hope.
Jesus is giving his listeners new ears to hear the word of God, new eyes to see the Word of God. He’s giving them permission to be themselves, whom God has created, forgives, and loves so much that they, and we, live, grow, mature and become a shelter for others. He is giving the church permission to scatter, be planted, and challenge ruthless power. Keep them honest and honorable. The Seattle poet, David Whyte is on a vision to bring meaning, through poetry, into the monolith of corporate America. He seeks to invite individuals into the place that allows them to find meaning, significance, and well-being. He seeks to bring meaning in the middle of the hectic, pressurized world of the information/ technology industries. He writes to busy people, who are busy with essential things, but frequently, not busy with what is vital for their soul, their living. They, like Jacob are seriously trying not to fail and cannot put a smile on their lips unless it is induced by some external chemistry.
In a poem called, What to Remember When Waking, the poet writes: To remember/ the other world/ in this world/ is to live in your true inheritance. / You are not/ a troubled guest/ on this earth, / you are not an accident/ amidst other accidents/ you were invited/ from another and greater/ night/ than the one/ from which/ you have just emerged. / Now, looking through/ the slanting light/ of the morning/ window toward/ the mountain/ presence/ of everything/ that can be, / what urgency/ calls you to your/ one love? What shape/ waits in the seed/ of you to grow/ and spread/ its branches/ against a future shy? / Is it waiting/ in the fertile sea? / In the trees/ beyond the house? / In the life/ you can imagine/ for yourself? / In the open/ and lovely/ white page/ on the waiting desk/
Then he pauses to remember God’s invitation to grace, like little seeds spread out to become a shelter, a place of refuge. He concludes: Inside everyone/ is a great shout of joy/ waiting to be born.
Jesus has given, and will continue to give us this great shout of joy waiting to be born. To the little ones, the little seeds, he gives them the will to live their lives. And he does not send them alone, scared, or marked with failure. He accompanies them, like a shelter their friends and neighbors offer, as they are carried on the back of the wind to the place they call home. Whatever age -- whether a little seed like Jake, or an older seed like his coach, or an older seed yet, like his grandpa cheering from the stands -- Jesus gives us the spirituality which reminds us of our selves.
Jesus gives them a challenge to scatter and even subvert the status-quo meant to keep them and us silent. He gives them, and us, a beatitude in the shape of the littlest seed becoming a shelter for others.