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June 13, 2021
A lot of people in biblical times were intimately familiar with farming and growing things, so it is no surprise that such images appears as often as they do – we will see it today. The comparison of God’s kingdom to a cedar tree, as in Ezekiel, was a familiar image – cedars are grand and dignified, after all! But then along comes Jesus, who instead will compare the kingdom of God to the scruffy, invasive mustard bush. No wonder the disciples are confused! As you listen, hear the humor and confusion in that. Imagine how dumbfounded the listeners must have been. And in general, notice all the different growing imagery in our texts today – with what would you compare the kingdom of God? Let’s listen.
|Middle eastern mustard bush|
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever tried to explain something to someone that you know and understand so well, yet you cannot figure out how to explain it to someone else? This happens regularly if you have small children – we are often having to explain things like, the correct way to use air quotes, or why you can’t turn off the sun. It’s so intuitive for us, and yet… how do you explain that?
That’s what I imagine as we watch Jesus try to explain the kingdom of God, something he knows intimately, to a bunch of disciples who totally don’t get it. You can imagine him using this parable about the sower, satisfied with his attempt… and they all stare blankly back at him, blinking. Jesus looks around, realizes his explanation fell flat, and tries again. “Ok, let me see, what other comparison or analogy can I use to explain this… Ah, okay, how about this. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground…” But he’s already lost them again, because they are now laughing at the sheer absurdity of sowing mustard seeds. Why would anyone want to sow mustard seeds? Mustard bushes are ugly, scruffy, a far cry from the dignified cedar typically used to describe royalty. They’re also invasive, and will take over everything. And while those birds in the branches may sound like a lovely image to us, in truth, while some birds are good for crops, many kinds of birds wreak havoc on crops, making a mess and eating seed and fruit. Mustard bushes and birds are the last things you would want in your garden or farm! Yes, it is an absurd prospect! And yet, this is how Jesus describes the kingdom of God, so, absurd or not, we must try to understand why.
The beauty of Jesus’ parables, or any story, is that there are so many entry points. That’s why Jesus uses so many stories in his teaching – they are rich, they offer opportunity for connection, and they invite deeper reflection than would simply saying, “These are the facts about how it is.” God transcends mere facts!
The power of stories is why we are currently working on developing a story of St. Paul’s, because a story is something people can enter into. So, speaking of that work writing our story, here is something else that has come up in the work we’ve done so far: St. Paul’s, we observed, is a congregation that is welcoming and accepting of people wherever and however they are. This is beautiful, and exactly what every church should be!
I believe that is true about St. Paul’s, and at the same time, I want to push us to think more deeply about this claim, especially as we start returning to in-person worship and activities – and I want to do that using the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God as an undignified mustard bush with branches and shade for the peskiest pests tells us that when we are part of that invasive, scruffy kingdom, we, too, are welcoming to all manner of people and situations, even those that may require some accommodation on our part, or may require us to approach a situation differently in order to make them truly feel accepted and welcomed. Do we offer that sort of welcome and acceptance here? Is it enough to plaster “All are welcome!” on our website and our publications, and call it a day? What does it look like to welcome and accept one another, no matter what we might have gone through since we were last together, or where the pandemic has dropped us off in terms of our mental and emotional health? And, beyond that, how will we welcome and accept those whom we don’t yet know, who may yet walk through our doors in search of… something.
Maybe we should start by asking: what people are either not here, or at least are not as well or openly represented, at our table, in our pews, logged into our livestream, and what do we imagine are the barriers for them? What would show them we are ready for them to take up residence in our branches?
Let’s look at some specific groups who might struggle somewhat to feel welcome and accepted in a congregation like ours. The month of June is Pride month, a time when we are invited to think more intentionally about our siblings in Christ who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual, or otherwise “queer.” June is also a month when we think a lot about the African American experience in this country, because of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre June 1st, and Juneteenth next week. What would it take for people of color, or people who identify as LGBTQ, to feel welcome and accepted in these branches? Is it enough to say, “I don’t see color!” or adopt a sort of church version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? I can’t speak for either of these groups, since I don’t share their experience, but I think both of those approaches fall short because they sound an awful lot like, “I don’t see, or don’t want to see, or would prefer to ignore this significant part of who you are. I will choose only to see the things that don’t make me feel uncomfortable. As long as you ‘fit in’ here, and look and act like what is ‘normal’ to me, you are welcome!” But that is the opposite of accepting, isn’t it? Asking someone to “fit in” is not accepting them or loving them for the wholeness of who they are. Fitting in is different from belonging. Fitting in implicitly asks someone to be or act different, or tone down who they are, for our own comfort. Now, I’m not saying St. Paul’s members do that or would do that… but it is certainly a very human temptation to want someone else to be or act a certain way for our own comfort. I know I am sometimes guilty of that, and most times I probably don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It takes a lot of self-awareness, not to mention humility, to recognize that sort of thing in ourselves.
So, how could we do better? One of my favorite observations about welcome actually spoke specifically to a third group I haven’t mentioned – families with young, potentially disruptive children – but it says something important about welcome in general. One Sunday when then 3yo Grace had been especially interested in being up front with me, one visiting young family told me, “I loved seeing your daughter up there. It made me feel welcome to be here with my young children.” Powerful! You see, people feel welcome when they see a piece of themselves reflected, when they can see how their unique story could become a part of the story they see here.
So, let’s apply that to the other groups I mentioned: Do people of color see themselves reflected, if not in our people, then in our art and music, or do they mostly see a white Jesus and European music? Is there space where stories that challenge our status quo can be safely shared and believed? Do we value the experience and perspective of LGBTQ people as different but beautiful? Do we talk to or about them in the way they self-identify, rather than the way with which we are most comfortable? Do we expect the people who come through our doors to look and act a certain way, a way that looks pretty similar to how many of us look and act?
These are not political issues, my friends; they are human issues. I have no agenda here beyond the gospel, I’m just asking the questions. But part of welcoming and accepting all the birds into the branches of this mustard bush that is God’s kingdom, is welcoming and accepting people for who they are, not for who we want them to be. Of course, there is always room for growth, for all humans – we all want to be the best version of ourselves, to be growing ever closer to God’s hope for us – but we must start with loving others exactly where they are, even as we trust that God loves all of us exactly where we are.
I will say again, I think St. Paul’s does welcome pretty well in a lot of ways. We are handicap accessible. We have good signage. Jonathan strives to feature a diversity of composers in the music he chooses, and I try to lift up different voices and perspectives in my preaching – though we are both always trying to do better. We all readily offer smiles, and like to make connections with people. That’s all great. Keep up the good work! As we start to come back to more and more things happening in person, it will be all the more important to be both compassionate and intentional about our welcome and acceptance of each other, and those we don’t yet know. Because even though it seems like we should be able to slip right back into where we were in March 2020, we have all been through a trauma, and everything looks a little different now. And of this, too, we need to be accepting, receiving people wherever they’re at. We are all in different places with our mental and emotional health. We all crave different things, and sometimes we don’t even know what it is we are longing for! This transition time will require much patience, for ourselves and for each other.
But know this: the kingdom of God is like a big, ol’ invasive bush that grows whether we want it to or not, and in ways we can’t even understand or figure out. And in that big bush, there is room enough for whatever kind of pest wants to be there – even pests like you and me. Because every one of us, with our strengths and our shortcomings, our wisdom and our ignorance, is claimed, marked, and beloved by God. So bring your uncertainty and questions, your emotional baggage, your childhood trauma, your pandemic trauma… bring it all, and make yourself a home in the invasive, messy, not always pretty but always life-giving kingdom of God. There is room for you here. There is love for you here. Here in God’s kingdom is a place to rest, a place not to “fit in” but to belong, a place where who and how you are is dearly beloved by our God.
Let us pray… Compassionate God, you love and accept us no matter what pain, suffering, or shortcomings we approach you with, and you welcome us into your kingdom. Help us to do the same for all of your children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.