A reading from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field: 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."
Williams Jennings Bryan, congressman from Illinois and three times Democratic nominee for the presidency, spent the last years of his life as activist in the religious movement known as fundamentalism. In 1925, at Dayton, Tennessee, William Jennings Bryan was an associate prosecutor in the trial of the school teacher John Thomas Scopes. Scopes had taught the biological theory of evolution to his students in defiance of a state law prohibiting the teaching of doctrine contrary to the Bible. The defense attorney was Clarence Darrow. Bryan won what became known as "The Monkey Trial," and Scopes was fined $100. But Darrow's merciless cross-examination humiliated Bryan and dealt a fierce blow to fundamentalism. Some say the trial broke the heart of William Jennings Bryan. Several days after the trial ended, Bryan died.
In the play, "Inherit the Wind," a dramatic account of the Scopes trial, the character representing Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken, when hearing of Bryan's death, says to Clarence Darrow, "Why should we weep for him? You know what he was-a Barnum-bunkum Bible-beating blowhard." To an agnostic Mencken, Darrow says of Bryan, "A giant once lived in that body. But the man got lost - lost because he was looking for God too high up and too far away."
Which may be how many of us get lost - looking for God too high up and too far away. We forget or never knew or were threatened and terrorized and denied along the years the possibility that God's kingdom, as Luke tells us, is to be found within and between us-close in, as near as heart beat and breath and hands touching. In the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus' sayings from the first century, Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but you do not see it."
The parable of the mustard seed is perhaps the best known of Jesus' parables. Its obvious meaning is that the kingdom of God or what Matthew here calls "the kingdom of heaven" starts small and grows to be large. Not so obvious may be what the image of mustard seed might have meant to Jesus and those around him.
The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who died in 79AD while investigating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, writes: Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: But on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. Pliny describes in great detail the medicinal uses of the mustard plant, but it is important to remember that it was then, as it is now, a weed. It is significant that Jesus chooses a seed that when easily germinated tends to take over where it is not wanted, that can quickly get out of control and that attracts birds into a cultivated area, where they are least desired.
There is more hidden in the parable than agricultural wisdom and medicinal lore. In terms of Torah purity code, as elaborated upon in the Mishnah teaching, things that are not alike are not to be mixed. In Leviticus we read: You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.
Thus Jesus exhorts his hearers in the story to defy not only common sense by allowing and even honoring the mixing of weeds in their cultivated gardens but also encourages transgression of temple religious authority. The promise of weeds in our gardens is more important than being a good farmer or having a healthy body or even being a righteous, religious rule keeper.
Most of us are dedicated weeders. Every now and then you come across a garden with an odd but striking flower only to learn that the innovative gardener has planted a weed - but probably not in our gardens. Certainly not in our emerald grassy lawns. We tend to pamper our gardens, root out and destroy unsightly and unwanted weeds, which may not be a bad metaphor for the way we treat ourselves. We are dedicated weed pullers in terms of habits and pounds and addictions and attitudes and guilts and any propensities that we believe keep us from being pure or good or complete or mature or whole or authentic or even perfect. We are determined to weed out bad feelings and dark moods, fears and anxieties, painful memories and the broken and bruised parts of our lives in the same way we weed off excess pounds or now remove wrinkles. The gardens that are our lives where we would grow and enjoy relationships that matter are meant, we think, to be orderly and comely, uncluttered with weeds such as our fears, angers, old shame, and ancient grudges.
What might be the weeds you are forever pulling out of your garden? What are those undesirable parts you are determined to root out of your body or brain or psyche or soul? What is it that you are sure you would be a better person without? What are the weeds that haunt you as you await the long stoplight to change or that invade your world of dreams? What of those weed parts of yourself that pursue you into the kitchen at 3 o'clock in the morning?
Is it possible that Jesus is saying that what you want most to be rid of and that the temple will encourage you to avoid is what waits to surprise you by being what might grow and nourish you? Might Jesus be saying that the kingdom of God is like the weeds we are resolute and even obsessed with getting rid of? Could Jesus be saying that the kingdom of God might be found where we keep secret and hidden the not-so-orderly and even embarrassing weed side of our lives-that what Jesus calls the kingdom of God we are most intent upon camouflaging with goodness and money and success, class, cosmetics and culture, virtue and being religious? Do we not seek the kingdom of God any and every place but among the weeds of our lives? We would rather be pure and prudish, righteous and rigid, sanitary and spiritual. We look high up and far out rather than gather up and hug close the weeds we are.
In her novel Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler tells of Maggie and Ira, her husband, on their way from Baltimore to a funeral in Pennsylvania. It is Saturday morning and they have taken a break from driving, stopping for coffee at a short-order diner on the highway. Maggie, who loves to meet people, has gotten into a soulful conversation with the waitress named Mabel. Maggie is recounting a conversation with her daughter Daisy:
"You know what she told me the other day?" she asked Mabel. "I was testing out this new tuna casserole. I served it up for supper, and I said, 'Isn't it delicious? Tell me honestly, what do you think?' And Daisy said" - tears pricked her eyelids. She took a deep breath - "Daisy just sat there and studied me for the longest time," she said, "with this kind of fascinated expression on her face and then said, 'Mom, was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?'"
She meant to go on, but her lips were trembling.
Maggie's lips tremble, I think, at the painful memory of being found out by her daughter Daisy. Being seen on the other side of pretend, recognized and named as an impostor. Maggie's lips tremble at the revelation at all her efforts to hide her ordinariness; the tireless devotion to style or charm or cunning craftiness of being special no longer works. Her weeds had been seen and named.
Her lips may tremble as well with gladness. Her daughter sees beyond and through the faÃ§ade between the cracks, and there is a certain relief at no longer having to dissemble. There is a chance, if she is brave enough, to come home to Daisy and even to herself - an invitation to no more games, to not have to be an orchid or American Beauty rose, but the weed she is.
Might it not be a trembling relief that Maggie can relax for a change, no more need to prove anything to herself or Daisy. Life's primary task is no longer hiding from one another, no longer a test to be strong and beautiful, brave and able - but has become a willingness to embrace the dangers and hurts and bruises and disappointments that are the weeds, like all of us, that she is.
Emily Dickinson writes,
A death blow is a life blow to some
Who, till they died, did not alive become;
Who, had they lived, had died, but when
They died, vitality begun.
Finding the kingdom of God within and between us, spread out before us, requires dying. Dying to that God who hides in heaven or waits in the wings until we have pulled all the weeds. Dying to such a far away God of righteousness means coming alive to a God of compassion as well as goodness. If Jesus is right, and I think he is, God is waiting in the weeds of our broken hearts and bruised virtue to bind up our wounds and mend the disease that separates us from ourselves and one another and from all that is holy.
Let us pray:
Remind us, Lord God, when we are looking for you too high up and too far away to instead look down among the weeds in our garden that we frequently discount, root out, and hide. When we confuse your kingdom with our efforts to be good, virtuous, whole, authentic, brave, pure and even religious, give us eyes to find you in the common rather than the rare, the familiar rather than extraordinary, not so much in being special but ordinary, rather than in our strength and beauty to meet you in our weakness and scars where you dwell. Amen.