BUSHES The Rev. Brian Backstrand June 14, 2015
A few years ago, when Marilee and I were selling veggies in Beloit and earlier in Madison, I would find myself late on a Friday evening wading out into our spring. It’s a pretty big spring and it flows out of the hillside in three places with an abundant, even flow even in the most wet and the most dry of seasons. My neighbor who lived there all of his life told me that it in the midst of the worst droughts it never dried up—ever. I tried wading into the spring in tennis shoes, but the water was so cold I couldn’t stand it, so I switched to rubber boots, and even then it was very cold. The bottom of the spring is sandy and my boots would roil the water, stirring up little clouds of sand. I carried a scissors in one hand and a bucket in the other and into the bucket I placed bundle after bundle of watercress. Cress as its more commonly known. The watercress would go along with other veggie items to market on Saturday morning.
Watercress was a big seller at the farmer’s market – mostly because the people who bought the watercress really were buying a memory. They would reach down and pick up a bundle and smell it and maybe take off a lobed leaf and taste it. And that sharp, piquant taste would bring them back. Often it was the memory of being a little child and going out with a grandparent and harvesting from streams and from watery ditches this little plant with its sharp distinctive flavor. They would stand there in the hot sun of a Saturday at the farmer’s market and be years and years away.
It turns out that watercress is a brassica – a part of the genus that includes cabbage plants as well as mustard plants. And so, wandering around in our spring with its icy water, my feet about to fall off, mosquitoes dancing above my head, I was really dealing with the cousin of the mustard plant. Who knew?
In Jesus’ time, the mustard plant was used to make oil. It also served as a condiment and as a pot-herb. It was a very common plant. It is actually an exaggeration to say that its seed is the smallest of seeds, but it is indeed very small. What is really important is the contrast between the small seed of the mustard at the beginning of its life and the end result: a very large, bushy shrub.
The parable of the mustard seed occurs in all three of our synoptic Gospels –Matthew, Mark and Luke–as well as in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel that is not in the Bible. In the Gospel of Thomas we see the main features of the parable as it comes to us in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas says: The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. He said to them: It is like a mustard-seed smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on the tilled earth, it produces a large branch and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven. In our Gospel text from Mark today Jesus says: 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. Pretty close. Something very small becomes, at the end of its development, something distinctively large. But it’s not just large, it produces shelter. Birds come. They build nests. They are protected.
Birds building nests in the shade of a large bushy shrub, protected from the sun is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible and it is an important idea. Consider this passage from Ezekiel when it speaks of cedar trees —
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant a twig
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.
So we get the following picture. The Kingdom of God starts small, but ends up being amazingly big. It is place of nurture and of protective shelter. Like a bird in the shelter of a large bush, you can flourish there. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.
In the midst of our journey, we often want to think about God on a grand scale. There is a lot of grandeur associated with God. Because we tend to like abstract ideas, we often like to search for God in the midst of great and complex ideas. However, I’m not so sure that the grand scale is the best place to find God. If the parable is right, we ought to start small. We ought to look around for little places where God might be at work in our lives. After all, consider the birth of Jesus. We may want to make it grand with the angels and all, but the fact is that God was starting small. Just a little baby. And when Jesus hit the road for three years on a mission, he had only a few disciples. Surely there were more than the twelve but we should not assume that there were many more. And look at the people he often engaged. They were not grand, they were not powerful, they were small. Even with all of the wonder-workings and healings, he started small.
The spring where I cut the watercress flows out of the side of a steep hill. The soil is held in place by some large burr oak trees. They are very tall and imposing. These trees have gnarly roots that curve and plunge into the soil of the hillside – holding it in place. It is a shady place. Many birds are there. Deer tracks abound and it is quiet, peaceful. You can hear the brook babbling as it runs out of the hillside.
As I cut the watercress—little fragile plants—above me stretched the great limbs of the oak trees themselves. It turns out that the spring presents in my mind at least, the two opposites that Jesus was talking about. In the water, with shallow roots, is the fragile cousin of the mustard plant. Pretty small stuff. In the air above, however, is the fully-developed oak tree — with its shade and its many branches, it is a symbol of protective shelter. Birds, deer, even humans if they want to be quiet, can flourish and be nurtured there.
So this is the pattern. Small becomes amazingly big. Don’t count small out. God doesn’t. And God often is in the business of starting out small.
At St. Andrew’s we talk a lot about being small. Being small has some advantages, after all. But let’s don’t get too comfortable with the idea of smallness. And let’s don’t think about our community as being as small as a little mustard seed starting out. Sometimes it may feel that way. But I know that this place also has some branches. This place offers shade and shelter and protection. People can come here and in the midst of sharing and envisioning and praying and working together, the very Spirit of God can be at work, helping us from time to time to flourish. In a couple of weeks we are going to be together for a few hours in an all-church leadership mini-retreat. What might this time together produce?
The Apostle Paul puts it this way at the end of our second lesson: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
I like that idea. He tells us to look around, pay attention. “See,” he says. Sometimes I think it’s very hard to see, but there’s the invitation. “See…everything has become new!”