Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 4:26-34
3Pentecost, Proper 6, Year B
On one of my vacation days recently I sat around while one of the rooms in my house was being renovated. I amused myself by listening to famous comedians on YouTube. After a while, I noticed that the funniest comedians are all members of our culture’s minority groups. And after another while, I noticed that these comedians’ funniest lines all contained an angry truth about something unjust in our world.
Here’s an example: In 1975, Richard Pryor joked to a largely Black audience that he had gone to the courthouse for justice, but what he had found there was “just us.” (“Was it something I said?”) Zing!
Here’s another example: In 2012, Dave Chappell joked that any group of Black men needed to include one White man, so that if “anything went down,” they would have someone who could talk to the police. Zing! Chappell added, “It’s not that I don’t like policemen; it’s that I’m afraid of them.” This part wasn’t a joke, but zing again, given what we have seen over and over again recently on the news.
I’ve since researched how angry humor works. The best explanation I’ve found is that when we laugh we let down our shields. The humor distracts us while the angry truth burrows deep within and begins to work on us to do something about the injustice.
We regularly shield against injustice, don’t we? Either the situation seems overwhelming, or inevitable, or too disruptive of our lives. We say this another way, though. We say, “Don’t mix politics and religion.” We say, “You’re tilting at windmills.” Maybe we say, “What’s wrong with just being the same old Resurrection we’ve always been?”
I’ll bet Jesus heard this a lot, also. “Don’t talk politics or the Zealots will revolt and the Romans will kill us all.” And, “How can the thirteen of us possibly succeed against the whole world?” And maybe even, “Why do we have to invite the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and now all of the Gentiles? Can’t this just be for us?”
Well, Jesus was no comedian. But he used a rhetorical device—parables—that works a lot like angry comedy. A parable is a story that seems very simple, but is quite sophisticated. The gospels say that Jesus spoke in parables, riddles really, to perplex the crowd. The thing about parables is that, by the time we figure out all the layers of a parable’s meaning, we’ve already let the parable’s message in past our shields.
In this way, a parable is like the mustard seed that Jesus talks about in our gospel lesson today. A parable is the smallest, most innocuous-looking of stories, but once rooted within us, the parable grows enormously and is impossible to root out.
But Jesus didn’t say that a mustard seed is like a parable, did he? Instead, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Earlier in Mark (1:14) we learned that, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus began his ministry proclaiming “the good news of God,” which is that “the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Everything Jesus did showed us what the Kingdom of God is. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God involves living justly, which is to say valuing all people, placing the needs of others above the rules, and sharing what we have.
But maybe you think I’ve mixed my politics and my theology—and maybe I have. In my view, theology and politics are inseparable. But let’s retreat to safer ground and return to the little innocuous mustard seed.
- I’ll bet you’ve heard about the small mustard seed.
- I’ll bet you know that this small seed grows into a huge shrub.
- I’ll bet you even have this parable all figured out. “Have just a little faith,” you’re undoubtedly thinking, “and God will multiply your faith hugely.
But today’s lesson doesn’t say anything about faith. Instead, we have just this tiny seed that grows into something very large. And we hear today that the mustard seed grows into such a large shrub that the “birds of the air” make nests in its shade.
Thanks to this parable, I’ve seen a mustard seed. I’ll bet you have, also. But I’ve never seen a mustard bush. So I Googled an image of one and put a photograph of a grown mustard bush on the front of today’s bulletin. Big, isn’t it?
Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like this: a huge bush, grown from a small (unlikely) source. Did you LOOK at that bush? We’re talking messy and downright out of control. I want to get out my pruning shears and whack some order into that bush. I want to see one bird per limb, and nothing else hiding in there ready to bite me.
But tending the bush is not our work. Today’s parables make clear that our job is to sow those little God seeds.
“Nice to know, Jo,” you might be thinking. “But where’s the zinger in this parable?” Well, did you know that “birds of the air” might be translated “birds of heaven?” And that “birds of heaven” is a biblical expression that means “the multitude of nations.” In other words, Jesus’ little story about the Kingdom of God is populated with absolutely everyone. This mustard bush, God’s Kingdom, is not a “just us” enterprise.
So here’s the zinger: If we want to do the work of God here in this place, to be God’s hands and feet and heart in this place, we MUST be about planting and tending and growing religious and ethnic integration right here in our midst, right here in God’s Kingdom, right here in our neighborhoods, and right here in our hearts.
There are other ways to faithfully interpret today’s mustard seed parable. But this one speaks to me today. Jesus’ seemingly innocuous parable has slid a zinger right by us. But this point—that God’s Kingdom is for everyone—needs to take root and grow. I read this week that mustard bushes are like bamboo, in a way. If you plant a mustard seed, the root system gets embedded and just takes over. Once planted, the Kingdom of God takes over our values and our lives. We have THIS mustard seed right here at Resurrection; how can we plant this seed in our world?