If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 18, 2012

God's Reign is for the Birds: Matthew 13:31-35

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite CHurch, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, November 18, 2012 as part of a series on Seeds of the Kingdom.

The meaning of the parable of the mustard seed seems apparent.  What begins as the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree large enough to house the birds. The reign of God is like that. Small beginning. Big ending. A handful of disciples become a worldwide church. A few fishermen and women followers grow into a Christian empire. We are the world! Kind of makes your chest swell, doesn't it? Makes you feel important to be at the center of such a glorious, triumphant, ever expanding kingdom. Well, that kind of kingdom may be a world away from what this parable is all about. If we scratch beneath the surface of this parable, we will discover that God's reign is for the birds.
The odd thing about the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus' portrayal of God's reign as a tree. In Matthew Jesus doesn't say the mustard seed grows into a tall bush, but rather into a tree in which the birds make their nests. The mustard bush can reach a height of 8 to 12 feet, but it is still not a tree by any stretch of the imagination. So, why call the mustard bush a tree? In several places in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of kings and empires as being like trees. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a growing tree, whose branches reached the heavens and on which the birds made their nests (Daniel 4). The prophet Daniel interpreted the tree as being the Assyrian king and his empire extending its sovereignty to the ends of the earth. The Assyrian empire grew through brutal violence and domination, forcing Israel into economic and political patronage. Israel was one of the birds nesting under Assyria's tree!

The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of a growing cedar with the birds nesting under its branches as a satire of the empire of Egypt, which falls like a chopped down tree and "upon its ruin dwell all the birds of the air" (Ezekiel 31).  Ezekiel also told a parable of  a twig which grows into a noble cedar and the birds nest in its shade, the same wording found in Mark's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Ezekiel 17). It would appear that Jesus is drawing his images of God's reign from these visions of powerful empires, particularly Ezekiel's parable of Israel as a mighty cedar growing to such a height as to provide a nesting place for the birds. The birds most likely represent the Gentiles, the nations, those outside the house of Israel. What we have in the prophets is an end time vision of Israel growing into a powerful empire which is benefactor to the nations of the earth. What a triumphant vision! And you can understand why Israel hoped to be a mighty cedar overshadowing the nations, when you remember how they had for so long been trampled under the feet of the nations. Imagine the kingdom of Israel dominating all the nations of the earth! What a hopeful vision… at least for Israel.
A mighty tree growing big enough to shade the birds. That would appear to be a more appropriate image of a powerful kingdom. A mighty tree seems to fit Western civilization's vision of a mighty kingdom. Europeans have viewed the expansion of their cultures and empires as being of benefit to other peoples. In our exploits as an American empire we have felt like we have a superior culture and way of life than other peoples and cultures in the world. It’s called “American exceptionalism.” It has been espoused by politicians and flag wavers from the get go of our nation.  Most recently Obama promoted it in his victory speech. On the other hand, other peoples and nations have experienced Western growth and American exceptionalism, as imperialism, colonialism, arrogance, and pride. We want to expand the branches of our imperial tree to overshadow all nations and allow the birds to nest in our branches.

The seed of our nation's beginnings grew into a tree and expanded its branches through violence and oppression of a people who were already native to this land. I once read a book entitled Missionary Conquest written by a Cherokee/Osage seminary professor. It details the exploits of Father Junipero Serra, among other early missionaries to the Americas. People in California know Father Serra as the Franciscan priest who in the 1700's scattered his missions like seeds across the landscape of California. Mission San Buena Ventura is near my home town and Mission Santa Barbara a half hour away.
In order for Christianity to grow into a mighty cedar early mission expansion took the form of forced conversions, physical violence, slave labor conditions, and cultural genocide. Father Serra's mission system was no exception. Native Americans were the birds who nested precariously in the shade of Spain's colonial expansion supported by the roots of the church's missionary work. The sad truth is that we still view Native Americans as the birds who should nest in the shade of our nation's branches, or should I say live on our nation's reservations. The triumphal image of a growing tree which shades the nesting birds is sadly reflected in the scenes of an African-American with lash marks on his back picking cotton on the plantation, an American sailor exploiting a young Pilipino girl near the naval base, and a young missionary trying to expand the kingdom by unconsciously passing off European customs and culture as the gospel truth. This sad parable of our kingdom growing into a mighty cedar is for the birds!

What are we to make of Jesus parable about a mustard seed growing into a big bush for the birds? Jesus' image of God's reign is not of a mighty cedar, but a mustard bush. That's a joke! Get it? Jesus is satirizing Israel's triumphant vision of the kingdom, as Ezekiel did with the kingdom of Egypt. In this parable Jesus compares the reign of God with the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a big bush for the birds. Jesus is transforming our vision of God's reign. Israel’s vision of a growing messianic kingdom based on force, violence, imperialism, and growth through dominating the other nations of the world, led by God’s messiah, is not Christ's empire. It's not how Jesus revealed God's reign.
Jesus revealed God's reign as being like a mustard seed that grew into a big bush for the birds. Mustard seeds and bushes are strange images for God's reign. As we have seen, a mighty cedar would have been a much more appropriate image, or should I say more like what was expected. Then again, speaking of God's reign as being like a woman who puts a small amount of leaven in her dough was just as strange. Leaven was a symbol of evil, something unclean which was purged from one's house. Leaven, like the mustard bush, is an odd image for Jesus to use of God's reign. What Jesus is doing in the parable of the mustard seed is subverting the expected vision of God's reign as a triumphant kingdom with our people on the top in the end. In the same way, Jesus’ own life and mission were subversive of the hope of a coming kingdom of power and domination.

Jesus' life is a paradoxical mustard seed parable. The Messiah, ruler of all nations, comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby in a nesting place for chickens and cows. He gathers around himself a small rag tag group of misfits. His idea of growing a kingdom is by telling quirky little stories. Jesus expands God's reign by eating with Roman collaborators and sinners. The branches of Christ's kingdom are spread by blessing children and lifting up the weak. People look into Jesus' mustard seed face and say, "Is this the Messiah?" Like a baker woman, Jesus mixes into God's dough the leaven of the unclean and those cast out of the house. The destitute, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, outsiders nest in the shadow of Jesus' compassion. These odd birds flock to the branches of Christ's kingdom!
Jesus' mission turns away from the hope of becoming a mighty cedar and grows into a bush for birds. On a desert mountain Jesus refuses the devil's vision of ruling the kingdoms of this world. Through the gates of Jerusalem he rides not on the snorting stead of a conquering king, but the lowly donkey of peace. The disciples look down at Jesus washing their toes and wonder, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?" Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome, but a small band who gathers to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away the sword. Jesus is nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with royal thorns as an enemy of the state. And in the end one dirty bird nailed on a cross next to him pleads, "Remember me, Jesus. Let me nest under the shadow of your tree."  

Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders and outcasts, strangers and sinners, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.
There was once a church nesting on the borders of our imagination. It was a little country church on the edge of town. The steeple stood tall and proud and the bushes were neatly trimmed to proper size. The outside of the church was whitewashed, and you might say the inside was also. In a front pew sits little Jimmy next to his mother, Mrs. Lee. Both are first time visitors. “Little Johnny” is picking his nose and wiping it on his jeans. Mrs. Lee is nervously fiddling with her bulletin. “Little Johnny" is thirty five years old. He got his name from his father, who passed away five years ago. His tongue is thick and his speech childlike. He looks out at the world through almond eyes and a fresh innocence as if seeing life for the first time. There were well-meaning family members and neighbors who said, "Wouldn't it be easier on you if he were in an institution?" They probably said that because they were uncomfortable being around Jimmy, particularly that snorting laugh or saying things that didn't make any sense. It was those attitudes that brought Mrs. Lee and Johnny to this new community.

The church they visited on that first Sunday was uncomfortable also, at first. With broken smiles the members would greet Mrs. Lee and Johnny. After that they didn't know what to say. Some members were annoyed when Jimmy would snort at the preacher's feeble attempt at a joke or when he would say something bizarre to a visitor. But, after a while Johnny seemed to blend in with all the rest of those quirky people----the elderly woman who just had to give you every gory detail about her goiter operation, the well-dressed computer programmer who wanted his name on a plaque for every gift he gave, and all those other members who were handicapped by a fear and an in-group mentality which kept them separate from those who were different.
Soon after visiting the little church Mrs. Lee and Johnny invited to their new church a family they had met at the clinic, who also had a child with Down's syndrome. The church welcomed them with open arms, as they had learned to welcome Mrs. Lee and Johnny. Later a bi-racial family who lived next door to Mrs. Lee and Johnny came to visit after they heard about this odd little church. A family with a tattooed teen and headphones permanently implanted in his ears started attending. The congregation welcomed an undocumented couple from Honduras. This new couple was there on the day they repainted the church and trimmed the hedges. Over the years the small church grew. Oh, it wasn't so much growth in size or money, or prestige in the community, that's for sure. The little church grew from its first awkward attempts at welcoming people different from them until they learned to extend the branches of God's love and compassion to whoever graced their doors from whatever life situation. In the end that small church became a nesting place for the birds.

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