Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 3, 2022
Luke 13:18-21 “Weeds and Pests”
While I have no scientific evidence to back up this claim, I think it is pretty safe to say that buckthorn is one of the most despised plants in our corner of the world. An invasive species that was originally brought over from Europe to be sold as landscaping material, it has now gotten out of hand. In fact, when I type the word ‘buckthorn’ into Google, the very first page that is offered is from the MN DNR, and is titled: “Buckthorn is a real threat.”
Nearly everyone I know that has wooded property in our region has spent countless hours and tremendous amounts of money trying to remove buckthorn. There are companies who specialize in it and have a booming business. The church I grew up in hired a team of goats to live on their wooded property for a couple of weeks over two summers, hoping the goats would eat all of the buckthorn. In fact, our own congregation in 2019, during our special environmental justice service, gathered a group to pull buckthorn behind Holzinger lodge. This is a hated plant that causes nothing but problems.
So, now imagine this: Jesus is standing in the woods of southeastern MN, surrounded by followers who love him and love our natural environment, and he says this: “What is the realm of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a buckthorn seed that someone took and tossed in the garden and it grew and became huge, so big that birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
That is what we are talking about in this beloved parable of Jesus’. The Realm of God, or the Kingdom of God in the language we use here, is like buckthorn that is allowed to grow and thrive in our gardens. Mustard was an invasive species in the time and place of Jesus’ ministry. And remember, he was not yet in Jerusalem when he taught this lesson. He was in the countryside, talking to an agrarian people. He was talking to farmers who would spend just as much time removing mustard from their farms and gardens as we do removing buckthorn from our outdoor spaces. And, not only is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to an invasive plant that chokes out the produce the people are trying to grow in order to survive, but that invasive plant is allowed to grow so big it becomes home to birds. Birds – that eat seeds and damage plants. In what I can only describe as a bizarre email exchange with Rev. Dr. Gafney, the translator of our texts for this year, I was able to confirm that the ancient Judeans Jesus was talking to had their own version of scarecrows – meant to keep the birds away from their gardens.
So, there we are: Jesus is teaching us that the Kingdom of God is like an invasive species that provides a home for pests. This parable is not about a tiny little seed that a huge plant can grow from. This parable, especially when we remember he was speaking to farmers, is absurd. This parable is describing the Kingdom of God as that very thing we work so hard to get rid of. It is a wonder that Jesus was able to gather any followers at all if this is what he was teaching.
So, what are we do to with this? In order to help us answer that, I need to draw your attention to what happened that provoked this lesson from Jesus. He was teaching at one of the synagogues, which were modest gathering places for worship in the country, on the sabbath when he saw a woman who had been physically disabled for 18 years. She was unable to stand up straight. And he calls her to him, lays his hands on her, and heals her of what ailed her, and she was able to stand straight again. But the leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus healed on the sabbath, a day when no work was to be done. The leader says to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Jesus matches the religious leader’s indignation with indignation – points out the hypocrisy and is led to the parable of the mustard seed.
The religious leader then, as many religious leaders of today do, wanted to keep God in a neat and tidy box. Wanted to place miracles on a schedule, wanted the rules to be followed first and ministry be done second. God should be contained to humanmade rules, even if that means the most vulnerable people are left out of experiencing the fullness of God and the miracles of ministry. But God cannot be contained by any rule. God cannot be contained to a schedule or a place of worship or neat and tidy worldviews that help the privileged feel comfortable. And that was the whole point of Jesus teachings throughout his ministry – God cannot be contained by the few, which usually results in harm to the many. God is like a mustard seed that grows in a garden and becomes so immense that the unwanted of the world can find shelter within God’s branches.
The Kingdom of God, which we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer – is not a neat and tidy world order where everyone looks and thinks the same. The Kingdom of God is a wild and beautiful place, that once it takes root cannot be gotten rid of. It is a place where everyone is welcomed and can find refuge – even those people who the world says don’t belong in nice places. People who don’t fit within the humanmade rules of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have a home within the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is a refuge for the mentally ill person living on the street who is rousted from his sleep and told to move along so the polite people in town don’t have to look at him. The Kingdom of God is a refuge for the person with a chronic health condition whose body simply cannot cope with COVID and is finding fewer and fewer places that are safe to go (which, by the way, is why we still require masks in this sanctuary). The Kingdom of God is a refuge for the young child in Florida raised and loved by same-gendered parents whose very family is now illegal to talk about in the classroom. And the Kingdom of God is a refuge for the transgendered athlete who simply wants to compete with her peers but is told she doesn’t belong.
The Kingdom of God is a refuge for you with your doubts, and your mistakes, and your fears, and your desires, and your exhaustion. The Kingdom of God is a refuge for me with my doubts and worries and anxieties and ridiculous hopes. The Kingdom of God is like a plant that once it takes root grows and spreads and ignores all the neat and tidy rules of humanity and offers a refuge for all those who don’t fit into our world’s boxes. And, if given the opportunity, the Kingdom of God doesn’t require much – Jesus says it is like a pinch of yeast in three measures – or a huge amount – of flour. Just a pinch is all that is needed to leaven the bread, if we simply remember to add it.
This Lent we have been exploring what it means to be beloved and to love. Beginning with the reclaiming of our creation story as one of God’s love and not one of sin – we claim the name God has given us as beloved. And from this creation we remember we carry within us a bit of God – the Spirit of God that was breathed into us to give us life. This Spirit of God, this love of God we hold within us, is not for us to just hold on to. As 1 John reminded us last week, God’s love is only made complete when we share it. And to whom do we share that love – the birds of the air that make their home in the mustard plant – our neighbors who are told they don’t belong and are not wanted. We share this love and make God’s love complete when we share it with one another and offer a place of refuge within the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t take much – a tiny seed, a pinch of yeast – but if we allow it to grow, it can never be removed.
In a few minutes we will share in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and we will create within that sacrament an echo of God’s Kingdom. No one is barred from this table. No one. You don’t have to be certain about anything about God. You don’t have to have pledged your commitment to any worshipping community. There are no limits on the welcome at this table. This sacrament is a refuge for everyone: you and me and all who wish to participate just as we are. As we participate in this sacrament, let us consider how this act, tiny as it may seem, can be the seed that grows into something extraordinary. Amen.
Welcoming God, within your Kingdom, the Kingdom you hope we will all embrace, everyone is welcome just as they are. You welcome those the world chooses to leave out. You welcome the despised, the weak, the doubt-filled, those who feel they have no hope. Your Kingdom is a refuge for all of your creation. For this, we as people of your creation, we are so grateful. And it is in this gratitude we come to you now in prayer.
Today we turn over to you our prayers for all those who the world says don’t belong as they are. For the sick, the lonely, the differently-abled – we pray for their well-being and offer them our love. For those whose gender and sexual expressions don’t conform to tidy binaries – we celebrate their beautiful beings and see within them your gloriously diverse face. For those so filled with doubt and anxiety they wonder if anyone even notices they exist – we pray for their comfort and offer them a refuge. For those who are in the paths of war – we pray for their safety and that the hearts of world leaders will remember grace.
Loving and Creating God – we also pray for ourselves, for we too know what it means to wonder if we don’t fit. Your presence is a constant reminder of comfort and place to find rest. Help us to remember that in moments when everything becomes too much. So now in these few moments of silence, we open our hearts to you and offer those prayers which are too deep for words…
Great and Good God, we thank you for your welcome and ask you help us extend that welcome to all whom we meet. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher who taught us just how wild and wonderful you are. We now raise our voices together in the way he taught…Our Father…