July 26, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Ezekiel 31:1-11, Mark 4:26-32

Watching the Weeds

Years ago during my internship as a hospital chaplain, I was paged to come to the lobby to meet a family and go with them to the morgue to see a man who had died. I know the EMT’s found him in the park right across from where I lived. I didn’t know whether he died in the park or in the ambulance, and I really didn’t know what to say to this family. Once a few them arrived, I called down to let the morgue staff know we were coming. Only problem was, this man was not in the morgue. I remember asking, “Did you lose him?” A dead person is not something you want to lose!

I was transferred to the hospital administrator, but he was no help. He told me to send the family home. About this time, the social worker showed up, and he was helpful. He began making phone calls to other places, and he eventually learned that the man had been taken to the county coroner. But in the meantime, between the hospital administrator hanging up the phone and the social worker returning with information, more and more family members were poring through the entrance.

Now the lobby had a coffee shop right in its center, and this family filled the coffee shop. They were huddled into little groups. Some of them were sobbing loudly. Some were pacing and talking on their phones. They were already distraught, now they weren’t being allowed to go see their brother or their son. It was up to me to tell them why.

I thought, What am I supposed to do? Stand up on a booth, get all of their attention, and make a public announcement: “Excuse me! The man you came to see is not here. You’ll have to leave the hospital. I’m sorry for your loss.” That possibility crossed my mind, and I thought, Yeah, I’m not going to do that.

Instead I watched for a minute, and I identified an older woman whom I believe was the matriarch. I went over to her table, kneeled down, and took her hand. I very quietly explained what I knew, and I promised to sit next to her until the social worker came back with information. He would find me sitting by her, so I could make sure that she would learn where to find her son. She looked at me long and sad, but she didn’t say anything as I was explaining this. Sure enough, her silence began to coax the attention of the rest of her family. They came and stood around her table while we waited for the news.

Listen for the whisper that ripples and rumbles around the room. Sometimes the whisper is right.

These days, we’re living in an age when information travels instantly and personally. Sit in the gate area of an airport. If your flight gets canceled, eventually, they might change the listing on the big screen or make an announcement on the loudspeaker. But the first thing that happens is you and everyone around you receives a text message or voicemail. All the phones go off at once, and usually that’s not a good sign.

These days, we’re understanding that more can be done with a personal conversation than a public announcement, more with a hashtag than with a billboard. We are proving right the adage. “Leadership is not a great speech; leadership is a thousand phone calls.”[1] This kind of communication might disrupt conventional notions of power and traditional ideas of growth. Really, that’s okay.

Now if our faith in the headline announcement fails, listen for the truth in the rumble of the whisper. If our faith in the tallest tree falls down, let’s go see what’s growing in the weeds…

Today we hear the parable of the mustard seed which comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. We hear how this smallest of parables calls right into being the very kingdom of God. But in Mark’s version, the parable doesn’t make sense. Jesus tells the disciples, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth (not really, but close). When it is sown in the ground, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs. It puts forth large branches so the birds of the air can come and make their nests in its shade”

Have you ever seen a bush, that’s maybe a few feet tall, put forth large branches? That doesn’t make sense. The writers of Matthew and Luke fix this problem. Matthew’s version adds a phrase saying the shrub becomes a tree (Matthew 13:32), while Luke’s version leaves out the shrub altogether and declares that the mustard seed managed to grow into a large tree.

These Gospel writers might be working to reference the great cedars of Lebanon, the trees that star in the poetry of the Old Testament and that summon the birds to come and nest in their branches. Hear these words from the seventeenth chapter of Ezekiel:

“On the mountain height of Israel, I will plant the sprig, 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. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish” (Ezekiel 17:23-24).

The other scripture we hear today comes from the thirty-first chapter of Ezekiel. Here, Egypt is being compared to the mighty cedars of Lebanon, to the tallest tree who towers over the other trees. Its branches are up in the clouds, and of course, it shelters all the birds who make their nests in its boughs. Until the heart of the tree grew proud of its height, then the LORD our God cast it out, and the enemies of Egypt cut it down. This prophecy is a warning for Egypt.

But if it’s the kingdom of God we’re describing, shouldn’t it be compared to a tall and glorious tree that does not fall down? We understand the power of trees. They are poetically magnificent and practically respectable, and if Jesus said, the kingdom of God is like the tallest tree in the garden, I would believe him. Instead, what Jesus tells his disciples is, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. And mustard is a problem.

Eating from the plant makes your eyes water, and your nose pinch, and it opens the sinuses. The bigger problem is that mustard grows wild and takes over. It was dangerous to plant mustard because it could be easily confused with plants you’d want to keep. For this reason, Jewish law restricted its planting so the mustard would not contaminate the rest of the garden.[2] See the kingdom of God is like this tiny seed that becomes an illegal, invasive species. Even the birds of the air make their nests in its scraggly shrubs.

These days we know there is worry in the mainline churches about the decrease in membership numbers and the uncertain prospects for the future. It seems like not a week goes by when I don’t see a new article pop up on my facebook feed with strategies for attracting millenials or turning around decline. What’s happening is we’re seeing a shift away from the old establishment model of the church. Our faith in the power of establishment is starting to fall down and really, that’s okay.

There are churches with gorgeous buildings, and these magnificent buildings will not save the church. There are churches with rock stars pastors (not so much this one, but trust me on this), and rock star pastors will not save the church. Now is the moment when it’s critical that we figure out where to listen and what to watch. We can look up to the heavens for help, but God is already here under our feet. We are standing on holy ground.

Watch what is growing right here. Our Food Pantry is building a reputation as the place to come on Saturday mornings for friendly hospitality. Our Meals Program has expanded dramatically since it first started, and it continues to develop in new directions. The Beyond Cool Task Force is leading the charge to introduce new practices for welcoming visitors and supporting young people. Friends, we are growing.

When it comes to knowing where to watch, I commend to us this wisdom from our best television neighbor, Mister Fred Rogers. Now this quote of his usually gets invoked in the wake of a disaster or tragedy, but I think it is important to remember all the time. He says this, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

I’m telling you, if the church will be saved, this is how. If our lives will be saved, this is how. Watch the people who are helping, and join them. Watch the power of God move over the earth, and take over the garden, and bring tears to our eyes. Listen to the whisper that wakes you up in the night.

Listen to that whisper that ripples and rumbles around the coffee shop as a family gathered up in their grief, then said, “All right. We can’t stand around here.” The story of our Christian faith begins when the faithful people gathered up in their grief and were told, the one you’re looking for is gone. His body is not here. All right, we can’t stand around. It’s time to go see the signs of resurrection already here. Because even when that tall tree in the Bible gets cut down, you know what happens? The birds go and make their nests in its tipped over trunk (Ezekiel 31:13).

When the plan falls apart, and the establishment fails, and the tall tree falls down, this is exactly the moment to listen for the truth in the whisper and watch what’s growing in the weeds. See how the birds find a place to build their nests. Because God is watching those birds. And us too. Amen.

[1] I learned this saying from Chicago Theological Seminary President Susan Thistlethwaite.

[2] Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1989. pages 380-383.

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