Sunday, June 14, 2009
Third Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
There is a story about the Buddha and mustard seeds. Kisa Gotami was a young, poor girl, who had an eye of spiritual knowledge that could see the real worth of things. She had only one son, and he died. In her grief she carried to dead child to all her neighbors, asking them for medicine. Finally, one man suggested that she go to a physician whose medicine could help. Kisa said,”Pray tell me, sir; who is it?” And the man replied: “Go to Sakyamuni, the Buddha.”
Kisa went to the Buddha and cried: “Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy.” The Buddha answered, “I want a handful of mustard-seed.” When the girl in her joy promised to bring it, the Buddha added, “The mustard seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend.” Kisa went from house to house but every house had a beloved one who had died.
She became weary and hopeless, and sat down at the wayside, watching the lights of the city as they flickered up and were extinguished again. And she thought of the fate of humans and said to herself, “How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all; yet in this valley of desolation there is a path that leads him to immortality who has surrendered all selfishness.”
This littlest of seeds revealed a grand truth. Death is common to all; grief is common to all. The walk with the spiritual, the Holy One, is not about getting our way, but about cultivating a character that leads to love and peace. In this character and the world it brings forth, selfishness is ought not to be found. So it is too in the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. It is about cracking us open to the movement of truth, the movement of God.
Mustard is a humble yet powerful plant. As Jesus says, it is a tiny seed. It’s common. Cultures all over the world have cultivated it and appreciated its gifts of nutrients and preservation. Mustard is simple to make yet depending on the recipe can bring tears to the toughest customer’s eyes. It can take over if it isn’t tended, running wild and unruly over the land.
The mustard seed can be a pest. Not quite as bad as Scotch Broom or kudzu, but when left to grow untended it can turn into a large shrub that is strong enough to crack concrete. I’ve never seen a mustard shrub of that caliber, but I do remember the mustard fields that were about a mile from my childhood home. They were actually quite lovely—acres of bright yellow flowers growing thick upon the ground. The air was spicy and warm, and the field seemed to radiate light.
Jesus’ listeners were probably a bit surprised that this everyday and modest plant was used as a symbol for God’s kingdom. A cedar tree seems more apt, not the lowly mustard. But it is a typical Jesus inversion. The strength of the cedar tree, its dominance, its loftiness and associations with worldly power are easily transposed onto the Holy One that is the cause of all. But our power is of a different nature than God’s, Jesus reminds us. God’s like a mustard seed that spreads and grows among creation and shelters it, intertwines with it. A shared and present power, not an isolated and domineering one. A present reality that can crack things open in new and surprising ways. As the parables show, the seeds of the kingdom grow by God’s will and not our action, and yet also require our participation. It purpose is life and space for all within that life freely given.
Which brings to mind the ivy and the blackberry. We have both these vigorous plants on our property. The ivy spreads and covers and strangles. It’s shelter is limited and it’s life more parasitic. Our blackberries, while certainly able to take over, offer much more—shelter for animals and birds (and sometimes even humans who find a haven under their branches), delicious berries that feed and nourish us, a gathering place of community when the berries are ripe. It’s a bit more mustard-seed like. But like the Body of Christ that is likened to a vine, it needs pruning just as we need pruning. The kingdom of God that are a part of is shaped by us and sometimes we direct the tree or the vine or the shrub in wrong directions. And once again we are to be cracked open by the surprising truths the kingdom of God invites us to learn again and again: generosity, humility, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, peace-making through being peaceful, honesty, kindness, the valuing of all life as equal to our own, and striving to make real in our daily lives and communities the charge to love each other out of these virtues. It is to allow ourselves to be that new creation of which Paul speaks because we get out of the way and let God get in our way.
And what happens when we allow God to get in our way, when the seeds are given space to grow? More than we can imagine. I think of the confirmation classes I taught in Virginia, on average 50 freshmen who mostly didn’t want to be there. The seeds were planted, week after week, and so often it seemed that nothing was sinking in. Some faces were engaged, but many looked resigned. And then, unexpectedly, without warning, something would burst forth. We teachers often never knew what it was that caused the shift, but somehow in that space and time and persistence the new creation took root. Something grew and the grain ripened and suddenly, one more of them was eager, awake, wanting to learn more about this God thing. They had found a home on a branch.
Or what can happen when there are no resources and no structure to meet a need because people believe in the kingdom logic. The Egan shelter is a living example of that. Not only did it shelter people from the cold, but people met other people, stereotypes fell, those on the outside felt included and part of making something happen, the community confronted the stark evidence of its brokenness and responded with compassion. Nothing fancy, no towering cedars, but humble acts and simple care.
Health care debate and kingdom eyes, how it cracks us to see things from a different perspective.