One of my most memorable childhood family vacations was going to see the Redwoods in northern California. From the park rangers, I learned about the two varieties of the California Redwood: the Sequoia giganteum and the Sequoia sempervirens, members of which still hold the records for the largest and the tallest living trees in the world. I remember my father driving our car through a tunnel bored through one Sequoia giganteum. I remember camping among those tall and giant trees. I also remember that on that particular vacation, my father signed up to be the Sunday preacher at an open-air chapel surrounded by those trees. He chose for his text the parable of the mustard seed. This was particularly apt, since the Sequoia seed is similarly tiny. He passed one of those seeds around so we could each see for ourselves how small and insignificant it looked to the casual observer. Then he had us gaze upwards at those magnificent trees. We got the point.
I was reminded of this family vacation when I first reviewed the Gospel appointed for this morning from Mark: Jesus said, “Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.”
After reading this a few times, I paused and said to myself, “Wait a minute: ‘greater than all herbs’? That’s not how I remember it. Doesn’t it grow into a tree?” I looked at other translations, which rendered “herb” as “shrub,” not “tree.” And indeed, I was surprised to find that Mark’s version of this parable is the most botanically correct and therefore modest one, compared to Matthew and Luke’s telling of it, for the mustard seed does grow into a very large shrub, but not a tree.
Upon further investigation, I noticed a progression of exaggeration between the three versions: In Mark we find, “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,” while in Matthew we find, “when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree,” and finally in Luke’s concise telling, he says simply, “it grew and became a tree.” So the Parable of the Mustard Seed is, in the hands of the three synoptic Evangelists, something of a “big fish” tale. The shrub of Mark becomes a shrub and tree in Matthew, and a tree bar none in Luke. All three agree, however, that shrub or tree or both, the birds of the air will come and find shelter in it.
Several commentators I consulted pointed out the parallelism of this parable with the first lesson appointed for today from Ezekiel: “I myself will take a sprig…in order that…it may 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.” But a couple of these commentators got all worked up over why Jesus chose the lowly mustard seed, when the parable would have worked just as well, if not better, with a cedar seed or something that held more obviously majestic potential.
For my part, I rather liked the suggestion of one commentator, who wrote that he thought that Jesus, in Mark’s telling, was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. In his view, Jesus intentionally didn’t choose something with obviously majestic potential because Jesus’ followers are not obvious candidates for majesty. It’s as if Jesus is saying, if you have it in you to become a big, tall, mighty, and magnificent tree, go ahead. But trees aren’t the only ones who can provide shelter to the birds. In a pinch, a shrub will do just as nicely. Jesus’ followers therefore should not necessarily seek to become great “trees,” with the awe-inspiring grandeur of a Cedar of Lebanon or a California Redwood, but should simply aspire to become, by God’s grace, “the greatest of all shrubs.”
And so, my brothers and sisters, this is what I am exhorting us to strive towards becoming: the greatest of all shrubs. By this I mean that we need to set aside worldly ambitions for grandeur or success and focus, instead, on deep, lasting, and meaningful growth, the kind that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves, but that simply does kingdom work. The mustard seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs not so that it can be admired as such—“Wow, wouldja’ look at that shrub!”—but so that the birds can have a little shade, a little nesting place. From this perspective, it is the birds, not the mustard, which should be our focus in this parable.
And just who are these birds? They are the needy whom we feed; the seekers who are drawn in by the reverence and joy of our liturgy and music; and, yes, they are the parts of ourselves that seek the shade and shelter of God’s house, that need the nourishment this particular shrub of a parish provides in order for us to fly off and do the work that Christ has called his bird-brained followers to do.
But wait a minute. How can we be both the shrub and the birds at the same time? The great thing about parables is that they aren’t strict allegories; that is, there’s never a fixed, one-to-one correspondence between symbol and signified, as there is in an allegory, where, for instance, in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the lion always symbolizes Christ. In many of Jesus’ parables, such as this one, we are simultaneously the tiny mustard seed, with our individual and corporate potential for growth; the mature shrub that provides shade to the birds; and the birds themselves. At the same time and in other ways, other people and institutions are that seed, that shrub, those birds. That’s the thing about parables. Despite their surface simplicity, there’s never just one simple explanation. They are meant to be played with until we gain deeper insight into our relationships with one another and God in Christ, until we understand a little better what exactly God is calling us to do in the here and now as we undertake the work of the kingdom of God.
And so let’s think a bit more of some, though by no means all, of the ways that we as individuals and as a parish fit into this parable, as seed, shrub, and birds, and how we relate to others as seed, shrub, and birds, as well. In other words, let’s look at our potential, our reality, and our mission.
The mustard seed in its most general meaning represents our potential and the potential of the gospel message itself. Just like the mustard seed, we have to grow, both individually and corporately, so that we become an even more joyful and welcoming people than we already are. The seed is also the gospel, the good news, that we spread through our words, our worship, and our acts of service to our neighbors and in the world at large. We are constantly called to sow this smallest of seeds everywhere we can, because we never know where it will take root or how it will grow, as some of Jesus’ other parables point out. It is only by sowing the seed of the gospel that the seed of our potential as a parish will take root and grow.
The shrub in its most general meaning represents who we really are, as opposed to who we want to be. The shrub as an image is a sort of spiritual “reality check” about our ambitions. We might have aspirations to be one of the “big trees.” And maybe that will happen. But if we’re appropriately modest about who we really are, we will see ourselves as the rest of the world passing outside our doors sees us, at least until they come inside: a little stone church tucked away in the Point neighborhood, barely noticeable at all, unless you happen to see it from the Pell Bridge or as you walk along Washington Street. We aren’t the mighty cedar of Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue or the powerful Redwood of the National Cathedral. But we are called to be grow as the shrub that we are. Sometimes a well-tended topiary can be just as inviting to the nesting birds as a massive oak tree.
The question is, with so many trees and shrubs to choose from in Newport and Aquidneck Island at large, what would make some “bird” want to land in our branches in the first place?
This brings us to deeper questions of mission, the strange sort of “bird” that we are and the sort of “birds” that we want to attract. Is our music all about the care and feeding of the music program, or does it serve an evangelical goal? Is our liturgy simply a good show, or does it give glory to God? Do we participate in the Samaritans Ministry so that we will feel good about ourselves, or to meet the needs of others?
We are called to grow from that tiny mustard seed into the greatest of all shrubs, not so that we can glory in our own shrubbery-ness, but so that the birds, that is, other people as well as ourselves, our souls and bodies, may find shelter and nourishment here. The Parable of the Mustard Seed speaks to us today about our potential, our reality, and our mission. I hope someday to hear people remark about St. John’s, “That shrub of a parish? That place is for the birds!” To which I will proudly say, “Why, thank you very much. We are indeed.”