Blackberry, Mustard, and Love

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 6B / Ordinary 11B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on June 17, 2018 +

Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the things I’ve loved about being back in the Pacific Northwest is the nature that is all around us.
We can see it here in this plot of land that hosts our congregation, this beautiful area of orchard and garden just out the window.
It gives us a view of God’s good creation and reminds us of God’s work that surrounds us.
Even near my apartment, which is right next to a highway and…not much else, when I go onto the back deck, I can see the berm behind the building and it is covered with blackberry bushes.

Himalayan Blackberry Bush

The green foliage spreads out behind providing shade and some seclusion.
Near the end of summer when the blackberries are ripe, the sweet aroma wafts into the open windows.
The kids and animals that run wild behind the apartment feast on all the delicious berries and find shelter in its cover.

But when my dad visited us a number of months ago, he told me that these blackberry bushes are not native to this region.
In fact, when he was working in the daffodil fields of the Puyallup valley as a teenager, they work hard to remove all these blackberry bushes by hand and watch in case they burst up again.

And he’s right – nearly all of the blackberry bushes we see in the Pacific Northwest are non-native and are considered noxious and invasive weeds.
They’re called the Himalayan blackberry, and as its name suggests, it is native to central Asia. It was introduced to this region over 100 years ago by a man named Luther Burbank who started a seed catalogue and sold this type of bush to this region because of our mild climate.
He thought, correctly, that it would flourish here and prove to be a good source of the delicious berries we still enjoy today.
But before too long, the blackberries had taken over.
This bush is so vigorous that it grows out of control.
And once it’s rooted, these bushes are nearly impossible to get rid of.
Even if you cut them down, they spring up again before too long.
Once it’s planted, these bushes do all that they can to take over their landscape – farms, forests, and berms behind apartments.

So, why all this talk about blackberries, you may be wondering?
Well I imagine that if Jesus was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, he would have told his disciples the parable of the blackberry seed.
“With what can we compare the reign of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a blackberry seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
But since he was from the Middle East, Jesus is talking about mustard shrubs.
You see, like the blackberry bush, the mustard shrub is almost a weed – an invasive plant that if left unchecked will take over an entire landscape.

Mustard Shrubs in the Middle East

Once a mustard seed is sown and takes root, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it.
Even when it is planted intentionally, it quickly spreads beyond any sort of boundaries or limits one would want to impose upon it.
Mustard seeds will latch on to the shoes or the cloak of passers by and drop in a new spot to take root there – even further broadening the domain.
And really, in a largely agrarian society where many of his listeners would spend so much time ripping out mustard shrubs to maximize the yield of their meager farms, Jesus is frankly using a strange metaphor to explain the reign of God.

Mustard bushes were probably not the most popular plant Jesus could have picked, and by comparing them to the dominion of God, he is inviting us to a different understanding of God’s reign.

Cedar of Lebanon

In our first lesson, Ezekiel tells his people who are living in captivity that the dominion of God will be like a mighty cedar tree – mighty, resolute, regal – a source of stability and strength to the people of God.
Stretching between the earth and the heavens so the whole world can see it.
And in some ways, this is the more comfortable vision of God’s coming reign where we envision Christ returning with strength and might to put the forces of evil under his foot, crushing his enemies with majestic power.
But our gospel is reminding us that we see God’s reign not through trampling armies, but through the humble planting of the life and ministry of Jesus – which, for those in power was invasive enough – and when the government and religious leaders sought to destroy him, to rip him out by the roots, he sprang forth again with new life and shelter for all.

Jesus is inviting his disciples – and us – to see the coming reign of God in a different, almost insidious way – how it will sneak into, break into areas we don’t expect it.
How it may not look like what we expected, but will show its own kind of beauty.
How it will spread beyond what we intend or imagine as possible.
How it will challenge the status quo and overcome the systems that seek to destroy it.
How it is nearly impossible to root out once planted. Jesus’ vision is not just of a mighty cedar, but of the mustard shrubs, the blackberry bushes, that take over the countryside – reaching out across the earth, until all creation knows the reign of God.

And in some ways, Jesus is telling us that it’s not always up to us to do it.
Ultimately, the spread of the reign of God is not up to us. Even when we introduce these seeds into an environment, like Mr. Burbank did with the blackberries, they’ll soon spread beyond our imagining or intention, beyond our abilities to control them.

So if these plants represent the in-breaking reign of God in our midst so contrary to popular understanding, so vigorous in its spread, it seems we really only have two courses of action – join the effort to tear them out and eradicate these weeds or join with God to till the soil and spread the seeds of these abundant and beautiful plants.
Because either way, these shrubs are going to spread.
They do not respect borders or human defined limits. They will choke out the existing plants that produce hate and fear and replace them with those that give shelter and love. These plants refuse our efforts to domesticate them but push out and expand wildly.

This is a vision of a reign of God that we cannot control.
A reordering of life that is set by God’s priorities, not our own. A wildness that we cannot domesticate.
It pops up in places where we don’t always want to see it and where we might not expect to see it.
It grows and grows beyond our control and confronts the powers that would seek to destroy or stymie it and flourishes to provide shelter and shade for those who need it, fruit for those that embrace it.

And in these shrubs, in the cedars, in the blackberry bushes, the birds are able to find shelter and security.
These birds are like the people that our systems tend to ignore – in Jesus’ time they were fisherfolk, tax collectors, day laborers, prostitutes, criminals – lowlifes.
In our time they may be people dealing with homelessness, those living with addiction, migrant workers, victims of abuse, victims of discrimination, or the at least 2,000 refugee children who have been ripped away from their families on our southern border.
180617-cbp-mcallen-texas-01These are the people who have no place to go.
These are the people who are so often locked out of society. But these are the people who find shelter in the reign of God – who find love where the world plants hate.
The mustard bush is a nuisance to those who are wanting to control it, to curtail its spread, who are threatened by its new reality, but it is a refuge for those who find no place in the status quo – who eagerly await the coming dominion of love and justice for all.

There are certainly those who still seek to stop this new reality, who are comfortable with the status quo and who benefit from our current systems.
Who seek to increase their own power and control rather than seek God’s coming dominion.
They seek to rip out the new sprigs before they can take root, use our unjust laws to justify their efforts to stop the spread of these plants.
They compromise their humanity to institute some false sense of order.
But ultimately they are fighting a losing battle.
Ultimately their work is in vein.
Ultimately they will not be able to control the new beautiful and bountiful reality that God is cultivating all around us.
Their systems of hate and discrimination will be choked out by God’s new reign of love and shelter for all people.

So even when the world around us looks so different than Jesus’ vision of the coming dominion, we know that God is at work beyond what we can see – breaking into areas we cannot reach – working in places we cannot touch.
Even when it seems like the systems of this world are doing everything they can to curtail God’s will, even when we are neglecting the people and children God would want us to love and shelter, Jesus is telling us that God is still at work with a power that we cannot stop, a spirit that we cannot restrain, and a flourishing that we cannot domesticate.

But this does not mean that we should sit back and let it happen on its own.
Even though we know that this is ultimately out of our control, Jesus invites us to join in the cultivation, to help plant the seeds of the gospel, to spread the reign of God through word and deed, to make God’s love known to new people and new places so that the reign of God may flourish within and around them as well.
Jesus calls us to partner with him in his work, to protect and shelter the vulnerable, to challenge those in power who seek to limit this new life, to decry the inhumane treatment of children that is happening right now in our name.

But even when our own energies fail, even when we work hard and don’t see the world change, even when the news of the day continues to weigh us down to the point of despair, Jesus reminds us that God is still working, God is still spreading, God is still breaking into this world and nothing can stop it.

Where do you see the reign of God breaking in?
Where do you see it take root and spread, taking over little berms?
Spreading through farmlands and forests?
Where do you see this new reality working to burst forth into our weary world?

There’s an old adage: “work like it’s up to you, pray like it’s up to God”.
Jesus invites us to join him in doing all we can to bring forth the reign of God.
But remember that we are not alone, that God is working with us and for us in ways we cannot always see.
And that the reign of God will break into this world in a way that will never be stopped until all creation finds shelter and love in God’s perfect reign.

“The Risen Lord” by He Qi

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