Jesus’ parables about seeds are a mystery. They are oddly comforting for those of us who have lived in farming areas or enjoy gardening. But what is Jesus up to here? Why explain a mystery like the kingdom of God with another mystery about seeds?
Jason Chestnut is a Lutheran storyteller and documentary maker who writes that the point of parables are Jesus’ way of expanding our imaginations and sense of divine mystery. The first disciples and original audience already lived in harsh conditions under Roman occupation and difficult living conditions. Simply reminding people that their lives could be better is not in itself liberating. Jesus takes things a step further using parables to open up the disciples to new realms of possibility. And he does this subversively by talking about something his agrarian audience would have been familiar with, talking about seeds.
Seeds are amazing. Whoever has planted even a small garden knows the joy of seeing seedlings sprout. Something that is out of our control. We tend seeds and plants so they grow better, but they have a life of their own.
Anyone who has had a garden also knows about weeds because they release seeds that are incredibly hard to control. Weeds release seeds that can lie dormant until conditions are just right. They can grow between cracks in the sidewalk, in garden beds, in planters, on tiny bits of soil atop rocks. Weeds are resilient and the more you try to remove them, the more they grow.
The kingdom of God is like weeds self-seeding. Think about a single dandelion how many seeds it produces that are carried in the wind, on animals’ fur, by us trying to remove the dandelion to get rid of it as the seeds cover the lawn. One thing about parables is that they are meant to disrupt the status quo. Think about a world in which the wealthy and powerful rule. Kingdom evokes images of Roman Empire, an army, city walls, infrastructure that enables an economy to function.
By contrast there is nothing mighty about weeds or a mustard seed as identified in the parable. We would laugh at someone who suggested that a dandelion could defeat an army or be stronger than a fortress. And yet this is what Jesus is suggesting in this mysterious parable. That somehow the kingdom, sometimes translated as “empire” of God, is an inversion of power and rule on earth. None of it makes sense according to the way things normally work.
Again it’s God nudging us out of our rigid categories to trust that through God all things are possible. Prolific seeds can grow into weeds that take over a parking lot buckling from moisture seeping into the cracks. Cracks in society threaten to rupture as new life begins to take over.
Jesus as a Seed
In Jesus’ time ruptures would have included a small gospel movement, whose leader did not rise up to quell an army or defeat Rome. Instead Jesus was put to death on a cross, accused and punished as a common criminal. There are many parts of Jesus’ story that are ordinary and predictable. Threatening the status quo and the wheels of empire will squish you. And yet we know Jesus is a seed that died and sprouted new life. The whole Easter story is one of rising again against all odds. Sometimes it’s hard for us to hear this because the story is so familiar that we pass over the mysterious bits. We have to admit it’s a strange story.
We know that Jesus’ story continues today. The mystery of the parable of the seeds continues today. We see ruptures in the pavement everyday, threatening to disrupt the status quo. We’ve seen the news of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at residential schools turn Canada upside down. New revelations in Kamloops and now stories emerging at residential schools in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and other provinces. We see the weeds of mourning and new life sprouting everywhere. And there are too many for the government and other powerful actors to tamp them down. You pull up one and fifty more grow in its place.
On Friday Indigenous Youth gathered at the BC legislature demanding land back and an end to a colonial legacy. Some poured red paint on the statue of Queen Victoria and walkway to mark the Indigenous blood that has flowed in order for BC and Canada to prosper as colonial territories. Realities we can no longer deny. Quickly afterwards workers were ushered in to pressure wash the paint away, to pick the weeds, and erase the gathering of Indigenous youth, but we know they are not going away. No amount of pressure washing can white wash Canadian history. The kingdom of God is like scattering seeds that sprout and grow, we do not know how.
Sadly we have also heard about the Islamophobic attack on the Muslim family in London, Ontario. Four of five family members were murdered by a white twenty-year-old man who used his truck as a weapon. On the Canadaland Podcast episode, “White Terror,” guest host Fatima Syed talks about how she was invited by the Guardian newspaper to cover the story. What struck her the most was when a photo of the family was released and how much they looked like her own family. The clothing, the way they posed, the way they looked reminded her how close to home this attack was. The evening walks after dinner made it an even harder story for her to cover. Even though she primarily considers herself a climate change journalist she doesn’t like turning down stories about immigrant families in Canada because she knows how badly the stories get covered by white journalists with no knowledge of these families and their histories.
In the episode host Jesse Brown remarked how many acts of white terror happen in Canada, domestic terror attacks often perpetrated by white men, and so little happens in response. Dignitaries say nice words and then it’s back to life as usual. Those who live in Eastern Canada are all too aware that the terrorist attack on the Mosque in Quebec City (in January 2017) sent ripples throughout immigrant and Muslim communities. In fact the attack in Quebec served as an inspiration for the terror attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand (Maori name: Otautahi).
One thing that stood out in the conversation in the Canadaland episode is how little this changed in the last four years since the last attack. In fact if anything we’ve seen an increase in anti-Muslim legislation thinking about the head covering ban in Quebec that was created in order to discriminate against Muslims. Those kinds of public actions give a license to domestic terrorists to attack minorities who are seen as lesser than.
The question put back to us is what are ways we are willing to imagine a different kingdom of God, a world in which weeds are sprouting new life in our midst? What is our commitment to dismantling the systems and education in our communities that radicalizes young white men? People who knew a domestic terrorist or their family often come forward and say how normal they seemed, maybe they were quiet and kept to themselves. A few people might have noticed hateful remarks made online, but were dismissed as not really threatening anyone in particular, just a teenage phase, or some other excuse.
Often these young white men had church homes. At least one was confirmed in a Lutheran church, remembering the attack on a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photos of him posing with hate flags were later discovered on-line. How do we as a church respond to a world in which worldly kingdoms propagate hate? What are ways Jesus is calling us to disrupt the hate in order that the seeds and weeds continue to overturn these systems and sprout new life?
Perhaps the hardest part of the gospel reading is trusting in the grace of God. Trusting that weeds have the power to overturn empires and colonization. And yet we see evidence of it everyday. We see Indigenous youth and elders leading the way. We experience glimmers that new worlds are taking shape. Even in challenging times like this. We are heartened that the vaccine rollout continues and that we can start imagining meeting in person again in the future. We are beginning to plan summer travels. Knowing how rapidly we responded to Covid as communities, we know that we can also rapidly and effectively respond to the grip white supremacy has on our institutions, including our churches and church structures.
Imagine that the weeds of love, trust, and justice are sprouting through the cracks in the pavement, and that we can all breathe and find life in grace of Jesus. Amen.