Mustard Seeds, Meals and the Kingdom of God
I am probably not the only person here this morning who has, buried in some jewelry box or drawer, a mustard seed pendant. This one was my mother’s – a small glass orb, meant to be worn on a necklace, ringed in gold, and inside, a tiny, tiny mustard seed.
The mustard seed is the first in a list of parables in today’s Gospel; in each of those parables Jesus is telling us something about the Kingdom of God. But the parables themselves – the images Jesus summons up – are mundane and everyday, hardly glorious. The Kingdom of God, he says, is a fishing net. It is the yeast that causes a loaf of bread to rise. The Kingdom of God is found by dubious and risky means – who would sell all of his property to buy a single pearl? And then there is the metaphor of the treasure hidden in a field – a story that suggests shady doings. And – most memorable – there is the image of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tall shrub, a shrub that behaves like a weed. Neither the seed nor the bush is beautiful.
The mustard seed appears a half dozen times in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew’s 17th chapter, Jesus says:
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
In the Gospel of Luke, also the 17th chapter:
He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
Even if you only have the faith of a mustard seed, Jesus says in these passages, you will move mountains.
But elsewhere, including in today’s Gospel, Jesus changes the metaphor. The mustard seed, he says, is the Kingdom of God. He is asking us something slightly different, or slightly deeper – he is asking us to have faith in the mustard seed, that most insignificant of seeds that can grow into something as nourishing and good as the Kingdom of God. In both Matthew and in Luke he tells us that the mustard seed grows into a tree in which the birds of the air can take sanctuary. The least of all seeds can grow into a shelter, a home, for the least of these – the Kingdom of God.
I spent two years in Memphis, Tennessee. It is a beautiful city, a young and transient city with young and transient people living in it and loving it deeply. It is also a complicated city, with so much heartbreak – so many homeless people, so much blight, so much crime and violence that comes out of the ravages of poverty, racial division, gang activity, underfunded schools and drug addiction.
While I lived in Memphis, I spent my first few months getting to know people. Part of my job was to establish relationships with local media, to communicate our church’s presence and ministry in the city of Memphis. I reached out to the religion reporter for the local newspaper, the op-ed editor of the local newspaper, the news director of the public radio station, the publisher of the city magazine. One summer day I met a podcaster downtown, a few blocks off Beale, at a Cajun-inspired restaurant. Over lunch, we talked about the art scene in Memphis and what kinds of stories he might be interested in from an Episcopal church with columns and a steeple perched on a green lawn in the middle of wealthy east Memphis. The podcaster was a young, fairly hip Memphis native, somewhere in his 20s, who knew Memphis, its imperfections and its beauty.
At the end of our meal, we had leftovers, and we boxed up our half sandwiches and headed out onto the sidewalk. We hadn’t gone half a block before an older, balding man stopped and asked us if he could have some of our food. I watched my acquaintance to see what he would do. I’m not sure now why I waited, but this was his city, and I was new to it, and I think part of me was still observing, learning its dynamics.
Without hesitation, my companion smiled – “of course” – and handed the man his boxed leftovers. I followed his lead, and gave him my leftover sandwich too. This ragged man, a far cry from the young, hip professionals and tourists passing us on the sidewalk, unexpectedly took my hand and bent his head over it for a moment in thanks, there in the bright Memphis sun, a few blocks from Beale, and, nowhere near a church or a communion rail, I felt blessed.
Three years later, I’m back home in Roanoke again, working in one of my favorite spots, a tall stool at one of the high counters in the front window of a coffee shop downtown, 10 hours from Beale Street – and there is a man knocking on the window. I have my laptop, a mug of coffee, and a sermon to write. And it’s getting later in the evening, and here is this man in the window; I wave, he taps back, says something, then heads on into the coffee shop. I do not know him, though I think I have seen him on the sidewalks downtown before, maybe talked with him. And I think, oh dear, this could get complicated, and I have a sermon to write. I don’t have time. But what can I do?
We talk. He tells me he is a veteran. His middle name is Nathaniel, but he goes by Smiley. He has a daughter and a son. He doesn’t read a lot, but he can replace car parts whose names I’ve forgotten. He’s diabetic. He’s retired. He tells me that something prompted him to come in the coffee shop to talk to me. I can smell alcohol on his breath. He sings a little, a warm baritone, but he can’t remember all the words. He tries to find words to explain what he’s trying to say to me, and finally in frustration says he feels like he is a puzzle. I say we are all puzzles – we’re all trying to figure ourselves out. He says he almost got in a fight with someone earlier this evening. I tell him I’m really glad he didn’t.
Smiley finally asks if I’ll buy him a beer. I tell him I can’t buy him a beer, but would he like a sandwich? No, no, he says after thinking a moment. We talk a little more. Then he tries again: I have a car, an old Chevrolet, he tells me, parked not far off. Could you give me three dollars for some gas?
No, I can’t do that, I say, thinking three dollars probably covers a beer. I don’t have any cash. But would you like a sandwich?
He thinks about it again, and in the end, I buy Smiley a sandwich. Ham and cheese, on wheat bread, with chips. And the manager of the coffee shop, who is not a stranger to me, after I pay for it, asks, Do you know him? No, I don’t know him, I say. Did he come in and ask you buy him a sandwich? he asks me, and I say no, he came in and asked me to buy him a beer, and I offered him a sandwich. The manager, not unkindly, tells me it’s against their policy for street people to come in and ask customers for food. Smiley will have to take it outside, can’t eat it in the café. I understand, of course. I feel bad that I’ve put him in a difficult position, and he assures me I haven’t. I explain the situation to Smiley, who is waiting at a table for his sandwich, and he understands too, and when he gets his meal, he tells me he’ll buy me a sandwich next time, he mentions that he’s glad the manager didn’t call the police, and he heads out for the bus station.
Not long after he leaves, I go home, thinking about Smiley, about how he reminds me of Memphis, and the man on the downtown sidewalk. I’m hoping he ate the sandwich. I’m glad I could give him something more nourishing than a beer. My sermon is not written, and I’m feeling like a puzzle myself, still trying to find my way through its metaphors, these parables. And somehow I feel like Smiley is part of it, somehow, some reminder of the Kingdom of God.
It takes me a few days to connect the threads.
And to connect them, I have to remember Memphis again, and yes, another café. This one was not in hip downtown, but in a neighborhood named Binghampton, not far from wealthy east Memphis, but not wealthy itself – a neighborhood that had seen much poverty and blight, but was trying to rebuild itself.
In the middle of that neighborhood is a place called Caritas Village, and it includes a free health clinic, art studio, after-school programs, ESL programs – and a café. The first time I visited, I was with a photographer friend who spent several years documenting the people of Memphis, photographing them, telling their stories – everyone from priests to prostitutes, doctors, children, ex-cons, teachers. She spent a lot of time in that café, with its bright windows, local art, sofas, books, handmade jewelry for sale. During that one meal, she introduced me to or made note of our fellow diners. They included the director of a nonprofit organization, men and women in business suits, a drug addict, a Tennessee Shakespeare Company actor memorizing lines for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The restaurant serves lots of good food at very reasonable prices. They also keep a crock pot of soup going every day for anyone who can’t pay for lunch. All they have to do, no questions asked, is ladle out what they need into a bowl.
This week, I remember this restaurant, and I think about my conversation with Smiley, and I realize I only went halfway that evening in downtown Roanoke. I missed the Kingdom of God; while I was trying to write my sermon, it kept walking in and staring me in the face, and I missed it. When the manager of the coffee shop asked me, Do you know him? I should have said, yes, I know him. I just met him today, and he’s a vet and fixes cars and sings. When the manager asked, Did he ask you for a sandwich? I should have said, no, he asked if I would listen. When the manager said, he’ll need to go outside, I should have said, He’s my guest, and I’ve invited him to eat with me.
Convention, propriety, and a little bit of fear, held me back, and I didn’t think of any of those things.
And so, my own puzzle: today’s Gospel reading, and its five or six parables. It’s telling us: The Kingdom of God appears to us in unexpected ways. It is born from imperfection, from sour yeast, from smelly nets, from a tiny seed that is entirely insignificant and grows into a bush that runs rampant, is not beautiful, and protects birds. The Kingdom of God might come about from decisions that seem foolish or risky – selling everything, or buying nothing. We see glimpses of the Kingdom of God in unexpected places, in a conversation with a man who wants a beer, or a sandwich – on the ragged sidewalks of a glittering city – in a restaurant in a poor neighborhood where anyone can have a meal. I’m thinking about leftovers from a Cajun restaurant in Memphis, about a ham sandwich in downtown Roanoke, about a pot of soup in Binghampton. Shared meals, shared community, the connections among people who are all imperfect, who reach out or don’t reach out, who are held back by convention, or refuse to be.
And it’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m sitting in yet another coffee shop, trying to finish this sermon, and I find the Kingdom of God in another unlikely place.
I send out a tweet. “Sermon-finishing for tomorrow. Stuck at the end. Hashtag mustard seed. Hashtag Gospel of Matthew. Hashtag what is my point.”
And I hear back from an Episcopal priest in Toronto, a Lutheran pastor in Baltimore, and an Episcopal priest in the Bronx. And the Toronto priest, who’s also sermon writing this week, says he’s been thinking about the mustard seed too, and about how God plants it and it takes over like crazy – if we let it. He’s thinking about the birds that find sanctuary in the bush – birds that farmers don’t necessarily want around, because they eat the seeds. And he’s thinking about the fact that when we try to cultivate it, to control it, then sometimes our own agenda takes over, not God’s.
He’s got a point.
We do not acquire the Kingdom of God. We plant it and we let it grow. We let it run riot in the world. And we let it hold the good. And we let it hold love. And we let it be a sanctuary for the birds, and the ragged men on sidewalks, and the hip young podcasters, the business executives and the prostitutes and the Shakespearean actors and the coffee shop managers and ourselves, in all our imperfections and fears. We plant the seeds, we water them with love, we embrace the shrub, we give up everything for the pearl, we share our meals, and then our faith can move the mountains that seem impossible to move.