Sermon June 16: Mark 4:26-34   Rev. Betsy Hogan

What makes a weed, a weed? I was invited to contemplate this question on an outdoors visit last week, with a member of the congregation assessing the future of some of the things growing around their garden.

What makes a weed, a weed. The easiest answer, of course, is that a weed is something that we don't want it where it is. Whether for aesthetic reasons or because it's using up soil nutrients that we'd very much aimed at our peas or carrots or rhododendrons – we don't want it where it is, and therefore it is a weed.

But that's just about location, isn't it. It doesn't really speak to there being a quality of existential weedness.

And beauty, or lack thereof, obviously isn't the key: lilies of the valley are considered by many to be weeds and so are violets and forget-me-nots, and they’re all patently beautiful.

And utility, or lack thereof, isn't even the key. We've come to a better appreciation of the crucial utility of dandelions for the bees, for example, and the utility of maple trees, as another example, is definitely well-established. Despite the fact that -- if my backyard an inch thick in maple keys is any indication – maples have definite weedy tendencies.

So, the quality of weedness? It's not lack of usefulness, it certainly isn't lack of beauty, and it certainly isn't simply contingent on not being where we want it to be –

What horticultural scholars all seem to agree on is that what makes a weed, a weed, is that it can't be controlled. It's been built on purpose to defy our authority and mess with our plans and keep popping up regardless of what we do.

As one scholar I consulted put it, the only defense against goutweed in your yard is to move. A weed is a plant that cannot be controlled.

So say the horticultural scholars... and the biblical scholars agree. Particularly when they look at the passage from Mark's gospel that we just heard, and chuckle a bit over Jesus' very clever pairing of these two parables about seeds taking root and growing.

The parable of the farmer, and the parable of the mustard seed. Because Jesus DOES pair them up. They were clearly first heard together, and then were remembered and written down together, and they ARE meant to be heard as a pair.

Two parables about the kindom of God – about the way the world is in God's envisioning. And paired up on purpose to stretch the disciples' understanding, based on what Jesus knows they already know. By surprising them a bit. Shaking up their preconceptions.

Dropping the first parable about the farmer on them, and ya ya ya, he plants, things grow, it’s a mystery, it’s time for the harvest, he reaps the benefits of his work –

But then following it up with the second parable. About the mustard seed. Which if for US it calls to mind at best just illustrations in a Sunday School Bible of a lovely shrub and all the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches...

... for the disciples what it calls to mind is pretty much goutweed. Because mustard seed may be tiny, and it is, but it's also relentless. Mustard goes everywhere. It takes root everywhere. It spreads everywhere. And it can't be controlled.

Nobody needs as much mustard plant as there ever is. It's relentless. In the context in which Jesus is teaching, it can grow to twenty feet tall in no time. It's the worst weed. It can't be controlled. 

And that, says Jesus to the disciples, is what the kindom of God is like. It's relentless, it'll spread and keep spreading and keep spreading, it'll feed, it'll shelter, all the birds of the air will come and make nests in its branches, it's glorious and it can't be controlled.

You can't control it. And we get it! We get the metaphor! Just as the disciples do – we get it! God’s love is relentless and it’s not something we control – it’s not something we get to say is for this one and not for that one. It’s just poured out, out of our control, to uphold all of us and our well-being. 

The disciples get it and we get it! And... good! says Jesus. Now go back and think again about that farmer. Who's put in the hours and dug up the field and laid out the rows and fertilized the soil and carefully planned it all out and planted the seeds in hope and anticipation.

Because the truth of the matter is that even that, all of it, to some degree, is ultimately beyond his control. Beyond our control. Not that we don't play a role, because of course we do --  and not that we don't have an impact, because oh we sure do -- 

But in terms of what rises up, and whether what we metaphorically plant so carefully takes -- or doesn't take, or gets overwhelmed --

There IS a point in our efforts to be the ones in charge of this whole endeavour we call life, when wisdom and grace might dictate a recognition... that our capacity for control is limited. That all our best hopes are wonderful, that our theoretical constructs are things of great beauty, that our efforts have been mighty and worthy and strong -- but ultimately? There's a point past which we really don't have control. 

Just think about that farmer. It all looks so orderly. But the disciples must surely know – and with far more anxiety than any of us would ever feel, since after all if things don't work out WE can always just go to the grocery store – 

The disciples must surely know that once the seeds are sown, once the hopes have been declared, once what CAN be done HAS been done, then there IS a certain letting-go that the farmer needs to accept. That WE need to accept.

We can nurture, we can fuss, we can hunt down slugs and try to keep the deer away, we can hope for rain and not too much – 

But we’re NOT in control of all things when it comes to what will eventually take root and thrive... or indeed what ELSE will stand down and leave enough room for the thriving. And if that’s hard to accept sometimes, well, that’s the way it is. That's reality.

There’s mystery in the mix. There’s God in all God’s mysterious unfathomable uncontrollable spirit in the mix. The goodness that grows can surprise us, even when we did plant the seeds on purpose.

And the abundance of the growth -- or even its sheer power to take over the joint -- can amaze us, but the seeds were all there. Planned and planted, or just landed. If some of them only God recognized in them their astonishing potential, well, that’s what God does. Indeed, if only God recognized in them their worth, or anything positive at all, well, that's what God does too.

Two parables: in the first, seeds of grain sown on purpose in hope, and in the second, what amounts to a weed, mustard seeds, mustard plants. Popping up, perhaps, in defiance of the gardener's hope. Or at least really not part of the plan. 

And: Listen, Jesus says. The kindom of God is like this.
It will take what you plant on purpose – and it will take what's already there.
It will use what you want – and it will use what you're trying to beat back.

It will rise above all your best hopes -- yielding thirty, sixty, a hundredfold --

And it will cast its eye over that weed infestation that no one would ever choose and we certainly didn’t, but love is love, and God wants for us what is good, so God will use that too. Like a huge shrub of mustardweed… where all the birds of the earth make their nests in its branches.

The pairing of these two parables in the gospel of Mark – Jesus didn't do it by accident. What he wants the disciples to grasp, what he wants US to grasp, is not just the limit of our own capacity to control what grows, what seeds in ourselves take root and flourish, where the weeds land and what they get up to --

It's also how UNlimited God's capacity is to bring forth goodness and warmth and connection and purpose out of whatever seeds there are. Whatever's landed, whether carefully planted or blown by the wind. 

And no – that is very much NOT "God sent me this thing so I would learn from it". It's "this thing happened. And this is what God did with it." Jesus uses the metaphor of seeds and planting with intent. 

Because some things happen on purpose, and some things just happen.

It may well be that tidy fields of grain is what we've planned for and what we've hoped for. And we get to plant in hope. It may well be that instead, it feels like everything we've called a weed and been trying to beat back seems to be multiplying at an overwhelming rate until we're hardly sure there's going to be a field of grain even LEFT pretty soon.

But listen, Jesus says. The kindom of God is like this.
It will use what you plant -- it will use what you didn’t choose and never wanted.
It will rise above all your best hopes -- 
and it will pour out its love over that nothing you wanted --
To make it bearable.

Or maybe even good – where the birds of the earth can build nests, and lay their eggs, and new birds are born, and when the long night is over, the dawn breaks… and they sing. Thanks be to God. Amen.