NUMC Nameoki United Methodist Church 1900 Pontoon Rd.
Granite City IL 62040-2339

Sermon: What’s a Hotdog Without…?

Date: Aug 17, 2014

Preacher: Rev'd Mike Rayson, OSL

Church: Nameoki United Methodist

“What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like?” asked Jesus. “What parable shall we use to explain it?  It is like this. A man takes a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and plants it in the ground.  After a while it grows up and becomes the biggest of all plants. It puts out such large branches that the birds come and make their nests in its shade.”  Mark 4:30-32, GNT.

Last week we began a new sermon series that will take us through to Advent based around the parables of Jesus.  But before we dive into our scripture reading today and begin to peel back the layers of this very short parable.

This has been a difficult week not just at home but abroad as well.  As ISIS continues to push through Iraq, we’ve seen thousands if not millions of Iraqi Christians and Shiite Muslims, as well as many other smaller groupings of people and religious communities tortured, killed and displaced from their towns and villages.

Shiite Muslims by the way make up somewhere around 40% or so of Muslim’s in the middle east, and Sunni Muslims – the branch of Islam that ISIS comes from – around 60% or so.  For Muslim’s, this designation is as dividing as say the Christian faith versus the WACO cult.  Hard line Sunni’s and Shiites don’t believe they even pray to the same Allah… which is simply Arabic for ‘God’ – not ‘Muslim God’, but just ‘God’.

To tell someone in the middle east that you are a Muslim without defining what kind of Muslim you are is as meaningless in religious terms as if you took a person from say Argentina, and a person from the United States and called them all American.  Technically, they are.  That’s partially why this is all such a mess… one tribe wants to eradicate the other, and anyone else who stands in their way… Jew’s, Christians, Yazidi Kurds…

Then there is the conflict that continues in Israel and Palestine.  This is not a new conflict, it’s just been amped up about a thousand degrees.  

Israel has the right to defend itself from rocket fire yes – and let me make it clear at least from my perspective, Hamas is a terrorist organization and must be somehow stopped from firing rockets into Israel…  however, Palestinian people have the right to send their kids to school without worrying that Israel will kill them just because.  

As of yesterday, 1980 Palestinians have lost their lives in this current conflict… with 7 out of 10 Palestinians killed, almost 1400, civilians – and 2 out of 10 Palestinians killed – about 400 - children.  Israel has lost 67 lives… 3 of them civilian.  

And then closer to home… Ferguson.  Just 12 miles away with a river between us.  It’s like we’ve been thrown back into Selma or Birmingham in the 1960’s.  Suddenly, the warzones happening “over there” in Iraq and Israel is suddenly – on a smaller scale of course - “over here”.  I’m sure pretty much all of you have your own opinions on what is happening literally on our own street corner.  Everything from Michael Brown deserved it and the policeman was a hero through to string the cop up for murder and send him to the electric chair.

Dr. King’s prophetic speech in 1963, 51 years ago, is still not true of this great nation…

I have a dream today . . . I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain will be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places 'will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

So what are we to do?  What are we to do?  We are as separated and segregated as we have ever been.  We know the scriptures… No longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer man or woman…  Yet we still sit in our chairs and still practice segregation.  We may not do it intentionally, we may not have segregations as our primary goal… but we’ve set up white churches and black churches, white communities and black communities… we hear someone speaking Spanish and for some of us the first thing we hear is “illegal”… we recoil when we hear of groups like the KKK still active among us, but will probably whisper to each other if a family of a different color or ethnicity walks into our church or dates our son or our daughter.

And if you think we’re passed it all in 2014… well, I can tell you my own pastoral stories.  About the man who recently threatened to beat a beautiful family in one of my previous churches because “those people” didn’t belong in a white United Methodist Church… or even those who have dared to proclaim that American preachers should be in American pulpits, not Australian preachers in American pulpits!... or even a Methodist church – and we have plenty of them in the United Methodist movement in Illinois – who dare to say, “we don’t want no woman preacher or no black preacher”.  Or who even more cowardly don’t say it, and just leave the church.

God help us, we need Jesus.

Our world needs Jesus.  Our community needs Jesus.  Our church needs Jesus.  WE need Jesus.

Be us black, white or in-between, we need Jesus to transform our minds and change our hearts.  We need Jesus to renew our vision and show to us the path of righteousness.

We need Jesus.

Lasting change doesn’t happen on a political level.

Renewal doesn’t occur when clergy get together and confer about it.

Revival won’t happen because our Sunday School talked about it one Sunday morning.

If you want to see peace in Iraq, arms laid down in Israel and Gaza, killing and rioting stopped in Ferguson Missouri… then first, you need Jesus.  

Not some abstract concept of who Jesus is.  Not a vision of Jesus made in your own image… not a picture of some guy who lives in your house and eats the same food as you eat and supports the same candidate that you support or attends the same civic functions you attend.

You need the Jesus that messes you up… turns you around… rips through your insides… tears down your walls… and pours his grace into you until you can’t take it anymore.

Christ is not Jesus’ surname, it’s his job title.  The greek word for ‘Messiah’.  The one who comes to our world, our community, our street corners, our churches and to us bringing hope to the hopeless, strength to the weary, peace in the storm, and love to the loveless.

It’s only Jesus, working in us, reviving us, healing us, restoring us, that can bring stability to such a broken world and community.  Because real change doesn’t happen when the rioters stop rioting and the looters stop looting and the guns stop shooting… it begins with you.  And me.  

Luther King Jr told the world that he had a dream… Jesus tells the world that he has a reality of hope.  And if I don’t stop there… we may never hear about the parable of the mustard seed this morning.

Let us pray… Lord, our world is a mess, our community is a mess, and our street corners are a mess.  Come, Lord Jesus… we need you.  Help us in this moment to refocus our attention on the parable of the mustard seed, and hear what you have to say to us from scripture today.  Amen.

I went to an agriculturally based school.  Most rural schools in Australia have some kind of agricultural focus because they are in agricultural communities.  In the 8th grade in Agricultural Studies – a mandatory subject for 8th graders – I was given my very own garden plot.  And the brief was, ‘grow something’.  Anything.  Preferably edible.  Keep it weed free.  And we were graded on what we produced and how we tended to that 6ft by 3ft piece of ground.

So, I grew radishes… well, I thought I grew radishes.  I also planted lettuce… well, I thought I planted lettuce.

I faithfully watered my plot of ground – and grew these lovely looking plants that eventually had yellow flowers on them.  Well, I thought that my radishes must have been more special than other radishes – as my radishes had yellow flowers on them.

The end result, when I went to dig out the ‘special’ radishes that had grown so well was, well, no radishes at all.  And I failed Agricultural Studies.  What I had successfully cultivated and lovingly grown was… a weed.  Brassica Nigra to be exact.  But in my defense, I bet those popular agriculture students would have failed theology right!!!  J

Brassica Nigra grows all over the farming lands of Australia, and it grows across Illinois as well.  It has lots of pretty yellow flowers on it, with hard round black seeds in the center.  Left unchecked, this plant spreads faster than germs in a pig pen.  And its nigh on impossible to kill too – which is why I may have killed the radishes and the lettuce, but not the Brassica Nigra.

Funnily enough… Brassica Nigra is also known around the world as… black mustard.

It originates from the middle east, and as a plant has been categorized for thousands of years.  And it was all over Israel when Jesus walked the earth.

So it’s fair to say – and most scholars would agree - that Jesus was directly referring to the plant known as Black Mustard – Brassica Nigra – when he told his short little parable.

The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…

Black Mustard grows wild across parts of Israel – especially in the northern parts of the country close by to where Jesus was born and grew up.  It’s all along the edges of the Sea of Gallillee… left unchecked it grows completely wild, sometimes overtaking other plants as well.

This parable of Jesus was told at the same time as last weeks parable of the sower and the seed.  And where is Jesus when he’s telling the parable???... he’s out standing on a boat looking at the shoreline and talking to the people, the locals, the farmers, the ‘normal people’ who have gathered there to hear him speak.  And what was likely all around those people… mustard.  Brassica Nigra.

So when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed and planted it in the field, most farmers listening would probably scratch their head and say – huh??!  

It’s almost like saying, the Kingdom of heaven is like a ragweed seed that a farmer planted in his field.  

Now, ragweed – well, there’s not a whole lot of use for it except it is a major source of food for birds, caterpillars and butterflies.  It’s always important to have a bit of ragweed here and there, but there’s no need to grow it.

In Jewish tradition, it’s known that black mustard should NEVER be planted in your garden – it’ll just take right over.  Wish I knew that before 8th grade Agricultural studies.

Anyhow… Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds.  Here’s where it gets odd… because the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds.   It’s about the size of a tomato seed.  But Jesus wasn’t speaking at a national Monsanto convention, he was talking to average farmers.  And to an average local farmer, it was one of the smaller seeds that they knew of.   So Jesus is simply helping to connect them to the kingdom of heaven using something they already know.  

The seeds of a black mustard plant are very small… and if those jolly things drop off the plant, you’ll get half a dozen more mustard weeds.

But Jesus says something next that absolutely does not make sense…

“ After a while it grows up and becomes the biggest of all plants. It puts out such large branches that the birds come and make their nests in its shade”.

Black Mustard is a weed.  Actually, it’s in the herb family. It’s a spindly looking ugly thing that has very little shape or form and dies off every year.  And if I was a bird, there’s no way I would – or could – build a nest in it.

A mustard plant can’t bear weight… and it’s only a few feet off the ground if that.  This is not the weed of choice for a bird… where their nest and the eggs within are in reach of snakes and foxes and whatever else can get at it.  And black mustard certainly does not provide any shade to anyone!

Many of the parables of Jesus have many layers that we don’t discover until we really look carefully at them.  For instance, we could look at this parable at face value and say – well, sure.  I get it.  

Little seed, big giant tree or plant that offers shade.  God takes the little things we give and turns them into big things.

That’s one way to look at it of course – but consider this.  God is actually explaining to us that he is a miracle working God.  The tiny seed… planted… insignificant… a weed even.  The seed – so common it’s worth not much of anything except when its crushed and refined and squirted onto a hotdog maybe.  No – not a hot dog, that wouldn’t be kosher at all… crushed, refined, and squirted onto a lamb shishkebob!

The kingdom of heaven – the kingdom to which we belong as the children of God – is made up of insignificant little seeds, which left to their own devices are incapable of doing much of anything but spreading out and taking over and making a complete mess of things.  

You see, I think Jesus is giving us an insight into the nature of the church – our church today - in this brief parable.

We can choose to be mustard weeds if we wish… strangling each other, growing in ditches and on 8th graders garden plots… sprouting a few flowers here and there and dropping the next lot of seeds so more weeds can grow… OR we can choose to include God in the life of our own little mustard seed.

You see, the kingdom of heaven is all about taking the weak and insignificant seed, and instead of growing another weed, growing a real tree…  where birds can nest and shade is given.  The kingdom of heaven is about taking a mess… a mess like Iraq, a mess like Israel and Palestine, a mess like Ferguson Missouri, a mess like our own lives.  A mess that is incapable of fixing itself.  And supernaturally, by the power of the Holy Spirit, transforming it into something that is impossible.

A weed into a tree.  A warzone into a place of peace.  A violent street corner into a community of goodwill and generosity.  A gathering of strangely conflicted people who adhere to different political and social ideologies, who probably wouldn’t be friends with each other ‘out there’ in the real world into a church family.  A personal mess into a tower of strength.  A life marked by suffering into a lighthouse of joy and grace.

That’s the parable of the mustard seed.

What seed is God calling you to plant… what seed are you willing to let God cultivate and grow within you?  Maybe, just maybe, by the inspiration and the power of the Holy Spirit, your okra… and by the way, I hate and detest okra in all forms… into a beautiful Kensington pride mango.  

And yes, my favorite fruit is mango.  Simply give that seed to the Holy Spirit, and watch something supernaturally unbelievable grow within you and in your world.

Friends, we need Jesus… we need Jesus, the gardener…  We need Jesus in our world, in our community and in our lives.  We need not just open hearts and open doors and open minds, we need open eyes as well to see what Jesus see’s.  We need open ears to hear what Jesus hears – those ridiculous things that fall from our own lips and the lips of others.  

We need Jesus… you need Jesus.  Because change doesn’t begin out there… it starts with you.