A Pesky Plant

  Therese and I have a very modest yard and garden, but if I were to explain our choices, then you would hear a little a little bit about French Impressionist painters. Early in our marriage, we picked up some books about the landscapes that the Impressionists created to surround their homes, the forms and textures they selected to complement one another, and the colors they chose for areas based on whether they would receive morning or evening light. Claude Monet was probably the most particular gardener among the Impressionists. He planted and replanted, trimmed and shaped, in a seemingly endless pursuit of the perfect landscape. Monet’s friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir was far less concerned about imposing his will on a garden. Renoir was more interested in observing the natural progression of a landscape, and less interested in unnatural intervention. When it comes to our yard and garden, Therese is Renoir, and I am Monet.

 I see the difference most clearly in our little herb garden. John Monet would prefer that the herbs be neatly separated according to variety, each taking its appointed place in a clearly mapped grid. Therese Renoir likes to give the plants more freedom to achieve their natural eye-pleasing pattern and habit of growth. In the fall, when I’m anxious to cut the herbs back, she likes to let the herbs seed the ground for the following spring.

 From my perspective, there’s a problem with her plan, and its name is “Cilantro.” A few weeks ago, when I finally made time to attend to the herbs, I found that cilantro had seeded itself up and down the side yard. Where it was thickest, it was shading out all the plants underneath. I put on leather work gloves, and pulled out big mounds. I’m surprised I didn’t find a bird’s nest in there. I’d taken an allergy pill, but the stuff is so pungent, I still had a sneezing fit. John Monet likes things neat, but cilantro doesn’t know the meaning of neat.

 In our gospel text from the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus describes a plant that sprouts from a small seed, and grows large in surprising and vexing ways. According to some commentators, Jesus is alluding to the words of our Hebrew Testament lesson (Ezekiel 17:22-24) in a way that is subversive[1] and even comical. Ezekiel’s image of Israel growing into a “noble cedar” was one that had inspired God’s people living in Babylonian exile, and continued to inspire them during Roman occupation. Israel would be a majestic tree on a lofty mountain, in which birds would find protection for their young, and under which animals would find rest. But the common mustard plant inspired no one. It wasn’t cultivated in gardens, but rather covered fallow fields. Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests that to those who knew Ezekiel’s prophecy, Jesus might have sounded like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.[2] The kingdom of God is like a seed that is sown and becomes the greatest of all …shrubs, the greatest of all … weeds. The kingdom of God is like a seemingly insignificant group of God Followers. Unnoticed at first, the words and actions of the God Followers take root. Their faith, hope, and love grow more and more, becoming like an obnoxious weed to those who prefer a society that can be readily manipulated for personal gain at the expense of the greater good. The kingdom of God is like a van load of young people on a mission trip, a little dot on the interstate highway, which travels to a pocket of despair to work among a group of people that a privileged society is willing to ignore. The kingdom of God is like a church in an old neighborhood that refuses to fade away, that keeps showing up and pricking the conscience of a community, like a pesky plant in a municipality’s Monet-like vision of the perfect garden.

 Many of you laugh at my propensity for neatness. Perhaps you laugh because you are wired differently, and think it’s silly that I should be so easily frustrated. But some of you laugh because you share my flaw. If you do, then realize that you have plenty of company, because a desire for neatness is very Presbyterian: we call it doing things “decently and in order,” and some of us take extreme measures to make sure that this is so. In one of the congregations I served, a church member drove by the church facility one evening. There were three library windows facing the street, and the member noticed that the window blind in one window was slightly askew. This was a stately library, furnished to the exacting standards of the PEO sorority chapter that regularly met there. The state of the window blind terribly bothered the member. The next morning, the ministers received a phone call requesting that something be done to set the window blind straight. I can just imagine her looking at the phone all night, worrying about that blind, and waiting for the office to open. If you’re new to our congregation, you may recognize in this phone call some manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But if you’ve been around a while, you might just call it a mild case of being Presbyterian.

 According to our gospel text, the danger of contracting a case of being Presbyterian is this: one can become so intent on neatness, so opposed to messiness, that even God cannot intrude. “We’d like to be engaged in ministry to children and youth. But they make such a mess.” “We’d like to serve those who are impoverished or in need of a mentor. But they’re dirty, difficult to talk to, and they smell.” “We’d like to pledge something to the operating budget or the building fund to house this congregation’s ministries. But it would mean altering the tidy plan we’ve arranged for our investments.” Sometimes, neatness can be the enemy of holiness.

 My former preaching professor Tom Long shares a story from a time in the Church when things seemed neat and tidy. Long’s alma mater Erskine College, which is affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, reached the point when it had to decide whether to allow African-American students to enroll. The General Synod moderator stacked the deck of the study committee, appointing several well-known segregationists to the committee, which would be chaired by a conservative businessman, who happened to be Tom Long’s father. Each day, he would come home from work, and spend part of the evening with the Bible on one knee, and Matthew Henry’s commentary on the other, trying to learn God’s will, trying to let the seed of God’s word germinate in the garden of his soul. And when Erskine College’s study committee reached the conclusion of its work, everyone who heard the recommendation was surprised. Tom Long’s father stood tall for racial justice.[3] The neat and tidy world that had been created on the Erskine campus would give way to a world that was a bit messier, but at the same time was holier, too.

 That’s the way it is with the God of the Bible, who is always more than we are, and whose dreams and purposes are bigger than ours. May we never be so intent on neatness, so opposed to messiness, that God cannot come to us and bless us in new ways. For the kingdom of God “is like a mustard 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,” a disturbingly vexing but surprisingly wonderful work of grace.

[1] David Lose, “Mission Possible,” www.workingpreacher.org, 10 June 2012.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Living By The Word,” The Christian Century, 13 June 2012, p. 20.

[3] Personal notes, lecture by Thomas G. Long, Festival of Homiletics, Peachtree UMC, Atlanta, GA, 15 May 2012.



~ by JohnH1962 on June 17, 2012.

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