When my father was drafted into the army, he was part way through a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He and some other draftees were put in a laboratory. But the military, in its Infinite wisdom, he would say rolling his eyes, didn’t have him handling chemicals. Instead, they were directed to Petri dishes of mold. “Here’s mold.” They said,” Make it grow. A lot.” My father liked to spin a story that the military was experimenting with some diabolical form of fungal warfare. It didn’t matter, however, because the military-issued mold wouldn’t grow. My father and his fellow draftees fed the mold sugar, in various quantities. And then protein. Then inoculated it with bacteria. They added other molds. But week after week, month after month, the mold just sat in its Petri dishes looking precisely the same, sad size it had before.
One day, at the end of the day, they tossed the Petri dishes into the trash can. Shut off the lights and closed the door.
The next day, they walked back into the lab, flipped on the lights, and the mold was growing up and over the sides of the trash can.
They were never able to replicate the trash can conditions and the mold never grew again.
My father would say, “That mold wouldn’t do what the army wanted it to, and the military couldn’t make it. That mold had a sense of humor. But the military didn’t.”
My father meant it to be an encouraging story – in a subversive kind of way. My father wanted me to know that small things have a force of their own and you can’t always control them. But neither can the powers of the world.
Sometimes Jesus tells stories to encourage us.
We are ready to hear some encouraging stories. The gray days of winter are wearing on many of us – whether we have a cold, a stomach virus or influenza A. We are aware of so many people with enormous burdens of grief, financial hardship, pain – or perhaps experiencing those ourselves. We come to church for comfort and inspiration, yet we look around and see fewer familiar faces. Things aren’t done the way they were before, and we wonder how they will get done. The world and our worries seem very large, and we feel very small.
So, we could use an encouraging story, and we wouldn’t mind some humor.
In Matthew 13, Jesus offers us a series of stories to encourage us. A series of stories filled with small good things, persistent small things that won’t be overwhelmed by big things, or evil things or time itself. And Jesus offers the stories with a healthy dose of humor.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus asks. “Take a mustard seed, a tiny, tiny mustard seed. Plant it.”
“Plant a mustard seed, Jesus? You know that thing is a weed. No one would actually PLANT a mustard seed. That’s an invasive species. It will take over if you don’t pull it out. The kudzu of Palestine.”
“Well,” Jesus says, “in the kingdom of God someone plants a mustard seed. It sprouts and grows into a shrub.”
“A shrub? A whole shrub?”
“Yes,” Jesus says, “a great shrub. You know maybe four or five feet high. And then it grows into a tree.”
“Ah, Jesus, you know that’s not true. A mustard seed cannot grow into a tree.”
“This is the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. “Here, a mustard seed is planted, grows into a shrub and then grows into a tree. A tree so large that birds come and perch in its branches.”
“Small birds, Jesus?”
“Yes. Small birds. Of course, they are small birds,” Jesus says. “Because this is a story about the kingdom of God.”
We may not get the joke in the twenty-first century. But by now, the first-century hearers who were following Jesus around would be smiling.
The mustard shrub of the kingdom of God is a deliberate parody of the great and mighty cedar tree. The prophet Ezekiel used the cedar as a symbol of foreign domination. The birds that made nests in those branches of the cedar were eagles, large birds of prey – symbols of the powers that preyed upon the small nation of Israel and the small people of God’s kingdom.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he talks about things that are small. Small Seeds. Tiny amounts of Yeast. Even when Jesus is telling a story that plays out on a larger scale, he talks about small things. When the sheep and the goats will be separated, the sheep are known by their small actions of goodness and caring – feeding, visiting, sheltering, clothing. And the goats are known by their lack of small actions.
So, Jesus tells these stories not only to encourage us but to challenge us.
We like big! We like big gestures and big budgets. We like big organizations. We like things that are powerful. We like political power and star power. We like to be on the side of the powerful kingdoms of this world, even if they do prey on the small things of the world, conveniently forgetting that we ourselves are small.
Even in church, we like things big and powerful. We like big sanctuaries, big attendance. We want big projects, big mission efforts and maybe some preaching power. We may have let the world convince us that if anything is being done for God or by God, it will be something big.
William Willimon, Methodist bishop, friend and critic of the church at large wrote: “The church is endangered when we are tempted to derive our status from those forms of power and significance valued by the world. … The parable suggests that faithfulness is first a gift of God rather than the result of the church trying to be this or that…. the North American church might come to see its present situation of smallness as a providential gift enabling it to recover the church’s minority status as intrinsic to its mission. History teaches us that, the world being what it is, whenever the church is faithful, the world has always characterized it as small and therefore insignificant.”
Willimon wrote that in 1991 and it is even truer today.
Some qualities of the Church are dependent on close interpersonal relationships. We are called to speak the truth to one another in love, to discern and decide together using all parts of the body, to resolve conflict person to person, to forgive one another and reconcile. Rejoice with one another. Bear one another’s sorrow. Care for those in particular need, sharing what we have. These qualities grow with abandon in smaller congregations.
There is undoubtedly a place for large organizations which can mobilize a lot of money and a lot of expertise to address large and immediate problems. That’s why we contribute to World Vision for clean water or Church World Service for disaster relief.
But smaller organizations come to the aid of people who are preyed upon by addictions and mental illness and family dysfunction. Those are concerns that need real people offering a strong sheltering place day after day. Smaller organizations provide resources and relationships as people make their way out from under the towering powers of the kingdom, poverty, prejudice, or imprisonment. It is within smaller communities, in repeated conversations, teaching, and witness that people can hear the invitation of Jesus to be free from the values of the world and become allies for the small beings of the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is small and persistent.
Jesus invites us to participate in its subversive work. He smiles to see our small, persistent, invasive efforts. When we refuse to laugh at the crude joke and privately say why. When we send the cards and make the calls that cheer up the fainthearted and weary. When we say a prayer inside our head instead of cussing out the one who cursed us out. When we stay faithful to a cause – writing letters, making phone calls, showing up at meetings – even when the majority votes us down. When we refuse to buy what is big and invest in those who are small.
I hope you know that Jesus delights in your small acts of faithfulness and that God will persist in working through small communities, through small congregations, through small daily efforts.
Like kudzu growing across the landscape, like mold wildly escaping, like a seed planted among weeds, like a mustard seed growing to a mighty shrub a tree, the kingdom grows.
The powers of the world don’t know what they are up against.