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The Wonder of Ordinary Things

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jul 16

Text: Matthew 24-36

So I had an interesting experience in preparing for this sermon. It started much like they always do, not with writing but with reading. After taking some time in quiet meditation on the passage itself, I turn to my usual old-school modes of research: scouring my home library, pulling out a stack of reference books, historical commentaries, theology, poetry. There is no end to the amount of ink that has been spilt through the centuries to explain or explain away virtually every word in the Good Book. So I read, and I read some more, until I can hone in on some interpretative angle and focus that feels especially fresh, real, relevant, and maybe even catchy. The goal, of course, is to find something that has the ring of truth, something that sounds even a faint resonance of what God would have us hear. It’s an awesome task, frankly, and sometimes downright terrifying! Usually though, the companionship of the Spirit and of countless others who have gone before lends courage and imagination. Usually, I’m led to some fun facts, trenchant translations or uncanny tie-ins to current events. This time though, for whatever reason, nothing was jumping out. Nothing was sticking. I was hungry for a breakthrough image but I kept circling back to the seeming mundanity of the words and images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” If we were hearing this for the first time, we might think, “Mustard? Really? Of all the things? What is that supposed to mean?”

Commentators through the ages have literally had field days with this one, researching the scientific particulars of ancient agricultural practices, comparing sizes of various first century Palestinian flora. We get it. It starts small and grows into something of great significance! But the fact is, mustard seeds weren’t and aren’t actually the smallest of seeds and most don’t grow into trees, they grow into bushes.

Meanwhile, there’s a host of anti-Jewish interpretations that would see the mustard seed as a Jesus-approved transgression against Jewish law. This line of thinking evokes esoteric Old Testament passages about not mixing seeds in a given seed bed, all-the-while adding to a sadly well-established pattern of interpreting parables as Jesus’ way of relegating Jewish law to the trash pile. Far from it, and no thanks. Besides, as the scholar Amy Jill Levine wryly notes, the mustard seed just can’t be a symbol of impurity. “...It’s entirely kosher,” she writes, “as anyone who has had a decent kosher hot dog with the requisite mustard can attest!” (1)

At the same time, liberal commentators love to point out that mustard seeds often lead to weeds that can dangerously take hold of the garden, insinuating themselves and causing major disruption of the status quo! Long live the anti-imperial mustard seed revolution! This interpretation can even be stretched to include the birds who take shelter in the branches. To quote the ever-entertaining Levine once again, “the birds, who could have been cast by Alfred Hitchcock, serve as warnings to ‘the upper class who live off the toil of the poor cultivator,’ ‘their ventures pose a challenge to oppressive systems of power just as mustard run wild can overtake cultivated fields.’ The mustard takes over and the birds move in, and so the upper classes have no place to lay their heads.” (2) This radical interpretation almost had me enough to take it for a ride, go figure! I’m sure I’ve preached a version of it in the past. But not this time.

And it was at this point in my prep that I recalled the quote attributed to Freud: ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!’ What if sometimes a mustard seed is just a mustard seed? What if this parable is intended not as a metaphor for church growth, or for kosher purity laws, or for a kudzu-style imperial take-down, but is instead intended to invite us to marvel at the inherent values of simple things like seeds and the weeds? To ponder the reality and potential of what is, just as it appears! Wouldn’t that be kind of extraordinary? Parables are intended to disrupt our expectation. Maybe this is the parable of all parables especially if it disrupts our expectations of what parables usually are, namely stories that point to something more! Maybe this parable is intended to point to what is, and what is hiding in our plain sight, no further elaboration or explanation required! Maybe the mustard seed is just a mustard seed, and a bird finding shadow in a tree is just a bird! After all, if we let ourselves think about it, these are wondrous and marvelous things, full of promise and potential, are they not? The same could be said of yeast, or for that matters, of seed sowers and bakers, to which Jesus also refers. The kingdom of God is like ordinary, everyday things! Imagine that!

I came across an article recently entitled “So much of the privileged life is about transcendence.” (3) In it, the theologian Christena Cleveland observes how privileged folks often look for God and spiritual experiences in extraordinary moments - in spaces of nature’s beauty, in a moment of artistic or culinary splendor or in extreme, endorphin charged physical exertion. I mean just look around! Or give a listen to one of Peter’s brilliant voluntaries and we know she is onto something. And she’s right! Just yesterday, I’m pretty sure I found God when Nellie and Nancy surprised me by bringing home lunch from that Saturday-only BBQ stand that runs outside of Formaggio Kitchen. I’ve passed by that hoard of hungry, Huron Ave hipsters lining up around the corner for years but never until yesterday had I tasted that transcendence! Oh my God, it was good!

Even in terms of more traditional spiritual practices, she writes of this tendency towards transcendence. She tells a story of attending a silent meditation retreat in which she was the only person of color. Participants spent all day alternating between walking and sitting meditations. What’s more, they concluded the week-long daily meditation practice by watching hundreds of chimney swallows “gracefully circle the sky and eventually acrobatically swoop into the retreat center’s brick chimney for rest.” The meditation teachers invited them to allow the “liturgy of the chimney swallows to wash over us.” She goes on to say that “the act of watching this stunning natural theater was coined the ‘swallow meditation,’ thus designating it a distinctly spiritual activity on par with the walking and sitting meditation that [they] had done all day.” She admits that she loved the swallow meditation, found it profoundly “edifying” even. And yet, she couldn’t help but wonder “whether a focused, curious meditation on the devastating effects of environmental racism in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods would have also been designated a spiritual activity.” She noted that she’d never been to a meditation retreat that included a “contaminated water meditation.” “Turning our attention toward systemic pain,” she continued, “is not something we typically associate with spiritual nourishment and liberation, but what if it is? What if we can’t truly experience the hope of the Divine until we are able to experience the Divine in the most hopeless situations?” Or, I would add, the most mundane. What if we can’t truly experience the most extraordinary and transcendent aspects of God until we are able to experience God in the most ordinary of encounters with nature say, or with people.

Cue Jesus and the mustard seeds! Cue the unleavened bread! Cue all of those profoundly ordinary things in life that Jesus used to point the way to the Kingdom of God! What if the Kingdom of God is actually like ordinary, everyday things! And what if the kingdom is populated by ordinary, everyday people! Wouldn’t that be extraordinary? After all, in the words of Sly and Family Stone, “I am everyday people!” And you are too! Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said the Kingdom of God is near! As near as all the ordinary things that are all around us, everyday.

For those who can afford to be, we can readily become experience junkies. Especially at this time of year, we can’t wait for a change from the ordinary - we drive, T or jet off to all kinds of extraordinary places! There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, having our souls and senses set on fire on a mountaintop, or at a favorite lake or beach, or at Tanglewood or sailing at night under the stars! No one, not least Jesus, would argue upon hearing: “ah…this! This is what I live for! This is what it’s about! This is my spiritual happy place!”

But I wonder if a confusion may set in when we begin to connect our spiritual lives exclusively to those transcendent or ecstatic moments. For where does that leave the ordinary? And where does that leave those that can’t afford such finer things, like Grey Poupon? Remember those commercials? Two Rolls Royces pull up next to each other, the back windows roll down, the one person says to the other: “Would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?” I love me a good dijon moutarde, but where does that leave the everyday bright yellow stuff or, for that matter, those who take the bus?

I’m thinking more and more that this parable is about learning to cherish the everyday, and remembering the great potential in small and seemingly insignificant moments of life! I’m reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s dishwashing meditation. And this wisdom of Rabbi Heschel
who said:

“It takes three things
to attain a sense of significant being:
A Soul,
and a Moment.
And the three
are always here.”

God. A soul. A moment! God is always there, and so are we!

Our fascination with the extraordinary has clearly been carrying over into our wider politics and culture. Don’t get me wrong – these are extraordinary times that no doubt call for extraordinary measures, and yet! And yet, we might do well to first remember the mustard seed, to ground ourselves in the fields, as in the one across the street at the Cambridge Common, or in the grass of our own backyards, to look not only for those rare birds in flight, but note as well the common birds seeking shade, to notice not only the mighty cedar or redwoods but also that measly old black locust tree which some take for an overgrown weed.

As Barbara Brown Taylor has said: “While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards? At least one of the day’s lessons is about learning to let go of my bright ideas about God so that my eyes are open to the God who is.” The same can be said for preaching and scripture interpretation. Maybe the same can be said for our media consumption, and even our political reality. For what treasures have we walked by or even flown over on our bi-coastal escapades to find that next-level experience?

And here’s the thing too: when we can find that moment of significant being in even the yellow mustard, when we can realize even in a seemingly mundane moment that God and soul are always right there, too, we may also learn that some things, like seed and yeast, are better left alone. As Levine has noted: “keep fiddling with dough and it will not rise, keep exposing seed to air and it will not germinate, not everything or everyone needs our constant attention. It’s not all about us! We are part of a larger process!” Sometimes we need to get our “experience-junkie” selves out of the way, remembering that our analysis and interpretations and our critical angle of observation are often less important than the astonishing facts of creation: that something as small as a seed can actually grow into a tree, that yeast can make bread rise, and all of this, right in our own proverbial backyards, right in our own kitchens! The kingdom of God is like that! All it takes is God, a soul and a moment and all three are always there!

So why not go home today and, for a change, try to curb your enthusiasm for transcendence. Spend a few moments instead in lowly but holy wonder. Find a seed, any old seed and hold it your hand. Notice the seed. Make some bread. Notice the yeast. Look at your hands, notice your hands, and ponder the amazing, astounding potential in such ordinary, everyday things. Don’t worry about when the kingdom will come! Remember it’s already here whenever a seed sprouts or dough rises! Notice that a revolution of awareness – of the significance of everyday things and everyday people – is already here and is already within you! Thanks be to God for small wonders, for daily workers, for being near and for being here, with us, in this and every moment! Amen.

1)Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne, 2015.
2) Ibid.
3) https://onbeing.org/blog/christena-cleveland-so-much-of-the-privileged-l...

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