a story of weeds and identity

Next to food and drink, our most basic human need is story–Henry Brinton

If we are a story-oriented people, what is the story of our identity, how do we speak about who we are, what we are, what we are doing, and who we are becoming? A story of weeds and identity, a story of seeds and a sower…a story of a kingdom.

Mark 4:26-34

“Next to food and drink, our most basic human need is story.” Henry Brinton

What would you have said is our most basic human need? Sleep, sunlight (well, no, it’s Washington), relationship…story may seem out of place next to food and drink.

But think, for a moment what must be present with or surrounding a story.  You hear a story from someone else—they must be with you, or at least on the phone, or through Skype on the computer, you hear their voice—how it moves up and down describing a person or a scene.  You hear their breath move faster as they reach a climactic scene or touch on a scary subject they want to hurry over.  Their eyes drop, their voice quivers, at the sound of bad news, of heartbreak, of pain.

I think of kitchen tables, chairs pushed back, plates empty, and hours passed by with stories of childhood memories, shared experiences, and that famous and most loved phrase—remember when…

Or of campfires, marshmallows, smoky sweatshirts and hair pulled back.  Hot, heavy air covering the group, a guitar, crickets, grasshoppers, lightning bugs…

We read books with compelling stories, or that help us understand our own stories.  We turn off the TV because the show had a terrible plot, or we put everything else aside because we want to see what happens next.  The movie industry has spent millions of dollars on graphic effects, explosions, stunts, and even adding dimensions to make the story come alive for us.

We are a story-people.

And for me, this is simply admitting what I already have known for a while.  How often have I told ridiculous stories about my childhood in Iowa?  I was just visiting friends and family in Iowa for almost 2 weeks. I was talking with my Mom, telling her what people here in Washington think about Iowa—and how I use stories about Iowa in my sermons—which she already knew…and told me not to do. Oops.

With that being said, I believe stories have power; I believe words are some of our sharpest and deadliest weapons, and also the remedy for the wounds and pains we carry with us.

Stories have the ability and the luxury to bring to our attention things we would never normally consider.  A story can be something we enter into by choice—for stories should be forced on us.  They allow us to move beyond our normal routine, our lot in life, and whatever constrictions we feel we are currently facing.

They have a way of leveling the playing field, of bringing people from many different places in life to the same room, listening to the same story, talking about the same issue.

So, is it any wonder that a teacher uses stories to explain a complex situation to her students? Why then, are we surprised that Jesus, who was also a teacher, uses stories to discuss the kingdom of God?

“The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seeds on the ground.”

I’m going to stop here because so often, this first sentence is where we trip ourselves up.  Growing up in Iowa, the farming image is not lost on me—a man goes out into a field and plants seeds. I get it.  Often, this story has been used to compare us to the farmer.  It is our job to go out, tend the soil, dig in the dirt and get it ready—then we go out and plant seeds.

But this view of the parable is highly insulting to the God who made all things, who created humans out of spit and dust, who called the moon and sun into existence… and we think we’re the ones who are going to plant things? Joke’s on us.

God, the creator, the maker, is mother earth in this parable—God is the farmer who plants seeds.  And this isn’t the, meticulous spacing and planting we think of with those giant combines and tractors…this is seed scattering.  While there is a method, it looks like madness, there not specific rows and spaces for each plant, with seed scattering, the seeds grow together to grow stronger, and when they are meshed tightly together, they can hold water longer.  No, no, it is not us; God is the farmer who scatters seeds on the ground.

Then what, of the seeds?  Jesus sets the stage to say the kingdom of God is the very thing that is scattered, that is planted in the ground.  The kingdom is present right from the very beginning.  God isn’t waiting for us to grow the kingdom, to take over the field or the garden.  God isn’t waiting for us to figure out how to live the perfect way of life or shape and teach the perfect child, or write the perfect prayer, or sing the best song.  In fact, God isn’t waiting for anything to make the kingdom happen.  It’s already happening.

It’s already here.

Where?  The farmer in the story scatters seeds on the ground.  The same ground that God called forth vegetables and fruit trees, the same ground that God smushed together and made humans—this is the same ground in which the kingdom is planted.  And what’s more—if it is planted in this ground, it will grow in this ground.

We have so often interpreted the parables of Jesus to be about “Heaven.”  And when we think of heaven, dirt is not in the picture.  We prefer to think of golden streets and jeweled houses—or mansions.  In that story, everything in heaven has a special place, a special purpose, and comes about at a special time.  We might equate this to planting a garden in a raised bed, or a garden that we divide into pots verses planting a garden in the hard, soil, full of rocks and clay.  But the seeds in Jesus’ story are seeds scattered on the ground—just as it is.

But, before we get too lost in that part of the story, let’s come back.  Jesus is in the middle of telling three stories about seeds and the great Sower, which we’ve already identified as God.

Jesus goes on to draw his hearer’s attention again to tiny seeds; a mustard seed.  I have a mustard plant with me here, in this pot.  I also brought with me the condiment—mustard.  When we hear mustard, this is what we think of; either mustard greens that we eat to be healthy or yellow mustard that we put on hot dogs…or turkey sandwiches.

What we don’t think of, unfortunately, makes us miss the big point of this story.  The mustard Jesus is talking about is a common weed, like a dandelion.  The way we have Round-Up commercials picturing dandelion plants characterized as outlaws that come up between the cracks in our driveway—the people of Jesus’ time would have had commercials trying to rid the landscape of mustard bushes.

In this story, Jesus calls the kingdom of God—a weed.  A common, ordinary, annoying, resilient, impervious…weed.

Jesus was being feisty.  He was telling the Torah people, the Jewish leaders—the Religious know-it-alls, and the common person who would listen, he’s telling them all… the way God works in this world is like the way the dandelion pierces through the cracks in the cement.

The Jewish listeners would not have approved.  Their entire identity as Jews stood on the fact that they are set apart.  Their story would have gone something like…

The kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted a garden…  The farmer carefully selected heirloom tomatoes from an organic seed catalog.  God has planted them in composted soil, with grow lights and heated mats.  After they spouted up, God carefully transplanted them into the garden—where they were fenced off from the rabbits and chickens that would tear them down…

The Jews were not necessarily big fans of letting just anyone into their temple, just letting any ordinary person worship with them… but Jesus comes in and says—nope, you’re not carefully selected tomato plants… in fact; we’re all just a bunch of ordinary weeds.

And the clincher is—we think we’ve got it figured out, we think we understand it all.  And, we think—how silly of you to miss what Jesus is talking about, no wonder he needed to use parables—no one could understand his stories otherwise! And in doing so—we ignore the way every day in which we day dream about living in a raised vegetable garden, or a beautiful clay pot—rather than the rocky soil filled with clay where we currently reside.

Raised bed gardens are said to produce much hardier plants, increasing the amount your vegetables produce—not to mention, because of the raised height, are easier on your back.  Each year, after you finish gathering your last crop from the raised bed, the soil replenishes itself because of the stems and leaves that are composted by the plants from the bed.  Over time, the bed contains rich, luscious soil—ripe for planting.

Likewise, pots are neat and tidy, and come in beautiful colors and patterns.  You can arrange them by size, shape, and create elegant landscape designs with them.  Each year you can change out what is planted in the pots, or bring them inside to keep plants growing year-round.

But the way of God is like a dandelion.  The seeds are small, easily blown around by the wind or carried off by a bird.  But its roots grow down deep and grow out wide.  It’s not pretty, but sometimes, children find joy in blowing the seeds into the wind and making wishes.  Sometimes, a skilled winemaker can turn this weed into wine.

We are a story-people.  How badly do we wish our story was one of heirloom tomato plants, with only organic methods, and natural fertilizer…and soft, gentle hands caring for us…

But we are not planted in pots or raised beds.  Our story says the way of God is planted in this ground.  We are planted in this earth—just as it is; some of it rocky, some of it full of clay, some of it black and rich and crawling with worms.

We are weeds, defiant, unwavering weeds.  The way of God grows up through the cracks of the cement:

When our rigid and well-thought out plans do not go the way we think they should, the weeds of God’s grace breaks through the sidewalk to reveal a new way of life.  When our society confines us to a job that simply gives us enough money to buy enough stuff to put in our big enough house—the weeds of God breaks through the foundation of that house to let in the beauty of simplicity and a life of enough.  When people around us instruct us to live as heirloom tomatoes in beautifully decorated pots, the weeds of God’s love challenge us to see beauty in unexpected places.

The way of God is untamed, it is wild.  It was planted long ago—at the beginning of all things—and it has been growing like dandelions in our back yard ever since.  It is not our job to tend it and care for it; it grows on its own.  Our job is not to contain it or spread it.  The seeds go with the wind, and with each breath of a child.

Are we to, willing to break through the cracks of society, of injustice and let a new way of life be shown?  Are we ready to interrupt the story that we have always been told, because a new story has been written?

Are we then, willing to see ourselves as weeds in the garden of this life?

Untamed, unyielding, and wild weeds—we are a story-people.  And the story of God is messy and unconventional.  We do not always understand how or why it grows where it does, but it grows in such a way that those who are tired and worn out can find rest.  It grows in such a way that those who are hungry may be fed.  It grows in a way that sets free those who were held captive.

Maybe it does make sense, the most basic human need—next to food and drink—is story.


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