Holy One, for all that has been, thank you, for all that will be, yes!

Oh my goodness, we have a few places we might choose to explore this morning, an uncle and his nephew negotiating over the nephew marrying his two cousins. Sounds like a bad “reality” TV show.  Then we have Paul’s reading that many of us know from funerals about nothing separating us from the love of God. Too funeral like on a summer day. Then, I wrote pretty much a whole sermon trying to link the life and death of Sinead O’Connor to this morning’s Gospel. I honour her art and activism, but the sermon was just not working. And then, I found the thinking of a Lutheran pastor, Paul J. Nuechterlein. I was thrilled, because he gave me the clue that unlocked my brain; the parable of the Mustard Seed as a joke

So to begin, A priest and a rabbi were having lunch and the priest asked, "Have you ever strayed from not eating pork?" The rabbi said, "Well, once, but there was absolutely nothing else to eat, so I had a ham sandwich." Then the rabbi asked the priest, "Did you ever stray from your vow of celibacy?" The priest said, "Yes, just once." And the rabbi said, "Sure beats a ham sandwich, doesn't it?"

Now, if I told that joke in some places, it might not go over as well. Some people might not get it, others might be offended. Maybe I didn’t tell it very well? We have some standard comebacks to cover ourselves when a story or joke falls flat; “I guess you just had to be there,”  “it loses something in translation,” “maybe if I explain it.”

But the fact is, storytelling of any sort is a peculiar art form. The variety of people listening, the inflections in your voice, the mood of the day, they all combine to create a one-time-only atmosphere for the words you speak. And so when there’s two thousand years between the telling: a distant time, an unfamiliar place, a completely different culture of folks listening, no wonder we don’t get the joke.  And so here in the 21st century we may run past a story like the Kingdom of Heaven is like mustard because its so short, and we don’t get it.

Now, before we go any farther, I want to make clear that this is not a case of the original listeners not being sophisticated and so jokes would lighten the mood. Rather, they were orally very ‘literate’, if I may play with that word. They knew the Bible, they played with multiple meanings of words, and in fact the research is becoming clearer, (I commend the work of Sarah Ruden to you all) summed up nicely by John Dominic Crossan some years ago, it “...is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”  And so it is with the mustard joke, it’s much more sophisticated than the rabbi and priest joke.

Let’s look at this joke. The audience to whom Jesus is speaking would have immediately seen the connection to the prophet Ezekiel comparing a great Cedar Tree (Ezekiel 31) to the King of Egypt, that grows strong and mighty. Does this sound familiar;

“All the birds of the sky
    made their nests in the tree’s limbs.” (Ez 31:6).

Its almost exactly the same the line in Matthew as Jesus talks about how big the mustard seed will grow; 

“...it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matt 13:32)

And the audience would have known that in the Ezekiel story, a foreign power comes and cuts down the cedar tree and it will then lies among the unclean. (Ez 31:18) Not a happy story for the King of Egypt. 

Jesus is using the same image, with which his audience would have been familiar. Yet he has changed Ezekiel’s mighty cedar tree to a scruffy mustard bush. And that would have got them thinking, if not chuckling; ‘well played Jesus’.

And there’s more! You see, Jesus’ audience were farmers. Most of us are not, so again, we may not get this part of the joke. You see mustard is a weed. We might say, ‘the kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn….’ Farmers generally spend a lot of effort trying to keep mustard off their soil, not sowing it on! 

And so, the original audience are chuckling, and now wondering, how does this weedy shrub that won’t stop growing connect to the Kingdom of Heaven, especially given the end of the story for the cedar tree in Ezekiel?

Well, in general, parables can be frustrating and confusing. But they are meant to be that; they are meant to get us thinking. If Jesus were human again now, surely we’d want him to have a PowerPoint presentation for us at 40 Minute Forums. We’d want titles like,  “How to Be a Good Disciple,” “A Brief Definition of the Kingdom of God” or “Seven Key Features of the Coming Kingdom and What This Means to You.” But nooooo, instead we have these cryptic, incomplete, awkward, and at times seemingly absurd, joking collection of sayings known as Jesus’ parables.

Why story and parable as a teaching tool? Because a list of rules never changes, never adapts. It takes the fluid format of a story, a tale that can never quite be told the same way twice, to keep breathing new life into the Good News. If you still think Jesus would have gotten his points across better with hard and fast rules, try remembering the last time you sat down and really enjoyed reading the Motor Vehicle Act of British Columbia. I’ve included a link in the end notes if you want to peruse it? To drive the point further, my colleague and friend Nick Nissley at Michigan State says that we should change our species name from homo sapiens, the wise creature, to homo narrens the story creature. And I think he’s on to something.

We are greatly mistaken if we think our tradition stems from only four canonical gospels. The church has almost 2,000 years’ worth of other “gospel” stories to celebrate; “The Gospel of Origen,” “The Gospel of Martin Luther,” “The Gospel of Julian of Norwich”,  “The Gospel of Gandhi” and “The Gospel of Mother Theresa”. Perhaps even the “Gospel of Sinead O’Connor.”

Other gospels may not be quite so well-known, but they work just as persuasively in our lives. What about the personal parable stories making up “The Gospel According to Mum,” or “The Gospel According to Auntie Doreen,” or  even “The Gospel According to insert movie title here,” These gospel have affected our lives dramatically.

Now there is a requirement here that we do, in fact ‘think’. We do have to do more than take these parables at face value; they expect us to wrestle with them, with ourselves and each other using what Ellen Clark King calls, “choral theology”. That is we share our stories and understandings with each other.

If exploring the meaning of a parable is simply a whole bunch of older white dudes like me telling you this is what God’s Kingdom is, and is not, we’ve got a serious problem. The world would be a lot better off without that kind of theology.

When we look at these parables through our own thinking, and explore them together, thinking for ourselves, listening to each other, learning along side each other, now we’re on to something. Interestingly, one of the models that I teach leaders in the corporate world is that if I as a leader tell you what to do and think, the most I can hope for is your compliance. If I ask you what you think, what you believe is the thing to do, now we’re moving towards commitment. Largely because to our brains, ideas are like children, we like our own best. I believe Jesus was more about commitment than about compliance.

I invite you to think for yourself, to talk with each other about what it might mean to connect The Kingdom of Heaven with a doomed Cedar Tree and a Mustard Weed?

And to close the open loop, I’ll offer a perspective, not to say this is the only way to understand it, rather, one way, that speaks to me, from my experience. One of the things about the Cathedral’s story over the past number of years, is a story of reconciliation. Reconciliation of women into ordained priestly ministry 47 years ago, here. Reconciliation of out lesbian and gay people into ordained ministry and marriage, here. Working on the reconciliation of trans folks into full inclusion in the church, here. And reconciliation between settlers and indigenous people, at least a start on that vital work, here. All of these, on-going journeys. And this work of reconciliation continues; it spreads. You can stop part of it by tramping down on such ideas, by burning books, or refusing to bake cakes for weddings of same sex couples. But the weed of reconciliation continues to spread. Its different from a cedar tree. You cut one down, sure there are others, but that one, that particular cedar tree never really grows again. Mustard, dandelions, they grow like, well, like weeds. God’s reconciling love grows like, well like weeds. And that may be one way of thinking about the Kingdom of Heaven.

And all that said, I’m much more interested in the Gospel of Jane/Marjorie, or the Gospel of Peter/Holly, or the Gospel of Liz/Jay, the Gospel of all of us. Amen.