Third Sunday after Pentecost 14 June 2015
(Ezekiel 17:22-24 Psalm 92 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 Mark 4:26-34)
“Mustard Seed Hope!”
They call him the Cellist of Baghdad. His name is Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. Wasfi felt compelled to act when, several weeks ago, a busy shopping street in his neighborhood in Baghdad was destroyed by a bomb. He immediately grabbed his cello and a chair and went to the site. There he sat amongst the debris, playing his cello, a garbage truck at the curb, shop-owners clearing the sidewalk of glass, a person hosing down the area where 20 people had been killed only hours earlier.
“I want to offer hope to people who desperately need it by bringing beauty to the site of the destruction,” is what Wasfi said. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he also said, “I want to reach the balance between ugliness, insanity and grotesque acts of terror by offering beauty, creativity and refinement. Music and culture are needed as much as food, oxygen, and water.”
Wasfi says, “The only real way to retaliate is to do something beautiful, to play his cello as, “an act against cowardly violence.” In the one video I watched, you can see a man in a wheelchair coming close, then lighting a cigarette and beginning to wave the cigarette in the air as if conducting the music.
If you haven’t seen the video, I suggest you find it. It is as surreal and haunting as it is beautiful: this man playing his majestic instrument while surrounded by blackened debris.
As I heard about this story these past few weeks and as I watched several videos, I kept thinking that Karim Wasfi embodies what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination”1 — when prophets and poets and artists shake up people by imagining the unimaginable, saying the unsayable, and doing the undoable. They grieve and challenge the dominant system, while offering hope and an alternative vision of the world.
So let’s take this mustard seed parable we just heard in our Gospel text, and look at it in a prophetic, not-so-safe way.
Let’s begin by realizing what a peculiar seed it actually is! The thing about mustard seeds is that while some varieties were used as spice and others were used medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least pesky and often somewhat dangerous. Wild mustard is incredibly hard to control, and once it takes root it can take over a whole area. In the ancient world mustard would very seldom be found in a garden; more likely you would look for it overtaking the side of an open hill or in an abandoned field.
So pick your favorite garden-variety weed – crabgrass, dandelion, wild garlic – that’s pretty much what Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of God to. Looked at this way, Jesus’ parable becomes even more ominous.
Scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it this way: “The point is not just that mustard plants start as a small seed and grow into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher; the real point is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, and it tends to get out of control. And that, said Jesus, is what the Kingdom is like: not, like the mighty cedar of Lebanon, not even quite like the common weed, but more like a pungent, out-of-control shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you want in only small and carefully controlled doses—if you even could control it.”2
And I think that’s the point: this Kingdom Jesus proclaims is not something we can control. It has a mind of its own—more accurately, God’s mind—and so it will go where it goes. So we may as well begin to realize that we cannot control, tame, or muzzle the God’s Kingdom here on earth.
This parable challenges us to imagine something more than the status quo of scarcity and fear and limited justice and all the other things we are regularly offered by some of our politicians and community leaders and even by some church leaders. This parable challenges every one of us to hear this imaginative, unthinkable vision where Jesus is saying that God’s Kingdom, at this very moment, is infiltrating our world offering words and actions of hope
Joanna Seabrook Snudden, this is the church into which we just baptized you, a church who believes God’s Kingdom is stronger than any other Kingdom on this earth.
The purpose of hope is not just to cheer you up and make you feel happy. The purpose of hope is to move us to action! There’s a cellist sitting among the debris on a bombed out street in Baghdad. And there are 57 quilts draping these chairs and benches today, but only a fraction of the 1057 quilts that have draped these benches over the past 11 years! See in these beautiful works of generosity, the prophetic imagining that there is an alternative vision to the ugly, insane vision too often offered in our world!
I hear the words of Karim Wasfi yet again! He says, “I’m worried that people are losing hope, that they will surrender to the situation. I want people to hear a new message, that this is a new day – a day not for death, but for hope.”
So here’s a homework assignment for this coming week. I’m sending you out to look for places where God’s Kingdom is sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of your world. Look for hope–the dangerous and subversive hope–that is changing peoples’ lives in small or large ways, and think how we can help this to continue to happen.
And send them to me. You can call, text, email, send a message on facebook, or do it the old way, a note in the US mail. I’d love to hear mustard seed stories from your week, where hope has become, not just a nice word, but a daring action that can be changing a person’s life. Amen.
1. The Prophetic Imagination. Walter Brueggemann. First edition written in 1978, later revised and written as a second edition in 2001.
2. The Historical Jesus. John Dominic Crossan. pp. 278-279.
***My appreciation to Dr, David Lose for his scriptural exegesis in his weekly blog, Craft of Preaching, Dear Working Preacher. June 10, 2012.
Third Sunday after Pentecost 14 June 2015