Tag Archives: fair trade

Mustard Seed Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34
Preached June 17 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. Farmer’s markets are filled with berries, tomatoes, and peppers fresh from the garden. When I worked as a journalist in southwest Missouri, local farmers would routinely bring their extra zucchini and tomatoes to the newspaper office. There would be boxes of produce every week, and I found myself learning new recipes for zucchini casseroles and zucchini bread. I appreciated the hard work of the local farmers, tending to the plants, watering and fertilizing and plucking pests from the leaves. I regularly heard discussions on what to do to prevent moles and rabbits from infiltrating the garden, or the best way to get rid plants of slugs that seemed to come from miles to snack on the young plants. Reaping produce from a garden is hard work. It requires dedication.

Our parables today are not pleasant tales for gardeners. The first of these garden tales talks about someone scattering seed, then going about his regular business. He seems surprised when the seed grows into a plant — and he should! He had very little to do with it. The text tells us that the earth produces of itself. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Northern Illinois, compares these surprise plants to what she describes as volunteer tomatoes in her father’s garden. These volunteer tomatoes are those fruits that he did not plant, but that grow miraculously in strange places from seeds left behind from the previous year’s harvest. They are the plants that come up from the edges of the compost pile or smack dab in the middle of the yard, beautiful in their rebellion. All the while you are pleading with this year’s perfectly cared for tomato plants to produce something, anything edible.

The Kingdom of God is like volunteer tomatoes.

The second of these stories is about mustard. Jesus references the tiny seeds. I brought some today. I was amazed at just how many seeds one packet contained. The estimations I have found suggest that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 seeds in this ziplock bag. I find that incredible. But here’s the thing, Jewish law prohibited the growing of mustard in a garden. Now, scholars debate on what the definition of a garden was in that time. There is a suggestion that it was a plot 6 handwidths long by 6 handwidths wide.

The understanding, however, is that the mustard varieties that grew in the first century were mostly wild. They would take over a garden. Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 in the Common Era, wrote about mustard in his “Natural History.” He said “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

As soon as the sower scatters the mustard seed, the sower looses control. The mustard grows as a weed, taking over the place where it was planted.

When it is full-grown, it becomes a large shrub, 8-10 feet tall. The contrast between tiny seed and large shrub is pretty incredible. But in the Psalms, we are told that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Now these are mighty images—Lebanon is known for its cedar trees. They can grow to be over 8 ft in diameter and 130 feet tall.

But Jesus chooses a plant that starts from very small beginnings, grows into a large shrub, and must be replanted every year. A plant that has powerful healing properties, but that no one wanted in their garden in the first century. A plant that grew whether you wanted it to or not.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Mustard and Mysterious plants. It is no wonder that Jesus had to explain everything in private to his disciples. Parables are riddles. It seems the moment you think you have the correct answer, something new crops up in the story that suggests yet another meaning.

It must have been scary to have been a part of the first century church. The Gospel of Mark – like all of the Gospels – was written after Jesus ascended into Heaven, after the church was established. These new Followers of the Way, as early Christians were called, were struggling with who they were. Some were Jews who believed that Jesus had ushered in a new age – the Kingdom of God. Others were Gentiles who came to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth had a message worth participating in. These groups were struggling to figure out how to navigate their differences and find a way to be united. They faced persecution from the Roman government, and perhaps persecution from religious leaders who felt these new Jesus People were messing with the established order. They were different. And who wants different?

Last week Samuel preached the first sermon from our 12 Verses Project on Romans 12:12 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Not conforming got those first century Christ followers in trouble. Followers of the Way were being killed. And they watched as the powers in control of the government worked to protect their own interests instead of working for justice for oppressed people. Their own efforts seemed so small, so useless. I imagine they were often discouraged, thinking that all hope was lost.

I imagine we find ourselves there, too. While those of us in America are able to worship freely, we watch as the world around us doesn’t seem to reflect the vision of the Kingdom. Divisions seem to grow—whether the divide is between people of different political parties or the divide between the rich and the poor or the divide between neighbors who never take the time to know each other, or the divide between the United States and the nations we engage in war. Both within and beyond our borders, we hear stories of those living in slavery, we hear of conflicts that rage, we hear of people who are exterminated for their ethnicity. And in the midst of all the fear and hate, it can be easy to think that our efforts are too small.

What does it mean to make sure my coffee is fairly traded, if everyone else in the neighborhood continues to buy the unfairly traded varieties? What does it matter if I recycle when no one else seems to? What does it mean to champion nonviolence when the nation we live in spends trillions of dollars on a military? What does it matter if we love our enemies, when our enemy doesn’t welcome or acknowledge our love? Our efforts seem small.

And they are. But I think that is the point. The Kingdom is like a person who goes out and plants some seeds. They are small seeds—perhaps even old seeds—but the sower scatters them around. And that is all the sower can do. For days, the sower goes to bed and is awakened without any evidence that anything is happening with those seeds. Perhaps the sower even gives up, believing that nothing can come of the sowing efforts. But all of a sudden, the seeds begin to germinate and grow—without any intervention from the sower. And those seeds become plants that grow into 8-foot shrubs. The leaves of those shrubs are pungent, but they have healing properties. And because the plants have overtaken the field, there are enough leaves to share with neighbors, who desperately need the healing.

Mother Teresa, who is widely known for her work with the sick, poor, orphaned and dying in Calcutta, once said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Church, we are small in number, and we are small in works—but we serve a God of great love. Jesus encouraged the first century church, and he encourages us now: our efforts to love the world around us are not in vain. God is at work, germinating and growing the Kingdom in ways that we can’t imagine.

Shane Claiborne, who is part of an intentional Christian community known as The Simple Way, writes in his book “The Irresistible Revolution” that perhaps The Kingdom of God is like a mustard plant instead of a giant tree because it keeps us closer to the ground, closer to real people who have real needs.

What needs exist around you? What is going on in your neighbor’s life that needs your love and care? We might not be able to do great things, but the world desperately needs the small things that you are able to offer. This is what the Kingdom of God is like: volunteer plants, tiny mustard seeds, and small acts done with great love.

(photo credit)

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Finding the peace in Advent

It is Advent — the time of year I love more than any other. I love the lights (both in stringed form and in the individual candle form), I love the greenery, I love the emphasis on peace and hope and mystery and goodness, I love the music. I. Love. Advent.

I tracked down an Advent guide for weeks (thanks, Lia!). I was thrilled — THRILLED — when someone announced that instead of Sunday School, we’d be making Advent wreaths at church.

But I’m disappointed every year that outside of my home and church, there is very little Advent. There is plenty of waiting — but it is waiting filled with worry, not hope. There is the rush to get the perfect gift, to attend the right number of extra events (all of which seem to require gifts). There is shoving and pepper spraying and a lack of the things that I adore about Advent.

The church where I work is participating in the Advent Conspiracy this year. I’ve seen this video hundreds of times (it has been around for several years — I’m pretty sure hundreds is not exaggerating), but continue to flock to it every year.

Every year when I watch it, I try to come up with ways to make the season better. Here’s what I do — I’d love your ideas:

1. Give to water.org. This year I think I’m going to give a certain small amount (50 cents to a dollar) for every Christmas gift I purchase. Want to join me? I’ve started a fundraiser here. If we reach my fundraising goal, TWENTY people will have clean water for life.

2. Give less. Allyn and I have decided not to buy things for each other this year. Instead, we are giving to our favorite organizations (see #1 for what mine is!) and spending time with one another. there are lots of alternative giving catalogs. World Vision and Heifer International are known for theirs.

3. Make gifts. It seems every year someone mentions the Christmas that my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents decided to make gifts for one another. Usually the mentioning is done in the form of a complaint — but they all remember it, what they made (or paid someone else to make…) and what they received. I don’t hear any other Christmas mentioned in the same way. Feeling uncreative? This site has lots of fun ideas. Or peruse pinterest — there is all KINDS of stuff there.

4. Buy other people’s handmade gifts. I am lucky to live in an artist community, so I know lots of folks I can buy things from. If you don’t, check etsy.

5. Buy fair trade. Fair trade means that the farmers/crafters/etc were paid a fair price for the item. Often the cost is not much higher than non-fair trade, because the sellers work directly with the producers. Ten Thousand Villages is a wonderful site — they have stores all over (for those in St. Louis, Plowsharing Crafts is such a store — and is a ministry of the church I’ve been attending). Have coffee drinkers in the family? Three Avocados is excellent fair trade coffee (and I’m picky) AND 100 percent of proceeds to provide clean water in Uganda.

6. Buy used. Craigslist and thrift stores are a great way to recycle items and spend less.

Suzannah has a great post on making your dollars count here.
OccupyAdvent is another great site.

What do you do to find peace and joy in the season?

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