Mustard Seeds Matter

mustard seeds--11-9-2017 blog

 

There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city.  One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.

Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city.  The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing.  “Oh no,” Plague responded.  “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”

Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us.  Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.

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The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings.  In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith!  Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living.  Lord, take away our fear!”

How does Jesus respond to their pleas?  Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked?  Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit?  No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?

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I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically.  Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed.  His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

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Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us?  Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?

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In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail.  A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom.  On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.

Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness.  And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.

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I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy ….”

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In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving.  No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Remember:The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.”  Mustard seeds matter.

Palm Sunday Subversion

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“One place where Pine Ridge reservation sports teams used to get harassed regularly was in the high school gymnasium in Lead, South Dakota. Lead is a town of about 3,200 northwest of the reservation, in the Black Hills. It is laid out among the mines that are its main industry, and low, wooded mountains hedge it round. The brick high school building is set into a hillside. The school’s only gym in those days was small, with tiers of gray-painted concrete on which the spectator benches descended from just below the steel-beamed roof to the very edge of the basketball court–an arrangement that greatly magnified the interior noise.

In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game.  SuAnne was a full member of the team by then. She was a freshman, fourteen years old. Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from the fans. They were yelling fake-Indian war cries, a “woo-woo-woo” sound. The usual plan for the pre-game warm-up was for the visiting team to run onto the court in a line, take a lap or two around the floor, shoot some baskets, and then go to their bench at court side. After that, the home team would come out and do the same, and then the game would begin. Usually the Thorpes lined up for their entry more or less according to height, which meant that senior Doni De Cory, one of the tallest, went first. As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder. The Lead fans were yelling epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.” Some were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation’s receiving federal aid. Others yelled, “Where’s the cheese?”–the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese. The Lead high school band had joined in with fake-Indian drumming. Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, “I can’t handle this.” SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place. She was so eager that Doni became suspicious. “Don’t embarrass us,” Doni told her. SuAnne said, “I won’t. I won’t embarrass you.” Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.

She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind. On the court, the noise was deafeningly loud. SuAnne went right down the middle; but instead of running a full lap, she suddenly stopped when she got to center court. Her teammates were taken by surprise, and some bumped into one another. Coach Zimiga at the rear of the line did not know why they had stopped. SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball.  Then she stepped into the jump-ball circle at center court, in front of the Lead fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance. SuAnne knew all the traditional dances–she had competed in many powwows as a little girl–and the dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time. “I couldn’t believe it–she was powwowin’, like ‘get down!’” Don De Cory recalled. “And then she started to sing.” SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl. The crowd went completely silent. “All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling–it was like she reversed it somehow,” a teammate said. In the sudden quiet, all you could hear was her Lakota song. SuAnne stood up, dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast. The fans began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.”  (From On the Rez by Ian Frazier, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000)

Both SuAnne’s story and the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey are stories about subversive actions. They both subverted the expectations of the people. SuAnne subverted the expectations of the basketball fans who wanted to continue Native American stereotypes. Jesus subverted the hopes and expectations of the Israelites who wanted a king.

The Israelites were under Roman occupation while the Jewish religious leaders were in collaboration with the Roman occupying force with rebellious Jewish skirmishes around the countryside. The people wanted to be free of the Roman empire via a king (or a warrior messiah) to emancipate them from the Romans. And this where Jesus enters the scene.

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Jesus often used the language of paradox and reversal to shatter the conventional wisdom and expectations. Jesus subverts the powerful symbol of a king riding amongst his adoring subjects to reverse the common understanding of power, status and rule. As he did with the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus takes action–a rather provocative action much like an Old Testament prophet would take–to demonstrate the character of God.

Additionally, Jesus uses his donkey ride as an additional lesson in the reign of God.  Jesus frequently spoke of the kingdom of God in the language of impossible or unexpected combinations. The kingdom, which is something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like “a grain of mustard seed.” Not only is the see tiny but mustard is a weed– thus, the reign of God is like a weed. Also, the kingdom is for children, who were nobodies—therefore, the the kingdom is for nobodies. Additionally, Jesus models this upside kingdom by dining (or, fellowshiping) with outcasts—so, the kingdom is like a banquet of outcasts, of nobodies. In the realm of God, those who are broken will be blessed.

Perhaps Jesus’ parody of a celebrated king is a gentle poke at us as well as the religious authorities of his day: God is not interested in status, whether it’s religious, or political, or material. Rather, God desires that we follow—that we become like—the One who was born in a barn and is preparing to die a criminal’s death.

The spectators of Lead, South Dakota wanted “Injuns” and SuAnne gave them an “Injun”–but did it with a power and grace that subverted the entire scene. The Israelites wanted a king and Jesus gave them a king–but did it with a donkey and days before his death by subverting all expectations and understandings at what Jesus’ kingdom was about–where the marginalized, the wounded, discouraged, powerless, and sick belong.