[Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34]
For three months of the summer of 2005 I lived with the Benedictine monks in the community of Glenstal Abbey 9-miles outside the city of Limerick in Ireland. In that region known as the Golden Vail, sharing the day-to-day life and routine of the almost fifty members of the monastery community, it was for me a powerful and golden summer.
The simple and profound way of life that Benedict bequeathed to his brothers and sisters 1500 years ago is often summed up in the short phrase, “Ora et labora.” “Prayer and work.” At Glenstal we gathered together in the abbey church several times every day, beginning at morning’s first light and ending with night prayer in the early evening before bed. The brothers are doing the same today, and have done so every day since I was there, and for decades before. And each member of the community, in turn, had one or more areas of work that were his sole or sometimes shared responsibility. One was the cook. One was the infirmarian. One was the guestmaster. One was the head of the school Glenstal runs. One was the Abbot, and so on. I worked in the library. I helped wash the dishes every evening after dinner (though that was just because I liked to!). And I was given the task of dealing, in one small section of the monastery’s many acres, with the dreaded Japanese Knotweed.
“Fallopia japonica,” to give the plant its official moniker, was carried into Ireland some years ago because someone thought it was decorative, and easy to grow. At least the second of these has proven to be uproariously true. There are now laws against the plant. It is plant enemy number 1, or thereabouts. It has no natural enemies to contain it, and it is the enemy of all. Native species of plant are undone by it, pushed out of the way, and gone.
As one Irish website reports it now: “Japanese knotweed is a tall perennial plant, an aggressive, invasive weed which is found along river corridors, road verges, railway embankments, gardens and on waste ground. It spreads very quickly and often becomes a serious problem in the areas that it invades, causing environmental damage and costing public and private organizations large amounts of money to contain. Tarmac and concrete often do not stop the spread of Japanese knotweed. It has been known to push up through foundations.” Fallopia japonica is frighteningly aggressive, grows so fast that you can almost watch it, and had come to live at Glenstal Abbey.
So Brother Anthony elected to send the neophyte lily-white American out to do battle with this dreaded plant form. I was armed with a spade, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow. Anthony brought me to the current battleground, introduced me to the foe, and withdrew. I started digging. And digging. And digging. You have to get the d- (blessed!) thing out by the root, without breaking the root, or it will come up again by morning. I was both amazed and horrified to find that the Japanese knotweed root-system has runners that spread way out underground from what you see above-ground. I followed them 8 and 10 feet from where the plant appeared, pulling them up as I went, and carefully placing them in the wheelbarrow. If any fell to the ground they would take root again and start to repopulate each tiny square foot that I freed at great personal cost. I will tell you: I wish I had half the energy that plant has!
Each evening at vespers I was happy to sink into the chapel’s hard seating, lean back, sigh, and let the singing of the psalmody wash away that day’s struggle with fallopia japonica.
As much as I grew to detest that plant (with all due respect to the Creator!), at least as much was I shocked to find the spirit of Japanese Knotweed described by Jesus in the parable in Mark’s Gospel as being the spirit of the reign of God. The kingdom of God is like seed that is dropped on the ground; it sounds almost accidental. There’s little sense of purpose and intent in it. But it grows, without care, all by itself, until the harvest is ready. The kingdom of God is like mustard seed. Mustard seed is not only a modest little seed, as Jesus notes, but it is also one with a voracious appetite. Place it in the earth and it grows crazy, as Jesus no doubt knew. It’s hard to control. It makes a mess. It gets all over the place and is likely to compromise whatever else you may have had in mind for your garden.
The scholar John Dominic Crossan illuminates what those of us who are not up-to-date on all things plant-life might miss in Jesus’ choice of starring plants in his parable: “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like.”
What? Let’s make sure we have this straight. Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is invasive, uncontrollable, and basically a nuisance. Let it in and nothing will ever be the same. And, it must follow that if the Kingdom of God is described fittingly in this way, well then so must be the Ruler of that Kingdom. It’s just as we’ve always feared, by Jesus’ own testimony. Let God in, and you’ve given away the farm. Nothing will ever be the same. Set any limits you want. God will overrun them, sooner or later. Assert your control all you want. It won’t work.
It’s kind of like the reverse of the story about a man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden and it was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil, and plant the seeds. Finally, he had made it into a showcase garden. One day the minister from church came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he said to the man, “Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.” To which the homeowner replied, “You should have seen it when God had it by himself.”
The Kingdom starts small and quiet, but it doesn’t end there. It might be nearly invisible for years at a time. So you might look at your life, or at the state of the world, or at what we do here from week to week as we gather, and wonder if anything is changing at all? Is anything growing – in me or around me? Has the reign of God taken root? The answer is a definitive yes according to today’s Scripture.
It’s like the little guy – just over 5 feet tall – who showed up to try out for a lumberjack job in Alaska. The man in charge wanted to take care of this quickly and discourage the little man to go elsewhere. So he gave him the heaviest, largest ax, brought him to a tree hundreds of feet tall, and yards in diameter, and told him to chop it down. Within minutes the tree had been felled. The amazed foreman asked him where he’d learned to chop trees so powerfully. The little fellow replied, “When I worked in the Sahara forest.” “You mean, the Sahara desert.” Said the little lumberjack: “That was after I got there.” He may have been small – like the mustard seed, like the innocent knotweed when it arrived first as an immigrant to Ireland, like the reign of God when it is first announced – but once he came, everything changed.
Where can we see the kingdom of God growing, the reign of God being revealed? It may be in the most unlikely messes, practically unimaginable. I hear Jesus’ parable today, his yes subversive speech, and my imagination is engaged in new ways. Perhaps yours as well? Is the Kingdom of God being birthed in the suffering streets of Syria? Somehow, in that clash of power and yearning, somewhere in that bloodbath of the innocent, somehow . . . could God’s own Kingdom be coming about? Could the end of that story be something dramatically other than sorrow and pain? In the political tensions so obvious in the United States in this election year, could the reign of God be evident here? In the dueling speeches on the economy, in the diametrically opposed takes on what is self-evident in the immigration crisis, in the dearth of truly civil discourse, somewhere deep within this muddle is the fallopia japonica of God’s Kingdom taking root? Is it sending runners underneath our lives, connecting our deep sorrows, our losses and grief, with the plentiful support and relief that others have been strengthened to provide? Is it running wild in the background of our church’s life, bringing new things to happen in ways unforeseen, attitudes, methods and approaches that will bear new fruit in a future we cannot yet see or hear or touch?
If Jesus is right (how is that for a preacher’s phrase?) – if Jesus is right, then the answer to all of this is yes, in a manner we’d best not strive to define or limit. The God who took the eighth and youngest son of a small-town sheep-owner and anointed him King of Israel, David the Great, can do it. Is doing it. Through Samuel God chose David, gave him the Spirit, and then to all appearances walked away to see what would happen. “In this corner, the sitting King of Israel with no desire to give up his seat, Saul! In this corner, the pretender to the throne, a teenage shepherd with beautiful eyes, David. And offering no further guidance or assistance that anyone could measure for the longest time: the God of Israel or anyone who spoke in his name.” It looked like a recipe for disaster, and it really was. But it was also, and no less truly, another planting of God’s seditious, destabilizing, and sanctifying mustard seed. That seed is still being scattered on the ground. We are still sleeping and rising and paying it little heed. But the seed is sprouting and growing. And the good harvest will come about, in its time. In its own time.