Mustard Seed Farming & a Country Made Whole

Before I begin, I should let you know that in keeping with the theme of this service, I wrote this this reflection in pencil on paper first. Berry is famous for eschewing computers for the primitive pencil and paper. Unlike Berry however, I did not ask my wife Holly to type and print it out. There are some places I am not willing to follow even Wendell Berry to.
Also in keeping with the Wendell Berry theme, who is a Baptist, I will be using the traditional Baptist three-point sermon format that I heard growing up. Dylan had a guitar, three chords and the truth. I have scripture, three points, and the truth. Now, I will say no need to fear hellfire and brimstone. This is a pretty interfaith and farmer friendly sermon J
Anyway, here we go.
This morning’s scripture comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, vs. 31-32. I use the Douay-Rheims Translation:
"Another parable he proposed unto them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field.
[The mustard seed] is the least indeed of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs – it becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof."

A quick prayer: “May thou be with me, thy humble and imperfect servant. And may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to thee, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Amen.

The scripture like its topic is a small in stature but packs a wallop. It comes to us from Matthew 13, which is a chapter steeped in farming metaphors. It is also found in Mark and Luke.
In the short parable, Jesus points to a theme that is central to Jesus’ message when he was on earth. That theme basically amounts to this: spiritual significance is found most in small things. In this small parable we are provided an immense insight into the height of divine truth.
I offer three points as we consider this short parable.
1.) The World says, “More is More.”
2.) Jesus says, “Less is More.”
3.) Mustard seed farming shows us the truth of Jesus’ claim.

Let us go through these three as we look at our text.

1.) The World says “more is more.”
Now in the short parable, Jesus is giving a metaphor to reveal to his disciples what the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. First of all, we should note that for Jesus the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are interchangeable. Matthew uses kingdom of heaven. The parallel texts in Mark and Luke use “kingdom of God.” The fact that Jesus uses these terms interchangeably does have significance, but that is a sermon for another day. You all will have to come back for that one.
Kingdom of God is a bit of a dated term. We no longer have a lot of experiences with monarchies or kings. Theologian John Cobb argues for a different translation that I love, especially as a Massachusettsian. He uses the translation Commonwealth of God or Commonwealth of Heaven.
Jesus is a preacher of the Commonwealth of God. That is really the point of all Jesus preaches about. He is preaching about the Commonwealth of God amid and to the world full of empires and emperors. It is these kingdoms of the world, based in the assertion of power, wealth, war, and dominance, that declare loudly the political mantra – more is more. Get more and you will be more. Consumption means obtaining more and more. This leads to wealth and then power and dominance. That is the way of the world Jesus is forever preaching against.
This model of more is more, this model of a consumption based economy of course has costs to the earth which we are a part of. Climate change is an unmistakable cost of that model. There is a spiritual cost as well. The more is more model is such a way of being that it has made its way to the realm of spirituality and religion. How often do we just sit where we are and rest contented with God and with the moment? How often do we come to church and count our blessings and seek to, in the words of Don Henley, “want what we have and take what we’re given with grace”? How many of us are in the market of religion and spirituality trying to find the perfect faith?
The consumption model effects everything, as it turns out.

2.) Jesus says, “Less is more.”
Jesus offers another paradigm. This paradigm comes from Jesus’ experiences and his insight based on those experiences.  This is to say, the paradigm Jesus offers, like his teaching, is steeped in agrarian life.
This should not surprise us. Jesus was a country boy. Was considered a redneck from the backwoods of Nazareth. Jesus fills his teachings to the brim with agrarian metaphors. Jesus teaches using parables, moral stories, which itself is an agrarian-rich method. The writers of the gospels are also steeped in the agrarian life. Look at the common images used in the gospels:
-        Shepherds – they visit Jesus as a baby. John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the lamb of God. Jesus himself says, I am the Good Shepherd in John 10. And of course the shepherds that visited Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus would have known the always renowned 23rd Psalms – The Lord is my shepherd. So we have shepherds visiting the lamb of the the shepherd, a lamb who later calls himself the Good Shepherd. Maybe they even sang “Mary had a little lamb” and “Ba-ba black sheep.”
-        Carpenters – Joseph, Jesus’ father was a carpenter. Jesus himself was a carpenter before becoming an itinerant wandering rabbi. Carpenters in those days were also masons, the two trades were not separate like they are now. These are good rural-based jobs, aren’t they? Farm school students are probably learning to do a little bit of these themselves.
-        Fishermen – many of Jesus’ disciples were fisherman. Jesus himself used the metaphor to refer to himself – the fisher of people. Jesus grew up around the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea was just miles away. So fishermen, harvesters of the water, were everywhere. Fish was a staple of the diet there in the Mediterranean.
-        Farmers – Jesus knew farmers, knew about farming, and maybe even did some of it himself. It was hard to avoid in those days. This evident by the number of farm-based metaphors he uses. The mustard seed parable is an example of this.
 Agrarian teacher Jesus says, “less is more.” Those three words pretty much sums up the meaning of the parable and the point of Jesus’ teaching.
3.) Mustard seed farming show why less is indeed more.
To understand why we must understand a little more about the mustard seed itself. In Jesus’ Ancient Palestinian context, the mustard seed, the black mustard seed, represents things that are small. Sort of how we use the word “peanut.” The job was horrible, it paid “mustard seeds.” Or your dog is so cute! What a cute little mustard seed. We can even apply to Peanuts the comic stip. Yes, get a Christmas tree, but get a good one, not one of those Charlie Brown mustard seed trees. Don’t be a blockhead!
So mustard seed, in Jesus’ society, is basically a one-word proverb representing “something very small and unassuming.”
The mustard seed in Ancient Palestine was the tiniest of food seeds. It was a herb that functioned as a tree and grew like a weed. Plant the mustard seed today and see it sprout tomorrow, expand beyond the garden and become a field, and then grow to the size of a small tree. The plant itself could use as a herb-seasoning and its leaves as food – Mustard greens. More than just that, the tall shrub-like plant served more than just the human system, it served the whole ecosystem – birds used it for resting and perching.
In other words, the mustard seed is a portrait of sustainable community based in the truth that less is more.
Imagine yourself as someone looking to become a sustainable farmer in Ancient Palestine. The mustard seed would be a great way to start. It is tiny so cheap and easy to transport. It is inexpensive as well. It is simple to plant, and it starts yielding sprouts the very next day. It spreads without trying, and a garden becomes a field without much trying. You can go from a gardener to a small family farmer without much effort. The plant serves dual purposes – herb-seasoning and leafy food. So very little wasted. Plus, you can have a mustard sandwich and mustard greens every day and be okay.
But what puts the least of seeds over the top to becoming the greatest of herbs is this – it’s field serves, give back to the wider ecosystem. The small tree-like shrub that is the mustard plant becomes a resting place birds, yes. But because it grows so prodigiously, it takes in carbon at a very efficient pace.
The principle Jesus teaches and the mustard seed points to is this: focusing on the small and simple things in life leads to sustenance and sustainability. This is true for both we as individuals and for we as a community.
Remember the story of Mary and Martha. Martha was in the kitchen, keeping busy and trying to make things perfect. Mary was simply keeping Jesus and her brothers company, enjoying the gifts of friendship and the moments shared in relationship with others. Jesus points to Mary as the path to follow, knowing that what needs changing can only begin with the simple reality of meaningful relationships.
Remember Jesus saying, don’t worry about praying in public and trying to look big and important. Pray humbly, assumingly, in private in order to reconnect to yourself and to God.
Remember Jesus saying the measure of goodness in the eyes of God is how you care for the least, the vulnerable, the weak.
Remember the parable of the mustard seed and Jesus saying the measure of a good and sustainable commonwealth is how it approaches the least of things - what it does with the the most vulnerable and unassuming crop, or the most vulnerable land, or the most vulnerable communities or neighborhoods.

If society wants to transform itself, it will not happen by beginning with saffron but with mustard, not with silk but with wool; transformation will not happen at the top but at the bottom, not with the rich but with the poor, not with the most but with the least, not with the first but with the last, not with the found but with the lost.
And may we from this agrarian hamlet thick with trees, rock walls, and wind be thick with faith and compassion. May we be mustard seeds of wisdom and love. Unassuming and small as we may be, may the seeds of wisdom and love become a field that sustains us and the earth we are a part of. In so doing, may we begin to bring the change that transforms, the change from a kingdom of more is more and consumption is good to a commonwealth of less is more and conservation is good and growing. And may that change begin with us.  

Lessons Autism Teaches Me

It has only been a few months since learning of Corey’s diagnosis of being on the Autism Spectrum. High Functioning Autism, formerly known as Asperger's, and ADHD together. The ASD / ADHD joint diagnosis is a relatively new diagnosis, and so was a bit difficult to diagnosis. But now we have a clearer picture of things.

When we first heard the diagnosis, we were a mix of heartbroken and relieved. We were heartbroken knowing that ASD plus ADHD is not easy, especially for the child living with it. It presents a whole set of obstacles in a society that highly values conformity and predictability.

There is also a sense of loss a family feels – the loss of some sense of a so-called normal, regular life. This feeling is not exactly “keeping up with the Joneses” per se. But it is us looking at other families with neuro-typical children and wishing that we had just a few days of that and us wondering, “what would that be like.”

This is not to say that neuro-typical families have it easy. Life in 21st century America is far from easy. And this is not to say we love Corey any less or that we would like to switch children. Of course not. We love Corey more than we could ever express. I love my son profoundly and unconditionally and in a way that knows we are meant to be his parents and he is meant to be our son. But there is a sense of loss of a more comfortable life, a more-normal life, whatever that means. This is something all parents of ASD kids we’ve talked to understand without thinking twice.

Yet, at the same time, the Autism diagnosis was a relief. Holly and I had suspicions for a while that we were dealing with something more than just ADHD. There were things we couldn’t explain with an ADHD diagnosis. Corey’s learning to read early was not typical, not for ADHD kids. His obsession with collecting all 43 books of the original Thomas the Tank Engine series released in the UK and then his insistence on reading them in order whenever he read them – not typical ADHD. His savant-like behavior toward, for example, computer operating systems, was hard to explain with ADHD. I mean the kid can sit and talk about the historical development of the Windows operating systems for an hour easily. Without losing focus, without the need to take a break, without hyperactivity. That is not just ADHD. Come to find out early reading, obsessions with collecting, a very strong attachment to Thomas & Friends and later Minecraft, a singular focus on a very specific topic like Windows Operating systems – this is all typical High Functioning Autism kinds of things. 

To get the Autism diagnosis helped us to understand Corey a lot more and thus help him more. That indeed was a relief. 

Now, as a minister, a job in the public realm, I have had to really ponder what this means for me in my role. It is not an ordinary job I have. I’ve had to consider what is helpful or harmful when it comes to the expectations of me as a minister and my family. 

One of the expectations I feel regularly is the expectation that Corey come to church. Now, my feeling is most likely not justified. Most people understand and do not judge. However, I still feel it. 

We allow for Corey’s lack of church attendance for a few reasons. By sharing with you these reasons, we also get an inside picture of Autism is and how it plays out in everyday decision.

First of all, Corey goes to school 5 days a week. For neuro-typical children, there is work involved in going to school. Learning and studying requires exercising the brain. However, for Corey it requires so much more. As therapists at school and elsewhere have said to us more than once, the cognitive load, the extra work Corey’s brain must do to just Corey interact socially is very, very strenuous for him. For neuro-typical kids, talking to your classmates and playing at recess is easy and natural. For Autistic kids, it is grueling work. For Autistic kids, it does not come naturally. Their brain functions differently and social engagement requires a brain workout. Then you add onto this the necessity of learning what he needs to learn. His ADHD makes this extra-difficult. So when Corey comes home at the end of a work day, he is worn out. 

Adding a sixth day of Sunday school is very hard to justify. Especially when Corey’s father is a minster. 

Second of all, special education teachers are hard to find in public schools. They are extra-hard to find in Sunday schools. In other words, Corey presents an extra layer of demands and difficulty for a Sunday school teacher that does not have the training in dealing with children with special needs. Many might say, oh kids are kids and a kind, faithful Sunday school teacher can handle it. Maybe, but at the expense of a level of ease and comfort for not just the teacher but also for the other children. So this means Corey is not comfortable, his teachers and classmates are not comfortable, and all for learning about things he learns at home. 

Lastly, is a particular characteristic of kids with Autism that adds to the difficulty. People with Autism approach religion very differently. Autistic folks often find questions of faith and spirituality difficult. They are very logical and literal and need clear and verifiable answers in the here and now. Faith and spirituality is usually not so logical or literal. If there were clear and verifiable answers seen in the here and now, there’d be no need for faith, which is the confidence in things hoped for and a conviction about things unseen. What is hoped and unseen is not evident and clear here and now, and Autistic people have to work extra hard at understanding or expend mental energy trying.  

In other words, Autistic kids are usually not at all interested in religion or church. Not many kids are, but the work involved in Corey willing himself to go or our making him to go and then his being in Sunday school is far more mentally and emotionally intensive. When you add a lack of interest onto all the other variables involved in learning in a public environment, you have a recipe for a very unhappy Sunday morning. So we let Corey decide if coming is something he wants to do. 

Thankfully, for Corey, I am a minister who can teach him about the Bible and Jesus and the need to live a life rich with love and compassion and wisdom. In other words, I love this stuff, and Corey naturally gets me talking about it.

Interestingly, of all the religions, the one that regularly intrigues and grounds Autistic folks is Buddhism. My own interest and knowledge of Buddhism will hopefully help me to help Corey see the strength and beauty found in faith. 

I’d like to end this talk with a brief discussion of neurodiversity and religious diversity. Neurodiversity means the diverse ways individual's brains function in our population. A person on the Autism Spectrum, their brains function in a different way, and so they process things and learn things in a very different way. The same goes for a person with ADHD or a person suffering from PTSD or Alzheimer’s. The same goes for absolutely of us. Our brains and minds each are very different, unique to us. Neurodiversity is a given in this life. 

Neurodiversity naturally has an influence on religious diversity. 

That people on the Autism spectrum have a statistically verifiable preference for Buddhism, that they feel an affinity with Buddhism, that there seems to be a built-in match between people on the Spectrum and the Buddhist faith points to this: religious diversity is natural. Different people, with different ways of brain function, with different ways of processing and learning, and of different cultures naturally means there is different religions. What works for me when it comes to religion and faith, even within the same religion or faith, may not work for you. 

Why? Because neurodiversity and religious diversity are a natural part of earthly life. Embracing this makes life so much easier. More than this, celebrating this makes our collective lives so much better. 

That God sees our hearts, that God with divine grace accepts us where we are and seeks to move us to lives of the Spirit, that God in creating diversity rejoices in it, teaches us to do the same. See the heart, in grace accept others, move one another to lives of the Spirit, rest and rejoice in the diversity of creation. That is the lesson ASD teaches me. 

I close with some thoughts Corey shared with me the other day. It may be a surprise to some, but I don’t talk a lot about religion with Corey. I am a big believer that the timing must be right. But the other day, I asked him what do you think of religion? I thought he’d say, oh, dad, religion is boring. But no, he had some profound things to say. He answered my question about what he thought about religion this way: in some ways it is good and in some ways it is bad, he said. I thought this was a rather thoughtful answer. 

Then I asked him, "in what ways is it bad?" 

He answered, "when people don’t see that differences are a good thing and okay. I don’t like it when people don’t accept people that are different. It is good to be different."

 I confirmed this: “we learn from each other’s differences, don’t we?” His answer, "yes, we do."